I’ve been meditating increasingly regularly over the last year or so; first doing standing meditation, but more recently doing seated meditation as well. And, of course, being the person I am, I’ve been reading books about meditation; there were some good book recommendations at the end of this Ezra Klein podcast with Richie Davidson, in particular.

One thing I realized after reading a few of those books, though, is that what they talk about doesn’t actually match what I’m finding striking about the experience of meditating. Specifically, they (and other books I’ve read on the subject in the past, if my memory is correct), talk about effects of meditation on your brain, of how it changes mental sensation; but what I’m noticing most are the physical sensations.

That’s maybe not so surprising when it comes to standing meditation; I actually started coming at that from a martial arts point of view, and the discussion there is more around sensing your balance, relaxing your body, and feeling rooted. But I’m finding physical sensations more striking than mental sensations even when doing seated meditation, or other forms that seem less explicitly physical than standing meditation.


For example, Damo Mitchell’s first book has an introductory meditation exercise where you’re either sitting or lying down and following your breath. This seems like a standard meditation exercise; yes, paying attention to breathing is paying attention to something physical, but it’s also a standard attention exercise. I was feeling lazy when I first gave this a try, so picked the option that had me lying on my back in bed: no pillow under my head, legs spread somewhat, arms spread somewhat with my palms up, and I stayed that way for 30 minutes.

And by far the most striking aspect of that experience was how it felt in my hands: I got a very strong tingling sensation in my palms, completely unlike any sensation I have when just lying down normally. (But not so unlike a sensation that I have when doing Tai Chi, though it was particularly strong in this context.) And the longer I meditated, the stronger it got; I spent 40 minutes doing this a few times, and the tingling sensation would head up my arms during those sessions. I’m curious whether people who don’t do Tai Chi would have a similar experience from this exercise; if you try it out, let me know!

That’s not a seated meditation practice; when I do seated meditation, the physical sensations are different, but still very much present. And, to me, the physical sensations are more interesting / noticeable than mental sensations; maybe that just means I’m not doing a good enough job focusing, but it doesn’t feel to me like that’s all that’s going on.


So what’s the deal here? Why are these books talking about mental changes when I’m feeling physical changes? Are there relevant differences between this batch of books that I’ve been reading on meditation versus the systems that I’ve been following (of which meditation is only one part: stuff like Tai Chi or Mitchell’s Daoist Nei Gong)?

For example, is it a difference between Western sources versus Eastern sources? Is it a difference between Buddhist approaches versus non-Buddhist approaches (Taoist-influenced ones in particular)? Is it a difference between non-Chinese approaches versus Chinese approaches?

My tentative conclusion is that, yes, actually all three of those splits are somewhat relevant. But I think the Chinese / non-Chinese split is the best route into what’s going on here.


Traditional Chinese medicine talks about a thing called “Qi”. Which, of course, I’ve been aware of for ages, you don’t have to go very far to hear about Qi, you’ve probably seen mention of Qi (and of meridians, channels that Qi is supposed to flow thlough), maybe in a description of acupuncture or something.

Hearing a bit more about it, though, there’s a whole theoretical system going on here. Qi, in particular, isn’t an isolated concept or substance or whatever: there are actually three related substances, namely Jing (“life essence”), Qi (“vital energy”), and Shen (“consciousness”, “spirit”). Jing is more on the physical end of things, Shen is more on the mental or mystical end of things; if you want to go further, you can even extend this to add a fourth element beyond Shen, namely Dao (“the way”).

And Traditional Chinese Medicine, or many schools of Taoist thought, go into lots of detail about this. Your body can turn Jing into Qi, Qi into Shen, Shen into Dao; there are specific places in body that are associated to those transformations (for example, a place in your abdomen called the “Lower Dantian” is very relevant for the Jing to Qi transition), and the meridians help those substances move throughout your body.

So Taoism has a theoretical framework that relates to these sorts of sensations: for example, it might say that the feelings I reported while lying down are caused by Yang Qi collecting at my Lao Gong (a particularly important set of acupuncture points in your palms), and then moving up my arms along one of my meridians. Or some of the feelings that I feel while sitting are related to Qi gathering in my Dantian; and I’ve felt feelings while standing that match discussions of the Yong Quan, Bai Hui, and Huiyin acupuncture points, as well as Jing at the bottom of my torso (and affecting my overall energy level) and Qi trying to move along my Du meridian. (And, currently, not making it very far, because the meridian is blocked at my Ming Men.)

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of that analysis is, say, an accurate description of physiological occurrences. (Though I’m also not saying that it isn’t that, either!) But I’m saying that these sensations that I’m being surprised by do match concepts and descriptions that Chinese sources talk about.


So that’s why I’m wondering about the Chinese / non-Chinese distinction as a possible explanation for this difference in emphasis. As for Western/non-Western: I think Western sources on meditation are coming at it from either an intellectual point of view or a mystical point of view, with neither of those having much to do with the body. (Western takes on Taoism mostly involve translating the Tao Te Ching over and over again, with a bit of Chuang Tzu mixed in; and there’s occasional pointing at a certain kind of Taoists as being weird alchemists who think that they can manufacture pills in their bodies that will make them immortal.)

And, as for Buddhists, the Buddha’s story involves him becoming enlightened after stopping physical mortification. And I feel like that story doesn’t point at a desire to take the body seriously? Like, first he starts off by trying to show that he can treat his body actively badly, then he decides that that’s not the issue, that he should just ignore this whole body thing. But neither approach says “your body could be an asset”. Or, if we think in terms of Jing / Qi / Shen / Dao, then Buddhism is interested in Shen and Dao but not Jing and Qi.


Having said that: Buddhists treat meditation very seriously, and also Buddhists aren’t the only Indian tradition out there. I don’t know almost anything about yoga, but I suspect that it has quite a bit in common with the Taoist Nei Gong stuff that I’m interested in.

So if you listen 7 minutes into this episode of the Lotus Underground podcast, for example, then you’ll hear a mention of Chakras (which sure sound to me like they’re related to the various Dan Tians and some of the other key acupuncture points) and Prana (which the podcaster says is the same as Qi), before getting into a discussion of a Buddhist sutra. As he says, “Buddhism is not really into the Chakras”, but he then launches into an analysis of a sutra named after one of the Chakras! So some of this physical stuff is present in Indian traditions, in Buddhist traditions.

And, as a bit of a side note: the Shaolin Temple is, of course, famous for its martial arts. But that temple is a Buddhist temple; and it’s supposed to have been founded by Bodhidharma, who brought Zen Buddhism to China. And Bodhidharma is supposed to have written the Tendon Changing Classic and the Marrow Washing Classic, both books on the physical side of transformation. No idea how much of that is real history versus stories told after the fact, but, in China, this stuff merges even more.


I read a book a month and a half ago called The Mind Illuminated; it’s a systematic guide to a form of Buddhist meditation called “Insight Meditation”. And I was really impressed by the book; I like systematic discussions, and I really do think that I’m going to carve out a significant amount of time at some point to try meditating the way the book presents.

But the book doesn’t talk about the body much: it wants you to focus on your breathing (it specifically recommends focusing on the tip of your nose while you breathe!), but the important part of that is as a tool for training your focus and observational skills, not as a gateway to anything like Qi.

Or it least most of the book doesn’t; but then I got to the chapter that talks about the transition between the sixth and seventh stages of the system outlined therein. And all of a sudden, I see a lot of familiar ideas: “energy currents moving through the body” (Qi), “involuntary body movements” (Zi Fa Gong), “energy moving up and down the spinal axis of the body” (the Du meridian), “a continuous circular movement between the core and extremities, and the base of the spine and the head” (the Du channel flowing into the Ren channel, making the Microcosmic Orbit, and then eventually out into your arms and legs, making the Macrocosmic Orbit). There’s even a diagram that looks like one of the advanced meridian diagrams (and which, incidentally, also maps to some extent to Silk Reeling Energy from Tai Chi, with some of the channels winding around your legs); the author says that “there is absolutely nothing in the human body that corresponds anatomically to these energy currents or the channels through which they seem to move”, which seems a little overconfident to me! And I could go on with the mappings here; over and over again, stuff that I’ve read about in Daoist Nei Gong books, and a fair amount of which corresponds to physical sensations that I’ve gotten at least a taste of.


So it seems like, if you go deep enough, you’ll see a lot of the same concepts. Yoga or Tai Chi starts with the body, Daoist Nei Gong starts with the body and Qi, Buddhist schools start with your mind. But the Buddhist path can pull in your body and Qi, Daoist Nei Gong explicitly ends up exploring consciousness and beyond, and I bet Yoga ends up talking about all of this as well.

Which certainly helps me be interested in this stuff: I don’t have to proceed from faith in a single system, or to be worried that, if I don’t pick the exact right system, I’m going to miss out on something important. Insead, I can be somewhat optimistic that there are basic experiences here that I can get access to via a range of routes. Probably some routes are faster than others, or better matches for me than others, but that’s okay, that’s a problem I’m very used to confronting.

Interesting stuff. And, of course, I shouldn’t spend too much time reading and thinking about it: I need to spend time practicing, and to work with teachers who can point at what I’m doing wrong and what direction might be a good one for me to explore next…

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