Strolling through Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa the other day, I encountered a group of people running around doing various drills in some kind of organized fitness activity. Their leader was a super-fit, fully engaged alpha male, shouting “C’mon, push it, PUSH IT!” His leather work gloves hinted at some of the intense drills they must have been doing. His T-shirt read “Go Hard or Go Home”.
I always appreciate the act of human cultivation and self-improvement. And if you’re going to take on a view of human life, take it all the way. His pithy mantra so captures the philosophical basis of modern culture and perhaps reflects the entire history of Western development – from falling out of favor in Eden to our long march toward perfection. According to this view, our natural condition is deficient, pathetic even. Uncultivated, we become fat, sloppy, and weak – common, worthless chaff. To achieve excellence, we need to struggle and strain to overcome our wretched, imperfect nature.
From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, this group was demonstrating an aspect of liver qi. The liver gets things moving – stirs up stagnation and inspires growth. Springtime. Determination. To work the liver with such intensity is aggressively harnessing generative qi, what Daoists refer to as “post-celestial qi”. Such cultivation is responsible for so many historical achievements – magnificent cathedrals, undefeatable armies, Olympian athletes.
Laozi’s perspective however tells us that all such achievements ultimately fade away into a common context of weakness. From an alchemical perspective, we can say exerting the liver to such degree presses qi away from our center – it may produce myriad excellences, but it leaves the center without a basis for internal cultivation. The view of pushing ourselves to overcome our natural condition is antithetical to Daoist cultivation.
Adepts in Laozi’s tradition bring a different qi-quality to their cultivation. Daoist hygiene practices involve regular movement but not necessarily the development of special skills or massive amounts of qi. Our demeanor outside becomes gentle and soft, unremarkable. As Laozi observes, remaining soft and weak allows qi to gather inward. This is the beginning point for cultivating regenerative qi, what Daoists refer to as “pre-celestial qi”. Such practice may or may not produce remarkable generative results. It does however bring about a profound appreciation of our natural condition. Staying soft, staying home.