Katsura Kan, butoh dancer

Getting the energy in our bodies flowing for us, not against us, is a complete practice in itself.  There is no need to come up with complicated techniques.  Rather, to feel our bodies and experience how to allow them to naturally open up to the energy moving through them is a beautiful organic fascinating never ending practice.  It has been my experience that all of these complicated techniques of chi cultivation often sort themselves out if we follow the body naturally opening up.

Recently a friend and serious spiritual student mentioned tanden (Japanese), also known as Lower Dantien (Chinese).  She felt that energy practices had really helped her to calm and relax her mind, or to even help make the mind somewhat irrelevant.  She experienced that her third eye, the top of her head, her heart, etc had all come online, but that she was feeling like the tanden was lagging behind.  I totally knew what she meant, as this is often the case.  I don’t claim to be a teacher of this, but only someone who has been through it, suffered, and come to the other side of that process.  And it brings me joy if someone out there will be inspired to find out for themselves their own process of this beautiful alchemy.

In traditional Rinzai Zen, the tanden is emphasized.  Real Zen masters are usually tanden masters, and seem to function with their Body-Mind consciousness unified through the tanden. It is as if the filter of the brain is no longer there, but only direct connection with truth.  To witness this type of sublime embodiment is shocking and life changing to say the least!

So, in Zen, we learn to focus on the tanden as central to training.  But this process is often misunderstood. I will not attempt to define tanden, as that would be a huge job.  It must be experienced by everyone in his/her own unique way.  Everyone finds it in a different way, and has an individual process for working with it.  But I hope to offer some possible pointers in this blog.

The tanden is the ground from which a lot of the other energy throughout the body springs.  We feel the energy in the other parts of our bodies easily, like the chest or the head, even the third eye, or all around us.

The heart energy, for instance, has such powerful, volatile, expansive energy.  When it opens we often feel wonderful release and joy!  But it can also close up like a steel trap, and our emotional world seems to slam shut as well.  And for many people, to open the tanden, the huge heart energy must be open first, and then we see the tanden as the root of those branches above.  The tanden acts as a base for the other centers to open from.  And often heart (and back of the heart) and tanden go hand in hand.  They open in concert.

So, just to describe it a bit, sensing all of these other energetic centers, if we look more closely, we see that the tanden can feel like the body of a butterfly and the other parts (chest, arms, third eye, jade pillow, around the body) are like the butterfly wings.  The more dramatic energy opens up more drastically and the more subtle, grounding tanden energy emerges like some quiet captain of a sailboat, as all of these pyrotechnics are happening around it.  Or like the eye of the hurricane.  And often in the beginning, we will really begin to feel our tanden when the energy in our chest or head seems most blown up.  Blown up like the finger tips, the tanden is the ground from which we reach up, and from which we have always reached.

Often people think that focusing on the tanden is like pinning it down.  We try to force it into our bellies and make it grow.  As if our awareness is a heating pressure which will blow it up.  This is usually a mistake, but we have all tried it.  Or in doing sussokan (following our breathing to the very end, letting go of thoughts), we often try to force our breathing deeper.  This backfires.  Force might be a necessary growth step.  But force does not equal focus.  We often misunderstand this.  When we do this, our whole body and energy reacts violently, or we can become ill.  (See the zen sickness of Hakuin.)  This is also where the stereotype of overly serious Zen students comes from.  The mistaken idea that one has to shut out all external stimuli and focus only on tanden.  Instead, to keep our inner eye on the tanden while all of the energy throughout the body is opening up, we will soon discover that it is the center of our actions all the time, and we were just not aware of it.

And at the same time, we don’t want to make the tanden small or dependent on a certain routine.  We get into a mindset that the tanden will only manifest if we have matcha at this time and do Qi Gong at that time, or that we can only get into the tanden if we don’t eat dinner, etc.  Or even if we never have sex.  Or if we engage in complicated esoteric exercises to cultivate tanden energy.  Rather, to have the tanden include all of life and its multitudes.

Often for me as I sit still or stand still for a few minutes, at first I feel my chest and head reorganizing in a way I could have never predicted.  My brain has no grip on the elegance and subtlety of the inner working of the energetic body.  In a counter-intuitive way, my posture will get worse for a few moments or a few minutes, and then it will blossom harmoniously and unified.  And then the energy is flowing in stereo throughout the body, and every move is a movement of all parts as well.  The whole body has become the tanden.  All movements arise from the tanden. It is very helpful to not have a preconceived plan of how this will happen.  It has to be new each time.  To live in this innocent state of mind is so precious and rare.

This is all pretty subtle stuff, but to begin to work at this subtle level and love exploring it, it will eventually lead to big changes in everyday life. It is like falling in love with emptiness.  It is holding onto emptiness itself, and slowly gradually getting to know it.  Feeling its thickness.  This is a lifelong process.

This process of discovering and developing the tanden is like growing a beautiful embryo of light.  At first it is a flutter, and soon it grows  and grows, gradually we see that our tanden is at the ends of our awareness, not just a crude spot below our navel.  We can read others’ intentions by using the tanden.  It is an anchor in times of confusion, from focusing on it, our awareness implodes and we meet reality in an unmoved harmonious way.  It feels unbelievably difficult at times, especially in the beginning, like holding water in your hand, but please use your creativity (kufu) to explore this wonderful process.  Dive into it with all of your focus, but without force.  It is trying to happen.  It is completely natural.  As we deepen and deepen, the tanden is a great north star, guiding us through to the other shore of our consciousness.  I really believe it to be grace.  Thanks for reading.  You can do it.

p.s.  I discuss the concept of tanden in another post here. If you have a question about energy or embodiment, meditation, etc, please don’t hesitate to ask.  Most of these posts are responses to things people have asked me or discussed with me.  It is very satisfying to be responsive to readers’ interests.  Thanks!

Carlotta Ikeda 1941 – 2014