Throughout the years, I’ve been asked this question in various forms, and I’ve come to realise that many students who ask it have often reached quite a profound level of practice. Of course, as with any Tao arts training, the answer lies in developing your skill with ever-more refined nei gong techniques, self-reflection and ongoing meditation practice.
To Control or Not to Control,
That Is the Question
The short answer to the question is that opening entails exerting some level of control while letting go does not. To consider the quality of difference yet deeper, we can look to the nei gong from which opening and letting go derive and how each are applied in practice.
Opening through Energy Exercises
Engaging any nei gong method initially requires a struggle session—whether it’s in developing skill using a particular technique, a body part or integrating that knowledge into the system as one whole. Once some degree of faculty is established, then you can reduce your effort. This is the point when you can focus on relaxation and release your nerves, thereby unlocking the mechanisms to gain greater control.
For example, in the beginning, lengthening the soft tissues is normally only achieved through much effort and persistence. You must feel and observe what is happening. Once you are satisfied that something is happening, then you can put in less effort for the same result…and relax. Relaxation is precisely what allows deeper access to and finer control of the body. In time and if you can relax progressively more through ongoing energy arts practice, it becomes possible to gain deeper and deeper access to your body’s soft tissues.
Of course, even in early stages of training, strict adherence to the Rule of Thirds, which dictates not to exert more than two-thirds of our maximum effort to keep the mind, body and/or qi energy from becoming too rigid and subsequently shutting down. When the nervous system detects any signs of stress or tension, it will bind and certainly not release. On the other hand, if you don’t break through the struggle session, nothing will accrue except external movement. The sweet spot lies in reducing, reducing and reducing your effort until you begin to gain access to and control over a particular nei gong energy exercise.
In this sense, lengthening of the soft tissues is a form of opening, but only insofar as it is opening the outer casing of the body and muscular frame. To fully understand the difference between opening and letting go, we must go a little deeper into the body.
Losing All Sense of Effort
Once the soft tissues are lengthened to some degree, then you can tune into the opening-and-closing rhythm of the joints, cavities and beyond. With the soft tissues released, the task of amplifying the pulse becomes much more possible and, again, requires less effort. Pulsation still requires intention and effort, but with a very gentle approach. You need a framework to affect it, but it does not manifest from an intense focus or use of any force or strain in any way. Letting go does not necessitate this framework and, in fact, must supersede it.
As you continue training, clearing out deeper layers of tension and softening off the hard edges in your nervous system more and more, you will naturally apply less physical effort to perform any nei gong exercises on which you choose to develop. In time and with sustained practice, your intention can penetrate your flesh to the point that you don’t need any muscular activity at all—for example, you simply apply your mind’s intent to engage the pulse or lengthen the soft tissues.
Nei gong science dictates that:
- The mind moves qi energy;
- Qi energy moves the fluids; and
- The fluids activate the soft tissues.
So if you can grab qi with your mind, then you can direct the body with your intention alone.
Developing the skill to affect this chain of command nearly breaches the realms of letting go. Even though there is a containment field in which you are operating (i.e. the form, modified by the Rule of Thirds and the internal nei gong content that imbues that form with power), the quality of the opening has lost any sense of effort.
Letting Go Is a State of Mind
Therefore, from one perspective, letting go is a more advanced method of opening. Although pure letting go is a state of mind, which is normally developed through meditation and later applied to higher-level energy arts training (as well as any aspect of life). When you achieve this state of being—where the mind can truly let go—your energy and body will open to its natural state and expand as there will be nothing in your system drawing in or causing a contraction. This is why the prime directive of any pure Taoist discipline is open: open the body, open the qi and open the mind.
I’d be interested in continuing this discussion on opening and letting go with you. Please leave a comment below with your experiences, if you’d like to participate.