A number of texts from ancient China’s Taoist tradition detail different types of meditation exercises to quieten the mind; these are usually described as practices to be done while seated in a relaxed posture. Taoist texts also contain advice and tips on how to approach meditation practices generally.
The first excerpts featured below describe concentration-based meditation exercises, where a person’s attention is directed to, and maintained upon, a specific thing. One such exercise found in Taoist sources is meditation on the breath.
The following passage comes from a text called The Secret of the Golden Flower and describes meditation on the breath. It says this exercise should be done sitting down in a relaxed state. While seated, the practitioner is to be “conscious of the flowing in and out of the breath” — keeping their attention on perceiving the air “flowing in and out” as they breathe naturally. It emphasizes one’s breath should be light and gentle in the practice, not rough or loud. Being conscious of the breath like this is said to bring about inner quietness.
Note that “the heart” can refer to consciousness in Taoist texts — the spiritual essence of a person that experiences self-awareness.
“While sitting, one must therefore always keep the heart quiet and the energy concentrated. How can the heart be made quiet? By the breath. Only the heart must be conscious of the flowing in and out of the breath; it must not be heard with the ears. If it is not heard, then the breathing is light; if light, it is pure. If it can be heard, then the breath-energy is rough; if rough, then it is troubled; if it is troubled, then indolence and lethargy develop and one wants to sleep. That is self-evident.”
– The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Richard Wilhelm.1
The Tao Te Ching, a book said to contain the wisdom of the legendary sage Lao-Tzu, also describes meditation through concentration on the breath as a way to achieve inner quietude. In the following passage, the reference to “polishing your mysterious mirror” refers to quietening the mind in this exercise, while “leaving no blemish” refers to attaining inner clarity or stillness:
“In concentrating your breath can you become as supple
As a babe?
Can you polish your mysterious mirror [i.e. the mind] And leave no blemish?”
– Tao Te Ching. Translated by Darrell C. Lau.2
The next excerpt is from the Hua Hu Ching, a collection of verses also attributed to Lao-Tzu and said to have been passed down through oral tradition. It describes an exercise to meditate on the night sky, in which a person calms and quietens the mind by contemplating the stars and connecting with the “subtle origin” of the universe. It says that if the mind is calmed though this, one’s perception naturally expands. Because stars are originators of life in the cosmos and have a higher spiritual nature — being perceptible manifestations of the “subtle origin” or source of consciousness — this practice also has a deeper spiritual significance.
“Do you imagine the universe is agitated? Go into the desert at night and look out at the stars. This practice should answer the question. The superior person settles her mind as the universe settles the stars in the sky. By connecting her mind with the subtle origin, she calms it. Once calmed, it naturally expands, and ultimately her mind becomes as vast and immeasurable as the night sky.”
– Hua Hu Ching. Translated by Brian Walker.3
Meditation exercises to reach inner silence
The above exercises were concentration based, where attention is directed to a single thing, so that instead of being scattered, there is a single, focused thought in the mind. However, the exercises described below seek to take the practitioner beyond concentration, so that the mind reaches a state of complete inner silence, where there is no thought at all.
The excerpt below, from the Hua Hu Ching, describes a meditation exercise to reach inner stillness, clarity and perceive higher spiritual reality. It starts off by making the point that practicing this exercise is not the same as thinking or talking about it.
To do this exercise, it explains that one should relax the body, quieten the senses and “stop chattering”, which is to quieten the inner chatter of thoughts. It says that one should strive to return the mind to its “original clarity”, which is to quieten it to the point that it reaches complete inner silence — the state of complete stillness undisturbed by any thought. From this silence, it is said that one can “return to oneness” without thinking about it. This describes a state where consciousness — the spiritual part within — can express fully by temporarily transcending the confines of the human mind and body. In this state, it says that one can perceive higher truths and realms, without any thought or emotion present to separate one from this reality:
The Secret of the Golden Flower contains a meditation exercise to contemplate the origin of thought and bring about a state of inner “rest” — where all mental activity has ceased.
“Thinking and talking about the Integral Way neither are nor the same as practicing it. Who ever became a good rider by talking about horses? If you wish to embody the Tao, stop chattering and start practicing. Relax your body and quiet your senses. Return your mind to its original clarity. Forget about being separated from others and from the Divine Source. As you return to the Oneness, do not think of it or be in awe of it. This is just another way of separating from it. Simply merge into truth, and allow it to surround you.”
– Hua Hu Ching. Translated by Brian Walker.4
The following passage describes how “worldly thoughts come up” spontaneously or compulsively in a meditation practice (these could be thoughts about one’s day, worries, desires, things one has to do later etc.). It explains how by calmly watching thoughts from the first moment they arise — their point of origin — and observing how they manifest and fade out, this sustained reflection is true contemplation which, if maintained, can eventually bring inner rest or quietness. If, however, one instead attempts to “push” reflection further and do more than simply observe thoughts, for example think about the thoughts they see, one can make the mind more active instead of less. The text calls the latter approach “false contemplation” and says that when the thought process increases or extends further like this, one should return to true contemplation.
By contemplating the mind through watching it, this exercise can also allow one to gain an insight into the nature of thoughts, where they come from, and how the mind works.
“…if [during meditation] worldly thoughts come up… one must examine where the thought is, where it began, and where it fades out. Nothing is gained by pushing reflection further. One must be content to see the thought [arising], and not seek beyond the point of origin… we want to bring the states of the heart to rest; that is true contemplation. What contradicts it is false contemplation. That leads to no goal. When the flight of the thoughts keeps extending further, one should stop and begin contemplating. Let one contemplate and then start fixating again.”
– The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Richard Wilhelm.5
Another meditation practice in the Hua Hu Ching describes how to go beyond the duality of the mind. The mind is described as being filled with contradictory and oppositional thoughts and ideas which compete and conflict with others, and are “manipulations of the mind… dreams, delusions, and shadows”. It explains one can transcend the duality of thoughts by keeping one’s mind “undivided” and “dissolve[ing] all ideas into the Tao”. This means that, during the mediation exercise, the dualistic nature of any thought/idea arising must be recognized as it appears, and it should be let go of, not clung to, so that the thought process dissolves instead of continuing.
Note that “the Tao” in Taoism can refer to the higher spiritual reality and the source of creation6 — and this source is said to be beyond the duality found in the material universe.
“Good and bad, self and others, life and death: Why affirm these concepts? Why deny them? To do either is to exercise the mind, and the integral being knows that the manipulations of the mind are dreams, delusions, and shadows. Hold one idea, and another competes with it. Soon the two will be in conflict with a third, and in time your life is all chatter and contradiction. Seek instead to keep your mind undivided. Dissolve all ideas into the Tao.”
– Hua Hu Ching. Translated by Brian Walker.7
Taoist meditation tips
The following excerpts contain useful tips about how to approach meditation exercises generally.
In The Secret of the Golden Flower there is a helpful excerpt on how to best prepare for and approach meditation in order to attain “a state of quietness” within. It highlights the importance of being comfortable and relaxed, and indicates that the environment where the practice is done should be conducive to meditation. It says the mind must be free of preoccupation and any entanglements should be put aside for the exercise. The text emphasizes that not too much should not be demanded of oneself (of the “heart,” which is explained as “consciousness” in an earlier passage8). In other words, the meditative practice should not be forced, but instead it should be done naturally in a relaxed way (“quite automatically”). That way one’s striving for quietness in a meditation exercise will be done with a restful and relaxed disposition (or “energy”) that is conducive to attaining quietness within — rather than with a forced, tense or agitated energy which would be counterproductive.
“When one begins to carry out one’s decision [to meditate], care must be taken so that everything can proceed in a comfortable, relaxed manner. Too much must not be demanded of the heart. One must be careful that, quite automatically, heart and energy are coordinated. Only then can a state of quietness be attained. During this quiet state the right conditions and the right space must be provided. One must not sit down [to meditate] in the midst of frivolous. That is to say, the mind must be free of vain preoccupations. All entanglements must be put aside; one must be detached and independent.”
– The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Richard Wilhelm.9
In another part of The Secret of the Golden Flower it explains the benefits of starting the day on a spiritual note with a meditative exercise if there is time for it, before one has become preoccupied with daily affairs:
“If there is time in the morning, one may sit during the burning of an incense stick; that is the best. In the afternoon, human affairs interfere and one can therefore easily fall into indolence. It is not necessary, however, to have an incense stick. But one must lay aside all entanglements and sit quite still for a time. In the course of time there will be success without one’s becoming indolent and falling asleep.”
– The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Richard Wilhelm.10
Please note, featuring a passage from a text does not mean we can vouch for the entire contents of a text. Jenny Resnick, Jordan Resnick, Justin Norris, Vida Norris and Matthew Butler contributed research or writing to this article.
The Secret of the Golden Flower. Translated by Richard Wilhelm. Online PDF version, p. 11.
“Tao.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed February 17, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Tao.