Saturday, August 8, 2015

Internal Alchemy, or, Neidan---Qigong?

When I was learning taijiquan I was taught a lot of exercises called "Zhong". (I'm just spelling phonetically, don't ask me how it is really spelled. And don't forget that there are different dialects in China, which means that the same thing can have a very different sounding name---depending on what dialect your teacher uses.) The teacher sometimes referred to the exercises as being "marrow washing" and "tendon changing", which are phrases that are commonly used in Daoist parlance. I've never seen anything that is exactly the same in a YouTube video, but I do sometimes see resonances. I once asked a fellow who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, and he said that Mr. Moy (the head of the school) was a real expert on Shaolin tendon changing exercises---whatever that means. The best way to explain them is to suggest that they have some sort of resemblance to what people describe as "qigong".

I also remember reading an article in a Kungfu mag that said that the term "qigong" was actually invented in the early 20th century by the republican government of China. It wanted to promote the health benefits of exercise while at the same time removing the spiritual dimension associated with "neidan" or "internal alchemy".  Being an ordained Daoist, perhaps my teacher felt no obligation to use the newfangled term. Perhaps what he was teaching had absolutely nothing at all to do with qigong. Who knows?  I certainly don't. But it does raise an issue that I do have something to say about, which is in answer to the question "What exactly is "internal alchemy" anyway?"


Discussing whether or not exercises taught in a taijiquan school are "qigong" or "internal alchemy" is somewhat disingenuous because most people see the taijiquan set in and of itself as an exercise in neidan. The story is that the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng took the martial arts system known as taijiquan (many people say that he invented it, but the lineage to Chen family village seems to be fairly well established, so I refuse to promote that bit of "wild history") and made it into a spiritual practice for self-transformation (ie "neidan".)

Zhang Sanfeng
Supposedly he lived as a Daoist hermit of sorts in either what Westerners call the late middle ages or early renaissance.  I emphasize the date, because some people have the tendency to think of Daoism as something enshrouded in the mists of antiquity.  In actual fact, it is not really any older than Buddhism or Christianity---and some folks think it is newer than both. This is part of the "ancient Chinese wisdom" trope, and, it is also a way of "smacking down" anyone who wants to think for themselves and do that most horrible of things: "innovate".

So how is taijiquan internal alchemy? Isn't it a martial art?

Well, yes and no, to both.


In medieval philosophy there is a little Latin word that gets used a lot:  "qua". In fact, many years ago, when I was still a student, I hired someone to type up an essay I had written. She called me on the phone and asked me if "qua" was a real word, because I'd used it so often in the paper. What it refers to is a specific aspect of something in a particular context. In the case of taijiquan, we need to understand that what on the outside seems to be the same practice can be understood as being different. Taijiquan can be a martial art or a spiritual practice.

Taiji qua martial art is about punching and kicking, grappling and repelling. It is about beating the crap out of other people and preventing them from doing the same to you. Taiji qua spiritual practice is about exploring what it means to be a human being and using the knowledge gained to become a better person. The complexity is that the spiritual practice element cannot be totally separated from the martial arts. Someone who has gained real spiritual insight cannot help but become a better fighter.

I remember reading a story about a famous 19th century Japanese swordsman. He was in charge of the guards who protected the Emperor and as part of his duties, he had to select and train new recruits for the position. In one group of new students he took two of them aside and said to them "I can see that the two of you have attained real mastery of some sort. Please explain." One of them said "When we set out on this path we decided that the only way to become great warriors would be to totally remove any fear of death. We worked hard on this practice and eventually purged ourselves."

Doing away with a fear of death is of tremendous importance in a fight. This because for most warriors the prime directive is to "save yourself and kill the enemy". If you do not care about whether you live or die, it becomes a lot easier to kill. Paradoxically, if you do not fear death, you will often have an advantage that will allow you to live---because the enemy will see this in your eyes. At that point his prime directive often becomes shortened to just "save yourself".  When "save yourself" meets "kill your enemy", the former will invariably run!


Spiritual practice is a lot more involved than just overcoming a fear of death---although that is part of it. It is also about becoming aware of subtleties that are totally invisible to most folks. And if you are serious about taijiquan, there are a lot of doors that get opened for you that are invisible to others. Take, for example, bodily awareness.

By the age of adulthood, the vast majority of people have lost an enormous amount of flexibility in both their lower backs and their chests. Years ago, when I got a job in the maintenance shop of a university I was given a quick talk by someone in management about how to lift a heavy object. He emphasized using my legs instead of my back. This is very good advice. But what he didn't say--- because almost no one understands this fact---is that the reason why most people lift with their backs instead of their legs is because they have lost the ability to flex and control their tail bone. This means that they it is almost impossible for them to use their legs to lift heavy objects. This means, among other things, that people use their backs instead, which is why back injuries are epidemic among people who work with their hands for a living.

In my taijiquan school one of my first tasks was to practice those exercises I mentioned above.  One of the was called a "donyu" (again phonetic.) There was nothing fancy or esoteric about them. They were the things that other schools call "pole lifting exercises" or moving "horse stances" or "deep knee bends".  But the result, along with other exercises, was a tremendous strengthening of the legs, lower back, loosening up of tendons, and, a growing awareness of how to control the muscles. Eventually, an event occurred where my tailbone unfused with a loud cracking sound. I've read that it is not true that a tailbone actually fuses, so the sound might have been something else. But I can certainly see where the idea could come from that it does. I am certainly not the only person who is into taijiquan who has had that "cracking" experience.

This is something like a donyu

I have been a manual laborer all of my working life, but I have found that I can move a lot of very heavy items quite safely because of those lessons that I was given by my taijiquan teacher all those years ago. I have also tried to get coworkers to use the same techniques, but that has proved impossible for two reasons. First, they lack the control and flexibility in their lower backs. Secondly, they usually believe that moving heavy stuff is "stupid work" that doesn't require any thought at all---so they refuse to think about what they are doing. (For this reason, I often do stuff by myself because it can be dangerous to work with someone who willfully refuses to think about what they are doing.)

Once you gain the ability to use your entire lower back, then you have another thing to work on. That is, that you have to learn to control the two sides of it, left and right, independently. This is because the gluteus maximus muscle (ie your butt) is a major power source that connects very strong leg and back muscles into a giant spring. Using these muscles in conjunction are what give taiji players to store and release power when they are fighting. They also are what allow players to maintain their stability and balance by raising and lower the centre of gravity. They are also what allows the player to spiral and pivot in ways that allows them to evade an attack and deflect blows. Finally, they are also what allows a player to relax and allow blows to flow through the body into the floor instead of absorbing them and damaging the body.

One of the things I tell people who are foolish enough to ask me to teach them taijiquan is that the art involves the practice of "dissecting your body with your mind". That is, through the process of doing the set you have to constantly expand your bodily awareness so you can learn more and more about how it operates. This, in turn, gives you a greater and greater ability to get the body to do things that would have been not only impossible but also incomprehensible before the student started on the path of the Dao.


Of course, once you start paying attention to how your body works, you have to start paying attention to how your mind works too. When I started out doing the form, I realized early on that I had to do something about the "internal dialogue" that was constantly running in my mind. That is, every time I would get into the set I would start telling myself stuff like "oh that hurts", "oh I love taiji", "I hate doing this", "I'm bored", "what will I cook for lunch", "is my boss pissed off with me?", etc, etc. And when I got involved with this internal discussion---I'd lose track of where I was in the 108 moves of the set. Moreover, I would (and still do) have to constantly battle with my monkey mind about whether or not I want to exercise on any given day. That's because part of me would like nothing better than to sit in an easy chair, eat potato chips and watch television until I have a heart attack.

So, you don't just have to dissect your body with your mind, you have to dissect your mind with your mind too. And once you start doing that, you really do fall down the rabbit hole. In a future blog post I'll try to explain some other elements of my neidan practice that come outside of taijiquan.

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