Learning to Breath

By Simon Weir – Qianfeng Daoism UK (ICBI)

Learning to Breathe pic

‘In this state of genial springtime real breath seems to exist and prenatal spirit becomes perceptible while vitality develops unceasingly.  The practiser now should guard against the arousal of intellect which will prevent vitality from developing and spirit from continuing; he should never break the prohibition against both (utter) neglect and (undue) attention.  If stirring thoughts cause the spiritual body to vanish, this is due to neglect; and if the heart does not wander outside and never strays from the spiritual body, this is due to absence of neglect.  If he is unduly specific and obstinate thereby hindering the process of alchemy this is because of excessive attention; but if he refrains from interfering with what is happening quietly, this is freedom from undue attention.  Neglect leads to dullness and confusion and excessive attention to the dissipation (of spirit and vitality); these are grave mistakes which all practitioners should avoid.’

 Grand Master Zhao Bichen

(Taoist Yoga – Chapter 12: Preparing the Elixir of Immortality – Page 128)

 The ‘medicine’ of Daoism is the ‘breath’.  Without the ability to breathe there is no life, vitality or immortality.  Every human being shares common biological processes, but it is the breath that imbues and expels oxygen that is at the centre of the living process itself, and this is before any consideration is given to the mind, its functions, dysfunction and its possible transformation through self-cultivation.  Modern medicine demonstrates that a brain can be quite ‘dead’ (or at least severely impaired in conscious function), whilst the body continues to ‘breathe’.  When life evolved the breathing mechanism must have been foundational to the development of the living process.  All the other living processes that constitute a ‘living being’ must have developed around a central core of ‘breath’.  Not only this, but all animals breathe, and even vegetation has its atmospheric exchange mechanism.  Fish have even evolved to breathe whilst underwater – as improbable as this seems.  Even outside the planet, human ingenuity has developed the artificial means to exist (as they have done in water).  The modern logic is that oxygen is taken into the body through the inward breath of the nose and mouth, and distributed throughout the body in the blood flow via the lungs.  As oxygen is off-loaded into the blood, carbon dioxide is released from the blood into the lungs and expelled through the mouth and nose during the outward breath.  If the oxygen intake is deficient, then the functions of the body become impeded and considerably diminished, causing poor health, whilst breathing deeply and fully immediately increases the flow of oxygen throughout the body and maximises the bodily functions.  Each individual possesses a pair of lungs the capacity of which is directly proportional to the optimum functioning of the bodily processes.  This means that the lung capacity is designed to power the body in the best possible way, by providing each and every body cell with the maximum amount of oxygen for maximum functionality.  This also means that the by-product of burning oxygen in the mitochondria of the cell is carbon dioxide, and that as this substance is of no use to the body, it must be fully expelled with the outward breath.  This demonstrates that the outward breath is of an equal importance with the inward breath.  If the mechanical process of breathing is interrupted or impeded, then the body starts to shut-down as its biological processes falter and then stop.  This is the basic general view of the breathing process in modern biology.

Given that this is the case, then the question is this; what is happening to the breathing mechanism during Daoist transformation?  Daoism, as a distinct method should probably be described as ‘subjective medicine’ when compared to the ‘objective medicine’ of modern science.  Daoist transformation happens through the breath and through the mind.  In fact although clearly defined within Daoist terminology, the breath and the mind are developed simultaneously to avoid a drop into permanent duality.  First and foremost is the development of the ‘bare awareness’ quality of the mind’s perception.  Breathing and awareness go hand in hand.  Even at the beginning of Taoist Yoga, Grand Master Zhao Bichen states:

 ‘When the heart (mind) is settled, one should restrain the faculty of seeing, check that of hearing, touch the palate with the tip of the tongue and regulate the breathing through the nostrils.  If breathing is not regulated one will be troubled by gasping or laboured breaths.  When breathing is well controlled, one will forget all about the body and heart (mind).  Thus stripped of feelings and passions one will look like a stupid man.’

 Grand Master Zhao Bichen

(Taoist Yoga – Chapter 1: Fixing Spirit in the Original Cavity – Page 1)

It is important to understand that the breath continues to move freely (and correctly) whilst the activity of the mind diminishes and eventually ceases.  The movement of the breath (in its appropriate cycle) is directly proportional to the ending of uncontrolled movement in the mind.  Breathing in through the nose involves the breath being taken from the beginning point of the tail of the spine and up the spinal column to the top and centre of the head, where with the outward breath, it travels down the centre of the front of the face and body, through the lower field of elixir (dantian), down through the groin, and to the tail-tip of the spine for yet another cycle.  The mechanics of breathing ‘in’ through the nose takes the breath into the lowest part of the lower lung which compresses the diaphragm downward.  This downward compression of the diaphragm creates the ‘feeling’ in the mind and body of breath entering the lower field of elixir (just below the belly button).  As breath is drawn in through the nose, the air and qi energy is taken into the body.  The air has a finite movement (into the lower lung), but the qi energy element carries on into the lower field of elixir.  This is how breath and qi energy (although inherently connected) also ‘separate’ from time to time.  As breath is drawn ‘in’, and qi energy compressed downward into the lower field of elixir, this serves to ‘push’ the qi energy ‘up’ the spinal column from the tail-tip – thus maintaining the cyclic microcosmic orbit.  This upward movement of qi energy along the spine is completed by the ‘out’ breath which ‘pulls’ the qi energy ‘up’ the spinal column to the top of the head.  Eventually, the cycle of qi energy around the microcosmic orbit is self-sustaining (or ‘self-winding’) and becomes self-sufficient and separate from the breathing mechanism.  This is why in the advanced stages, ‘breathing’ appears to stop.  In old Daoist texts this is referred to as breath actually ‘stopping’, although Charles Luk stated that this is a ‘coded’ description to stop others misusing Daoist processes.  What happens is that the breath becomes very subtle and refined, as if it has ceased altogether, but still continues to be drawn very slightly into and out of the body.  However, as the body is now sustained through vitality (refined qi energy), ‘essential nature’ (jing) and ‘vacuous spirit’ (shen) the reliance upon conventional breathing becomes very slight.  It is these clearly defined inner processes that are a) identified and b) developed through Daoist self-cultivation.

Ordinary people who have not developed self-awareness, do not pay attention to their breathing unless they are forced to exercise, fall ill or suffer an injury, etc.  For most, the breathing mechanism goes on without their awareness of it.  This is why the mind’s awareness has to be developed for the body to breathe properly.  The muscular ripple that travels around the body with the inward and outward breath, shows the path that qi energy travels during the microcosmic orbit.  This means that the muscular activity that is required to draw the breath in and to push the breath out, is also indicative of the movement of qi energy up the spine (Governing Vessel) and down the front of the body (Conception Vessel).  This is another example how the breathing mechanism involving the movement of air, is directly linked to the circulation system involving qi energy – the two distribution systems are distinct but inherently linked.

‘The Patriarch Wu Ch’ung Hsu said:

“Who says that sublimation by fire cannot be taught

Since only silent circuits can plumb the depth sublime?

In days of old thousands of saintly men realised this by

Looking clearly into their breathing process to win immortality.”

 By stoppage of respiration is meant the condition of serenity in which the practiser becomes unconscious, his breathing (almost) ceases and his pulses (all but) stop beating.  This is called freezing spirit.’

Grand Master Zhao Bichen

(Taoist Yoga – Chapter 9: The Immortal Breathing or the Self-winding Wheel of the Law – Page 95)

This achieved through a dual awareness method that is unified at its root (and non-dualistic).  The practitioner must be aware of the breath entering the nasal passages and the air travelling down into the lower lung.  This involves the awareness of the lung deepening and expanding and the feeling of the air which is inflating the area.  As the diaphragm expands downward and outwards and the air seems to drop below the naval.  At exactly the same time, there must be awareness of the qi energy travelling up the spine from the tail-tip to the top of the head.  As the breath leaves the body, there is awareness of the diaphragm relaxing (and taking a neutral position) the lungs deflating and the air leaving the body via the nostrils.  At exactly the same time there must be awareness of the qi energy travelling down the front of the body from the top of the head, through the lower field of elixir and onward through the groin to the tail-tip of the spine.  For a proficient Daoist, all this happens simultaneously, clearly and without contradiction, and demonstrates the multidimensional ability of the mind to be aware of more than one process at a time.  All this transformative activity happens all at once, although the clarity with which it is observed will vary depending upon the experience of the practitioner involved.   Although the breathing mechanism is a physical process, its perception arises deep within the mind.  Things are only known to happen due to the conscious awareness that accompanies the act.  Charles Luk used to ask – ‘who is breathing?’ – this incorporated the Huatou method of Ch’an Buddhism to assist the Daoist self-cultivation.  This involves not only the breath entering and leaving the body, and the qi energy circling around the body, but also the developing of ‘stillness’ in the mind and body by finding the ‘perceptual source’ of the activity.  As the origin of perception is the state of neither perception nor non-perception, the confusion in the mind dissolves.  This is the removing of the qi energy block in the mind that prevents a direct awareness of ‘stillness’ and ‘emptiness’.  This is the revealing of the ‘empty spirit’ or ‘shen’.  After this, the Daoist self-cultivation continues without hindrance.  This is the continuous ‘refining’ of the presence and activity of breathing:

‘An ancient immortal said: “Men are subject to birth and death because they breathe in and out by the nostrils and mouth; if they (practically) cease breathing they will realise immortality.”  For if the practiser (almost) ceases to breathe he will achieve major serenity.’

Grand Master Zhao Bichen

(Taoist Yoga – Chapter 9: The Immortal Breathing or the Self-winding Wheel of the Law – Page 95-96)

Breathing does not fully stop until the death of the physical body is at hand, but how breathing is experienced changes radically.  This is the mind-body nexus in operation that confirms the intimate interaction of conscious awareness and physical action.  Daoist self-cultivation is multifaceted and requires a strong and clear mind if the processes are to unfold smoothly, and in the correct order.  The clear mind (produced through meditation) directs this activity which eventually units all substances and prolongs life through toughening the physical structures and biological processes.  The breath becomes mind and the mind becomes breath, and as the mind is ‘still’ this is exactly how the breath is perceived second by second.  The point of all this assessment is that none of the other Daoist self-cultivation techniques are achievable without first understanding the breath and subduing the mind.  Egotism is directly related to shallow and fast breathing.  As the ego is ‘deceptive’ the breath is also ‘deceptive’ and completely lacking in reality.  Charles Luk often emphasised the differences between ‘natural’ and ‘correct’ breathing as a means to perfect Daoist meditation.  A Daoist master taught that most people only breathe into their upper lung area and that the body is forced to exist in a state of diminished oxygen supply.  After sitting in a good meditation posture, the breath should be expanded downward into the lower abdominal area and groin.  The abdominal muscles are relaxed to accommodate the expansion of the upper, middle and lower lung area and the downward pressing diaphragm muscle.  The entire mid-section acts like a balloon which inflates with the inward breath.  The inward breath starts from the lower abdominal area.  The outward breath also starts from the lower abdominal area and deflates the lower, middle and upper lung area by pushing the diaphragm muscle upward towards the lungs.  The abdomen expands with the inner breathe and relaxes with the outer breathe.  Natural breathing fills up every single part of the lung and maximises the oxygen intake into the cells throughout the body.  Again, this practice must be repeated until the ‘breath’ – which is slow, even and continuous – seems to ‘disappear’.  This is a common Daoist practice that is very effective.

Correct breathing in also called ‘reverse’ breathing.  It is called ‘reverse’ breathing because it is the opposite practice of that associated with ‘natural’ breathing.  Reverse breathing separates the oxygen from the qi energy and compresses it into the lower field of elixir.  When breathing in, the abdominal muscle is pulled in and the diaphragm pulled up.  This expands the chest cavity considerably.  With the outward breathe, the air leaves the lungs and the diaphragm presses down into the expanding, abdominal cavity.  Although the lungs are empty, there is a definite feeling of the abdominal area being ‘full’ and rotund.  The inward breathe gathers the qi energy in the lungs, whilst the mechanism of the outward breath transports the qi energy into the lower abdominal area.  The practice of this method creates very clear and precise feelings in the body.  As the oxygen is ‘separated’ from the qi energy, the qi energy is further refined into ‘vital force’ before being compressed down into the lower field of elixir.  This is the primary benefit of this method.  Breathing is a vital part of living, and as a consequence, is central to the thinking of Daoist self-cultivation.  Breathing can be obvious or subtle – but it must be refined if immortality and good health are to be assured.  When I started training with Charles Luk in Daoist meditation, he did not only emphasis the Qianfeng method, but also the ‘Seated Meditation Law’ as taught by Master Yin Shih.  The basis of this was included in his ‘The Secrets of Chinese Meditation’ (Rider, 1964).  Although Qianfeng Daoism can be very exact, Master Yin Shih, by way of comparison, has an almost indifferent attitude to sitting positons and hand positions.  This does not mean that his method is no good, on the contrary, his method is very good, but rather that the Daoist teachings are quite broad and flexible.  If you do not know the ‘correct’ Qianfeng hand positions – so what? – do not let this stop you trying.  Master Yin Shih says that you can use any hand position, depending upon choice.  What I find interesting is that Master Yin Shih – whilst emphasising correct Daoist breathing (he does not mention Buddhism at all), achieved very good health through analysing the breath, this is how he encountered Daoism:

‘When my illnesses became serious, I sought its cure by all means.  But since we lived in the country, only herbalists were available, whose remedies were useless and I loathed them.  Though I did not mention my illness to others, my father discovered its origin and urged me to read books on spiritual culture.  (One day) he showed me the book I Fang Chi Chiai (The Ancient Medical Formula Explained) the last section of which deals with the Taoist technique called “The Microcosmic Orbit”.  (After reading this), unexpectedly I awakened to the teaching, practised it and was relieved from my predicament, but I lacked perseverance.  When I fell ill again, I was scared and being frightened, I practised the method again, but after my recovery I was lazy and forgot all about my practice.  Nevertheless, I had learnt that I should cure my body and never again did anything that could injure it.’

(The Secrets of Chinese Meditation – Chapter 5: Self-Cultivation According to the Taoist School – Pages 175-176)

Although never mentioning Buddhism, Master Yin Shih does explain that all effective Daoist training involves both mind and body without any notion of separation.  He states:

‘We have mentioned abstention from giving rise to thoughts but the very idea of so abstaining is also a thought.  It is, therefore, far better to employ the introverting method which is also called “looking into the innermost”.  In general, when a man sees something, his eyes are directed towards external objects; they therefore cannot be turned inward to look into the internal.  Our method consists of closing the eyes for the purpose of turning inward our attention to examine our intellect; first we should be clear about the rise and fall of our thoughts.  If a thought rises, it should be looked into to prevent it from clinging to things; thus it will vanish.  When a second thought arises, it should also be looked into so that it cannot grasp anything; thus the second one will vanish.  When their source is properly cleansed, thoughts will gradually come to an end.’

 (The Secrets of Chinese Meditation – Chapter 5: Self-Cultivation According to the Taoist School – Pages 169)

He goes on to explain that through ‘meditation’ (that is the practice of ‘re-ordering’ the function of the mind), good health can be acquired and maintained.  This is not an uncommon idea within Daoist practice.  However, it should not be assumed that ‘meditation’ and ‘breath’ are two different entities, because they are not.  If the mind is ‘stilled’, the breath is ‘purified’ – if the breath is ‘purified’, then the mind is ‘stilled’.  Why is this?  It is because as a thought ‘arises’, so does an ‘inward’ breath occur.  When a thought ‘falls’ away, so does an ‘outward’ breath occur.  From this observation it can clearly be seen that the ancient Daoist masters understood the pure interaction between consciousness and matter – at source they are the same unified essence.  Although qi energy (as ‘breath’ or ‘air’) is taken into the body, and is used to nourish the qi energy flow throughout the body, Grand Master Zhao Bichen, however, suggests that this is superficial Daoist practice, or at least a lower level of self-cultivation.  He states:

‘In your practice it is most important to distinguish between what is right and wrong.  The true Tao is prenatal spirit-vitality.  Spirit is (essential) nature and vitality is (eternal) life which is the essential generative force.  So vitality is inherent in the generative force.

 The Patriarch Liu said: “If the original cavity of spirit (between and behind the eyes) is constantly held on to (i.e. concentrated upon) vital force will develop of itself and will beget true vitality which will be linked with (essential) life in the lower tan t’ien centre (under the navel) to produce the golden elixir (chin tan).”  The patriarch feared that students might not know the correct method when vitality manifests and so might let it drain away by the genital duct (yang kuan) to create offspring.  When the generative force is half-way down the duct, if the practiser has received correct instruction from a competent master, he will be able to turn it back and use it to prepare the elixir of immortality.  Thus we know that the generative force tends to flow away…

 So a student meeting his teacher should first ask him about the proper method and inquire whether or not it consists of gathering outside air to turn it into the alchemical agent.  If the teacher denies this and says that his method is to turn back the flow of generative force to fortify the body so that it will be restored to its original condition before puberty and cause the penis to cease standing during sleep and to retract, his is the authentic method.’

Grand Master Zhao Bichen

(Taoist Yoga – Chapter 1: Fixing Spirit in its Original Cavity – Page 8)

Turning back the generative force (jing) to its empty source (shen) – is exactly the same as returning all thought to its empty essence (shen).  Breath or qi energy also arises from empty spirit (shen).  By withdrawing attention away from externals and breathing correctly, the ‘essence’ of the breath can be discovered through meditation.  Therefore, breathing has two facets, 1) it can fill and empty the body of qi energy (assisting the processes of Daoist self-cultivation), and 2) as a mechanism its physical function can be returned to its perceptual empty essence (shen) through the act of Daoist meditation.   Grand Master Zhao Bichen states that through meditation, generative fluid (jing) can be returned to its source.  In fact he illustrates this point by quoting Liu Huayang – one of the founders of the Wu Liu School of Daoism – the foundational teaching of the Qianfeng School.  No matter how breathing is used, the concept of ‘breath’ and of ‘breathing’, remains a vitally important facet of Daoist self-cultivation.

This article was originally published in the ICBI eJournal Patriarchs Vision (Vol. 1 no. 12, Summer 2016).