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The Daoist Way of Life and Death

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 125 - July 2006

Living On

As an acupuncturist, there are times when I work with patients who are dying, or I support those whose loved ones are leaving this life. Nothing can ever ease the pain and heartache of this time. Indeed, time stands still and everything else pales into insignificance, as life focuses and revolves around the process of death. For the dying person immense fear can arise, intense grief can be present and this can be mixed with anger; 'why this, why me?'and anxiety; 'how will everyone cope without me?' And family or friends left behind can feel all of these same emotions – grief at the prospect of loss, anger that this should be happening, worry as to how they will survive without their loved one, and terror as they are no longer able to deny their own mortality.

Although there can often be little that is of solace at this time, to take the view that the person who is dying will continue to live on in the realm of eternity can be very comforting both to that person and to those dear to them. Last year, as first my mother-in-law and later a close friend lay dying, I reminded myself of the Daoist view of death and, whilst feeling deeply saddened, this perception brought a deep sense of comfort to me.

According to the Daoist view Shen is the name given to Universal Spirit which, when manifest in human life at birth, resides in the Liver where it is referred to as Hun. Here it reflects our ability to plan, to have imagination and a vision of the direction we want to take in life, to dream and to see into the future. The ancient Chinese Texts speak of three Hun – one in each of the three energy centres – the Dan Tien – situated below the naval, at the chest centre and between the eyebrows. These spirits enter and animate us at birth, and then leave behind the physical body at death to enter into that realm that is eternal and infinite.

A Detached Witness

The Hun of the lower Dan Tien is in the place where yin and yang, fire and water intermingle as in the alchemist's crucible – this is the place of strength and catalytic change. The Hun at the chest centre is in the place responsible for all cycles and rhythms in the body. This is the place where chi gathers through the breath that gives us life, and it is through control of the breath that we calm the spirits. For women this is traditionally a preferred area of concentration from the lower Dan Tien. The centre between the eyebrows is situated in the upper Dan Tien and where the Hun resides at this point, it is able to be an objective and detached witness during life and into death. When we align with these spirits and dis-identify with the internal chatterbox of habitual likes and dislikes who we are usually identified with, we can find a wise objectivity, a calmness and a strength that will guide us in this life and into the next.

Circulation of Light

To cultivate this alignment with your real Self, practise daily the Daoist meditation known as the Circulation of Light. This is an exercise of breathing and concentration that uses the meridians that run through the mid-line of the body, up the spine and down the front – the governor vessel and the conception vessel – to align with the three energy centres and their spirits. This practice will also help create balance in all the internal organs.

The Circulation of Light Technique

• Sit comfortably on a chair or with crossed legs. Ensure that the spine is straight and that the palms of your hands are facing inwards. Breathe easily and slowly;
• Be aware of the base of the spine and imagine a light shining there whilst breathing in and out easily and slowly;
• Visualize the light travelling up the spine and pause at the centre of the back, level with the heart. Breathe in and out slowly and easily;
• Bring the light up through your neck to the point between your eyebrows. Again breathe in and out slowly and easily;
• Visualize the light travelling down to the chest centre, pausing here to breathe in and out;
• Focus on the lower abdomen breathing steadily and calmly before starting another circulation of light from the base of the spine;
• Practise ten slow circulations of light followed by ten faster ones at least once a day.

Whilst doing this exercise affirm: 'I align with my true Self – wise, calm, strong, infinite and eternal'.


Reid D. Chi Gung. Simon and Shuster. 1998.
Hill S. Reclaiming the Wisdom of the Body. Constable and Company. 1997.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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