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  • The I Ching: Kan and Li and the Art of Making Elixirs

    What in the world are Kan and Li, and how does that impact elixirs? Kan an Li are two of the eight IWhat is Kan and Li? Ching trigrams. And that is the start of the story. 

    This blog is an advanced topic of Taoism and Chinese Medicine. In this blog, I will point you to my other episodes and blogs, which can give you some foundational information if you are new to Taoism and the theory of Classical Chinese Medicine. They will aid in your mindfulness, Taoism, spirituality, or Classical Chinese Medicine practice.

    Eight Trigrams of the I Ching

    I had started thinking about Kan and Li because one of the books I was reading on compounding herbal formulas talked about Kan and Li. Now, Kan and Li are two of the eight trigrams used in the I Ching. Kan and Li represent water (Kan) and fire (Li).

    Guess which one is the male and which one is the female!

    Kan – water is the middle son, Li – fire is the middle daughter. Did you see that coming? I didn’t. I had thought water was yin and would be female. Fire was yang and would be male. And, yet, I was wrong.

    That is the mystery of ancient thought. It doesn’t follow my definition of linear thinking.

    Have you ever thought about algebra? I started school and learned 1+3 = 4. Seven years later, I discovered these two numbers could equal seven. Just looking at this problem, it didn’t make sense to me. The same two numbers were equal to four or seven. But, then I learned about quadratic equations and found that the equation 1+3(2) could resolve to seven.

    With more school, I learned more information to solve the problem and continue on my path of linear thinking.

    That is the same with Kan being male and Li being female. To get more information on the trigrams, check out my episode, “Discover the 8 Extraordinary Vessels & The History of Ming Men.” It doesn’t exactly explain why Kan is male, and Li is female, but it starts to lay the foundation.

    Fire and Water are Different from Heaven and Earth

    With my formal training in Traditional Chinese Medicine, I thought Fire and Water described heaven and earth. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are times when fire and water help define Heaven and Earth.  But, there are two other I Ching trigrams; Qian, which represents heaven, and Kun, which means earth. 

    In the herbal compounding book I was reading, they wrote Qian (heaven) and Kun (earth) balance each other. If you read through my blogs or watched my Youtube channel, you know Chinese Medicine likes three. One of the big trilogies is Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. The episode, “How to Find Presence in Challenging Times,” talks about the importance of the Heaven, Earth, Humanity trilogy. Qian (heaven) and Kun (earth) balancing each other was exactly what that episode discussed. 

    It surprised me when Kan (water) and Li (fire) were defined differently than Qian and Kun. They wrote: Kan (water) and Li (fire) become each other. Kan and Li didn’t balance each other. They intermingled and became each other.

    By using different definitions to define Qian (heaven) and Kun (earth) versus Kan (water) and Li (fire), the ancient authors meant to say these are two different things. Like two different algebra problems solve two different problems. Qian and Kun solved the problem of pre-birth yin and yang. Kan and Li solved the problem of post-birth yin and yang.

    River Diagrams, Old Books, and Taiji

    How did I know the book meant Kan (water) and Li (fire) meant after birth because fire and water can represent heaven and earth? Because the definitions of Kan and Li versus Qian and Kun were different. 

    Taiji and I Ching I went back to some of the foundations of Taoism to understand how Qian (heaven) and Kun (earth) balance each other while Kan (water) and Li (fire) become each other. Examining other diagrams and writings helped clarify the deeper meaning of Kan and Li becoming each other.

    There are two river diagrams from 5,000 years ago. One is the pre heaven sequence. The other is the post heaven sequence. The post heaven sequence, Lo Shu River Diagram, represents the person after they are born. In this diagram, Kan (water) and Li (fire) take the north and south positions of the diagram. The pre-heaven sequence represents before birth where Qian (heaven) and Kun (earth) take the north and south positions.

    This was the first solid evidence that Kan and Li were meant to represent life after birth. But what part of life after birth?

    These two I Ching trigrams, Kan and Li, represent two of the eight extraordinary vessels in the post heaven sequence: The Governing Vessel (Du Mai) and the Conception Vessel (Ren Mai). Unsure what the eight extraordinary vessels are? Check out, “Discover the 8 Extraordinary Vessels & The History of Ming Men.”

    The Governing Vessel goes up the back of the torso. The Conception Vessel goes down the front of the torso. When you inhale, the breath goes down the front. When you exhale, the same breath goes up the back.

    Every breath you take follows along the route of Li, inhale down the front and Kan, exhale up the back.

    In Taoism, they say when the inhale and exhale are constant, one changing into the other, it has the opportunity to merge with your pre-birth breath (Qian & Kun). This merging causes the fire in the Cinnabar Field (Dantian) to ignite. You get warm. You feel a flush of heat go through you.

    A constant inhale and exhale of breath has the Kan and Li traveling evenly and without turmoil. To get to that point is the practice of internal alchemy and can be accomplished in different ways. 

    One way is through meditation. My blog, “What is the Value of Nothing,” talks about meditating.

    Another way you can assist yourself is through herbal elixirs. In this video, David talks about his experience with herbal elixirs.

    The Art of Making Elixirs

    I started this blog wondering about Kan and Li and the art of making elixirs. First, herbal elixirs are theInternal Alchemy medicinals made in Chinese Medicine. The difference between elixirs and most of the herbal formulas today, elixirs are about changing your spiritual and emotional self. The formulas used in Traditional Chinese medicine are about changing the physical body.

    In the after Heaven trigram sequence (post-birth), Kan (Water) and Li (Fire) are in the North and South position. Because they have taken up the north and south positions, Kan and Li represent the energetics of being human. They are the opposite push and pull that creates movement, the foundation of life.

    I have an episode, “The Power of Yin & Yang – The Creation of Life” which talks about yin, yang, qi, and the importance of movement. Life is about movement. In the post heaven sequence or after birth, Kan (water) and Li (fire) represents the constant merging and melding of life. That is the definition of the taiji symbol. The taiji symbol represents the opposites of yin and yang pushing and pulling with each other to create life. As long as you are alive, Kan and Li will constantly move and change into each other.  

    When you’re talking about keeping everything moving, next week’s Youtube episode called “The Seven Emotions” talks about the impact emotions have on the flow of energy in the body. And you would take elixirs to correct the flow of energy in the body so that Kan and Li can flow continuously.

    So, when I was wondering what Kan and Li have to do with the art of making elixirs, the “Commentary on the mirror for compounding the medicine,” or, in Chinese, Ruyao jing zhujie talks to these two trigrams.

    Kan and Li are the guiding principles to identify when qi is disorganized. These two trigrams represent the deepest layer of the physical body, the Governing, and Conception vessel. When practicing internal alchemy, you strive to keep them balanced so you can find your way to the Tao.

    The goal of elixirs for Kan and Li are to enable the two to flow smoothly and effortlessly in and out of each other so you can merge the post-birth breath with the pre-birth breath and start to find your way back to the dao. 


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About Kim Blaufuss

When I started my career, I had a very narrow idea of what was involved in Chinese Medicine. Later, I discovered that I had the wrong concept of health. My understanding of health was based on my Western background. In Classical Chinese Medical thought, health is something totally different.

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