The Mind in Qi Gong Practice

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Attainment of consistent mind/body harmony is one of the major goals of martial arts qi gong. The internal martial arts classics say that "the mind (ife -Yi or intention) leads the qi and the qi leads the strength (¿3 - li)." This principle tells us that without the correct mental intention, the qi and strength will not be fully available. When discussing this principle with his students, Ba Gua instructor Park Bok Nam gives a few simple examples to illustrate this point. Park says that if someone was engaged in an intense conversation with another person and unbeknownst to him a third person came up and put a five pound weight in his hand, he would probably drop the weight because his mind was not sending energy to his hand. Because his mental focus was on the person he was engaging in conversation, there was no intention in his hand, thus there was no qi and no strength. However, if that same person where to see another person ready to place five pounds in his hand, that five pounds would be easy to hold up because the mind has sent energy to the hand.

Another example that Park uses to illustrate the importance of the mind/body connection is to say that if someone had a perfectly healthy arm and put that arm in a sling for two weeks, when he tried to use that arm again, it would be stiff and would not function well at first. This is because the arm was not being used and thus the mind did not send energy to the arm for that two week period. When a part of the body is inactive, energy and blood do circulate to that area, however, because it is not being used, the mind only sends a minimal amount of blood and energy. The point is that if the mental awareness and intention do not reach all areas of the body, the energy movement throughout the body will not be optimal.

In the practice of internal martial arts, we not only want an optimal flow of energy to all parts of the body for the purpose of maintaining our health, we also want to develop an ability to move energy out to our extremities instantaneously for use in fighting. This requires that the neurological and energetic connections be more highly developed and refined than normal and thus the mind/body connections which work in relation with these martial movements need to be developed to an even greater degree.

There are generally three areas of concern when discussing the mind as it relates to qi gong or internal martial arts practice. These are: the overall mental state, mental awareness, and mental intention. The mental state should be one of calmness and well-being. The mental awareness should be one of keen observation and sensitivity inside and around the body without the mind becoming pensive. The mental intention should be focused, yet simple. During qi gong the mind should remain as calm and inactive as possible while remaining focused and aware. Next, we will discuss these three aspects of mental involvement in qi gong in more detail.

Cultivating a Feeling of Well-Being

The overall mental state during qi gong practice should be one of inner peacefulness, joy, and happiness. A sense of ease and happiness will go a long way in helping to promote the balanced flow of energy in the body. A general feeling of happiness and well-being also helps the body conserve energy. Feelings of sadness, grief, worry, stress, anxiety, and anger consume energy. Of course, in internal arts practice, everything needs to be in a balanced state and thus even overjoy and over-happiness can consume too much energy. So the feeling of happiness one cultivates during practice is a gentle, calm feeling of joy and calmness. This is why many systems of qi gong start practice with what has become popularly known as the "inner smile" exercise. Other systems have similar visualization exercises to promote the feeling of internal well-being at the beginning of each qi gong session. In Park Bok Nam's system, students practice one of several different variations of what Park calls the "happiness" meditation prior to qi gong exercise (these meditations will be explained in Park's next book, The Fundamentals of Pa Kua Chang, Volume II, which will be released by High View Publications later this year).

Along with a sense of happiness, the mind should be as still as possible during practice. The innate wisdom the body has in regards to its own health and well-being is its own best healer and strength builder. A mind which is too active can easily interfere with the natural healing process in a number of different ways. General mental chatter and noise can be an enormous energy drain on the body. Combine mental chatter with worry, stress, or anxiety and the mental energy drain becomes far worse. Of all the internal body systems, the brain wastes the most energy. If the mind is calm and quiet, energy conservation and rebuilding will reach its optimum.

One need only stay awake all night to know exactly how an active mind drains the body's energy. Even if you lay down in a bed and rest the body, if you do not sleep (rest the mind), the body's energy will feel drained the next day. However, if the stories that are told about meditation masters are true, deep meditation is even better at recharging the body's energy than a full night's sleep. Everyone has heard the stories about meditation masters who can meditate for a short period of time and feel as though they have had a full night's sleep. In Park Bok Nam's system of Ba Gua, students are taught a system of meditation which leads to what Park refers to as "empty mind" meditation. Park himself first experienced the "empty mind" state after a one year long training retreat in the mountains of Korea. If the mind can be trained to become totally quiet, the natural energy rebuilding and healing process will be optimum.

If the mind is calm and quiet, the body will rebuild and heal itself in the most efficient and effective way possible. This occurs not only because the mind's interference in the body's natural healing process is minimized, but also because the body is conserving a great deal of energy when the mind is calm. However, obtaining a quiet mind and internally calm body is not easy, it takes more patience and perseverance than most practitioners are willing to commit.

In our modern society, where the majority of educated people work on computers and talk on phones all day, the major source of energy usage is the brain. At the end of the day an office worker will feel just as physically drained of energy as a construction worker because of the amount of energy the mind can consume. Although the muscles of the office worker will not be sore, the body will feel just as tired. In order to rebuild the spent energy and maintain a healthy body the office worker needs to move the body and relax the mind. This is why qi gong, or internal martial arts practice, is ideal for our modern day world. Unfortunately, many who turn to these disciplines for help never learn how to fully relax the mind. Relaxing the mind and learning how to create an internal feeling of well-being and happiness should be the first priority in qi gong practice. Without the ability to cultivate an internally calm and peaceful environment, the practitioner will have difficulty reaching deeper levels of attainment in practice.

It is always helpful to precede any qi gong practice, circle walking or otherwise, with a simple "happiness" meditation of some kind. Cultivating a feeling of well-being, calming the mind, and forgetting about the outside world will aid in conserving energy, rebuilding health, increasing mental focus, and uniting the mind and body.

Mental Intention

After the practitioner can obtain a feeling of internal well-being and calm the mind, he or she learns to focus the mind. The mental focus, or intention, during qi gong practice should be as simple as possible. If the mental focus is not simple, the mind is too active and thus it is using too much energy. The best kind of mental visualization to use in the beginning levels of practice is a simple image which brings the mind to the hands. The practitioner can imagine the hands are moving through water, lifting something heavy, pushing something, pulling something, etc., anything which brings a sensation of the hands moving against some sort of slight resistance. If the mind feels as though the hands are meeting some resistance, the mind will send energy to the hands. If energy is sent from the torso to the hands, without the mind interfering with the movement of energy between the torso and the hands, it is circulating naturally and efficiently through the body.

At the beginning levels of practice the hands and body should be engaged in simple movements so that it will be easier for the mind and body to connect. If the movements are too complex in the beginning, the mind will be unable to maintain complete intention and awareness. Usually, beginning level qi gong movements involve simple motions which help facilitate a full and balanced energy flow in the whole body, starting with the conception (ren mai - teftfc) and governing (du mai -it ffl*) meridians. If the motion of the body is simple and the alignments are correct, the practitioner can easily and naturally encourage a strong, balanced, connected flow of energy in the ren and du meridians without the use of strong intention. The mind need only be focused on the hands.

If the mind is trying to guide the energy through the ren and du meridians from the torso to the hands along some special path or energy route, two problems can occur. Number one is that the mind is too active. In qi gong practice simplicity is the key element. You want to minimize mental activity. If the mind is trying to guide the qi all over the body, it is too active and thus it is wasting too much energy and full body awareness cannot be maintained. The second problem is in trying to force the qi though pathways it may not be ready to go through. A qi gong or internal martial arts practitioner should never try to force energy to move in the body by utilizing strong mental intention. Progress in qi gong practice should be gentle and gradual. If you think about your hands, the qi will move to your hands. If it is moving to your hands, it is moving from the torso, where it is cultivated and stored, to your hands in the manner which is most appropriate for your individual body at that given time. Do not interfere with the natural process by trying to guide the qi where it does not want to go.

In the practice of qi gong, if the physical movements are correctly designed to gently coax the energy to move in a balanced manner through all of the body's energy meridians and collaterals, then one need only think about the hands and feet during practice in order to have the proper mental intention. While sitting or standing still and trying to guide energy all around your body with your mind can be somewhat effective, it is inefficient and can lead to problems. As I will discuss later in the "body motion in qi gong practice" section of this article, if the body is not involved in qi gong practice, the practice is not complete. If the mind is overinvolved in the practice, the results will not be as deep and complications can easily arise.

There are a number of problems which can arise from qi gong exercises which rely too much on mental visualization. Aside from the problems of forcing qi where it is not ready to go and overuse of the brain's energy as discussed above, specific visualizations can also lead to problems. Visualizations which run energy along certain energy meridians can easily lead to energy getting "stuck" in the body if the mind cannot maintain full concentration while it is leading the energy. Once a sufficient amount of qi is flowing in body due to the guidance of a specific mental visualization, if the mind becomes distracted, the qi will rise to the head. This condition is known a "rising qi" and can be quite uncomfortable and may lead to migraine headaches.

Other visualizations which call for focusing on any particular internal organ or energy center can cause problems if sending energy to those areas is not appropriate for the individual's physical condition. These type of exercises should be prescribed like drugs. The same is true of color visualizations and sound meditations. For example, if a particular individual has liver trouble or his character is such that he easily loses his temper, that person should not meditate on the color red at all. He will only make matters worse.

The use of imagery, visualization, and strong intention in the practice of qi gong or internal martial arts practice is useful, valid, and appropriate when practiced correctly. Like anything else, when needed, this practice should proceed gradually from very simple to more complex. The more complex should only be practiced when the body and mind are ready and are usually practiced only for specific results unique to an individual's progress. For instance, a visualization technique may be practiced to help correct a specific physical problem, energy blockage, or energetic imbalance. However, once those specific results are obtained, the practitioner always returns to the simple. The rule of thumb regarding the mind's involvement in qi gong is: simplicity is best.

Mental Awareness

Internal and external awareness are key elements in martial arts training. In order to expertly execute the subtle techniques of the internal martial arts in a combat situation the practitioner needs to have cultivated a keen awareness of his own body, its movement, its energy, and its relationship to the body, movement, and energy of an opponent. Sensitivity, awareness, and "listening" energy (It - tingjing) are cultivated by forging a strong mind/body connection during martial exercise, forms training, and qi gong practice.

Mental intention and mental awareness work together to provide a full mind/body integration. The use of intention can be compared to an outgoing radar signal and awareness can be compared to processing the return signal. The mental energy is sent out to all parts of the body, and then the mind "listens" to what "signals" are sent back. The eventual goal of practice is to have intention and awareness in all parts of the body at all times.

When a new student first learns any martial arts exercise or form, the mental awareness will be focused on the gross physical motions of the exercise or form. The mind and body are busy working out the physical alignments, coordination, timing, and balance necessary to execute the motions correctly. Once the student has a basic physical understanding of the motions, the awareness should turn to the physical subtleties of the movement. The internal connections, alignments, and mechanics are cultivated until these components become natural and efficient.

Once the physical motions, proper alignments, internal connections and efficient, natural body mechanics are in place, the student's awareness can then turn towards the energetic movement inside and around the body. A simple visualization, which is designed to move energy to distal points, can be added to the exercise and the mind can become aware of how the energy is moving. Is there a feeling of warmth, buzzing, tingling, heaviness, pulsing, ticking, etc.? Does the energy feel as if it is collecting, dispersing, moving upward, moving downward, moving right to left, inside to out, etc.? Once the practitioner becomes conscious of the qi feeling and qi movement in the body, he or she tries to cultivate that feeling and then become aware of new feelings and new sensations. The more often a feeling is cultivated, the easier it will manifest and the stronger it will become.

Once certain feelings and sensations are cultivated, an experienced teacher will change the training so that the student will experience new feelings. For example, when a student has worked with a beginning level exercise which is designed to bring a full feeling of qi to the hands, the exercise can then be changed or modified such that the intention and movement involves the hands and forearms simultaneously so that a full qi feeling the entire length of the arms can be obtained. Once the student has experienced various sensations of qi flowing and moving throughout the body, he or she will then be led to cultivate an experiential understanding of the qi outside and around their body, then subsequently they will work to understand the relationship of their qi to that of other individuals around them.

After the student experiences the movements and exercises on all of the various levels mentioned above, he or she can then begin to expand the awareness in partner drills. The student gains an awareness of the spacial relationships, timing, rhythms, and movements of his or her body in relation to someone else. The body and mind become sensitive to a partner's movements and the student learns how to move efficiently and effectively in relation to the opponent while moving in accordance with all of the principles of the internal martial arts.

In order to bring any movement through the levels of awareness as described above, the student must have enough patience to repeat each movement, or sequence of movements, hundreds of times. Each repetition should be performed with full mental intention and awareness. If the repetitions are performed robotically, with no mind/body interaction, the movements will be "empty." Unfortunately many students do not take an exercise or sequence of movements past the first stage. Once they "learn" the moves physically, they become bored and want to learn something new. In qi gong practice, the same exercise or movement sequences need to be practiced hundreds of times before the student can gain full awareness and understanding of the movements.

While the mind needs to be active and involved in everybody motion, the mind should never become pensive. As mentioned previously, the mind should be as still and quiet as possible. The practitioner should always maintain the status of a quiet observer. If something happens, acknowledge it and then let it pass. Using mental intention and keen awareness one can work to deepen an experience or strengthen a sensation, however, it is important that the feeling or experience is be "watched" and nurtured, not pondered. Be aware of what is happening in and around the body, but do not dwell on any particular experience. Each experience is simply a stepping stone to the next experience.

Whenever the student practices there should be sense of wonder and an open mind, but with a dose of reality and practicality as applies to martial arts. What ever feelings and sensations the student might obtain in practice, he or she should realize that there is always something more. Always use common sense in practice. If you feel a new sensation, do not get too excited about it. Acknowledge it and then continue "listening" for new, or deeper, sensations.

When practicing qi gong, do not limit yourself to knowledge gained from one or two profound experiences. Today the internal martial arts are being saturated with "new age" metaphysics and "healing" techniques which are being built on the limited experiences of individuals who have touched upon some self-proclaimed "cosmic" experience. Don't base your reality on a few limited experiences or overvalue a single experience. There is always something more. It is best to view all experiences as rungs on a ladder.

Unfortunately, many times, when speaking of mind/body awareness, some instructors and students like to leave the real, practical world of martial arts and begin to fantasize about phenomenal qi powers and abilities and the attainment of "spiritual enlightenment" through martial arts practice. While it is certainly possible to cultivate intuitive understanding and open up higher levels of consciousness through the practice of internal martial arts and qi gong, the nature of the martial arts vehicle is such that the body/mind awareness should be integrated fully before the body/mind/spirit connection can be cultivated. Students who expect profound spiritual experiences to occur before the body is coordinated, connected and harmonized with the mind are jumping way ahead of themselves.

On one occasion I was attending a class given by a Ba Gua instructor in Taiwan and a visiting American asked about spiritual growth through the practice of Ba Gua. The teacher said that when practicing martial arts, the student should not worry about the spirit until the body is full coordinated and balanced (internally and externally) and the mind can control every action of the body. He said if the mind cannot control the body, if the intention (yi) is not in every move, the foundation for spiritual growth in martial arts will not be strong. For practice to be complete there should always be a systematic gradual process. of development.

In the next installment of this article, we will discuss the involvement of body movement and breathing in qi gong practice and show some examples of typical Ba Gua Qi Gong exercises.

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