Putting the gong into Qigong

Gong is the skill one develops through cultivation, practice, and embodied change over time.

A craftsman has gong. A musician has gong.

In Qigong we learn many techniques for developing Qi gong but only through mindful practice do we attain gong. Learning a set of forms is not attaining Qigong. Practising the techniques you are taught will help you develop gong/skill. These skills amount to much more than simply feeling Qi for although Qi sensitivity is important it alone does not help us manage our health in any way.

Belly breathing—to take a very simple example—is a technique for calming the mind and switching the autonomic nervous system from high arousal Fight-or-Flight to low arousal Rest-and-Repair mode.

You do it a few times. You understand the technique. You get it. You don’t bother to continue practising because you are confident that you ‘have’ it. You have understood it.  Anyway, how can something as simple as belly breathing be important? You continue to breathe as you always have and there is no change. You have learnt a technique (Fa) but because you do not practice it you are not developing skill (gong).

To develop gong (of any kind) we need to practice; not just mindless repetitions but with attention monitoring our technique, honing change. Skill is not merely learning. Skill is physically embedded. The skill of a craftsman is enabled by physical changes that occur through repeated practice. These changes are brought about by the natural plasticity of the body.  The thickening of skin on one finger, a line of tensile strength through the body which is needed for the craft, and the habitual mental focus required to perform the craft. The muscular and neuronal connections (the routes) used for the craft are biochemically enhanced through practice and our craft therefore improves. Our body changes as we develop skill.

Gong is embodied. Skill is embodied.

In belly breathing practice, our diaphragm loosens and lengthens with the daily expansion which means we develop deeper longer breaths. Our nervous system adapts to the change in breathing and no longer automatically stimulates those high chest (anxiety) muscles for breathing. In other words, our breathing software is re-written and our choice of default breathing options increase. In the absence of regular practice our nervous system will not change and we will continue to breath the same way we always have.

Due to diaphragmatic stimulation of the vagus nerve in our daily belly breathing practice, our body gets a period of ‘rest & repair’ every day. Digestion and immune activity are switched to ‘max’. Many physiological improvements result. Our blood acidity changes due to improved exhalation of waste carbon dioxide. Less acidity leads to improvements in many aspects of chronic ill health such as pain and muscular tension. Physiological change from a daily breathing practice.

As Fight or Flight mode is switched off, our mind settles for a few minutes each day. We develop an ability to experience mental quietude which will be important in other aspects of our Qigong. Mental change from a daily breathing practice.

As belly breathing skill develops, we find we are able to control our level of arousal/relaxation. This is not possible just by understanding the technique.  Our body needs to experience and connect the nervous system routes for self-calming so that it can be used when necessary. Gradually, we develop gong, in that, we can modulate our level of arousal, mental quietude, and physiology.

This example, illustrating how one technique can be transformed into Qigong is only the first step towards developing a more advanced gong called ‘Sung’. Sung cannot be achieved by conceptual understanding.

In short, we should not confuse the techniques we are taught for Qigong.

A good Qigong teacher will teach us techniques but only through practice can we develop gong.

Attainment of Skill

British schooling conditions us to think that we are either right or wrong.  During our developmental years, we are assessed and marked accordingly. There develops a sense of failure or achievement depending on how good we are getting things ‘right’ and, at an early age, we learn where we stand in relation to others in this regard. As an Open University tutor, I often come across students with a deeply ingrained sense of failure which seriously impedes learning.

In Taiji there is no right and wrong: just a spectrum from poorly skilled to highly skilled.

Please ingest this.

There will always be more skill to develop and therefore you will never have it done, have it right, have it finished. Skill is always developing. For some of us, this produces an open-ended lack of achievement (no sense of completion) but only if we assume there should be an end point. The end is not the aim. Development of skill is the aim.

In the early days, we do not have much skill and we struggle with clunky bodies, self-criticism, and perhaps a sense of defeat (I will never be able to do that). But there should be no comparison with others. This is not a competition, a grading, or a test. We are each developing our skill as best we can at this time in our lives, with all the limitations of aging and injury inflict. One student will be flexible and flowing while another is stiff and clunky but if both are developing slightly more skill each week, both are doing it right.

The interesting thing about skill is that it develops by DOING. It is not about understanding it with our intellect (although, for some of us, this helps). It is about understanding it, knowing it, kinaesthetically. This is a completely different type of learning (which academic schools do not address but various craft-based apprenticeships do).

We do not develop taiji skill by ‘learning’ the form as quickly as we can. We develop skill by working on (practising) the principles we know so far. As our skill evolves, our teacher gives us more principles to work on. In other words, the sense of achievement needs to shift from one of ‘completion’ to one of ‘attaining skill’.

It is not so much about the length as the depth.

Silence for Health

Silence is under-rated in our stimulation-rich, things-to-do, must-never-get-bored, society. The ceaseless attentional demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where we organise thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. Over time, of course, our attentional resources become depleted. As a result, we become mentally fatigued, and may struggle to focus, solve problems or come up with new ideas.

But the brain can restore its cognitive resources when we have lower levels of sensory input than usual—in silence, for instance.

Silence can also regenerate brain tissue. Researchers have found that only two hours of silence a day can lead to new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. These findings suggest that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer’s, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus.

Silence does something tangible to our sense of self. When there is little input to process from outside, we have an opportunity to process inside. This is often one reason why some of us avoid silence; it prevents any observation of our inner lives. But silence allows access to more than our internal processes. It allows us access to something deeper, bigger, wiser.

When I was in the Sinai desert, doing Qigong (as you do) the silence created by a vast expanse of emptiness was the most unexpected part of my experience. It was as if, in the silence (where there were not even plants to rustle in the wind or distant activity from far off people) my senses expanded in all directions to find something. This silence was, quite tangibly, expansive. It became obvious why so many spiritual retreats take place in deserts (Didn’t Jesus spend time mooching about in a desert?).

So give yourself a full day of silence at one of our regular mini retreats. There will be guidance (it is not a day of sitting in silence wondering what to do or what to think about) and opportunities for brief discussions of feedback but the day will generally be silent.

Rumi—

Speech is a river, Silence is an ocean.