In our school, as is common in Daoist traditions, we take three distinct approaches to internal cultivation: neigong, neidan, & neiguan. The term for internal cultivation is neixiu (內修) – nei (內) means internal; xiu (修) means to study, repair, or cultivate.
The notion of internal cultivation holds prominence in Chinese traditions, particularly Daoism. But exactly what “internal” means isn’t always clear, and different traditions often define it differently. Distinguishing internal from external requires that we establish some threshold, some barrier between inside & outside. As far as I can tell, there is no absolute barrier; it just depends on where we define the threshold. I have heard people define internal to mean anything from arts that emerged within the borders of Han China, to esoteric traditions that maintain secret teachings reserved for insiders, to martial arts that cultivate the use of qi instead of li (brute strength). All of these have relevance within Daoism, but the one we’re most concerned with here is the cultivation of jing-qi-shen.
Each approach to internal cultivation has its own distinct view, method, & fruition. They don’t all necessarily lead to the same result. It’s a good idea to be clear about what our view is, and what approach we are taking in our various practices.
Neigong (內功) means internal work, practice, or skill. It means to practice with an inward focus, with the intention to develop some improved state. Gongfu is a special skill developed by arduous practice. The purpose of neigong is to improve or maintain our internal condition – nourishing jing-qi-shen to support our health and vitality, and to promote longevity. It’s like the idea of yangsheng (養生) – nourishing life, which we often refer to as qi-hygiene. Qigong, Taijiquan, & Yoga are all forms of neigong, but we can also practice natural walking or any other moving or still activities as effective neigong once we are familiar with its principles. The best neigong is that which is appropriate for our condition right now, and this changes with time and is not the same for everyone.
Neidan (內丹) means internal elixir or alchemy. Neidan is not only about improving our internal condition, and it’s not merely about well-being or longevity, but returning our experience to the state before birth. This transformation is similar to the idea of transforming delusion into enlightenment or sin into holiness. It is a gradual, progressive process with clear concepts and distinct stages, and a precious, exalted goal.
Neiguan (內觀) means internal observation. To look inside. The character for guan shows a heron’s gaze, suggesting keen observation. Guan also means “view” and is the word used for Daoist temple. It is the word my teacher chose as the title for his Dao De Jing translation, as our tradition considers Laozi’s text to be the central view-teaching manual for the practice of neiguan, which we refer to as Zuowang. Neiguan differs from the other two in that it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented. It’s not about improvement or transformation. We can make it about these things, but that “making” is extra baggage from the perspective of our practice.
How do these approaches relate to each other? Generally, a beginner or someone recovering from illness or injury is well-advised to cultivate neigong to build up their internal health and vitality. When jing-qi-shen is smooth and abundant, then practicing neidan is possible. We are well-advised to continue practicing neigong as long as we have a body, as it provides a base for life and neidan. Neiguan is not part of this progressive spectrum. Neiguan is relevant for the beginner – it is probably a good idea to introduce neiguan from the very beginning, as it sets the stage for proper neigong. Neiguan also helps us to perceive our internal state to understand our needs. Then when we start working with neidan, neiguan is there as a neutral source of support and stabilization. As our practice of neidan comes to fruition, there we are in neiguan just as we were at the beginning. Our tradition says proper neiguan brings about neidan effortlessly, and neidan simply culminates in an empowered state of neiguan.
I invite you to consider your practice methods and make sure you are clear about which of these you are practicing and why.