By Pascal Schonknecht
Sexual alchemy is one of the most profound and most widely known of the Taoist internal arts. At the same time, it is also one of the most challenging and poorly understood practices used today. With utmost respect and gratitude to all the effort these teachers have made so far, and the increasing popularity Qigong is enjoying as a result, I would like to share a different perspective on sexual alchemy, one which might clash with what is taught by many popular teachers.
No doubt, sexuality is a powerful beast. Between the interplay of yin and yang, it is the driving force of life which creates and destroys, in a slow but steady upward-spiral, the “ten-thousand things” of the universe. As human beings, I feel we are blessed to be a conscious witness of this unfolding. To dance, skid, or even just stumble across the surface where light and dark meet is a privilege as incomprehensible as it can be beautiful. To be sure, most creatures creeping on our pale blue dot are unwitting participants. When it is time to eat, they eat, when it is time to sleep, they sleep, and when it is time to replicate, they replicate. We have the chance to do all this, and do it consciously.
However, we have very little awareness of this great unfolding – in spite of our intelligence, we know very little about how the Tao goes about its business, about the laws of life and the universe, of the ripples and swirls through which heaven and earth blend and give birth to our human experience. We have grown enormous brains and ever-smaller stomachs, and little of what we eat we can truly digest.
When we practice sexual alchemy, as Michael Winn wrote in the March/April issue, we are consciously partaking in this great mingling of yin and yang in and through our bodies. It is not surprising that the effects can be overwhelming, to say the least. The ecstasy of sexual climax is among the most powerful experiences we know, other than those which are chemically induced or achieved through years of spiritual practice. In climax, the body is flooded with very pure and dense Qi which penetrates it at a level where Qi is usually relatively weak. It can make the body quiver, twist and arch, even shake violently. When it is over, we usually feel tired and sleep to recover the Qi we spent.
But human sexuality is not like a wind-up toy which is as ready as ever after you recharge it. The moment you are aroused, jing – the productive essence stored in your kidneys – starts to transform into Qi and reproductive fluids. These fluids are the manifestation of the totality of your life: everything about you, and everything a new human being needs to grow from a fertilized ovum into an adult, is contained in them. They are an extremely dense form of Qi and information, and take a lot to produce and regenerate. For this reason, sexual activity is a rather depleting form of entertainment. The ancient Taoists knew this very well, and the Taoist canon is replete with warnings to preserve one’s jing. But even in pre-modern China, not everyone followed this advice. Chinese emperors, who held a small army of the most beautiful women as concubines, lived in relatively sanitary conditions and had access to the best food and medical treatment, enjoyed notoriously short lifespans. When your jing runs out, you lose your vitality; you become brittle, listless, and ill.
Ironically, many of the issues people try to heal with sexual alchemy are caused, at least in part, by a loss of jing and damaged kidney Qi. Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, constant tiredness, poor memory, and anxiety are some of them. Problems in the bedroom, like premature ejaculation, lack of desire, and impotence, and even infertility (both in men and women) are related to it. Even more, our sexual attractiveness to others has a lot to do with our Qi condition. If your Qi is strong, your hair is shiny and full, your eyes clear and bright and your complexion vibrant. When you bristle with life-force, people feel drawn to you without you doing much at all. You don’t need to try hard to seduce someone. On the other hand, when you deplete your Qi, not only do you lose your shine to others, but you might find that despite practicing very regularly, the pleasure of sex fades as less and less Qi floods your body when you get aroused. The ancient Taoist knew quite well that using the senses blunts them, and that the things that truly matter cannot be achieved by chasing them.
What, then, is the role of sexual alchemy? If sexual activity depletes your jing and damages your Qi, why has it been used for millennia for spiritual development? Here we need to distinguish between two traditions: the “Bedroom Arts” (房中术), and “Yin Yang Dual Practice” (阴阳双修).
The purpose of the Bedroom Arts is, plainly speaking, to improve your sex-life – to increase arousal, to activate more Qi in the body during intercourse, to enhance physical sensations, to prolong climax, and to reduce the refractory period. It also tries to reduce the depletion of Qi, for example through retrograde ejaculation. And, like Yin Yang Dual Practice, people have tried to use it as a Qigong practice to improve health. Bedroom Arts however can never deliver on this, as they always lead to the depletion of Qi – the moment arousal occurs, Qi is turned into jing and descends to the sexual organs. In China, this practice has been used very little as Chinese culture has a very different attitude to sexuality. In the West however it has become immensely popular. Sex, as we know, sells, and its deep connection to the process of creation itself makes it very interesting even to people who are on a spiritual, rather than a “carnal,” journey.
Yin Yang Dual Practice, and the many practices derived from it, is also becoming extremely popular. Originally, it was only one of a number of practices used in Taoist internal alchemy. It is not something that can be practiced every Tuesday when the kids are out, or on the rug in front of the fireplace after a nice meal and a glass of red wine. It is a long process which takes a long, long time to complete.
The first requirement is to have very strong dantien-Qi. Even practitioners who have been working on their dantien every day for many years are unlikely to have sufficient Qi. The second step is to have very strong mingmen-fire. In traditional dan dao practice, this takes over 1,000 days, during which no sexual activity is allowed, including nocturnal emissions. Even just one emission means having to start over. Third, jing, the bodily fluids, Qi and blood have to transform into each other extremely well. One way to know how well this process is working is when you are generating very large amounts of sweet tasting saliva during Qigong practice which comes back even after swallowing it repeatedly. Lastly, you have to have a mind strong enough not to be aroused even if you were living out your most intense sexual fantasy.
With this foundation, you can control the level of desire during intercourse as you wish. In Taoist practice, this is referred to as “heat” or “fire.” Just as you need to have the right amount of fire to cook a meal, so you have to strictly control the heat during intercourse to keep it at a constant level without any fluctuation. During one practice session, which might take two hours, the practitioner cannot become overly aroused, lest the transformation of the substances is interrupted and it becomes “normal” sexual activity. You can tell that you are having ordinary sex if you get a dry mouth during intercourse, if you feel exhausted afterwards and want to sleep, or you feel pain in your lower back, lower dantien, or knees.
Most Yin Yang Dual practices in the West are actually Bedroom Arts – historically, very few people have succeeded in true Yin Yang Dual practice. And, even in the past, many people have been confused by the difference between the two.
The Xiang’er Commentary to the Laozi Laozi (老子想爾注), a manuscript of the early Celestial Master school of Taoism and the oldest known commentary on the Tao de Jing, was very critical of manuals like the Secret Instructions of the Jade Bedchamber:
The Way teaches human beings to congeal their essence and make spirits. In the present generation there are those who practice counterfeit arts and slyly call them the Way, teaching by means of the texts of the Yellow Emperor, the Dark Maiden, Master Gong, and Rongcheng. When engaged with a woman, they do not ejaculate, but think they can circulate their essence [through their bodies] and cause it to fortify their brains. But because their mind and spirit are not at one [with the Way], they lose what they try to preserve; though they store up their pleasure, they cannot treasure it for long.
To be sure, most scholars today agree that the Secret Instructions is not an example of early Daoism, and that the early Taoists in fact resolutely rejected it.
If practiced improperly, sexual alchemy can be very dangerous. Building up a lot of dantien Qi and working yourself to extreme peaks of arousal can lead to a huge loss of reproductive essence. It might temporarily make you feel better than anything else you have ever experienced, but it is unlikely to help you on your path of self-transformation, and it may take years to recover the lost Qi. Again, the ancients knew that unless “heaven approves of your conduct,” that is, your life is in harmony with the great unfolding of the Tao, any kind of sexual alchemy is useless.
Sexuality, as I said at the start, is the human manifestation of the creative force which transforms yin and yang and gives rise to the “ten thousand things” in the universe. As such, it promises us to get right to the root of what it means to be human – half devil, half god – to transmute worthless lead into precious gold and so partake, ever more consciously, in the great unfolding of the Tao. This, after all, is the purpose of Taoist internal alchemy. However, playing with sexuality is, quite literally, playing with fire. It can be used to cook food and nourish your life, or to scorch the earth.
So this is not a moral issue, but a practical one: if we approach sexual alchemy with the same mind-set with which we have created our society, we use it to consume our Qi, and ultimately our lives, in much the same way that we are consuming the resources of our planet. This form of self-cannibalism is a far cry from what sexual alchemy was used for in the past. More than anything, it reflects on the world we currently live in, and makes our task – to live, learn, work and dance between that which is light, and that which is not yet – ever more urgent. And, even if we have mastered true Yin Yang Dual practice, the real alchemy doesn’t happen between two bodies, but in your Self – between you and your injuries, your hatreds, your desires and your grief. If it is true, as Michael Winn said, that the year of the snake symbolises sexuality and transformation, let’s celebrate it by taking our transformation out of the bedroom.
Pascal Schonknecht offers Qigong Classes & Qi Energy Healing for Chronic Illness and Chronic Pain Relief. Learn more at www.sampanqigong.com”