In class last week one student was asking about “storing qi” in the dantian (the lower abdomen; aka: “the elixir field;” aka: “the sea of vitality.”) Another student had heard that we should do standing meditation to get the feet really hot to generate qi in the body. The idea was to build up so much internal qi that it could be directed outward like shooting a gun.
These are ideas and approaches that have been around for a long time, and I’m sure they are useful to create certain effects and conditions. I think it is important to clarify what it is that you are trying to get/do, and then find the appropriate method for getting there.
In my early explorations of energy cultivation/consciousness research (way back in the 70’s and 80’s) there was not much information available on the subject. And a lot of what was available was dubious, vague, or misstated. I stayed open to it all, and took some of it for a spin. Ultimately, I knew I had to test it. I was willing to try out various ideas and techniques, and some sources were more dependable, but it boiled down to, “Does it deliver the goods?”
There were a lot of cul-de-sacs: worthwhile experiences, but not leading to where I wanted to go.
A big breakthrough happened when I started to view bioenergy systems as “open” or “closed.” And that idea ties in to a topic I have been discussing lately, “Meditation in Action.” In meditation in action a heightened state of body-mind-spirit integration and coherence is maintained while engaging in more or less complex physical activities. In stillness meditation, we purposefully limit interaction with the environment to bring awareness (mindfulness) to our internal state.
Energy is needed for physical action. In the internal arts, energy cultivation is the primary focus of standing and moving meditation. The energy must be “excited and excitable,” while you remain the calm center of awareness. Energy is generated by poles in opposition, while YOU are the neutral pole that holds the poles.
What do I mean by open and closed systems?
A system is a group of things that interact for a common purpose. Bodies, clocks, motorcycles, symphony orchestras, corporations, nations, etc. Your body is a system where 70 TRILLION living cells get together for fun and adventure. (How they organize all the activities needed to keep that going is a subject for another essay.)
OPEN systems exchange matter and energy with other systems and the environment.
CLOSED systems have relatively little exchange with others or the environment.
Stillness meditation generally emphasizes LESS interaction with others and the environment, and tends to be more closed. Meditation in action interacts more with the environment and is therefore more open.
Ultimately, all systems, especially living organisms, are both open and closed. So this is a relative thing, and whether you label something open or closed depends on what you compare it to. All systems have boundaries: that which identifies a thing as itself and not something other. Open systems naturally have more permeable boundaries.
Standing meditation is a traditional practice for energy cultivation. Some advocate what I would call a closed system approach. You are taught to “store the qi in the tantian.” The idea is that you would use your breath and attention to direct the qi to your lower abdomen and hold it there. You would thus increase your personal power by increasing the qi pressure inside the body. When your feet became hot during standing meditation, this was considered an indicator that your qi was building up and becoming more available for circulation.
Closed systems often view the process mechanically. Energy is produced by oxidation of nutrients: food and breath. You plug the “leaks” in the system, release muscular tension that impedes qi flow, and build up pressure. The “stored” energy can then be released as fa jin (“issuing power”), like releasing the drawn bowstring to let an arrow fly.
This is one proven method for martial prowess. You build up YOUR qi and learn to use it as a weapon. If that is your primary goal, diligent practice will take you there. It takes time and effort: gongfu. No getting around that.
My model and approach are a little different. I prefer to view the relationship of my body/biofield with the universe as a more open system. I know that consciousness leads the qi, so creating the space for energy precedes its manifestation. I prefer to focus on the points of energy exchange with what I call “The Big Qi,” or what Master Yang Fukui calls either “Nature Qi,” if he’s talking about something that can be conceptualized, or “The Mystery,” if referring to the ineffable.
I have been very fortunate to have studied for 18 years with Master Yang. His view often parallels and amplifies mine, and is supported by a rich family martial arts tradition that goes back centuries. He is a living embodiment of what I am proposing here. (I don’t presume to speak for him. These are my observations and inferences.)
“The most important thing you can do after standing meditation or qigong,” said Master Yang, “is to ‘disappear the qi.’” That is, you do NOT “store it” in any way, but rather “shed” it. Shedding the energy that you have just been circulating through your system creates a void which is then filled in by a purer energy from beyond your system.
A closed system sees the body as a battery. Energy is stored until it is needed. You recharge periodically. An open system is more like plugging into the house current which is fed by an even bigger source of energy, derived from even bigger sources.
A closed system assumes there are finite energy resources and that one must protect against leakage. An open system assumes that there is vast energy available and that it is possible to tap into it.
I don’t believe it is possible to “store” qi, in the tantien or anywhere. Like our breath, we borrow it. We can hold our breath for a minute or two, but something interesting happens when we do: it changes. The air that I took in immediately begins its transformation as it circulates through my body via my blood. The breath that exits has a higher concentration of carbon dioxide and would not sustain me very long if forced to re-breathe it. The “breath” that took in is not really “stored” since it is gone now…transformed.
Similarly, we can’t “store” qi. We borrow it. In the broadest sense, qi is energy. When in becomes part of part of my biofield, it is “my” qi, but only for a short time. It does its work and then moves on. Most likely it is transformed by the interaction with my physicality (but that is my assumption). I think any interaction of energy with a living being takes on emergent qualities.
Is qi limited to the known electromagnetic spectrum? I doubt it. My sense is that it is much vaster than that. We can measure more of the energies present in a living body than we could even ten years ago: infrared, visible light, magnetic, electrical, heat, and more. I suspect that we have only scratched the surface and much more is Unknowable than knowable.
When I teach “The Three Pillars,” I emphasize “energetic coherence” as a way to heighten the heighten the organization and integration of the system. This is more “closed,” since that process is designed to make the body-mind more “whole.”
This coherence establishes the boundaries of the system. When Rick is in a state of high coherence, he has established his body-mind as an integrated whole. It is not just part of the landscape, but an entity unto itself capable of interacting with others and the environment.
In the second Pillar, central equilibrium, we open to the Big Qi: the yang qi of the heavens and the yin qi of the earth. We meet the earth through the balls of the feet. We meet the yang qi of the heavens by reaching upward with the yang niwan, at the posterior fontanelle. This tucks in the chin and opens the foramen magnum at the base of the skull. This is the yuzhen, or Jade Pillow Gate.
Central equilibrium is much more than just balancing the mass of the body. There is a sweet spot there that greatly amplifies your effective power. More important, it allows you to shift quickly into a superconscious state.
You plug into a source of energy and awareness that is much vaster than your own.
This is one form of Meditation in Action as an Open System. You connect up to something bigger while also maintaining your own sense of wholeness.