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Keeping The One

The Taoist Practice Of The Return To Embracing The One


China, Shaanxi, Taoist monk at Xian monastery, side view
Peter Adams

When we speak of spiritual unfolding as a process that occurs within time/space, it can be useful to have a conceptual map of that process: an overview, including major landmarks, with which to orient ourselves, as we progress along the path.

We must also acknowledge, however, that: (1) the map is not the territory, and (2) there’s not just one map, but many (a potentially infinite number, in fact!) which can be used to point to the same territory. Depending upon our unique circumstances, one map may be more appropriate, most useful for us, at a given time - but this in no way implies that this map is inherently superior to any of the others. If I’m backpacking, a topographical map may be most useful; while if I’m driving my car through the same territory, a street map will be best. You get the idea.

The Ten Stages Of Qi Cultivation and Dongshan’s Five Ranks are two maps of the Taoist spiritual journey. In The Taoist Body, Kristofer Schipper discusses another well-known map used by Taoist practitioners: the Three Step Process of the Return to skillfully Keeping the One.

Keeping the One -- also known as Guarding The One or Embracing The One -- refers to the cultivation of an inner alignment which allows the Taoist practitioner to resonate continuously with the wisdom and power of Tao. In Keeping the One, we flow in/as the Tao itself - in harmonious, spontaneous union/identity with Tao. The process of actualizing this kind of union can be described via a map with just three major landmarks, as follows.

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Stage One - Engaging Yang Qi With Intention & Effort

In stage one, we utilize various systems, precepts, recipes, methods or techniques to balance and harmonize our physical, mental, emotional and energetic bodies. We engage, with focused effort and intention, in qigong, meditation, martial arts or ritual practices whose purpose is to resolve the various bodymind tensions and stagnations born of dualistic desires, aggressions and ignorance. This kind of practice, in which we engage actively and purposefully in practice, draws on and supports the cultivation of Yang Qi.

In bringing this kind of balance to the individual self, we’re able in more and more uncensored ways to commune with various contexts (both subtle and expansive), various networks of association. These new levels of integration between body, mind, breath and qi (chi) set the stage for evermore graceful and precise interactions with the environment, and- ultimately - our reunion with Tao.

Stage Two - Nourishing Yin Qi With Receptivity & Surrender

In stage two, we allow the techniques that we’ve developed, utilized and mastered in stage one to dissolve. We let go of, abandon, or “forget” these structured methods, in order to enter into an even-more-intelligent state of being, a deeper order which likely will be experienced, initially, as a kind of “chaos.” Here, we’re cultivating and nourishing Yin Qi - the more passive, receptive aspects of being.

This kind of letting go of structured technique allows us to shift our identity from an individual bodymind to a Universal Body: the body of Tao. More and more we’re able to interact seamlessly with the whole of existence with our “whole self” - with a complete freedom born of moment-by-moment surrender to the deeper patterns of Tao. We emerge and dissolve, become visible and then invisible, in perfect attunement to the pulsations of being. As such, our response-ability -- our ability to respond skillfully to the situation at hand -- is greatly enhanced.

Stage Three - The Return - Yin & Yang In Union

In stage three, we manifest The Return to Keeping the One. The active, purposeful Yang Qi and the receptive, surrendered Yin Qi are now in effortless, joyful union. The “individual self” of the practitioner and the “world” in which s/he moves are now in effortless, joyful union -- and both are known as Tao. The dancer has become the Dance.

The experience of “chaos” has been transcended into a new level of undifferentiated harmony characterized by absolute stillness, and a sense of utter fulfillment and uncaused joy, beyond language and all conceptualization. It cannot be conceived of, yet can be vividly experienced -- similar to the joy of a young child, or a mute tasting candy.

The effortless practice/abiding, from now on, is simply the nondualistic “holding” or “embracing” of this ever-tender, ever-potent, ever-joyful One.

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