Week 5: San Bao and the Microcosmic Orbit
Welcome to week 5 of the Qigong study group.
This week we will be learning the Microcosmic Orbit meditation and our reading will be about the theory of San Bao (Three Treasures).
Out of all of the Three Treasures, the one we have yet to talk about is Shen.
From wikipedia, one of the many meanings of the word Shen is:
2. Spirit; mind, mental faculties; consciousness. Like: concentrated attention; tire the mind; concentrate one's energy and attention. (精神.如: 凝神; 劳神; 聚精会神.)
Also from Wikipedia
This Chinese name sanbao originally referred to the Taoist "Three Treasures" (from Tao Te Ching 67, tr. Waley 1958:225, "pity", "frugality", and "refusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'") and subsequently translated the Buddhist Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha).
In long-established Chinese traditions, the "Three Treasures" are the essential energies sustaining human life:
Jing 精 "nutritive essence, essence; refined, perfected; extract; spirit, demon; sperm, seed"
Qi 氣 "vitality, energy, force; air, vapor; breath; spirit, vigor; attitude"
Shen 神 "spirit; soul, mind; god, deity; supernatural being"
This jing-qi-shen ordering is more commonly used than the variants qi-jing-shen and shen-qi-jing.
In Neidan "internal alchemy" practice (Despeux 2008:563), transmuting the Three Treasures is expressed through the phrases lianjing huaqi 鍊精化氣 "refining essence into breath", lianqi huashen 鍊氣化神 "refining breath into spirit", and lianshen huanxu 鍊神還虛 "refining spirit and reverting to Emptiness". Both Neidan and Neo-Confucianism (Despeux 2008:564-5) distinguish the three between xiantian 先天 "prior to heaven" and houtian 後天 "posterior to heaven", referring to Yuanjing 元精 "Original Essence", Yuanqi 元氣 "Original Breath", and yuanshen 元神 "Original Spirit".
The (2nd century BCE) Huainanzi refers to qi and shen with xing 形 "form; shape; body".
The bodily form [xing] is the residence of life; the qi fills this life while shen controls it. If either of them loses their proper position, they will all come to harm. (1, tr. Englehart 2000:99)
The Taoist text Gaoshang yuhuang xinyin jing (高上玉皇心印經, "Mind-Seal Scripture of the Exalted Jade Sovereign", or Xinyin jing "Mind-Seal Scripture") is a valuable early source about the Three Treasures (tr. Olson 1993).
Probably dating from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), this anonymous text presents a simple and concise discussion of internal alchemy (neidan 內丹). In particular, it emphasizes the so-called Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), namely, vital essence (jing 精), subtle breath (qi 氣), and spirit (shen 神). (Komjathy 2004:29)
Frederic H. Balfour's (1880:380-381) brief essay about the Xinyin jing ("The Imprint of the Heart") contains the earliest known Western reference to the Three Treasures: "There are three degrees of Supreme Elixir – the Spirit, the Breath, and the Essential Vigour".
The (late 16th century) Journey to the West novel provides a more recent example when an enlightened Taoist patriarch instructs Sun Wukong "Monkey" with a poem that begins:
Know well this secret formula wondrous and true: Spare and nurse the vital forces, this and nothing else. All power resides in the semen [jing], the breath [qi], and the spirit [shen]; Guard these with care, securely, lest there be a leak. Lest there be a leak! Keep within the body! (tr. Yu 1977:88)
We already understand what Qi is, the breath of life, spiritual energy; and we already understand Jing is vital essence, or spiritual power. We also understand Yi as being a unified spiritual intention to accomplish something with Qi. What, then, is Shen?
Put simply, Shen is at once your spirit or soul, and your consciousness and mind. Shen is what gives rise to your thoughts, your emotions, your quirks, your personality, and your intellect. However, it is also your spiritual consciousness, your very soul. Developing Shen is developing your mind through learning; yet it is also developed through meditation and forgetting knowledge ("unlearning"). This paradox is succinct, as Shen is many things at once. With focused Shen producing pure Yi, mountains will move for you.
Shen leads Qi, and Qi leads Jing, and Jing leads your opponent.
However, it is thought that before we were born or conceived, we were at one with Dao. The Three Treasures come into accord when we are conceived, and our pure soul splits into three separate, distinct forms. The goal of Daoist Daoyin (Tao-in) alchemy is to bring Qi into Jing, Jing into Shen, and Shen into emptiness, or oneness with Dao.
One of the most fundamental exercises in reunifying Qi, Jing and Shen is the Microcosmic orbit, which we will look at now.
7. Microcosmic Orbit
This exercise is a sitting meditation that improves the quality of your qi by taking the qi you have cultivated and cycling it in a beneficial manner through two meridians, or qi channels in the body. PLEASE NOTE that this exercise is NOT to be taken lightly. It is a very powerful practice and can be dangerous if practiced improperly, too soon, or with an incorrect focus. Traditionally, this exercise was taught only to disciples who had practiced the former exercises, and many others, over a period of two years time. I would therefore recommend that you DO NOT practice this exercise until you have been doing Dantian meditation for 100 days time. I myself did not practice the microcosmic orbit until I had been doing basic meditation and qigong exercises for about 8 months. Please do not take this warning lightly; dementia, qi stagnation and blockages in the energy body can develop if this exercise is practiced before the individual is ready for it.
That said, begin by sitting down with your legs crossed and the palms of the hands covering the knees. Remember to keep your back straight and maintain proper posture. Practice void meditation until you are in the state of gnosis (neural discharge, a feeling of connectedness with qi, etc). The steps below cover the entirety of one circulation of the microcosmic orbit meditation.
a. With your eyes open, cross them and stare at the tip of the nose.
b. Close the anus and squeeze tightly. Keep it this way for the entirety of the circulation. This is done to close the gap called huiyin at the perineum, and bring both energy channels used in the process together. It also helps maintain a straight back and enforce proper posture.
c. Touch the tip of the tongue to the upper pallette in the mouth.
d. Breath in deep, and as you do so, focus on the energy in the dantian. Feel it move backwards, rise up the back of the spine, and travel to the top of the head. If you want to, you can visualise the energy as you have been doing- a golden, white light. The qi should arrive at the top of the head as you fill your lungs to capacity with air; try and time the rising qi with your breath.
e. Exhale, and feel the qi come down the front of the face to the upper pallette, where it moves through the tongue and proceeds to "fall" down the front of the body into the dantian.
f. Relax, uncross the eyes, release the tensed anus, and take a deep, cleansing breath.
Repeat this method five times, and after that you should notice a great deal of saliva in your mouth. Daoists call this the Jade Nectar, it is seen as being a beneficial leftover result from the internal alchemic firing process. Swallow the saliva, and picture a golden, white light begin to envelop the stomach and spread throughout the whole body. After you have done this, you may repeat the method five more times, before pausing after the deep, cleansing breath to swallow the Jade Nectar.
It is generally recommended to only do ten repetitions of the microcosmic orbit for the first week, then twenty the next, and after that max out at 27 repetitions of the exercise. Of course, moderation is key. You don't want to overdo any of these exercises, let alone the microcosmic orbit. This concludes the exercise.
It helps to focus on the top of the head while inhaling, and the lower Dantien while exhaling. The focus should be the same as in Dantien or Zen meditation.
Practice the microcosmic orbit for 15 minutes a day this week. The other 45 minutes of practice can be Baduanjin or Dantien meditation, the choice is yours.
There is also recommended reading this week, assuming you have the time for it. It is the Secret of the Golden Flower, a Daoist treatise concerned solely with the microcosmic orbit practice. http://www.alchemylab.com/golden_flower.htm
This concludes week 5 of the Qigong study group.
Good Health and Training.