Sunday, November 28, 2010

A permanent cure to back pain

Back pain is a common problem with old age, and is getting commoner among middle-aged folks partly due to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle (and for some on the other extreme, a too vigorous lifestyle that put too much pressure on our body structure!) From the solution perspective, the main cause is a tightening, a misalignment of the ball-and-sock joints between the upper leg and the pelvis and weakened quadriceps . Its onset can be quite sudden, perhaps triggered by a change of weather (with or without viral infection) or a bad physical twist caused by certain movements, like lifting a heavy luggage. Its pain can be an excruciating one lasting for more than a week, common pain-killer won’t help, and the frequency of recurrence will increase subsequently, and eventually bringing the human-machine to a halt, ending up in a wheel chair within a couple of years. The issue has not been attended to earlier because strong pain-killer prescribed by a medical doctor can temporary solved the problem more or less immediately, whereas the end-game is not immediately. No wonder so many smokers refuse to quit smoking TODAY!

I shall start with my conclusion here: "Permanent cure for back pain can be attained should a person practice Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) diligently". Time frame depends, but usually from just a single session to one year. And it is from my personal experience. Let’s put aside the reason for success for the moment, and let us ask a question: If this is so good, why it is not as common as one would have expected. The empirical reason is: it doesn’t seem work for everybody!

In the Secret of the Golden Flower, it was said that one needs to have Faith () to proceed well with Taoist meditative practice. In Chinese language the concept of faith comprises two attributes: Believe and Humbleness. Without that, according the Secret, it is difficult if not impossible to learn that highest level of Taoist meditation (i.e. Taoist yoga or Neidan). According to my experience, this requirement also applies to all stationary forms of practice, including Zhan Zhuang (standing mediation). What does THAT mean? First and foremost, a student has to firstly believe that the coach knows what he is talking about** and secondly, to be humble enough that when it doesn’t seem to work for him (i.e. him as a particular student), he will assume that he just needs more practice sessions and he can eventually get the feel of what the coach is talking about.

The coach here, even assuming that he is a good one, can only help to a certain extent. The student can’t usually observe any significant difference between a successful stand and an unsuccessful stand, hence, even if he is an intelligent person, could conclude "logically" that: "it doesn’t work for me" or "my coach is no good". On the other hand, a good coach can often time see the case when a student starts to be getting into the zone (of standing meditation) and when he or she is still not here. And being a good coach, he will make some fine-tuning (verbal or physical) so that the student can precede smoother. However the problem is, ultimately standing meditation is a kind of mind-body exercise. When a student keeps on questioning his coach and his own ability in his mind during practice (i.e. without faith), he can never be in the zone, despite every good effort form the coach ( always assuming that he is a good coach in the first place). This is the nature of the practice. And a would-be student had better understand it!

So, it all starts with the mind, with an attitude, with faith (belief and humbleness). I hope that, after reading the above, you won’t come to a wrong attitude that I am preaching some kind of faith healing! The truth is it won’t work with just faith.

The practice also requires the practitioner to be in with right mental state for a successful practice.

In Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) the mind must be put into a special zone (by the practitioner himself) before the body can be put into the healing zone, whereby the natural force of chi-power will re-align the body into the natural bodily form.

What is this particular mental state? And how can a practitioner get his mind there? In the first lesson of Taoist meditative practice, as per the Secret of the Golden Flower, we were taught that one should focus his attention on his third eye (or establishing the third eye through triangular focus, to be precise). One can get into the zone in this way. However, for Zhan Zhuang where the objective to generate chi to be pumped smoothly through the body, a localized focus alone can't serve the purpose (besides, the practitioner will be too top-loaded as to affect his physical balance!).

How then to get into the zone? In my coaching experience, the best way to put one’s mind in the state of between asleep and waken up. In this mental state, most of our consciousness will be blocked out, and for the slim consciousness that still remains shall be used to focus on keeping our body balance! And how to get into this middle state: go directly into it, from almost total asleep to half asleep or from almost total wake-up to half wake-up? Experienced practitioners can go directly into this middle state. For new practitioners, it is best to go from almost total asleep to half asleep. The teaching of the Secret of the Golden Flower taught us that we shall keep our eyes half closed (so that we can see our nose tip). My suggestion is that if one can, one should totally close one’s eyes. The reason is being standing up, one simple won’t fall asleep! But for older or weaker folks, for safety reasons, one may choose to stand with one's back slightly touching a wall.

For those who are interested in a more psychological explanation of this mental state, Carl Jung’s writings should be consulted. In particular psychologist Carl Jung explained that Taoist meditative process is an individuation process (similar to the curing process of his patience) whereby the practitioner is to integrate his (current) consciousness with his unconscious to create a higher level of consciousness. And it is not a one step process, and for Jung there is no end. On the other hand for Taoist meditation the ultimate end is Tao where every element is integrated.

When a person is awake, his consciousness reigns and when he is asleep, his unconscious reigns. Hence, integration can start anywhere in between (needless to say, in Jungian practice of psychoanalysis, there are other different tricks).

With this mental attitude, we can move on….

With faith and with the right mental state, a practitioner of Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) can learn how to generate his chi to flow smoothly round his body.

But what is chi? Electricians in Hong Kong call electricity chi. When the switch is on, there is chi (electricity), and when the switch is off, no chi (electricity). Electricity is powerful but dangerous if mishandled, and same is chi. Hong Kong electricians got it right!

In order that electricity or chi will flow (i.e. the existence of each), there must be point(s) of high potential and point(s) of low potential, in short there must exist a power gradient. In chi-king lingo, it is “points (slightly) stretched with main body relaxed” (點緊身松). It is not complicated.

When I said not complicated, I mean it rather easy. The key stretched points are the hands with particular attention placed to the fingers. The other stretched points are actually by default: the feet - if they are not slightly stretched one will fall down! The arms should be “in position” (higher or lower depends on individual’s situation – in particular it depends on the mobility of ones shoulder joints). The rest of the body shall relax like a heavy dead weight. The concept of dead weight can be appreciated by anyone who has experienced helping old people moving about – when old folks are relaxed, they are real heavy!

** This point of view is more profound than it looks like. In Carl Jung's commentary to the Secret of the Golden Flower, he said that he had to make the assumptions the sage who wrote the book was not a lunatic, not lying and had profound knowledge of the subject!


  1. Paul, I have taught myself Zhuan Zhuang and haven't had a painful back episode in years. After 10 to 15 minutes, my hands become hot, and, like you write, I move into the zone. I'm always slightly surprised when it happens and grateful that it happens. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks.

  2. Paul, I have taught myself Zhuan Zhuang and haven't had a painful back episode in years. After 10 to 15 minutes, my hands become hot, and, like you write, I move into the zone. I'm always slightly surprised when it happens and grateful that it happens. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks.

  3. Bravo Sam! When one has been there, one really pities those whose still keep "punishing" themselves on treadmills every week (day?).


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