It is nice to be back in Thailand. I am back in Bangkok where, over the years, I have spent several months. Most people who come here see it as a city full of parties and night clubs. Whilst this is true it also has a wealth of culture, some great martial arts within the Chinese community and the most amazing Buddhist temples.
It was Bangkok that I first came to on my first visit to Asia and here that I used as a ‘hub’ for travel around the rest of Asia. Today I got to wander around some of my favourite places in the city including a great Buddhist temple which I used to use as a peaceful respite spot to practice Qigong when the activity of the city was getting to me. Today it was nice to visit it once more and I happened to bump into Eckhart Tolle and his wife who were visiting it as well!
Over the last few weeks I have been using my time to revisit the energetic processes of the spine. This has partly because I have been finishing off my next book, the Four Dragons, which discusses the energetics of the spine in detail. When I regionally wrote the draft for this book it went right through from Qi Gong to alchemy using the Dao Yin exercises as a bridge between the two. However, I quickly discovered that the book was becoming too large and that alchemy was beyond the scope of the book which was better off focusing upon the Nei Gong aspects of Dao Yin training. For this reason, I ended up scrapping a large chunk of my draft so I thought I would let people read it here instead..
The Spine and its Spiritual Energies
Understanding the deeper aspects of Daoist internal work can be confusing. Metaphorical language within ancient texts combined with teachings from different lineages being brought together do not help the student who is starting out in the world of energy work. It can take a number of years to even begin to understand exactly what is supposed to take place within the body and this often depends upon having access to the correct teachers and the correct methods with which to experience these teachings. A large part of my internal development has been working to try and understand exactly what takes place within the body and how this is achieved. Exploration of the teachings from several different esoteric schools combined with my own experiential understanding has brought me to understand a model of the energetic system which is actually quite clear. Once much of the metaphorical language is stripped away you are left with a fairly simple model of the human mind/body system which can be systematically worked through using various internal methods. These methods can be seen within different forms of Qi Gong, Nei Gong and alchemy as well as within some branches of the older internal martial arts systems. Classical texts and charts such as the ‘Neijing Tu’, the ‘Xiuzhen Tu’ and the ‘Cantong Qi’ elaborate upon these methods for those who understand the language used within them by the ancient Daoists.
Contained within exercises such as ancient Dao Yin are direct methods for preparing the body for higher level spiritual work providing the practitioner can understand exactly how to approach the exercises. If used correctly and trained for long enough many of the more complex aspects of Daoist internal work can be accessed through exercises such as these which serve to provide a solid foundation for the more complicated study of Daoist meditation practices often known as either ‘silent sitting’ or ‘internal alchemy’ depending upon which school of thought they are taken from.
In understanding the nature of the spine with regards the higher levels of Daoist internal work we must first understand the difference between the various branches of the meridian system which run through this area of the body:
- The first energetic branch of the meridian system which runs through the area of the back is the Du or ‘governing’ meridian. This is the most Yang of the congenital meridians which runs up the center of the back from the sacrum. It continues over the top of the head down to beneath the nose. This meridian governs the Yang functions of the body and circulates Qi into the Yang organ meridians of the body throughout the course of our daily lives. It is paired with the Ren or ‘conception’ meridian which continues this circulation of Qi down the front of the body, under the perineum and back into the Du meridian. The Ren meridian governs the Yin functions of the body and directs Qi into all of the Yin organ meridians of the body. Together they form a loop of circulating energy which help to regulate the entire of the energy body and divide the two poles of Yin and Yang. An important aspect when beginning any form of Daoist internal work is setting up a good circulation through these two channels. This circulation is often known as the ‘small water wheel of Qi’ or the ‘micro-cosmic orbit’. The early stages of many systems of Qi Gong and Nei Gong work towards establishing this circulation of Qi within the body.
- The next energetic branch to be aware of is the central branch of the Chong Mai which was already discussed in the previous chapter. Once the Qi is effectively circulating within the Du and Ren orbit as described above it is then possible for movement to begin taking place along the length of the central branch of the Chong Mai. This movement generally goes from the base of the body around the area of the perineum up towards the crown of the head through the body’s core. This movement of energy causes Jing to be converted into Qi and then further into Shen as the refining functions of the three Dan Tien are awakened. This helps to nourish the upper Dan Tien and brain with spiritual energy as well as helping to set up a kind of ‘spiritual antennae’ in the Chong Mai which helps to connect a person to divine information drawn directly from Dao.
- The third branch of the energy system directly connected with this area of the body and the spine in particular is the spinal branch of the Chong Mai. It is this channel which we are causing Qi to move strongly through during advanced stages of Nei Gong or Nei Dan training. What is important to understand is that the spinal branch of the Chong Mai and the Du meridian running up our back are not the same thing. They are different channels with very different functions. This causes a great deal of confusion for many practitioners of the internal arts though understanding the difference between the two is quite simple if we look at what exactly moves through each of these channels.
The Du and the Chong Meridians
Opening the ‘small water wheel of Qi’ which circulates along the Du and the Ren meridians takes place largely through the rotation of the lower Dan Tien. This sets up a smooth flow of Qi throughout the rest of the meridian system as well as helping to divide the poles of Yin and Yang within the body. For a more detailed discussion of this process please refer to my previous book ‘Daoist Nei Gong – Philosophical Art of Change’.
Movement along the central branch of the Chong Mai takes place as Jing converts into Qi and then further into Shen. This begins the process of sending extra spiritual energy towards the upper Dan Tien which can bring experiences of connection with Dao and divine understanding. These experiences can be brief at first but with practice it is possible to remain for longer periods of time in a state of union with Dao.
The spiritual nature of work with the spine concerns something known as the seven spinal fires which sit primarily along the length of the spine itself. These are seven points on the spine which govern the movement from our congenital nature into the acquired. Remnants of these theories can be seen in modern Chinese medical practices as one of the spiritual fires known as Ming Men is still included on within the meridian system. Now it is known as the expansion of energy which takes place around the area of the Kidneys but originally it was seen as one of seven spiritual fires which dictate our acquired connection to Ming, our predetermined path through life. These seven spiritual fires are often depicted as seven (or sometimes nine in different traditions) cauldrons which are placed along the length of the spine. In other traditions they may be shown as different phases of the moon (which has led to the misunderstanding that spinal energy movement relies upon the lunar calendar) or even as different hexagrams from the Yi Jing (I Ching). They have direct correlations to the Chakra system of Yoga and govern various aspect of our nature.
In order to work with these seven spiritual fires we must first have a strong flow of Qi along the length of the spinal branch of the Chong Mai. Once you have done this you have a clear pathway through your spine and it is possible to work with the spinal fires.
Remember that the spinal fires (and thus the Chakra if you also study Yoga) are not the same as the three Dan Tien and quite separate from the circulation of Qi taking place within the Du and the Ren. They are different because they exist upon completely different frequencies. The Dan Tien and anything related to the flow of Qi through the meridian system exist within the realm of the energy body whilst the spinal fires exist within the realm of the spirit/consciousness body. Understanding this helps us to understand how we progress through our training.
The Three Bodies of Man
Each of these three bodies exist within the same location and whether or not we can access them depends upon what stage we have reached in our practice. In the beginning we are generally connected solely to the physical realm governed by our five senses. As we progress through an art such as Qi Gong we can begin to ‘tune in’ to the energy body and feel the flow of Qi through our body and the rotation of the Dan Tien. Only when this has been worked through can we go further and connect with the spirit body which sits within a much higher frequency range. This is where the connection between us and our true consciousness sits as we are within the frequency range of the realm of spiritual energy known as Shen. Reaching this stage requires having refined our internal sensitivity to a fairly high level. Accessing the spirit body relies on being able to enter periods of profound inner stillness and this is where the energy of the spine comes in.
According to Daoist thought the extreme emptiness of Wuji is the point from which the beginnings of human consciousness was born. This spark of original intention is known as our seed consciousness; it is the aspect of our consciousness which carries the divine information giving us the potential for spiritual liberation within this lifetime. Surrounding this is our congenital nature which is the manifestation of true human consciousness born forth from the seed consciousness. It is this aspect of consciousness which manifests the De, sage-like compassionate qualities which we would manifest if we were able to free ourselves from the shackles of mind. Moving like waves out of our congenital nature are the constantly shifting emotions which govern the majority of our thoughts, speech and actions. It is these emotions which prevent us from successfully tapping into our own congenital nature as they distort our every thought. From these emotional cognitive distortions is born the acquired nature which builds up over the course of our lives, layer after layer. This is the aspect of mind which is governed by logic, bias, prejudice and so on. It is often equated with the ego in many new-age texts and the aspect of human self which we falsely identify with.
The Layers of Human Consciousness
This theory, at its simplest level, states that our consciousness is formed from the middle outwards. Through a spiritual form of centrifugal movement the stillness which is our true self expands to create first congenital and then acquired nature. It is the layers of the acquired nature which we wish to work with through the deeper aspects of Daoist training. It is our acquired nature which we use to conduct ourselves throughout our lives and it is through the distorted lens of the acquired nature that we view the nature of the world. The entire of the Daoist tradition was concerned with shedding the layers of the acquired nature in order to convert out identification back to the congenital aspect of our consciousness. From here we could then move into direct contact with the stillness at the heart of everything and thus go beyond any form of individual identification into direct union with Dao. Everything teaching within the philosophy of Daoism has a direct, literal counterpart within the microcosm of the human organism which we can experience through our practice. The nature of the human mind is no exception to this. If we are able to touch upon the stillness which sits within our core then we are able to understand how our own consciousness formed from this point and begin to dissolve the layers of acquired nature which we have allowed to build up over our lives.
Within the central branch of the Chong Mai we increasingly raise Jing, Qi and Shen through practices such as Qi Gong or internal alchemy. This gradually enables us to bring the three bodies of man together into one unified whole. The more we are able to do this, the more likely it is that something called the ‘mysterious pass’ can begin to open up for us. As this pass opens it gives us a direct connection to Dao which helps to dissolve the layers of the acquired nature which we have built up. Increasingly, the more we practice, the longer we are able to remain within this state and lead our minds towards stillness. The spinal branch of the Chong Mai differs from this slightly. It differs because it contains stillness at its core. The reason for this is it is the spinal branch of the Chong Mai through which the nature of existence is communicated out into our own consciousness, energy system and then finally our physical form. From the spine and the Chong Mai is developed our consciousness which is why it is such a powerful aspect of the energy body when we are working on our own internal development.
Awakening the Spinal Fires
Along the length of the spine are several expanding areas of information which help to ‘step down’ the frequency of Dao into consciousness. When you connect with these seven fires it feels as though they are vibrating and spiraling at the same time. They are around a centimeter or so in diameter making them smaller than the three Dan Tien contained within the energy body. Each of these spinal fires is connected to a different aspect of the manner in which our consciousness develops and as they open up they each cause a major shift in our perception.
The Seven Spinal Fires
As shown in the diagram, each of these fires is directly connected to a different layer in our energetic field which stores information throughout the course of our lives. As we move deep into our practice and awaken each of the spinal fires the information associated with that fire begins to dissolve within the layers of our energetic field. This loss of built up information then enables true consciousness to come forth from our core into our external being causing the major shift of perception we are seeking. The more we are able to create these shifts in perception the more we are able to stabilize our mind. Stabilizing our mind not only changes the way that we relate to the outside world but also enables us to more efficiently refine our energy into spirit within the central branch of our Chong Mai.
The more that we are able to open up the energetic pathway within the spine the more we are able to direct spiritual information up through the spiritual fires. At first we will only be shifting Qi through our spine resulting in the spontaneous reactions associated with this stage of development but after a while we will begin to lift a more refined energy from the base of the spine up along its length into the center of the brain at a point known as the ‘mud pill palace’ within alchemical texts. As this spiritual energy moves up along the spine it begins to awaken each of the spinal fires helping in the dissolving of the acquired nature.
The Thunder Strikes
Many people expect every experience to be had through the internal arts to be pleasant in nature. This is definitely not my experience! Some of the processes which take place within the body and the mind are very uncomfortable and this is one of those stages. As the spiritual energy moves along the length of the spine it feels like a strong electric current passing through you. It causes an electrical type of pain which causes your muscles to contact and relax spasmodically as if you were plugged in to a powerful tens machine. These electrical shocks move quite quickly through the center of the center of the spine up into the base of your neck around the area of the occiputs. Here they discharge into the base of your skull with a great deal of power. The first time I experienced this I actually cried out in pain. Classically this is supposed to happen three times in order to open up the point at the base of the skull but in my experience it actually took two shocks of this nature. I am guessing that the number three was just a guideline and that it can vary from person to person. Within alchemical traditions this process is known as ‘receiving the three strikes of thunder’ and it is serves to open the strongly blocked point on the base of your skull known within many traditions as the ‘jade pillow’ or, more appropriately, the ‘thunderstrike centre’. Once the point on the base of your skull has been opened then the surge up upwards moving spiritual energy can move right up into the center of your brain. When it reaches this point the electric shock strikes the ‘mud pill palace instead resulting a strong electrical shock to the center of your brain. Even worse then the pain involved in the first part of the process, this shock has caused me to pass out before now, rather embarrassingly this first happened when I was meditating with a group of around 25 people!
Danger of this Process
Originally, when I started writing I decided only to include practices which had no danger involved in them. I did not want to put out information which could cause harm to anybody practicing the exercises within my books. Indeed there is often a great deal of anger around these kinds of practices which results from the fears people within the internal arts world have concerning dangerous training. However, after writing my first book I received a great many messages from people around the world who had actually experienced some of these stages on their own. Some of these people had trained in similar systems whilst many had simply stumbled onto these processes without really knowing what they were doing. The vast majority of people had simply acknowledged the experience with a degree of curiosity and carried on with their training whilst a few had suffered quite severe health problems which they could not easily receive help with. The fact is that many internal practices come with a certain degree of risk if they are not practiced correctly and under the guidance of an experienced teacher. In the case of simple Qi Gong exercises these risks are almost non-existent but once you start going deeper into the internal arts world you are essentially beginning to work with the vary elements which make up your being. Since many people are moving in to these stages anyway then I may as well include it within my writings so that people are better informed.
The above process of awakening the seven spiritual fires is not majorly risky but it can be unpleasant when you first experience it. As with anything within the internal arts world, once the body is used to it, it normalizes the experience so that the unpleasantness is no longer there. It is almost as if the shock of a new experience causes you pain and discomfort but after that there is no shock so it feels much easier.
Starting this Process
Firstly, let us be clear on one thing. In order to reach this stage you must have trained for a very long time. This is not something will happen to you within the first few years of your training so beginners need not worry. In order for this process to begin the spinal branch of the Chong Mai must be fully open and this is no mean feat. It took me many years to do this and I have the luxury of not having any major commitments in my life other than my practice and my school. I have been a full-time practitioner now for many years and even with the amount of hours I am able to put into my practice it still took a long time to even begin to touch upon this stage. You must already have a fully awakened energy system including the Dan Tien rotating smoothly and have opened the majority of the Qi Men points throughout your body. Those not prepared to put in hours of daily practice will not likely ever reach this stage but I have included it here for those who do put this amount of time into their training.
In order to start the shift of spiritual energy along the length of the spine you must be able to find it. After being able to fully open the Chong Mai for some time you should then drop your awareness down into the base of your spine right where the coccyx ends. Let your mind hover here and look for a sensation in this area of the body which indicates that your spiritual energy is ready to rise upwards. If the feeling here is of warmth then it is not time to begin this process. This warmth will make you sweat but little more. If, however, the sensation is as if you are sat on a bubbling, warm pool then the spiritual energy is ready to rise. It is much like sitting on one of the jet-streams in a Jacuzzi when it is on full power. It can feel a little sharp in nature as though the bubbling energy is causing little pins and needles sensations in your sacrum.
If it is ready to rise then simply raise your perineum ever so slightly as you inhale and follow its movement. If it does not rise on the first lift of the perineum then do not bother with continuing. It is not ready to rise yet. If it is ready then it will move very quickly up along the length of your spine towards the ‘thunder strike centre’ point at the base of your skull. If this happens the simply relax and allow it to do what it wants. It will begin the first of the three or so shocks to the base of your skull. In my own personal experience these shocks were separated by a couple of years meaning that from my first shock at the base of my skull to it reaching the center of my brain included a space of around five years. Most of the time, this energy did not want to rise up. It is curious that if we look at the teachings contained within the Hindu tradition they would call this rising energy the Kundalini and it is said to coil like two snakes along the length of the spine. Because of these teachings I actually thought it would feel more like this coiling energy than an electrical shock but I was mistaken. I wonder if the sensation is different to each individual or if the Yogic method causes the spiritual energy to rise in a different manner? This is not a question I am able to answer unfortunately since I only have a rudimentary knowledge of higher level Yogic practice. The only thing I know for certain is that the slightly unpleasant nature of this spiritual energy rising is also discussed within Yogis teachings.
The Seven Spiritual Fires
As the energy rises along the length of the spine it begins the process of awakening the seven fires. This is a gradual process which unfolds over a length of time. Much like flowers blossoming open they gradually begin to dissolve various aspects of the acquired mind which causes various shifts in your consciousness. These fires awaken from the base of the spine upwards although the linear fashion in which this takes place seem to only apply 90 percent of the time. Occasionally I get the feel that different fires are active at different times. Once this process begins its continuation is accumulative and fuelled by your regular internal practices, especially sitting practice.
End of Part 1…..
Part 2 Coming Soon