Daoism has a core concept which is based around how to cultivate the energy field of the universe in one’s own body. As previously mentioned, dantian is used as a concept to illustrate how energy exists and moves in the body. The dantian are split into upper, middle, and lower, and in order to practice using the dantian, we can begin to focus on the inner abdomen while breathing naturally.
This information on Sanguan Santian or “Three Gates Theory” is excerpted from RJ Coons’ book, Internal Elixir Cultivation, published by Tambuli Media.
Before we can address how energy moves through the three dantian, we must first explore another concept called San Guan, or Three Gates Theory. The three gates of the body are said to be places which energy moves through but does not rest in. They are located in the back of the torso and begin at the coccyx, above the kidneys, and finally in the neck and occipital bone in the back of the head.
These three gates are called ming men, jia ji, and yuzhen, and each serves a different function in the transportation of energy through the body.
The ming men area from the coccyx to the base of the kidneys is usually related to the lower dantian, and one principle of Daoism is that when the mind is placed in the lower dantian for a long enough time, there will gradually be a sensation which begins to move up the spine. The route that it initially takes is from the point half way between the belly button and genitals, and then naturally manifests as a sensation of increased feeling in the spine, moving upward to the top of the head. This sensation first moves through the ming men, then the jia ji, and finally through the yuzhen and to the top of the head.
The movement of energy through the ming men is often explained as being similar in speed and strength to a galloping horse. When the energy arrives at the jia ji, it is said to feel more light and fast, like a deer running quickly through the grasslands. Finally, the energy moving through the yuzhen is equated to being like a slow and strong ox pulling a laden cart.
The concept of the three gates is the opposite of the dantian principle. While dantian store energy, the three gates may only transfer it. While the dantian may be focused upon during practice, Daoists believe the three gates are only active at an autonomic level, so it is not recommended to attempt to directly work with the three gates during meditation.
One way of thinking about the three gates is by considering their relationship with the autonomic nervous system. This system consists of the nerves which control unconscious aspects of the physiology of the body. It is comprised of two parts, one called the sympathetic nervous system, and the other known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
These two nervous systems control things like breathing, sexual function, “fight or flight” response, and rest and healing processes of the body. This two-part nervous system is the major aspect of the functioning of the brain which exists outside of the Central Nervous System. It mostly exists under the neck and in the lower part of the torso. This nervous system functions by itself, and for the most part cannot be consciously controlled.
One of the goals of Daoist meditation practice is to allow the autonomic nervous system to function better. By placing the mind into the lower dantian until energy moves by itself, it is possible to stop the mind from processing the majority of verbal thought normally occurring in the mind at any given time.
The lower abdomen is often considered to be a second brain, in that it serves many of the functions which control the physiology of the body. This brain, which is represented as certain aspects of the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system, is a non-thinking entity but has a large role in the processing of the brain as does the Central Nervous System and conscious activity.
I believe that this is the key reason why we place the intention into the abdomen during the meditation process. By doing this, we can allow the body to accord to its natural intelligence, rather than our own thoughts, which mostly occur as images, words, and feelings in our brains and manifest as emotional feelings in the heart or chest area.
Because focusing on the lower dantian will eventually cause the meditator to become more calm and relaxed, as well as cause more sensation to move through the back and spine, it is called the “Reverse Flow,” in Daoism. This reverse flow is thought to be opposite to the normal manifestation of thoughts and emotions, which in Daoist thought normally move upward in the body and become stuck in the chest and head.
When we meditate on the lower dantian, we begin to allow this “stuck” energy to sink downward and clear out spiritual blockages caused by negative emotions.
When the energy suddenly rises through the three gates to the head, usually Daoists will simply observe the feeling and let the consciousness rest inside of the head, maintaining softness of breath and simply sit with the feeling until it begins to move again.
The feeling will eventually begin to sink toward the chest, and when it arrives completely in the chest, at this time they will simply breathe naturally until the feeling moves again, back to the lower dantian.
The biggest goal of this practice is to clear out energetic and spiritual blockages in the torso and head while calming the Central Nervous System and allowing the Autonomic Nervous System to do its job with less interference.
This topic will be further touched upon during the next chapter, discussing the Zhou Tian, or “Heavenly Orbit.”
To learn more, check out Robert James Coons’ new book, Internal Elixir Cultivation.
Internal Elixir Cultivation is a clear and concise introduction to traditional Daoist meditation… includes sources that are not common in English, most notably Lu Dongbin’s 100 character ancestor stone.” —Deng Ming-Dao, author of 365 Dao and The Living I Ching
“Coons’ approach to Daoist meditation and internal elixir cultivation is even easier to do and to understand, and yet just as effective, as previous works on this elusive subject. The mystery gate opens!” —Herb Borkland, Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame
“This work is deep and detailed, drawing on the most treasured ancient texts and teachings, yet at the same time is accessible and practical in its approach.” —Dr. Mark Wiley, author of Arthritis Reversed and Mastering Eskrima Disarms
One thought on “The 3 Gates of Daoist Meditation”
Thank you for showing this way of seeing our nervous system.
I had the idea of the two “brains”: the neocortex on top of the primitive “reptilian” brain, hiding a lot of feelings which rise in the unconscious and are suppressed/ interpreted by the “conscious”. But now you reminded me that there is still this autonomous system outside our heads, which could play a similar role in us as it does with animals which are even lower than reptiles in the scale of evolution, i.e. insects or worms which rely on neural ganglions distributed along their segments, in order to know what to do concerning food, mates and foes.
So perhaps these various energy connectors, conductors and collectors we can feel in the torso (front, back, middle, transversal) are remnants of this segmented “worm brain” which is even older and deeper than the reptilian brain. I never considered it this way. Thank you!