Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

Lee also emphasises that the attitude to this is one of equanimity or neutrality, you let the unpleasant energy arise and dissipate and simply observe the patterns of energy within. In other words, this is somewhat similar to a form of mindfulness meditation, or zen shikantaza (just sitting). I had not realized that breathwork essentially focuses conscious awareness on the breath, on sensed energy flows and emotions, ie. on the sensations of the body.  I had been much more focused on the state of my consciousness, and at some level, always looking for some sort of altered state peak experience and judging myself constantly.  Just what I used to do for years in my Zen practice, running after peak experiences and “enlightenment”. Reading my earlier post on breathwork, this “seeking” attitude comes through quite strongly.

Lee says that breathwork facilitates the stance of witnessing, observing without trying to change anything. As we watch the currents and patterns of energy within us, without judging or comparing, without wanting to be anwhere and anytime other than here-now, then the experience of these sensations will transmute into a type of bliss or ecstasy.

In an recent online session with my breathwork instructor, he introduced a new technique to me, which dramatically accelerated the intensity of the sensed energy. He then led a transformational breathwork session lasting about 30 to 40 minutes leading into a period of just being present to the sensations and energy experienced. I went through a series of emotional releases and ended up in a state where I had an unusual feeling that I did not immediately recognize. I eventually realized that I was experiencing bliss – a deep relaxed joyous feeling such as I had not experienced for a long time.

Since reading Lee’s book, I’ve paid much more attention to just being present, putting energy into the breathwork practice, and being aware of sensations of energy and emotion in my body and how they change and evolve. I also find myself “settling into myself” at other times, sitting in the garden, or inside on a chair, and just centring, relaxing, letting go of thoughts, and being aware of the breath coming and going, and awareness extending outwards and encompassing broader energies of sunlight, wind, birds, planes, flowing and changing. And sometimes a quiet bliss arises.

Lee points out that the sensed energy in breathwork is the Chinese  “qi” of Taoist practice and internal martial arts. I realized with some surprise, that I have worked with sensed energy before. Not only had I experienced “subtle energy” in my Zen practice, but also had worked with it in my martial arts training. When I reached black belt level in jujutsu, my instructor introduced some “internal” techniques, working with sensed energy flows in the body. One such introductory practice was the “unbendable arm” in which by visualizing energy flow through your arm, it becomes “unbendable”.  There are martial artists on the web who have posted articles debunking this, claiming it’s a “trick”, and involves tensing certain muscles not the flow of qi. That may be, at least in some cases —  I have no idea, and don’t care much. What I do know is that its possible to learn and to teach the technique easily by visualization and sensing of energy, whether or not that is what is actually happening, and very difficult to achieve the same result by trying to tense muscles. And it leads to more sophisticated applications in using directed energy in striking, throwing and controlling opponents.

I did use this type of technique once in a real situation. I was in a peaceful demonstration where police moved in to arrest people with considerable violence. I did not want to get injured by police applying forceful joint locks, or to resist — which would undoubtedly have resulted in being beaten up. So when a cop tried to apply a joint lock and arrest me, I visualised energy flowing through my arms and stayed completely relaxed. He was unable to apply the lock but also unable to detect any resistance. So he released his grip and grabbed another person. I think the cognitive dissonance of “no resistance” and “unable to apply a lock” led him to take the easy way out and find another victim.

Around that time, I was also experimenting with Qigong and Taoist meditation. One technique I practiced for some time in meditation and during martial arts training was to circulate energy through the microcosmic orbit, creating a very real experience of energy flowing in with the breath down to the tanden (belly) and then back up the spine as I breathed out, over the top of the head and down through the palate with the tip of the tongue resting on the palate to complete the energy circuit. I was a keen runner, and I used a variant of this technique while running. I would visualize and feel the energy of the universe pouring into me with my inbreath down into the top of my head, and flowing with the outbreath through my body to my legs and out through the legs into the earth. When I got the feeling of the energy flow going, I seemed to be able to run faster and for longer with less fatigue.

My partner around that time was very much into Reiki (a form of working with sensed energy for healing), astrology and other forms of magical thinking. All of those seemed to me to be new age nonsense (“woo-woo”) and I was fairly dismissive in my own mind. Though did enjoy the tantric sex that she was keen to explore. My innate scientific scepticism of the belief systems associated with sensed energy practices and magical thinking led me in the end to be dismissive of these subjective experiences, including my own with qi energy.  But Lee points out that the subjective experience of energy flow within the body is a real experience, and some belief systems may be more useful than others in allowing you to work with the sensed energy. That does not mean you have to “believe in” a particular paradigm, just that it might be useful for achieving certain results.

Lee has been involved in a recent Western magical tradition known as “Chaos magic”, which is essentially working with sensed energy (and going much further into woo-woo land than I am willing to consider) using a form of radical pragmatism in adopting and switching between belief systems as needed to work in various ways with sensed energy and other “magical” paradigms. He says:

“Chaos magic attracted me and many others because it does not require that you abandon scientific thinking. Rather you grow accustomed to switching between viewpoints, depending on which is the most relevant and useful for what you want to achieve. So its OK to `believe in’ say, subtle energies if that’s what it takes for you to get results in that area. After your energy magic practice, you can go back to the physics-based view that there is no evidence for such energies.”   P330.

I quite like this type of radical pragmatism, similar to how I approach Buddhist practice. But I’m not about to start casting spells. Breathwork, plant medicine and zazen are enough!

Lee introduces his book by talking about the “toxic” dualism of Descarte’s mind/body split in Western consciousness. And because we see `spirit`’ (which has become equivalent to `mind’) as inherently superior to `flesh’, we have become estranged from living participation in the experiences, sensations and information that comes from below our necks. I am certainly one of those he describes who has become highly proficient at abstract thinking, in terms of words, symbols, numbers, mathematics almost to the extent that formal symbolic thought is seen as the only important mode of human consciousness.  And when I became interested in altered states of consciousness, initially through a drug experience and then through Zen and other practices, I was still chasing experiences of “higher consciousness”, ie “ascent experiences” that take us away from the body. Only in more recent years, have I started to let go of the search for ascent experiences and give more attention to “descent” into the body and the primacy of experience. Breathwork and Lee’s book have made me realize some of the subtle ways I’ve still been grasping for “higher” states.

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