By Dr. Bernard Shannon

Originally presented at the 13th China-Shanghai International Symposium on Qigong Science and Academic Conference
Republished in the Qi Journal, Winter 2016


The basis of regulating the mind is the unseen and untransformed confusion and pain of the human experience as described by Wei Boyang in the Triplex Unity. Transformation begins with correct posture and respiration, then mind training develops as the practitioner accepts their mind with presence, openness, and letting go. Learning not to pursue thoughts, the powers of concentration, contemplation, and silence dawn. Uncontrived silence allows the innate, innocent True mind of the Yuan Shen to be recognized. Engagement in society rather than withdrawal, and further training in the internal alchemy of the golden elixir give rise to the undifferentiated Wuji and pure openness. The celestial spirit arises, in union with the Dao.From the practical to the alchemical, a set of practical tools that may be employed to train the mind is presented.

Mental Regulation of Qigong

In traditional qigong practice, we often speak of the three regulations: body, breath and mind. The purpose of this article is to discuss the mental regulation of qigong.

The purpose of the mental regulation is to train and quiet the mind. The untrained mind is filled with disruptive chatter. The underlying root of most mental chatter is unresolved emotional disharmonies. The effect of these thoughts and emotions on the individual is compounded by their intensity and the frequency of their reoccurrence. Most acquired patterns typically manifest as some form of stress within the individual. It is well documented from repeated medical studies that stress has a direct impact upon one’s physiological and psychological health and is a precursor to the formation of many diseases.

Mental activities during qigong or meditative practice should be engaged naturally, and must be coordinated with proper respiration and posture. Without posture the breath cannot be properly regulated, and without breath the mind cannot be properly rooted. This is why the mental regulation is often the last of the qigong regulations to be taught.

When all mental and emotional disturbances stop, a tranquil, comfortable sensation, fills the body. A sense of an expanded consciousness and awareness pervade one's being. For this expanded awareness to occur tools must be developed and refined. Tools become developed skills, which lead a practitioner to become more productive not only in terms of practice, but also in life.

The eventual result of regulating the mind is union with the Dao, the dissolution of the self into the infinite. The Triplex Unity (Cantong Qi 参同契) by Weì Bóyáng (魏伯陽), a 2nd century treatise on internal alchemy elucidates this path from the mundane to the infinite. It is a cultivative practice in which the mind is led through several developmental stages, from discursive to refined and from refined to transcendent.


If mind is to be understood from a Chinese medical orientation, then attributes and division of the Shén  must be clarified.

According to Chinese Medicine, the Heart is considered the Emperor of all internal organs and stores the individual's Spirit (Shén 神). The Shén is divided into the Yuán Shén 元神 or the Prenatal Mind and the Zhǐ Shén 祗(只)神 or the Postnatal Mind.

  • The Yuán Shén 元神 or the Prenatal Mind can be considered to be the intuitive mind, our higher self. The Yuán Shén may also be defined as the manifestation of the Eternal Soul this incarnation. The Yuán Shén creates the energetic matrix for the Yuán Qì which, in this energetic scaffolding, then goes on to provide the energetic framework on which the Yuán Jīng is built.The Yuán Jīng, in turn, is the physical essence upon which the body itself is assembled (DNA). The Yuán Shén brings into this life lessons, curricula, and unresolved karmic issues that need to be processed.

The Yuán Shén is nourished through prayer, meditation, and sleep.

  • The Zhǐ Shén 祗(只)神 or the Postnatal Mind is thought of as the rational and analytical mind. The Zhǐ Shén “acquires” information through the five senses, hence is it often referred to as the “Acquired Mind”. This acquired information is continually developed as the five senses gather information through interactions with the environment and with other people.

From the moment we are born, we are immersed in parental, social and societal norms and roles. These norms and roles are combined with our ability to filter, generalize, distort or delete thoughts or feelings from events. Together this synthesis forms the basis of our perception. Through the five senses, the body receives stimuli and interprets it based on prior knowledge and experience. This process continually reinforces the acquired mind.


The Zhǐ Shén (Acquired Mind) and Yuán Shén (Original Mind) relate to each other as yin and yang. They are interactive and interdependent.

Until it is tamed and transformed, the Zhǐ Shén is sometimes called the "monkey mind" because of its tendency to respond and react to circumstances instinctually, reactively, and habitually. When the Zhǐ Shén is active, the Yuán Shén is largely unable to provide the intuitive clarity and discernment that is it’s natural contribution. The Zhǐ Shén is meant to be a servant of the Yuán Shén. However, until self-cultivation restores the Yuán Shén to its innate role, the default activity of the Zhǐ Shén expresses itself as selfish, dominant, and stubborn. If the activity of the Zhǐ Shén becomes too self-involved, the intuition of the True Self may never be heard. Unrefined, the Zhǐ Shén is oppositional to the Yuán Shén. The refined Zhʼǐ Shén supports the Yuán Shén and the development of the true self. The goal of mental regulation should be to refine rather than eliminate the Acquired Mind.

Zhǐ Shén can be likened to clouds and Yuán Shén to the sky. Although the vast expanse of the sky is always present, the clouds of habitual self-involvement and misperception must be transformed before the sky can be seen.

Tools for Training the Mind

In training the mind, there are four primary skills that a practitioner needs to develop. These skills do not develop in a linear progression from first to last, but instead continually evolve and unfold from within each other.

  • Being Present
  • Concentration
  • Contemplation
  • Visualization and Imagination

Being Present

Being present allows attachment to illusions of the past and future to dissolve.

All thoughts are either of the past, or projections into the future, based upon the past. Being present allows these attachments to the illusions of the past and future to dissolve. This includes the emotions, judgments and expectations associated with these memories and thoughts.

If the practitioner can be truly present, with the mind quiet and still, he will be open to receive.

This openness allows the true voice of the Yuán Shén to be heard. It is only in stillness that the Yuán Shén can manifest. In an unrefined existence in which the Zhǐ Shén and the Yuán Shén are in opposition, the Yuán Shén will never fight for control. It waits for silence in which to speak.

Being present is freedom from attachment, which is taught by recognizing thoughts and patterns of thought, while gradually learning to fully let them go.

Practice Stage 1 – Observing the Mind[1]

The first step in becoming present involves becoming aware of your own internal dialogue.

Sit or lie down. Relax the whole body, close your eyes, observe the train of your thoughts, and try to retain them, just simply notice them. It is normal in the beginning stages of this practice for the mind to appear very busy. Become the silent observer of this train of thoughts. Allow them to flow, freely and independently.

Attentively allow yourself to relax. Do not pursue thoughts or allow yourself to disassociate. Beware of falling asleep while doing this exercise. If you begin to feel tired, stop and postpone the exercise to another time.

Practice both in the morning and at night. Begin with 5 minutes. From the initial 5 minute session, gradually increase the time of practice by one minute per session, until you are able to remain present with your thoughts uninterruptedly, without succumbing to them, for 10 minutes.


Practice Stage 2 – Focusing the Mind[2]

This next exercise trains the practitioner to focus the mind by being fully present to the task at hand, aware of, but not pursuing, thoughts that are unnecessary or irrelevant.

When at home, release thoughts of work. Similarly, when at work, release thoughts of friends and family. If these thoughts occur, be aware of them, but as much as possible do not allow yourself to pursue them.

This practice is to be carried out throughout all aspects of your life.

Participate in all activities with as much full consciousness and awareness as is available in that moment. Release all thoughts that are a distraction from the current activity.

Develop and integrate this exercise for the rest of your life, because it leads to clarity, and peace, while strengthening memory and intuitive discernment.

Mental Concentration

Concentration is defined as single pointedness of mind.

Although the traditional term concentration is defined as one pointedness, this practice is not meant to manifest as a sense of tunnel vision, maintained via personal effort. Concentration is the ability to root and place the awareness onto a selected object: one thought, person, place, or thing - without wavering.

Proper concentration leads to a relaxed state of mental focus and engagement. If too much personal effort is applied, concentration will not lead to relaxation and openness. One will not be able to manifest the feeling of “letting go” that marks the emergence of the qualities of the Yuan Shen that are so essential for self-cultivation. Instead, rebellious ascending qi may be created, which can manifest as symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness or other qi deviations. Additionally, if the concentration is not properly focused, the acquired emotional and mental patterns will dominate the practice and the “Six Thieves” (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, and thoughts) may disrupt the Heart. An uncontrolled acquired mind will result in excessive internal dialogue that may manifest the "Seven Internal Emotions" (anger, worry, excitement, fear, fright, sorrow, and grief), and the "Four Desires" (sex, money, fame, and power).

The mind has the potential for great power. However, when unfocused, the mind reverts to habitual patterns, sensory input, and craving, aggression, and ignorance. Its potential is dissipated.

When the mind is concentrated and refined, latent spiritual awareness and abilities can be developed. This is the purpose of tasking and refining the Zhǐ Shén. Refining the Zhǐ Shén allows higher spiritual skills to manifest. The Yuán Shén itself does not develop these skills. The role of the Yuán Shén is to be the river, the repository of vibration that connects the person to universal consciousness, the heavens, the Dao.

Practice – Center the Mind[3]

The purpose of the Center the Mind practice is to extend the ability to maintain focus on an object of the mind, while releasing any other thoughts that may occur.

For this practice, choose an image or thought. Through relaxation and intention, maintain your attention on the object as long as possible “with all your strength”. Vigorously refuse intruding thoughts. Through regular daily practice your ability will probably increase from a few seconds to several minutes.

The successful completion of this exercise is the ability to stabilize your mind and concentrate on a single thought for 10 minutes or more.

When the practitioner turns inward from the chaotic external world of sensory input to find silence, his concentrated intention manifests through a uniformity and coherence of light. At this point, a transition occurs and conscious union with the divine begins to develop.

When the need for personal power is surrendered, the will of the Dao may be discerned, a place where "all is one."

Connection with the divine is only obtained within the deepest states of silence. This vast silence abides in everyone, where openness manifests and enlightenment can be obtained.

Practice – Emptying the Mind[4]

Once all the preceding exercises have been accomplished, it is time to learn to produce an absolute vacancy of mind.

Sit or lie down. Close your eyes. Dismiss any thought that occurs.

During this practice, nothing at all is allowed to happen in your mind; an absolute vacancy of mind must reign.

Allow this state of vacancy without digressing or forgetting. At first, you will manage only a few seconds, but through regular daily practice improvement will be had. The goal of the exercise is met when you effortlessly allow yourself to remain in this state for a full 10 minutes without giving rise to thought or falling asleep.


The Latin roots of the word, cum ("with") and templum ("temple") imply the sacredness of the experience. Contemplation has several meanings for self-cultivation. One approach is to consider the meaning of a word, gradually deepening this consideration from a mental to a felt and kinesthetic knowing of its internal meaning.

This is a developmental training that gradually gives birth to a second, classical meaning of contemplation, which is an immediate open presence in the world, directly perceiving and responding to things as they really are. Thus, contemplation is like the nature of peace: it may be, but is not necessarily, quiet and still. It may occur in an environment that is dynamic, active and noisy. Like the relationship between thought and emotion, which influence each other, practices that stabilize and concentrate the mind enable the ability to contemplate, while contemplation ripens our ability to enter the inner meaning of any word, principle, verse, or experience – including concentrative practices.

Contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence, including not only our own inner experience but also the act of directly perceiving and responding to the immediate situation and needs of the world around us.

In contemplation, one should be able to witness or view events, ideas or images from all perspectives. This means witnessing not only from our own point of view, but from the relation of other. This allows us to respond more meaningfully to the world around us, and situations that we encounter therein.

In contemplation, awareness is open and uncontrived. It is not focused on one thing to the exclusion of others. It is an awareness practice of direct knowing. Thus, contemplation can be understood as a more expanded version of concentration, in which the mind is allowed to wander freely within the field of the given subject.

This practice may consist of:

  • Contemplating principles (e.g., compassion, trust, integrity, wisdom, contentment)
  • Contemplating a verse from a text (e.g., “To receive and transform without cease.”)
  • Contemplating factors of causation (e.g., the interplay of duality between Yin and Yang).

The skill of contemplation is a valuable one for the clinician as it allows them to perceive from other viewpoints. In clinical practice, the Medical Qigong practitioner may contemplate the patient’s manifested disharmony or disease to uncover the root cause and effect. Similarly, patients may be encouraged to contemplate the root events and formative emotion patterns that underlie their disharmony or upon the experience of true health and wellness.


Practice – The Five Components of Human Experience

  • Physical: Contemplate the Physical Form.
    Moving the awareness through the body (from head to toe, toe to head, external to internal, internal to external, etc.), experience and explore every aspect of the physical form.
  • Sensation: Contemplate the Field of Sensation.
    Thoroughly contemplating the body, we realize that we know form through sensation. Allow the awareness to identify, experience, and explore the sensations emanating from and acting upon the body.
  • Perception: Contemplate the Field of Perception.
    After contemplating the field of sensation, we realize that we know sensation through perception. Allow the awareness to identify, experience, and explore how sensation is perceived. Perception is divided into six categories
    • Perception of Form
    • Perception of Sound
    • Perception of Smell
    • Perception of Taste
    • Perception of Touch
    • Perception of Thought and Ideas

  • Mental Formation: Contemplate the Mind.
    After contemplating the field of perception, we realize that perception is a product of the mind. Allow the awareness to identify, experience, and explore the realm of mind and mental formations. Mental formation refers to all different types of desires and emotions, including those of both Virtue and non-virtue (e.g., dreams, wishes, hopes, and desires).
  • Consciousness: Contemplate the Consciousness.
    After contemplating the mind and mental formations, we realize that mental formation is a product of consciousness. Allow awareness to identify, experience, and explore awareness itself. Consciousness is the awareness of an object. Awareness makes all experience possible. Consciousness is divided into six types according to its objects:
    • Eye Consciousness (cognizes visual objects)
    • Ear Consciousness (cognizes sound)
    • Nose Consciousness (cognizes smell)
    • Tongue Consciousness (cognizes taste)
    • Body Consciousness (cognizes tangible sensations)
    • Mind Consciousness (cognizes objects of outer senses such as sights, sounds, etc., as well as mental objects such as ideas, concepts, images, abstract notions, etc.).


Visualization and Imagination

Simply put, visualization is the act of creating an image, while imagination brings that image to life. These experiences have the potential to deeply influence health. They can be used to heal the body or, or if not directed properly, to exacerbate or complicate existing conditions.

All things that have been created have been created twice — once in the mind and once within the material realm. The imagination is the inner construct, the energetic form of all things. It is the primal inspiration from which reality manifests. Patients, like all of us, bring to life those things that they think about.

There are three steps to achieve a successful visualization practice:

  1. Deep relaxation – By releasing stress, tension, fear of the future, and emotional attachments to the past, one begins to focus on the present moment, and enables conscious visualization practices to penetrate to deeper subconscious levels.
  1. Richness of imagination - Integrating all of the senses to see, feel, hear, taste, and smell the experience that you are creating maximizes the power of imagination. With a curious, gentle attitude, bring an attitude of continuous improvement towards creating the fullness of this internal experience. To maximize the power of visualization, it is important to integrate all five senses to see, feel, hear, taste, and smell the experience that you are creating. Be persistent and work towards a fullness of this internal experience.
  1. Visualization and imagination of physical movement – This is a complex and very powerful training. Visualize performing physical movements while maintaining a state of deep relaxation. During this type of training, if a mistake is made in movement, mentally rewind and replay the event until the movement is correct. It may start simply, as watching yourself in a detached third person state, but with time and an increase of clarity of visualization your body will experience the complete fullness of the movements (pulse, blood pressure, sweat, qi response, etc.).

By mentally rehearsing your skills on a regular basis, you develop a spiritual and energetic foundation from which to progress.


Weì Bóyáng’s (魏伯陽) 2nd century treatise on internal alchemy, the Triplex Unity (Cāntóng Qì 参同契), , is considered to be the earliest and most important Chinese text on alchemy. The Triplex Unity is concerned not with one, but with three major subjects, namely Cosmology (the system of the Book of Changes), Taoism (the way of "non-doing"), and Alchemy. The text joins them to form a single doctrine[5].

For training the mind, the section of this text that is most relevant is “Reversing the natural process.”

Reversing the natural process undoes what Weì Bóyáng calls “Going along with natural process.” The natural process begins at birth. The mundane world is filled with acquired conditioning — conditioning of the mind, desires, and emotions. As humans grow, they become distracted by these acquired conditions. These distractions tax their bodies, causing aging, sickness, and death. Weì Bóyáng says, People of great wisdom reverse the operation of the natural process. They rule their own destinies and are not ruled by fate. Restoring the whole, original being, they avoid compulsive routine, transcend all worlds, and become incorruptible. Reversing the natural process produces enlightened adepts who are neither born nor perish, having a life span equal to that of the universe.[6]

This process, the path of cultivating reality, is the path of restoration and return.[7]

The legacy of this ancient text has had a profound impact upon Daoist literature for almost two thousand years. Within the Triplex Unity is an alchemical manual, which gives invaluable insights into clarity, openness, and union. It illuminates the inner world, which concerns those who tread the path of the Elixir of everlasting life.

There are seven stages in this process:

  • Refining the Self and Setting the Foundation
  • The Natural and Innocent True Mind,
  • The Celestial Grows and the Mundane Wanes,
  • Assembling the Five Elements,
  • Yin and Yang Merge,
  • Energy Unifies, and
  • Absolutely Open to the Wuji


The work of restoration begins with refining the self and setting up a foundation upon which one will eventually merge with the Dao.

Refining the self means burning away our acquired perceptions of reality.

We see the world not as it is, but as we have been trained to perceive it. The truth as we know it, our truth, is actually nothing more than the summation of our subjective perceptions of the world.

From the moment we are born, we are immersed in parental, cultural, and societal norms and roles. These norms and roles are combined with our ability to filter, generalize, distort or delete facts, thoughts, and feelings from remembered events. This combination forms the basis of our perception.

Perception is not only learning, but also the result of learning. Through the five senses, the body receives stimuli and interprets it based on prior knowledge and experience, which is then processed through our filters. This continual filtering and structuring reinforces the acquired mind.

If one can release the filters of the acquired mind, he will have built a strong and stable foundation, like the foundation of a house, which is able to bear the weight of future construction. One will become imperturbable and unwavering.

It is important to note that the training of Refining the Self and Setting Up the Foundation are not developed through force, control, or through austere practices.


The natural and innocent True Mind is the Yuán Shén or the Prenatal Mind. When a point of celestial energy emerges within the darkness of the Acquired Mind, it is called true consciousness.[9] When the True Consciousness appears, right and wrong, true and false, become distinctly clear[10], and self-refinement will be very easy. Through virtue the path of enlightenment may be sought. If the True Consciousness is not found, then the clarity of right and wrong will not be clearly distinguished.

The ignorant mistake the Acquired human mentality for the true mind.[11] If the discursive thoughts and emotions of the Zhǐ Shén or Acquired Mind are willfully repressed or forced under control, frustration and disappointment will be the only result. This is what is meant by the saying, "If you try to get rid of errant thoughts, that will increase the ailment; to try to head for reality is also amiss." [12]

The natural and innocent true mind is mindless. Only the mind that is open and detached from expectation or outcome can be considered “mindless.”


The natural and innocent true mind having been restored to its rightful place in the center, the light of the celestial energy gradually grows and the darkness of mundane acquired energy gradually wanes. This continues until there is no more growth or waning. Almost a thousand years later, Zhāng Bóduān (張伯端) the author of the foremost alchemical text Understanding Reality (Wùzhēn piān 悟真篇), , is in agreement when he states, "the way to foster the celestial and withdraw the mundane." [13]

This is done not by asceticism and withdrawal from society. It is accomplished by engaging with others, which will assess the mind’s ability to maintain its quiescence. Weì asks. “If you want to restore the celestial by quiet sitting without action and tranquil indifference, how can the celestial return by itself, how can the mundane withdraw by itself?” [14]


For the light of the celestial energy to continue to grow and the darkness of mundane acquired energy to continue to wane, the Five Elements must be assembled.

Assembling the five elements requires the extraction of the prenatal Virtues (integrity, wisdom, compassion, tranquility, trust) from the midst of the postnatal acquired emotions (grief, fear, anger, joy, worry). The prenatal five elements nurture each other, whereas the postnatal overcome each other. As the celestial energy integrates and comes into harmony, the elements will fuse as one.

The prenatal Virtues of the five elements are not physical energy (sexual energy or sperm). The energies of the internal organs are physical, and whatever is physical is acquired; it becomes, and so also decays.[15]

When the five elements are assembled, the great Dao may be attained.[16]


As the Prenatal Virtues of the Five Elements are gathered and fused, yin and yang merge. This merger forms the golden elixir, which is the “state of the child.”

The golden elixir is made by the crystallization of the energy of primordial nothingness and cannot be formed by temporal, physical substances.[17]

Although the discursive acquired mind has not fully disappeared, at this point it cannot cause harm, because the natural and innocent True Mind has been restored.


When yin and yang return to integral completeness, the state of the child is already restored. From this point on, the natural fire of reality operates to burn away residual conditioning and to return to the state where there is no discriminatory knowledge.[18]

When the state of the child transforms into the spiritual embryo and pregnancy occurs, the body is infused with energy, which is called the universal One containing true energy.


Once the spiritual embryo has formed, one applies ten months of incubation. This is a work of gentle nurturance, in which one allows the natural fire of reality to forge and refine the embryo from vagueness to clarity, from weakness to strength.

When the last of the discursive acquired mind has been stripped away, gestation is complete. The golden elixir is finished.

One suddenly breaks through to the undifferentiated—the Wuji; bursts out with the pure spiritual body, leaps into the realm of absolutely open nothingness, and transcends the world. When the path leads back to the endless, body and mind are both sublimated and one merges in reality with the Dao.[19]

The true spirit, cultivated and released through the creation of the gold elixir, is the celestial spirit. The spirit projected by all other meditative practices (staring in mirrors, concentrating on the crown, or forgetting the body) is the mundane spirit. The celestial spirit is eternal, unborn and unperishing; the mundane spirit, not having undergone refinement, is subject to reincarnation.[20]

The alchemical procedures in the Triplex Unity’s “reversing the natural process” have been passed down from generation to generation, because they provides a clear path of refinement for the mind and for the cultivation into the full expanse of opened awareness and the union with the Dao.

[1] Bardon, Franz. Initiation into Hermetics, Wuppertal 1987. Pg. 52.

[2] Bardon, Franz. Initiation into Hermetics, Wuppertal 1987. Pg. 53.

[3] Bardon, Franz. Initiation into Hermetics, Wuppertal 1987. Pg. 53.

[4] Bardon, Franz. Initiation into Hermetics, Wuppertal 1987. Pg. 53.


[6] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 54.

[7] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 68.

[8] Note: The artwork and descriptions of these seven images are drawn from Thomas Cleary’s The Inner Teachings of Daoism pages 68 – 74.

[9] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 69.

[10] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 69.

[11] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 69.

[12] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 70.

[13] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 71.

[14] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 71.

[15] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 71.

[16] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 71.

[17] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 72.

[18] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 73.

[19] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 74.

[20] Cleary, Thomas. The Inner Teachings of Daoism. Pg. 74.

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