The Middle Path of Qi Cultivation:
Balancing Wu Wei and You Wei
Guan-Cheng Sun, Ph.D. and Jill Gonet, M.F.A.
There are many styles of Qi cultivation in China and in the world. But, from the Taoist perspective, there are two schools of Qi cultivation: the Xing Gong school and the Ming Gong school. The Xing Gong school begins by first training the mind with meditation and quiet sitting, and is referred to as the “Wu Wei” school. The Ming Gong school begins by first training the body with Qi-cultivation practice and related forms of exercises, and is referred to as the “You Wei” school. Xing Gong stresses the importance of the state of mind, and the process of internal cultivation proceeds from Wu Wei to You Wei. Ming Gong schools emphasize the importance of the body and Qi, and the process of internal cultivation proceeds from You Wei to Wu Wei. The Wu Wei and You Wei schools start in different places but they are complementary to each other.
In our perspective, there are four stages in the process of Qi cultivation: 1) You Wei (intentional practice), 2) Wu Wei (transformative practice), 3) Zai You Wei (inspired practice), and 4) Wu Bu Wei (integrated practice).
You Wei Practice (Intentional Practice)
Today, we are so fortunate to live with modern conveniences, and to have high techs tools available to us such as cell phone, computer, internet, and so forth. However, a drawback of this time is that with its fast pace, many people are constantly over-stimulated–day after day, week after week, and month after month. These mental stress levels increasingly accumulate in peoples’ minds and bodies. Many people talk with someone on their cell phone while they are eating, drinking, shopping, driving and so on. Often many activities and many thoughts are in their mind at same time. Sometimes they feel chaotic and have no clarity in their mind. Many people have forgotten how to relax their mind, how to live with internal peace and clarity, and how to recharge their body energetically. This could cause chronic illnesses, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, insomnia, etc. In order to maintain good health, it is important to learn how to relax the mind and the body appropriately, and how to recharge the body energetically.
At the beginning stage of Qi cultivation practice, we directly use our intellectual mind to build up an energy field between the hands and arms, and then practice focusing the mind, finding an appropriate degree of concentration, which allows us to feel the energy field between the hands as an energetic rubber band stretching between our hands and arms. Thus, we are forming a magnetic field between our hands and arms. And once we have built up this magnetic field successfully, we can energize every center in the body. This first step of Qi cultivation practice is called “training the intent for initiating the internal energy system.” In Chinese it is called “Lianyi Deneng” (炼意得能).
Once we are able to sense the energy field between our hands and arms, we begin to take our breathing more deeply, slowly, and smoothly in order to increase the oxygen levels within, to release accumulated toxins and waste products, and to enhance the strength of the energy field. With enhanced energy sensations, the mind gradually relaxes, and with the intensity of our focus at the appropriate degree, we experience how the internal energy flow leads the physical movements instead of the physical movement being led by the mind. As this shift occurs, we also experience enhanced saliva flow and a great freedom and joy within. The practice of enhancing the internal energy flow and relaxing the intellectual mind in order to produce necessary hormones and medicine in the body is called “strengthening the internal energy for producing more essence and medicine of the body.” In Chinese it is called “Lianneng Shenjing” (炼能生精).
During regular Qi cultivation practice, the attainment of relaxed mind and enhanced saliva flow indicate that it is the right time to move forward and deepen the internal energy cultivation–“to light the fire of the life gate and activate the energetic functions of the kidneys for generating more energy within” and then to ground that energy firmly. This practice of activating the energetic function of the Kidneys in order to generate more energy and store the refined energy is called “Refining the essence and converting it into Qi.” In Chinese it is called “Lianjing Huaqi” (炼精化气).
With regular and disciplined practice, the increased energy in the body can be stored and accumulated in the Dantian. At this stage, practitioners may experience a warm and solid and swirling sense of energy at the Dantian area; it is then natural to circulate the energy around the Du-meridian and Ren-meridian in the body. This practice of circulating the internal energy around the Du-Ren meridians is called “Nourishing the Mind with the refined Qi.” In Chinese it is called “Lianqi Yangshen” (炼气养神). The above four steps are considered the stages of “You Wei” practice, because we use our intent consciously and proactively.
Wu Wei Practice (Transformative Practice)
Through the process of You Wei practice, the state of the mind changes naturally from a chaotic situation to good order, from many thoughts at the same time to a single mind situation. Sometimes we naturally forget how many times we have repeated a movement or a mantra or breathing exercise, etc. Regular and disciplined practice brings the mind and the body into a relaxed state of the body and a peaceful state of the mind. This peaceful state of the mind not only allows us to be aware of any thoughts coming in and leaving the mind, but also provides opportunities to experience an empty space and time between thoughts or images on the mind screen. This empty space between thoughts and/or images is the gate of “xuan” for connecting with the void of the universe. This process of “entering the empty space of the mind” is called “Lianshen Huanxu” (炼神还虚) in Chinese. In other words, it is called the state of “Wu Wei.”
In Wu Wei stages of internal Qi cultivation, it is necessary and important to observe the nature of the mind with a detached attitude. Whenever a thought or an image or an old memory appears on the mind screen, we do not respond to it—we just keep our peacefulness and calmness as a non-related observer or an independent investigator and do not let the passing thought or image lead us.
During Wu Wei stages of internal Qi cultivation, the detached state of mind is essential for successful observation and investigation at the universal intelligence level. It is probably accurate to say that a great degree of surrender of our personal mind to the Dao is necessary. We may have surrendered before; we may even have surrendered constantly, on a regular daily basis. The kind of transformation implied in the Wu Wei school of Qi cultivation doesn’t happen at the beginning. Practitioners encounter/become aware of a great flood of ordinary thought forms, and ordinary emotions of ordinary life. What are we doing with our life? If it’s only about things, status, expansion of material or ego objectives, then we are one with the flood of ordinary thought forms, and the surrender is not happening.
The internal Qi cultivation at this stage can be difficult and challenging, because it naturally relates to our health condition, behaviors and life situation, such as habits, lifestyle, addictions, ego, position, work, etc. The detached state of mind does not merely mean to deny or ignore any unhealthy behavior or lifestyle or inappropriate position or status, but means letting go of them and not being affected by them during cultivation and daily life. To be established in detachment and therefore in Wu Wei implies that something else besides the small self has become the standard. Or perhaps the “something else” has created something different for the practitioner, as the practitioner has reached toward it and welcomed it into the mind, heart, spirit, and physical being. And in doing so the “something else” has created something upright, vigilant, and devoted. It refers to itself constantly, not to the flood of ordinary thought forms and ordinary emotions, and is not carried away. As the surrender deepens, there comes to be a division between the self and that flood: this is detachment.
It should also be noted that the process of surrender involves not just the ego/small self, but the surrender of the unhealthy programs and behaviors. This is a victory for the soul, and a great achievement in cultivation. The unhealthy parts have been surrendered, and the soul is free to connect to the Dao. This process not only takes time but also requires great effort to be achieved successfully. Therefore to attain the Wu Wei state, it takes a lot of hard work. No one can reach this state without doing really hard work during the Qi cultivation process.
With successful Wu Wei cultivation, we will be able to observe the intelligence of heaven and earth with detached state of mind, and may experience the profound state of Wu Wei as Laozi described in chapter 47:
“You can know what is happening all over the world without going out of doors; you can also understand the Dao of heaven, the natural laws in the universe without looking out of the window. With the way of ordinary learning, the further you go the less you know. With the way of sages, you know things and events without traveling; you can understand things well without seeing them; with “Wu Wei” you can have great achievement and success. (不出於戶，以知天下；不窥於牖，以知天道。其出也遠，其知也少。是以聖人，不行而知，不見而名，弗爲而成.)
Zai You Wei Practice (Inspired Practice)
During the Wu Wei stage of Qi cultivation, if we observe the thoughts or images carefully, we may experience an interesting phenomenon: a time frame of past Þ present Þ future changes to future Þpresent Þpast. In the beginning, a thought stays in the mind for while, then goes away, and becomes the past. Then a new thought comes; before this present thought goes away, another future thought is waiting to come into the mind. We can experience, simultaneously, the past thought, present thought, and future thought. With continued practice, the future thought becomes a present thought, and the present thought becomes a past thought and again and again the future thoughts become present thoughts and presents thoughts become past thoughts. We may well inquire at this point and in this space, are we living at the past or the present or the future?
During the Wu Wei state of Qi cultivation, practitioners have established a detached state of mind, and this is the foundation for developing a stable and peaceful mind at a much deeper level, even with possible intensive occurrences of past memories or with environmental disturbances. The establishment of a stable and peaceful mind allows us to observe and recognize the thoughts, emotions, images, and memories on the mind screen and learn how to identify where they come from, where they go, and how to identify which are ours, which are not, and how to respond to them and manage them. This is an interesting and profound part of the process of internal cultivation. With Qi cultivation, the stabilized peaceful mind holds up a mirror to the consciousness of the body (sub-conscious); and the body also holds up a mirror to the thoughts and images of the mind. The agreement and alignment and the oneness between the mind and the body provide useful and valuable information that allows us to recognize the false and the true and to distinguish between delusions and reality. Practice at this stage plays a very important role for internal realization in terms of knowing our intrinsic nature. It also can be a great opportunity for liberation from the suffering brought on by tragedies, unhealthy experiences, and the errors of the past. This practice of “establishing and stabilizing the peaceful state of mind to understand our intrinsic nature and the reality of heaven and earth” is called “Lianxu Liaoxing” (炼虚了性) in Chinese.
Through “Wu-Wei” and “Zai You Wei” practice, internal cultivators have deepened their cultivation and significantly purified the mind and the body. Many delusions have been released from the mind and many unhealthy memories and habits have been removed from the body. So the mind and body are much more seamlessly working together as an integrated whole to perform in accordance with Dao. Dao De Jing chapter 37 says: “Dao always gets things done successfully and gracefully with “Wu Wei” (道常无为而无不为). In this stage, practitioners realize that “Wu-Wei” does not refer to being passive or not active or without doing, but it does mean wisely and carefully observing and investigating the events and situations, particularly with a detached attitude, until they reach a complete realization before taking important actions or initiating movements. In other words, Wu-Wei means to get things done skillfully in accordance with the Dao—the natural laws in the universe. Getting things done skillfully in accordance with the Dao, the cultivator can achieve greater success without excess effort and no mistake. This practice of “getting things done in accordance with the Dao without wrong doing” is called “Wu Wei Er Wu Bu Wei” (无为而无不为) in Chinese.
In Daoist tradition, the Wu Wei School stresses the importance of the cultivation of the mind, and the You Wei School emphasizes the importance of the body and Qi. You Wei and Wu Wei are both equally important practices for internal cultivation. Actually, during the Qi cultivation, integrating Wu Wei practice with You Wei practice or/and integrating the You Wei practice with Wu Wei practice is essential to achieve successful self-realization and self-mastery and to act in accordance with the Dao. We have witnessed many individuals who have meditated or prayed previously make much satisfying and desirable progress during their Qigong practice. On the other hand, many Qigong practitioners naturally change their practice from movement to meditation and from meditation to movement again and again with a growing awareness and enhancement of Qi, the vital energy within and surrounding their body. Therefore, the successful integration of You Wei and Wu Wei practice helps us to understand the Dao of life, particularly the relationships between the mind and the body as well as between the energy flow and one’s consciousness. The combined practice of Wu Wei and You Wei allows us to experience and understand in greater depth the unity and oneness between the self and others, as well as between the self and heaven and earth.
When practitioners have focused solely on You Wei practice, there could be a tendency for a gap to occur between themselves and their actions and the Dao. This can happen because practitioners can come to rely on their body’s experience and memories, and to go along with whatever they sense energetically “feels right” or “whatever works” based on past body’s memories. On the other hand, when practitioners focus too much solely on meditation and quiet sitting, there’s a tendency to become too receptive, to go along with whatever orthodoxies the self may have been conditioned to accept, from whatever cultural training the practitioner may have received. The reception can continue unabated if there is too strong an emphasis at the beginning on Wu Wei practice. Therefore, a gap between practitioners and their actions and the Dao can also occur for those practitioners who focus too heavily on Wu Wei practice. Getting these two areas of practice into balance brings great progress for Daoist practitioners.
Guan-Cheng Sun, PhD is the founder of the Institute of Qigong & Internal Alternative Medicine. Dr. Sun earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan in 1993, and was awarded a fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. From 1994-1997 Dr. Sun conducted postdoctoral research in molecular endocrinology at the University of Washington. This research enriched his theory and practice of Qigong. His understanding of modern molecular genetics and scientific principles, as well as his experience with internal cultivation, allowed him to create a unique bridge between cultures. Dr. Sun has spent over 30 years refining his skills and has developed a new system of Qigong called “Yi Ren® Qigong.” He is currently engaged in mind-body medicine and energy medicine research at Bastyr University, Seattle, Washington.
Jill Gonet, MFA earned her B.A. at the University of Massachusetts, and then moved to Seattle where she earned her M.F.A. from the University of Washington. She has resided in the Pacific Northwest ever since. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals over the years, including Poetry, Ploughshares, The New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Best American Poetry, among others. She is the recipient of awards from the Poetry Society of America, as well as grants from the Seattle Arts Commission. She has combined her interests in writing, Chinese culture, and the art of internal cultivation by collaborating on many writings with Dr. Sun.