Friday, January 30, 2015

A spiritual approach to the study of Neidan

Neidan is a traditional practice of Taoist deep meditation. Like all deep meditative practice, Neidan's ulterior aim is total personality transformation, in the terminology of our modern psychology. As you can appreciate, the only meaningful approach is to use modern psychological concepts, for spiritual analysis. Having said that, Neidan is a special kind of personality change. It is a personality change together with physical change at the same time.

First issue: What is attractive or puzzling about Neidan is that its purported objective is immortality. Practitioners and academicians alike have been pondering about what is the meaning of Immortality. Although most practitioners and academicians believe that it does not mean physical immortality, there are still a handful of "spiritual leaders" who still believe that it means real physical immortality. Rumors among some "faithfuls" has been that Lu DongBin (the most famous Neidan grandmaster) has been "discovered" in real person in Taiwan some years ago!

Under Jungian psychological concepts, when a spiritual person has trained, or elevated, himself up to a level completely above human consciousness, he has full empirical justification in claiming himself as "above human" (Jung considered Jesus as God in this sense in psychological analysis, which of course does not exclude, nor postulate, any metaphysical truth, i.e. Jesus is or is not God). In the terminology of Neiden, this level of consciousness is called Immortal. Having no good term to describe, Taoist practitioners call it Tao.

Second issue: What is the training process? The definitive training manual available in the West is the translated work "Taoist Yoga" translated by Zen master Charles Luk. The author of the book is famous Taoist master Zhao Bichen. The approach of the text is similar to most Neidan texts, it presupposed the guidance of a master and presupposed prior physical training. Zhao himself was prominent martial artist (though that does not mean it is a pre-requisite), and in his other book on the subject (not yet translated into English), he did mention some physical exercises, as exercise for health and preliminary workout for Neidan. These exercises are rather rudimentary (before of its objectives and intended readers) when compared with various Neigong or chi kung exercises, and hence not highly regarded in the Neidan circle.

What made the issue a little more complicated for contemporary readers or intended practitioners is that Neidan texts are highly complex texts (one of the reasons is that they talked about internal experiences that are felt physically rather than can be explained easily rationally). Because of this complexity nature, most people interested in the texts are more academically inclined than practically inclined. Even in Hong Kong, most serious tai chi practitioners do not talk about or try to understand Neidan. With a sedentary lifestyle, many of those who are interested in Neidan couldn't get a hold of the subject matter, and always in search of a better text but can never find one! To make matter worse, a method mentioned in Taoist yoga involved stimulating our sexual energy which in Charles Luk's translation (wrongly) referred to as masturbation.

My recommendation: a proper approach to Neidan is to start with Taoist energy building exercise of tai chi or chi kung. The second step will be some form of power breathing training (as available, for example, in professional singing, woodwind instrument, yogi pranayama and tai chi nei kung). After these ground works, one will be in a more solid foundation to approach the subject of deep Taoist meditation of Neidan. As to which level of personality transformation one is looking for, it will depend on each person's own choice. No where in Neidan texts said one must go to the limit of total personality change (i.e. become Immortal). As Master Zhao wrote in his Taoist yoga, he had not reached the highest level nor had he intended to, which level is, in my opinion, quite irrelevant to most, if not all, modern men.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Build a pair of powerful lungs for meditation

How to build a powerful and healthy pair of lungs? The most simple method is jogging. You only need a pair of good running shoes (aka Rockport,  no commercial intended) and the perseverance to do so.  This method is for the young and athletically inclined.  Apart from athletes, there are other professionals who need to train up their pairs of powerful lungs, for example, professional singers and windwood instrumentalists. For them jogging helps too, and much so the training method of the internal arts, in particular those with meditation as an essential element.

When we say "to train our lungs", we are talking about training the power of our breathing muscles which are responsible for forcing air in and out - against atmospheric pressure. Since our lungs are housed inside our body, expansion and contraction of which will necessitate pushing some of our body parts outwards. In normal breathing at rest, we unconsciously choose the least resistance which comes from our ribcage being pushed slightly upward and outward. This is usually called shallow chest breathing. Power breathing on the other hand is traditionally called abdominal breathing, which involves both the abdomen and the chest. In the limiting case, it involves our whole body.

How to train for power breathing in the internal arts? Like any muscular training, we have to create resistance for the responsible muscles resulting in breathing that uses as much lung capacity as possible without creating shortness of breath. In other word, the requirement is to use maximum capacity to be done in a relaxed way. Seasoned meditators can be seen as very relaxed as are professional singers and windwood instrumentalists. Without adequate relaxation, the meditators, singers and instrumentalists can possibly breath to full capacity, but cannot possibility perform to a satisfactory standard in their respective art forms.

In creating resistance, a student has to mindfully connect his lung muscles (i.e. muscles responsible for breathing) to his body parts which in the first steps (101 and 102) involves our two major joints: his shoulder and pelvic joints. and in order that such connection can be meaningful, a student first has to open his shoulder joints and pelvic joints (and make them into "spring-like"). The latter for tai chi or chi kung systems is called slow movement exercise and for Indian yoga, it is called asana. With a trained supple body, a student is ready to learn the art of power breathing.

In chi kung systems there are always two parts: movement forms and stationery forms. In Yoga, there are asana and pranayama. All have to be done with a meditative mind, otherwise no effective connection will be possible. The concept of points-stretched-body-relaxed is also very important. It is never total relaxation, otherwise there will be no work being done. However, a student must know which points to stretch and how to stretch and what parts to relax. The details of which will go beyond this article. Suffice to say, without such (empirical) understanding there, again, will not have effective work being done.

A pair of powerful lungs is essential for students who aim for a deep understanding of the internal arts and to explore into the interesting subject of meditation. Without a pair of powerful lungs, our mind cannot effectively relax, not without much conscious mind control [for example "let me relax (be mindful) here, and then let me relax (be mindful) there"].   Last words: a student cannot effectively meditate when his conscious mind is needed to command him to relax. Or lightweight meditation never works.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The ultimate Zen experience

Some of my friends are skeptical about people who are deep into the internal discipline of meditation. “Look at those masters on the internet. They are more liked people stoned with drugs…and look at those gurus in the street of Mumbai, as seen on TV, with ordinary citizens offering life’s essentials to them and they mumble intelligible and incomprehensive phrases in a trance state. I don’t want to train myself into someone like them!” That is another extreme of the water-downed meditation of Mindfulness. Honestly speaking, the ultimate Zen experience according to Chinese tradition is an experience hardly recognizable in people that we meet. The experience itself does not necessarily come from (sound) meditative practice, though the sustaining of which depends on good practice.

The Zen master whipped the body of the young witty monk several times, and pressed the young monk with the question: “Do you feel pain or not?” Before the young monk could uttered a reply, the master said, “If you do not feel pain, you are as cold as a piece of stone and have no potential to be Zen-enlightened. And if you feel pain, you are just human and will harbor the feeling of hatred, and therefore have no potential to become Zen-enlightened.”

The Zen master was Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui Neng (惠能) and the young monk was one of his top students Shen Hui (神會). The master himself got enlightened first (just by hearing the Diamond Sutra) and then learned meditation from the Fifth Patriarch. Nothing was said about the learning experience of the young monk. The story was reported in the famous Platform Sutra. One thing for sure, these masters were neither stones/trance-like gurus nor corporate executives taking time out to relax at Mindfulness Classes periodically.

A contemporary master with an ultimate Zen-like experience is exemplified by his Holiness the Dalai Lama who doesn’t consider himself a Zen-master, nor a guru at all. “I am just an ordinary monk” said his Holiness. And he is probably right!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Doing it light-weight or doing it heavy-weight?

Chi-related disciplines can be done light-weight or heavy-weight. Shall we do it light or heavy? Most people will probably answer in a safe way: it depends on the conditions of a student. My contention is that: it should of course depends on the conditions (and also training objective) of a student. Yet the best approach is always to do it in a heavy-weight manner, relative to the conditions (and training objectives) of each student. Let me explain.

Recently I talked to a friend of mine who is the training manager in a multi-national corporation. She told me that the in-thing nowadays is a program called "Mindfulness". My readers might have noticed that I have written a post previously on the subject - after I watched a local TV news program featuring Mindfulness training in Hong Kong. Essentially Mindfulness is a light-weight meditation program (beautified with modern management lingo, and it is becoming more posh after Google management are onto it wholehearted, as was reported in the media). Mindfulness exercise was also featured in 60 minutes some time ago. The presenters and gurus (local and 60 alike) always focused much on the effectiveness of the program  (to the much delight of would-be students) its ease of learning (i.e. light-weight), effectiveness being supported by research, academic and otherwise. And in this 60 minutes episode, the master stressed one point: It is not New Age! (as if New Age is bad) And most Mindfulness guys proudly present their art as "non-religious". It is an attitude, a mental elevation to the state of "being" (remind us of "Being and nothingness" of existentialism which is now arcane in most part of the intellectual world), it is not an additional task, but a state of being "outside all tasks", focus on the present, and there is mindful eating, mindful walking....etc etc. Sounds grand!

"Not a cult, but a revolution to Americans' well-being (...or something like that)" proclaimed an American politician and a student of Mindfulness!

A few years ago, I met an Aussie lady in Australia who told me that she had taken meditation lessons for more than three years. She told me loads of theories and benefits about meditation/mindfulness and its relation with modern psychology and physiology. After knowing that I am good at chi kung, she ventured to ask me whether I had ways to cure pains at her back and neck. I asked her to do her normal meditation pose for me to see. She sat down and rest her palms on her laps and she quickly got into a calm meditative state. After her mediation session (which lasted for 15 minutes), she told me that she felt relaxed and happy. And she told me that she could do it for an hour or more. Her mind was clearly engaged during her session, just like what I later observed on TV on those students of Mindfulness. I told her that she needed to add something more to her meditation: to actively engage her body with chi cultivation.

I taught her zhan zhuang. She got the feel of it quickly. After a ten minute session of zhan zhuang she told me that she had a completely new experience. She felt her whole body being engaged (without the need to mindfully asking her body to do). It all came so naturally, and she could feel chi filling her body. "Now I understand what is chi!" She was happy. I told her that with regular practice her body would be strengthened and could probably be free from pains, those pains had inconvenient her for many years.

The beauty is that with zhan zhuang engages both your body and mind, a student will not need to listen to initiating talks and reasoning of some guru who needs to be there to lead you in light-weight programs. In heavy-weight program, the most important teacher is your body, your body will teach you the inner details. The most important teacher being within, not outside.

In a future post, I shall talk about how middle-age and old-age students can practice tai chi and chi kung in a heavy-weight manner.

PS: Mindfulness in Chinese is 内觀, literally meaning inner observation. This is an essential requirement of all chi-related and meditative practices (in tai chi lingo it is called 聼勁, literally meaning listen to your internal power flow).  Modern Mindfulness practice borrows this classic concept for their own light-weight disciplines. It is not bad, it is only light-weight.

Harm your knees or save your knees?

Chinese are much onto longevity. There are numerous programs in (Mainland) China's TV channels focusing on different aspects of the subject, by different types of experts, modern or classic, East or West, this lineage or that lineage, self-made or inner circle. Recently I watched a program run by western medical experts (Chinese doctors) on the subject of harming your knees and saving your knees. The video program starts with a quiz: "Which exercise harms your knees most?" Choices are tai chi, running, walking steps, lifting heavy weights and zhan zhuang.

The medical answer is zhan zhuang!

It is nice to note that zhan zhuang is now considered a stand-alone complete exercise of its own by the general public (at least in China). The bad thing is it is considered the worst exercise for your knees!

Comments include: "Zhan zhuang is worse than tai chi (which, according to what was said previously, is pretty bad) because the weight on your knees in tai chi will shift constantly while that of zhan zhuang remains at a single point."

The classic way of teaching zhan zhuang (as least for the younger) is to stand for at least half an hour per session, and for serious practitioners an hour. The medical doctor's advice is not without empirical grounds. Some people did harm their knees through (inappropriate ways of) doing zhan zhuang and tai chi (with the misnomer: tai chi knees).

With proper training method, the practice of zhan zhuang (and tai chi) can actually heal or at least alleviate weakness or pain in knees. The rationale behind is that in proper training of chi related disciplines, a student has to open a joint (relax the joint), find a point of maximum resistance (realigning the joint), and (use gravity) to rest one's weight on the stronger point of maximum resistance (conditioning the new support point).  At all times, a student is to engage the power of his breathing muscles.

In training procedure, the first hurdles to overcome is opening your hip joints (kua). With prior opening and conditioning of your hip joints, you can proceed to tackle your knees joints, cautiously at first if you have knee weakness or pain (consult a good teacher when in doubt).

Needless to say, the western medical practice for knee-saving is surgery, and the medical doctors further reassured the audience that surgery can be done relatively safe even for most people in advanced age. My view is that the medical doctor does offer some good advice. My further advice is "Why not try it first with doing (proper) chi kung?" If it works for you, you can skip a major surgery. If it doesn't work for you, at least you have learned a new skill that can promote your longevity. Surgery is always there as an option of last resort.

As a final advice, modern physiotherapists do have little tricks/exercise to alleviate (rather than cure) knee pains. Chi kung teachers should therefore be open-minded to incorporate such exercises if they find them appropriate to their students' conditions.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The theory of full lungs breathing in tai chi

When your tai chi teacher asks you to breath "naturally" while doing tai chi form, he is, in a way, correct in doing so. Yet he is not telling the whole story, assuming that he knows the whole story in the first place. The trickiness of tai chi breathing is that on the one hand a student has to breath deeply and on the other hand he has to relax his sternum ("Depress the chest and raise the upper back" in 10 tai chi essentials [含胸拔背]). Worse, forcing oneself to "depress one's chest" in years of tai chi training can make one's back hunched! For safety reason, "natural breathing" seems to be the best bet for beginning students, if not for all students.

In the practice of chi kung, one needs at least two stretched or focused points to generate chi. When applying to tai chi's full lungs breathing, it is the muscles around our upper lungs and those around our lower lungs. Muscles around the lower lungs primarily refers to our diaphragm. Its execution in full lungs breathing is abdominal breathing which essentially is focus on Dantian to activate the diaphragm. The tricky part is on our upper lungs.

Chest breathing is an activation of muscles around the upper lungs. The problem is that it will normally involve raising our sternum which is in direct opposition to the requirement of "relaxing your sternum". Because of this dilemma, some tai chi teachers either train their student to breath "naturally" or to do abdominal breathing only (thereby forgetting about the whole idea of full lungs breathing). Those more "eager" teachers in doing the latter face the danger of making their students' back hunched (after years of practice) - a condition to be cured instead of to be trained!

How to solve this dilemma? The method is focus on the points immediately below the middle part of our clavicles. By focusing on these points on the top and the dantian on the bottom, we can visualize our lungs as a bellow. Opening up and down as full lungs breathing in, closing (controlled relaxation) up and down as full lungs breathing out. With this method our sternum can remain relaxed.

This is also the breathing method for Taoist deep meditation or Neidan. Our body is to be visualized as a bellow to start up a small fire, the seedling in jump-starting the practice of Neidan.

Use bellow to start a fire

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How to train our diaphragm

Chi kung literally means the training of breathing. Not just breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. For that we do not need to learn! The training of breathing in chi kung essentially means the training of our breathing muscles. For what purpose and how to do it form the gist of the training of chi kung.

Chi kung practitioners are not the only types of people that need to train up or condition their breathing muscles. Sportsmen in general need to train up their breathing muscles to get enough oxygen during the vigor of their sports. Opera singers need a pair of powerful lungs, and so do windwood or brass instrumentalists. The focus of chi kung practitioners is more direct, and actually can be applied to all of the above, and of course vice versa!

A student of chi king trains his breathing muscles to be the powerhouse to move chi (or an internal sensation) to travel to every single part of his body. To help this formidable task, there are several stages of training, each requires a high-focused mind, focusing on such internal sensation - for pedagogical sake or for the sake of convenience, it is called chi. As Lao Tz spoke of Tao - I have no word for it, let's call it Tao.

One important stage is the opening of our shoulder and pelvic joints. The opening of which can open blockages that may hinder chi flow and they can then act as "pumping" house for more powerful and more manageable chi flow. This stage has many similarities with the training of sportsmen. Hence some chi kung exercises are similar, in form if not in totality, to common stretching exercises and some others to body building exercises of our core.

Another important stage is to better connect our key breathing muscles, our diaphragm to other parts of our body, in particular making our diaphragm the "mind" or "directing organ" of our whole chi kung practice.  This stage has some similarities with the training of singers and windwood/brass instrumentalists. It is interesting to note that a number of chi kung schools include the practice of "voicing" (like sounding the vowel /i/) in their training practice.

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