Taiji, meditation, and "peng"

Eric Abrahamsen, modified 1 Year ago at 3/26/23 2:09 PM
Created 1 Year ago at 3/26/23 2:05 PM

Taiji, meditation, and "peng"

Posts: 67 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Here's another installment in my "Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation" series that no one asked for. This week's episode is about the term 膨 (péng in pinyin romanization, but actually pronounced more like "pung"), which literally means "inflation" or "swelling".

Taiji is full of terms that you're supposed to use as mental guidelines during movement: "open" vs "close", "storing" vs
"releasing", "towards the dantian" vs "away from the dantian", etc. They serve as metaphors that you use to dial in a specific quality of movement, and then abandon once that quality has become instinctive. Most often they come in pairs like this, but peng doesn't because you're never supposed to "deflate" emoticon

"Inflated", in the context of physical movement, indicates a sensation that the parts of your body are buoyant, uplifted, suspended above and away from one another. The old "points on the surface of a swelling balloon" analogy for the expansion of the universe. The idea is that no joints are compacted, nothing is locked to anything else, no part of the body is simply sitting on top of any other part, and even if you're in a relatively low stance, every part of your body is tending upwards, away from gravity, rather than hunkering down.

Physiologically I think this means that the stabilizer muscles around your body are doing the work of holding your posture: your entire body is gently, actively engaged, rather than anything being slumped over. It's "active relaxation", or relaxation based in strength, not only release. This keeps everything in the body open, and also prepares you to move in any direction at any time, rather than having to first dial in the proper set of muscles, take up the body's weight, and then move.

It's particularly evident when doing the basic zhanzhuang standing meditation practice. To me the goal there is to feel as though I were dunked in a neutral-buoyancy saline-solution tank, where the effects of gravity have been removed. Every joint and limb releases and drifts outward, tending towards a neutral attitude. The lower half of the body is rooted deep in the earth, but the rest of you floats. Of course gravity is in effect and you are simulating weightlessness using the tiny muscles of the body, but once you're strong enough it's an absolutely wonderful feeling, with no accompanying feeling of effort or exertion. Taiji is designed to train this strength, but I imagine you could do just as well with Pilates or swimming or some kinds of dancing.

What's the meditation connection? You could borrow this sensation to explore a great number of things, but for me it's been mostly connected to non-reactivity. My strongest reactivity – or perhaps my most dukkha-generating reactivity – is expressed through tightening or tensing. Bracing for impact; expecting a blow. The tightening is first physical, but it is also an emotional defensiveness, and ultimately also spiritual defensiveness. The most effective physical metaphor I have for non-reactivity is peng, in which I loosen and swell, gently taking up all the slack, until there is no knot or point of density to receive an impact. If something comes rushing at me, it ends up rushing through me, because there's nothing solid for it to land on. This is what non-reactivity feels like to me.

If I were further along in my practice I could probably also tie this to emptiness itself, but at this stage that might be overstating my case. The other thing peng is very good for is preparation for entering the jhanas. It's a very effective approach to relaxation, obviously, but it's more than that: when I have that sense of peng, I'm able to do something I can only describe as withdrawing from the surface of my body. I sit, expand, and once I'm there I "take a step back" from my physical body, but that happens from all directions at once, so it ends up feeling like I'm withdrawing inside my skin. If I can get that sensation, then absorption is not far behind.

When the texts on jhanas use the term "seclusion" I know they're likely talking about several different ideas, but that's what seclusion feels like to me.