Three simple steps to energy cultivation in Zen
The energetic side of Zen practice is something I probably don't emphasise enough, so this week we're going to take a look at it in some detail.
It's easy to assume that Zen is primarily or exclusively a mental activity - when we think of Zen, we think of meditation, long periods spent sitting with closed eyes doing something-or-other with the mind. But meditation, or zazen, is really just one part of Zen practice. Zen is ultimately a way of life, and has practices for every aspect of our lives.
In particular, and following on from the discussion of the importance of view a couple of weeks ago, the aim of Zen practice is explicitly not to transcend our problematic meat-based existence and float off on a cloud of samadhi. As we see from the famous Zen Ox-Herding Pictures, although we may deliberately remove ourselves from the world at times in order to deepen our practice, ultimately we aim to return to the world to be of service to those around us. And in order to live in the world, we need good health and plenty of energy to deal with whatever our lives will throw at us!
Consequently, in Rinzai Zen we have a set of energy practices which cultivate a kind of grounded power which will sustain us even when life places great demands on us. So let's take a look at them!
What do you mean by 'energy' anyway?
As living creatures, we experience the natural ebbs and flows of our vitality from day to day. Some days we wake up raring to go, while other days it's a struggle to get going until we've had our third coffee of the morning. After a prolonged period of exertion, we start to feel burnt out - our vitality depleted in a more serious way, that will take more than a good night's sleep to recharge.
Traditional Chinese medicine has taken this simple, intuitive experience of vitality and developed an elaborate model of the body around it - a model which forms the basis for acupuncture and qigong, amongst other things. The extent to which this model is accepted varies quite widely in the West - some people fully embrace it, some are much more sceptical. Personally, I was willing to give it a go but by no means convinced by the traditional explanations, and I think that may be a good way to approach these practices. In my own experience, they do work - and they seem to work regardless of how sceptical or credulous I'm feeling about them on any given day. I've gone through periods where I've been totally convinced by the traditional explanations, and periods where I've been equally convinced that we need to know what's 'really' going on in Western scientific language, but the practices have continued to do what they do regardless.
The importance of 'hara'
In Japan (where my Zen lineage comes from), great emphasis is placed on the cultivation of 'hara'. Anatomically, this refers to the abdomen; colloquially, it can be used to mean something very close to 'guts', both in the biological sense and in the sense of having the courage and fortitude to persist even in difficult circumstances.
Energetically, the hara is also the home of the tanden (Chinese: dan tien), which is considered the central nexus of the body's energy network. The tanden, and by extension the hara, can be viewed as a kind of 'battery pack' - if our hara is well-supplied with energy, we are likely to be strong and vital, whereas if our hara is depleted, we're likely to be tired and weak.
Indeed, there's a sense that we can 'carry' our energy in various places in the body - in particular, the head, the heart, and the hara. The Zen view of the ideal person is triangle-shaped - a little in the head, a bit more in the heart, with the majority in the hara.
Excessive 'headiness' is associated with people who are overly intellectual, fussy or pedantic (like me!), while excessive 'heartiness' is associated with people who are overly emotional, flighty and prone to drama. Excessive 'hara-ness' might show up as stubbornness, and it does need to be balanced with some cultivation of both heart and head, but generally speaking most of us in the West need to focus first and foremost on hara cultivation - we have more than enough in our heads and hearts already, and building up a solid hara provides much-needed stability and balance.
So how do we go about tuning up our energy system?
Stage 1: Connecting with the hara
Before we start working deliberately with energy, it can be hugely helpful to get in touch with our hara. As I mentioned, for many of us in the West, it's a new concept. The good news is that it isn't just a theoretical, esoteric idea - it's something that can be experienced very clearly on a physical level.
The quickest way to get a tangible sense of the hara is to use 'Ah-Un breathing'. This short, simple practice uses a couple of special breaths, making an 'ah' sound on the inhale and an 'unnnn' sound on the exhale, to energise the front, sides and back of the hara. There's a full guided practice on my Audio page - check out the 'explanation of breaths' audio first to make sure you know how you're supposed to be breathing, and then use the 'guided practice' audio to do the practice itself.
Even one time through the Ah-Un breathing can be enough to give you a clear sense of the hara, but I recommend doing it every day for a month or so to really ingrain the feeling into your body. The clearer it is, the easier the subsequent practices will be.
Stage 2: Grounding practices to bring energy down from the head and heart
Once you've got a clear sense of the hara, you're ready to start working with energy directly. A good place to begin is with some grounding practices, particularly if you have a strong meditation practice, and even more particularly if your meditation practice involves focusing on the breath at the nostrils. There's an oft-repeated saying that 'energy flows where attention goes', and samadhi practices in particular are good for generating and focusing energy. (Readers familiar with jhana practice will recognise that focusing the mind steadily enough produces the very strong energetic experience that is the first jhana.) But even if you aren't into hardcore samadhi stuff, meditation practices which involve focusing your attention on your head will tend to bring energy up. (And, of course, that goes double if you do practices like kundalini yoga which are all about bringing your energy up the spine to the head.)
While some teachers will tell you that bringing energy to the head may trigger spiritual experiences, it's more often the case that it simply causes headaches (which can get seriously bad, especially if combined with wider life stress). According to my teacher, the problems are usually caused by people trying to climb too high too soon, like a tree without adequate roots. So in the Zen approach we start by grounding.
Two nice grounding practices are the 'soft ointment' meditation and the 'naikan' practice, both of which are available in guided form on my Audio page.
Soft ointment is a kind of body scan in which you imagine a small ball of soothing, cleansing, healing ointment placed on top of your head, then feeling it melting slowly down through the body, washing away any energetic blockages as it goes. When the whole body has been washed clean, the lower part of the body (up to the level of the navel) then fills up, leaving you with a sense of grounded stability in the lower half of the body and relaxed openness in the upper half.
Naikan is a practice which can be done standing, sitting, lying down or all three, and which uses a combination of arm movements and focused attention to open the body up to receive fresh energy from our surroundings and draw it down into the hara and the legs. As with soft ointment, the practice leaves us feeling grounded and energised in the lower body, relaxed and open in the upper half.
Stage 3: Generating and circulating energy
So now that the foundation has been laid and the engine has been tuned (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor), it's time to get serious about energy.
(And if you're the kind of person who sees a statement like that and immediately wants to skip the first two stages and jump right in here, please don't! I did that too, and got nowhere with these practices for ages, then ramped up the practice in the hopes that something would happen and gave myself a really sore head and not much else. Please take the time to build the foundation - you'll thank me later.)
The key practice here is known by various names within Zen, including 'naitan' (which means something like 'inner transformation') and 'tenborin' (which means 'turning the wheel of Dharma'). It's also known in qigong circles as the 'microcosmic orbit'.
We start by focusing the attention on the tanden. Where attention goes, energy flows. This first part of the practice is about charging up our battery pack - powering our energetic core until our vitality is so abundant that it overflows, like a cauldron filled to brimming and beyond. Then we begin to move our attention gently and deliberately up the back of the body on an inhale and down the front of the body on an exhale, This encourages the energy to circulate throughout the body, thus distributing the vitality we've generated to wherever it's needed. When we're ready to close the practice, it's helpful to return to the tanden for a few breaths, to seal the energy back in.
As with the other practices above, you can find a guided audio for naitan on my Audio page.
I'm trying it but nothing is happening!
A common experience for first-timers is to try these practices but feel nothing. Where's this mysterious 'energy' that he keeps talking about? Is it actually a load of woo-woo nonsense?
All I can say is - be patient. It takes a while to connect with the sensations in these practices, but most people find that it comes into focus sooner or later. Remember, energy flows where attention goes, so even if you don't actually feel it yet, simply doing the practices and focusing your attention in the correct manner is likely to be having an effect - you just aren't quite tuned into the right wavelength to feel what's going on yet. (And yes, I realise that this explanation probably won't convince you if you can't feel anything yet!)
Happy cultivating - may you be grounded, powerful and vital in every aspect of your life.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!