February 8, 2019 nathanbrine

Taoist Poetry on Breathing

Taoist poetry on breathing! What’s not to like. Here is a stanza of poetry written by Lü Dongbin.


Observing the waves I make my breathing circular
and listen within to the sound of the water,

As the tide ebbs I still my mind and hear the sound of the sand

Taoist language often contains many levels of meaning, so let’s unpack these two lines and see what is going on below the surface. This is one take anyway. 

First Line:

觀浪 guan lang: “Observing the waves” 

I can imagine Ancestor Lü meditating by the sea inspired by the rhythms of the water. Also, waves is a metaphor for random thoughts. 

止息 zhi xi: “I make my breathing circular” 

This term is a little trickier. In Chinese this term could easily be read as “stop the breath.” However the term xi has special Taoist meaning, it means the space between the inhale and exhale, and the exhale and inhale, that little gap when the breath turns around. When we take out that gap our breathing becomes very circular, just like the waves on the sea. Where one wave ends and the next one begins is not distinct. It is one continuous process. 

聞水聲 wen shui sheng: “listen within to the sound of the water” 

The poem uses two different words for listen. Again, there is special Taoist meaning going on here. Wen means to listen inside the body, ting means to listen outside the body. In the first line the author is listening within, listening to the sound of water inside his body. 

This line could be referencing a number of internal processes. When we become very still we can hear the air going in and out of the lungs (not the sound of the breath in the nose, but the sound inside the torso). This sound actually does sound like waves. 

Another thing it could be is the movement of our jing energy in the torso. Sometimes water references jing

There is also a slow swelling cycle of qi in the body that also feels much like a wave. Not sure what it is but the line could also be referencing this. However, my bet is on the sound of the breath in the lungs. 

Second Line:

退潮 tui chao: “As the tide ebbs”

Pretty straight forward, Ancestor Lü is still hangin’ on the beach. 

靜心 jing xin: “I still my mind”

The order of characters in Taoist texts matter. Still mind (jing xin) is different from mind still (xin jing). “Still our mind” is youwei, we work to still the mind. “Mind is still” is wuwei, our mind is naturally still. Here the author is working to still his mind. 

聽沙響 ting sha xiang: “hear the sound of the sand”

Here is where it gets a little deeper. The first line is working to hear the sound of the waves, a fairly short time cycle. In the second line the author stills his mind to hear the sound of the water in the sand as it slowly ebbs. A tide cycle is about 12 hours, a fair bit longer than a wave. We would need to be pretty still to hear such a subtle sound!

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