The Dantians: Cinnabar Fields In Taoist Practice
Rooted in insight and experience (i.e. in sensory and yogic direct perception), Taoist masters have confirmed the existence of dantians (also spelled: tan-t’ians): energetic fields (of sensation and intelligence) within the subtle body. The literal translation of “dantian” is “cinnabar field” -- a reference to the mineral ore of mercury, a highly prized substance in the practice of Taoist external alchemy. More generally, and more essentially, this name points to the precious nature of the Three Treasures of internal alchemy: the “elixirs of immortality” which are rooted in the three dantians, and whose cultivation and refinement defines the majority of Taoist practice.
Field Theory In Modern Science: Classical & Quantum
Modern physics has given birth to classical as well as quantum field theories. The most ubiquitous examples of classical fields are Newtonian gravitational fields and electromagnetic fields. Quantum field theory attempts, in its formulations, to accommodate the “strangeness” of the quantum mechanical world, and includes, for instance, the Higgs field (which we’ll return to, below).
Since I’m not a physicist, I’ll make no attempt to elaborate beyond this most general of characterizations -- whose purpose is simply to set the stage for presenting the field-related theories of two wonderfully out-of-the-box contemporary scientists: Gregg Braden and Rupert Sheldrake. What’s particularly relevant to us as Taoist practitioners is that the work of Braden and Sheldrake would seem to corroborate, in the language of western science, the existence of cinnabar fields (i.e. dantians) as well as, more generally, what in Taoism we refer to as “qi-fields.”
Gregg Braden’s Divine Matrix & HeartMath Research
In Divine Matrix, Gregg Braden takes us on a mind-bending journey of wondrous amazement, which -- among its numerous treasures -- includes reference to HeartMath research, which has established that the heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the human body. In fact, as it turns out, the electromagnetic field emanating from the heart is some 5,000 times as strong as the one emanating from the brain!
The Taoist “middle dantian” is located in the general area of the physical heart, and/or in the area of the solar plexus. In either case, the HeartMath research which Mr. Braden references establishes the existence of a potent electromagnetic field in basically the same location as what Taoist know as the middle dantian -- traditionally understood to be the home of qi/chi: life-force energy.
Taoist practice rooted in the middle dantian: Moon On Lake Visualization.
Rupert Sheldrake & The Mind-Field
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake -- known primarily for his theories of morphogenetic fields (which we’ll explore in more detail, below) -- has suggested also the existence of what he refers to as “mind-fields.” A person’s mind-field, proposes Mr. Sheldrake, is a field anchored in the physical brain in a way analogous to how magnetic fields are anchored in a physical magnet. In other words, the field is in certain ways dependent upon but not reducible to its more physical base. The human mind-field provides the screen upon which the so-called “external world” is projected -- offering an explanation of why it is that the objects of the “external world” appear at a distance from our physical body, even though these images are generally understood to be produced entirely within the brain.
The Taoist “upper dantian” has its center in the middle of the head, in a space sometimes called the “crystal palace” -- and is understood to be the home of shen: spiritual energy. Is there a relationship between what Sheldrake refers to as the mind-field and the Taoist upper dantian? Interesting to at least consider ...
Taoist practice rooted in the upper dantian: Inner Smile.
The Belly-Brain: Enteric Nervous System & Taoist Lower Dantian
Just to round out our discussion of the three dantians in Taoist practice, in relation to western scientific research, I’ll point you in the direction of this essay on the belly-brain. The basic idea is that the human autonomic nervous system includes what is called the enteric nervous system, which is located in the intestines, and includes physical structures identical to those found in the brain and spinal cord. As such, the enteric nervous system represents a form of intelligence similar to what is enacted via our more intuitive “right brain” -- and accounts for what we generally refer to as a “gut feeling”: a sense of knowing something from a physical location quite distinct from that of our brain.
Taoist cultivation of the lower dantian (in qigong, inner alchemy or martial arts) frequently includes practices to wake up the sensation and intelligence of the intestines -- suggesting a connection between the enteric nervous system of western physiology and Taoism’s lower dantian, which is understood to be the home of jing: creative-energy.
Taoist practice rooted in the lower dantian: Standing Meditation.
As we’ve seen in these three examples, there is now western scientific corroboration of “fields of intelligence” corresponding to (or at least suggestive of) each of Taoism’s three dantians, or elixir-fields: Sheldrake’s mind-field, the HeartMath heart-field, and the belly-brain of the enteric nervous system -- which point, respectively, to the subtle-body fields associated with the upper, middle and lower dantians utilized in Taoist inner alchemy.
Morphogenetic Fields & Memory
Returning now to Rupert Sheldrake’s work, let’s explore the morphogenetic fields that he has proposed, in relation to the phenomenon of memory. A Morphogenetic field is, in Sheldrake’s rendering, a reservoir of collective memory, specific to, for instance, a given species. The presence of a morphogenic field allows individual members of a group (e.g. a species) to tap into -- in a nonlocal, instantaneous fashion -- the collective wisdom of the species as a whole.
Though the conventional “received wisdom” of the western scientific community posits memory as a material trace stored within the (individual) brain, Sheldrake claims that this hypothesis has never actually been convincingly established, experimentally. Sheldrake’s alternative theory is that the whole of the past (the entirety of its events) is “stored” -- across time -- as a kind of resonant field. This accounts for the experimental results which show that when certain members of a species learn how to do something -- say perform a particular task -- the time it takes for the same skill to be acquired, subsequently, by other members of the same species, is greatly reduced.
Sheldrake’s morphogentic fields are hypothesized to act in a nonlocal fashion -- instantaneously across space and time: which would qualify them, I’m assuming, as a kind of quantum field(?) It has also been suggested, however, that morphogenetic fields may also possess a very subtle energy -- making them more-or-less equivalent to what in Taoism we might call a “qi-field”: a flowing pattern of energy/intelligence, which structures probability distributions of seemingly “individual events” or “objects” appearing within their field of influence.