Presence vs. Focus in Nei gong Practice
During the learning process a dedicated amount of intentional awareness is narrowly focused on a particular field of interest; like reading this print. Repetitive narrowing of the field of awareness for the purpose and intention of learning is the way we acquire most skills in life and can lead to varying degrees of mastery over energy. Intentional learning requires the allocation of focus and time and sometimes physical movement to acquire mastery over the understanding and movement of energy. A physical or mental skill can be mastered over time with this kind of focus.
As an advanced instructor of Nei gong, internal cultivation skill, I have the privilege and challenge of guiding my students in the process of learning rarely taught skills. Teaching someone to become increasingly aware of the flows of energy within their body and without can be tricky because most people are not using their senses to recognize subtle energies. An internal skill requires, and will also result in an expanded awareness of one’s internal landscape and the presence of subtle energies in and around the body. The method of achieving this inner awareness, unlike most new skills does not require focus in the beginning.
Developing the knowledge of internal processes is not the direct product of focus. It results not from a process, but a state of being present. Presence during Qigong or Nei gong practice engages all of your energy in relationship to your environment. The state of presence opens up the mind to awareness. When I relax my mind and nervous system with the intent of being fully present many forms of awareness will appear to exist within and without. Flows of energy can be felt as having a mental, emotional or nervous quality and occupy a space in the body. Whole patterns of thought can exist as energy inside the body. Presence reveals mental, emotional and nervous energy that is normally blocked by a narrowing of our field of attention during daily life.
There are many activities during the course of an average day that require our focus. So many that finding ourselves swept up in the future or reviewing the past consumes much of our mental, emotional and nervous energies. Practicing presence by allowing presence helps to balance the mind and open a person up to learning through expanding rather than narrowing awareness.
One method of practicing presence is in the form of stillness meditation. In stillness meditation, sitting or standing, when the mind produces a thought you simply let it be and refrain from studying it in any way. I will not focus on my thoughts, but simply noticing the thought forms and let them pass or flow. The more time that passes without attaching to thoughts, the wider the space between thoughts opens up and the more expansive the spaces feel compared to the thought forms. This form of presence results in a new understanding or knowledge without the effort of learning through focus.
In particular to a Qigong or Nei gong practice where we assume postures and practice forms, being present is a key component to learning. Presence and focus need to interchange fluidly so as to use as little effort as possible. By holding a posture in a state of presence, the posture itself is a guide to the flow of energy. While maintaining the physical posture with the least amount of effort, the mind is softened and allowed to simply be present. Practicing in a state of presence opens up an interface between your internal and external experience. Feeling the dissolution of boundaries will yield new perspectives about what we consider as solid and immaterial energy. Awareness is necessarily expanded.
If we are practicing a specific internal technique to control our energy then focus is needed. Intention of mind carries with it, energy. Arts like Qigong and Nei gong engage the mind to move energy in particular patterns while engaging with internal energy centers and mechanisms. The power of mind to move energy is a double edged sword. Too much focus causes stagnation of energy and stiffness. Too little focus fails to activate the movement of energy when we desire it.
The question then arises from a student; what is the appropriate amount of focus versus presence while practicing? The answer is dependent on the goal of your practice for that session. A more important question is: how do I enter the state of either presence or focus. It is my experience that entering into a state of presence at the beginning of practice will yield the best results and use the least effort. Entering into presence within yourself and surroundings is a gentle waking up of your awareness. As you become increasingly aware and allow your awareness to expand, the body is making subtle allowances toward balance and rest.
Consider the expression, ‘harder than finding a needle in a haystack’, and apply it to presence and focus. Many times when a student is asked to draw energy to a specific internal location, it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. If our field of awareness is starting from a narrow focus and we desire to hone in on a needle buried in the body, our mind will expend excess effort by darting around and shifting focus from one guess to another. If we approach our internal practice by going directly into a focused internal technique before expanding and balancing, the chances of expending excess effort and causing stagnation are greater for a beginner.
First become like the haystack, the field that surrounds the needle and expand your awareness through gentle presence. When your awareness contains the entire haystack then it is simple to notice a needle lying within it.
Coming into presence expands and clears your energy field of distractions that compete for your energy. There are many shades of mental energy and corresponding qualities of Qi or energy. By coming into presence we are engaging the spirit of the mind which is connected to all life and capable of a higher level of learning. This is the mind we want to focus into our techniques.
Becoming fluid with our awareness from a state of presence into more or less focus is to create an ease of motion within mind and fluidity with the movement of energy both internally and externally. To become fluid like water is highly prized among ancient masters. The same water that flows through your fingers carves canyons and grinds stones into sand. And yet water takes no initiative, it merely flows and settles.
When engaging in a practice of internal energy cultivation skill begin by coming into a state of presence or gentle awareness of you and your surroundings. Not through effort, but by relaxing into it. When you are ready to use your mental focus in a technique, use it only as long as is needed to create flow, then relax and become the flow in a state of presence. Move fluidly between expanding awareness and contracting awareness. This will help you to avoid excessive mental effort that can lead to tension and stagnation while assuring a safe and enjoyable practice!
Qigong Warm Up – Video