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  • Karl Thunemann

Astride the Microcosmic Orbit, Running Wild

In the brief time I practiced the microcosmic orbit—or really, was the orbit practicing me? –I experienced a rebellion in outer space and a tickertape parade on lower Broadway in Manhattan. Though in truth these events occurred in a dream, their space suits possessed the hard edge of reality.

The year must have been 1984. As a treat to his students, my first tai chi teacher invited one of his own teachers—a Chinese man who lived in New York—to come teach us a classical Taoist meditation. The microcosmic orbit—also introduced to us as “the little circle of heaven” --would possess me for several months. I think that’s how long I lasted, though I cannot be certain. * I was a beginning tai chi student, or perhaps I might generously have been described as intermediate. The other students, all much younger, were a mélange of counter-culture types from Seattle, while I lived and worked in a suburb.

(Later) I sat in the early morning on the verge of transferring that ephemeral energy from my palate to my tongue, when I was struck by the thought that this whole practice might just be so much BS—and a huge bolt of energy, strong as lightning, shot up from the Earth …

How does one teach the microcosmic orbit? I have only the vaguest recollection. Whereas tai chi was taught as a movement-specific, physical practice, one pursued the orbit while seated. It depended on an internal constellation of points I had never heard of. One “moved” energy from below the belly, down and around to the back, and up the spine, pausing at various chakras along the way. Up the spine it goes until it reaches the top of the skull. Then it must pause at the “third eye” –really, am I sure of that? –and drops to the hard palate, where it is transferred to the tongue and slips on down to the starting point. In any case, we spent a few hours with our new teacher, and he sent us off to practice on our own. Did we have a follow-up session the next day? I think so, but my memory is not at all clear. He would return in three weeks to see how we were doing.  Somehow, this meditation gripped me. I attempted the practice every day, usually in the wee hours—not by design, but because that is when I awoke in response to the call to practice. I felt as if I were addicted to this routine, even though I could see no manifestation of its benefits, When the guest teacher returned, I did mention my early morning proclivity, and he said early mornings, between 3 and 5, did work best. And so I continued. I didn’t even need an alarm. Did I report my lack of results? I think not, for I have such a capacity to be passive! Nowadays I would bring up such stuff forthrightly.  

Not many days after this second session, I sat in the early morning on the verge of transferring that ephemeral energy from my palate to my tongue, when I was struck by the thought that this whole practice might just be so much BS—and a huge bolt of energy, strong as lightning, shot up from the Earth, suffusing both legs and my entire body. It seemed to come directly from Earth, even though I was ensconced on the second floor of our townhouse. After that, the microcosmic orbit owned me. I summoned it almost every night and practiced diligently. In one respect I felt as close to enlightenment as I had ever been. Still I apologize for characterizing it in this way, as it sounds so pat. But I have lost track of the specifics of it, which has never happened, say, regarding my initiation into Transcendental Meditation or my early travels with Ganesha.

Microcosmic Orbit image via Pinterest

So things went well—for a few weeks, maybe a month or two—until I began to feel achingly tired all the time. I seldom went back to sleep after traveling the orbit. I had two teenage children and a demanding fulltime job. For some reason I never thought of discussing this problem with my tai chi teacher, and I had no cohort of fellow learners to share the burden. All my lessons with my teacher were solo, so I never saw the students who learned this meditation when I did. And no doubt I was too aloof to learn from them. Then one night I had this vivid dream: Seven astronauts are in training for the first-ever human interplanetary expedition. As their preparation and conditioning nears completion, they move from Earth to the moon base, from which their adventure will begin. But discord arises within a few days. One morning four of the astronauts slip away and steal an Earth landing craft. They return to Earth, where they are greeted as heroes and feted with a tickertape parade and other acts of adulation. Seldom do I have dreams whose meaning is manifestly apparent. This was one. It presented an obvious solution. Practicing ever night had grown untenable. The four escaping astronauts clearly suggested that I should try practicing this meditation just three times a week. It seemed wise at the time, but somehow it was not a durable solution. Gradually the practice slipped away, and I was ready for a new adventure (though I haven’t a prayer of remembering what came next). Still, I was not quite finished with the microcosmic orbit. Years later my friend Adrienne, acting as my Feldenkrais teacher, referred me to a licensed massage therapist who specialized in treating people whose limbs were misshapen, though (God forbid!) that is not how he described his services.  We got on famously, and eventually I told him of my adventure with the microcosmic orbit. This therapist was certain that he could identify my guest teacher. Soon enough, I discovered the teacher had written a book about the orbit. Plus he had written other books about two closely related practices. They could all be practiced together: A triptych. I bought and read the first book, and mused about traveling this path again, perhaps this time separated from my teacher by a huge continent. I decided to treat my adventure as complete. I have no regrets. May I always be aware that the world is bursting with meditations as powerful as the microcosmic orbit. Perhaps my limitations prevent me from exploring them, but may others learn these practices and perpetuate their wisdom.  _________________________________________ * Thirty-six years later, wandering through the internet, I find this meditation introduced as the “self winding rule of the law.” I am glad I didn’t learn to use this term back then, for it lacks the sense of intimacy and intergalactic splendor carried by the two titles I did learn.

† Looking further on the internet, I discover a couple of other teachers offering to transmit the microcosmic orbit. They might be capable; I have not looked into them further. 


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