To grasp the meaning of the universe, we combine our Qì with that of nature. Animals still have this spiritual connection, but humans lost it long ago. Due to the development of the human intellect and emotions, our spirit separated from that of nature, and our thoughts are contaminated by emotions and desires. Animals have not developed as we have, so they are still connected with nature, and their behavior is in line with the natural way of life. At birth we have a similar connection with the natural Qì and spirit. But as we grow, our minds are molded by the masked environment created by human minds. To survive in society we mask our faces, suppressing our natural spiritual instincts. Many people retire to the mountains for spiritual cultivation, to free themselves from this emotional bondage, attain a neutral state of mind, and sense the natural spirit more clearly.

To achieve unification with the natural spirit, one must open the third eye (Upper Dāntián, Shàng Dāntián, 上丹田) by concentrating Qì inside it. First build up Qì in the Real Lower Dāntián (Zhēn Xiàdāntián, 真下丹田), then lead it up to nourish the brain. Build up Qì there, using Embryonic Breathing (Tāixí, 胎息). Only when the Qì stored in the Real Lower Dāntián has reached an abundant level will there be enough Qì to open the third eye.

To reach enlightenment, Daoists and Buddhists say you pass through four stages. The first is Self-Recognition, in which you remove the mask you wear. You see yourself clearly, recognizing and understanding your thought processes, and acknowledging what kind of person you really are. The second stage is Self-Awareness, in which you analyze past events and become aware of your interaction with your environment. The third stage, Self-Awakening, involves searching for freedom from emotional bondage. Finally, you attain the stage of Free- dom from Spiritual Bondage, in which your ego and desires disappear. Your spirit establishes contact with the natural spirit, and you gain the Truth of Nature, or the Dào.

Daoists further classify these four stages of cultivation into sixteen steps, described in the document The Golden Elixir Methods of Regulating the Inner Mind—Procedures of Train- ing Internal Elixir (Jīndān Xīnfǎ·Líàn Nèidān Bùzhòu, 金丹心法·練內丹步驟).39

Theoretical Foundations

  1. A strong will (Lìzhì, 立志). The first step towards enlightenment is to establish a strong will, without which you will not finish the training.
  2. Maintain good morality (Duānpǐn, 端品), including both the mental and the physical. Although you know right from wrong, you might ignore it and wander the path of sin. When wrong thought manifests, you harm yourself and others. Thoughts and behavior which cause harm to others is considered immoral in Buddhist and Daoist societies.
  3. Confession (Huǐguò, 悔過). Once you have corrected your lines of thought and action, you contemplate bad deeds you committed in the past. Buddhists and Daoists believe past transgressions leave a stain on your conscience. Unless you recognize and admit your past mistakes, you continue to repeat them. At this stage you discard the mask you have been wearing.
  4. Transform into goodness (Qiānshàn, 遷善). You now recognize your good and bad personality traits, as you accentuate the positive and discard the negative ones. Once your mind is ready, you open your third eye. If you still have things to hide, you will be unable to open it, lest you let other people see into your mind.
  5. Build a firm spiritual foundation (Zhújī, 築基), where your Wisdom Mind (Yì) gains ascendancy over your Emotional Mind (Xīn). Your judgment becomes clear, guided by wisdom instead of by emotion.
  6. Cultivate yourself (Líànjǐ, 煉己). The next stage is to refine your thinking, as you comprehend the meaning of your spiritual life, and your spiritual body develops rapidly. Your thinking diverges from mainstream society, and you may decide to separate from secular society to avoid distractions. When you meditate, it is as though your physical body disappears, and you feel transparent and light. This is called “getting rid of the view of the body” in Buddhism.
  7. Establish the furnace (Ānlú, 安爐), and strengthen your spirit to survive separation from your physical body. Otherwise, once your body dies, your spirit must find a replacement in which to reincarnate, to prevent it gradually deteriorating and ceasing to exist. Buddhists and Daoists seek to develop their spiritual bodies to have independent eternal life without returning to the path of reincarnation.
  8. Picking the herb (Cǎiyào, 采藥) involves conversion of essence, both Original Essence (Yuánjīng, 元精) and Post-Birth Essence, into Qì. Original Essence is comprised of genetically determined hormones. Post-Birth Essence is derived from our air and food. To enhance the conversion process, practice methods of increasing hormone production in the body, take herbs which can easily be converted into Qì, and ensure that you are consuming good quality food and fresh air.
  9. Starting the fire (Qǐhuǒ, 起火) involves building up Qì in the Lower Dāntián through abdominal breathing. There are two alternative methods of abdominal breathing. The first is called Normal Abdominal Breathing (Zhèng Fùhūxī, 正腹呼吸) or Buddhist Breathing (Fójiā Hūxī, 佛家呼 吸). The second is called Reverse Abdominal Breathing (Fǎn Fùhūxī or Nì Fùhūxī, 反腹呼吸.逆腹呼吸), or Daoist Breathing (Dàojiā Hūxī, 道家呼 吸).
  10. Ceasing the fire (Xíhuǒ, 熄火) involves storing the Qì you have built up, instead of manifesting it in the physical body. Only then will you be able to control the body’s Qì and maintain its Yīn-Yáng balance. You store the Qì in the Real Dāntián (Zhēn Xiàdāntián, 真下丹田), the human biobattery, through Embryonic Breathing (Tāixí, 胎息).
  11. Generate the Embryo (Jiétāi, 結胎). Original Essence is called Original Qì (Yuánqì, 元氣), or Water Qì (Shuǐqì, 水氣). It is pure and calming. However, Qì at the Middle Dāntián, or sternum, originates from Post-Birth Essence, namely air and food. It is called Post-Heaven Qì (Hòutiānqì, 後天氣) and considered to be Fire Qì (Huǒqì, 火氣), which is contaminated and liable to disturb and excite your Emotional Mind. So the Water Qì, or Kǎn (坎), can make you more Yīn, while the Fire Qì, or Lí (離), can make you more Yáng. To generate new life in the form of a Spiritual Embryo (Shéntāi, 神胎), Yīn and Yáng must interact through the method of Kǎn and Lí (坎離). Lead the Water Qì up from the Lower Dāntián or Real Lower Dāntián, and the Fire Qì down from the sternum, to meet at the Huángtíng (黃庭) cavity between sternum and navel. With continued practice, a Spiritual Embryo is generated. This converts Qì into spirit and is called Ten Months of Pregnancy (Shíyuè Huáitāi, 十月懷胎).
  12. Nursing the baby (Yǎngyīng, 養嬰). After ten months of pregnancy, the Spiritual Embryo is born, meaning the third eye has opened, and the spirit can leave the body and return to it at will. This is known as Refining Spirit and Returning it to Nothingness (Líànshén Fǎnxū, 煉神返虛), or Three Years of Nursing (Sānnián Bǔrǔ, 三年哺乳).
  13. Accumulation of good deeds (Jīxíng, 積行). You now train your spirit in the finer differences between good and evil. By this stage, you have promoted your spirit to a very high level.
  14. Train Gōng (Xínggōng, 行功) to establish a connection between your new spirit and the natural spirit. By training your spirit to separate from the physical body for longer intervals and traveling greater distances, it will gradually become independent.
  15. Facing the wall (Miànbì, 面壁). This is called Crushing the Nothingness (Fěnsuì Xūkōng, 粉碎虛空), or Nine Years of Facing the Wall (Jiǔnián Miànbì, 九年面壁). You prepare to separate your spiritual body from your physical body permanently. You face the wall and ponder your life once more, to ensure you really wish to free yourself from all human bondage.
  16. Flying to ascend (Fēishēng, 飛升). Now that you are ready to separate your spiritual and physical bodies, you choose the day to separate them permanently. This is the final stage of cultivation, Unification of Heaven and Man (Tiānrén Héyī, 天人合一).

It should now be easier to understand the first few steps of spiritual cultivation, although the training methods and the meaning of cultivation may remain hidden until one reaches a more profound stage. It is similar to how our perspective of the world changes as we mature.

The above is an excerpt from Qigong Meditation Small Circulation Second Edition: The Foundation of Spiritual Enlightenment by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, Publish Date November 1, 2022, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 9781594399176.