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Daoist Meditation Lesson Three Theory: Quieting the Mind & Gathering the Qi

Lesson Three of Nine Lessons on Daoist Meditation Theory: Quieting the Mind and Gathering the Qi.

When observing the breath in Lesson One and Lesson Two, you may have noticed that the mind has a tendency to wander. Perhaps a number of breaths passed without you noticing.  In this lesson we will work with the mind and the breath together. Our practice will be aided by understanding the relationship of the mind and the Qi/Breath.

Qi/Breath, Thought and Emotion

Every movement of the mind is a movement of the Qi/Breath. In Chinese medicine, the Qi/Breath is the source of all movement transformation and change both inside the human body and in the world around us. This means that Qi/Breath is not only intimately connected to the movement inherent in physical processes, but it is also directly connected to our every thought and emotion. In lesson two we saw how atmospheric changes are described as movements and transformations of the Qi/Breaths of Heaven and Earth. Similarly the emotions are understood to be observable expressions of the movements of the Qi/Breath within us.

In Chinese thought, anger is the Qi/Breath rushing upward suddenly. If there is no outlet for this movement, if it is blocked or repressed, anger can be expressed or experienced as frustration (i.e. anger directed inward or downward). Similarly fear is a downward movement of the Qi/Breath. This downward movement empties the heart creating timidity or even terror. Terror is sometimes accompanied by an involuntary discharge of urine or feces (a sign of the rapid downward movement of the Qi/Breath). In Chinese medicine the emotions are considered to be the internal causes of disease. By fixating on certain thoughts and emotions rather than experiencing them and letting them move through us in an appropriate and seamless way, the Qi/Breath can become imbalanced creating physical illness.

It may seem strange to define emotions in terms of movement of the Qi/Breath, yet these movements, although sometimes subtle, are easily perceived. Imagine something that makes you angry and fully let yourself fully engage with that anger. What do you feel inside the body? There is usually some feeling of fullness or tension in the upper body –  It may manifest as sensation of heat or tension in the head and chest, or an upward surge of energy or blood to the head. There may be tension in the neck and your face may even get red. Now imagine something sad, or something that makes you sad you may notice a tightness in the chest accompanied by a an emptiness – a kind of  hollow feeling inside the chest. Your breath may become shallower and more restrained. Sadness and melancholy prevent the normal movement of  Qi/Breath so that it stagnates and feels hollow rather than vibrant and full.

Qi/Breath is our connection with the outside world. We experience other human beings and the outside world through the Qi/Breath. The problem lies in this interaction of the Qi/Breath and the senses with the outside world. By obsessing or fixating on things in the world, by interacting with the world on the basis of appetites, desires emotions and intellectual distinctions, we can upset the internal balance and dissipate essence and Qi/Breath. In Daoism, human beings are visualized as being between heaven and earth. Human beings are at center of the pole which carries vibrations between Heaven and Earth – the Qi/Breath of Heaven and Qi/Breath of earth: therefore our  Qi/Breath interacts with the Qi/Breath of Heaven and the Qi/Breath of Earth.

It is important to understand that in Taoist meditation, “Heaven” does not refer to the Judeo-Christian notion of heaven. Rather it is  a natural operating system, an all-encompassing organic system that governs everything. Earth in turn responds, realizing Heaven’s initiating, creative power.

In their excellent exploration into health and psychology in Chinese medicine, The Seven Emotions, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de La Vallee, liken man to a tree growing out of the earth and reaching up to heaven:

On the trunk of the tree and the great branches there are a lot of little holes or cavities, and when the wind blows it enters all these cavities and during a tempest you can hear the sound of the resonances inside the wood of the tree and the noise made by the branches, after a while, the wind calms itself and the tree returns to a kind of emptiness without any noise. This is what is called earthly music, which is just music coming through openings and cavities. This is an important point because emotions are always reactions to the world outside by one’s inner vitality. It is natural and normal that there are tempests and hurricanes and little showers and great winds, and after that no wind at all, or just a very light rain. The only thing for this tree is to be able to bend with the wind, to follow the violence of the wind in its manifestations and after to come back to a calm, motionless state. This is just an example of the very general use of the human emotions. It is normal for a man between heaven and earth to have stimulations and emotions and sometimes to be very deeply moved by them. But the important thing is to able to restore the balance, and the calm emptiness through all the passages of vitality.[1]

Ordering the Mind & Gathering the Qi

Ordering the Qi/Breath with the mind/intention (Yi) is a the way that one begins to learn to harmonize the emotions and preserve the vital Qi.  Zhuang Zi advises us to let the mind “fast” in order to experience this calm emptiness. The Dao gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.[2] Qi/Breath is empty, without material form, so it gathers in emptiness and stillness. The generative force (Jing) transforms into Qi/Breath when the body is motionless and vitality changes into spirit when the heart is unstirred.[3] In stillness one can harmonize one’s Qi/Breath with the cosmic Qi/Breath. “Fasting the mind” is a way to gather the Qi/Breath as opposed to dissipating it by fixating on things in the outside world.

Zhuang Zi tells us the story of Duke Huan who saw a ghost when hunting in a marsh. When he returned home the Duke became ill and refused to go out. A gentleman of the court said “your Grace, you are doing this injury to yourself! How could a ghost have the power to injure you.? If the vital breath that is stored up in a man becomes dispersed and does not return, then he suffers a deficiency. If it ascends and fails to descend, it causes him to be chronically forgetful. And if it neither ascends nor descends, but gathers in the middle of the body in the region of the heart, then he becomes ill.[4] Duke Huan’s illness was a result of his mind fixating on what he had seen. For Zhuang Zi, it is not feelings, thoughts or emotions themselves that separate humans from the Dao, but the human tendency to fixate on specific aspects of the world and to make them part of our goals and desires, thus making them absolutes.[5]

Francois Jullian describes this state of inner detachment as one of “blandness,” a concept associated with the Dao. Jullien posits that to honor the bland – to value the flavorless rather than the flavorful – runs counter to our most spontaneous judgment.[6] Jullien goes on to say that all flavors disappoint even as they attract, like sound sifted through and instrument that disappears as soon as it is consumed.[7] In contrast the bland sound is :

An attenuated sound that retreats from the ear and is allowed to simply to die out over the longest possible time. We hear it still, but just barely; as it diminishes, it makes all the more audible the soundless beyond into which it is about to extinguish itself. We are listening then, to its extinction, to its return to the great undifferentiated Matrix. This is the sound that, in its very fading, gradually opens the way to the inaudible and causes us to experience the continuous movement from one to the other. And as it gradually shed its aural materiality, it leads us to the threshold of silence, a silence we experience as plentitude, at the very root of all harmony.[8]

In the West, we feel we must express our emotions. A common view is that a person who does not express his or her  viewpoints and feelings is uninteresting, inauthentic, a bore or a “cold fish.” Jullien cautions us against this assumption:

The calm inner world and the intuition of emptiness do not cut us off from emotion. To the contrary, because emotion no longer disturbs us, we apprehend it all the more clearly and are thus able to enjoy it. Fits of passion and its exuberance are charged with making our subjectivity superficial and reducing our sensitivity. When we attain the world of blandness, feelings distract us no longer, and emotive experience is purified, clarified. The mind in keeping with the old metaphor of still water or mirrors, reflects all the better the infinite wealth of life within: not just one particular feeling, lived within the confines of its limitations and contingencies, but all feeling as it becomes whole and inclusive, returned to its virtual state.[9]

Stillness, Harmony & Engagement

Rather than creating detachment, this inner stillness allows  increased engagement with the world. By using Qi/Breath, posture and intention to order and regulate the ongoing changes and transformations , by listening with the Qi/Breath, one can engage with the undivided primordial state that underlies normal consciousness. This allows one to perform ordinary activities in an outstanding way. Zhuang Zi’s story of Prince Wen-Hui’s cook illustrates how the brilliance of one’s spirit and creativity are released and given free reign upon letting go of desires and wants and engaging with the primordial state.:

Prince Wen-hui’s cook was cutting up a bullock. Every touch of his hand, every shift of his shoulder, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every sound of the rending flesh, and every note of the movement of the chopper was in perfect harmony.  “Ah, admirable said the prince, “ that your skill should be so perfect. The cook replies that he has applied himself to make every movement in harmony with the Dao. The functions of my senses stop; my spirit dominates. Following the natural markings, my cleaver slides through the great cleavages, taking advantage of the structure that is already there. My skill is now such that my chopper never touches the smallest tendon or ligament, let alone the great bones. A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he cuts. An ordinary cook changes his chopper once a month, because he hacks.  Now my chopper has been used for 19 years; it has cut up several thousand bullocks; yet its edge is as sharp as if it just came from the whetstone.[10]

The cook goes on to say that he inserts the edge of the chopper into the interstices between the joints where there is space. Then by a gentle movement the part is separated and yields like earth crumbling to the ground.[11] He cuts the spaces between things.

This kind of ability is the result of extreme concentration, but this concentration is the opposite of obsession, because as Francois Jullien points out, such exquisite perception brings with it the ability to guide the Qi/Breath in one’s physical being and in one’s life so that it is neither thwarted nor dispersed but continues to flow.[12]

Holding Fast to The “One”

In the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi asks:

Can you keep the unquiet physical-soul from straying,

hold fast to the Unity and never Quit it?

Can you when concentrating your breath,

make it soft like that of a little child?

Can you wipe out and cleanse your vision of the Mystery

till all is without blur?

Can you love the people and rule the land,

yet remain unknown?

Can you in opening and shutting the heavenly gates,

play always the female part?

Can you penetrate every corner of the land,

But you yourself never interfere?[13]

This passage refers obliquely to Daoist meditation. The physical soul here refers to the semen , or sexual vitality. The passage references the method of breathing in meditation. The breathing must be soft like an infant – a feather in front of the nose would not flutter and more is breathed in than out.[14] The ”female part ( i.e.: passive role) opening” refers to opening and shutting the mouth and nostrils. Holding fast to the Unity means to hold fast to the “One” as opposed to the many – to connect and engage with the undivided primordial state that underlies normal consciousness.[15] Holding to the one: stilling mind and body so that thoughts do not arise allowing the  self and the world seem like one – this is a mind in touch with Dao. As the mind stills, the breath will become soft – this is the “true breath” or cosmic breath.

The Nei-Yeh  or “Inward Training” is set of verses from the mid-4th century (the Warring States Period). The Nei-Yeh focuses on inner cultivation through breathing and sitting with the body in alignment. It also makes reference to importance of holding fast to the One:

When you enlarge your mind and let go of it,

When you relax your vital breath and expand it,

When the body is calm and unmoving:

And you can maintain the One and discard the myriad disturbances,

You will see profit and not be enticed by it,

You will see harm and not be frightened of it.

Relaxed and unwound, yet acutely sensitive,

In solitude you delight in your own person.

This is called “revolving the vital breath”:

Your thoughts and deeds seem heavenly.[16]

The Inadequacy of Words

The very first chapter of the Dao De Jing tells us that words will not help us to understand the undivided primordial state of the “One.”

The Way (Dao) that can be told of is not an unvarying Way (Dao);

The names that can be named are not unvarying names.

It was from the nameless that Heaven and Earth Sprang;

The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creature, each after its own kind.

Truly, only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences;

He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.

These two things issue from the same mold, but nevertheless are different in name.

This same mold we can but call the Mystery,

Or rather Darker than any Mystery,

The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.[17]

It is clear from this passage that although we need to use words to talk about the Dao, or the One, words are inadequate, they are merely  stop-gaps. “For what we are trying to express is darker than any mystery.”[18] Images and words are only a means to an end, a way of talking about something. They should not be confused with the end or the thing itself. If one fixes on the words he cannot grasp the image, fixing on the image the idea cannot be grasped. Once the image and idea are grasped the words and the images can be discarded.[19] In this lesson and the ones that follow, we must use words to understand the images and ideas that enable us to put Daoist methods of meditation into practice. But once set in motion, the ideas can be discarded. Zhuang Zi puts this succinctly and humorously:

The fish trap exists because of the fish;

Once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.

The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit;

Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.

Words exist because of meaning;

Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words so I can have a word with him?[20]

In Daoism Explained Hans-Georg Mueller takes our understanding of Zhuang Zi’s allegory of the fish trap one step further. He reminds us that the phrase de yi means not only ‘to get the idea” or meaning, but also “to get what one desires.” Mueller points out that having the thing, one desires, is to be satisfied. The desire disappears once it is satisfied. Once one has [consumes] a pizza or a beer, one cannot have it any longer. The desire is fulfilled when it has disappeared [been “eaten up”].[21] Therefore, this passage from the Zhuang Zi is not about understanding thoughts and ideas, but about how to rid oneself of thoughts and ideas so that one can attain an inner silence. In this context, the implication of the final line is that two people who have reached this state of inner silence will have nothing to say.[22]


[1] The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China, by Claude Larre and Elisabeth de la Valle. Cambridge UK: Monkey Press, 1996, pp. 4-5.

Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 54.

[2] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 54

[3]Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1973, pp. 10-11.

[4] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. p. 124

[5] Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China: Science, Medicine and Technology in East Asia  Vol. 2, by Nathan Sivin. Ann Arbor : Center for Chinese Studies University of Michigan, 1987. p.230.

[6]  In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding From Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, by Francois Jullien, translated by Paula M. Varsano. New York: Zone Books, 2004, p. 27.

[7] Ibid, p. 42.

[8]Ibid. p. 79.

[9] Ibid, p. 129.

[10] Sources Of Chinese Tradition vol. 1,  Wm. Theodore de Barry ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.  p.74.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Vital Nourishment: Departing From Happiness by Francois Jullien, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.    New York: Zone Books, 2007. P. 93.

[13] The Way and Its Power, A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1958. pp. 153

[14] Ibid, p. 118

[15] Ibid, p. 154

[16] Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism by Harold Roth, New York,: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 92.

[17] The Way and Its Power, A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1958, p. 141.

[18] Ibid., p. 142.

[19] Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing and its Evolution in China, Richard J. Smith, University of Virginia Press, 2008, pp. 92-3.

[20] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 140.

[21] Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory,  by Hans-Georg Moeller, Chicago and La Salle Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 2006, pp. 60-61.

[22] Ibid, p. 61.