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A Balanced Way: Daoist Tips for the 21st Century: Training the Emotions

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 186 - September 2011


"When wisdom controls desire, you live long, when desire overcomes wisdom you die easily".

Emotional Responses
Recently I broke my leg as I slipped on a wet floor. My initial reaction was to scream - the sensations produced by a fractured medial condyle of the femur (knee injury) are not pleasant! And linked to the physical sensations were emotional responses - "I don't want this!" and "I can't bear this!" But I was interested to sense another aspect of myself that was present as I lay on the ground - one that seemed stable, encouraged me to keep calm and induced a sense of strength and well being.


Daoist philosophy tells us that there are two aspects within the psyche - the mind of emotion or Fire Mind which resides in the Heart and the mind of intent or Water Mind which resides in the Head. The Fire Mind can be easily swayed, impulsive and unpredictable - it is reactive and responds emotionally to the five senses. This was the aspect of my psyche that kicked in when I injured myself. If you jump when you hear a loud noise that is your Fire Mind instinctively responding to the stimulus of the sound.  It is a perfectly natural, sometimes necessary and appropriate part of your being- but like the element Fire it is volatile - not to be relied on in the long run!

On the other hand the Water Mind of Intent is the still small voice of calm and quiet whose source is the universal wisdom of the Dao, and its purpose is simple - to train the Fire Mind to become cool, calm and collected and so fully cultivate the Three Treasures of essence (jing), energy(chi) and spirit (shen). In this way suffering is alleviated and the chances of  longevity increase.

Yielding and Accepting

" When wisdom controls desire, you live long, when desire overcomes wisdom you die easily".

From this quote from the Wen Tzu Classic written 2000 years ago we see that if the Fire Mind is in control we become caught up in our circumstances - ruled by our desires - our likes and dislikes. We cling to what we are attracted to and resist what we dislike. All this desiring for things to be other than they are takes up huge amounts of energy and drains us. But once the wise Water Mind is in charge it controls the instinctual desire to respond in a knee jerk way to our circumstances. By being calm and centred - by yielding and accepting our circumstances, no longer clinging or resisting, we are able to cultivate  the Three Treasures - our essence (jing) , energy(chi) and spirit (shen) and so feel energized.

Daoists are not suggesting a stiff upper lip or any sort of repression of the Fire Mind, of feelings. Rather this is about focusing on cultivating the aspect of your psyche that is often allowed to remain stagnant and abandoned. It is about tapping into the universal wisdom of the Dao and  so feeling  energized -able to handle life with the joy and vitality that comes from cultivating the Three Treasures.

Much of Daoist practise is seemingly at odds with our twenty first century culture of counselling and psychotherapy where we are encouraged to give full vent and express our feelings left right and centre. Certainly this is an improvement in contrast to the stoicism of our parents/grandparents generations who were often taught to endure and put up with whatever was doled out to them.  But have we swung too far the other way with our freedom of expression? Is talk therapy entirely helpful? Post-disaster counselling has a mixed track record, says Adrian Skinner, a Harrogate psychologist with special knowledge of disaster counselling. "Although it seems daft to say people should not have someone to talk to, all-round counselling is not appropriate for everyone. Only a percentage of people subjected to violence or natural disaster will suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, and in others the symptoms may actually be potentiated by counselling." (The Telegraph 14 March 2011)

Daoist practice would never suggest repressing feelings but instead touching on them lightly -identifying feelings for what they truly are - fleeting unpredictable impulses of the Fire Mind that can lead us a merry dance away from the healing power of the Water Mind. The Fire Mind loves a circus of drama that depletes energy and will spend time cultivating conflicting emotions, going over problems and fantasies, and other distracting antics of the 'monkey mind'. After a disaster has occurred, Daoism suggests acceptance of feelings - yielding towards them rather than resisting them. This does not mean indulging in emotions but acknowledging them - feeling them and letting them go in order to focus on cultivating the centred Water Mind of Intent. This allows any pent up  emotional energy behind the Fire Mind to dissolve as the practitioner focuses on the calmness of the Water Mind.

Using the Mind of Intent to Guide Energy
If you have been through a painful time use the Water Mind to guide and cultivate your energy by sitting quietly and calming your breathing. Then when the emotional mind is calm and the breath is regulated, focus attention on the internal energy. Focus your attention on the Lower Elixir Field below the abdomen and then visualise moving energy from there down to the perineum, up through the coccyx, and up along the spinal centres into the head, to the Upper Elixir Field between the brows. Start with ten minutes and by the end of a month practise this for twenty minutes per day. As you let go of the circus antics of the Fire Mind and allow yourself to be led by the Water Mind you will access the intense stillness of universal wisdom and it is this calm and peaceful place that brings stability and deep healing into your life.

Reid D. Chi Gung. Harnessing the Power of the Universe. Simon and Shuster. 2008.


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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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