I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands and has had their own experience of energy at the very least in the general sense. I’m talking about feeling energetic, as in being alert and ready to do a lot of things whether they are physical or mental. On the flip side you have the feeling of being completely exhausted and not being able to do lots of things. We are an organism that is in need of fuel to function; personal resources that need to be regularly topped up. Even though it might seem reasonably obvious, it is useful to look a little closer at how these resources are replenished and also very importantly how they are spent – after all, they are all we have to get through life with.
When you look closely at this process you can see that what is going on is really quite magical: we fuel ourselves by taking something that isn’t us, bringing it inside us and then transforming it to something that is us. This also works in the opposite way, we take parts of us that are no longer needed and send them out into the world so they can be used by the other in some way. This exchange is at the very foundation of all of life.
While there are plenty of more subtle ways we go about doing this, like absorbing sunlight and other environmental energies (there are practices to improve these in the Da Xuan tradition, by the way!), today I want to look at the primary three fuels. We have the food that we eat, the liquids that we drink and the air that we breathe.
Food and drink are both pretty straight forward. There are plenty of contradicting ideas about it that you can study and try for yourself so I won’t talk too much about it here, but it’s worth understanding that we need to use some energy to digest and assimilate the food. This process can be improved with diets and practises that assist with digestion, but at some point there is only so much you can transform at any given point in time – after all it’s not like you can just eat more to have more energy. Everyone would be familiar with the food coma, when you’ve eaten so much that the body needs to draw on more than the usual amount of resources to process it and so you have to power down until that’s done. We can see here that the potential for increasing energy just by your diet is fairly limited (although can still be quite dramatic if you have a really poor diet).
Breathing, on the other hand, is a wonderfully untapped resource. The average breath taken by a regular city dweller is about 0.5L. This can easily be increased by two to four fold with some basic breathing practices. We can also (with practice) dramatically improve how effectively the breath is assimilated, so we can take more in and make better use of that which is taken in. In my own experience I have already taken this far beyond what I imagined was possible. This change has been so vivid that I’m no longer really sure what the upper limits of possibilities are, especially if it keeps growing as it has since the beginning.
At any rate, it’s certainly possible to increase our incoming resources quite substantially with breathing practices. But we can also look at how we spend them and where it might be possible to free up resources that are being used poorly or unnecessarily. I’ll start with the obvious – the body. We need energy to move our body and run all the organic functions. Exercise is a wonderful way to make us breathe more than usual and also increase the circulation (improving delivery and assimilation of resources to the various corners of the body) and so tends to make a lot of energy for us, but it also spends a decent amount getting the job done. Physical work can be done any old way and it will pretty much work the same each time: if you do too much you’ll be more exhausted than when you started, too little won’t add enough to the tank, and just right will leave you feeling vibrant and energised. There’s a sweet spot for the intensity of practice that with experience you can start to hit on the regular and this is a nice thing to find. In our school we are given the guideline of trying to get to a light sweat and about a 70% perceived rate of work each day, which is basically a complicated way of saying hit the sweet spot with your daily practice.
From the perspective of the personal resources, a great deal of fuel is spent maintaining protective tension in the body. This cost is MASSIVE. It is typically hidden but certain practices can work to simultaneously reveal and relax the tension and restore strength (and circulation) to the areas being protected so they can function for themselves once more. When this can be achieved at the same time as hitting the previously mentioned sweet spot of intensity you start to get a cumulative effect – energy being gained from the physical work stacked on top of energy being freed from fueling unneeded tension. The more resources that are gathered, the more that become available for the restoration and so the better that process works and so on it goes in a feedback loop that is ever increasing. This is essentially what we are developing with the basic hands practice of Da Xuan and other jibengong.
There is also a global physical work that can be undertaken. This is practicing to have the whole body coordinate as an integrated unit, a single united effort where no part is going against the other. Playing a big role once more is the resolution of protective tension, for this kind of tension is always going against any tension required for a given movement. It is also a matter of developing the concept of many hands make light work for the muscles and other soft tissues. Freeing up the spend of resources that goes into opposing whatever it is you are doing is an extremely worthwhile task that can be forever refined and thus is another potential for liberating fuel that can be used for more interesting tasks than hampering our own efforts.
Once we move into the arena of mind and emotions we have a whole new order of potential for freeing up unnecessary usage. I won’t delve too deeply into the topic of emotions for now, it’s quite a minefield and not particularly useful to talk about much. I will say that negative emotions require a significant amount of energy to digest and if that energy is not available it can often lead to plenty of problems.
The mind presents some very interesting possibilities. Cognition of all kinds (thinking, accessing memory, focus, intention, concentration, fabrication of ideas and so on) generally consumes an enormous quantity of energy. This is obvious to anyone who has tried to do any of these things while they are exhausted – it’s pretty much impossible. There is also the layer of maintaining belief structures. These tend to be with us our whole lives until by way of practice (or occasionally blind luck) we are suddenly unburdened by them. Anyone who has been through such a thing can attest to the huge release of effort and subsequent feeling of relief that comes from freeing yourself of things you didn’t even know were weighing you down.
When we use this perspective to look at what our practices are doing we can see a few things. Firstly we see that there is quite a distinct difference between breathing practices, which will add to our energy reserves, and practices of concentration, focus, imagination and other mental activities which will reduce them. Certain mental practices can lead to the destruction of belief structures or a calmer mind which can reduce the spend in amazing ways, freeing energy you already had to be used elsewhere but never adding to the energy reserves. Learning to relax the mind means that we don’t have to spend valuable resources constantly reorienting it back to the task at hand or creating unnecessary chains of thoughts or projections of images or anything else. It’s not increasing your pay packet, but rather decreasing how much of your pay packet you spend on useless things. You might be surprised how much you really have spare!
With this perspective we can start to make sense of the general structure of practice used in the Da Xuan tradition. In one way you could see the beginning years of practice as sorting out your personal resources. We separate the practices of the mind, breath and body because they achieve different things. With the practices of the mind we work on getting to know our mind, how it operates, and how to keep it focused on specific tasks for long periods of time or simply teach it to relax when thinking isn’t needed. Anyone who’s looked into this for any amount of time can understand that this is a lot like training a hyperactive puppy. While the result is a relaxed mind that can focus properly and is generally available with ever more resources being liberated, the process can often be exhausting. We are purposefully spending our resources to achieve a more efficient and effective mind-state that doesn’t use so much fuel.
Breathing practices are intended towards improving intake and assimilation. How can we add the most resources while spending the least. Essentially we want the mind and body doing as little as possible. This is hard enough to do on its own, to train it simultaneously with the focus practices of the mind and/or postural practices of the body is going to be an incredibly difficult if not impossible affair for the beginner. When we separate these practices we create feedback loops that work off each other. Training the body to be coordinated and free of excess tension liberates resources. Alignment and grounding help us to keep the body still for long periods of time without needing to spend much holding us upright. This in turn helps us do our breathing and mental practices without interference or unnecessary spending. Learning to relax the mind helps us maintain a relaxed focus in our breathing and bodily practices, which makes each of those practices more effective. Breathing without spending creates more resources to be used for training the body and mind – and on it goes.
You can see here that this model of practice creates an exponential possibility for increasing our personal resources. At some point in the practice, we begin to go into excess. We have more than enough fuel to operate in life and deal with every and any challenge that might arise, we are not spending our fuel on fighting ourselves, and so the resources we add with our practice then begin to accumulate. Challenges only become problems when we are short on the resources to deal with them. Trying to solve a simple maths problem or digest an offhand remark that someone made about you is easy when you are full of energy. Even if you can’t find a solution to a given challenge it’s not really a problem – it becomes water off the duck’s back so to speak. But encounter the same challenges when you’re exhausted and suddenly the same small remarks become a huge deal, we have trouble completing simple tasks and it can all eventually lead to a melt down.
This alone is reason enough to practice in this way, however when we go into a large excess we start to be able to use it to transform ourselves in ways that are not possible otherwise. We can digest bigger shocks and so face aspects of ourselves and our world that are otherwise difficult to face without being driven to a breakdown or burrowing into deeper denial. In our tradition we say that we want to be happy first and only then do we face reality. In my experience, happiness doesn’t come from removing challenges in our lives but from having the resources to confront them completely. When we don’t have enough resources to confront a challenge completely, it’s as if our organism knows and so works to quarantine the problem (physical, emotional, mental) until such time as we have enough spare fuel to face it again.
You can probably imagine how this would stack up over a lifetime of increasing stress and avoiding of challenges. We are living in a time where the cultural body values comfort and ease, finding every possibility to go away from the challenges of life and towards convenience or feigned happiness. Much of our technology is based around getting a machine or tool to solve problems for us. We have become the masters of avoiding the struggles of life, but in doing so we have robbed ourselves of the very thing that makes us grow. It’s not that we have to throw away everything we’ve made. But perhaps now it is time we stop running, gather our energy, and use our vitality to turn and face the world fully, both the good and the bad, so that we may feel our ever growing aliveness once more.