Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just what are Daoists up to?

Over the summer I read The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell and wrote a post about how much I enjoyed the experience. What I didn't say there, however, was how unsatisfying I found his concluding remarks. Campbell was a firm believer in the maxim that "the East is East and the West is West, and never the twain shall meet". At the core of this belief was his thought that the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism were ultimately life denying. Instead he posited that the emergent Western ideal of romantic love and the heroic individual---as exemplified in the Holy Grail legend---was a evolutionary step forward.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this point of view since then and have come to the conclusion that Campbell was wrong. To understand why, though, I had to do some serious thinking about human consciousness, and how the Daoists understand it. To that end, I've been reading A.C.Graham's tremendous survey of ancient Chinese philosophy, Disputers of the Dao. The chapter on Zhuangzi is apropos. As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi believed that human beings are at their best when "heaven" lives through them, or, when people "merge with the Dao". This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time---without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the "knack" of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar "knack" for living.

For Zhuangzi, this "knack" only comes about when a person is able to cut away their attachment to the ordinary world and totally identify with the world around them (i.e. the "cosmic Dao".) At this point the sage simply cannot be harmed because he can no longer distinguish between himself and his surroundings. As long as he lives, he can flow with his surroundings. When he dies, he merely returns to the source.

As practical spirituality, Daoist internal alchemy has developed practices aimed at stripping away the distinction between the individual and his surroundings. The core practice of "sitting and forgetting" is aimed at quieting the "internal dialogue" that constantly reminds us that we are individuals instead of just knots of sensory experience. The study of martial arts and other kung-fu allow us to develop and explore the spontaneous action that only comes from mastery of a subject. And on a lyrical level the literature of Daoism is full of stories about adepts who were forced to go through tremendous ordeals in order to burnt out the egoistic impurities of their soul.

Where Campbell goes wrong, however, is to think that these egoistic impulses that the Daoist seeks to leave behind are what it means to be who we are. Instead, they are the junk and slag that are left over from our abusive childhoods, deranged culture and destructive instincts. For example, any freedom that I may gain will not come from giving into the anger that is the result of being beaten as a child but rather in going beyond it. That would only be the acting out of old karma---to use the Indian term. Instead, if I can clear away all this sewage from the spring in my soul, I will be able to drink deeply from the Dao's life-giving water.

The key question that people like Campbell get confused about is freedom. As I have mentioned before, true freedom is not the right to sit on a couch, watch television and eat potato chips. But I had never really been able to get my handle on what it is before I came across a quote from Cicero: "Freedom is participation in power". This is a very important saying for political activists (I came across it because it was quoted by Ralph Nader), but it also has relevance for spiritual folks. The goal of burning off the spiritual impurities in Old Lao's furnace is not to become some sort shadow of a human being, but rather to become the most free person possible. This comes about because by doing so we are learning how to directly participate in the central power of the universe.

This is what it means to "merge with the Dao".

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Taijiquan, Mediation and Breathing

A lot of people are quite confused about the role of breathing in the Neidan practices. (I know that I was for a long, long time.) That is because there are a lot of contradictory things said about the practice by people who have only partial truths. My understanding has been won by a couple decades of practice, and is always open to revision, but once one begins to understand how all the contradictions begin to fit together into a whole, there is a very good chance that you are beginning to really understand the concept. (Much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.) In order to help others learn faster than I have, I thought I'd share my understanding.

First, the questions that plagued me as a student and the answers I have found---.

All teachers and all books say that same thing: "Keep your back straight!" The problem with this is that the back is a very complex thing that is far from straight. The spine is an very complex "S Curve" that curves back and forth all through its length, so it can never, strictly speaking, be perfectly straight. Eventually, I just discarded this concept as something that is a short-form for something that is a lot more complex.

Most teachers tell us to keep a vertical back, although I have had others strongly emphasize the need to bend forward and stretch the lower back. I have come to the conclusion that the vertical back is the best posture from a martial arts point of view and as a way to practice the art. My suspicion is that the people who advise an extreme stretching posture are either doing so for a very specific health reason (perhaps to help people with very stiff lower backs) or are simply passing on this lesson in a "monkey see, monkey do" manner without understanding what it does to the body. Either way, once one has advanced in their practice where their tailbone has unfused (you'll know when it happens because it breaks with a loud "snap"), I can't see any more reason for heroic efforts on the lower back and very good ones to stop the practice.

Many taijiquan teachers suggest that people do the set while practicing what is called "reverse breathing". It is called "reverse" primarily because it is the opposite of "Buddha Breathing", which is commonly taught by meditation teachers. Some teachers suggest that "reverse breathing" is dangerous and suggest that people instead breath "naturally". Take a look at the following diagrams to understand the difference between the two and what is at issue.

Buddha Breathing (in breath)

The important issues to remember are that in Buddha breathing, the air is pushed down into the tan t'ien ("hara" in Japanese), instead of the lungs. While this happens, the front of the hips pivot downwards and the rear pivots upward (as the monks say, "the anus looks to the moon".) This is the posture that Buddhists adopt while meditating and it gives a very solid, "locked" feeling when one is sitting in a lotus posture.

In contrast, reverse breathing---as the name suggests---turns this on its head.

Reverse Breathing (in breath)

In reverse breathing the air is pushed up into the chest cavity and the tan t'ien sucks inward. The hips inward, which pushes the genitals up and the anus turns away from the moon and looks to the earth. This has a profound impact on a person's taijiquan because as the hips tuck under, one is able to sink physically downwards through the hip joint while keeping vertical. (My tajiquan teacher called this "sitting like in a chair", which meant absolutely nothing to me and left me completely flummoxed about what he meant.) The act of sucking in the tan t'ien and expanding the chest makes this quite complicated and not terribly easy movement a lot easier. The value from martial power is that as the hips roll under, very strong tendons in the back are stretched like springs, which stores power that can be unleashed at a later time. This is where the idea comes from that in taijiquan one attacks with an out-breath and retreats with an in-breath. When one understands the importance of reverse breathing in taijiquan, one eventually moves towards a pace where each move takes one long, calm breath.

The reason why people suggest that reverse breathing is dangerous is because it does seem to have bad effects if you try to force it or do it all the time. At one time I tried to do it while meditating and did try to force it. I stopped doing this when I had a blood vessel explode in my left eye while meditating. I have heard examples of practitioners who were stricken blind or who suffered from severe high-blood pressure from too much reverse-breathing. As a result, teachers who do not really know what they are doing, or have to run a lot of students through their halls in order to the pay the rent are probably better off simply saying that it is dangerous and tell people not to do it.

But life is dangerous and the greatest risk in life is to take no risks at all! The taijiquan sets that I have learned all begin and end with three slow, quiet breaths. My suspicion is that the initial three breaths are supposed to be reverse breathing in order to prepare for the taijiquan. The last three should be Buddha breathing in order to bring the body out of the habit of reverse breathing. I also think that the reason why people are supposed to study meditation once they get to a certain level in taijiquan is to learn about things like Buddha breathing and reverse breathing in order to advance their forms practice; and then to settle down into serious Buddha breathing to act as a prophylactic to prevent the practitioner from damaging herself. (There are also many good reasons for doing Buddha breathing, of course, for example, I have found it a good thing to do to keep warm on my cold walks home from work.)

Of course, the overwhelming majority of people who do taijiquan simply want some non-stressful exercise and would find all of this quite bizarre. The biggest problems arise from people with bad judgement who obsess about this sort of thing and don't use their common sense in practice. But if someone remembers to be a "light unto themselves" and to tread the path of moderation, these practices can be of value for that vanishingly small part of the population that seeks to follow the same path as I.