Introduction to Taoist meditation
What is the role of meditation? What is meditation used for? Meditation is broken into different categories and each has specific purposes but most importantly meditation must achieve concrete results. Traditional Taoist meditation is broken into three categories: health, spiritual guidance and entertainment. From a health perspective there is a whole branch of Taoist concentration and visualization exercises to cleanse the mental and physical channels of the body for purification and rejuvenation. The second category of meditation is spiritual guidance where one must meditate frequently, flying to another dimension, to establish a relationship with a guide spirit to glean some advice about our daily existence, philosophical struggles or to simply help us foster adaptation and familiarity to other dimensions in preparation for death. The third category of mediation is metaphysical traveling which is a form of relaxation and entertainment. Whereas purification and guide spirit meditations are serious and very structured with particular mental exercises and focus, traveling meditation has a free form and is used as a type of relaxation and entertainment. When traveling one can visit other dimensions and interact with metaphysical entities creating a life there. Sometimes one can have friends, even a wife or family. When experiencing traveling meditation, the phenomenon of folding time is common, where it can seem like one has been wandering in the metaphysical realms for days, weeks, months or even years.
Mental chi quong is called meditation in the West. Its definition here has been vague and unclear. Most Americans would describe meditation as the act of sitting in a relaxed position, thinking pleasant thoughts, and perhaps chanting. In short, they see meditation as really nothing more than mental entertainment.
The pleasant thoughts of a wandering mind may indeed be relaxing, but so is watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to music. So what is to be gained from such idle recreation? One of the categories of meditation is entertainment. The value of entertainment meditation brings the idea of relaxation and too a certain extent helps Chi flow better, although entertainment meditation is not as effective as healing or meditation for guidance.
Meditation, or mental chi quong, is more precisely described as a focusing exercise that employs visualization techniques to accomplish specific objectives. It uses a disciplined process of mental imagery to yield practical results. Discipline is key. It isn’t entertaining to sit in place for hours, forcing the mind to focus on specific images while preventing it from wandering to other, competing thoughts. Indeed, meditation is focused visualization—and it is most definitely work.
Although there are many forms of mental chi quong, the two most important are “emptiness,” or ch’an, meditation and “burning” meditation. Emptiness meditation teaches the mind to not think and thus to rid itself of thoughts, while burning meditation “burns up” the stress of daily life. Both techniques use mental acuity to open the individual’s channels of chi and remove the blockages caused by nervous stress or physical dysfunction. Opening the meridian system through such mental cleansing enables chi to flow unimpeded.
Mental cleansing is doubly important because its benefits extend beyond the cerebral to the core of psychosomatic illness. Unlike its Western counterpart, Eastern medicine emphatically contends that most diseases can be traced to physical imbalances triggered by mental dysfunction. Empirically, most laymen have found this to be true, noting that their susceptibility to the common cold increases during times of stress. Quite simply, stress reduces the body’s immune system. Therefore, it becomes clear how a discipline like mental chi quong that helps eliminate mental stress would also yield physical benefits.
Both ch’an and burning meditations begin with the practitioner sitting on a straight-backed chair, both feet planted flat on the ground. Meditating in a chair is deemed appropriate for Americans because, unlike their Asian counterparts, they’re accustomed to sitting on furniture. And for reasons related to nothing more than cultural heritage, Asians meditate seated on the floor in a position in which they’re most comfortable.
It is important to note that, unlike Buddhists who sit in the lotus position, meditating classical Taoists do not cross their legs. This seemingly minor nuance has important implications for the flow of chi. Taoism views the human body, sandwiched between the earth and the heavens, as a conductor of chi. It is therefore vital that the practitioner properly align his body to allow chi to flow optimally. The “uncrossed legs” position facilitates this requirement: cosmic chi originates from the heavens and flows through the Taoist’s head, down his channels, and through his feet in a “straight shot” into the earth. The Buddhist view, by contrast, is that chi should be preserved and recirculated within the individual; therefore, Buddhists cross their legs to configure their channels circularly.
It is interesting to note that the system’s core philosophical beliefs are so profoundly reflected in the sitting position that it prescribes for meditation. Lao Tzu’s principles, dedicated to interacting with the surrounding world rather than inwardly withdrawing from it, lead the Taoist to cultivate the exchange of his individual chi with that of the surrounding environment. Consequently, the Taoist meditative position is one that opens the practitioner’s channels to the outside environment.
Once the Taoist is seated comfortably, he begins “shutting down” his mind. Classically, he starts by staring at a lit candle for a short time, allowing the mind and body to settle into the meditative process. When ready, the practitioner closes his eyes and imagines himself (along with his chair and candle) on a peaceful beach, with the ocean’s waves crashing in front of him.
At this point, the practitioner begins to relax his body fully. This is more difficult than it sounds, for the human body is rarely relaxed; even during sleep, it tenses and twitches, constantly fidgeting and rolling about. It takes only several hours each week of deep relaxation—achievable only through meditation—to combat persistent tension and significantly improve chi flow. Chuang Tzu encourages such effort by warning,
When the body is kept hustling about without stop, it becomes fatigued.
—The Wisdom of Laotse, 108
The practitioner totally relaxes the body by systematically progressing through it, one muscle at a time. He begins with the left big toe, commands it to relax, and then continues up the left side of the body. Continuing in a similar fashion down the right side of the body, he ends with the right big toe. Each muscle in the body—even those in the face and scalp—must be fully relaxed before moving on to the next. If the practitioner is unsure whether a muscle is truly relaxed, he can tense it and immediately relax it. By experiencing the contrasting feel of contraction, the practitioner can understand and achieve relaxation. If, after completing one cycle of relaxation, the practitioner doesn’t feel sufficiently relaxed, the process should be repeated.
Once the body is fully relaxed, it is time to remove the streams of intruding thoughts that have been dogging him. His confused, calculating mind constantly disturbs his tranquility with millions of thoughts. And these mental trespassers are maddeningly difficult to stop. It is a key part of mental hygiene to accomplish this through emptiness, or ch’an, meditation. Unfortunately, the art of not thinking is much more difficult than it sounds, often requiring years of cultivation. Ironically, the more one worries about not thinking, the worse it gets.
The trick in removing unwanted thoughts is not to try to stop them altogether, but rather to simply let them go when they inevitably appear. As thoughts enter his mind, the practitioner doesn’t allow himself to dwell on any particular one. Instead, he lets them flow past. He meets each one with the greeting “later” and pushes it away. Akin to a cup with no bottom, his mind should allow thoughts, like water, to enter and pass through unimpeded. Thoughts come but immediately depart. For the period of meditation, thoughts have no home and are thereby rendered inconsequential.
As the practitioner’s mind settles, thoughts appear less frequently or halt altogether, and visualization of the candle and beach becomes clearer. The relaxed body may feel either unusually heavy or light and invariably like a relaxed, single mass rather than a collection of limbs and organs. All perception of time is lost. Hours pass like minutes.
Once this meditative state is achieved, it is time to deal with the accumulated stress of daily existence through burning meditation. There are many such forms of mental chi quong, but all share a common protocol. The practitioner visualizes stress as black dirt or tar trapped throughout the body. He then envisions drawing golden light into his body from any of several different sources—the candle’s flame, for example. This golden light represents good, healing energy that fills the body and pushes out the black dirt of stress. The meditator then visualizes this expelled dirt combusting on contact with outside air and burning with a vigorous, deep red flame.
Over a period of one to two hours, the meditator continuously draws in golden light, pushes out the dirt of stress, and burns it. By repeating this cycle, the mind deals with stress’s harmful effects until the visualized dirt is completely expelled and “burning” is no longer necessary. Much like a bather leaving the bathtub once he’s been scrubbed clean, the meditator can now end the session with a mind rejuvenated through mental cleansing. He feels refreshed, having taken concrete action that can be felt immediately, just as Chuang Tzu explicitly prescribed when recommending “calm as a counter-agent against nervousness” Thousands of years ago, in a manner as relevant in today’s America as it was in ancient China, he urged Taoists to use such mental cleansing:
Rest is conducive to a patient’s recuperation… Tranquility can cure a man of nervousness.
—The Wisdom of Laotse, 110–11
Amazingly, this continuous process of using golden light to push out and burn stress is a powerful tool in dealing with the psychosomatic harm of stress. Meridian system blockages—formed by stress—are destroyed by burning meditation. This practical method improves chi flow and enables the immune system to function more effectively. Clearly the practicality of cleansing the mental channel and relieving stress is a critical procedure that must be done on a regular basis for mental and physical health and clarity.