Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Value and Uselessness of Dan-Tian Meditation

In the fields of internal martial arts, there are a wide variety of dan-tian (丹田) meditations available. Before choosing any practice you should first know your purpose. What do you want to achieve? Once you are clear about this, then it is important to understand the expected or desired results of the exercise you will engage. Let's look at a couple examples.

One of the old theories for practicing dan-tian meditation can be found in Douglas Wiles' book, Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty. In this he says,
“This theory – taking the mind as fire (trigram Li 離) and body as water (trigram K’an 坎) – seeks to remedy body-mind disharmony by concentrating the mind in the tan-t’ien point in the lower abdomen (placing fire under water) and thereby restoring integration and producing ch’i.”
From this brief sentence we can glean three important points:
  1. Ancient Chinese practitioners also suffered from a kind of body-mind disassociation or "disconnect".
  2. Fundamentally, a method of restoring body-mind integration was to simply place awareness on the body. However, with the infusion of degenerate Daoist cosmology, one reason or the reason for focusing on the dan-tian was the belief that ch’i is produced when you focus on the dan-tian. (Placing fire under a pot of water produces steam; ch'i.) And this brings us to the third point…
  3. The so-called production of ch'i is a by-product of body-mind integration just as steam is a byproduct of boiling water.
Let's look at this for a moment. First, the practice of dan-tian meditation is rooted in an antiquated and colorful cosmology and in my opinion, is completely irrelevant and may even be a distraction to practitioners outside of that cosmology. Second, we can infer that something happens in the process of developing mindbody integration. Third, even though this brief passage doesn't get into the details of various mindbody integration exercises, the point to be understood is that after what may be many years of diligent inward focus on removing internal resistances and blockages, the body changes and the byproduct is ch'i flowing.

There was a study published in 2011 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine  that was titled: Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing Fosters Relaxed and Attentive Mind: A Randomized Controlled Neuro-Electrophysiological Study. Essentially, this study instructed participants to practice two forms of "Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing". One form was passive and the other active. The passive form consisted of simply observing the dan-tian region while breathing. The active form consisted of alternately tightening and relaxing the anal and abdominal muscles in coordination with the breathing. The results of the study suggested that Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing "facilitated the attainment of the coexisting states of relaxed and attentive mind, which made this breathing technique uniquely different from other more well-known breathing techniques."

From these two examples, we see apparently very different results! (The assumption is that the purpose of producing ch'i will have a different effect than the purpose of achieving a relaxed and attentive mind.) Now let's consider a third example, the Wujifa Mini Breathing Squat. In this exercise, the practitioner focuses on the belly area (between the diaphragm and mid-thigh) and practices coordinating a mini-squat with breathing into the lower abdomen. The intended result of this exercise is different again from the previous two examples.

Many people are disassociated from their body to some degree. As such, they are completely unaware of patterns of muscular tension and flaccidity in their own bodies. (This is true even for seasoned practitioners of qigong and the various "internal" martial arts!) Practicing a dan-tian exercise that is not designed to get you in touch with patterns of muscular tension and flaccidity may be very "enlightening" but it may not yield functional results.

Obviously the one example I gave from Wile's book is but one of many dan-tian meditations. And it should go without saying that modern technology has its limits in terms of measuring results of various qigong practices. The point that I'm trying to make here is that it is important to be keenly aware of both your purpose for practicing a dan-tian meditation and the results the particular exercise is designed to deliver. Be careful to not fall into the trap of expecting Result B from a dan-tian meditation that is designed to deliver Result A.

Happy practicing everyone!

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