Dancing with the Infinite
The Inner Light of Qi Gong
We are always dancing with the infinite. But unless we relax our mental pictures of the world, we may never know it. The edges of the dance are always open. And wherever we
turn, it is the infinite dancing with itself. We know that dance as love. The highest and newest centers of our brain are designed expressly for this dance. And for allowing the light of the infinite point of view to pervade all our brain functioning. But these centers are asleep, or still in service to earlier and more nearsighted strategies of survival. It is up to us to activate these higher centers and allow a new awareness to subsume the old. This book could be about anything, for the dance is everywhere. The drama of sleep and awakening is also everywhere. But this book is about the dance of qi gong, with which I have had the good fortune to be acquainted in this life.
As with anything in this world, we can easily see only the outer bones of qi gong, and never know that there is light within the marrow. Qi gong can be seen as a form of calisthenics or physical culture, a form of skills training and even of the acquisition of power. It is also a profound form of healing. And beyond all that, it is a form of surrender to the light, and a return to the infinite dance. Its many adherents and practitioners, past and present, have engaged all of its many dimensions: in showmanship, in martial arts, in medicine, in self-healing, and as a spiritual adjunct to Taoist and Buddhist practice – and the new spiritual cults and traditions constantly emerging in Chinese history. Qi gong is part of an ancient treasury of planetary wisdom restoring us to the matrices of earth and heaven. It is born newly in each place and time. And it will companion our evolutionary stride into the future.
If we are truly to plumb the mysteries of qi gong, we will have to become still; to find the active life that awaits us in stillness, and to find the stillness in the midst of our movement. As Westerners, it is easy to relate to its most outer and active appearance: stretch tendons, flex joints, pump energy, breathe and relax. And we may learn about the energetic anatomy and centers of the body, the dan tian, etc. But if we are actually to experience these centers and their mystery, we will have to take some time to slow down our busy Western minds, drop all other agendas, and just be present. There, at the belly. There, at the heart. There, at the soles of the feet. There, at the small of the back.
We must learn to enter into the still company of anything, as we would with a lover whose very presence leaves us content. And now we must learn to do that with our own body, and with its energetic connection to all of life. When we lovingly rest our attention anywhere, we open a window where knowing can occur. When we lovingly rest our attention anywhere in the body, we open a window where energy can flow. We open a window where harmony can establish itself. We open a window where the light of the infinite can enter.
In this book, both the poetry and the practice of qi gong will dance together. There is real science here disguised as poetry. And there is poetry here disguised as a practical manual. Together it is a dance; and it is designed to draw you into the dance, and to be a useful companion to your dancing.
Dreaming the Infinite Body
I have called the first section of this book Dreaming the Infinite Body. A dream is a visualization, a mental imprint, image, idea, or even intention. This is the province of mind, designated by the Chinese as yi. The ancient Chinese wisdom embodied in what is now called “qi gong” recognized the potency of the mental image. We can use the creative power of yi to visualize and consolidate contraction and limiting belief, or we can use our visualization or yi to release contraction. You may say that imagery is unreal and that we are just feeding ourselves fantasy. But we are already continually feeding ourselves fantasy and unconscious imagery that keeps us captured in our conditioning and in our constructed stories of the world – which will play themselves out in our experience of our body as well. Conscious imagery can help to make the old stories obsolete, and release their effect on our body. The Taoists extensively employed conscious imagery to take the mind beyond its restrictive assumptions, to thus open and extend the vital energetic field, and to harmonize energy flow within the body.
The body, the vital energy, and the mind are ultimately one. The body is a manifestation of the vital energetic field. The harmony and integrity of that field governs the vital health and spontaneous activity of the body, which is both field and flow. That field and flow is in turn completely responsive to the mind. The mind may simply shine with natural light on the energy field as sunlight shines on water. It may make a specific impact on the field, like a tossed stone rippling the water. Or it may entirely obstruct the field, like a dam of mud and accumulated debris blocking the watercourse. Thus the mind governs the vital energy and the vital energy governs the life of the body. This is referred to in Chinese tradition as qi leads the blood and mind leads the qi. Hence, what we dream, consciously and unconsciously, is reflected in and as the body.
We have certainly experienced vitalizing or devitalizing thoughts vitalizing or devitalizing the body. We may have had the experience of a relaxed, open, or “enlightened” mind reflected as a great harmony and flow in our energy field and, in turn, as a deep sense of ease, relaxation, and spontaneity in the body. We may have experienced that a contracted, preoccupied, and compulsive mind creates density and constriction in our energy and in our body.
But the relationship is reciprocal. A body and an energy field grown dense and constricted will “back up” into the headwaters of the mind as mental obstruction and compulsive thinking. We spend a lot of time taking seriously and trying to untangle the web of our thinking when sometimes the whole web needs to be seen as a case of constipation of the energy field; and the avenue of healing may be energetic as well as mental. Wilhelm Reich, and other schools of energetic psychology have, in their own ways, explored at depth the relationship between mind, body, energy, and emotion. This is not the moment to explore emotions as such. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that mental conflict not only suppresses and distorts energy, but that blocked energy, including blocked feelings, arises in turn as chronic and compulsive thinking and behavior. Chronic and compulsive thinking separates us from present and spontaneous reality. From love.
Many enlightenment or yogic traditions work directly with the cognitive dimension: working with awareness to relax our thought, detach from thought, or awaken beyond our identification with thought. Yet many ancient yogic and tantric traditions also understood the energetic anatomy of the body and the energetic quality of awareness as a support to awakening. Ultimately, we get to re-experience an empty, heart-filled, open-ended and thought-free awareness that pervades all the dimensions of our living and arises as spontaneous intimacy with the apparent world. Qi gong is one of those yogas that reminds us that working directly with the energetic field, releasing its obstructions “whole bodily” and with the support of the mind, also serves to return us to empty, heart-filled and thought-free awareness; and can cut through and release much of our direct struggle with the mind. Understood in this way, qi gong may be seen and practiced in its fullest spiritual dimension, with open and relaxed awareness and whole body delight of being.
The Brain, the Heart, and the Way of the Sage
The thinking human brain, so dearly come by and still evolving, is a masterful tool for managing all finite appearance. But we are already equipped with the capacity for deeper and inclusive seeing, beyond the finite level of dissecting reality. This dissection has its place, but it does not always know its place. The deeper capacity for knowing is also in the brain, but it resides at the heart. The heart is the organ of direct knowing and direct relationship to what is, prior to rational distancing or rational manipulation.
The heart is the organ of harmony, the final seat of the spirit. It is the sunlight we spoke of, shining on the waters of the body. The heart has its own energetic field, many times more powerful than that of the brain. Its energetic field radiates throughout the body, enlivening the body with its own intelligence, with its own harmony and integrity of self-nature. The “self-nature” is the arising of the universal within the particular in a way that is fully at home with the individual expression of a unique life, but in which the light of the universal shines. So it has nothing to run after. It is an eternal arising; that is, it does not arise in relationship to any necessity or agenda in time and space, a separate or “exclusive” being struggling to survive. Its destiny is the creative and playful fulfillment of its own nature, its timeless radiance that is already “inclusive” of all that is. It is the heart of the infinite body. It is the Tao itself.
In the inner tradition of Chinese philosophy and medicine, of which qi gong is a part, true destiny and true wisdom is about the fulfillment of essence. The body is a temple of that essence. This essence is squandered in external projections and activities related to sensation, accumulation, survival, control, name and fame. These dramas fuel the world and the worldly dream of self. They also fuel the disharmonies arising within the body. The sage restores proportion to her life by affirming the essence and allowing the natural unfoldment of things, the Tao. So, so hard to do in this world – or even to grasp or to believe in.
For the brain carries and reflects the legacy of our evolution in apparent duality, the experience of self and other, the struggle to survive within the destiny of time and space, reactive instinct and emotion, and a rational capacity that measures and divides by nature and which, furthermore, is largely in the service of, and colored by, the finite struggle. The perceived necessity to react and protect, to separate and divide, to manage and to control, over-rides the harmonizing energetic function of the heart, exchanging the body politic of inclusiveness, nurturance, creativity, and innocence for the politics of reactivity, control, domination, separation, and survival. And we lament that greed, warfare, and dysfunction prevail in this world over humane action, and that we cannot find our way back to innocence.
No wonder the ancient Chinese sages draw continuous parallels between the affairs of state and the affairs of the heart. Or that they extol the mythical – or actual – time of “the true men of old” whose actions came from innocence and the integrity of the heart.
The spiritual core of the teachings of the great humanist sage Confucius addresses the necessity of bringing the rational mind back into the service of the heart, which he called sincerity, or integrity, or true intelligence. “The great learning takes root in clarifying the way wherein intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results.” Today’s cutting edge science is now able to affirm the intelligence that comes from the heart as its radiant energetic field signals throughout the body and beyond a foundational pattern for creating a harmony of the whole. But alas, Confucius says, people don’t listen. He urges us to sift through our inarticulate thoughts for the tones given off by the heart. “Finding the precise word for the inarticulate heart’s tone means not lying to one’s self.” And, “The essence of honesty is that it springs from the heart.”
To realize and unfold the destiny and integrity of our inherent self-nature is the true human endeavor. “What heaven has disposed and sealed is called the inborn nature. The realization of this nature is called the process (the way). The clarification of this process (the understanding or making intelligible of this process) is called education.”
“People don’t proceed according to the way,” the sage laments. “No, people do not use the main open road.” And yet, “If a man has sympathy in his mid-heart the process is not far from him. Do not do to another what you would not like to have happen to you.”
When we come again to rest in the integrity of the heart (which invariably, as above, is at one with the Golden Rule), then we come again to rest in the timeless presence of our self-nature and of our infinite body – not contracted in its experience of itself and not governed by the mind’s perception of separation, competition, or gain and loss. We have natural compassion or sympathy at the mid-heart, “watching with affection the way things grow,” says Confucius.
And Confucius also has his own way of telling us to “be not anxious for tomorrow,” but to “consider the lilies of the fields.” Delighting in the ancient Book of Odes, Confucius quotes:
“The twittering yellow bird,
The bright silky warbler
Talkative as a cricket
Comes to rest in the hollow corner
of the hill.”
And he comments, “comes to rest, alights, knows what its rest is, what its ease is. Is man, for all his wit, less wise than this bird of the yellow plumage that he should not know his resting place or fix the point of his aim?”
The integrity of the heart is the point of our aim. If that point is fixed, then the infinite dance can be our resting place. The body/mind, open to heaven and to earth, translates, and is transparent to, a dance of life greater than its own self. This is the inner light of qi gong.
This morning I sit and watch the snow falling, blanketing the gray morning. It is a snowfall without edges, penetrating all time and space. There is no end to the snow fields of the universe. There is only this intimacy beyond intimacy; for it is not an intimacy of two. This snowfall is my body. Its song is my very eyes and ears. Its swirling animates my breath. This is qi. Say it is silly. I say it is snow. I say it is the infinite body. And I invite you outside.