Hi folks, sorry for the drought in blog posts. The time I usually spend writing this blog I have been reading the newspaper. I have been caught up in the presidential election. Maybe a zen master should not be so involved in temporal matters but it has been so damn interesting.
At a recent retreat I was asked by a fellow teacher how I taught the tanden which is also called the Hara. The Tanden is a body energy center located around the lower abdomen just below the belly button. The Tanden in position corresponds to the 2nd Chakra in the Indian system. I see that the 2nd chakra is classified as the center of sexual energy by some, but if you come to experience the tanden you will understand that this is not so. The Japanese think of the tanden as the center of spiritual energy, a place where Chi/Ki is stored. In the Zen schools the Tanden is taught as a secondary focus for concentration. In other words while meditating with a focus on the breath one is asked to feel the breath with an additional focus on the Tanden. We do this by taking a long slow out-breath feeling the muscles in the tanden area which are used to gently squeeze all the air out of the lungs.
Feel the breath and notice what happens when you feel the breath in the upper chest. The breath is short and fast never emptying the lungs. Also there is tension not relaxation. The state of mind that goes with breathing in the upper chest is anxious, with lots of thought. As we relax but still constantly thinking, as is typical, we now feel the breath in the center of the chest. We are not fully exhaling but are also not short of breath needing oxygen. We might think of this as normal relaxed breathing. Some meditation teachers might tell you this is how you should breath while practicing meditation. But as our meditation deepens, our concentration deepens and there is noticeable space between thoughts we will naturally feel like our breathing lowers, into the abdomen, and as we breath we will naturally empty more and more air from the lungs. In truly deep meditation where there are very few thoughts we will find our breathing fully relaxing, exhaling all the breath, completely emptying the lungs. And as we feel our lungs completely empty the feeling of that last bit of breath being pushed out will come from the tanden.
When practicing meditation we should be taking long slow out breaths, giving a little extra squeeze to push out as much air as possible without strain, feeling the breath down in the lower abdomen. Then let the inbreath be relaxed and natural letting the body take in as much air as it wants. In deep meditation we will naturally breath in very little air. By practicing long slow out-breaths with attention on the tanden area we can learn to quickly deepen our meditation in our daily practice.
These instructions are simple but it still can take years to be proficient in this technique. One of the problems is that the Tanden at first is an abstract spot that we don't really feel. Somehow it needs to be energised. This can only happen if we energise our bodies with chi beyond the normal levels. And this can only happen if we deepen our meditation to the point where thoughts stop for even just a moment but we do this over and over again. Now we come back to our long slow out breath. If we can really follow our breath right to the end with the lungs completely empty we will experience a moment without thought. And each time we do this we deposit a single drop of chi into the tanden. At some point we will have put enough chi into the tanden that we will feel it as a unique spot in our body that we can use to quickly enter and deepen meditation.
Personally I practiced for years without having any special feel in the tanden. But then after I first experienced deep samadhi, an extended period where all the interior dialogue stopped, I was left with a persistent tickle in the tanden area. I discovered I could give this spot a little squeeze using my breath and the muscles in the tanden area and have a feeling that one might call well being or even love rise from the tanden and flood my body for a moment. At the same time I would enter a meditative state with few thoughts. I was so enthralled with this newfound skill that I would practice it much of the time, walking down the street, driving, even playing tennis. Eventually the tickle in the tanden faded into the background though never actually disappearing and ready to be used as need be. I have found it very helpful when called to enter otherwise stressful situations. Sometimes I use it consciously but other times it does it's thing on it's own. Once activated the tanden will become one of the meditators most important tools.
I have also had the experience of loosing the activation of the tanden. It came after a period of a few years in the late 90"s when I rarely practiced meditation and then it took over a year of daily practice to get it back.
If you want to understand more about the relationship between chi and meditation read my essay A Life of Practice.