The ancient Secret of the Golden Flower is a simple way to improve your whole life

The weather is just fine.
The weather is just fine.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Some of the world’s best secrets are hidden in plain view for centuries. So it is with a simple Chinese method for clarifying the mind and finding freedom, called The Secret of the Golden Flower.

This ancient Taoist text on inner alchemy teaches a single magic trick—getting in tune with the universe.

Lü Dongbin, a sage is said to have first shared this knowledge in the 9th century, according to Chinese lore. It was not his secret, however. The text is now thought to be a compilation of wisdom, transcribed around 1100, and published in the late 17th century.

In 1991, Thomas Cleary provided the first English version of The Secret of the Golden Flower, derived directly from Chinese. He explains that the guide was originally designed for laypeople, not monks or nuns. It’s a cheatsheet, a hyper-efficient primer on becoming hangup-free, describing one simple practice that can be refined over time.

“It is a process of getting right to the root source of awareness itself,” Cleary writes. “The aim of this exercise is to free the mind from arbitrary fixation on its own contents. With this liberation, Taoists say, the conscious individual becomes a partner of creation rather than a prisoner of creation.”

According to The Secret, “The conscious mind is like a violent general of a strong fiefdom controlling things from a distance, until the sword is turned around.” The book teaches how to become a peaceful general. This is done with insight—the blossoming of the golden flower—which can only occur when awareness is cultivated.

The secret is this: Turn the light around.  

In other words, become aware. Cultivating awareness—turning the light around—begins the blossoming of the golden flower in the sky. In this case, the sky is the mind, and the flower is the light of insight. Once lit, awareness extends—the flower blooms—and the mind opens wide like the sky. We see thoughts as clouds—fleeting, formless, and moods become recognizable as passing internal weather. In understanding this, we become flexible and free.

The guide states: “The light is neither inside nor outside the self. Mountains, rivers, sun, moon, and the whole earth are all this light… All the operations of intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom are also this light. The light of heaven and earth fills the universe; the light of one individual also naturally extends through the heavens and covers the earth. Therefore once you turn the light around, everything in the world is turned around.”

Turning the light around is just observing internal weather, being a mood meteorologist. When you feel irritation, frustration, anger, or after you’ve already raged, look at the sky, your mind, and realize it’s just a passing storm. You’ve turned the light around. Already you’re less trapped by emotion and more apt to respond appropriately.

The same goes for good feelings. The open sky of awareness is even and unattached, not overly moved by good or bad. Turning the light around when excited is just practice. It doesn’t mean feeling bad, but rather understanding that good moods too shall pass. Cleary says this practice “opens up an endless source of intuition, creativity, and inspiration.”

It requires no philosophical or religious position, no paraphernalia or ritual, and is just part of daily life. “It is near at hand, being in the mind itself, yet it involves no imagery or thought. It is remote only in the sense that it is a use of attention generally unfamiliar to the mind habituated to imagination and thinking,” he writes.

Turning the light around is all that’s required. Still, the guide does recommend that to implement this—to plant the seed of the golden flower and tend to its blossoming—it’s best to sit alone and observe our thinking for an unspecified amount of time, preferably early in the morning, to become familiar with our inner workings. That way, as thoughts arise when we’re busy later, we remember the secret.

Do this for 100 days, and the golden flower of illumination is attainable, the book promises. Those who bloom ”wind up at the point where heaven is open, earth is broad, and all things are just as they are.”