Greetings Wandering Brit,
If you will excuse the pun I am about to make, this topic is very dear to my heart. I think perhaps the very notion of a “seat of consciousness” comes from a habitual and metaphorical way of understanding what consciousness means, and the metaphor may be inherently flawed. The most conspicuous enunciation of the metaphor probably comes by way of Rene Descartes, whose dualism assumed that things mental and physical are fundamentally distinct. By this model, “the self,” the locus of consciousness, resides inside a theater-like mind, receiving and processing images appearing on the stage of consciousness. The makes the self into a sort of “mini me” inside of a cranium, on top of a body that somehow is “not me.”
While it may be accurate to say that “most people” locate the self in their heads, there may be reason enough to challenge that assumption. It could well be the case that locating consciousness in this way (in the head) is historically recent, and culturally anomolous. The traditional Chinese associated thinking and feeling with the xin (mind/heart), and while the location of the heart is readily apparent, it was not the location that seemed to matter to early Chinese thinkers, but rather what the heart did, and how it operated as a system of influences. In general, traditional Chinese medicine thought of the heart and other major organs not so much in terms of their locations and morphologies, but as spheres of influence.
I learned the practice of sinking qi to the dantian as fundamentally a physiological operation, and I understand the mental aspect of the operation as physiological as well, since the brain and nervous systems are in fact part and parcel of the body. I described my understanding of the operation a while back somewhere in this thread:http://www.yangfamilytaichi.com/ubb/Forum7/HTML/000036.html
I agree with many of the responses here to your questions. David’s remark that the mind is “throughout the body” is very much in accord with my understanding of traditional Chinese medical and philosophical ideas. One of the metaphorical models in early Chinese texts is one of fluidity—that the mind suffuses the body rather like a fluid. The concept of qi is often used in these contexts, with qi being a sort of fluid conduit of consciousness. I hasten to say this does not mean that qi is a fluid, but that qi is a concept used to described a behaviour that is fluid-like. The fluid metaphor carries over into expressions such as one used for “concentration”—ningshen. Ning has connotations of “coagulate,” “condense,” or “congeal.” Zhuangzi used this term, and Yang Chengfu also used it in his descriptive narrative on the closing posture of the taijiquan form in a four-character phrase, “ningshen jinglu,” which means “concentrate the spirit, still the thoughts.”
I like the clarity Polaris adds in his statement that the yi (mind intent) is “the agent” that sends qi to the dantian. In fact there is a formula in taiji texts stating that where the yi goes, the qi arrives. I believe Yang Chengfu says this in his “Talk on Practice.” An important distinction to be made here is that consciousness should not be confused with thinking. So I would quible with the wording “placing your thoughts into your dantian.” In fact, in my experience, one of the values of sinking the qi to the dantian is that it helps one to de-emphasize mental preoccupations and distracting thoughts, hence Yang Chengfu’s phrase, “concentrate the spirit, still the thoughts.”
Several documents in the body of classics known as the “Yang Forty Chapters” describe a goal of “conscious movement” (zhijue yundong), that is, movement that is suffused with consciousness—mindful movement. I think the practice of sinking the qi to the dantian (sink, ‘chen2,’is another fluid-based metaphor, by the way) is a fundamental prerequisite for this goal of conscious movement in taijiquan.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 05-25-2004).]