Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Beginings of a Theory of Qi

I've never been very comfortable with the idea of "qi", nor with the "qi-gong". Primarily, this is because the concept is associated with a lot of vague, "New Age speak". For example, take a look at this definition that I just found at this site just by doing a Google search.

Central to Taoist world-view and practice is qi (chi). Qi is life-force -- that which animates the forms of the world. It is the vibratory nature of phenomena -- the flow and tremoring that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. In Japan it is called “ki,” and in India, “prana” or “shakti.” The ancient Egyptians referred to it as “ka,” and the ancient Greeks as “pneuma.” For Native Americans it is the “Great Spirit” and for Christians, the “Holy Spirit.” In Africa it’s known as “ashe” and in Hawaii as “ha” or “mana.”
I hope I don't hurt many reader's feelings, but this definition is so bad that, to quote Wolfgang Pali, "it isn't even wrong".

The reason why it is so bad is that if you look at the words this definition uses, they don't really mean much of anything.  For example, what exactly is "life force"?  "Force" is a term from physics that can be defined as "mass times acceleration".  In this context, I can't really figure out what it could mean.  As I see it, the fundamental problem in this definition is that it is attempting to see life as a concrete entity in itself (i.e. a "life force" that "animates" matter.)  Modern thinking is that life is not a substance but rather an activity.  It is what is known as a "homeostatic process", or, a complex process or series of processes with feedback loops that preserve the process over a given period of time.  A simple example of a homestasis is the flame on a candle---the heat of the flame melts wax, which allows the liquid to flow up the wick, where it vaporizes and catches fire, which in turn heats more wax to feed the flame.  

In other words, what we call "life" isn't a "thing" so much as an "activity" that comes about through a very complex series of processes.  Talking about it as a "thing" called "qi" is what philosophers call a "category mistake", or the mistake of describing something as being something that it simply is not and then attributing to qualities from that category that it doesn't manifest.  The philosopher Gilbert Ryle gives the following example of a category mistake:  "The Prime Minister is in London, and the Foreign Secretary is in Paris, and the Home Secretary is in Bristol, but where is the Government?"  The mistake lies in thinking that the "government" is something alongside its individual members.

So the way people talk about "qi" puts me off, because the language of almost everyone I hear talking about it is so flawed that it suggests to me that they haven't thought too much about it and clearly don't know what they are talking about. 

Even worse, people who talk about "qi" often talk about the "evidence" that they have for its existence from the demonstrations of "Qi Masters". When I see these demonstrations, what I see looks like nothing much more than simple stage magic. Lest people call me a "narrow-minded skeptic", take a look at this video that explains a similar sort of thing from the Indian Yogic tradition (think "prana", not "qi".)  I'm posting on a Daoist blog because it is that rare thing from television---short, and to the point.

I also managed to find a clip from a similar sort of program in China---with a translation---that exposes a similar sort of "qi fraud".  Unfortunately, Chinese television seems to suffer from the same "issues" as North American---a need to create false tension and pad a simple story in order to sell soap.  As a result, this clip drags on considerably, but it is worth seeing if you have the time.

So if I'm so critical of how people talk about "qi" and the way charlatans milk people's credibility, do I just dismiss "qi" out of hand? No, because I think that there is a real phenomena going on here. I have experienced the flow of "qi" and I think that it is a really important part of human health.

Most people have experienced "qi" when they do taijiquan.  In my case, I've felt my hands warm up, strange pulsing in the roots of my teeth and the crown of my head, etc.  Please note, however, that feeling something is not the same thing as knowing what it is or even being able to define it.  

If you pursue Daoist meditation, you will also eventually come across what's called the "microcosmic orbit".   I believe that this was once an esoteric teaching, but a fellow by the name of Mantak Chia has been selling books and giving workshops on it for quite a while.  (I've heard anecdotes to the effect that Western "seekers" have gone to Daoist temples and Masters offered them "hidden, esoteric knowledge" that turned out to simply be what the Westerner learned at a quickie workshop in his home town.) 

Briefly stated, the "microcosmic orbit" consists of sitting comfortably, concentrating on your breaths, doing Daoist "reverse breathing", and guiding your qi up your spine to the top of the head and down the front of the body to the Dantian. 

There are a lot of claims about this process, but one that seems to work for me comes from the realm of psycho-therapy.  It seems to work with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  My therapist, who is a Yoga instructor as well as holding a Master's degree in some school of therapy, says that the feelings we have in our body are directly related to our psychological well-being.

This makes perfect sense to me, as the reason why I decided to go to therapy in the first place was because of the wild physical feelings I was having as a result of the PTSD.  The worst of these were the flash backs, which involved heart palpatations plus being drenched with sweat.    When we are in therapy, she has shown me the way my bodily sensations are related to my mental state.  (At one time I laughed at her because it became clear to me that she was physically manipulating me "like a puppet" by asking me to bring up specific memories, which in turn triggered emotional states, which in turn triggered specific bodily feelings.  She was able to monitor my mental state by watching my posture.  She said that what she was doing was a form of "desensitization therapy" for me, so my memories would no longer be so hard on me.)

You do not have to have a dramatic psychological problem like PTSD to be familiar with the way our mind interact with our bodies.  For example, just about everyone has experienced the dramatic physiological effects that love has on our body.  For example, several times I've had the experience of being in love with a woman only to find out that not only was she not similarly attracted to me, but that she was in love with someone else.  The comedy cartoon "The Simpsons" does an admirable job of illustrating this feeling in one of its episodes where Bart falls for an older girl.  

So what exactly is happening when we experience these sorts of feelings?  There are two possibilities that come to my mind.  

First, I've heard that modern scientific research seems to suggest that the brain and body interact in subtle and complex ways to make decisions and manage consciousness.  We have tended to think that we just think with the brain and digest food with the liver, for example.  But it may very well be that the liver releases complex hormones that have a dramatic impact on the decisions we make and what we believe.  Certainly, our gonads seem to have some impact on our sex life, which in turn is directly related to many of our conscious decisions.   

Secondly, it may be that while we are feeling something in our body what is really happening is something like "phantom limb syndrome".  That is, since every experience we have is mediated by the brain, there is no reason to believe that any bodily feeling we have could not be a "trick" that the brain is playing on us---just as it tells many people with amputated legs that the leg is still there.  

I suspect, actually, that both of these things are happening when we experience "qi".  

My therapist goes on to make a further leap, one that makes sense to me.  That is, she believes that the experience of bodily awareness that is common to all esoteric meditation traditions---including Daoism---is a process whereby we can consciously change and repair the physiology of our brains (or, perhaps our brains and that element of our bodies that we have up until now assumed was part of the brain.)    The circulation of "qi" in the body when we are doing taijiquan or the "microcosmic orbit", therefore, is a process whereby we are repairing damage to our brains.  In my case, that is the trauma from a horrific childhood.  

No wild cosmic powers.  No lightning bolts out of the hands.  But a damned important thing none-the-less!  

I was once told by a Zen priest that harsh experiences are the "entry ticket" to the contemplative life.  (I believe he got into Zen as a result of being a soldier in the Korean war.)   People forget about how brutal and harsh life can be, and often was for even the elite in ancient China.  I suspect that Neidan and other types of meditation practice based upon qi came about as a way of dealing with the problems that many Daoists had to have had.   I suspect that it can also bring about new ways of looking at the world and unlock hidden potential too.  But I haven't had much experience with that yet, so I will leave that subject to others or perhaps a future post.