This image comes from the Zhou Yi Jing, Hexagram 42. It’s a very old version* of the character “yi” (益), which translates as “increase” or “profit”. It reminds me of the Nei Ye (內業) – a chapter from the 4th-century BCE Guanzi treatise – which is considered the oldest writing explicitly about qi-cultivation practice.
The Nei Yi is all about how to comport ourselves (ye) internally (nei) to be an “abode for Dao”. It discusses posture, movement, breathing, eating, and managing the emotions. This is a really important text for Daoist cultivation. I recommend Harold Roth’s book “Original Tao”, which is about this text.
The image of yi features a horizontal line below, representing a stable base. One of the most important elements of qi-cultivation is establishing stability down below. In sitting meditation, this means dropping the qi to the lower dantian. In Taijiquan, it means developing “root”. Fundamentally, it means establishing stability amidst the incessant fluctuations of our heart-mind.
Two legs represent yin & yang. Stability doesn’t mean no flow. There is a continuous give & take, expansion & contraction, as we breathe in & out, eat & shit, push & yield, and as the qi rises up & down our spine. These internal changes mimic the external changes of the days and seasons.
The bowl shape represents the notion of vessel, which is the whole basis of the Nei Ye – how to be a vessel or abode for Dao. As the Nei Ye describes, this depends on staying calm and regulating our conduct so that our internal environment provides a space for Dao to enter and abide.
The three dots above represent jing, qi, & shen – all the ingredients that infuse our body. On one hand this can represent post-celestial jing, qi, & shen (embodied essence, vital energy, and spirit) – all the internal stuff of our daily life. On the other hand this can represent the primordial trinity of pre-celestial jing, qi, & shen (represented in Daoist ritual as the Three Purities) entering our body from above. They collectively represent Dao (the Nei Ye interestingly uses all these terms interchangeably).
The handles on the side represent the fact that this vessel is in our hands – it is our own conduct and practice that shapes our vessel and determines whether Dao can enter and abide.
May this image help our practice.
*Thanks to LiSe Lotte Voute for introducing me to this old character.