These organs do not correspond precisely with the organs of similar name in Western medicine, but that need not concern us at this point. They do represent functional groupings of physiological systems.
The flow of Ch'i through this meridian system is circular according to definite patterns of change, alternating from Yin to Yang and back again (following the arrows above), and along them are definite points where the flow of Ch'i can be controlled. These are called acupuncture points, because one of the most common ways of controlling energy flow through them is by the insertion of very fine needles into the skin at the appropriate point, although similar restults can be obtained through fingertip pressure or the burning of a medicinal herb (called Moxa) in close proximity to the point. Medical treatment by acupuncture is accomplished by determining imbalances in the flow of Ch'i to the afflicted organ or body function, and restoring the balance by regulating the correct point(s) along the appropriate meridian(s).
The major cycle of Ch'i along the meridians is through their connecting points end to end. Thus the Lung meridian connects with the Large Intestine meridian, and the flow follows to the Stomach, Spleen/Pancreas, Heart, Small Intestine, Bladder, Kidneys, Heart Governor, Triple Warmer, Gall Bladder, Liver, and back through a conjunctive channel to the Lung.
In addition, there are other cycles of flow along connecting channels. These cycles are governed by a law of transformation known as the Five Element Theory. This theory describes two major cycles: one of generation and one of dissipation. In acupuncture, energy can be fed to an ailing or deficient meridian by stimulating the meridian preceding it in the cycle of generation. Similarly, energy can be withdrawn from a tense or overactive meridian by stimulating the meridian preceding it in the cycle of dissipation.
For ease of memory, these cycles have been classified in the abstract terminology of philosophical "elements." Each of the meridians is liked with one of the five "elements" in such a way that the cycles described yby the interaction of the elements is in accord with the actual pattern of energy flow along the meridians. For example, water nourishes wood (generation), but extinguishes fire (dissipation). And fire, eons ago, created Earth (generation), but it melts metal (dissipation). These relationships are summarized in the "five elements" diagram.
The study of such cycles of Ch'i flow and their interconnected relationships is the basic requirement for treatment by acupuncture. Diagnosis is an even more complex subject, and is entirely beyond the range of this discussion.
If all this complexity is beginning to be disheartening, it needn't be, for we are approaching the clearing in the forest. You see, the treatment of specific ailments is considered in traditional Oriental medicine to be a lower form of the art. It is a last resort for those who have failed in their primary goal: the prevention of illness by means of keeping the Ch'i flow strong and balanced, before any serious disruption occurs.
Unlike modern Western doctors, the old traditional physicians were not paid for curing ailments. Their patients paid them to see to it that they stayed healthy. When diseases occurred, the doctor received no payment until health was restored. As you might imagine, medical priorities were very different under such a system!
And (here comes the punch line), one of the most effective methods devised by these practioners to keep the Ch'i flow perfectly balanced and at a high level throughout the body was - the T'ai Chi form!
Practiced correctly and consistently, the T'ai Chi Ch'uan form will perfectly balance the stream of life energy circulating through the body, removing blockages wherever they occur, tonifying deficiencies and calming excesses. It is the perfect needle-less acupuncture health maintenance program. Not only does it prevent disease (dis-ease), it generates a store of healthy vitality that positively radiates from its possessor. I have said elsewhere that the greatest masters of T'ai Chi are old men and women who have been practicing the art for a lifetime, and that their power compared to younger and physically stronger martial artists is astounding - and so it is. But at least equally astounding is the youthful vitality and boundless zest for life of these "old" masters. It is a maxim of the T'ai Chi Classics that you must "become as a child," but this turns out to be as much a prediction of the results as it is a training demand. To watch these aged teachers at their art is very much like watching children at play. The tremendous power they control is belied by the supple, unpretentious ease of their movements, the simple delight they take at the play of "pushing hands." Their clear eyes sparkle with good humor and vital presence. It is next to impossible to be ill-at-ease around such teachers, so great is the aura of peace and well being that surrounds them.
How does the mere practice of a series of slow and graceful movements stimulate such vibrant health and energy? The movements were designed for precisely this purpose by sages whose understanding of the channels and patterns of Ch'i flow through the body had attained the most profound level. All movement causes Ch'i to flow, but without intelligent direction, the flow is haphazard; the vital energy is diffused and runs hither and yon throughout the body, energy in one part often flowing at cross purposes to that in another, never collecting and harmonizing even though great amounts of physical energy may be expended.
In the T'ai Chi form, all the movements are meticulously choreographed in such a way that the body moves as a whole. A gentle motion that begins in the soles of the feet is added to the movement of the trunk, which is in turn added to the movement of the arms and hands, transmitting energy in a smooth, unbroken flow to a single point of focus. Muscles not needed to assist in this flow are maintained in a state of relaxation, and thus do not scatter or divide the Ch'i.
The T'ai Chi form balances and harmonizes your body's Ch'i because there is a structural equivalence between the pattern of its movements and the pattern of Ch'i flow that occurs everywhere in nature. The graceful, flowing pattern of the T'ai Chi form is a perfect physical expression of the abstract "Law of Change" described in the I Ching and the DNA code. Consciously aligning your body's movement and energy flow with this pattern is the same as attaining direct contact with the DNA, or "higher intelligence," or God - however you choose to term the Supreme Ultimate.
Following the natural course of the meridians, these movements are linked together in a smooth and continuous sequence. Energy is never broken off or abruptly changed, each movement transforming itself naturally into the succeeding one in the manner of a perpetual unfoldment. Like the vital force it directs, the form dynamically balances Yin and Yang: upward movements are complemented by downward ones, inward by outward, forward by backward and so on. Seen in action, the form resembles nothing so much as the ponderous and irresistible flow of a mighty river, and indeed it is just that: an amalgamation of once-scattered tributaries of Ch'i into the directed coursing of the river of life, churning powerfully through its appointed meridian channels.
Your first conscious awareness and limited control over your own Ch'i - often after only a few months of regular practice - is one of the greatest "highs" you will ever experience. It is a sensation impossible to correctly describe in words, but adjectives such as exhilarating, enlightening, mind-blowing, etc., are none too strong for the simultaneous feeling of vast power and complete effortlessness that this first glimpse of controlled Ch'i opens up. In short. it is a stone trip!
The basis of all the "superman" stories that circulate through the martial arts - and some of these have more basis in fact than you might readily imagine - is the progressively gained ability to master Ch'i. I am not going to pull your string with such stories, because I believe nothing should be taken for fact that you cannot experience for yourself, but I have many times seen a hundred and twenty pound grandfather send a two hundred pound man literally flying through the air with a gentle shove that "common sense" would tell you shouldn't have been able to push over a child!
Ch'i is a difficult subject to discuss, because without some direct experience of it, everything I may say is only theoretical chatter; and yet, it is of such central importance to T'ai Chi that it is impossible to comprehend the real nature of the art without it. If you have not already done so, you should begin as soon as possible to practice the T'ai Chi form and the other exercises outlined in this book, so that your practical experience will begin to correlate with this theoretical discussion. In the meantime, with the idea that a clear mental picture will assist your acquisition of this direct experience, I will continue trying to paint such a picture of this mysterious energy and the steps involved in the gradual mastery of it.
As outlined in the previous chapter, according to T'ai Chi all phenomena in the Universe result from the interaction of the complementary forces of Yin and Yang. These two forces affect each other in certain clear and definite ways, according to the Law of Change. The all-pervasive energy which manifests as a result of this interaction (attraction and repulsion in varying degrees) is Ch'i. Therefore, in the broadest sense, life itself is Ch'i. We can say that the Universe is "made of" Ch'i, and we will not be wrong. It was Ch'i which quickened the barren void into animation, Ch'i which formed the mountains and rivers, Ch'i which is responsible for the cycle of seasons, for plants and animals, for the orchestration of life on all levels from the sub microscopic virus to the ecosphere as a whole, and beyond. All phenomena are expressions of Ch'i - it is not "other than" anything. To fully comprehend this conception is to comprehend the unity of all life.
Thus, when we speak of Ch'i flowing through the body we are not being quite accurate, since the body itself is but another form of Ch'i! This, alas, is the way of words: if we wish to say something useful, we cannot quite tell the truth, for the whole truth always encompasses the very distinctions we are trying to make. In learning T'ai Chi, therefore, let us merely say that it is useful to consider Ch'i as the intrinsic, vital energy which flows through the body along the acupuncture meridians, and this approach has proved itself in practice.
I have spoken so far mostly about Ch'i flow as an asset to health and vitality, but when consciously directed by the mind, it can manifest as tremendous physical power.
Everyone knows that sometimes, under extraordinary conditions, it is possible for ordinary human beings to inexplicably perform feats of apparently superhuman strength: the young mother who picks up the front end of a car which is crushing her child, the man who leaps from his burning fifth- floor apartment and walks away without a broken bone, the "madman" who requires a dozen husky attendants to restrain him. These are examples of the spontaneous marshalling of Ch'i. Under conditions of extreme stress, some unconscious mechanism steps in and wrenches control from the reasoning mind and puts the body in touch with its untapped source of vital energy. When the emergency is over, these people are no more able than anyone else to perform such extradordinary feats, and are amazed and bewildered at their own performance.
But it is possible to learn to put this limitless source of power under conscious control, to be able to direct it with your mind where and when you will. Of course, it takes many years of dedicated practice to raise this ability to its maximum potential, and the simple desire to impress your friends with "strongman stunts" is not a valid reason for studying T'ai Chi. Nevertheless, it is often quite useful to have abundant reserves of effortless power at your disposal, particularly as this power, unlike muscular strength, does not diminish with age, but increases.
In the development of this ability, you will be concerned with three things: the collection of Ch'i, its storage and its directed release. The T'ai Chi form develops all three abilities better than any other single discipline, although supplementary practices are desirable to most fully progress in each area.
Ch'i is collected in three ways: through the surface of the body along the yu (entering points of the acupuncture meridians), through the breath and through food.
It is stored in the Tan T'ien and in normal circulation along the meridians. Keeping these meridians free of tension and blockages aids in its preservation by keeping it from being dissipated unnecessarily.
It is released by the mind, either consciously or unconsciously being directed where it is needed or desired.
Performing the T'ai Chi form collects Ch'i both through the yu points, by keeping them open to the radiant energy of Yin and Yang, and through the deep, rhythmic abdominal breathing it stimulates. Additional breathing exercises will be found in Chapter Seven. The subject of the collection of Ch'i through the food we eat is one I will not discuss here, for the reason that it is such an extensive subject that I would be doing you a disservice to begin a discussion I could not satisfactorily complete. The most important thing about your dietary practice is simply the obvious fact that wholesome, living, natural foods will better promote life-force than will artificial, chemically preserved, heavily sweetened and nutritionally-stripped foods. Beyond the habit of consuming such healthful foods in balance and moderation, you may wish to consider the Yin and Yang relationships of various foods, the connection between food and climate, the use of certain foods and herbs medicinally, etc., and I have listed several excellent books on these subjects in the bibliography.
The storage of Ch'i once it is collected, is essential both to good health and to the effective use of this power in fighting, working or anything else. Most people, once past the irrepressible vitality of childhood, settle into a chronic state of comparatively low energy, a perpetual condition of mild exhaustion. This pattern is so common that it is taken to be a natural symptom of the slow process of aging. Actually, it is no more than the inability to store Ch'i. Although nearly everyone collects an adequate amount of Ch'i for normal living without any particular effort, this life force is drained away in tension and energy blockages, leaving nothing in reserve. It is in this particular area that the T'ai Chi form excels.
Going through the form, Ch'i is consciously sunk into its natural reservoir, the Tan T'ien, located about three inches below the navel in the abdomen. This sinking "opens up" the ocean of vital energy, cleansing it of stagnation and enlarging its capacity. Then, as the movements of the form cycle Ch'i through the meridians, removing the various energy-traps, tensions and blockages, it collects and builds in the Tan T'ien, no longer dissipating uselessly. Before long, you will actually begin to feel this growing reservoir as a kind of warm fullness (not to be confused with a fat or bloated feeling), and will be able to call upon it at will. As an overabundance of Ch'i collects, it will gradually insinuate itself into the marrow of your bones, strengthening them and protecting you from injury. The ancient Taoist alchemists even believed that a sufficient store of Ch'i distributed through the bones in this manner could result in actual immortality. While this possibility is no more than a theoretical speculation to us at this point, there is no question that it will incalculably enhance your positive experience of life.
The final, and in some ways most difficult topic to be considered in the mastery of Ch'i is the ability to direct it instantly to any part of the body, where it can be used to heal injury, protect you from harm, or project forceful power. Again, the T'ai Chi form is the beginning point.
In the correct practice of the form, your mind follows the movement. But your body's Ch'i also follows the movement; therefore your mind (attention) and your Ch'i simultaneously flow along the same pathways, and this fact will sooner or later link your conscious awareness with your Ch'i flow. The step from becoming aware of this flow to being able to willfully direct it as you choose is a large one; but, because of the biofeedback interaction between mind and Ch'i once this awareness is accomplished, it requires no more than diligent perseverance and concentration (and, of course, time).
In modern biofeedback training, a similar technique is employed to teach people to control such "automatic" body functions as heartbeat, muscle tone or brainwaves. In brainwave biofeedback, for example, electronic monitoring instruments are attached to your scalp which detect the presence of alpha brainwaves - the type of brainwave associated with meditation or deep mental relaxation. When alpha waves are being produced, the instruments let you know with an audible (or visual) signal, and the simple fact of knowing when alpha waves are present enables you to learn in short order how to deliberately produce them at will.
The method of learning to direct Ch'i is identical in principle to this biofeedback model, with the exception that instead of using an electronic instrument to make you aware of the force and direction of your Ch'i flow, you use the body/mind interaction of the T'ai Chi form! Once you are able to sense this energy clearly and consistently, persevering effort will soon result in the ability to control it. This control will be scattered and sluggish to begin with - it will be some time before you are able to produce results more impressive than, say, heating your palms a few degrees above normal body temperature, or knocking over a "pushing hands" partner unusually strongly with very little physical effort. You must realize that the development of this skill to its full potential is something which has taken those who have attained its mastery many years of faithful practice and concentration. But some control in useful amounts is available to anyone who will devote a reasonable amount of time and effort tothe practice: where you go from that point on will be determined solely by your own desire for advancement, and your willingness to pay the price in perseverance.
If you have such perseverance, and really want to develop your Ch'i as strongly as possible, here is a supplementary set of exercises that will fill the bill. Known as "nei kung standing," these (or similar) exercises were once a central part of the training in all the internal schools. But, because they are so unglamorous and time-consuming, they are rarely seen any more. Like many other pursuits in America, matrial arts schools have become largely commercial enterprises; and in this environment, and instructor who emphasizes traditional exercises that do not show quick, flashy results is likely to lose his students to a more "modern" school where not so much is demanded of them. This provides a beneficial "natural selection" process whereby those students who are less serious weed themselves out from the real discipline; but unfortunately it is so hard on the teachers' bank accounts that the exercises themselves are in danger of becoming lost.
Since you have already paid for this book (I hope!) I can afford to present these wonderful exercises without such economic concerns. Whether you will choose to use them or not is up to you, but I will state categorically that those who practice standing faithfully will arrive at much higher levels of skill than those who do not. The investment is substantial: about an hour a day every day for up to three or four years. But you will most assuredly get what you "pay" for.
There are eight* basic standing positions, illustrated here:
Illustrations 4.3 - 4.10
(These positions, presumably, were originally correlated with the eight trigrams of the I Ching. Some teachers follow a standing sequence based on the "five elements," or on the 13 basic T'ai Chi postures. In all of these sequences, the principles of the practice are identical.)
To begin with the first standing, simply place your feet about shoulder width apart, toes straight forward, and stand with your legs slightly bend, spine straight, shoulders relaxed and naturally rounded. Extend your arms in a gentle curve to the front, so that your upper arms are parallel to the ground and your hands are at eye level. Fingers are fully extended, with the "tiger mouth" (crotch of the thumb and forefinger) well opened.
Just stand there - that's all there is to it!
This deceptively simple exercise will multiply your development of Ch'i by systematically strengthening your mind- intent and breaking down your body's resistance to the flow of vital energy. As you stand in correct posture, relaxing and breathing deeply, your body will over a period of time make subtle but essential adjustments to its structural integrity. Areas of tension and muscular contraction that are not essential to the posture will be released of necessity as fatigue begins to set in, and your body will be forced into a correctly "sunk and rooted" position, through which Ch'i can easily flow.
The standing exercises whould be done every day at the same time - immediately before going through the form is the ideal arrangement. You should hold the position for as long as you can do so without undue muscular tension. When you reach the point of having to raise your shoulders or "tighten up" to continue, it is time to stop for the day. The next day, try to extend the length of time by a minute or so, but don't push yourself: if you stand with tension, the exercise will be valueless. Work up to standing for 45 minutes to an hour. This will seem like an impossible goal when you first begin, but if you practice regularly and keep gently increasing your time, you will work up to it much faster than you might expect.
When you can stand comfortably for this length of time, gradually begin to widen your stance by placing your feet farther apart and "sitting" into the stance (but making sure to keep your hips relaxed and rolled forward, and your spine straight). Go slowly, and never stand lower than you are able to without tensing up. Eventually you will reach the point of standing in a low "horse stance."
Having reached this point - and please don't rush it - you may begin to practice standing in each of the three variations: front stance, back stance and one-legged (crane) stance.
Illustrations 4.12 - 4.14
After completing the entire series of stances with the first standing posture, begin the series all over again with the second posture; then the third, and so on until you can comfortably stand in every variation of each of the eight postures for up to an hour, remaining fully relaxed.
At some point in your practice, you may wish to add the control element of visualization - mentally "seeing" and following your Ch'i as it flows through its meridian channels while you are standing (see Chapter Eight). Some teachers have their students begin this kind of visualization immediately, but in my experience it is distracting and takes away from the primary value of the standing. Until your body is completely relaxed and structurally aligned around the true center of gravity, you will have little success in controlling the flow of Ch'i through it; and trying to establish such control will make it hard to relax! Be patient and take it step by step. You will know by experience when you are relaxed and centered enough to profit from visualization.
As you progress through each stage of the standing exercises, your body will go through certain more or less predictable changes. Your shoulders will start to ache and burn. Various parts of your body, or your entire frame, will begin to shake and tremble spasmodically. You may feel hot and cold flushes or other strange sensations. Don't worry about any of these manifestations - they are just the result of your body letting go of tensions and imbalances it has held for a lifetime, and they will pass as you master the exercise. Whatever you do, don't let them stop you from continuing your practice. You are using your mind-intent to break through these unwanted resistance, and that in itself is the expression of Ch'i. Stick with it. If you can master the standing exercises, you have what it takes to control your energy with your mind, and you will eventually be able to direct your Ch'i to accomplish any goal you may set for yourself. Do you remember the definition of Ch'i I gave you at the beginning of thischapter? Ch'i is the energy that gives visible form to invisible idea. Can you see how mastery of these exercises is a concrete expression of that energy? Think about this. And do the exercises.
Although this has been a rather lengthy chapter, chances are that it has not answered all your questions about Ch'i. This is not because I am holding back any "secret" information, but because no amount of words will suffice for an understanding of something that must be directly experienced. Whole volumes could be - and have been - written on the subject, going into esoteric details of incredible complexity. But understanding still comes down to personal experience. Practice the T'ai Chi form and do the exercises faithfully: the comprehension you desire will come, along with the ability.
Later in this book we will consider Ch'i in a somewhat broader sense, the sense in which all of the changes and interactions in the Universe constitute a great Ch'i flow, which cycles in exactly the same pattern as the flow of vital energy through the human body. "As above, so below," in the great Hermetic axiom. To learn to follow this larger flow of Ch'i in all your life relations and interactions, in precisely the same way you learn to cause your chi to flow harmoniously along its meridian channels, is to follow the T'ai Chi Way of Life. He who has learned to ride the currents of the river of life in this way has attained that most exalted position referred to in the I Ching - he has become "the superior man."