Circulating energy to nourish the body
In this week's article, we'll continue with the discussion of Zen energy practices which we started in last week's article. If you haven't read that one yet, please do go back and check it out, because it's important - that article lays foundations which we're going to build on this week, and if you don't have a stable foundation, your house may come tumbling down!
So what is this energy stuff anyway?
Last week we discussed the importance of drawing energy down into the lower part of the body, and in particular not allowing too much energy to collect up in the head. But what actually is this energy anyway?
The modern scientific picture of the body's 'vital energy' is still very much evolving, but traditionally several cultures have found parallel and largely equivalent ways of describing the 'spark of life'. In Indian culture (and the modern yoga world which has spun out of it) it's often called prana (although in some contexts you'll find people talking about shakti energy as well); the Chinese refer to it as qi (pronounced 'chee'), which in Japanese is rendered ki; the Tibetans refer to it as lung, which roughly translates to 'wind'. In each case, this energy is said to flow around the body according to a system of channels - nadis in the Indian system, mai ('meridians') in the Chinese view, tsa in Tibetan.
In the Chinese view, there are twelve major meridians, each linked to one of the organs, and eight 'extraordinary' meridians (sometimes called 'vessels'). It's the latter which are of interest to us in the context of Zen's energy practices. The three most important for today's purposes are the governing vessel, which starts at the perineum, runs up the back, over the top of the head, and ends at the roof of the mouth; the conception vessel, which starts at the tip of the tongue and runs down the front of the body to the perineum; and the thrusting vessel, aka the 'central channel', which runs from the perineum to the crown right up the centre of the body.
In addition to the meridians and vessels, another important concept is the dan tien (tanden in Japanese), the body's energetic centre. Strictly speaking, the body has three dan tiens, each located at a point along the thrusting vessel/central channel. The lower dan tien is in the abdomen, about three fingers' width below the navel; the middle dan tien is behind the point on the chest directly between the nipples; and the upper dan tien is behind the 'third eye', the point between and slightly above the eyebrows. Of the three, the lower dan tien is the most important, and when you hear someone referring to 'the dan tien' without further qualification, they mean the lower dan tien. The lower dan tien is like the body's 'battery pack' - it's a safe place to store and build energy, and it acts as a kind of distribution hub for the rest of the energetic system.
Ensuring harmony in the body
The Chinese view is that the body functions as a community of organs - provided the community is in harmony, the body is healthy. Last week we saw Zen master Hakuin in conversation with a mountain hermit about the body's energetic system - let's see what the hermit has to say about this 'community' idea:
"The Great Way is divided into the two instruments of yin and yang. Combining, they produce human beings and all other things. A primal inborn energy circulates silently through the body, moving along channels or conduits from one to another of the five great organs.
"Sustaining life is much like protecting a country. Whereas a wise lord and sage ruler always thinks of the common people under him, a foolish lord and mediocre ruler concerns himself exclusively with the pastimes of the upper classes. When a ruler becomes engrossed in his own self interests, his nine ministers vaunt their power and authority, the officials under them seek special favors, and none of them gives a thought to the poverty and suffering of the people below them. The countryside is filled with pale, gaunt faces; famine stalks the land, leaving the streets of the towns and cities littered with corpses.
"On the other hand, when the ruler turns his attention below, focusing on the common people, his ministers and officials perform their duties simply and frugally, the hardships and suffering of the common people always in their thoughts.
"As a result, the farmers produce an abundance of food, their wives an abundance of cloth. The good and the wise gather to the ruler to render him service, the provincial lords are respectful and submissive, the common people prosper, and the country grows strong.
"It is the same with the human body. The person who has arrived at attainment always keeps the heart's vital energy below, filling the lower body. When the lower body is filled with the heart's vital energy, there is nowhere within for the seven misfortunes to operate and nowhere without for the four evils to gain an entrance. The qi and blood are replete, the heart and mind vigorous and healthy. The lips never know the bitterness of medical potions; the body never feels the discomfort of the acupuncture needle or moxa treatments.
So a healthy body is one which is well nourished throughout the whole system, all of its parts functioning together in harmony. As we saw last week, there's a great emphasis placed on bringing the energy down to the lower body - to the (lower) dan tien - to ensure good health and long life. Drawing energy up to the head and neglecting the lower body is a recipe for trouble.
At the same time, we need to ensure that energy can circulate freely, going where it needs to go, rather than ending up trapped and stagnant. Hakuin himself asks about this point:
At this point, I [Hakuin] said to the hermit: "I am deeply grateful for your instruction. I'm going to discontinue my Zen study for a while so that I can concentrate my efforts on Introspective Meditation and cure my illness.
"There is something that still bothers me, however. Wouldn't the method you teach be an example of 'overly emphasizing tooling remedies in order to bring the heart-fire down,' which the great physician Li Shih-ts'ai warned against? And if I concentrated my mind in a single place, wouldn't that impede the movement of qi and blood and make them stagnate?"
A flicker of a smile crossed the hermit's face. "Not at all," he replied. "You mustn't forget that Master Li also said the nature of fire is to flame upward, so it must be made to descend; the nature of water is to flow downward, so it must be made to rise. This condition of fire descending and water ascending is called intermingling.
"Intermingling is a configuration of life. Not intermingling is a configuration of death. When Master Li and those of his school speak of 'overly emphasizing cooling remedies to bring down the heart-fire,' they do so in order to save people who study the teachings of the Tan-hsi school from the harm that could result from over-emphasizing such remedies."
So we have a second layer to what's going on here - drawing the energy down to the dan tien is a good start, and avoids the extreme of allowing it all to rise to the head and get us into trouble. (The hermit led with that advice because, as we saw last week, Hakuin got himself into precisely that mess through his unbalanced practice.)
But we don't want our energy to become stagnant and static either - it is, after all, our life force, and its nature is inherently dynamic. As a result, we need to encourage and cultivate that energetic circulation to avoid falling into a different trap.
The microcosmic orbit: ensuring energetic harmony in the body
In the qigong world, there's a very popular technique called the 'microcosmic orbit' which is designed for precisely this purpose. The same technique has found its way into the Zen tradition, known by a variety of names, including naitan ('inner transformation') and tenborin ('turning the Wheel of the Dharma'). Names aside, though, it's the same thing.
The essence of the technique is very simple: using the breathing and our focused attention, we encourage energy to move up the governing vessel and down the conception vessel. The specifics of how to do this vary from teacher to teacher, so I'll share two methods that I've used very successfully myself - I'm not saying that these are the only legitimate way to do this technique by any means, but I can say for sure that I've found them to work well.
So if you'd like to try these out, set yourself up in a comfortable sitting posture, perhaps take a few minutes to settle your mind, and then follow the instructions below!
Preparation: drawing energy to the dan tien
First, I recommend spending some time focusing on the (lower) dan tien, drawing your energy back to its 'home base'. If this is done with the intention of 'charging up' the body in preparation for circulation - a sense of getting ready to 'open up' the energetic system - then it serves as an excellent preparation for the next part of the practice.
(If you don't have a good sense of where your lower dan tien is, one way to connect with it is to use the practice of Ah-Un breathing. I've previously described this in another article, and there's a guided version of the practice on my Audio page.)
So all you have to do here is focus your attention on the lower dan tien. Stay here for at least three breaths, or longer if you prefer.
Connecting with the key points around the orbit: the 'water' method
When you're ready to start circulating energy, place your tongue in contact with the roof of your mouth, if it isn't already. This connects the conception and governing vessels, and allows energy to flow around the whole orbit. Don't skip this step!
Next, a nice way to 'warm up' the governing and conception vessels is to move very slowly and gently around some key points along the circuit. These are:
1. The perineum. Right in the middle, between the anus and the genitals; the point where the governing and conception vessels meet, and also where the thrusting vessel starts.
2. The tailbone. A little way up the governing vessel.
3. The point on the back between the kidneys. (Called the 'life gate', ming men in Chinese.)
4. The point on the back between the shoulder blades.
5. The base of the skull on the back of the neck.
6. The crown of the head.
7. The third eye.
8. The throat.
9. The point between the nipples on the front of the body.
10. The navel.
11. Back to the perineum. (And so on.)
I suggest moving the attention to each point in turn and staying for at least three breaths. Have the intention of allowing this part of the body to soften and 'wake up' energetically. Don't try to 'force' a sensation to happen - it's more like applying a very gentle heat and waiting for the ice to melt.
This gentle way of moving around the orbit is a very nice way of connecting with the subtler energetic sensations that are the heart of these practices. These days, when I'm learning a new energy practice, I'll spend a lot of time working with it in this style before moving on to something 'faster' or more 'flowing'.
You can keep going around the orbit in this way until you're either ready to close the practice (at which point jump down to the 'ending the practice' section below) or would like to try the more flowing approach to the orbit which I'll describe next. Be sure to complete your current orbit (i.e. get all the way back to the perineum) before moving on.
Flowing around the orbit with the breath: the 'fire' method
In this approach, we move more quickly around the orbit.
Place your attention on the perineum point, where the conception and governing vessels meet.
Then, on your next inhale, draw your attention up the back of the body, over the top of the head, and down to the top lip. Then, as you exhale, draw the attention from the bottom lip down the front of the body, all the way down to the perineum. In other words, as you breathe in, run your attention up the length of the governing vessel, and as you breathe out, run your attention down the length of the conception vessel.
Again, don't try to 'force' anything to happen. A more suitable intention is the idea of 'showing the energy where to go', allowing it to follow in its own time.
For most people it's easier to draw energy up the back than it is to encourage it to sink down the front. That means the downward direction is doubly important! You may find that an attitude of letting go and allowing the energy to sink down 'with gravity' may help to open the front channel when you're starting with this practice.
Do at least three full orbits this way, or more if you have time, ideally at least nine if this is your only energy practice. This can be a complete practice in its own right, so if you have longer to spend on it, feel free - so long as you have a gentle touch!
Closing the practice: coming back to dan tien
When you're ready to close the practice, at the end of your final orbit, bring you attention back to the lower dan tien, and stay here for at least three breaths. Having the attitude of 'closing down' the practice, storing the energy in the battery pack where it's safe, is very helpful here.
And that's it - you're done! At first you might not feel very much at all, but over time this practice begins to feel highly energising and refreshing. It's a nice way to start the day.
Enjoy your energy practice!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!