Qigong: The Receptive Way

To enter the realm of qigong is to find yourself immersed in a vast array of Chinese terms like 'baihui," 'laogong," 'dantien," "governing and conceptional vessels." Soon, as you stand in line at the supermarket checkout, instead of perusing the celebrity magazine headlines, your attention moves downward to the "bubbling wells' on the soles of your feet.

This is just one of the ways the qigong life unfolds.

My intention here is to elucidate my own journey into the mystical/contemplative dimensions of qigong practice. One of the best pieces of advice I've received in the past 25 years happened at the Tai Chi Farm in Warwick, N.Y. It was in a workshop on a form called "The Five Animal Frolics," and the presenter said we should "avoid being a form collector."

No one really knows how many qigong forms exist. In fact, teachers all over the world are still developing new ones. That's a healthy sign of a vital art: innovation. But form "collecting" can be a way for the ego to co-opt the healthiest of intentions. The big risk to the practitioner is to wind up with notebooks full of forms and walls papered with certificates, all amassed in service to ego. In my experience, qigong forms are a lot like relationships. Some become permanent presences and others arise to address a particular growth/change need and then slip away. They all plant "seeds" that will flower when the time and conditions are right.

A number of years ago, shortly after I started teaching taiji and qigong, I went with my wife to a small, rural retreat center where a labyrinth had been set up. It was a replica of the famous Chartres labyrinth, rendered in a roadside clearing, using locally gathered stones. As I began my walk, my mind wanted to figure out the route. This was immediately over-ridden by another thought: "Trust the pattern." In that moment, both confusion and understanding were rendered utterly powerless and useless.

This simple realization came back around some years later in a slightly different perspective. I had been drawn to the writings of American zen teacher Adyashanti in which he stated, "when you stop trying to manipulate and control your experiences, meditation naturally happens."

This also left me in a bit of a quandary, given that many qigong forms seemed to be about conscious movement of energy through the body's meridian systems. What would happen if I stopped manipulating and trusted the pattern? By dropping manipulation from my qigong practice I became more open and receptive, allowing the forms to attune me to the limitless fields of sensing/feeling/knowing.

We abide in, and are composed of, a cosmic presence of infinite wisdom, transcending space and time, infinitely playful and infinitely curious. The fact that the transcendent permeates all of existence means it is also accessible, like a radio broadcast. When the receiver is properly aligned with the signal, reception happens.

My practice has moved away from energy manipulation to one of receptivity. As I experience it, different forms of qigong are in vibrational harmony with massive fields of information encoded energetically. In most instances, trying to manipulate that energy actually sets up interferences.

Attuning to the energy puts the practitioner closer to the energy source. I've also learned that playful curiosity on my part accelerates the unfolding of energetic information/realization. Why is this? Playful curiosity is a dynamic experience of letting go, which speaks to the heart of all mind/body practices.

Since the beginning (if such a point really existed) the cosmos  you and I and all of its manifestations  has been evolving, taking new forms that, as patterns of energy, embody information. One elemental quality of this evolving consciousness is playful curiosity with a penchant for paradox. For me, paradox serves as a marker, a sign that deeper realization is on my horizon. This manifested recently as I was walking home from a nearby park. After an hour or more of taiji and qigong, the question arose: Why do forms? Almost instantly, I knew the answer: To realize the limits of forms.

It followed, then, that in realizing the limits of forms, you arrive at the limitless nature of the formless. This is playful paradox at its most potent. It's not just another piece of information, or even a belief. Rather, it plunged my directly to the source of qigong practice. And, it literally stopped me in my tracks. Every step since then has been different than any that came before  simply by being receptive.

Before the autumn wind,
all things scatter 
and yet, on the road home
the fallen leaves open spaces
where a traveler may step
as in a labyrinth.


James Birt, of Danville, PA, is a lifetime professional member of the National Qigong Association. He began studying taiji and qigong in 1985 and has been teaching in central Pennsylvania since 1991.

©Qi Journal (reprinted from the Spring 2012 issue)