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.


baroness radon said...

References to the microcosmic orbit--the circulation of qi-- go pretty far back in the Quanzhen School, and Mantak Chia has exploited them pretty profitably. Personally I find him annoying, but historically, there's something there. It's all in "The Secret of the Golden Flower" and Sun Bu-er, hardly New Age, although I can see the appeal.

On the inevitable other hand, my teacher of these practices said, "It's all metaphor." And speaking of which, time to begin my annual viewing of "Polar Express."

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

This isn't my best post, but what I'm trying to get at is that I think that "qi" is both a metaphor and a reality. The language that we use gets in the way, as does our sort of "ur-philosophy" about how the body/mind connection works.

We aren't just brains, we are also bodies. And those bodies think too. So I suppose what I'm saying is that our experience of "qi" is our experience of complex hormonal feedback mechanisms. Like the reactions between little Bart's hormones when he has his heart ripped out by his friend.

Feeling qi is learning the Dao of the heart/mind.

baroness radon said...

I think we're on the same page.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Sometimes I think it's helpful to talk about this in terms of "thinking-mind" and "body-mind", which are both "mind" or "psyche". Our body-mind seems to be where habitual reactions are stored. When we respond to feelings in a certain way, we are then more likely to respond that way again. Learning to feel the energy of feeling without reacting results in the kinds of bodily responses you're talking about. It's as if the body responds in a certain way as we release old patterns in favor of openness to experience. It certain has an energetic feeling to it, which is why I think the "qi" idea came about in the first place.

Though, I think it's important to note that science is the mythology of our time. It's our way of using language to explain experience. Over time this language becomes more and more refined, but it is likely to change again. Good to hold it all lightly, I suppose.

Kingfillins said...

If you read what Daniel Reid has to say about Chi you would realise that the idea of Chi is actually grounded in provable science. When we consider that the air we breath can be positively or negatively charged we must consider the effects that this air quality will have when and how we breath it. Showing videos of frauds proves nothing other than there are frauds out there. Stretching the body combined with breathing negatively charged air alone will have profound health benefits. This is called Chi Gong, or Tai Chi and is a well documented fact.

Whats more we have this study...

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I did some research on Daniel Reid and what I saw didn't inspire a lot of confidence. I also did some research on "charged air", and it appears to me that there is a lot of misinformation floating around about the nature of ions in the air----fostered by people who have a financial interest in selling stuff.

I simply do not believe that there are any scientific studies that support the "New Age" understanding of qi. I've come to this conclusion by reading critiques of various so-called "scientific" studies. After a point, I simply don't want to waste my time investigating one more flake.

More to the point, I've studied meditation, internal alchemy and Daoism very intensively for 30 years. It is my belief---as a result of this study---that it is perfectly possible to be a sincere Daoist and avoid believing in all sorts of New Age nonsense.

This isn't to say that there are no Chinese Daoists who are firmly attached to this nonsense. I just mean that it is incidental to the tradition, not essential.

I wish you well on your journey.

Jarad said...

Hello, I am curious to here what your take is on this?

"In a monastery in northern India, thinly clad Tibetan monks sat quietly in a room where the temperature was a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a yoga technique known as g Tum-mo, they entered a state of deep meditation. Other monks soaked 3-by-6-foot sheets in cold water (49 degrees) and placed them over the meditators' shoulders. For untrained people, such frigid wrappings would produce uncontrolled shivering."

All the best and...
Happy New Year!!

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Good to hear from you. Sorry to take so long to respond, but I've been busy lately----.

With regard to the Tibetan lamas who can heat up their bodies.

First, I believe absolutely nothing that I read in the popular media about scientific issues. Journalists are not in the business of education, but rather entertainment. They have no interest at all in trying to figure out whether or not an entertaining story is actually true or not.

Secondly, if the monks are indeed able to dry off clothes on their bodies all this proves is that they have some sort of control over their bodies that most people do not. This doesn't mean that we need to accept their interpretation of what this implies about how the universe functions.

To illustrate this point, consider the example of fire walking. For centuries people thought that fire walking indicated some sort of amazing control over the body. It turns out that what it really involves is the difference between how hot something is versus how conductive it is. Anyone who understand the physics can easily fire walk.

Another thing to consider. People who believe in the existence of God tend to invoke him when something is not understood. This is called in Philosophy the "God of the gaps" (i.e. the "gaps" in our knowledge.) For example, before evolution was understood, people said that the only explanation for the complexity of the body was through some sort of divine "watch maker". Just because we don't understand what these monks may be doing doesn't mean that we have found evidence of "qi".

Finally, the person doing the research says that the meditation of these monks holds promise of helping many people who suffer from stress. Think about how much effort these monks have put into learning their specific practice. What are the chances that this could be widely taught to the general public?

Doctors could help innummerable people if they could get them to stop smoking, eat sensibly and exercise. Yet this level of self-discipline is beyond the vast majority of people. Any system of meditation like these monks follow would be far harder to follow.

Doesn't that make the practice fundamentally worthless as something to help people?

This stuff just leaves me cold. My taijiquan teacher once said that it is important to understand what is important and what is just "circus tricks". What these monks are doing, IMHO, is at best a circus trick. At worst, it is some form of chicanery aimed at sucking in the gullible.

Jarad said...

Hi again,

I am surprised at your response re the Tibetan Monks.
You make some good points but are drawing some bows there.

My Uncle was given an early life expectancy. He decided to live using meditation etc to override the health condition he had and was called a living miracle. He had 3 children built his own house and sailed a little boat around the world.
He also took laughter clinics in cancer wards, taught meditation and counseled clients and helped people in their own healing.
Once he had the use of a hospitals biofeed back machines.
He could get more oxygen into his body using meditation than he could get via the oxygen machine. He kept detailed records of this and showed the head doctor. This Doctor was not interested. Like you he
thought that simple meditative practices too difficult?
Yet these practices could save the health system millions because people take their health into their own hands and use calmness and breath to build it rather than expecting "science" and doctors to fix things all the time.
Open to the wonders of the impossible!!! It happens all the time!!!

All the best

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


A couple points.

First, not to cast any sort of doubt on your Uncle, but medical science is not a cut-and-dried thing. Sometimes people get diagnosed with diseases that they just don't have. I read a semi-autobiographical book by a Chinese writer who'd been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. Later he found out that the doctor had misread his x-ray and he only had a mild case of something like pneumonia. (He only found out after he had radically changed his life expecting to die soon.)

Even if you Uncle did have a "terminal illness", there are always "out-liers" who are capable of doing things that ordinary members of the public cannot. Doctors really don't know enough about the body to make completely accurate prognoses----but they have to anyway. The result is a certain number of "miracles".

None of this weakens my key point, however. Even if it is possible for people to theoretically cure themselves through meditation, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority lack the will power to do this.

In the same way, rates of lung cancer would be much, much less if people stopped smoking. But they still do, no matter how much doctors warn people about this.

There was a story that my first meditation teacher taught me. A student was bragging to another that his master could write on a sheet of paper that someone held up on another side of a wide river. The second one said that that was nothing---his master was able to eat only when he was hungry!

To my way of thinking, the job of spiritual practice is learn how to have self-discipline, not to learn how to do magic tricks. So I side with the second student's teacher not the first one's. (But the students shouldn't have been bragging anyway---.)

It might well be that there are people who can heal themselves with Qi. But the overwhelming majority of people I've met who teach this stuff seem to be simply either self-deluded or else they are trying to delude others for some sort of ulterior motive.

My teacher was thought to be an amazing guy with all sorts of incredible knowledge about Qi. But he was sick a lot and died of chicken pox in his early sixties. What does that say? That he didn't know what he was talking about? That he gave up all his Qi and sacrificed himself for the institution that he built? That he lived far longer than he would have if he hadn't devoted his life to studying Qi?

You pays your money, you makes your choices-----.

Anonymous said...

For the first time in many years of looking at stuff and trying to separate the charlatans from the guys talking sensible stuff, I seem to have found somebody that makes sense to me at this moment. Thank you.