It is an interesting characteristic of Daoism that models of human psychology, physical ailments and even subjects such as demonology are often interwoven with one another. For me it is one of the most fascinating facets of the tradition; the interwoven nature of the various realms of reality/manifestation and how this directly impacts upon many of their practices.

To give you a good example of these multi-faceted teachings I would like to share with you the teachings of the San Chong (三蟲) or the ‘three worms’. I was first introduced to the concept of the three worms whilst staying in Beijing and studying at the white cloud temple over a decade ago. It was also a theory that I later came across in different schools and within classical written teachings. In each instance there was a slightly different take upon the theory of the three worms though the underlying concepts were fundamentally always the same.

The three worms can be said to represent ‘desires and wanting’, ‘attachments and regrets’ and ‘unconscious habits’. These are said to be the three key tricks that the mind plays upon itself in order to pull us away from a state of true consciousness. If we put these three aspects of mind into the context of a passing timeline we see the following – ‘desires and wanting’ are aspects of mind that are, more often than not, applied to the future; things we want. ‘Attachments and regrets’ are those things that connect us to the past. It is our ‘unconscious habits’ that erode our personal willpower and keep us from being mindful of the present moment. These three facets are then embodied within the three worms as summarised in table 3.1

Name of Worm Location of Worm Facet of Mind Timeline
Peng Ju (彭琚) The Head Desires Future
Peng Jiao (彭瓚) The Sacrum Habits Present
Peng Zhi (彭矯) The Chest Attachments Past










Table 3.1 – The Three Worms

In this instance the three worms are clearly aspects of mind; three ways in which are mind is drawn away from the present moment. If we are drawn away from mindfulness, conscious awareness of the present, then the mind cannot grow still. Within alchemical Daoism this was the basis for the majority of human ailments. A lack of constancy or stillness within the spirit means that a person’s essence and energy can become scattered or weakened. Though the worms are aspects of mind they are also located within specific areas of the body; this is where the crossover between the consciousness body and the physical body start to take place.

The Peng Ju worm resides within the head, he has a relationship to the upper Dan Tien and our sense organs. As our mind races into the future and imagines things, people, places and events that cause us to desire after them it distorts the energy of the sense organs and disrupts the clarity of our mental faculties. It is also said that Peng Ju moves in and out of the body through a region towards the top of our neck around the occipital region known as the ‘jade pillow’ or Yu Zhen (玉枕).

The Peng Zhi worm resides within the chest and has an impact upon the region of the Heart that is also said to be the residence of human spirit. This worm relates to our attachments as well as regrets for events that have already come to pass. It is these attachments to the past that trap our mind and prevent us from evolving independently from past events. The Peng Zhi worm is said to move in and out of the body through the middle of the spine around a region known as the ‘spirit path’ or Shen Dao (神道).

The third and final worm is the Peng Jiao worm.  This worm resides around the region of the sacrum. It has an impact upon the lower abdominal region as well as the lower Dan Tien. It relates to the development of habits. Habits are behavioural patterns that have developed to a point of being largely unconscious. These habits can on a simple level be small behavioural patterns that we automatically carry out without thinking or they can be more obviously destructive habits such as our addictions – ‘drug habits’ or ‘drinking habits’ for example. These habitual patterns cause us to lose our state of awareness and thus weaken our connection to the present moment. On top of this, habits are said to be in direct conflict with the development of will. It is only when our habits have been eroded that divine spiritual will is able to manifest within a person’s being. Peng Jiao is said to move in and out of the body through the base of the sacrum.

It is clear to see from these descriptions that though the worms are primarily facets of mind they are also seen as having physical locations within the body and are even personified to a certain degree as they are able to move into and out of the body of their own accord. Within religious Daoism they take this even further and state that on certain days of the year the three worms ascend to Heaven during your sleep and report on your wicked deeds to the deities of judgement.

The location of the three worms also corresponds to three key locations upon the body which practitioners of alchemical meditation will be more than familiar with. These locations are known as the three of the key ‘clipping passes’; areas of difficulty for those involved in Daoist meditation. These locations are shown below in figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1: The Three Clipping Passes of the Worms

They are considered difficult areas of the body to work through in your practice. One of the earliest practices within Daoist sitting meditation is the Xiao Zhou Tian (小周天) or ‘small Heavenly orbit’. This is a circulation of information that moves up the back of the body and down the front through two of the largest meridians. Together these form an important orbit of Qi which serves to transform and recycle energies back through the body during prolonged internal practice. When the energy begins to move up a person’s back it is likely that it will become stuck in the three locations. Teachers have prescribed numerous methods in an attempt to help practitioners overcome the challenge of the clipping passes.

One model of clearing the clipping passes that is pertinent to this article is the model of the three worms. If we use the example of the facets of mind related to the worms we can see that clearing the lower pass around the sacrum region would require the ending of habitual thought patterns and behaviors. To clear the second pass around the middle of the back a person would have to dissolve their attachments to the past and to clear the upper clipping pass near the neck they would have to end their desires. As this happens, a person is drawn more into the present moment, their awareness of their own being increases, the mind grows increasingly still and thus the rotation of the Xiao Zhou Tian should flow smoothly around it’s orbit.

The personification of the three worms goes further still within some schools of Daoism and in these cases they give the worms form. They take the appearance of the three somewhat unusual looking creatures shown in figure 3.2

Figure 3.2: The Three Worms Form

In the case of schools who adhere to this theory, the three worms are seen as demons or negative spirits who are the cause of many kinds of disease. People are thought to have been possessed by the negative traits of the worms if they are enabled to grow too strong. They grow as we feed them with our mind. Our desires feed Peng Ju, our habits feed Peng Jiao and our attachments feed Peng Zhi. If a person becomes ‘overtaken’ by any of the three worms they can manifest some of the following symptoms:

Peng Ju Possession Symptoms

  • A feeling of pressure in the head, chronic migraine type headaches, weakened vision, poor hearing, unusual phantom smells and tastes, blotches and abnormalities upon the skin of the face, excessive amounts of mucous or spontaneous flowing of fluid from the eyes, bad breath

Peng Jiao Possession Symptoms

  • Digestive issues, weakness in the back and knees which limits mobility, weakness and cold in the lower abdomen due to damage to the lower Dan Tien, nocturnal emissions, excessive feelings of desire and lust, addictive behaviors

Peng Zhi Possession Symptoms

  • Pain and swelling in the chest and hypochondriac region of the body, shortness of breath, spasms in the body, an obsession with sensual pleasures, depression, suicidal tendencies

As if this was not all grim enough there are even further worms within the body! Once again these ‘beings’ cross over into facets of the psyche as well as entities which have literal locations within the body. These worms are the Jiu Chong (九蟲) or ‘nine worms’ and they are named as follows:

  • Fu Chong (伏蟲) or ‘Trapping Worm’
    • Drains a person’s essence and energy. Also said to feed off of blood and generate toxicity in the bloodstream
    • It was understood that an obsession with lower base-desires would help to sustain this worm
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV15 – Ya Men (啞門)
  • Hui Chong (蛔蟲) or ‘Roundworm’
    • Attacks the vital energy that motivate the movements of the Heart. This can result in low moods as well as a collapse of the Heart’s energy and function
    • This worm is nourished through prolonged periods of depression
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV 14 – Da Zhui (大椎)
  • Cun Bai Chong (寸白蟲) or ‘Inch Long White Worm’
    • This worm eats into the digestive system weakening the intestines, the Stomach and the Spleen
    • Overly obsessive thought patterns were said to help this worm flourish within the body
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV13 – Tao Dao (陶道)
  • Rou Chong (肉蟲) or ‘Meat Worm’
    • The meat worm attacks the Liver, a person’s muscles, their physical strength and the health of their spine and abdomen
    • This worm takes hold of a person’s body if they are harboring large amounts of pent-up anger
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV11 – Shen Dao (神道)
  • Fei Chong (肺蟲) or ‘Lung Worm’
    • This worm causes unexplained conditions within the health of the Lungs. These conditions do not react to regular treatments
    • This worm thrives within people suffering from long-term grief that they cannot move past
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV4 – Ming Men (命門)
  • Wei Chong (胃蟲) or ‘Stomach Worm’
    • This worm eats it’s hosts food meaning that they always have a burning hunger which is never satisfied. They are also likely to become emaciated and weak
    • This worm lives within those who have an overly active mind which is always scheming
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV 5 – Xuan Shu (懸樞)
  • Ge Chong (膈蟲) or ‘Diaphragm Worm’
    • This worm weakens the energetic processes of the entire body resulting in chronic fatigue type symptoms
    • Having a low spirit is said to strengthen this worm
    • Often treated in acupuncture through GV 3 – Yao Yang Guan (腰陽關)
  • Chi Chong (赤蟲) or ‘Crimson Worm’
    • This worm drains the Kidneys, causes ringing in the ear, pressure in the head and erratic thought processes
    • This is the worm that lives off of our fears and anxieties
    • Often treated in acupuncture through the use of the lumbar Jia Ji (夾脊) points
  • Qiao Chong (蹺蟲) or ‘Mobile Worm’
    • This worm moves around the body, especially under the skin. It causes unexplained itching, sores and rashes over the body which cannot easily be cured
    • It is addictions to toxic behavior which feed this worm
    • Often treated in acupuncture through use of GV1 – Chang Qiang (長強)

This is where the multi-faceted view of Daoism grows most interesting. The discussion of these nine worms clearly suggests that the ancient Chinese were actually talking about different types of parasitic worms that could physically and literally infest the body. They even went so far as to depict the nine parasitic worms as shown in the image shown in figure 3.3. As you can see; they are attractive little critters!

Figure 3.3: The Nine Parasitic Worms of Daoism

Despite these worms being literal parasites that are a physical root for many kinds of disease, they are connected back to the three original worms that are as much metaphoric for aspects of human mind as they are types of spirit that reside within the body. As well as this, if we look at the meridian points classically indicated for the treatment of these worms we can see that once again they all sit along the key congenital meridian which runs along the length of the back. This is another indicator that treatment of the worms should be seen as a method of ensuring this key energetic pathway is open. Here we have the crossover between the physical, the spiritual and the psychological.

For another example of the way in which Daoist views and practices crossover into different realms we can look at one key suggested cure for ‘worms’ – Bi Gu (辟穀). Bi Gu means ‘to abstain from grains’ and refers to the act of fasting for periods of time. It was believed that the worms, both the nine parasitic worms and the three spiritual worms, sustained themselves on the grain that a person eats as well as negative emotions and so periods of fasting was seen as the most effective manner to starve and kill them off.

Throughout history different spiritual cultures have acknowledged the importance of fasting and Daoism was no exception. The view of many sects of the tradition was that fasting was a required part of training to attain immortality. Many contemporary practitioners and scholars have argued that the fasting the Daoists prescribed was actually metaphorical and referred largely to ‘fasting for the mind’. In many cases teachers with this view will state that they are fasting when in fact they are taking away stimulation for the sense-functions of the body in the same way that a person would during periods of quiet meditation. It is my view that this is a misunderstanding and in actual fact the Daoists were referring to literal fasting.

The connection with the change of the practitioners mind through fasting comes from once again understanding the manner in which they viewed life existing on different planes at the same time. Fasting was used to starve the physical worms, it was used to starve the three worms which then correspond to the three key aspects of mind we discussed above and then finally fasting was used to clear the clipping passes which were blocked by the three worms activity. In this way the Daoists had used the practice of fasting to purify their physical body, their mind and their energetic system. In this aspect of their training the Daoist’s were not so different from many other traditions.

In presenting this information I did not wish to make people paranoid about the existence of spiritual and physical worms within their body! I did not want people to fear that the ‘flesh worm’ was currently eating it’s way through their intestines and that is why they are held back in their practice. I merely wanted to present to you an example of the theory that came out of the Daoist tradition which pulled together models of the physical, the energetic, the spiritual and the psychological. Daoism is a colourful tradition and as one of my alchemical teachers would tell me ‘feel free to let the worms eat your flesh, but don’t let them eat your spirit!’…He always was a somewhat morbid fellow.