We obsess, as a community, over how to find your dan tien. Google it, and you will find inconceivably anatomical approaches to describe its location as well as mystical proclamations on par with poets’ descriptions of “love.”
On one hand, we are told that our tai chi development cannot progress without a full understanding of the Dan Tien. On the other hand, we are told that it doesn’t physically exist.
What to do? What to do?
I found an elegant answer to this problem written in 1886. Not produced by some unpronounceable Chinese philosopher but instead by an equally unpronounceable German philosopher: Nietzsche (Knee-chuh).
Hang in there for the next few paragraphs because I feel that this idea sets the stage for the next generation of western tai chi/qi gong practitioners to improve our development and move closer towards the development level of our eastern peers.
An ‘Anthropologist’s Dilemma’
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche introduces the problems inherent to Anthropology. Let’s say that we study an ancient tribe. We have no relationship to this tribe and can discuss their habits and lives objectively (this is good). If we find a pot or strange building, we are made to guess at what they are for (not so good, but we are still not emotionally tied to our opinion).
Let’s say now that we study a living tribe. We still have no relationship to someone in Papua New Guinea so we could remain objective. However, now we can ask what things are for. When they tell us about the witchcraft that the pot or building celebrates, our values and personal experience kick in and we form a judgement.
The anthropologist’s dilemma points out that there is real value in studying something novel and foreign because it can teach us more about our self. However, our own experience, culture, and judgments never let us get close enough to understand the truth.
Michael Tanner, a writer on Nietzsche explains it best:
Nietzsche, in trying to take up an anthropological stance to his own society… is in a different but perhaps more worrying plight. For he is the first person to insist that there is no such thing as a substantial self, which can view the world with dispassion, uncontaminated by its environment.
Nietzsche continues that we are bound to see things from our own point of view and that we cannot control this. So…
The only satisfactory way to understand something that is foreign to us is to take up as many points of view as possible.
Understanding How to Find the Dan Tien from Many Perspectives
To truly understand and/or how to find the dan tien we have to make a composite of all of our points of view. If we focus too closely on one aspect it will be like getting hung up on the use of the color yellow and not seeing a whole painting.
The Physiological Dan Tien
A physiological view of the dan tien is limited because it doesn’t jive with how our culture defines physiology. It cannot be cut into. It cannot be located due to its relationship to adjacent body parts. However, it is felt due to its central relationship to the entire body.
The Metaphorical Dan Tien
It is solid and yet it is spacious. A room is a nothing that is defined by things (walls, ceiling, floor). Without those pieces, a room doesn’t exist. I love this picture of the pelvic musculature because it looks like the sinks that were made in a factory near my house as a kid. With the guts removed, you can see that the dan tien is the equal-distant middle space.
The Physical Dan Tien
It is “nothing” but it can be moved. We can also see by this picture that when we “move” our Dan Tien we are manipulating the muscles around it and the diaphragm above. This creates real pressure on the organs that fill this space, massaging and invigorating their processes.
The Sense-ational Dan Tien
The Dan Tien can feel as though it grows and shrinks, and changes temperature. But again, it is not connected to the endocrine system (directly) in order to convert energy. Additionally, every cell in the body produces heat as it burns energy, but the Dan Tien is not cellular??? This “truth” is a little out of my league in all honesty. However, I understand how the body converts energy to heat so I “know” the process is possible. How this heat is concentrated in a central space, manipulated, and expanded is outside of my wheel-house. Yet, each of these processes exist independently in the body for a fact, and in the case of the Dan Tien, appear to be brought together. In isolation you can see that this idea appears far-fetched. When taken as one of many perspectives it aids our understanding.
The Greatest Hang-up to our Collective Progress
Analyzing and understanding how to find your dan tien is incredibly important. Yet I am saddened that we as a community never develop much past this discussion. Even my tone in this essay alludes to the idea that the Dan Tien is one thing when in fact there are three! We talk incessantly about the Lower Dan Tien because of its importance but never make enough headway to advance the discussion to include the Middle Dan Tien and Upper Dan Tien. We are students forever grappling with addition, never to experience the power of multiplication. We must seek a relationship with our dan tien and not pursue concrete understanding. Otherwise our inherent cultural and experiential beliefs will not allow us to progress.
In all fairness, I highlight the importance of all 3 dantiens so in the next essay I will share my thoughts on how the three dan tiens relate to our daily life.
In reading Nietzsche I believe that he is right. Self-analysis is so incredibly difficult due to our belief system, experience, and knowledge that we inadvertently bring to bear on a situation. True understanding comes from accepting this, and defining something novel by using as many different perspectives as possible. We then “taste the soup and not just the oregano.”