Daoist Internal Alchemy:
A Deep Language for Communicating with Nature’s Intelligence, Part 1
Alchemy Formulas, Qi Field & Language Theory
by Michael Winn
When I was first initiated into Daoist Qigong and internal alchemy, nei dan practice, twenty years ago, I began having exciting and profound experiences. Mysterious hidden inner worlds were suddenly revealed to me. The interior dimensions of my body became a vast playground that I had somehow overlooked in my previous spiritual explorations. As I progressed through “Seven Alchemical Formulas for Attaining Immortality”, I gradually came to recognize the nei dan formulas themselves reveal a deep language by which Nature communicates with the different dimensions of its own intelligence. This universal field of intelligence in alchemical terms is the mind of the Dao. Physical nature would be the body of the Dao.
These seven formulas were transmitted to my first Daoist teacher Mantak Chia by One Cloud, a Daoist monk who searched with limited success in various monasteries for thirty years for the secrets of internal alchemy. An abbot finally told him to “go into the mountains to find a teacher”. On Long White Mountain in northern China near Manchuria, One Cloud met another Daoist who had left his monastery, and who HAD found a true teacher of internal alchemy. He transmitted to One Cloud these nei dan formulas. One Cloud practiced these methods and entered into the breatharian state (bigu) for some years, meaning he fed his body on Qi alone. (2)
During the Japanese invasion One Cloud left his mountain, and migrated on foot to the mountains behind Hong Kong. He healed local people and taught nei dan to a few students. He was a simple man who constantly smiled; his only complaint was that eating some bad food after he came down the mountain would cause his early death. He died at age 96 in the 1970’s. His formulas resonate with writings attributed to Lu Dongbin, one of the semi-legendary “Eight Immortals”, around which the “Zhong-Lu” nei dan tradition first flourished in the 10 and 11th centuries. Some of his formulas also resemble the teachings on nei dan of the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) tradition. Historically, it is not clear if the practice of internal alchemy adopted by temple schools of Daoism like Quanzhen originally came from scattered “mountain Dao” practitioners like One Cloud’s teacher. One Cloud told Chia that he had “given him the best from all his teachers”. The seven formulas by title and brief summary of their practice are found in appendix A.
Today in China, there are thousands of Qigong forms and many different nei gong and nei dan systems of internal mind training. At first, this is bewildering, as if it were a spiritual labyrinth with too many paths. Now, looking back after 20 years, it is easy to see all methods as expression of a single common deep energetic language. Whether the life force, Qi, is moved using body language or is shaped by the intention or imagination of a particular aspect of mind/spirit (shen), it is still the same language of Qi. Just as one can produce many different word combinations in English, all comprehensible because of a common grammar and vocabulary, so one can create many Qigong and nei gong forms, each movement pattern having a unique effect on the body-mind’s Qi field.
Nei dan (“inner elixir”) is a special class of nei gong (“inner skill”) that trains one to “speak” the deep language that silently pulses through the medium of a universal Qi field. One of the meanings of the Chinese character for “Dao” is “to speak, to tell”. (3) Hence in the famous first line of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching),”The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao”, the word “spoken” is the same character as that used for “Dao”. The line could even be translated, “The speaking that is spoken is not the true speaking”. So the idea that the Dao exists as an unspoken, or silent language, is emphasized in the very first line of this classic.
Linguists generally agree there must exist a “deep language” structure that allows every child born to speak “natural languages” such as English or Chinese, or to create “formal languages” such as computer programs or symbol languages such as the I Ching or mathematics. Noam Chomsky posits a “universal grammar” that is deeper even than the “transformational grammar” he thinks underlies each natural spoken language. However, no linguist has been able to describe the structure of this deep language other than to say that it is what defines intelligence itself and all power of thinking and organized perception. Some linguists admit this deep language may best be explored by religion. (4)
Neurobiologists, unable to locate a deep language structure in the brain, have theorized that memory and intelligence are held in some kind of holographic field. Physicists like David Bohm, Erwin Lazlo and Mae Wan Ho posit a holographic quantum field filled with self-creating organisms that communicate via energy fields with a super-conscious universal organism. (5) This organic quantum field theory (not accepted by most physicists, who view space/time as mechanistic) bears some similarity to ancient Daoist alchemical ideas. One major difference is the Daoist ideas have gone through several millennia of practical testing and application to the evolution of humans.
My thesis is that a deep language ability is stored in the Qi field, and that One Cloud’s nei dan formulas are a good example of how it is possible to train oneself to directly perceive and communicate with Nature’s intelligence in a mostly non-verbal and non-ordinary language. Daoist alchemy allows us to approach closely the Mystery of our Inner Voice. Whether we hear these voices inside our head as audible voices or as silent thoughts, or instinctual feelings from our gut, who is speaking to us? Alchemy answers the question: where do intuition and inner guidance arise from? By learning the alchemical process of communicating through resonance with different dimensions of the Qi field, we can systematically get in touch with the origin of those voices.
I define Qigong (“skill with energy”) as a natural body language arising to the “surface” from nei gong’s deeper grammar of Qi patterns. (6) Practicing Qigong (in which I include taiji, bagua, and xingyi internal arts) is like learning the strokes of the Qi alphabet and their “meaning” or expression in physical reality. By calming the mind, regulating the breath, and moving one’s body in particular patterns, the Qi field governing the meridians and energetic centers of the physical body is activated and “speaks back” to one initially as different feelings of energy. Qigong and nei gong are not something that one “does” in the ordinary sense of action; rather they are methods of shaping how one communicates. The shape of the Qi patterns being communicated then shape one’s reality.
The Qi field is the field of all possible relationships. Every relationship involves communication; communication requires a language, and as Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated in his famed treatise on “private language”– every language by definition is public and accessible. The seven nei dan formulas I learned give a coherent public structure and sequence to a human language process for speaking with and listening to the deepest levels of Nature’s intelligence. I believe alchemy is a process of learning to speak with this universal intelligence using the entirety of one’s personal being — body, Qi, and spirit fused into one.
Personal Account – Learning the Language of Alchemy
It may be useful to note alchemy was not my first spiritual path. I had previously spent four years of 4 to 8 hours of intensive daily practice of tantric yoga and kundalini meditation. I briefly describe these tantric experiences as they offer an interesting contrast with the effect of Daoist nei dan, and offer a window into how different spiritual practices shape what is communicated to and from humans through the Qi field of nature.
The tantric practices were designed to raise the kundalini by activating the “ojas”, an essence perhaps equivalent to Daoist term “jing”. This yoga focused almost exclusively on using breath, asana (postures) and mantras to move energy through my spine and out the crown of my head, beyond my physical body into some unknown Higher and hopefully Ultimate Self. Rigorous daily practice put me into a state of near hallucinogenic ecstasy. However, I was not on drugs. I was celibate, yet could feel my testicles pulsing continuously with a sexual, electrical like energy up my spine, day and night, with my pineal and pituitary glands pulsing on the other end. I would exit my “cave” (apartment) and walk around the streets of New York feeling I was ten feet tall, looking down on everything, as if floating above my body. However, I noticed that as my head became more expanded, my body grew weaker. I was less able to stand the cold, one reason I grew curious about the more body centered Daoist approach. I was also attracted to the language of the Daoists, poetic and mystical yet embodying truth with scientific precision.
When I started practicing Daoist Qigong and nei dan, the energy field shifted deeper inside my body. I got grounded, less spacey, and my body grew strong again. Rather than looking down from above my head, I felt myself deep inside my body looking out. As I began learning the first formulas, my vital organs began pulsing with new life; currents of energy began flowing in different meridians and in my limbs. Buried emotional patterns I thought were long gone surfaced and released. This opened up more space inside my body. Later there was a progression of strange symbols and images – cauldrons floated deep within the inner spaces of my body, bagua shapes made of light suddenly flashed. I felt sexual-like orgasms in different vital organs, and once my spine ecstatically dissolved, as if some invisible being were making love inside my body.
I had entered some new mythopoeic world, seemingly crafted with amazing elegance and subtlety in advance of my arrival into it. It was a unique feeling of satisfaction, as if I had been allowed a glimpse inside my real body. These experiences arose from practicing only the second alchemy formula of “Lesser Water and Fire”, long before I understood anything about original Qi or communication with deeper levels of Nature’s Qi field. Later, I came to recognize the progressive levels of “emptiness” in the cauldrons used in each formula were actually “filled” with this elusive original Qi; that “sitting in forgetfulness” was actually remembering my original energy. At this time, I was still at a low level, but didn’t know it and didn’t care. I felt I was going home, and was willing to start over completely to get to the heart of the Dao.
Oddly, shifting from tantra to Daoist alchemy reminded me of my experiences in learning new foreign languages, which I did often in the course of travelling to 90 countries over my lifetime. I had immersed myself in Russian language and travel in college, taught myself French living on the Riviera after graduation, and learned Amharic (Ethiopian) and enough Arabic to get by while working as a freelance war correspondent in Africa. Learning each language had given me the thrill of being able to communicate with a secret set of sound-symbols unknown to non-initiates of that language. Each language unlocked a new culture. When local people heard me speak in their tongue, their hearts opened. I was recognized as belonging to their world and invited inside their lives and homes. Each culture was a private microcosm, holding its own intimate conversation within the macrocosm of a planet with billions of people chattering away in thousands of different dialects and tongues. (7)
As I was inexorably drawn deeper into Daoist alchemy, each succeeding alchemical formula resembled gaining fluency in an exotic foreign language. When first learning a formula I would feel awkward, as if I didn’t know how to get around or ask for anything. I would gradually get comfortable “speaking” through a new subtle Qi channel or “talking” with the local Qi field of a vital organ, a mountain, the ocean, or the sun using the language of resonance. As each formula gave me confidence to communicate with a new aspect of the collective mind reasonably well, I was invited into a deeper and more intimate level dialog with “Nature”. This meant learning to listen to both self-nature (microcosmos) and environment-nature (macrocosmos). Where was this conversation going? It felt like I was entering a series of rooms or nested cauldrons within myself, leading into some unseen inner sanctum.
Learning to speak in the deep language of each formula meant learning to shape my personal Qi field into a recognizable alphabet of energy patterns within myself that matched some invisible inner faculty of intelligence in Nature. The repeated alchemical cooking of the main “ingredients” – body-mind-spirit-emptiness (jing-qi-shen-wu) – were octaves of the same inner conversation, taken a little deeper in each formula. The increasingly subtle nature of nei dan’s deep language made the stream of thoughts chattering within my mind seem increasingly secondary.
Is Chinese Language Essential to Learning Alchemy?
At one point, a crisis was ignited within me: did I need to learn Chinese in order to truly plumb the depths of Daoist alchemy? Was this alchemical world of transmuting elements and pulsating currents of energy, at its deepest levels, an exclusive club for the Chinese speaking, as some Chinese claim? Was Daoist alchemy a product of Chinese culture? On the other hand, was it the other way around, that Chinese language and culture were somehow shaped by an alchemical process imbedded within the deep language of Nature? I chose to spend my time practicing alchemy rather than learning classical Chinese; better to rely on scholars fully dedicated to translation. But, would it lessen my mastery of alchemy?
I learned enough Chinese to see their pictographs are visually richer in association than western alphabets and thus facilitate grasping the multiple meanings of obscure Daoist terms. However, they are still intermediary written images, interpreted by the mind’s visual functions, and do not by themselves open communication with the deep language patterns underlying them. If speaking Chinese did this automatically, everyone in China would be enlightened. Alchemy also uses an intermediary language, but it is mostly not spoken nor written. This language consists of Qi channels in the body and in nature, resonating spheres of sensation, feeling, and perceived spiritual qualities. It requires observation of natural processes within one’s body and in physical nature, and sometimes employs these natural images as language symbols. Together these evoke and shape silent language patterns within an omnipresent Qi field. The written symbols of the I Ching are used by many adepts as a concise shorthand for describing alchemical processes, but it is not necessary to study the I Ching to practice the seven formulas of One Cloud.
A separate, but related question: is Chinese a sacred or initiatic language, with its four tonal inflections suggesting a resonance to the four elements (fire, water, metal, wood) and the central fifth element earth, the tone or voice of the speaker giving it mind intent (yi)? Speaking such an initiatic language in Five Phase (wu xing) tones might in ancient times have been viewed as a way to shape shift the local Qi field or energetically manage the forces of human culture. For nei dan initiates speech can be a shortcut to activating directional Qi flow or summoning ancestral spirits. Could not English be used for such a purpose if imbued with correct intent?
Biology is a factor in language, both spoken and deep. A fascinating study suggests one’s spoken language may control brain hemisphere dominance. This study, conducted in Japan, showed that Japanese speakers processed vowel sounds and intuitive feelings in their left-brain, the opposite of westerners. But, westerners raised from an early age with Japanese language shifted to left brain intuition. (8) This raises the question whether Chinese speaking nei dan adepts might also have a different pattern of resonance with nature than westerners, reflected in the dominant qualities they resonate with, i.e. sun vs. moon, water vs. fire. Daoism is described as the “watercourse way”. Daoist cultures appear more intuitive than western culture, which may facilitate introspection and sensing inner body space. This may be an example of how one’s surface language biologically “wires” one into the deep language.
I finally concluded that the only language I needed to learn Daoist alchemy would arise spontaneously through my heartfelt and sincere meditation practice of the seven alchemical formulas of Immortality. Due to the organized teaching of One Cloud’s formulas in the west since 1981, many tens of thousands of non Chinese speaking westerners have learned to practice some part of these nei dan formulas, perhaps more than are practicing similar meditations in China (due to communist policies). This is not to imply that One Cloud’s nei dan formulas are the definitive description of Nature’s deep language. To the contrary, I see the numerous expressions of nei dan in China, which often vary from mountain to mountain, as different formulations of the same deep language. Each may use different meditation methods, or vary in the use of language, myth, deities or images. However, they all seem to share a common underlying deep grammar of a jing-qi-shen-wu (essence-energy-spirit-emptiness) continuum on a pulsating yin-yang-yuan (negative-positive-neutral) energy grid extending to five cardinal sacred directions or spiritual qualities.
Continued next month with Daoist Internal Alchemy: A Deep Language for Communicating with Nature’s Intelligence, part 2
FOOTNOTES: (1) Adapted from Vitality, Energy, Spirit (Shamballa, 1991) T. Cleary, ed.., pg. 185.
(2) The bigu (“without food”) phenomenon has left the realm of legend. For conference of western scientists studying students of modern nei dan teacher Yan Xin who stopped eating for months or years without undue weight loss, see www.yanxinqigong/bigu.html. For account by one of my western students that entered bigu using One Cloud’s formulas, “Healing Tao Goes Breatharian” by Eve Adesso, at www.healingdao.com/library_index.html
(3)Tao Te Ching, Addiss & Lombardo (Hackett Publishing, Indiana) pg. xviii.
(4) Raphael Gamaroff surveys the confusion and disagreements amongst linguists over what “deep language” means at www.und.ac.za/und/ling/archive/gama-01.html
(5)–Organism and Psyche in a Participatory Universe, by Mae-Won Ho. www.i-sis.org/organis.htm
(6) The line between qigong and nei gong is necessarily fuzzy, depending on subtle mind intent and skill of each practitioner. “Wuji qigong” is a term often used to denote a “superclass of qigong” that is also a nei gong form focused on opening a connection to the Origin. I learned an 800 year old lineage wuji qigong form that came from a 106 year old Daoist monk on Wudang Mtn. Based on daoist cosmology and alchemy, it feels qualitatively very different from other qigong forms. Available as video, www.healingdao.com
(7) U.N. reports there are 6,000-7,000 spoken languages on the planet; nearly 5,000 of them tribal, disappearing at a fast rate. lycos.com/ens
(8) From abstract of study by Prof. Tadanobu Tsunoda, Tokyo Medical and Dental University, unknown where it was published.
[Michael Winn is the founder of Healing Tao University with 30 Tao summer retreats in Asheville, N.C. and is the past President of the National Qigong Association. Michael has over 30 years experience in Taoist arts and leads an annual China Dream Trip. He has co-authored 7 books with Mantak Chia, and is also the author of 10 Qigong and Inner Alchemy home study courses, as well as a free e-book, Way of the Inner Smile. All are available on www.HealingTaoUSA.com or call: 888-999-0555]