Six ways to use your crystals during your meditation or asana practice to make their effects even more powerful.
The ways in which you interact with your crystals and experience their benefits is very personal. You might prefer to meditate with rose quartz, keep green aventurine on an altar, and sleep with amethyst under your pillow. You might find that you prefer one method for a particular type of crystal, such as including it on an altar, and then find that you want to change it up by keeping it in your pocket. As with most elements of crystal work, let your intuition guide you.
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The Crystal Ritual Guide
Creating rituals around crystal work can make the effects even more powerful and dynamic. Ritualizing also increases mindfulness, and is a wonderful self-care practice that promotes overall wellness. Here are six ways to work with your crystals, along with suggestions for ritualizing.
Creating an altar gives your intentions and desires a physical form. It also gives your crystals a sacred space to work in.
Ritual: First, designate a space for your altar—a shelf or tabletop can work well. Smudge the area, burning dried herbs or wood so that the smoke cleanses the energy of the space. Choose your intention, pick the crystals and other sacred items that align with your altar’s purpose, and arrange them intuitively. Create a new altar when your intention has manifested or when you feel called to hold space for something different.
Infusing bathwater with crystal energy by dropping water-safe stones into a bath is a gentle way to immerse yourself in their colors and vibrations.
Ritual: First, prepare the space where you’ll be bathing. Perhaps this means dimming the lights, lighting candles or incense, or dabbing a few drops of a calming essential oil on your temples. Draw your bathwater and add a few crystals aligned with your intentions— amethyst or rose quartz are both great for this ritual. Before getting in, draw a few deep, cleansing breaths, close your eyes, and meditate on your intention. Get in and let the energized bathwater envelop your body.
Making a crystal grid—arranging stones to harness the power of sacred geometry—not only is a meditative practice, but can also increase the effectiveness of your crystal work on a particular intention. Grids can be as simple or intricate as you like.
Ritual: First, designate a space for your grid and clear the energy by smudging. Set your intention, then choose the crystals that will support it. Decide which sacred geometry grid calls to you, and place your crystals in the pattern, starting from the outside and working your way in, keeping your intention in mind. Lastly, place the final “master” crystal in the center of your grid. Take a few centering breaths, and visualize your grid’s intention.
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Holding a particular stone (or keeping it nearby) while meditating can enhance your practice, opening your consciousness and strengthening your connection to the earth.
Ritual: Choose the stone you want to work with (fluorite, celestite, and smoky quartz are good options). Find a quiet place to sit. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths; close your eyes and quiet your mind. Hold the stone you want to work with (or set it nearby), and imagine its energy permeating your body and soothing your mind. Focus on your breath as you hold space in this energy.
5. Physical contact
Placing stones directly on your body, especially over chakras, can help clear energy blocks and guide specific benefits to the areas that need the most healing.
Ritual: First decide which chakra you want to work on and pick a crystal that supports it. Lie on your back, take a few cleansing breaths, and quiet your mind. Take the crystal and place it on the chakra you want to cleanse, open, or heal—for instance, amazonite on your heart or iolite on your third eye. Visualize its energy radiating into your body. Continue for several minutes or until you feel called to stop. Take a deep cleansing breath and express gratitude, either internally or out loud, for the work that was done.
Keeping crystals on your nightstand, or even under your pillow, is an easy way to benefit from their energies while you sleep. Calming stones like dumortierite are best for this practice.
Ritual: Just before you get into bed, dim your lights, hold your chosen crystal, and take a centering, cleansing breath. Visualize the crystal’s energy, and the deep sleep you know it will give you. Place the stone in your pillowcase or under your pillow, and then drift easily to sleep.
Reprinted with permission from The Beginner’s Guide to Crystals, by Lisa Butterworth, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
How to Step Into Your Feminine Power with the Wisdom of the Dakinis
Lama Tsultrim Allione—one of the first American woman ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun— shares what she’s learned about love, life, and liberty while researching dakinis, or fierce female messengers of wisdom.
When I was eleven, I ran home on the last day of school and tore off my dress, literally popping the buttons off, feeling simultaneously guilty and liberated. I put on an old, torn pair of cutoff jean shorts, a white T-shirt, and blue Keds sneakers, and ran with my sister into the woods behind our old colonial New Hampshire house. We went to play in the brook burbling down the steep hill over the mossy rocks, through the evergreens and deciduous trees, the water colored rich red-brown by the tannins in the leaves of the maple trees. We would play and catch foot-long white suckerfish with our hands, and then put them back because we didn’t want to kill them.
Sometimes we swam naked at night with friends at our summerhouse in the spring-fed lake 15 miles away, surrounded by pine, birch, spruce, and maple trees. I loved the feeling of the water caressing my skin like velvet, with the moon reflecting in the mirror-like lake. My sister and my friend Joanie and I would get on our ponies bareback and urge them into the lake until they were surging up and down with water rushing over our thighs and down the backs of the horses; they were swimming with us as we laughed, clinging onto their backs.
When violent summer thunderstorms blew through, instead of staying in the old wooden house I would run and dance outside in the rain and thunder, scaring my mother. I liked to eat with my fingers, gnawing on pork chop bones and gulping down big glasses of milk, in a hurry to get back outside. I loved gnawing on bones. My mother would shake her head, saying in desperation, “Oh, darling, please, please eat with your fork! Heavens alive, I’m raising a barbarian!”
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Barbarian, I thought, that sounds great! I imagined women with long hair streaming out behind them, racing their horses over wide plains. I saw streaked sunrises on crisp mornings with no school, bones to gnaw on. This wildness was so much a part of me; I could never imagine living a life that didn’t allow for it.
But then I was a wife and a mother raising two young daughters, and that wild young barbarian seemed lifetimes away. Paul and I had been married for three years when we decided to move from Vashon Island back to Boulder, Colorado, and join Trungpa Rinpoche’s community. It was wonderful to be in a big, active community with many young parents. However, the strain of the early years, our inexperience, and our own individual growth led us to decide to separate and collaborate as co-parents.
In 1978, I had been a single mother for several years when I met an Italian filmmaker, Costanzo Allione, who was directing a film on the Beat poets of Naropa University. He interviewed me because I was Allen Ginsberg’s meditation instructor, and Allen, whom I had met when I was a nun in 1972, introduced me to Costanzo. In the spring of 1979, we were married in Boulder while he was finishing his film, which was called Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds, and soon thereafter we moved to Italy. I got pregnant that summer while we were living in a trailer in an Italian campground on the ocean near Rome, and that fall we moved into a drafty summer villa in the Alban Hills near the town of Velletri.
When I was six months pregnant, my belly measured the size of a nine-months pregnant woman’s, so they did an ultrasound and discovered I was pregnant with twins. By this time I knew that my husband was a drug addict and unfaithful. I couldn’t speak the native language and felt completely isolated. In March of 1980, I gave birth to twins, Chiara and Costanzo; they were a little early, but each weighed over five pounds. I buckled down to nursing two babies, caring for my other two daughters, and dealing with my husband’s addiction, erratic mood swings, and physical abuse, which started during my pregnancy when he began to hit me.
My feelings of overwhelm and anxiety increased daily, and I began to wonder about how my life as a mother and a Western woman really connected with my Buddhist spirituality. How had things ended up like this? How had I lost that wild, independent girl and left my life as a nun, ending up in Italy with an abusive husband? It seemed that by choosing to disrobe, I had lost my path, and myself.
Then two months later, on June 1, 1980, I woke up from a night of broken sleep and stumbled into the room where Chiara and her brother Costanzo were sleeping. I nursed him first because he was crying, and then turned to her. She seemed very quiet. When I picked her up, I immediately knew: she felt stiff and light. I remembered the similar feeling from my childhood, picking up my small marmalade colored kitten that had been hit by a car and crawled under a bush to die. Around Chiara’s mouth and nose was purple bruising where blood had pooled; her eyes were closed, but her beautiful, soft amber hair was the same and she still smelled sweet. Her tiny body was there, but she was gone. Chiara had died of sudden infant death syndrome.
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The Dakini Spirit
Following Chiara’s death came what I can only call a descent. I was filled with confusion, loss, and grief. Buffeted by raw, intense emotions, I felt more than ever that I desperately needed some female guidance. I needed to turn somewhere: to women’s stories, to women teachers, to anything that would guide me as a mother, living this life of motherhood—to connect me to my own experience as a woman and as a serious Buddhist practitioner on the path. I needed the stories of dakinis—fierce female messengers of wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. But I really didn’t know where to turn. I looked into all kinds of resources, but I couldn’t find my answers.
At some point in my search, the realization came to me: I have to find them myself. I have to find their stories. I needed to research the life stories of the Buddhist women of the past and see if I could discover some thread, some key that would help unlock the answers about the dakinis and guide me through this passage. If I could find the dakinis, I would find my spiritual role models—I could see how they did it. I could see how they made the connections between mother, wife, and woman . . . how they integrated spirituality with everyday life challenges.
About a year later, I was in California doing a retreat with my teacher, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, who was teaching a practice called Chöd that involved invoking the presence of one of the great female masters of Tibetan Buddhism, Machig Labdrön. And in this practice there is an invocation, in which you visualize her as a young, dancing, 16-year-old white dakini. So there I was doing this practice with him, and for some reason that night he kept repeating it. We must have done it for several hours. Then during the section of the practice where we invoked Machig Labdrön, I suddenly had the vision of another female form emerging out of the darkness.
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What I saw behind her was a cemetery from which she was emerging. She was old, with long, pendulous breasts that had fed many babies; golden skin; and gray hair that was streaming out. She was staring intensely at me, like an invitation and a challenge. At the same time, there was incredible compassion in her eyes. I was shocked because this woman wasn’t what I was supposed to be seeing. Yet there she was, approaching very close to me, her long hair flowing, and looking at me so intensely. Finally, at the end of this practice, I went up to my teacher and said, “Does Machig Labdrön ever appear in any other forms?”
He looked at me and said, “Yes.” He didn’t say any more.
I went to bed that night and had a dream in which I was trying to get back to Swayambhu Hill in Nepal, where I’d lived as a nun, and I felt an incredible sense of urgency. I had to get back there and it wasn’t clear why; at the same time, there were all kinds of obstacles. A war was going on, and I struggled through many barriers to finally reach the hill, but the dream didn’t complete itself. I woke up still not knowing why I was trying to return.
The next night I had the same dream. It was slightly different, and the set of obstacles changed, but the urgency to get back to Swayambhu was just as strong. Then on the third night, I had the same dream again. It is really unusual to have the same dream again and again and again, and I finally realized that the dreams were trying to tell me I had to go back to Swayambhu; they were sending me a message. I spoke to my teacher about the dreams and asked, “Does this seem like maybe I should actually go there?”
He thought about it for a while; again, he simply answered, “Yes.”
I decided to return to Nepal, to Swayambhu, to find the stories of women teachers. It took several months of planning and arrangements, a key part being to seek out the biographies of the great female Buddhist teachers. I would use the trip to go back to the source and find those yogini stories and role models I so desperately needed. I went alone, leaving my children in the care of my husband and his parents. It was an emotional and difficult decision, since I had never been away from my children, but there was a deep calling within me that I had to honor and trust.
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Back in Nepal, I found myself walking up the very same staircase, one step after another, up the Swayambhu Hill, which I had first climbed in 1967. Now it was 1982, and I was the mother of three. When I emerged at the top, a dear friend of mine was there to greet me, Gyalwa, a monk I had known since my first visit. It was as though he was expecting me. I told him I was looking for the stories of women, and he said, “Oh, the life stories of dakinis. Okay, come back in a few days.”
And so I did. When I returned, I went into his room in the basement of the monastery, and he had a huge Tibetan book in front of him, which was the life story of Machig Labdrön, who’d founded the Chöd practice and had emerged to me as a wild, gray-haired dakini in my vision in California. What evolved out of that was research, and eventually the birth of my book Women of Wisdom, which tells my story and provides the translation of six biographies of Tibetan teachers who were embodiments of great dakinis. The book was my link to the dakinis, and it also showed me, from the tremendous response the book received, that there was a real need—a longing—for the stories of great women teachers. It was a beautiful affirmation of the need for the sacred feminine.
Coming Out of the Dark
During the process of writing Women of Wisdom, I had to do research on the history of the feminine in Buddhism. What I discovered was that for the first thousand years in Buddhism, there were few representations of the sacred feminine, although there were women in the Buddhist sangha (community) as nuns and lay householder devotees, and the Buddha’s wife and the stepmother who raised him had a somewhat elevated status. But there were no female buddhas and no feminine principles, and certainly no dakinis. It was not until the traditional Mahayana Buddhist teachings joined with the Tantric teachings and developed into Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism in the eighth century, that we began to see the feminine emerge with a larger role.
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Before we continue, I want to distinguish here between neo-Tantra and more traditional Tantric Buddhism. Most people these days who see the word Tantra think about neo-Tantra, which has developed in the West as a form of sacred sexuality derived from, but deviating significantly from, traditional Buddhist or Hindu Tantra. Neo-Tantra offers a view of sexuality that contrasts with the repressive attitude toward sexuality as nonspiritual and profane.
Buddhist Tantra, also known as Vajrayana (Indestructible Vehicle), is much more complex than neo-Tantra and embedded in meditation, deity yoga, and mandalas—it is yoga with an emphasis on the necessity of a spiritual teacher and transmission. I will use the words Tantra and Vajrayana interchangeably throughout this book. Tantra uses the creative act of visualization, sound, and hand gestures (mudras) to engage our whole being in the process of meditation. It is a practice of complete engagement and embodiment of our whole being. And within Buddhist Tantra, often sexuality is used as a meta-phor for the union of wisdom and skillful means. Although sexual practice methods exist, Buddhist Tantra is a rich and complex spiritual path with a long history, whereas neo-Tantra is an extraction from traditional Tantric sexual practices with some additions that have nothing to do with it. So here when I say Tantra or Vajrayana, I am referring not to neo-Tantra but to traditional Buddhist Tantra.
Tantric Buddhism arose in India during the Pala Empire, whose kings ruled India primarily between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Remember that Buddhism had already existed for more than a thousand years by this time, so Vajrayana was a late development in the history of Buddhism. The union of Buddhism and Tantra was considered to be in many ways the crown jewel of the Pala period.
Although the origins of Buddhist Tantra are still being debated by scholars, it seems that it arose out of very ancient pre-Aryan roots represented in Shaktism and Saivism combining with Mahayana Buddhism. Though there is still scholarly debate about the origins of Vajrayana, Tibetans say it was practiced and taught by the Buddha. If we look at the Pala period, we find a situation where the Buddhist monks have been going along for more than a thousand years, and they have become very intellectually astute, developing various schools of sophisticated philosophy, Buddhist universities, and a whole culture connected to Buddhism that is very strong and alive. But at this point the monks have also become involved with politics, and have begun to own land and animals and to receive jewels and other riches as gifts from wealthy patrons. They also have become rather isolated from the lay community, living a sort of elite, intellectual, and rather exclusive existence.
The Tantric revolution—and it was a revolution in the sense that it was a major turning point—took place within that context. When the Tantric teachings joined Buddhism, we see the entrance of the lay community, people who were working in the everyday world, doing ordinary jobs and raising children. They might come from any walk of life: jewelers, farmers, shopkeepers, royalty, cobblers, blacksmiths, wood gatherers, to name a few. They worked in various kinds of occupations, including housewives. They were not monks who had isolated themselves from worldly life, and their spiritual practice reflected their experiences. There are many early tales, called the Siddha Stories, of people who lived and worked in ordinary situations, and who by turning their life experiences into a spiritual practice achieved enlightenment.
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There are also some stories of enlightened women practitioners and teachers in early Buddhism. We see a blossoming of women gurus, and also the presence of female Buddhas and, of course, the dakinis. In many stories, these women taught the intellectual monks in a very direct, juicy way by uniting spirituality with sexuality; they taught based on using, rather than renouncing, the senses. Their teachings took the learned monks out of the monastery into real life with all its rawness, which is why several of the Tantric stories begin with a monk in a monastic university who has a visitation from a woman that drives him out in search of something beyond the monastic walls.
Tantric Buddhism has a genre of literature called “praise of women,” in which the virtues of women are extolled. From the Candamaharosana Tantra: “When one speaks of the virtues of women, they surpass those of all living beings. Wherever one finds tenderness or protectiveness, it is in the minds of women. They provide sustenance to friends and strangers alike. A woman who is like that is as glorious as Vajrayogini herself.”
There is no precedent for this in Buddhist literature, but in Buddhist Tantric texts, writings urge respect for women, and stories about the negative results of failing to recognize the spiritual qualities of women are present. And in fact, in Buddhist Tantra, the fourteenth root of downfall is the failure to recognize all women as the embodiment of wisdom.
In the Tantric period, there was a movement abolishing barriers to women’s participation and progress on the spiritual path, offering a vital alternative to the monastic universities and ascetic traditions. In this movement, one finds women of all castes, from queens and princesses to outcasts, artisans, winemakers, pig herders, courtesans, and housewives.
For us today, this is important as we are looking for female models of spirituality that integrate and empower women, because most of us will not pursue a monastic life, yet many of us have deep spiritual longings. Previously excluded from teaching men or holding positions of leadership, women—for whom it was even questioned whether they could reach enlightenment—were now pioneering, teaching, and assuming leadership roles, shaping and inspiring a revolutionary movement. There were no institutional barriers preventing women from excelling in this tradition. There was no religious law or priestly caste defining their participation.
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Another important part of the Tantric practice is the use of symbols surrounding and being held by the deities. The first and probably most commonly associated symbol of the dakini is what’s called the trigug in Tibetan, the kartari in Sanskrit, and in English, “the hooked knife.” This is a crescent-shaped knife with a hook on the end of the blade and a handle that is ornamented with different symbols. It’s modeled from the Indian butcher’s knife and sometimes called a “chopper.” The hook on the end of the blade is called the “hook of compassion.” It’s the hook that pulls sentient beings out of the ocean of suffering. The blade cuts through self-clinging, and through the dualistic split into the great bliss. The cutting edge of the knife is representative of the cutting quality of wisdom, the wisdom that cuts through self-deception. To me it is a powerful symbol of the wise feminine, because I find that often women tend to hang on too long and not cut through what needs to be cut through. We may hang on to relationships that are unhealthy, instead of ending what needs to be ended. The hooked knife is held in the dakini’s raised right hand; she must grasp this power and be ready to strike. The blade is the shape of the crescent moon, and the time of the month associated with the dakini is ten days after the full moon, when the waning moon appears as a crescent at dawn; this is the twenty-fifth day of the lunar cycle and is called Dakini Day in the Tibetan calendar. When I come out early on those days and it is still dark, I look up and see the crescent moon; it always reminds me of the dakini’s knife.
The other thing about the dakinis is that they are dancing. So this is an expression when all bodily movements become the expression of enlightened mind. All activities express awakening. Dance is also an expression of inner ecstasy. The dakini has her right leg raised and her left leg extended. The raised right leg symbolizes absolute truth. The extended left leg rests on the ground, symbolizing the relative truth, the truth about being in the world, the conventional truth. She’s also naked, so what does that mean? She symbolizes naked awareness—the unadorned truth, free from deception. And she is standing on a corpse, which symbolizes that she has overcome self-clinging; the corpse represents the ego. She has overcome her own ego.
The dakini also wears bone jewelry, gathered from the charnel-ground bones and carved into ornaments: She wears anklets, a belt like an apron around her waist, necklaces, armbands, and bracelets. Each one of these has various meanings, but the essential meaning of all the bone ornaments is to remind us of renunciation and impermanence. She’s going beyond convention; fear of death has become an ornament to wear. We think of jewels as gold or silver or something pretty, but she’s taken that which is considered repulsive and turned it into an ornament. This is the transformation of the obstructed patterns into wisdom, taking what we fear and expressing it as an ornament.
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The dakinis tend to push us through blockages. They appear during challenging, crucial moments when we might be stymied in our lives; perhaps we don’t know what to do next and we are in transition. Maybe an obstacle has arisen and we can’t figure out how to get around or get through—then the dakinis will guide us. If in some way we’re stuck, the dakinis will appear and open the way, push us through; sometimes the energy needs to be forceful, and that’s when the wrathful manifestation of a dakini appears. Another important aspect of the dakini’s feminine energy is how they cut through notions of pure and impure, clean and unclean, what you should do and shouldn’t do; they break open the shell of those conventional structures into an embrace of all life in which all experience is seen as sacred.
Practicing Tibetan Buddhism more deeply, I came to realize that the dakinis are the undomesticated female energies—spiritual and erotic, ecstatic and wise, playful and profound, fierce and peaceful—that are beyond the grasp of the conceptual mind. There is a place for our whole feminine being, in all its guises, to be present.
About the Author
Lama Tsultrim Allione is the founder and resident teacher of Tara Mandala, a retreat center located outside of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. She is the best-selling author of Women of Wisdom and Feeding Your Demons. Recognized in Tibet as the reincarnation of a renowned eleventh-century Tibetan yogini, she is one of the only female lamas in the world today. Learn more at taramandala.org.
Excerpted from Wisdom Rising: Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine by Lama Tsultrim Allione. Enliven Books, May 2018. Reprinted with permission.
How a Daily Meditation Practice Helps You Find Trust
One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace.
After meditating with my first meditation teacher, Arvis, for some time, I decided to do a weeklong silent Zen meditation retreat. Arvis said, “I feel good about a teacher named Jakusho Kwong up at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Maybe that would be a good place for you to go.” I was excited to experience an authentic retreat in a Zen Buddhist temple with all the accoutrements — the bells, the robes, the rituals, the whole thing.
I got there in the late afternoon, and the retreat was scheduled to start in the early evening. After we had dinner, we went into the Zendo for the first meditation session. It was a very formal place, and I had no idea what the etiquette was. There was minimal instruction, so I learned what I was supposed to be doing by watching other people, which heightened my awareness right away. I sat down on my cushion with all my gleeful anticipation about this experience as the temple bell was struck three times to begin the period of meditation.
As soon as that bell rang, adrenaline flooded my body. It was not fear, but my whole system went into fight-or-flight mode. All I could think was, How do I get out of here? Let me out of here! which is silly because five seconds earlier I was thrilled about being there.
Fortunately, a small, quiet voice inside me said, You have no idea how important this is. You must stay. So even though I had adrenaline rushes twenty-four hours a day for five days and nights in a row, I did not sleep throughout the entire retreat, and I contemplated leaving many times, I managed to hang in there — barely — and finish. Not an auspicious beginning for a future spiritual teacher, but that is what happened. I never knew exactly why I had that reaction, but I have a hunch. When you undertake a retreat like that, something deep within you knows, Oh, boy, the jig is up now. This is not make-believe. This is the real thing. Something in me knew that this was going to be a complete life reorientation. I did not realize this consciously, but unconsciously my ego reacted as if threatened: This is it. This guy is considering the nature of his own being as far as the egoic impulse running the rest of life.
In some ways, my first retreat was a disaster. The only thing that got me through was a mantra I came up with on the second day. Thousands of times over those five nights and days, I said to myself: I will never, ever, ever do this again. That was my big spiritual mantra!
One of the things that impressed me during that retreat was that Kwong — the roshi, or teacher — gave a talk each day, and that talk was my respite because I got to sit and listen and be entertained. It was a relief from the bone-jarring meditation, the never-ending silence, and the pain in my knees and back. Kwong had recently returned from a trip to India that had a huge impact on him. I could tell because as he was recounting stories about his trip, tears streamed down his cheeks and dripped off the bottom of his chin.
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One story especially touched me. Kwong was walking on a dirt road through an impoverished area. There were some kids playing a game with a ball and a stick out in the middle of the road. One kid stood apart from the group, as if ostracized. This boy was watching the kids play and had a sad look on his face. He had a cleft palate, so his upper lip was severely deformed. Kwong walked up to the boy, but they did not speak the same language, so he did not know what to say. There was a moment of indecision, and then Kwong took the boy’s hand in his and with his other hand reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He pointed to a little shop that sold ice cream and gave the money to the boy. I thought it was a sweet way of giving a little comfort and acknowledging this poor kid’s existence, his loneliness.
As Kwong did this, he gestured to the group of children that seemed to have rejected the boy as if to say, “Go get them and buy them ice cream.” He had given the child enough money to buy treats for all the kids. The boy waved to them and pointed toward the ice cream shop, and all the children joined this one kid who had been lonely and sad. Suddenly he was the hero! He had money and was buying ice cream for everybody. The kids were laughing and talking with him. He was included in their group.
Kwong sat in full lotus position on his cushion in his beautiful brown teacher’s robes and told this story in a resonant, soft voice, deeply touched by the poverty that he saw and by the loneliness of that child. He never hid his tears, and he never seemed embarrassed by his emotion. Watching another man embody this juxtaposition of great strength and tenderness taught me more about true masculinity than anything else in my life. Hearing him speak with such fearlessness was extraordinary. For a young, aspiring Zen student, to have this be my first encounter with a Zen master was a tremendous stroke of good luck and grace, especially since during this whole retreat, except for the talks, I was hanging on by a thread. I continued to study with Kwong, did some retreats with him over the years, and appreciated his great wisdom, but I never again saw him in the state he was in on that first retreat. His openness and dignity were a powerful teaching — it was like being bathed in grace.
Since then I have attended and led hundreds of retreats, but I still look back on that first one with Kwong as both the absolute worst and absolute best in my life. I did not know how powerfully it had affected me until months later. Staying with whatever arose for me despite being flooded with adrenaline, sitting with it in a raw way through all those hours of meditation instead of running away, was profound. When you are having that experience, when you are being pushed to your limit, you do not think of it as grace, but the real grace was that I was in that environment. I was in a place where I could not go anywhere, where I could not turn on the TV or listen to the radio or grab a book or enter a discussion. I had to face the entirety of my experience. Afterward, when I tried to describe the retreat to people, I would end up in tears — not tears of sadness or even of joy, but of depth. I had touched upon something that was so meaningful, vital, and important that it opened my heart.
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Meditation Helps You Feel Your Feelings
As we go through life, we eventually have enough experience to see that sometimes profound difficulty can also be profoundly heart opening. When you are in a tough position, when you are facing something hard, when you feel challenged, when you feel like you are at your edge, it is a gift to have the willingness to stop, to sit with those moments, and not to look for the quick, easy resolution for that feeling. It is a kind of grace to be able and willing to open yourself entirely to the experience of challenge, of difficulty, and of insecurity.
There is light grace, and there is dark grace. Light grace is when you have a revelation — when you have insights. Awakening is a light grace; it is like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The heart opens, and old identities fall away. Then there is dark grace, like what I had on that retreat. I do not mean “dark” in the sense of sinister or evil, but “dark” in the sense of traveling through the darkness looking for light. You cannot see the way through whatever you are experiencing and whatever the challenge is. One of the most amazing things that daily meditation has taught me over many years is to have the wisdom and grace to quietly and silently be with whatever presents itself, whatever is there, without looking for a solution or an explanation.
To see yourself is the heart of what a spiritual discipline like meditation is all about. When people come on retreat with me, we meditate for five or six periods a day. The idea of meditation is not necessarily to get good at it — whatever your definition may be of being “good” at meditation — but the most important thing, the useful thing, the reason we are meditating is so that we encounter ourselves. If you are not using your meditation to hide from your experience or to transcend it or to concentrate your way out of it, if you are being quietly present, meditation forces honesty. It is an extraordinarily truthful way to experience yourself in that moment. This willingness to encounter yourself is vitally important. It is a key to spiritual life and to awakening: being present for whatever is. Sometimes “whatever is” is mundane; sometimes it is full of light, grace, and insight; and sometimes it begins as a dark grace, where we do not know where we are going or how to get through it, and then suddenly there is light.
One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace. We realize that it is in feeling lost that our true nature finds itself. In meditation we encounter ourselves, and it elicits a real honesty if we are ready for it. You can read about things forever, you can listen to talks forever, and you can assume that you understand or that you have got it, but if you can be with yourself in a quiet way without running away, that is the necessary honesty. When we can do nothing and be extraordinarily happy and at peace with that, we have found tranquility within ourselves.
Through experience, we find we can trust the moments when we do not know which way to go, when we feel like we will never have the answers. We know we can stop there and listen. This is the heart of meditation: it is the act of listening in a deep way. You could boil all of spirituality down to the art and practice of listening to nothing and trusting in the difficulty. That is what I learned on that first retreat. It taught me that a direct encounter with challenge is a doorway to accessing our depth, coming face-to-face with our most important thing, and being able to trust in the unfolding of our life.
As a teacher, one of the things I see is the failure of people to trust their lives — their problems and sometimes even their successes. It is a failure to trust that their life is its own teacher, that within the exact way their human life is expressing itself lies the highest wisdom, and that they can access it if they can sit still and listen. If they can sink into themselves, their own nobody-ness, and allow difficulty to strip them of their somebody-ness, then they can do away with the masks of their persona. Spiritually speaking, this is exactly what we want: to remove the masks. Sometimes we take them off willingly, sometimes they fall away, and sometimes they are torn off.
Unmasking is the spiritual path. It is not about creating new masks — not even spiritual masks. It is not about going from being a worldly person to a spiritual person or trading a spiritual ego for a materialistic ego. It is a matter of authenticity and of the capacity to trust life, even if life has been tremendously tough. It is stopping right where you are and entering profound listening, availability, and openness. If you feel wonderful, you feel wonderful; if you feel lost, you feel lost, but you can trust in being lost. You can do this without talking to yourself about it and without creating a story around it. We must find that capacity to trust ourselves and to trust our life — all of it, whatever it is — because that is what allows the light to shine and revelation to arise.
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We see it when we stop and listen, not with our ears and not with our mind, but with our heart, with a tender and intimate quality of awareness that opens us beyond our conditioned ways of experiencing any moment. My first retreat, as difficult as it was, taught me that the most amazing things can come out of the most difficult experiences if we dedicate ourselves to showing up for the situation. That is the heart of meditation and the heart of what it takes to discover who and what we are as we turn away from external things and toward the source of love, the source of wisdom, the source of freedom and happiness within. That is where you will find your most important thing.
Excerpted from The Most Important Thing: Discovering Truth at the Heart of Life by Adyashanti. Copyright ©2018 by Adyashanti. Published by Sounds True in January 2019.
What is Qi Gong?(And How You Can Start Practicing Today)
The guiding principle of Qi Gong, is the coordination of the eyes with the body movements.
The literal translation of qi gong is “energy work.” It is an Asian form of yoga that has been around for thousands of years. Much of it is performed while standing, though there are a number of seated sets as well. There are hundreds of systems of qi gong that have come from various lineages, and many of them focus on different fields.Many are health oriented, while a separate group comes through the martial arts lineages.
These systems act to harness willpower, to focus, and to help practitioners channel their energy through their palms. There are also a number of systems from the temples and monasteries that are more focused on spiritual cultivation and depth of meditation. Some involve moving, and others are visualization based. Almost all of them involve specialized breathing, which is coordinated with the activity at hand. The guiding principle of all these practices, however, is the coordination of the eyes with the body movements, the focus of the mind, and the breath, especially for the moving practices. For the more passive, non- movement exercises, we focus the vision inward and explore the inner realms as we guide the breath to various inner chambers.
Let’s take a moment to look at this formula again to see if we can dissect it a bit more. We are looking for the coordination of all (not just a couple) of the following to take place in order for our qi gong to be effective:
The Eyes in Qi Gong
In the West, the eyes are considered the gateway to the soul and, in Taoist theory, are believed to guide the shen, or the spirit. It is said that the qi (energy) follows the shen (spirit), and the blood and body fluids, in turn, then follow the qi.
Therefore, the eyes become the “command center” for the spirit to control and guide the movement of the energy in the body. Later on, we will use the same system to direct energies outside of our body to effectuate healing and exert our influence on the environment around us.
Body Movements in Qi Gong
These are the actual sequenced movements of the qi gong exercises. Many of these follow the pathways of the energy meridians that run through the body. They also often trace the outer edges of our energy fields, smoothing and caressing the potency of the energy flow in our Light Body. These movements often involve various degrees of exertion, and depending on the system you are training in, they can actually be quite rigorous.
Recall the story of Bodhidharma and the Shaolin temple. He created a routine (called the Famous Tamo’s Eighteen Hands of the Lohan) that fully mixed kung fu with qi gong with relatively high levels of exertion. This aspect is very much like the physical yoga systems in the Indian traditions. Some hold static postures, while others emphasize more dynamic flow and continuity of motion.
Mental Focus in Qi Gong
This is a critical aspect of the practice and is the one that students most often overlook. Paying attention is a critical component to any energy work, as it engages the fire energy of the heart and ties the spirit in with the actions at hand. The ancients say the linking of attention and intention creates mastery in life. Here, we are asked to focus on the action at hand and to stay engaged in the body movements, tracking them with the eyes. Doing so demands our mental focus and presence, and the reward is immense. This aspect also draws on the yi, or shen, of the earth element.
Breath in Qi Gong
It is the vital breath that is said to circulate through the various meridians, and it is the energy from the air, if you recall, that mixes with the food qi to create the functional energy of our body. The coordination of breath with body movements and attention drives energy through the designated pathways and opens blockages. We use breath not only to open these pathways but also to gather and store the breath and energy in specific reservoirs (called dantiens) in the body. An adept student learns to extract vital energy from the air through breathwork.
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As simple as it seems, it is this framework that sets the precedent for all the magic to occur in qi gong. Now, there is much to be said about the specific movements and the deep understanding of the energy path- ways and how they affect us, but even if we were just to take this level of focus and coordinated thought and breathing into our day-to-day lives, we’d be far ahead of the game.
The good news is that we are about to learn about these pathways, and we are going to unlock and understand the mechanisms of action here. We will engage the intellect (yi) and the attention (shen) with the intention (zhi). Once this “vertical axis” of fire-earth-water has been activated, we’ll have finally unlocked the first hints of our tremendous potential, and a number of powerful changes will start to happen.
This vertical axis gives us the mental and spiritual alignment we need in order to connect all aspects of our being into our body while in our practice. The connection of all the various aspects of ourselves through the practice really begins to snap us out of our trances. Once we correct the flow of energy and divert it away from all the wasteful patterns of our past, we can start to gather and accumulate power in our reservoir and use this as a buffer against disease, fatigue, or simply falling back into a sleepy trance. When we speak of accumulating power or storing energy, we are speaking of creating places where we condense and refine the quality of the energy that is moving through us. We condense it to nourish our essence, and we refine it to illuminate our spirit.
However, we want to be careful to not think of it in capitalistic terms. This is critical in our understanding of qi gong—or life, for that matter. There is actually no need for more energy at all because there is an infinite amount of energy available to us right here and right now. In fact, all the power that ever was or ever will be is here and now.
So, it is important to not get into the “acquisition” game of energy and to instead realize where it comes from. There is no outside source from which we draw energy, like water from a well. The entire force of the universe is flowing through us at all times and in all places. Therefore, it is the impedance or the blockages we create to the free flow of this energy that makes us feel a sense of lack. We channel much of this energy subconsciously to our shadow, and we simply close our minds to the limitless flow of it because it would simply break our ego’s definition of ourselves. We keep our foot on the brake and then wonder why we’re exhausted all the time.
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What is the goal of Qi Gong?
The goal of qi gong isn’t an addition process; it is more a subtraction process. The more we can get out of our own way, the more we can let the universal flow of energy move through us. We become an agent of its goodwill, and we take our rightful place in eternity. This is not in some far-off heaven but here and now. Qi gong helps us wake up to the living, breathing moment in which we can finally take part. An important aspect in “getting out of the way” is reconciling the stuck energies in the “horizontal axis” of grief, anger, and frustration. This horizontal soul axis of emotions is intimately involved in the rising and falling trends of our mental and emotional upheavals. It is simultaneously tied to the cycle of life and all the trials and tribulations of the soul. It is important to not be deferential about this and to be engaged in the process of reconciling imbalances on this axis.
It is at this point in the process that most people get stuck because this is where they store the majority of the repressed charge in their shadows. Our desires for addition (wood) and our reluctance to let go (metal) lead to a great deal of clinging and suffering. In playing this game, we get out of balance and unconsciously pour more and more energy into creating “monsters” here.
In Chinese medicine, the lungs represent the metal element, which descends energy naturally, while the liver represents the wood energy, which naturally rises. The lungs sit above the liver in our body, and it is the dynamic tension of trying to maintain this inverted energetic flow that is the essence of life. One pushes up from underneath as the other pushes down. Upon death, the shen of the liver, the hun, ascends to heaven, and the shen of the lungs, the po, descends into the earth. We need them to check each other in dynamic tension; otherwise, they will separate, and we will perish.
Bringing harmony to the proper flow of the horizontal axis is what keeps our lives running smoothly and plugs us into the power of the vertical axis. The proper alignment of attention and intention requires a healthy understanding of the human condition; far from running from it, we are to be engaged, aware, and awake moment by moment.
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Much like the Indian system of chakras that represent different aspects of the light as it expresses through our physical body (see figure 1.2), the Taoist system uses three main energy reservoirs, called the dantiens (see figure 6.3). There is a lower dantien, which is located approximately three inches below the navel between the front of the torso and the spine; a middle dantien, which is centered in the sternum (at the center of the chest and level with the heart); and an upper dantien, which is housed slightly above eye level in the forehead (the third eye).
The lower and middle dantiens range in size but can be approximately the size of a small bowling ball, whereas the size of the upper dantien depends on the level of attainment of the individual—usually any- where from a golf ball to a tennis ball in most people.
The lower dantien is the area where we first learn to direct our breath. It is the foundation of the energy body system. The Taoists believe that it is important to start with the heaviest and densest forms of energy in our cultivation and to work up from there.
Again, yin and yang have differentiated, and the heavier and more yin aspects are located lower in the body. In fact, hui yin, which is the first point of the conception vessel (energy meridian), is located in the perineum and is considered to be the most yin aspect of our anatomy. It is the base of our torso’s energy field and is the point from which the lower dantien energy emerges and returns to. Anchoring the breath and the shen (which is more yang in nature) down to this region brings the first level of balance to our system.
Think of it like a construction job; a solid foundation below gives us a steady structure above. What we want to do in qi gong is systematically go through and balance the energies of our body from base to crown and only move forward once we have done so successfully. We want to concentrate our energy into the lower dantien and then allow ourselves to draw upon this “core” region for every movement. We want all the body’s energy currents to run through here in order to nourish the original qi and post-heaven essence.
The more energy we can release to these systems, the more efficiently we can metabolize foods and run our day-to-day processes. The more we do this, the more trapped or blocked energies we’ll be able to free and the more positive energy, in turn, we’ll have to work with every day of our lives. As we optimize the flow of clean energy through our energy fields, we will be faced with blockages that carry with them mental and emotional content that is deemed “undesirable”—things we’ve stuffed into our shadow.
The more light and awareness we bring, the more our shadows will become illuminated, which leaves less space and power available to hidden subconscious processes. This can be a bit unsettling to face, but remember that we now have increased energy and awareness to deal with what’s there. This is where the middle dantien comes into play. We use the energy of the heart to forgive these events and memories. We learn to disengage from our typical response of empowering these blockages by running and pumping energy into a polarized “solution.” We use the lower dantien to bring up the power (almost like activating a battery and plugging into it); then we use the middle dantien to transform what’s been trapped in our shadows, which we now finally have the strength and ability to deal with.
From here, the new energy is released and refined in the upper dantien, where it becomes pure, undifferentiated light of awareness. The more self-aware we become, the easier this process gets. Alchemy is actually quite fun once the “engine” gets going. There’s always something to clean—always energy to access and things to unlock. Once you get this, there will never be a dull moment in life.
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The Different Types of Qi Gong Practice
There is a yin and a yang aspect to everything, including the actual energetic practice. We studied the various types of energy earlier. Now, some of that information will come to light a bit more. The nutritive qi and the defensive qi are the main types of energy running through our body. They tend to our cells and service our myriad physiological needs. For these types of qi, there are practices designed to emphasize one or the other. In fact, there are also practices designed to enhance shen, or spirit, as well as other internal practices designed to cultivate and refine essence and awaken the spirit within. Here are the designations of the various qi gong practices:
This practice concentrates on the exterior energy (wei qi), which is responsible for health, immunity, and the defense of the system against pathogens and disease. It is designed to route energy to these external “force fields” and to create an energetic barrier that protects the internal organs from outside invasion.
This is a general term for the practices that bolster the nutritive qi and that also support the defensive qi. It increases flow to the different systems and provides the body with the necessary boost it needs to nourish and heal itself. Qi gong is the most balanced approach; however, it needs to be modified depending on the circumstances of the individual or for progressing into deeper work.
This is considered the higher alchemical practice that is taught in the temples; it involves a great deal of dedication. Nei gong emphasizes the cultivation and preservation of essence (sexual abstinence mixed with specific practices) so that it can be further condensed and refined to qi and shen. Nei gong leads to the formation of the Light Body and is what has been passed down by the famous Taoist “immortals.” It takes many months of qi gong practice with mental and emotional reconciliation before nei gong is considered safe.
This practice applies to the cultivation of the attention and, specifically, the cultivation of the psychic senses that help us perceive energetic rhythms universally. It aids in clairvoyance, clairaudience, long-distance healing, astral travel, and psionics/mind control. This is obviously high-level stuff, but this practice should not be considered the most important. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff is “cute,” but the real gold is in the nei gong, which effectuates personal transformation. Shen gong is often taught to priests who need to intervene in crises, heal ailments, and perform exorcisms. It is an important part of the knowledge of the Tao, but the danger in the West is in how people glorify the “powers,” which can then serve as a dangerous ego trap.
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Just like the emphasis we put on getting the physical body healthy and fit, it is important to start here with the foundations of qi gong and work our way up. This means working diligently on our stance, which will help ground our energy and give us “roots.” Stances develop the lower dantien and strengthen the wei (or defensive) qi. Once we build a strong foundation, we can really begin to reap the powerful benefits of this practice. From here, we learn about the mysteries of the Tao and become more self-aware.
Words of Caution about Qi Gong
We need wax for a candle to be a candle and to serve its purpose. Thus, the practice begins with foundational work that will strengthen our muscles, bones, energy flow, and resolve. We are blessed to have these systems available to us, and it is truly fortunate that the air of secrecy that originally surrounded these arts has changed in our age. That being said, though, there is work to do, and shortcuts are dangerous.
Taoism is about maintaining balance and harmonizing the polarity consciousness that has infected the minds of our culture. Just like you can’t “power nap” each night for an hour instead of getting a full night’s sleep, you can’t not do the work. Sure, you can get away with those power naps for a few days or weeks (likely with the help of stimulants and drugs), but you’ll quickly burn out.
Again, look at this behavior bathed in the full light of what we have learned about aversions and cravings. Look at how some people will do anything to avoid feeling their past and the nonsense they will resort to in order to run from themselves. This is not healthy behavior, and we are here to correct it. The way is the training.
I have been practicing and teaching in Southern California for decades now, and I have encountered a great many “hungry ghosts.” These spiritual shoppers are looking for a quick fix and will do something that is convenient, but they are not willing to put in any real work. This is especially true if the work challenges them to face the content in their shadows. I find it very telling to see how a student engages in a practice and with what level of commitment. When someone is given a specific diet that avoids foods that they are allergic to (validated by testing) and they fail to comply because it is “too hard,” then that is a telling characteristic of a zombie—someone who is completely powerless to face him- or herself. I see much of the same with people who want the “fuzzy” stuff with the qi gong but are unwilling to do the foundation-building work. They are impatient and will get nowhere. I’m here to help, but I can’t do the work for you. I will point you in the right direction, though. So, take a deep breath, and let’s get into the training!
Excerpted from Inner Alchemy: The Urban Monk’s Guide to Happiness, Health, and Vitality by Pedram Shojai. Copyright © 2018 Sounds True. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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