The cult of mystical ignorance

A persistent theme of my work is the confrontation of problems arising from the issue of folk-modelling, also called cultural modelling, within the martial arts. We form cultural models by repeated daily interaction within a cultural context. Things become familiar and we acquire a sense or feel for how something actually is. An issue that arises repeatedly in Chinese physical culture is that we often use the terms, phrases and concepts from Chinese medicine, even though most of the people using the terminology have no formal training in the medicine. Terms and ideas get used so often that they acquire a kind of cognitive solidity and, despite being used incorrectly, reach the level of canon. “Because we mean this when we use a certain term it means this when we use it.”

These kind of tautologies are widespread and pernicious within Chinese physical culture. However, we must also face the fact that most of what happens within this culture, especially the martial arts, is just a kind of live action role-playing game in the end. There is a lot more dress-up and pantomime to the practice than most of us would like to admit. Therefore most of the time it doesn’t really matter what we say and do. Any harm that comes is usually so insignificant as to be unworthy of mention.

There is a practice that I would like to address that has been a bit of a bee in my bonnet for some time. In Qigong there is a well known exercise/method known as 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān, often rendered as “small heavenly orbit.” 小 is certainly a word that means small. 天 means the sky or the heavens or heaven; having both atmospheric and spiritual/celestial connotations. The middle word 周is more problematic.s00977 Looking at a seal script version of the character we can see it is based on the root of 中 zhōng, meaning centre. An upper mark indicates the bronze offered to an ancestor and this formed the word 用 yòng to use, as the offering brought blessings and so aptitude and utility. The lower mark is derived from an old form of 及 jí to seize or to catch, and over time scribes changed it to a mouth for reasons lost to the ages.

So the word 周 is a word that began as an expression of the centre that evolved to include the central place of sacrifice to the ancestors. Sacrifice to the ancestors is an act that brings fortune and therefore makes every activity better. It is universally useful and so becomes a metaphor for something which is all encompassing. Being all-encompassing it extends to even the outer edges or circumference of things. Because it extends to the circumference it has come to mean orbit as well. The problem with the word orbit is that it is not all-encompassing and implies a place of passage or a cycle of movement.

A quick survey of the discussion of 小周天 will show that most people describe it as a method to link two extraordinary meridians, the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài, for the purpose of increasing health. Typically the method is described as a visualization of the 氣 Qì rising up the 督脈 Dūmài and descending down the 任脈 Rénmài with the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth as a key component of the linking process. Sometimes the meridians are described as arising in 丹田 Dàntiān though it is more frequent that no references to the body interior are made. In this method the metaphor of the orbit is in full use with the focus point of the mind acting as like a planetary body on its trip around the sun.

An aspect that is often discussed as well is the idea of opening the connection between these two meridians. I am reminded of a day at the Kootenay Lake Taijiquan camp in the early 90’s when Yeung Fook (an accomplished adept if ever there was one) was visiting. Someone asked him about “opening the small heavenly orbit” and the snort of derision he gave when the question was translated to him will never leave me. He dismissed the idea by saying “Open it! You are alive aren’t you? Then its open.” I had suspicions about the practice early on and Master Yeung’s reply that summer day was the beginning of the rant that I am undertaking in this blog this winter’s day.

So what are we really talking about here? Why don’t we get past the folk models and lay out the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài, the Eight Extraordinary meridians? The 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài are a primordial substrate of the complex communication system that has developed through evolution of the organs of the interior of the body and the superficial tissues and structures of the body’s exterior and limbs. We can see manifestations of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài in simple creatures and there is evidence to suggest that their function has largely been taken over by what we call the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng the 12 regular meridians. Of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài the most important are the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài as they actually have their own acupoints.

The fact that these two of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài have their own points are a big part of the problem. Acupoints are places of peculiar activity along the pathways of the meridians. They tend to be reactive to touch or warmth or, especially, needle insertion. A convention within the organization of acupoints along the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng is that they are ordered to generally follow the flowing pouring of the meridians. While this may seem to also be true of the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài there is a problem. This problem is that one of the things that distinguishes the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng from the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài is that the former displays a regular pattern of flow and the latter does not. This is very important, the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài do not flow. They do have a regulating and storage function but they do not behave the same as regular meridians despite having points.

To use water metaphors, you could say that the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng behave like rivers and streams. Flowing and pouring with areas that are broader and slower while others are fast and narrow. The 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài are more like ocean waters with oscillations of deep up-welling that may or may not appear from day to day (like El Niño).

A survey of the textual references to the pathways as they are described in the ancient classics may be useful here to show some of the problems with where people have taken the idea of 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān. In the [素問:骨空論] “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions (from the Neijing)” it says:

“督脈者, 起于小腹, 以下骨中央, 女子人廷孔 — 其孔, 尿孔之端也. 其絡循陰器, 合篡間, 绕篡后, 別绕臀至少陰, 与巨陽中洛者合… 其男子循茎下至篡, 与女子等. 其少腹直上者, 貫臍中央, 上貫心, 入喉, 上頤, 環唇, 上系兩目之下中央.”

This could be rendered something like :

“The Dūmài, arises in the lower abdomen, descends to the symphysis pubis, in women it enters the urethra, this hole is the urine hole’s end (external orifice of the urethra). Its net-like branching portion travels along the external genitalia (literally the “Yin tool”), unites wrapping at the perineum, wraps posterior to the perineum branching and wrapping the buttocks it arrives at the Lesser Yin (Kidney meridian), with Great Yang (Urinary Bladder meridian) its unites within net-like branch. (there is a portion here that I did not render as it is actually a review of the pathway of the Bladder meridian and its connections to the head and back. It begins at the eye’s inner canthus, up the forehead, crossing at the apex to enter and net the brain, reversing it exits and bifurcates descending the nape, down between the shoulder blades to the small of the back entering into the deep erectors it nets the Kidneys). In men it travels along the stalk’s underside, to the perineum, and then the pathway is the same as in females. From the lower abdomen it moves directly upward, pierces the navel centre, rises penetrating the heart, enters the throat, rises to the dimple, circles the lips, rises to link the midpoint under both eyes.”

One thing that stands out is that there is no specific reference to the posterior mid-line yet there is a clear outline of the pathway we associate with the 任脈 Rénmài. In this early description we see both posterior and anterior aspects in the text. If we look at the Classic of Difficulties, a later text to the Neijing that addresses issues arising from the Neijing we can see a more familiar, but simpler, outline of the pathway. From the [難經:二十八難] The 28th Difficulty:

“督脈者, 起于下極之俞, 并于脊里, 上至風府, 入屬于腦.”

This we could render as:

“The Dūmài, arises at the most extreme inferior acupoint, travels within the spine, rises to reach the Wind Palace (an acupoint at the base of the skull), enters and connects at the brain.”

Let us then look at the descriptions of the 任脈 Rénmài and then we can put them together. There is also an outline of the 任脈 Rénmài in the [素問:骨空論] “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions.” It reads as follows:

“任脈者, 起于中極之下, 以上毛際, 循腹里, 上關元, 至咽喉, 上頤循面入目.”

We can translate this as something like:

“Rénmài, arises centre extreme’s underside, rises through the pubic hairline, rises to Guan Yuan (an acupoint a hand span below the navel), arrives at the throat, rises to the dimples crosses the face to enter the eyes.

There is another reference to 任脈 Rénmài fromthe Neijing is found in the [靈樞:五音五味] “The Five Sounds Five Flavours chapter of the Spiritual Pivot.”

“衝脈, 任脈皆起于胞中, 上循背里, 為經絡之海; 其浮而外者, 循腹 (右) 上行, 會于咽喉, 別而絡唇口.”

This could be:

“Chōngmài, Rénmài both arise in the uterus, move up within the back, acting as the sea of all meridians and collaterals. Its superficial and exterior portion, travels along abdomen (right) moving up, unites at the throat, branches and nets the lips and mouth.”

There is also a description in the Nanjing: 28th Difficulty [難經:二十八難]:

“任脈者, 起于中極之下, 以上毛際, 循腹里, 上關元, 至咽喉.”

This last description is the same as the one found in the “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions” except that is does not include the last phrase describing the connections to the face and head.

I know that is a lot of stuff to wade through but lets try and frame it all together. We can see that in the core classics of Chinese medicine where we see the 12 Regular meridians, the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng, clearly laid out and mapped in complete detail, the 8 Extraordinary meridians, the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài, are not so clear. This has led, over the centuries, to speculation and attempts to fill in the blanks.

If we look at the pathways described and put them all together we can see that they rise from the inferior of the body. We can see that they have each have both anterior and posterior pathways, though you could also read that each includes partial descriptions of the other. We can see a great deal of overlap and cross-connection with other meridians; the Bladder and Kidney meridians (足太陽膀胱經, 足少陰腎經) with the 督脈 Dūmài, and the 衝脈 Chōngmài with the 任脈 Rénmài.

So first, if we acknowledge that there is more to the 督脈 Dūmài and the 任脈 Rénmài than the simplistic superficial pathways often outlined in 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice, then we must question the nature of the method. We must also ask questions based on the understanding that a characteristic of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài is that they do not flow in the same way as the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng.

A very popular phrase within the world of Chinese physical culture is “意領氣” Yì Líng Qì, or “the mind leads the Qi.”  A more complete rendering of the phrase is “心領意, 意領氣, 氣領身” Xīn Líng Yì, Yì Líng Qì, Qì Líng Shēn, or “heart leads mind, mind leads Qi, Qi leads body.” It is an outline of the use of intent as tool within cultivation. That intent is a key feature of the methodology and development within Chinese physical culture and medicine is clear; therefore, it is no surprise the term is widely used.

Something that has come up in my writing before is the fact that the internal cause of disease is the mind.  This is the problem with using the mind as a tool for cultivation, it is very much like a Chinese straight sword, it has great reach and its two edges make it as dangerous to learn to use as it can become in battle. The mind is a powerful tool as well as a dangerous one. I often say that “Mind leads the Qi is not the instructions, it is the warning label on the bottle.”

So when a person reads a book about Qigong or studies in a class and learns the 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice of using the mind to follow the “orbit” up the back and down the front, carefully touching their tongue to the roof of their mouth, just what are they up to? If they are told that they have “blockages in the 督脈 Dūmài” and are instructed to use their mind and awareness to open them up, just what aspect of the ocean is blocked? If I follow the orbit with my mind am I feeling a flow or am I making it? If I expect to feel a flow is it really there just because I feel it?

Now finally to the Cult of Mystical Ignorance. I see within the Qigong and Chinese martial arts worlds many who trust information from sources that may be well lineaged, but are ignorant of the clinically tested facts of Chinese medicine. Even though their intentions may be above reproach, though there are usually economic factors involved as not many teach for free, the information they share may be grounded in ignorance. Mysticism and exotic otherness often stands in for the details in these practices and this can lead many astray.

The Small Heavenly Orbit 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice stands out as one that strays into very dangerous ground. If the intent is used to “move the Qi” through the orbit there are some tangible clinical effects that can result. The lifting of the Qi through the 督脈 Dūmài can lead to stagnation of Qi in the upper back and head, not really in the 督脈 Dūmài, but in the 足太陽膀胱經 Urinary Bladder meridian. This can lead to headaches, nausea, tinnitus and stiffness of the neck and upper back. The circumstances of the practitioner, what I like to think of as the “climate” of the body, may mean that there is more of an inflammatory process at work and we can see the signs of heat (熱 rè). This can lead to dramatic psycho-emotional changes, such as manic or reckless behavior. In the worst cases we can see the transformation of 走火入魔 zǒu huǒ rù mó, the “fire chasing demon.” The risk is particularly great if the practitioner also uses drugs recreationally  or for the purposes of “journeying.”

The descending of Qi through the 任脈 Rénmài can lead to gastro-intestinal problems, gynecological issues and even such things as prolapse. If it goes on too long the body can accumulate pathological metabolites which we call 痰 tàn or phlegm. Phlegm creates weird problems in the body and can lead to the lodging of heat as well, creating a 走火入魔 zǒu huǒ rù mó by another means.

It may be useful to remember that 意 Yì can mean “attent” as well as “intent.” Perhaps if we go back to the classical understanding of the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài and apply our awareness more than our intention then we will be on stronger ground. If I am aware of the encompassing nature of these meridians in both the front and the back I may be at less risk when considering 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān. As one of my teachers pointed out one day “we need to train 10 years in this varied and busy world to get to the level of internal quiet that novices started at 1000 years ago.”

I hate to see people being led astray by their practice and, even more, injured by it. I do firmly believe that knowledge is our greatest tool in 內功 Nèigōng cultivation. If we remain practical and grounded in the real accumulated wisdom of the methods we can avoid injury and move forward in confidence. We would do well to remember that the natural philosophers of ancient China left evidence of deep pragmatism and little superstition. If we don’t allow ourselves the indulgence of hiding ignorance behind mysticism then we can advance without injury.


One thought on “The cult of mystical ignorance

  1. Tom Campbell says:

    Excellent elucidation and commentary, Kevin. Thank you! Most of the practices and paradigms peddled as systems of qigong or neigong have one or more aspects of what you write about here. Particularly problematic, in my view, is the misunderstanding in application of Yi as “intention” and overlooking the central importance of simple awareness. I am pointing other practitioners to your essay with a thumb’s up.


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