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Taoist Meditation


Taoism means many things to many people. Here I mention some of the Taoist ideas that appeal to me, and which are part of a body-based meditation style. With acknowledgements and thanks to Barefoot Doctor and to Rachel Swindle.

Paragraphs in italics below are either direct quotes from, or my paraphrases of, Barefoot Doctor's earlier books that I find powerful.


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Taoism doesn't really exist. It's not a religion; it is not an institution. It's simply an idea, a collection of methods for restoring peace and prolonging life...You cannot understand the Tao, no one ever could, so don't bother trying. Relax and trust it. Taoism means to follow the path of least resistance while always maintaining respect and consideration of the welfare and freedom of all other beings, including oneself.

Yin and yang are the negative and positive charges of qi (chi, pronounced 'chee'), analagous to +/- electric charge. Empty/full; soft/hard; down/up; in/out; quiet/loud; retreats/advances; night/day. One is useless without the other, they are mutually dependent, and so are locked into a perpetual dance of equality... But their balance is not static, it is dynamic, each waxing and waning depending upon conditions. Be aware of this change, and go with it - when there is more yin, and the lights go dim, retreat and stop; when there is more yang and you feel energetic, advance, do something. Idling is resting in yin, which is natural - procrastination is unnatural as you are stalling in yin. Similarly, activity is moving in yang, but restlessness and being hyper is stalling in yang.

Distinguish full (yang) from empty (yin) in your relationship with the world - when yang, go out and fill the world; when yin, the world is then full, and you had better be empty! In fact, emptiness (vacuum) will always be filled; more in fact, fullness (abundance) cannot enter anything except empty space. By emptying your mind of thoughts, make space for new information, realisations, visions, dreams; by emptying heart of desires, make space for peace, quiet, compassion; by emptying belly of food, make room for qi; by emptying pockets of money (give to someone who needs it more) make room for riches.

Relaxation - stop gripping yourself internally, organise yourself around your centre and expand to fill your physical form.

Sinking - refinement of relaxation. Trusting your bones to hold you upright, let everything else - flesh, fluids and energy - descend groundwards. If standing, feel your weight equally on each foot, and on each area of the foot (outer heel, balls of feet).

Spirituality is the practice of noticing the presence of spirit. Spirit is leader of the countless selves inside me; putting that rabble in order and getting through the day in a relatively straight line is a feat of self-organization requiring internal leadership. The successful leader is spirit, leading from behind (as the Tao Te Ching says).

Back to my own words now: Taoist body-based meditation is based on three centers in the body, or tantiens (pronounced 'dan-tee-ens', literal meaning Fields of Elixir: "Elixir" refers to vital energy, qi, that has consolidated into a pearl. Hence, dan tian refers to a spot in a person's body where his vital energy has accumulated into a field).

-- The upper tantien is the 'Cave of original consciousness' in the middle of the brain, or literally 'crystal palace', the throne of clear-seeing; also called the Sacred Square Inch, the Heavenly Heart, or the Cavity of Spirit; or Mysterious Gate ('hsuan kuan').

-- The middle is the 'Crimson palace' in middle of chest, chinese name 'Tan Zhong' meaning Central Altar (which describes both the shape of the sternum where the point is located and the qualities that are present at that location, which is traditionally seen as a sacred space close to the Heart). Or the actual tantien is called 'chong ting' (central palace), located at the place 'tan zhong'.

-- The lower is often just called the tantien (Japanese 'hara' for lower tantien or Korean 'tan den'); it is just below belly button, called 'Qi Hai', 'sea of qi' or 'ocean of vitality'.

Barefoot Doctor has an interesting landscape visualisation of these three tantiens:

The lower tantien below the belly button is dark, fathomless, night-time ocean; then up the cliffs, along the front of the spine, is the middle tantien ( the crimson palace or central altar, with the light and warmth of fire); then up the mountainside to a cave in the clear air of the mountain top, with the white clear light, uplit by the crimson light of the fire on the central altar, and the sound of the ocean waves far below.

I find that these three tantiens, considered as just physical locations or areas of the body, when I direct my awareness to them, begin to have a character of their own. When my out-breath is being directed down and out in the belly area, I can feel this area as dark and mysterious, the storehouse of my energy. When my in-breath expands my chest I feel the warmth and emotional goodwill. When I am in the upper tantien in my head, there is clarity and clear-seeing. Of course, this may just be because these attributes have been suggested to me, but the effect is nevertheless positive and useful.

Another aspect is that I cannot live in any one tantien alone - I need to inhabit all three - the upper, the place for the one who watches, the source of intelligence; the middle as the place for the one who feels, the source of wisdom; the energy of the lower that fuels my will, that generates the warmth in the middle chamber and the light in the top chamber.

You must remain observant and awake in upper chamber, open and emotionally responsive in middle chamber, and in the furnace of the lower chamber, at the same time.

I can also descend to the 'hui-yin' 'gate of mortality', the perineum - a valve which when closed contains qi, when open allows it to escape into the 'ten thousand things'. Conscious rhythmic squeezing and relaxing will instigate a pattern of containment. Or, holding the squeeze at a comfortable level, feel a pleasurable sensation of internal pressure pushing upwards into the lower channel, maintain squeeze and feel sensation rise into middle and then upper chamber, feeling gentle pressure in brain; then release perineum and relax completely, allowing the sensation to drop back down. While doing this, be sure to be aware and awake in the 3 tantiens simultaneously, while maintaining stready breath.

There is much more to the Chinese Taoist picture of the body than just the tantiens, but it is they that I find helpful in my own body-based meditation.

There are also energy conduits. The main ones are the 'loop', consisting of (1) the solar channel of yang, the 'tu mai', running from the perineum up the rear of the spine, over the top of the brain, and into the pituitary region above the roof of mouth. Being yang, this conduit holds the body upright and maintains maximum upward thrust. Let awareness and qi make this journey, using perineum squeeze as above, and by breathing - either breathing up for duration of the ascent, and down for the desecent, or use the breath like a hydraulic pump, jacking the awareness incrementally higher (but stay in the 3 tantiens, as advised before). At height of ascent, focus for a moment on crystal throne, visualising clear diamond-like light.

The other half of the loop is (2) the lunar channel of yin, the 'jen mai' downwards, starting just above the roof of the mouth, down through back of throat, behind chest, through abdomen to perineum. Yin energy dropping down allows everything that needs to drop to do so (waste, negative emotions, stupid ideas etc). Relax perineum for this downward drop, and breath as before (breathe out if breathed in for yang upwards, or breathe like hydraulic pump if did so on upper part of loop). When back at perineum, rest briefly, regroup, breathe, stay focused in each tantien, ready for the next loop.

And that is about as much of the Taoist internal plumbing system that I find useful in my own body-based meditation


[Return to list of Body-Based articles]    [next article] Last revised Nov 15 2004


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