An important aspect of Daoist alchemical practice is Bi Gu (辟谷) or ‘abstaining from grains’. The term often appears within books on the internal arts but there is rarely anything in the way of further discussion of what the term actually means. In many cases the term is mistaken for meaning ‘fasting’ when in actual fact it goes much deeper than this. In modern times it is simple enough to take a trip to somewhere like Thailand and undertake an elimination fast complete with colonic irrigation in one of many health spas. In my early twenties I undertook a couple of these kinds of fasts but these were primarily for health reasons. These are quite different experiences from Bi Gu (辟谷) which is another matter altogether.
A second use of the term appears in some more new-age literature with regards to Daoism. In these cases it is stated that Bi Gu (辟谷) is metaphorical for abstaining from sensual stimuli. In this case it is compared to ‘fasting for the Heart’ rather than literal abstaining from grain. Again this is not true; this is an example of teachers not realising just what is possible and just how far away the ‘goal posts’ are on any given skill.
Bi Gu (辟谷) is a spontaneous and natural phenomenon that manifests from your practice during time of deep internal practice. It is the spontaneous ending of the body’s need for food as it derives its energy directly from internal reserves of Qi (氣). It is not a state that can be planned for in terms of thinking ‘for the next three days I will be in Bi Gu (辟谷)’ or anything like that. Cognitively planning to enter this state will not work as it is not your mind’s choice but rather a result of the way in which your body is converting Qi (氣) through your training.
According to classical Daoist thought, the moment we are conceived there is a stirring of the Jing (精) which is given to us primarily by our parents. This Jing (精) dictates the manner in which we develop within the womb and then from here it governs the manner in which we grow, develop and age. Various factors are involved in dictating just how efficiently this takes place and then, of course, there are various influential elements which we have control over including how healthy a lifestyle we lead, stress levels and so on.
The using up of our Jing (精) takes place in the background behind our life; it is then supplemented by the Qi (氣) we derive from our food and the air we breathe. Obviously this is a much simplified model but essentially this is what takes place on a second to second basis. Many Daoist practices were concerned with understanding both the philosophy and ‘mechanics’ of the manner in which Jing (精) and Qi (氣) related to each other in order to more effectively take control of various life processes. This became the basis for not just longevity practices but also deep spiritual cultivation.
It is stated quite clearly that when Jing (精) is in movement it is going through this developmental process. When it is brought into stillness it gradually begins to consolidate. During times of extreme stillness, when consolidation peaks, it is possible to temporarily halt the unfolding of the ageing process. The movement of Jing (精) has stopped and the body is essentially brought into a stasis. Mastering this becomes the foundation for taking the body into suspended animation; obviously a very high level skill that few would even believe in let alone achieve. Entering this state is known as ‘becoming like a dead man’ in ancient Daoist teachings; it is the prerequisite for entering into extremely long periods of meditation. This is a skill documented in almost all eastern spiritual traditions.
From my experience of practice, few of the skills discussed in Daoism are simply a matter of black and white. It is rarely the case that you either have the skill or you do not. Generally there is a gradient of developmental processes that your body goes through and slowly you can move closer to said skill. This means that lower-level versions of Bi Gu (辟谷) are attainable by serious practitioners of the internal arts even if they live ‘regular lives’ in normal society.
In short I have divided Bi Gu (辟谷) attainment into three distinct categories of attainment. These are simply forms of Bi Gu (辟谷) from my own level of understanding and experience. These are not classical categorisations of the phenomenon but rather a model to help newcomers to the arts in their understanding.
Qi Gong Bi Gu (氣功辟谷)
The first form of Bi Gu (辟谷) and the easiest form to attain is achievable by those who practice many forms of Qi Gong (氣功). I have known many practitioners who stumble across this level of attainment and have myself entered into this level several times. In this instance there is a slowing of the Jing (精) from the practice. Though not at a state of complete consolidation, the Jing (精) has been affected by the practice. Generally the movement of Qi (氣) which has resulted from the training has calmed the body’s internal system. Pathogenic Heat or ‘Fire’ has been quelled and so the Jing (精) is not being used to counter this negative influence upon the body’s state. Stress levels are reduced and the body can begin to use it’s Jing (精) and Qi (氣) more efficiently.
The result of this is that the body begins to burn up the stored energy within our energetic system. Trapped Qi (氣) which would run the risk of becoming stagnation and pathogenic energy (primarily Damp) begins to enter into the system and so the body does not require any sustenance for a short time. Instead it survives on the Qi (氣) which it has accumulated and so a form of Bi Gu (辟谷) is entered into. The practitioners appetite shrinks considerably and in many cases ends. This can last for several days to a week at a time whilst the body sustains itself purely on pre-existing Qi (氣) supported by further Qi (氣) created by the practice.
As much as anything, what takes place here is useful for improving the efficiency of the digestive system. Generally a person’s body weight will correct itself as a result of this kind of attainment. This does not necessarily mean a loss of weight as those who are underweight can often start to gain body mass. The body seeks to take itself towards a state of equilibrium. It is also common for peoples tastes to change as a result of this experience. Foods they previously enjoyed suddenly become undesirable and vice versa. These are just signs of the body starting to function at a more efficient level.
This form of Bi Gu (辟谷) is an aspect of the health transformative side of Daoist internal practice. It is an excellent form of medicine which can begin to harmonize many imbalances. What should be underlined though is that this is definitely an automatic reaction to the practice and not something that should be forced. It also, from what I have seen, generally takes place when a practitioner really reaches the stage of integrating the practice into their lives. It is rare for ‘casual’ practitioners of Qi Gong (氣功) to have these experiences.
Nei Dan Bi Gu (內丹辟谷)
The second form of Bi Gu (辟谷) generally manifests during long periods of alchemical meditation practice. Alchemy in particular (compared to other forms of meditation) works to consolidate the Jing (精) as a basis for further internal development. The result of this is that Bi Gu (辟谷) manifests for varying lengths of time. The complete ending of both the desire for and need for food of any kind can last for anywhere from a few days to much longer periods of up to several weeks while the body goes through various transformative processes. On top of this, if the Qi (氣) begins to reach the correct state then there is a reduced need for sleep. In high level instances sleep is dropped altogether and instead the practitioner sustains themselves solely on meditative training. There is one practitioner in Asia I met who has completely replaced sleep with meditation and each night goes to their meditation cushion for practice and sits their upright instead of going to bed.
In the case of Bi Gu (辟谷) during alchemical training it is said that the ‘five tastes return to their source’. This ‘source’ is within the spirits of the five organs. This can be confusing to many but the ‘five tastes’ are one of the earliest divisions of the five elements discussed within classical texts. The tastes are given a great deal of spiritual importance according to Daoism and in many cases are up there in importance with the five spirits. This is because the five elements divide out to form the five tastes or rather the ‘five ways in which we energetically process taste’. This means that as we eat our food we are able to process the Qi (氣) in a manner which sustains the body in a balanced and healthy way. The energetic properties of the food are efficiently extracted and absorbed. It is the case that much of our Qi (氣) and indeed our mental attention goes to sustaining this mechanism. It is for this reason that Daoist teachings are very clear; there is nothing wrong with enjoying your food but do not obsess over it. If much of your mental time is taken up with thinking of food and it is a major and important part of your life then you have been caught up in triviality. The ‘five thieves’ of the senses take away from your cultivation and the taste could be considered the ‘king of thieves’. Eat to live healthily, don’t seek out strong flavours and pleasure from food too much as this will take away from your practice.
When the Bi Gu (辟谷) of alchemy is entered into we receive the health benefits of the previously discussed form of Bi Gu (辟谷) but we also experience the added benefit of having the ‘five tastes return to the source’. When this happens we are reforming a major aspect of the previously fragmented five elemental phases. This moves us closer to a congenital state of being, even if it is only temporary. In this state we begin to metabolise Qi (氣) to a far higher degree than before. This added energy is then drawn into various parts of the energetic body which moves us deeper into our training.
One thing to note is that if this happens as a result of our practice then we should try not to force food into the body. Bi Gu (辟谷) is a natural reaction to the body reaching a certain state of being and we should listen to the body’s wants. If there are health reasons for needing to eat some food during spontaneous Bi Gu (辟谷) then you should minimise your food and try to eat simple food that does not overly stimulate the ‘five tastes’.
It was interesting to me that in the case of two alchemy teachers I trained with it was made perfectly clear that if the body did not enter into this state during a period of retreat then it was not considered a successful retreat.
Full Bi Gu (辟谷)
The final and full form of Bi Gu (辟谷) only happens for those who have dedicated their entire lives to their practice. Very few and far between are the practitioners who reach this stage. In this instance the need for food is fully and permanently ended. These individuals survive purely on Qi (氣) derived from their practice.
It is said that reaching this stage causes the body to fully integrate with the spirit; a state which essentially elevates your being to a state of conscious awareness of the movements of Heaven. The disturbances of Ming (命) resulting from cycles of ‘cause and effect’ begin to purify; a very high state of achievement for any spiritual seeker.
This is all purely theoretical for me as I have never met any practitioner who has reached this stage. Though I fully believe it to be possible I have never had the good fortune to come into contact with a Bi Gu (辟谷) master. During my extensive travels through the far-east I heard of two who claimed this level of skill so I went to meet them both. In each case it was a case of the teacher misleading their students with false claims for the purpose of gaining more adoration and money. One of the teachers was pretty convincing so I let myself into their house and went through their kitchen (yes, I know that is bad but I wanted to know for sure); in the fridge I found food including cakes and chocolate bars. When I confronted them about the chocolate in the house they stated that they didn’t NEED food of any kind but still enjoyed chocolate bars! The worst thing about the whole situation was not that they had lied so blatantly about their skill level but rather that once the students learnt of the truth they still chose to ignore it and put it down to some kind of spiritual lesson the teacher was trying to give them; they themselves basically lived in a state of constant near starvation in an attempt to understand the (so called) profound teachings.
Bi Gu (辟谷) is not something that really interests me that much as a personal aspect of my practice nor is it something I aim for. It has manifest itself several times during my practice and I have seen it in many of my own students at various times. It is a natural phenomenon that arises during the practice and a useful aspect of the training with regards to restoring and sustaining a persons health. That being said, I can see why it is a fascinating part of the training for many people, especially as it is a clear sign of change that many would consider ‘out of the ordinary’. I wanted to write this piece to shed light on the term as it seems to be popping up more and more in writing on the Daoist arts and I feel there is much confusion around the topic.
If it manifests in your training then go with it; allow the body to do what it wants and don’t force food into a body that no longer desires it. But at the same time, ensure that it has REALLY manifested and it is not just that you are using your intention to stop your appetite as this can be detrimental to your health rather than the positive internal process it has the potential to be. Also remember that training at this kind of level really should be done under the guidance of an experienced teacher to make sure you don’t cause yourself any harm.