Death has certainly been a part of my experience. In 1985 my father died and six months later my only brother died. On Holy Thursday 1987, my mother also died. I lost my entire family of origin in a two year period. My work as a chaplain has primarily been with those who have life-threatening illnesses. In the midst of writing this, our family is facing the death of Wendy’s youngest brother Jim, who is in the end stages of cancer. But my experience with death is even more personal. When I was nine years old, in fourth grade, I had emergency surgery for a perforated appendix and during that surgery I had what is now called a Near Death Experience.
Perhaps Lent is both a reminder of death and a reminder that life and death are not dichotomous but like the ongoing turning of yin and yang. Kahlil Gibran wrote in his reflection, On Death: “Life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one…. And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity. And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
Maybe even eleven year old poet Mattie J. T. Stepanek somehow glimpsed this wisdom before his far too early death when he wrote his poem called About Death:
Isn’t it ironic
That such a morbid word (death)
Rhymes with life-giving breath?
During Lent we are encouraged to pray, fast and give alms, and while good practices, they can too easily be activities that simply feed our spiritual egos. Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr wonders if these practices are too often substitutes for the inner journey. He writes “Our culture no longer values the inner journey.” In fact, “We actively avoid and fear it. In most cases we no longer even have the tools to go inward.” (What The Mystics Know)
I have found that Taoist internal alchemy 內丹术 provides me with tools for this inward journey. These practices include physical, mental, and spiritual qigong to purify and transform our mortal body into an immortal spiritual body. This is similar to Eastern and Esoteric Christian teachings on theosis or deification. Perhaps Jesus was referring to internal alchemy when he told Nicodemus that he must be born again of spirit and water in order to enter the realm of heaven.
Commonly, inner alchemy qigong focuses on the lower abdomen, known as the lower dantian 下丹田. The Shimen 石门, or Stone Gate acupuncture point is located on the lower dantian is just below the navel. Mythically, this point is the entry to the caves and labyrinths leading down to where we are transformed and reborn. The Psalmist wrote, “You give me strength as I descend into the inner sanctum, to uncover hidden blessings, to seek the treasures of Spirit.” (Psalm 119)
Past the Stone Gate we encounter the po (魄) spirits that dwell beyond our conscious awareness. Po is sometimes used to describe the dark aspect of the moon. Psychologically, the po are our complexes, emotional blocks, and intuitive knowing. Each time we venture down to the realm of the po, we face the darkened areas of our psyche or in Jungian terms, our shadow. Our task is to expand ourselves to include these disowned and feared aspects of self allowing our true divine Self to awaken.
In order to accomplish this we must pass beyond the po spirits and into the darkest cavern of the psyche where the zhi 志 spirits reside. The zhi connect us to the collective unconscious, the part of our psyche that draws us out of, and back into the Infinite. It is here, in this timeless place, where we approach stillness, darkness, and death, that we eventually become aware of light in the darkness. Jung wrote in his Alchemical Studies, “When one stays in darkness long enough, one begins to see.”
Ming men 命門, the Gate of Life acupuncture point, is on our back, exactly opposite the Stone Gate. It is the mythic portal that leads out of the labyrinthian caves and into resurrection and new life. The Stone Gate being opposite the Gate of Life indicates that death and life are part of each breath we take. These gate metaphors remind me of Jesus saying, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
I would like to share a qigong meditation for Lent.
Begin by sitting straight in a comfortable chair with both feet flat on the floor. Release tension with each exhalation. After a couple of minutes, allow your awareness to rest on your breathing. Turn away from the outer world by closing your eyes. Breathe deeply into your lower abdomen below the navel. You may notice that it naturally and gently expands with each inhalation and slightly retracts with each exhalation. After simply breathing for awhile you may feel the powerful energies that reside there. As you continue breathing into your belly, imagine you are entering through a Stone Gate and into a dark cavern. In this labyrinthian cavern you become aware of an underground sea of energy. This is the place of the alchemical or paschal mystery.
Simply continue to breathe. Surrender to the mystery of this place. As thoughts appear, let them pass like flickering shadows. You may experience anxiety or even fear in this dark cavern. Do nothing. Simply breathe. Feelings of anxiety or fear arising only mean that you are approaching the mystery. As you continue this practice over a period of days, weeks or months, your conscious mind will let go and you may experience a tingling or warmth in your dantian and become aware of this inner light appearing in the darkness of your imagination and gradually expanding to show you the way out through the Gate of Life.
To end this meditation, clear your mind of all images and take a deep breath filling your belly and entire torso with air. Then exhale through your mouth. Take another deep breath through your nose and again exhale through your mouth. Inhale once more and as you exhale this time slowly open your eyes and re-orient yourself to what is around you in the sensory world.
Practicing this meditation on a daily basis may help you better grasp the mystery of Lent and Easter found in the words of John’s gospel: “In the Word was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)