Qi Cultivation and Dao

Cultivating the Shen and Nourishing the Spirit

Guan-Cheng Sun, Ph.D. and  Jill Gonet, M.F.A.

Cultivating the Shen with Virtues

The Chinese word, “De (德)-virtue” usually is translated as virtue or moral character, such as kindness, compassion, love, benevolence, humanity, integrity, dignity, and so forth. According to the ancient Taoist tradition, one of the ways of spiritual development is to express those noble natures and develop moral character. At the energetic level, the “De (德)-virtue” means to be gaining energy, which represents the power of assembling. For example, Zhuang Zi said: “One’s life is the assembling of Qi. The assembling of Qi makes life vital and alive; the dispersal of Qi causes aging and death.” This statement not only expresses Zhuang Zi’s understanding of the relationship between the Qi and physical body, but also emphasizes the relationship between the Qi and spiritual life. The specific code of virtues reside in the deep layers of each internal organ, for example, benevolence and love in the heart, conscience and justice in the lungs, integrity and loyalty in the liver, and so on. However, the virtues are like great treasure at the top of high mountains. In order to gain the virtues, one has to overcome the obstacles and challenges of the mountain path and fight with the wild beasts and tame all of them in order to reach the top of the mountain and experience the power of the virtues. In other words, before one reaches the level of the virtues of the internal organs, one must work with the emotional layers of the internal organs that are the covers of the layers of virtues. During the process of internal cultivation, it is crucial to master the management of emotions in order to nourish the soul and develop the spirit.

With Qi-cultivation, practitioners gain experiential understanding of the functions of the internal organs at energetic, emotional and virtue-specific levels. For example, an internal cultivator may experience spontaneously-occurring diet changes at different stages of the internal cultivation process. She or he may experience how emotions (e.g. anger or fear, or jealousy) could cause a huge loss of internal energy and result in energy depletion, exhaustion, and fatigue, all of which could damage their spirit. On the other hand, an internal cultivator may experience how virtues (e.g. respect, integrity, dignity, harmony, compassion, justice, appropriateness) bring noble and nourishing energy into their energy system and result in greater health, internal joy, and peace. This experiential understanding of the difference between emotions and virtues helps internal cultivators to find the true path for nourishing their soul and developing their spirit.

Qi-Cultivation and Internal Realization

The ultimate goal of internal cultivation is to complete the mission of one’s spirit successfully in accordance with the Dao (the Way), so that one’s spirit may live with greater health, joy and peace. One may ask: “how can I know the mission of my spirit?” For understanding of one’s mission, it is important to achieve internal realization or self-awakening. This step is called “Lianxu Liaoxing” in the traditional literature on energetic cultivation, and it means establishing and stabilizing the peaceful state of mind to understand our intrinsic nature and the reality of heaven and earth. (We have mentioned this step in Qi Dao, in our article The Middle Path of Qi Cultivation: Balancing Wu Wei and You Wei. January/February 2010.)

Internal realization allows internal cultivators to synchronize with the Dao for their self-development and spiritual refinement. In other words, internal realization helps internal cultivators to gain experiential understanding of what kind of actions will most nourish their spirit, and also what kinds of behavior and actions may harm or damage their spirit.

In the view of internal cultivation, a human being is a unity of Jing, Qi, and Shen (the body, Qi and spirit). Here, the Spirit refers to the prenatal intelligence and wisdom as the original light of consciousness; the Qi refers to the vital energy for life or the life force; and the Jing refers to the body, the temple and the vehicle of the spirit. The prenatal spirit (灵) enters into the heart of the human body and forms two aspects of the original light of consciousness: 1) the Hun (魂)-soul, the Yin aspect of the spirit, which is associated with the functions of the liver; and 2) the Xin (心)-mind, the Yang aspect of the spirit, which is associated with the functions of the brain. The mind is the postnatal manifestation of the Yang spirit.

In the postnatal state, there are two aspects of the mind: the intuitive mind (阴神-Yin Shen) and the intellectual mind (阳神-Yang Shen). The intuitive mind is associated with the functions of the parietal lobe of the brain, which corresponds to intuition and self-awareness, including the consciousness of the body and the previous memories of the internal organs such as emotions, personality, character, and so forth. The intellectual mind is associated with the function of the frontal lobe of the brain, which manifests itself as thought, ego, logic, reasoning, mental and cognitive abilities, and so on.

The soul also has two aspects: 1) the Po (魄)-conscience, the Yin aspect of the soul, which is associated with the functions of the lungs; and 2) the Yi (意)-intent, the Yang aspect of the soul, which is associated with the functions of the pancreas. And then the intent further forms two aspects: 1) the Zhi (志)-will, the Yang aspect of the intent, which is associated with the functions of the kidneys; and 2) the Yu (欲)-desire, the Yin aspect of the intent, which is associated with the functions of the reproductive organs.

In the view of internal cultivation, desire, will, intent, conscience, intellectual mind, intuitive mind, and soul all are different expressions of the spirit. Thus, spiritual development is not only associated with training of the intellectual mind, but also associated with management of desire, with willingness, with refinement of one’s intent, with empowerment of conscience, development of the intuitive mind, and nourishment of the soul. Once internal cultivators have realized the functions of the internal organs at the energetic level, she or he could work on her/his spiritual development through internal Qi cultivation on the functions of internal organs. All of this is tangible, accessible, practical, and doable.

Sealing the Gaps between the Mind and the Body
Cultivating the shen and developing the spirit are not only training the mind, but also training the body, particularly working with each internal organ within the body. Each organ, like a unique internal library, contains organ-specific personal experience, memories, family history and stories. Unhealthy memories in personal experience and family history will be found in many cases to be the root and cause of chronic illness. Continued storage of these, carried out at an unconscious level, may indefinitely affect one’s health, quality of life and spiritual well-being. For example chronic anger, frustration and disappointment may contribute to joint pain or arthritis; chronic fear may contribute to lower back pain and fatigue. For many individuals, even though their mind knows their habitual emotional responses are not healthy for them and their relationships and they really want to change their passive reactive behavior, in many cases, they are not able to do so. In general, the memories of the body can run one’s life automatically without permission from the mind; therefore it is very difficult and challenging to change the habitual problems by using conventional medical approaches.

However, with Qi–cultivation, the energy-increasing exercises alone can stimulate the body into new awareness; the body begins to understand things the mind cannot see. It’s easy for the mind to lie and have illusions, but when the body begins to be aware, it can actually correct the minds’ misperceptions. This is one of the key points of Qi-cultivation. When a person becomes more energized and as the awareness of the body increases, the body will start revealing that person’s mental habits. It’s almost like being able to listen on two different levels, and the one level enhances awareness of the other level. As it becomes more clear and familiar, the body’s information becomes a very important reference point for one’s mental activity and for decision-making.

Qi-cultivation provides internal cultivators a real opportunity to achieve greater synchronization of the mind and the body, and enables internal cultivators to integrate the mind with the memories and the consciousness of the body into oneness. And with this change, the mind and the body-consciousness become connected. Once they are connected and can communicate well, the internal environment of the body becomes a powerful force in communications with other people in our lives.

Qi-Cultivation and Emotional Management
During the internal cultivation process, the issue of passive reactive emotional response can be one of the most challenging aspects for many internal cultivators. For example, fear, anger, love, worry, and sadness–everything depends on the body on the inside in terms of how one responds to the outside world. When one has an awakened and harmonized body internally, one responds in a different style, a different manner, compared with before. Inside, one begins to develop the connection to the cellular consciousness, to the organs’ consciousness, and then it’s easy to come out with a new response to situations. The wisdom from the inside, the intelligence from the inside, tells internal cultivators maybe this is a good idea; and the communications come quickly, and are more effective than one’s previous strategies. In this way, one become able to break out of unproductive habitual patterns–patterns one may have wished to change years ago, or patterns that one might only recently have become aware of through enhanced energy awareness.

It’s not like internal cultivators don’t have emotions, the cultivators just find the appropriate degree of the emotion–the degree that agrees with the body’s capacity for holding that emotion. And, once cultivators know the body, if she or he finds his/herself with an excessive degree, she or he learns how to harmonize and balance that emotion, rather than being at its mercy. Throughout this process, the communications increase in depth and quality as well. Once the mind and the body are able to communicate at the same level or on the same page, cultivators are able to upgrade and transform, consciously and proactively, the unhealthy memories of the body and any habitual unhealthy behavior. Thus, Qi-cultivation provides a unique way to break through habitual passive reactive patterns and assisting internal cultivators in achieving mastery of emotional management and development.

Sealing the Gaps between the Individual Mind and the Universal Mind

Qi is the bridge or medium between the mind and the body. By cultivating Qi, practitioners have greater opportunities to make progress in climbing the mountain. One may ask: “How can I cultivate my Shen and develop my spirit?” How does one proceed to climb further up the mountain? In ancient Taoist tradition, the process of accumulating the virtues -“De (德)” has been viewed as the heart of spiritual development, because virtues are codes of spiritual nourishment and development. Spiritual Qi is a whole different dimension of Qi. Lao Zi said: “The Dao gives birth to life, and the De nurtures them, rears and develops them. So, the De not only brings life to fruition and maturation, but also cares for them and protects them.” From Chapter 51 of Dao De Jing. When one is in accordance with the Tao, blessings will come.

The structure of the Chinese character “De (德)-virtue” literally depicts fourteen couples standing together with one heart and one mind. Virtue represents a unified family, team, group, corporation, or community with a high standard of ethics, and with spiritual guidance. The collective power of Virtue, or spiritual Qi, or Shen, is always bigger than an individual alone, and this collective power is available to those willing to work with others harmoniously with higher consciousness for greater good.

Cultivating the Shen and developing the spirit are, ultimately, a reflection of the way of healthy living: healthy minds, energies, bodies, individuals and communities. The purpose of cultivating the Shen is to develop the intrinsic healthy and virtuous nature of humanity by removing habitual seeds of arrogance, jealousy, greed, passive reaction and unhealthy programs from one’s mind and body and by following the Dao of virtues.


[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 her M.F.A. from the University of Washington. 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 was interested in ancient Daoist classics since high school years, and has studied Dao De Jing-the Way of Virtues, Yi Jing-the Book of Change, Ling Shu-the Spiritual Pivot, Zhuang-Zi, Lie-Zi, diligently. She meditated and practiced Qigong daily for over 20 years. She has combined her interests in writing, Chinese culture, and the art of internal cultivation by collaborating on many writings with Dr. Sun.

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