Attaining higher levels of consciousness through natural means has always been the goal or aspiration of Taoists. There are many natural ways to facilitate spiritual expansion and the attainment of harmony: breathing, meditation, contemplation of nature (without obsessional reveries, of course), art (nonerotic painting, music, dance), the healing arts (Tai Chi Chuan, qigong, daoyin), the martial arts and warrior ecstasies such as kung fu and strategy (with all due reservations regarding these latter "arts," geared as they are to the taking of human life—Taoists have tended to be crafty diplomats, not fanatic samurais), and, of course, the practice of sex, which, as a method of spiritual attainment, was often criticized by the moralistic Confu-cianists and their modern descendants.
Sex, like art, joy, birth, illness, and death, is one of life's supreme—and supremely powerful—experiences; that is why complete awareness during the sex act can bring about contact with the primordial world, the energy- and consciousness-filled precognitive universe that is the Tao (which some call the "divine"). What is sex, after all, if not the spontaneous manifestation of qtf Qi is universal energy, both subtle and marvelous. It fills the universe and accomplishes various functions, some of them subtle, others not. In sum, every force, every energy, is a manifestation of qi: the circulation of blood, the forces of gravity, attraction, and repulsion.
Though invisible, qi governs the physiological functions and participates in many aspects of the sex act, coordinating the different organs and functions—the sexual organs, blood circulation, the secretion of natural fluids, sensory stimulation, the emission of sperm, sensations—in a variety of ways. All these functions depend on the proper circulation of qi through the network of channels, in the blood, and throughout the nervous system. The quality of qi is thus extremely important for consciousness.
Sex can be different things: It can be a purely mechanical performance or the spontaneous accomplishment of a natural act. When a person is aroused by a film or a fantasy, the desire engendered in him is a pseudodesire. If he acts on this desire, the result is nothing more than a mechanical performance, dictated by a desire that, whether consciously or not, is a purely mental construct. On the other hand, when your sex organ awakens naturally in the middle of the night and you fulfill your natural sexual inclination, you are accomplishing a natural act and replenishing yourself with qi.
This way of looking at things may seem paradoxical to a Westerner, given that many contemporary schools of psychotherapy encourage fantasy through their "talking cures." Let there be no mistake, however: Taoism is not the way of fantasy and dreams but the path of objective truth and enlightened consciousness.
Taoists are of the firm conviction that natural spontaneity is not a commonly encountered human behavioral trait. From this perspective, regaining spontaneity means searching for a state of consciousness in which there are no preconceived ideas, a natural state unencumbered by life-negating thoughts. So often we revel, simply by force of habit, in our melancholy and even morbidity. Sometimes we adopt narrow-minded attitudes and postures of sadness and defend these states vehemently, insisting that we have a right to be sad or feel angry.
Spontaneity of that sort is limited indeed and affects more than our behavior. We must therefore go beyond these appearances and look for the origin of our behavior to see if we can't find a less conditioned source.
That source is the spontaneity of our deep inner nature. Here, too, the practice of meditation turns out to be necessary. As Lao-tzu said, "Original nature can produce all experiences. Original nature is the essence of spontaneous goodness. To be natural in one's actions is to always be pure and calm."
One might thus conclude that to act spontaneously is to behave in a manner appropriate to the present situation with complete sincerity and without malice. This spontaneity seems nearly identical to what we call deep intuition. Without this quality and without nonaction, it is hard to open the energy channels. As the proverb says, "One can't make grass grow by pulling on it!"
As for our daily lives, we often wonder why our minds are so weak, so inconsistent. The Taoists have an answer: when we indiscriminately follow the path of attachment to objects of desire, we weaken shen. The philosophy of nonaction is thus far from representing an anything-goes lifestyle.
A treatise by Huai Nanzi sums it up this way: "When one uses one's consciousness day after day, it moves farther and farther away. It attaches itself to the object of desire and is incapable of returning to man's center." It also seems that on this level the energy of consciousness is attuned to the body's other energies. As the Taiping Jingchao notes,
The energies of the body circulate around it, above it, and below it. The essence of consciousness uses these energies to enter the body and to leave it. When these energies are depleted, the spirit disperses and withdraws, like the fish that dies when the water has dried up.
SEXUALITY AND HUMAN EMOTIONS
The romantic feelings, the artificial desires, and unquenchable thirst for experience that present-day society engenders in us are a source more of internal conflict than of freedom in the area of sexuality. The earliest Taoist texts stress the destructive effects of uncontrolled emotions. The old sage Lao-tzu, with his distaist of the five tastes, the five sounds, and the five colors, always kept his distance from sensorial perceptions and the attachments they create. The lines of Lu Dong Bing are as invaluable as ever in helping us understand the phenomenon of conflictual emotions:
Because man has six organs, he develops six consciousnesses and thus six emotions. People do not realize that their emotions keep essential reality hidden from them. And it is when one loses sight of essential reality that the emotions run wild. The root cause of the negative emotions is envy, however. Thus, if you are not dominated by your desires, you will not be irresistibly attracted by things, and if you are not attracted, you will not be disgusted by other things and anger will not be born. And without anger there is neither fear nor sadness.
Other Taoists speak of these emotions as poisons that not only cause conflicts with others but also obstruct the flow of vital energy in very specific ways, resulting in loss of energy, constriction, and stress. It's commonly recognized that anger can raise blood pressure to dangerous levels and that hysterical joy can provoke a heart attack. If these are simply the most glaring manifestations, how many less visible obstructions must there be that little by little imprison the ego in a web of illusion?
It is also common knowledge that many chronic illnesses can be aggravated or even caused in the first place by these emotional obstructions. The way to recovery thus involves a second stage, that of freeing the emotional energies and redirecting them into the functional circuit of qi. It is not really spiritual work but rather a foundation for spiritual work. Many methods in this book work directly or indirectly on the alchemy of the emotions. The path to ridding oneself of these conflicts is simple: one has merely to see that there is no self, at least no real self. How does one become aware of this? By practicing contemplation and meditation. Lu Dong Bing compares the self to a shadow floating in space like the morning mist. How can illness take root in such a shadow? The basic advice on how to manage one's emotions is as follows: "Sit calmly (Tso wang) and observe the emotions rise just as you might watch the morning mist dissipate into the blue sky."
The conflictual emotions create numerous obstacles in us, as much on the physical, organic level as on the social level. The Taoists associated the principal emotions with the cycle of the five phases and the five viscera. This inspired notion allowed them to understand the phenomenon of psychosomatic illnesses long before the term had been invented. They did this by examining the seven emotions (qi qing) and considering their relation to the functioning of qi:
- Anger provokes a contraction of qi that affects the sinews (causing stress) and the liver.
- Sadness and remorse provoke loss of qi and chronic fatigue. Lung function is also affected.
- Anxiety and fear provoke a collapse of qi that damages the kidneys.
- Melancholy brings stagnation of qi, which obstructs the free functioning of the spleen and stomach.
- Envy provokes constriction that is akin to anger. » Resentment blocks the expression of energy in the region of the heart.
- Impulsive joy and hysteria excite the heart and can weaken it to the point of fragility.
This brief description shows that for Taoists the body, energy, and consciousness are intimately linked and that people can become the slaves of their emotions and fall ill as a result. Their freedom thus becomes an illusion. How, then, can one say that emotional self-indulgence is freedom?
People are emotional beings; they are deeply sensitive to what happens around them and are always involving themselves, sometimes unwittingly, in complicated relationships. They want to be happy, but their happiness rests on a sweet illusion. They welcome life's good sides and stubbornly refuse to face up to its difficult moments. If the extreme emotions can so easily cause us to lose our balance, then how can we look on our emotions as clouds moving across the sky? The Taoists' response to this question is that we must make the attempt and practice as often as we can. In the beginning, this process seems intellectual, but visualization (tzi) and the cultivation of quietude give this method a natural force.
In China today, certain qigong methods are practiced with the aim of producing emotional release or violent upheaval. Many of these practices have no basis in traditional Taoist methodology. What's more, some of these schools have fallen under the sway of Western psychotherapy. Dr. Pang Heming, director of the Zhi Neng Qigong Hospital, objects to these practices in the strongest possible terms: "In China, many people practice qigong and experience episodes of uncontrollable screaming, crying, shaking, and many other so-called paranormal phenomena. This merely proves their total lack of a solid foundation. These illusory events are taken as signs of real progress."
The term "quietude" ought not be understood as a negative state excluding all sensorial or emotional stimuli. On the contrary, quietude means a calm acceptance, free from all conflictual emotion. As the Chinese proverb says, "From an ounce of confusion comes a ton of chaos." Solutions come more easily when the spirit is calm and clear than when it is under the influence of impulsive, violent emotions. That is the meaning of Taoist wisdom.
You cannot approach the Tao if your spirit lacks clarity or if you are enslaved by your emotions. The teachings of Lao-tzu express the touchstone role of the conflictual emotions. These teachings are one of the major themes of the interior practice of Taoist transformation. Energy wasted on worldly emotions is not at all useful in the great Taoist purification process.
To put this advice in a modern framework, we might say that stress binds up our vital energy in superfluous tensions, and violent emotions cloud our awareness, shrouding it in extenuating circumstances that divert it from what is essential. Envy, at the heart of our emotions, is for Taoists the source of all attachments; this thirst to possess, to see, and to feel is, they believe, yin in nature, and thus passive. It is a golden prison in which we believe we act freely. In the Tao-te Chvng, Lao-tzu expresses this idea for us in a dazzling way: "In absolute quietude, how can desire be born? When avidity remains unborn, that is the state of absolute quietude."
This quietude is in fact a source of inexhaustible energy. That is why the ancient sages would withdraw to the mountains, not to savor the simple joys of country life but to partake in the beatifying calm of their own spirit washed clean of all vulgar attachments.
The same is true for your body and its sexual essence. Every morning, sexual essence grows within your body, and if you use it at the right moment, you will not harm yourself at all; the next time you use it, it will be even stronger: "Man misuses the sex act, sometimes even forcing himself when nature does not necessarily demand it."
SEX, PURITY, AND FREEDOM
Purity, in the Taoist sense of the term, is a state of freedom from all illusions, a state beyond the self, beyond heaven, and beyond earth. Impurity is the worldly way, the way of illusory attachments to endless desires. As the "immortal golden treatise" says, "The energy that begins to move when one attains quietude is ancestral energy (yuanqi). When yuanqi moves, jing increases. At this moment one can observe its proper nature. Even while remaining calm, one can guide jing to the dantian and create the alchemical pearl (dan)."
To be alive is necessarily to be in contact with the world, and thus involved in a never-ending production of thoughts and feelings. For the Taoists, worldly thoughts give rise to impure consciousness, to the loss of the original state. This original state is not at all one of hedonistic idleness or beatific torpor, because non-forgetfulness is there to awaken us at every step on the path that is the Tao.
To practice quietude is to return to the source of consciousness through meditation: when the eyes, the ears, and the five senses are no longer in contact with the world, they cease to trigger memories in the conscious heart [xiri). As Confucius (K'ung Ch'iu) himself said, "When the desires diminish, the way to heaven is open."
Within the human body there exist many involuntary movements: the heart is a prime example. Action, for its part, conforms to the objective world conditioned by our thought. Nonaction is unconditioned. To free ourselves from the negative imprinting we bear in our bodies and our thoughts, Taoists offer the practice of meditation and contemplation. Every time we decide to act, we are conditioned by the weight of our memories and desires, even though it seems to us that we are acting of our own free will. For example, if we decide to take a vacation in a warm, sunny place, we believe that in making that choice we are acting in complete freedom. In fact, if we examine our motivations, we perceive that our action is conditioned by different subjective points of view: our stress and fatigue, our desire to get to know one more country, a thirst for human encounters to relieve our loneliness, the current fashions that make this destination obligatory, and so on. Our act, far from being free, is in fact preconditioned. What we call freedom of action is often more like a golden prison. The practice of nonaction thus consists of finding our way back to the state that lies at the very heart of our physical and mental being.
He Xiugu, "the little long-stemmed lotus flower," was the only woman among the eight immortals of the Taoist pantheon. As a child, she had already attained immortality and awakening, and she thereupon took vows of chastity. When her stepmother wanted to force her to marry, she fled to the celestial regions, "leaving her shoes behind her." Once there, she was asked whether she didn't miss the world of men and women, of lovers and their mistresses. This is how she answered: "My friends, the immortals, possess the qualities of both sexes."