One of the biggest intellectual aspects associated with Daoism is the theory of yin and yang. This concept is discussed in detail and in context with other alchemical concepts, in Robert James Coons’s new book, Internal Elixir Cultivation: The Nature of Daoist Meditation. This post is an excerpt from that book.
Although yin and yang—as the principle of male and female, or positive- and negatively-charged energy in the universe—predates Daoism, it is one of the standards which sets Daoism apart from other religious practices. Instead of looking at the yang, or positive, as good and yin, or negative, as evil, Daoism looks at both as required parts of the other. Yin always eventually turns into yang as yang turns to yin.
Laozi said: “Consider how empty and full exist in each other, difficulty and ease change into each other, long and short are elements of each other, top and bottom rest on each other, sound and noise blend together, back and front chase each other.”
This is the basic Daoist idea of how yin and yang work in the world. Everything that is yang is supported by yin, and everything that is yin is brought to life by yang. This has the ultimate result of yin and yang being the manifestation which all sentient beings may observe as the movement and change of nature.
By now, it should be evident that the majority of practices in this book are about how to properly balance yin and yang in meditation in order to make the energy of the body more abundant and the mind more peaceful.
Daoism as a practice is fundamentally rooted in creating something from nothing – or more exactly, the focus on the soft and feminine in order to create the strong and dynamic. Daoism views the ultimate outcome of concentration on the yin aspect of our being as being the birth and growth of the dynamic yang nature which we are trying to become. This is not to say that yin means non-existence or that yang means a full abundance of life.
Although we were not fully sentient in the womb, we still existed and fed on the yin energy of our mothers. Just as we did that, we also grew and developed, which is the exact analogy that Daoists use to describe the process of elixir meditation. Simply by calming ourselves and allowing non-action, we allow ourselves to gain energy and eventually become much more active than we previously imagined possible.
This is the true movement of yin and yang in Daoism.
Basic Meditation Practice of Daoist Elixir Alchemy
- Sit upright on the edge of a chair.
- Fold your hands at your waist, or put your hands on your knees palm down.
- Close your eyes and relax your mind while focusing on the feeling of your breaths moving slowly in and out.
- Begin to imagine the space around your entire body and gradually pull your attention inward and downward toward the belly button.
- Gradually move the mind deeper into the abdomen and downward into the dantian area just a few inches under the belly button.
- Simply let the mind rest there and breathe naturally.
- It is okay at this point if your breath becomes either shallow or deeper; simply remain relaxed with your mind focused on the core of your body.
- If the mind wanders, bring it back to the dantian as soon as you catch it.
- Once you are comfortable, continue moving the mind downward and toward the qi xue point between the dantian and genitals.
- Continue to breathe naturally and simply observe the phenomenon in the abdomen.
Stay this way for a long time and do not attempt to make the energy move by doing anything other than restfully observing your breath. If the energy begins to move up the back, simply allow it to move naturally and by itself. If it moves up the front, put the mind back in the abdomen and don’t let it rise. If it doesn’t move, simply remain natural, with the mind on the qi xue point.
All people react differently to meditation, and everyone’s body is different, so there is no sure way to tell how long it will take to create the energy sensation. For some people it can happen within days, for others in takes years. Even if the energy doesn’t feels like it moves, simply focusing on the abdomen will naturally boil the jing, and the energy will circulate.
If you feel the energy very strongly, this is a good thing. Let the feeling move by itself and, when it arrives at the head, simply let it rest there. Continue breathing softly and begin to focus the attention on the energy feeling in the head.
At this point you should be aware of the balance of yin and yang in the body and whether or not you need to turn up the “heat” of the intention, or make it “cooler” by softening the focus of the mind. In either way, the mind should gradually begin to settle and become quiet.
Once it feels like the energy wants to move again, simply allow your mind to gradually settle in your chest. Follow the same instructions you used with your head, and simply breathe in and out naturally while adjusting the amount of intent you use as needed. The body should feel natural and not be forced into any specific posture. If the body bows a bit, simply let it work by itself. If the posture straightens, let it do so, but don’t force it.
Once the energy needs to move again, simply direct it back to the dantian. If you want to end the meditation, settle the mind in the dantian and then focus on the whole body, breathing naturally, and then open the eyes and take a few minutes to acclimatize to the light and air in the room.
If you want to keep going, simply move the mind back down to the qi xue point and repeat the process. You can do this as many times as you like and focus on the circulation for as long as you want, but usually people do this for between 15 minutes to one hour. More than that may make your body stiff, so you might want to stand up and move around a bit in breaks during long sessions.
Don’t be overly focused on practice. If something is required of you somewhere else, you should be able to bring yourself back and take care of it. It is advisable, though, to avoid too much outside interference during practice. You should turn off the radio and your phone, and avoid meditating in loud places or places where there is a great deal of sensory input going on.
Unless we are completely dedicated and willing to abandon our lives altogether, it is much better to use meditation as a tool for improving our lives both in the personal and social realm. There is a saying that the monks with the greatest level of achievement are not in temples or caves, but instead are mixed in among normal people and living normal lives. When you meditate, you should always attempt to stabilize yourself and improve your situation. Focus on positivity and the feeling of kindness and righteousness. Share the happiness you achieve while meditating in your interactions with other people. This type of generosity is the true root of spiritual practice and should be observed by all who are involved in meditation.
“Internal Elixir Cultivation is a clear and concise introduction to traditional Daoist meditation. Coons covers the basics, but he also includes sources that are not common in English, most notably Lu Dongbin’s 100 character ancestor stone. A good book whether you’re a beginner or an advanced practitioner maintaining a good reference library.”
—Deng Ming-Dao, author of 365 Dao and The Wandering Daoist