Cultivating the Mind and Practicing the Forms

Kevin W Chen, Ph.D. MPH

In the traditional Chinese Qigong, Taiji and other Buddhist/Daoist communities, many practitioners like to call themselves “Xiu Lian Ren” (修炼人), and call the forms or techniques they practice “Xiu Lian Shu” (修炼术),  “Xiu Lian” can be translated as cultivating-practicing, or cultivating-refining (for Daoism), which refers to two different but interrelated processes in any mind-body exercise – cultivating the mind and practicing the forms.

“Practicing the form” refers to the process of practicing a set of Taiji Quan, or a routine of qigong, or the meditation technique, or the yoga postures. When someone asks “Have you practiced today?” it is most likely referring to the process of practicing the form (练功)….

“Cultivating the mind” refers to the process of training the mind, or cultivating the Shen (修心).  Anything related to attitude change or spiritual development can be called cultivating the mind.  It is also an important aspect of Qigong/Taiji practice in general.  Historically the mind-body practice we call Qigong today was also called “refining self” (炼己), or “cultivating the behavioral manner” (修行), both terms obviously imply the process of training the mind, and cultivating the Shen (spirit).

Cultivating the mind and practicing the form are two different but interrelated processes in Qigong or mind-body exercises.  They are equally important, and need to be paid the same amount of attention so as to make expected progress and to reach higher level.  However, now a days, many students of Qigong or Taiji spend most of their times learning new forms.  They tend to attend every qigong or taiji class available in their community, and practice the forms everyday, but pay little attention to the aspect of cultivating the Shen (spirit), or training of the mind.  As a result, their cultivating-practice remains at the very low level and their physical health may not be as good as they would like to be after years of practice….

In general persistent practice of the form will help cultivate the mind, and improve the spirit in some way.  I remember that after weeks of Qigong classes and practice with the clients in a residential addiction treatment center, both the counselors and the clients reported significantly less fighting, frustration and angers among the difficult clients.  By practicing the integration of mind, body and breathing many practitioners reported changes in attitude towards life, and even changes in personality.  Practicing the form cannot substitute for the process of cultivating the mind, though it is possible to include mind-cultivation into the form practicing process.

Although there are numerous qigong or mind-body exercise forms or styles, the starting approach is very similar, that is, to start practicing by following the guided routine or instruction so as to eliminate various random thoughts from the mind, replace thousands of random thoughts with the one (breathing, the mantra or mindfulness), and finally reach the status of mindless, empty mind or no thought at all.  However, if one has not trained well on cultivating the mind, and remaining detached or empty-minded, it is very difficult to progress to high level of mind-body integration.  The achievement in cultivating the mind will directly affect the quality or progress of practicing the form.  Now we know that stress is the number one reason for people to go to primary-care doctors, and the main reason for many to start Qigong and Taiji practice. However, stress has nothing to do with how many hours you have to work everyday, but has everything to do with how you feel during those hours.   As pointed out in the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, “Remain detached and empty-mind, genuine Qi will follow easily.”  If we can retain a detached attitude toward everything, and keep empty-minded in any stressful situation, we will be happier in our daily life, and become the master of our health…  After all, most illnesses are the results of our misbehaviors or unhealthy life style, and stress is the source of many sicknesses.  Therefore, it is really the level of cultivating the mind that will make a difference in our level of Qigong cultivating-practice.

Cultivating the mind implies the process of attitude change (becoming detached and empty-minded), the training of Shen (spirit) with higher moral and spiritual connections, letting go the frame, wealth & the past, being grateful of what you have (even it is a simple and hash life), learning to be positive in every stressful situation, and following the natural action without artifice or effort…  You can feel the difference when someone with a high level of mind-cultivation is present.  S/he is always grateful for whatever is available, remaining calm whether being criticized or praised, and is refrained from extreme saying or action….  I have seen quite a few Qigong “masters”, who practice the forms beautifully, know all about theories and history, and even perform external qi healing well. However, when it comes to issues like money, fame, personality, or relationship with others, they seem to show no difference from ordinary people — always fighting for gain, fame or their name.  They do not take criticism well, or cannot be tolerant with other forms or masters, and claim their forms are the best in the world….   Since Qigong practice is such an individualized internal process, it is hard to say one form can be best for all practitioners.  I cannot say how high their level of Qigong cultivation can be since a higher level of qigong practice requires the status of empty mind without desire.  I will usually keep a distance from such a master.

Of course, cultivating the mind cannot completely substitute for the practicing form either, though cultivating the mind plays an important role in many practitioners’ lives.   We know that Confucian and Buddhist Qigong emphasize more on the aspect of cultivating the mind, and their main form of practice is meditation – purifying the mind or cultivating the spirituality.  They can usually live a peaceful and quality life, but their life expectancy is usually not as long as those of Daoist practitioners since Daoist cultivators practice both Ming gong (for physical health) and Xing gong (for spirituality), and they not only cultivate the mind or spirit, but also practice serious movement Qigong forms, which is more likely to lead to the balance of Yin and Yang, and the balance of mind-body-spirit.

Now we can see that one of the essentials in mind-body exercise like qigong is the cultivation of mind, or development of higher spirituality.  The result of this cultivation-practice process will be demonstrated by the practitioner’s behaviors, attitude and lifestyle.  A good practitioner with both mind cultivation and form practice will regulate his behaviors and life style in accordance with the laws of Dao or nature.  In other words, one’s spirituality and attitude toward life will affect his/her practice as well as his/her physical health.  Only if we have a sound mind with a healthy outlook and a detached attitude that can it help us prevent disease and maintain a real sense of good health.

In short, a good Qigong/Taiji practitioner needs a balance between cultivating the mind and practicing the form.  The status of “remain detached and empty mind”  and “keep the essence-spirit within” may be the pre-condition of quality Qigong practice, and it would also be the result of persistent quality form practice.  We need to find the right balance or harmony in our daily mind-cultivation and form-practice so that we can become a real mind-body cultivator, and live a quality and happier life.

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