The Six Characters on Regulating the Breath are six stages of practice for training & improving the breathing. Together they make up a deliberate, regulated methodology for advancing the training of the breath by applying the conscious use of Intent to what you developed through Natural Breathing. The Six Characters are:
數/Count, 隨/Follow, 止/Stop,
觀/Observe, 返/Return, 淨/Clean.
數/Shu – Count: Counting the breath is the first stage. It can be as simple as counting to a specific number, say 1 to 10, while breathing; or more complicated, like counting only inhalations or exhalations. Doing this has two major benefits: it gives your mind something to do, which prevents excessive interference in the action of breathing by the conscious mind; it also provides a first step into the realm of “Meditation” as conceived of by most people. By that, I mean it calms the incessant chatter of background thoughts, verbalized internal monologue, & the unconscious tendency to tense the body during activity. This last one is the key, as physical tension creates mental tension more quickly than the reverse. Relax the body & you will relax the mind.
隨/Sui – Follow: Following is the second stage. The idea is to follow the breath as it enters & leaves your lungs. With the physical relaxation developed through Counting as a foundation, you begin to deepen the connection between the Mind & the Breath. Of course, the Mind & the Breath are always connected, & this method is intended to drive that fact home for the beginner. You must avoid physical tension to the best of your ability, though particularly in the chest area. The muscles around the rib cage, the chest, & the diaphragm need to release any excess tension. If these areas cannot relax then the body will not be able to relax. And, as you may have noticed, if the body cannot relax then neither can the Mind. During the practice of this method, you should notice your breathing begin to slow down compared to its normal pace.
止/Zhi – Stop: Stopping is the third stage. Specifically, you stop consciously focusing on the breath itself & the action of breathing. Less “thinking” & more “doing” is the goal here. This is the level of passive experience: the active, intentionally directed aspect of the previous methods drops away in favor of experiencing the pure act of breathing. The goal here is to let any “mental chatter” fall away of itself, without you having to use Intent. A great image for this is watching sediment settle to the bottom of a tank of water. Your mind is the water, & mental chatter is the sediment. At this stage, using conscious Intent to any extent will stir up the sediment & cloud the water. You want clear, still water. That is, a clear & still mind.
觀/Guan – Observe: Observing is the fourth stage. This is the point where you will begin to feel the Qi inside of your body as it circulates, if you haven’t already. By connecting your conscious mind to the act of breathing you began a process of refining the sensitivity of the Mind. This sensitivity is crucial to the further development of both Meditation Methods & Qigong Methods. There are several ways to develop a still, quiet Mind for Meditation, & several ways to develop the ability to sense or perceive Qi. The major benefit of systematic Breath Training is that both are developed simultaneously, compounding the health benefits of improved respiration, blood circulation, & relaxation. In this stage of practice, you observe the connections between the Mind & the Qi, the Mind & the Breathing, the Breathing & the Qi, & the mechanism by which Qi is generated.
返/Fan – Return: Returning is the fifth stage. You are returning to the point before you began deliberately training & refining the process of breathing. This does not mean you undo any of the changes to your breathing or your mind that have come about through training. The goal here is to sublimate the improvements made, so that this refined style of breathing, & the improvements to the Mind brought about by it, become your automatic, unconscious default. It is not as easy as it sounds, because continued practice, according to the rules & methods, is the only way to achieve this. The improvements will decay without continued regular practice.
淨/Jing – Clean: Cleaning is the sixth stage. “Cleaning” refers to cleaning up the Mind itself. At this point, you’ve begun the transition from Training the Breath to Training the Mind. The continued regular practice of breathing has begun to bleed into the Mind, causing the improved physical relaxation to bring about an improvement & propagation of Mental relaxation. As the Mind relaxes & becomes more sensitive, you will notice some things about the emotions & their origins. Emotions are, of course, a natural part of Human consciousness. But they do not spontaneously arise from the depths, only. Food, weather, social & physical experiences can all give rise to various emotions. The focus of this stage of Breath Training is recognize which of your emotional states are born of which aspect of your waking life. Do certain foods always lead to certain emotions, or is a combination of foods, experiences, & amount of sleep behind it? This is the highest stage of Breath focused training, yet it is also among the beginning stages of Mind focused Meditation Methods.