The Empty Vessel Interview with Richard Leirer
We are here with Richard Leirer, who it has been my great fortune to know for a number of years now, since we both were founding board members of the National Qigong Association. Richard has many years of study and training and is one of the best healers I know. The other thing I like about Richard is that, even though he has a great deal of knowledge and experience, he, in keeping with the tradition of Daoism, still remains a humble and fun loving guy (see photo of Richard and me in Hangzhou a few years ago. Richard lives in Taos, New Mexico where he teaches taiji and qigong. He also has a teaching practice in Cleveland, Ohio, his old home. As mentioned at the end of the interview, Richard and I will be leading a trip to China in May of 2014 to study qigong and meditation in the sacred mountains of Wudang and Mao Shan.
Empty Vessel: To get started, I wanted to hear a little bit about your training background because I understand that you have been training for quite a while.
Richard: Yes, I began my training in 1972. I started at a place called the American Kung Fu and Karate Association. My first teacher was Sifu Guy Savelli. Guy later became fairly famous for the research he did with the United States military, which was later turned into a movie with George Clooney called The Men Who Stare at Goats.
I saw that movie, which was pretty funny. I was wondering if it was based on anything real or not.
It was definitely real. What happened was that Master Savelli was able to expel his qi and had it affect a goat that was in another part of the barracks. He actually was able to expel his qi to make the goat go unconscious.
So the idea was that they were going to turn this into some sort of weapon?
Yes that was the idea. When I trained with him he had not yet worked for the army. He trained us in all the methods and techniques in what we would call Mind Training as well as the physical body training. These trainings follow old Daoist principles.
You were very fortunate to run into such a high-level teacher right at the beginning.
Yes I was very fortunate to connect with a great a teacher who taught us the use of the mind in relationship to leading the qi or the energy and having that intent be a key aspect in your training. Later on, in the Daoism and the qigong training, I learned the phrase yi nian, means mind intent. As in what’s the intent of the mind in relationship to your training?
Yi nian, as far as the martial applications were, can I use my mind to overcome my fear of a brick or board that I’m going to break? I can’t let it stop me; I can’t let it hold me back.
In qigong training the mind always leads the qi. In order to move the energy through the small and greater heavenly circulation you have to find the way to have the yi nian move the qi. With the mind leading the qi you have control over the qi and when the qi runs through your body you have great discovery of the shen or spirit, which is the real essence of who you are.
I mean, what is your mind? We say the mind leads the qi. Eventually your mind comes into relationship with what we call your big mind, which has the capacity to really enter the super-consciousness.
After I trained with Savelli I started training with Master Huang Tseng Yu. Master Huang taught a Wu style tai chi. I studied with him for many years, then I had another teacher named Hao Tian You, who was a qigong master.
And this was all in Cleveland?
Yes, Cleveland Ohio. It’s funny all these masters were there.
Yes, you would have thought they would have been in San Francisco or someplace like that.
What people don’t know is that Cleveland has one of the largest Chinese populations between New York and Chicago. Master Hao was an expert in many of the modern forms of qigong. He was a scientist in the high-energy physics department in Beijing.
One of his approaches was, how do we scientifically look at this qigong phenomena?
And you also trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine there?
Yes I did, with a specialty in Medical Qigong – how to understand the qi relationship in a medical setting. For me, everything is about qi. If we don’t become familiar with the power of qi and the mechanisms of qi circulation in the body we’re fairly lost. We’re lost in the sense of not really getting a working understanding of the key aspect of what our body is based on. If we do not have that understanding within our own bodies, how can we be of help to others? Our understandings of qi imbalances are theoretical and not actual.
There’s a qigong formula that I use to try and explain what I’ve learned and also what my training has taught me. The saying is “lian jing hua qi, lian qi hua shen, lian shen hua dao.” This is usually translated as “transforming the jing or the form, into qi.” So how do we transform something? For the longest time I thought, this has to be an alchemical thing, some magical, mystical formula that has to take place. I finally come to an understanding that the magical mystery is my mind. And once we understand that our mind gives meaning to everything we not only see and hear and observe in the world around us, it is the practice of the mind to look past the form in order to see the qi. And when you look past the form you are then transforming the form to qi.
Now the form never really left and the qi was always there within the body. They’re all there at the same time but what has changed is the relationship to it. It takes training to confidently look at your body and figure out “Oh, I have qi that is flowing through my body,” and when you can get that physical relationship with the qi, that becomes the first transformation of lian jing hua qi, you transform your relationship to your body, to a relationship to your energy that is permeating your body.
I like that.
Then, when the first level of transformation is complete, you need to go onto the next level, lian qi hua shen, which is the second level of alchemical transformation. How do I transform the qi energy into shen energy, in the sense of how do I get to understand my spirit? How do I get to be connected to my spirit?
Your shen is always in your qi, it is never separate from it. It is always in it, it actually makes its home there. Shen is more than just a different form of energy; it is a level of consciousness. So when I say that the mind leads the qi what it really means is that it is my shen that is leading the qi. And my shen is where my ultimate consciousness is – unbridled by form, unbridled by the physical brain.
When that level of cultivation is complete, we say that the last stage is lian shen hua dao, and that is still something that I am working on. How do I make a complete mergence of my shen with the natural world around me?
This seems to be the big difference between the Eastern viewpoint of working with the body through qi and the biomedical viewpoint of the West where it’s all chemistry working together and that’s what’s keeping us going.
I think that will be changing soon with the rising of data and evidence in the scientific community about the neuroplasticity not only of the brain but also of the whole body. We know that human consciousness is not limited to the physical structure of the brain. Human consciousness is part of the neuropeptides and neurotransmitters that are everywhere in the body.
When I was in my training they would say that you are getting your body brain involved or your body consciousness involved. Now we know that there is no separation between my body and my consciousness.
From a Daoist point of view, we say everything emerged from the Wu Chi, including myself. My consciousness merged outwards from the Wu Chi. The Wu Chi is the Oneness, or the Return to the One, return to the All.
But when I am in a Tai Chi realm, or the realm of duality, that’s when my shen first began to identify with itself as being separate. That’s why we have the hun and po parts of our spirit. One wanted to return home, to the original Wu Chi state (the hun) and another wanting to have form and experience (the po). When that urge to have form and experience is so great it looks for form to manifest those experiences in.
If you look at it as, I am from the Wu Chi, I entered the Tai Chi realm, where I created an individual I – shen, consciousness or spirit consciousness. That spiritual consciousness then flowed into energy. That energy then flowed into form and then I was born or I have physical form as a result of that.
You have a book, called From Wu Chi to Tai Chi: A Story of Ancient Beginnings, which really lays this whole thing out very clearly.
Yes, that’s what I tried to do. I thought, how can I get people to understand that this is the whole reason that we practice qigong and is the key behind Daoist practices – to return back to the Wu Chi. And the way to do it is to pay attention to the body to find the energy, pay attention to the energy to find the spirit, pay attention to the spirit to find the relationship with Dao and then finally have the Dao return to its home in the Wu Chi.
This describes the basic mystical quest of many cultures, the quest to return to the Source. But many of these other paths don’t believe in going through the body. They think the body is something to transcend. What I find interesting about the Daoism approach is that we use the energy of the body to transcend the body.
Yes, and another way to look at it would be that daoist practices are starting where we are. I have a body and I need to be present with that body. At the same time my mind, or my consciousness, gives meaning to everything that I’m experiencing with that body.
The Chinese approach is that emotional states, rather than psychological states, are energetic states and that’s how you work with them.
Correct, you see them as energetic states, and you follow them to see what their origin is. Because everything is based on our giving a meaning or a consciousness to all that we perceive.
In my work, I spend a lot of time helping people break through their conditioning. Conditioning is the perception of the world around us. As in, how do I perceive the world and why do I perceive it in the way that I do? Most of the time, the untrained person will perceive things from the perspective of their conditioning. Meaning how we were taught or trained or traumatized to see things this way.
But when you change your perspective of the world the world changes.
Exactly. When we change our perspective of the world, the world changes. That’s where this word lian or transfer comes from. So is the world still the way it was before? Of course it is and at the same time it is completely different? They’re both at the same time different and the same. When I travelled in India I would often hear the phrase “same, same, only different.” The real meaning behind this innocent phrase is really very profound.
So there’s not some kind of great alchemy that takes place in which, all of a sudden, I disappear. It is my relationship to everything that changes because my perception has increased.
How would you describe your approach to the Daoist arts?
I guess I bring a sort of scientific approach. Meaning I think these things can be validated. I think it’s important for us to validate these experiences and it gives a great meaning for someone who has not had these experiences yet.
So what advice would you give someone who has been doing tai chi or qigong forms for some years but wants to go deeper and wider?
That’s a really hard question! I think all of us want to go deep and wider. I think that we have to be brave and courageous enough to be able to say, I am going to perceive the world differently. I think that’s the first step, if you say, I am going to perceive that world differently than I am right now. And as you constantly use that as a daily mantra – I am willing to see the world differently today than I did yesterday. I am going to see more deeply and more clearly today than I did yesterday.
So how do you change your perception of the world?
Willingness is the first step. With willingness there comes the step of seeing how many teachers that are constantly present in our environment. The teacher may be a loved one, a loved one who is bringing us a challenge, who is saying, I don’t see it that way at all. And being open to someone sharing their position of how they perceive an event in the world around them. You allow yourself to see things from a different point of view. You allow yourself to see things differently. Then what happens is that allowance then allows you to understand that there are many ways to perceive the world.
Then the next stage is to start cultivating qi. You have to start running the energy though your body. Running the energy through the small heaven and the big heaven energy circuits is an absolute must. People have to be trained in those on a regular basis. You also have to be doing some kind of standing qigong forms. Those standing forms bring us into relationship with the heaven and the earth energy.
In Daoism we say, di tian ren, earth, heaven, and person. If you’re not doing a standing form, which is bringing you into balance with the earth energy and the sky energy, which is flowing through your body and crating harmony then you cannot reach a level of understanding di tian ren.
One thing that I learned from you years ago was about grounding really solidly. I remember you saying send roots down into the earth at least three times the length of your body. And I loved it when you said; don’t imagine you’re sending the roots down, send the roots down.
There is this relationship again with the yi nian, the mind intent. I think that in a lot of the qigong that has been translated in the West the phrase “mind intent” has been mistranslated as “imagination.” So when we look at this and say, how can I send my qi into the ground? I can use the imagery of the tree with its roots and get from that imagery what it is I want to do. Then I have to move from the imagery to actually doing it. My training has shown me that if you do not catch the feeling of the qi, as a physical structure of the universe then you will still be using it as a mental construct. Qigong training, like in a good acupuncture treatment must catch the feeling of the qi. Without the feeling of the qi, or the qi arrival feeling, hardly any qi will be present.
I think that is an important point that a lot of people miss. It is a subtle but very powerful difference between using your imagination and just doing it.
Exactly, you hit the nail on the head. Using your imagination can help give you the idea of what you want to do but unless you catch the feeling of the qi and start moving the qi through your body and even outside your body, your practice, your training and your cultivation will be at a standstill. You cannot progress further until this first step is mastered.
There are some students that I have had for over three years who have said that they could not feel the qi. I would advise them to keep acting “as if.” Act as if you can and eventually what will happen is that you will catch this.
One of my students called me up, after about a three-year period of training with me three times a week. She called me about 11 o’clock at night and she was screaming, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” I knew from her voice that something good had happened. What she finally said was, “Now I know what you’re talking about! I can feel what you mean. When I was doing my practice of running the small heaven I felt this sensation move up my back and down my front. I felt something moving through the du mai and the ren mai channels. It wasn’t me imagining feeling something moving, I physically felt it.”
That’s what happens with practice and perseverance. When you reach that success of making the physical connection with the qi then you can move the qi like you would anything in the world around you. If I want to pick up a book I need to walk over and pick it up. I can’t imagine the book floating over to me and the pages opening. Unless I go over there and pick it up I am not going to get the book and be able to open the pages. The same is with qi cultivation. We need to treat qi as a real, tangible physical element in order to succeed in Qigong training.
The small heaven orbit practice is interesting. Some teachers teach their students to almost force it to happen and other say never to force anything and instead allow it to happen on its own. I am curious about how you teach that practice.
Master Hao used to have this saying, “Do not be in pursuit of the feeling of the qi but always be in awareness of the feeling of the qi.” So if I pursue it too much I am putting an extra strain on me. But always being aware is another level of consciousness. I think there is a fine difference between those two.
It’s funny how the mind works. Our mind is possibly our greatest asset as well as our worst enemy at times. I guess for me the ultimate for me is mind training. And the way we do mind training is to do body training. It may sound contradictory. How do I do mind training if I am doing body training?
We know that the mind is in a two way street with the body. If I get my body to say, relax, I know my mind, my consciousness, is going to have a direct effect. I know that if I can get my physical body to relax there were will be certain chemicals in my body, certain brain changes will take place inside my body. My ability to perceive things thing will shift and change. So it’s fairly easy to work with my body as opposed to getting my mind or consciousness under control. My ultimate consciousness is my shen or my spirit. But I have to get through my conditioned consciousness first. And I have to get past my body consciousness. I have to connect my body consciousness with my spirit consciousness to become integrated so that my mind and my body can become one. Doesn’t that sound interesting?
Yes, that sounds like the right goal all right.
So how do we get the mind and the body to become one? You discipline the body in order to be aware of the perceptions that the mind is having. When I say the discipline of the body it means the relaxation of the body and the control of the qi.
Now the Buddhists often say everything is mind and so they mostly work with mind training and feel that will take care of everything. But the Daoists add in the body training.
They do, they work with the three levels of the jing, the qi and the shen. Jing being the form, the qi being the energy that emanates throughout the body, and the shen is the consciousness or the spirit. I think that at some ultimate level the Buddhists and Daoists will agree, at the highest level. The highest level for both is to return to the Oneness that pervades the universe.
I’d like to talk a little bit about your book. What did you set out to do with this book?
Well my hope with the book was to get some theoretical concepts for the initiate or the person on the journey. I wanted to give a blueprint or a map so I started with the concept of Wu Chi. A lot of times people say, “I stand in Wu Chi before I do my tai chi or qigong practice.” So I wonder, what does that mean? It often just means that people are standing there, trying not to do anything.
So I tried to outline what Wu Chi really means. What is this concept? What is this level of existence that we really can’t have a good understanding of? Wuji is beyond, perhaps, our normal ability to perceive because we are existing in the Tai Chi realm or the realm of duality. So I do my best to talk about what the Wu Chi is and start with the diagram that shows the relationship of the Wu Chi moving into the Tai Chi and the Tai Chi moving into the five elements and the elements than creating all form. We get at least a basic background of how the Dao begets the two, the two begets the three and the three begets the ten thousand things.
We know that in Daoist training. But what does that mean? We know that something came forth from its original state and then that divided into the yin and yang realm. Then from the yin and yang realm it went into yin and yang and yin again, and this is where structures are formed. At the third level of yin and yang interaction. When we look at cosmology we see that just having two isn’t enough. We have to go from one to two and two to three and from three into all the myriad things that exist around me.
Remember I mentioned that formula, which is that I need to look at the myriad things around me and realize, oh, I give meaning to that. And since I give meaning to it, can I perceive the original meaning that its very nature or essence is? Finding our original nature, our original Li or principle is key.
I saw a great diagram at the Jade Spring Temple at Hua Shan that turned it around and mapped out the journey from the manifest to the unmanifest.
Correct. So one of the things I do in my book is to show how to perceive the natural, inherent meaning of these things. We say the ziren is the natural reaction or natural response to response to something at any given time. That depends on the li or principle or function of any given time.
So I use the classic Chinese analogy of li and ziren in my book. The li is the principle or function of something that exists. The li of the hair on the horse has a natural function while it is protecting the horse. If you take the hair off the horse and make a paintbrush out of it the li just changed, didn’t it?
I especially liked the chapter called The Way and Path of a Balanced Person. I’ve always liked that in the path of Daoism there is not a big emphasis on acquiring super powers but that it is a high level attainment to be a balanced person.
It’s an extremely high level and I don’t think you can get there until certain things happen within you. How do we become balanced physically? If I’m too weak I’m out of balance, if I’m too overly muscular and don’t have enough flexibility I’m imbalanced. If my emotions are not in balance neither is my mind. Without balance the wisdom mind cannot become strong. There is lot that has to go on. I have to get my mind, my body and my spirit all in balance. And when you start heading towards balance, it will also allow the opportunity of the law of the universal response or the karmic law to implement itself on your mind, body and spirit. And that’s where the power of de comes into play.
De is sometimes translated as virtue and it’s also translated as power. I translate it as the power of virtue. De as a physical force will flow into your body when your body, mind and spirit are more in balance.
In my book I took the time to put in some of the characters for people to really understand the concepts. Look at the character for de 德. One of the first things in the character is an image on the left, which describes two people. I used to wonder why this image of two people was in this word. Well it’s there for two reasons. One of the reasons is that you need someone else in your life in order to reflect back to you what’s happening in your life. If you lived in a cave by yourself you wouldn’t have the reflection back to you.
The second thing is that our mind is often dualistic in that we have the conditioned mind and the unconditioned mind. The force or power of the universe can’t flow into us unless we have those two minds balanced.
Then the other part of de character is the mark above the eyes, which means if you need to open up the third eye area and make it one within your heart. Then there’s this plus sign or mark that’s above the eye that’s turned sideways, it’s the character for self turned sideways becoming one within the heart.
The image for de tells us if I don’t become balanced I can’t let the energy flow into my body properly and flow into my heart so that my heart/mind is balanced. That’s why catching the feeling of the qi is so important, sensing it is so important. Making the mind and heart work together is so important.
And you have quite a few exercises in the second half of the book to help people open themselves up to that.
Yes I have a lot of qigong exercises and movements for health. A lot of them are daoyin and tendon changing exercises.
You also go regularly to Cleveland to teach there as well as in your hometown of Taos, New Mexico?
Yes, I travel to different places for workshops and training and treatments. I have programs that are still going in the world-famous Cleveland Clinic Hospital for surgery rehabilitation. This works with both tai chi and qigong for people who have just come out of surgery. They are in the hospital and sometimes we work with people on their hospital bed. Other times we work with groups of people who are brought in wheelchairs.
In this way they don’t have to rely so much on medication?
Well we know that it enhances the healing process. That’s why the hospital has had me there now for over fourteen years. We know that these practices increase certain good chemicals like dopamine, which is a pain reliever, a natural body opiate. The exercise also increase serotonin, which is a mood elevator, so they feel happier. They increase circulation so they have greater range of motion and greater circulation. This circulation is also important in the delivery of the Western pain medications. The recovery time is less, the amount of medications they need is less.
The other important issue is empowerment. One of the things you often feel in a hospital is that of a victim. Somebody comes in and they wake you up at all different items, they poke you with needles, they take your blood pressure, they put you in monitors. You feel helpless.
But by doing Taiji and Qigong practice your locus of control, your ability to feel like you impact the world around you, is enhanced and increased.
These kinds of programs are fairly common in Chinese hospitals, I believe, though not so common in the West.
It has been my goal for them to become more common in the United States. In China you would not think twice about being offered to do some tai chi or qigong practices in the hospital. But here in the West we have only begun to scratch the surface of the Chinese healthcare modalities.
My work in the hospital is working directly with people suffering from chronic pain and having had surgery. We know that the practices enhance and increase blood flow, which then enhances and increases recovery time.
I just wanted to mention that you and I are putting on a tour to China next May and we will be training with people on Wudang Mountains as well as well as with the both of us. It’s a chance to go deeply into Daoist practices and philosophy as well as eat some really great food!
Yes, I think what we offer is so incredible. People have access to not only what you have to offer and what I have to offer but the people we go see have to offer as well. You have been doing this along time and your experience with this is part of the tour package.
The people we work with there are very high-level people.
It’s a program for serious cultivators. Plus if you have no experience whatsoever, we do always start at the beginning. Whatever I do, I tell people that no matter if you have twenty years of experience, three years of experience, or are just starting today I guarantee you will learn something.
I remember on our last trip where we got the opportunity to do Moon Cream qigong on a full moon up in the Wudang Mountains. How many times do you get the opportunity to do something like that? Once in a lifetime, maybe.
For me, just being in those mountains and in the temples of that area where people have been doing cultivation for a thousand years, you can’t help but feel inspired and uplifted, which helps your practice.
We’re being influenced by the qi that has permeated there. The natural environment qi is strong there. Wudang Shan is in the center of China. It’s like the dantian of China. The cultivation that has taken place there over the centuries has left a mark. When you walk up the steps and go to the temples you’re being infused by the energy of people who have practiced and cultivated there. Just by being there your body, mind and spirit is being affected in a positive way.
Thank you so much for spending the time with us and explaining some of your attitudes and impressions and guidance and cultivation tips. I do want to recommend your book for people who wish to go into a much deeper level of what we have been talking about here. And if anyone is interested in learning more about our China trip you can visit our website at www.abodetao.com.
And I also wanted to thank you Solala as you have been consistently there for so many years. For so long you’ve paved the way for Daoist training and qigong and tai chi. I appreciate you being there and what you offer to the community worldwide. You make a great contribution to the world and I just wanted to say that I appreciate it.
To order Richard’s book, From Wu Chi to Tao Chi: A Story of Ancient Beginings go his website, Qigong Academy, at www.RichardLeirer.org. Also check out a Tai Chi and external Qi projection demonstration Richard performed this year at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWL0nFtsJlc.