Taoist Internal Alchemy

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 26th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

At the start of our form, we give the following instructions:

Set your feet shoulder width apart, and in your own time, lower your centre of gravity. Tension below the belly button, relaxed above the belly button. Eyes looking forward, and the tongue up to the roof of the mouth. Attention on tan tien. Deep breathing in and out, contraction and expansion of your belly.

In the beginner’s class on Thursday, I was asked about the purpose of the tan tien. I normally give the following explanations:

  1. It is a little bit below the belly button, and a little bit inside.
  2. According to Western science, it is the centre of gravity for the human body.
  3. According to Eastern philosophy, it is an important part of taoist internal alchemy.

But what exactly is taoist internal alchemy? That was an excellent follow-up question 🙂

I don’t practice taoist internal alchemy myself, as it’s something that isn’t part of the system handed down to me by my teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher didn’t believe in chi and its cultivation per se, it was simply the case that my teacher rightly believed that we have no place teaching things we cannot demonstrate and put to the test. As a result, my knowledge on the subject is simply theoretical, and I have no formal teaching in it myself.

Taoism is one of the oldest surviving philosophies in the world, best known through the great work the Tao te Ching attributed to Lao-tzu. At the core is the concept of The Way (the do in Japanese martial arts such as akido, iaido, judo and kendo) and how we can all find our own harmony with The Way. Practitioners of taoism are known as taoists. As a way of living, it has a lot to offer us Westerners, and it is said to be the underlying philosophy that Tai Chi is based on. (More on that in a later article!)

Man everywhere is obsessed with his own immortality, and taoists it turns out are not immune to this desire 🙂 The difference I guess is that some taoists believe that real immortality is not only possible, has actually been achieved in the past (by such as Cheng San-feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi). Just as western alchemists attempted to turn base metals such as lead into pure gold, so taoist internal alchemy is concerned with practices to turn the base energy into a refined spirit.

One of the practices of taoist internal alchemy is to turn ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy), and then to turn the chi into shen (spiritual energy). The area we call tan tien in our class is actually the lowest placed of three separate tan tiens (the second is at the solar plexus, and the third between the eyebrows). The lower tan tien is used to refine ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy); very appropriate from a western point of view given its location at our centre of gravity, at the place in Tai Chi where all our movement is controlled from.

This is a gross and decidedly ill-informed over-simplification of the subject, I must stress! Anyone interested in learning more should seek out a qualified instructor on the matter, or failing that start with reading Eva Wong’s translation of Cultivating Stillness.

I freely admit that I’m not all that comfortable talking about my own experiences with the mystical side of Tai Chi. Part of it comes from my teacher’s own understandable feelings on the subject, and part of it comes from my own training as a scientist and qualification as an engineer. There’s also the important matter that, if we tell our students what feelings to expect, the mind has a funny way of manifesting those feelings whether or not the work has been done to make them real! And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure that there are some in our community who exploit students’ interest in and (dare I say) desire for such experiences. I do not want to become one of them, even unwittingly.

But what it comes down to is this. At the end of the day, how can you share your experiences with someone else? You can’t, not without a common frame of reference (a teaching tool I need to write a lot more about!) As teachers, it must be our role to direct our students through a programme of learning that will result in our students having these experiences for themselves. How to achieve that is perhaps the ultimate question of teaching, and it was the last question my teacher and I discussed before he left us.

And, as I experienced on Tuesday night watching my Improvers’ students explore the principle of Relax the Waist, on those rare occasions when we pull it off, there are few pleasures in life more satisfying 🙂