From the Introduction: Basic Concepts of Taoist Psychospiritual Alchemy
Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing
Lorie Eve Dechar
The system we now know as Chinese medicine was influenced by each of the three main spiritual and philosophic traditions of China: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Most of the psychological theories that we will examine in this book—and many of Chinese medicine’s core ideas—are based on the principles of Taoism and in particular Taoist alchemy.
There is no precise date set for the beginning of Taoism. Unlike Confucianism, Taoism does not have a political, social status. It does not have a specific historic figure recognized as its originator. Some contend that Taoism is not a religion at all but rather a loose combination of teachings and philosophies based on the revelations of mystics, priests and sages over time. According to Thomas Cleary, one of the West’s most renowned Taoist scholars, “the basis of Taoism may be thought of as the primary body of knowledge underlying original Chinese culture. Its legends and traditions reach back to prehistory, preserving within themselves memories of an earlier matriarchal tradition preceding the historical emergence of patriarchal Chinese civilization.”
The word Tao has no exact English translation, but it relates most closely to the Western idea of wholeness, to the unknowable unity of the divine. When used by the Taoist philosophers, Tao became the Way, the path or cosmic law that directs the unfolding of every aspect of the universe. So Tao is the wisdom of the divine made manifest in nature and in my individual life.
The Chinese word Tao has an etymological relationship to the Sanskrit root sound “da,” which means “to divide something whole into parts.” The ancient Sanskrit word dharma is also related to this root. In the Buddhist tradition, dharma means “that which is to be held fast, kept, an ordinance or law . . . the absolute, the real.” So, both dharma and Tao refer to the way that the One, the unfathomable unity of the divine, divides into parts and manifests in the world of form.
Tao is not an answer to the question “What should I do?” but a response to the question “How do I do it?” This knowing how—how to heal, how to grow, how to live, how to rediscover my self and my origin—is an ongoing process, a way to walk through our lives rather than a static thing or way to be. It is a stone rolling down a hill, a leaf falling from a tree, light replacing shadow as the sun rises above the tops of the trees. Tao makes a space in the known where the unknown can happen. Poised right here, right now, at the place where I stand, Tao is the ongoing ever-imminent, ever-astonishing arising of the possible.
“Something invisibly formed,” writes Lao Tzu, “born before heaven and earth. In the silence and the void, standing alone and unchanging . . . perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things. I do not know its name. Call it Tao.”
The Mysterious Feminine
Tao, although ever hidden, can be seen in the movements of the clouds, in the twisting of the pine trees on the windswept ocean cliffs, in the shifting tides and the great cycles of the seasons. Tao is the unknowable Origin of being and non-being, nothingness and form. But there is a way that Tao can be perceived. Tao is perceptible through its reflection in the “Ten Thousand Things,” the infinite diversity of life and form in the natural world. In the very first chapter of the Tao Teh Ching, the principal text of the Taoist tradition, we read,
Tao is both Named and Nameless
Tao is both the wholeness and the parts. But since the divine wholeness is not accessible to human consciousness, Taoists focused on how the integrity of Tao was reflected within us and all around us in the natural world. Their primary interest was not in the ascension of human spirit to the heavenly realms but in the descent of spirit into our lives, and their focus was on the yin, the “Mysterious Feminine,” which through its potent receptivity and miraculous productivity could make manifest the mystery of Tao.
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things
Through meditation, ritual and other spiritual practices, the Taoist sought to align and harmonize the various aspects of his inner being so that he could become like a mountain, a conduit between above and below. The energies of heaven swept down and manifested on earth through his spontaneous actions, much as the wind sweeps down and moves the leaves and branches of the trees. In this way he became impregnated by spirit and could give birth to his true nature, his divine mandate, his destiny or Tao.
Thus the brush stroke of the master calligrapher brought the breath of heaven down to earth as a line of black ink on a white page. The tai ch’i master manifested the divine through the gestures of his body as he practiced his form. The Taoist practitioner brought his awareness to the breath
and the breath down to the belly so that spiritual embryo of the sage could come into being in his womb. And the master acupuncturist became like a mountain, a connecting link between heaven and earth, through the effortless yet absolutely precise placement of the acupuncture needle—a
celestial lancet—in the point on his patient’s body.
At the center of Chinese medicine is an alchemical mystery, the insubstantial substance known as qi or ch’i (pronounced “chee”). Qi is the breath, the vital force of life. It is the wind that comes from the whirling vortex of Tao.
Qi streams through the body along a complex system of invisible conduits known as meridians. The ancient Chinese mapped and identified the places on the meridians where qi accumulates or comes close to the skin. According to the classic Chinese medical texts, the body has over 365 of these accumulations, which are known as points and are the places where the qi is most easily accessed, where it can be regulated, balanced, tonified, or sedated through skillful use of the acupuncture needle. Like quicksilver, qi is ungraspable and ever changing. It cannot be seen with the physical eye or measured with scientific instruments. Qi is devoid of mass or velocity, yet it exists in space and time as a quality of being, as vitality, mood, presence or animating life force. The eye of the heart and the ear of the soul can recognize its presence. We experience its effects in the liveliness of a young child, the luster of a fresh-picked apple or the rich fragrance of a pine forest. And the more deeply we immerse ourselves in the world of the ancient Chinese, the more the mystery of qi becomes a subtle, ever-present influence in our daily lives.
Yin and Yang
Yin and yang have become a part of American culture. The taiji or yin/yang symbol, the interconnected swirling of dark and light, turns up in the oddest places. People wear it on T-shirts, earrings and necklaces. It shows up in advertising logos and in works of art. We feel an irresistible affinity with this symbol even if we have no more than a vague conscious understanding of its meaning, because it represents a truth about the creative power of opposites that we know in the deepest parts of our being. Yin/yang symbols are found on bronze vases that date from the second millennium BCE. The terms “yin” and “yang” were initially descriptions of topography. They were used to designate the shady and the sunny slope of a mountain, the northern and southern banks of a river, the dark and the sunny seasons, and so on. Eventually, they came to also imply the masculine and feminine aspects of life.
When the heavy qi falls and the light qi rises, yin and yang are born. Yang relates to heaven, to spirit and to the mind, while yin relates to matter and to the body. Yin is related to the moon, cold, dark, water, moisture, quiescence and night. Yin is reflective; it receives and brings into form the impulses of the yang. Yang is related to the sun, heat, light, fire, dryness, activity and day. Yang initiates possibility while yin manifests form. Yang qi is the ephemeral, formless, initiating, spirit-polarized psychic energies of breath, consciousness, mind and imagination. Yin qi is the substantiated, formal, manifesting, matter-polarized energies of flesh, embodied awareness, body and instinct.
“When the absolute (Tao) goes into motion,” writes the Taoist alchemist Yu Yuwu, “it produces yin and yang. When motion culminates, it reverses to stillness and in stillness produces yin. When stillness culminates, it returns to movement. Movement and stillness in alternation constitute bases for each other. This is the wonder of Creation, the natural course of the Way.”
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