Putting the gong into Qigong
Gong is the skill one develops through cultivation, practice, and embodied change over time.
A craftsman has gong.
In Qigong we learn many techniques but only through mindful practice do we attain gong. Learning a set of forms (movements) is not attaining Qi gong, and although Qi sensitivity is important, it alone does not bring progress.
Belly breathing—to take a very simple example—is a technique for calming the mind and switching the autonomic nervous system from high arousal Fight-or-Flight to low arousal Rest-and-Recuperation mode.
You do it a few times. You understand the technique. You get it. You don’t bother to continue practicing because you are confident that you ‘have’ it. You have understood it. Anyway, how can something as simple as belly breathing be important? You continue to breathe as you always have and there is no change. You have learnt a technique (Fa) but because you do not practice it you are not embodying skill (gong).
To develop gong of any kind we need to practice; not just mindless repetitions but with our attention carefully monitoring the development of our technique, honing change. Skill is not merely learning. Skill is physically embedded. The skill of a craftsman is enabled by physical changes that occur through repeated practice. These changes are brought about by natural plasticity of tissues: the thickening of skin on one finger, a line of tensile strength through the body which is needed for the craft, and the habitual mental focus required to perform the craft. Specific muscular and neuronal connections (the routes) used for the craft are biochemically enhanced through practice and our skill therefore improves. Our body changes as we develop skill. In fact, the physical changes are the skill developing.
Gong is embodied. Skill is embodied.
In belly breathing practice, our diaphragm loosens and lengthens with daily expansion which means we develop deeper longer breaths. Our nervous system adapts to the change in breathing pattern and no longer automatically stimulates those high chest (anxiety) muscles for breathing. In other words, our breathing software is re-written and our choice of default breathing options increase. In the absence of regular practice our nervous system will not change and we will continue to breath the same way we always have.
Due to diaphragmatic stimulation of the vagus nerve in our daily belly breathing practice, our body gets a period of Rest-and-Recuperation every day. Digestion and immune activity are prioritized. Many physiological improvements result. Our blood acidity changes due to improved exhalation of waste carbon dioxide. Less acidity leads to improvements in many aspects of chronic ill health such as pain and muscular tension. The result is that we get health improvements from a simple daily breathing practice.
As Fight-or-Flight mode is switched off by this belly breathing, our mind settles for a few minutes each day. We develop an ability to experience mental quietude (essential for Qigong). The result is that we get psychological and emotional benefits from a daily breathing practice.
As belly breathing 'skill' develops, we find we are able to control our level of arousal/relaxation in everyday life. This is not possible just by understanding the technique. Our body needs to experience and connect the nervous system routes for self-calming so that it can be used when necessary. Gradually, we develop gong, in that, we can modulate our level of arousal, mental quietude, and physiology.
This example, illustrating how one technique can be transformed into a skill--how Fa become Gong--is the first step towards developing the essential Qigong of ‘Sung’. Sung cannot be achieved through conceptual understanding but only through a lifetime of practice.
In short, we should not confuse the techniques we are taught or the movements we know with the development of gong.
A good Qigong teacher can show us techniques but only through practice can we develop gong.