This picture has nothing to do with this post — but it’s spring!
Last Friday evening, April 11, 2014, I spoke at one of the Institute of Qigong & Integrative Medicine’s community programs, which was held at a church in Woodinville, WA. I’m reprinting that speech here.
I am delighted to be here tonight giving this talk about my journey into qigong.
It is definitely an honor to be speaking on the same program as Dr. Sun.
But also it is very special to me that I am speaking with Dr. Sun here, in this particular place, because this is where my qigong journey began, not quite four years ago.
This is my church—and I should say here that this is not a church event; IQ&IM rented the sanctuary for the evening, just as it has rented other churches and others types of facilities—but still, it is my church, and it is where I first felt something I was willing to call “qi.”
I had been studying taiji for almost eight years and was teaching a taiji class here at church, with six wonderful students who were part of the church community.
My taiji teacher, Martin Mellish, didn’t talk about qi a lot, but when he did, he referred to it casually, as a given—but it wasn’t a given as far as I was concerned. I had never felt anything that seemed to require a special name, and I had never encountered an explanation of qi sufficient to give me a concept.
I’m pretty literal; I take words at face value and I like them to have clear meanings.
Martin always began and ended each of our taiji classes with a bow, and one of the things he would say was that your hands would float to the level of your heart and be drawn together as if by some force. I would generally have my eyes closed for most of the bow, but I would open one of them when he got to the part about “hands being drawn together as if by some force” because I didn’t want my hands to miss.
When I started teaching taiji here at the church, I included bows, and the words about hands being drawn together as if by some force, because, after all, that was what Martin did, and because I thought it might mean something to some of my students, and I wanted to offer them the possibility.
I think I’d been teaching for maybe a year, when one evening, when I absolutely was not expecting to feel anything because I never felt anything, I was leading a bow—standing just about there—and I felt my right hand being sucked towards my left.
I was blown away.
I had felt something that needed a name, and I was willing to call it qi. I was probably feeling my own electromagnetic field, which may be part of what qi is, or one type of qi, I don’t really know—but still…. how awesome that I could feel energy that I had never felt before, that I really didn’t think was feelable.
Martin was in the process of leaving the U.S. to live in China, so I was never able to really discuss my experience with him. But I knew I needed to study qigong.
I started out with Ken Cohen’s boxed set of CDs, DVDs and a manual and dutifully did his 100-day qigong training program for 100 days. I began feeling energy in new places, but by the end of 100 days, I had realized that a boxed set wasn’t going to cut it, that I needed a live teacher and also a community of fellow practitioners.
I found Brendan Thorson, who was teaching something called Yi Ren Qigong in the U district at a yoga studio that was across the street from an apartment house where I’d lived during the early ‘60s—which at the time seemed like a really cool coincidence. I took a string of classes from Brendan and learned about acupuncture meridians and deepened my awareness of energy.
Through Brendan I learned about Dr. Sun, and I began taking Dr. Sun’s advanced seminars.
They were way beyond my level of energy experience, way beyond anything I’d ever thought I’d even be considering believing. By noon of the first day of a weekend seminar I would be thinking, “What am I doing here? This is just too weird, and I’m not even good at this kind of weirdness.”
Dr. Sun would say things that I thought were way over the top, although nobody else seemed to think so.
There were people at those seminars who were, like, graduate students, where I was barely a freshman—but there were also other freshmen who seemed to be naturally sensitive to energy, unlike naturally insensitive me. We’d do meditations, and some people would see colors or get images of things like mountains and eagles; I would get maybe a nap.
There were people who could feel emotions in their organs, even the silent ones like the liver and the kidneys and the pancreas. I barely knew where some of those organs were, except in the very general sense of somewhere inside my torso between my heart and my guts. Once I asked my doctor to draw my kidneys on my back with a Sharpie permanent marker—and by the way, Sharpies are not at all permanent on flesh, so don’t ask to see my kidneys when this is over.
After these seminars, I would go home wondering why someone as logical, as analytical, as committed to reason and the principles of science as I am would be attending seminars that were way out in woo-woo land. And then the next seminar would be announced and I would sign up because I was afraid I might miss something.
I kept taking classes and practicing the Yi Ren exercises, and I began to be able to relate to more of what Dr. Sun said in the seminars.
Still, my periods of being deeply committed to qigong would be punctuated by doubts—like why was I was engaged in such self-indulgent nonsense, why wasn’t I putting my time, energy and money into something more worthy, or at least something that would be easier, something where I actually had some natural talent instead of a mountain of left-brainedness to overcome.
I still have moments of doubt, times when I wonder if this is all self-delusion. I think it is my nature to doubt.
So given all my doubts, why do I keep doing qigong?
And it is a bother. It’s one thing to think about doing qigong, and another to overcome my inertia and get off the sofa or off the computer and start practicing—and yet I do it pretty much every day.
The short-term answer to why I bother is that once I get myself going, I can continue effortlessly for an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more, and afterwards, I always feel better. Sometimes I feel almost euphoric and enormously grateful that I have this tool, this thing that I can do whenever and wherever I want that will relax my body and my mind and open my heart. Qigong doesn’t even make you fat!
Yi Ren Qigong is a health-oriented qigong. I know people who are very clear that it has vastly improved their health, perhaps even saved their life. I honestly can’t say whether it has improved my health and emotional well-being. I’m just not sure. There’s no control group for me. I don’t know what I’d be like if I weren’t doing qigong.
What really keeps me going is that every so often, I experience something amazing, something I wouldn’t have believed possible but now cannot deny, like the time I first felt qi between my hands—something that makes me think that even the weirdest things Dr. Sun says might possibly, at some level, be true.
The things that happen always take me by surprise; I cannot make them happen—and believe me, there have been plenty of times I’ve said to myself, “I could really use something amazing right now.” It doesn’t work.
Also, once these experiences happen, I can’t expect them to recur. In fact, even though I definitely feel energy between my hands these days, I no longer feel one hand being sucked to the other. It just doesn’t happen.
The things that happen, the little amazements, are always very clear, very precise, and although I wasn’t expecting them and hadn’t even conceived that they might happen, I recognize them. Once I felt my kidney energy whirling. Several times I’ve become aware of particular energy centers—like, thwack, it’s there, exactly there.
And because these experiences are always a surprise and so unlike anything in my previous experience, I know that I’m not making them up, I’m not imagining them. They are true and real. I don’t think you can imagine things if you’ve never experienced something similar.
Tonight I’d like to share an amazing thing that happened to me relatively recently—in fact, after Amy and I had agreed that I would speak at this meeting, and that it would be held here in my church.
I should tell you first that I have a lot of fears. For one, I’m afraid of earthquakes. My usual approach to dealing with my fears is to get more information—which is why I read the book “Full Rip 9.0,” which is about the Pacific Northwest’s history of megaquakes and the probability of additional megaquakes happening in the future—and let me tell you, “Full Rip 9.0” is not the book to read if you want to assuage your fear of earthquakes.
I had just finished reading “Full Rip 9.0” when I agreed to lead an evening practice session at IQ&IM’s headquarters in Bothell, which is located in the basement of a very old building on Main Street—beneath the antiques store, for those of you know Bothell. If there is a megaquake, I doubt the building will fare well. I always worry about this when I am there for a seminar, and I sit as close to the door as I can. Like I said, I have my issues.
On this particular night, it turned out that the other teacher who was supposed to be there couldn’t come, so it was just me, and it ended up also being just one student. It was a very dark, cold night. But I was fine as I got ready for the class and all through the class. When it was over, I walked the student up the stairs, locked the door and went back downstairs to begin the procedures for closing up the room.
I was alone with my thoughts on that dark, cold night in an underground tomb—and I was terrified. To make matters worse, I figured my fear was polluting the room, and that some very sensitive person, probably Dr. Sun, would come in the next day and feel my fear.
I desperately wanted to leave, but there was this checklist of things I was supposed to do. I opened the one little window and turned on some fans to air the room out, turned off the heat, unplugged the teapot and put away the folding chairs.
The next thing on the list was to do some qigong to clear any negative energy I might have picked up leading the class. Well, I didn’t think I had picked up any negative energy from the class; it was all mine and it was ENORMOUS. I didn’t really believe that doing the amount of qigong I was prepared to stay there long enough to do was going to help, but I did several exercises so I could at least say I tried.
And on the last one, as I was bending down to guide energy down the Yin Qiao and Yin Wei meridians, I felt something fall away from my body, from my lower legs, and onto the floor. I could almost see it, and it seemed almost to have substance, something somewhere between fluid and fluffy. It was absolutely real—and then it was gone. And afterwards I wasn’t nearly so afraid. I still wanted to go home, but I wasn’t desperate.
A few days later, I wrote a post about the experience for my blog—and then I didn’t think much more about it.
A couple of weeks passed. I went to another seminar with Dr. Sun based on the classic Daoist/Chinese-Buddhist guide to meditation, “Secret of the Golden Flower.”
This was another seminar that was beyond me, and worse yet, it involved words like “universal spirit” and “upper soul” and “lower soul,” words for which I had no concept—just as I once had no concept for the word “qi.”
Afterwards, I began working on a post about the seminar that started out with my complaining that I knew how to spell the word “soul,” and knew how to use it in a sentence, but that for me, it was an empty word devoid of experiential or intellectual content.
I was struggling with the post, rewriting it again and again. Then one morning as I was watering my houseplants and thinking about what I could do to make the post work, it occurred to me, hey, maybe I do know what soul is, what spirit is. Maybe I do have a soul concept, or could have a soul concept.
I have heard people speak of having been with a loved one at their time of death and knowing, almost seeing, that something left their body at the moment they died—something you’d probably call “spirit” or “soul.”
Which sounds rather like what I experienced when the energy of my fear left my body while doing qigong.
Something leaves, you can almost see it and you feel like you could touch it. Perhaps when I die the energy of my being alive, my qi, will leave my body in a similar manner.
I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have had this realization, even though I have no idea what to do with it or where it will take me.
Probably some of you are thinking that the experience I described was a hallucination, or perhaps you consider it a sacrilege to compare something that fell from my legs to the floor with the human soul. Or maybe you think my experience was real but just not a very big deal.
But I have always wanted to understand what life is, which is a really slippery quest. You can think and think and think and not know. At some point, words inevitably fail. I’m not opposed to thinking and words—I love thinking and words—but some things you have to know some other way. And qigong is the best pathway I’ve found to knowing beyond words.
Through qigong I have experienced so many things I would once have dismissed as figments of people’s imaginations, starting with feeling my right hand being sucked to my left hand, on through feeling fear drop from my body as something almost visible, almost palpable.
Who knows what I will experience next?
I can hardly wait to find out.
And if Yi Ren Qigong makes me healthier and happier to boot—well, so much the better. I can handle it. It’s all good.