Every experience is a form of information, an energy that is transformed down through various layers of the mind as we process and distort this information in some way (based on personal biases and dislikes). One concept of Daoist meditative practices (Nei Dan) is to try to balance out this forming of the acquired mind by working with the various facets of the consciousness.
In this manner we become more aware of the nature of the acquired mind, which enables us to contact the deeper realms of true consciousness. Advanced Daoist practices attempt to silence the acquired mind for periods of time in order to allow true consciousness to shine through us. This will then begin to transform the manner in which we perceive existence and, we hope, lead towards some kind of inner transcendence.
Advanced stages such as this require that we take ourselves away from the world for periods of time so that we can avoid as many of the things that contribute to the forming of the acquired mind as possible.
Although we will never be fully free from its formation, we can try to minimise the amount of emotionally charged distraction that otherwise pulls us from our inner journey.
Daoism was never a monastic tradition. The concept of Daoist monks and priests came much later in Daoism. The teachings of the shamanic Wu people (ancient Chinese shamans) and the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi were never designed to be interpreted within the hierarchy of a religious community. Originally known as "folk tradition", Daoism was based around the mix of periods within society and periods of self-imposed seclusion.
The idea was that Daoists "wandered like a cloud" for periods of time with no fixed abode and I (author Damo Mitchell) was taught that travelling with no fixed abode was an important part of the Daoist journey. This was the perfect balance for the Xin (Chinese concept often translated as heart-mind) to learn about the world before processing those concepts and shedding layers during seclusion.
The nature of the Xin (heart-mind) is to be studied with regard to how we allow our Xing (Chinese concept of our "nature") to form from within it. From here we can see that several key themes appear (continued below)...
First, there is a period of time with no fixed root. This lack of root enables a person to understand who they are without the distortion of learned behavioural patterns coming from fixed environmental factors. Many people believe that they have developed totally as an individual in this life without being influenced by factors beyond their control.
This is simply not the case because, to a great extent, people's views are formed by socio-economic, national and cultural location where they were born and grew up.
People around the world often strongly insist that their country's or religion's view is the correct one, when in fact, if they had been born in a different location and society, they would argue the same from that position instead.
If we stay fixed in one location for the whole of our life, this has a strong effect on our Xin (heart-mind), which exerts a strong influence on our Xing (nature).
Whilst there is nothing wrong with this - it is natural that we should need to adapt to our personal surroundings - in ancient China it was deemed more useful for a full-time Daoist practitioner to free themselves from this condition at least for a period of time while they allowed their Xing (nature) to adapt to different surroundings. Different circumstances produce very different people and an important aspect of searching for the Dao while "wandering like a cloud" was to try to "forget yourself", which meant to try to see how your true consciousness could adapt to each location and experience that you had along the journey you were undertaking.
The second important aspect of this kind of tradition is that individuals spend periods of time away from the "noise" of society so that they could process who they really were with as little as possible in the way of outside distractions. Classically, these periods were carried out up in the mountains, partly because of rising Qi which is useful for internal meditative practices, but also because up in the mountains it was quiet.
Getting away from many influences like this was a powerful way to begin dissolving the layers of acquired mind as many of these layers are only formed in the first place to enable you to communicate effectively with others. From early age humans learn to defend their own inner sensibilities by projecting themselves through the protective layers of acquired mind. When there is nobody to communicate with but yourself, many of these layers naturally begin to fall away.
If you have never tried a period of time like this and you get a chance to do so, I (author Damo Mitchell) highly recommend it. The first time I entered into self-imposed seclusion was for a period of 4 weeks. It was very difficult indeed. The strain on my mental state was far harder than I had though it would be because the acquired mind wrestled with the process of starting to break down.
Emotions surfaced and released themselves in an uncontrollable way as the seclusion started to take effect on me. This was quite different experience from going into retreat in a monastery or somewhere similar. This is not really seclusion; even if you are in complete silence, you still have tools for the acquired mind to attach itself to.
For those who are sincerely dedicated to the Daoist path, I believe that complete seclusion is far superior to going into a monastery designed for meditation retreats, provided, of course that you have already had introduction to a system of practices to follow.
A third factor in this kind of training is that a practitioner should learn to how to stabilise the results gleaned from these periods of seclusion and then learn how to carry these back with themselves into outside society. There is no point in being able to live constantly within a state of true consciousness if the second somebody cuts in front of you in a bus queue you lose it completely and the acquired mind surfaces to make you feel angry.
It is always said that the most difficult art of spiritual elevation is keeping it once you are back in the outside world. In many ways the path of "in and out of retreat" i