Updated: Mar 31, 2022
In the late 1960s , The Who redefined music with their rock opera, Tommy. You’re probably familiar with these lyrics from Pinball Wizard:
He stands like a statue, becomes part of the machine.
Feeling all the bumpers, always playing clean,
Plays by intuition, the digit counters fall,
That deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.
Ain’t got no distractions. Can’t hear no buzzers and bells.
Don’t see no lights a flashin’, plays by sense of smell.
Always gets a replay, never seen him fall,
That deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.
Almost 2,000 years earlier, the Taoists prescribed that you should train your mind as well as your body. I’m not sure they were talking about the same thing. Or were they… ?
When East or West addresses training the body, they are generally on similar pages of the same book. In other words, a practitioner will engage in physical activities that will strengthen the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, tissues, aerobic capacity and endurance to ensure a far better performance. One workout may require more muscle mass, one less; one may require more flexibility, one not as much. One may require more speed, or more endurance, and so on. The training, regardless of the specific technique, will require dedicated and disciplined time and energy – kung fu – and commitment to reach the desired physical potential.
When we talk about training the mind, however, those in the West and the Taoists in the East may differ. In the West, when we contemplate training the mind we usually think about increasing our knowledge and, hopefully, our understanding. We often think about advancing our education. Every day we may be improving by adding something new. “More is better” is definitely a Western perspective. Conversely, in the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tsu, author of the Tao Te Ching, we read that:
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
~ Chapter 12
So much around us is terribly distracting. So much of what is happening in our mind is distracting. From the moment we awake in the morning, the voice(s) in our head begin(s) to dialogue:
“Can I turn off the alarm and sleep at least another 10 or 15 minutes?”
“I have got to remember to get Tom off to school with a good breakfast this morning.”
“Maybe I can catch a cup of coffee on the way into work today.”
As we get out of bed, the voices continue….
“That’s right; I have a meeting with Mary this afternoon. I know how that’s going to go. She’s going to want to talk about that new project. We haven’t even put closure on the one we started last week.”
It goes on and on, and on, and on. It never stops. We can’t get to sleep at night without a sleep assist. The voices will not quiet. When we awake in the morning, we realize the answers to some of the problems that accompanied us to bed. Even while we rest we are still dialoguing, and we try to convince ourselves that this is a great thing… that although asleep, we are still working! But the truth is that the voices are relentless, and this is not a great thing. How can we possibly be as productive as we would like when we are so distracted by all of the monkeys in our head… by all the racing and hunting that is happening?
The Taoists suggest that when training the mind, we do not add something daily. In fact, every day we must let go of something! We must train our minds to turn off the dialogue. We must learn to quiet the mind so we can use it to best accomplish the task before us. We must learn to meditate; we need to cultivate QiGong.
Unfortunately, meditation is often misunderstood in the West. Meditation is not empty mind; a mind cannot be emptied. We can, however, learn to focus our mind – to engage WuJi. WuJi is often equated with an empty mind, but that is another misperception. That idea has grown, perhaps, because of the way in which WuJi is written in native Chinese. The symbol for WuJi is written as “O”. The translation as empty mind is a bit too literal; it actually refers to a focused mind, or meditation. In meditation, we learn to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all other extraneous thoughts… we are not thinking of a million other things at the same time. We turn off the distractions, the voices. We concentrate on a sound, a color, a word. In this way, prayer is also meditation; it is a mind focused on conversation with a higher power.
In our Taoist practices, we initially learn to focus our mind on our breath. We learn to listen to our breath; we listen to each inhalation and each exhalation. We slow down and calm the breath. We learn to balance the time it takes to inhale with the time it takes to exhale. We experience our breathing through mindfulness. We then train our mind to lead the breath. We teach ourselves to breathe to the lower abdomen, to practice belly breathing. All creatures in nature inherently breathe with their abdomens. Animals in nature, our domesticated pets, even our infants… when they breathe, their bellies expand and contract with each inhalation and exhalation. Only human adults breathe shallow and with their chests.
When we breathe to our abdomens, our lower dantien, or energy center, draws vital components from all that we eat, drink and breathe, and combines them with the natural essence within us, our jing, to form our own life force, or Qi. Through QiGong, we train our minds to become conscious of this Qi within us; we learn to mindfully experience this Qi on a physical level. Mind and Qi become one. Next, we use the mind to move this life force, or Qi, throughout the body along pathways that connect all of the organs and systems. When balanced and energized, this free flow of Qi provides us with health and wellbeing.
Part of the reason that such amazing feats can be performed through the practice of Chinese Qi Gong, or internal energy exercise, is the ability to train the mind. Returning to the Tao Te Ching:
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If people lack knowledge and desire, then intellectuals will not try to interfere….
~ Chapter 3
Perhaps Lao Tsu was advising almost the same thing as The Who: Focus your mind internally. Stuff, breathe to, and expand your belly. Let go of your focus on having, achieving, accomplishing – those things which confuse and distract. Develop physical and mental strength so that your mind, its thoughts, and the many voices dialoguing within it, will not interfere. Thus, the more mindful and focused mind will be able to perform better, and more importantly, the goal of living a healthier, happier and longer life then becomes a much greater reality.