Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Embrace science to set the chi free

For over a decade I struggled with chi. I wanted to believe it existed, but I knew scientifically that it could not. This dilemma vexed me, as I believe it currently vexes an extremely large number of scientifically minded (i.e. most Westerners) internal art practitioners worldwide. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, so if you believe in chi I say good luck to you, but just like religion, you can not make someone believe through rational argument.

The fact that I didn't believe in chi always made me feel guilty, I worried about it and tried to believe (honestly I did) out of respect for my teachers and my teacher's teachers. Fortunately, I feel I have resolved this dichotomy and internal conflict through my musings, and writings, which is a frankly a great weight off my mind. What makes me so happy is that what I have come up with both respects the traditional teaching and at the same time embraces science. It is a definition that I think is beautiful. But more than beautiful, beautiful in the way Richard Freynman means it (video):

What really opens the door to this way of thinking is the appreciation that consciousness, intelligence and mind are but the tip of the iceberg (just as neuroscience teaches us). The human body is made up of billions of neurons and nerves, each one of which is effectively a tiny sensor acting on the environment around us and also inside us. As we go up the consciousness hierarchy these sensors are grouped together into things we ordinarily call sensations, feelings, emotions, instincts, intuition and awareness. It is impossible to be able to process every neuron at the conscious level, we have to accept the emergent nature of ourselves and try to listen to our body, our feelings and our emotions. The philosophy of Enlightenment if you will (swapping my Westerner dictionary for my Eastern one for a moment).

That bottom-up way of thinking is complemented by the top down view. How does one command the body? Just as we cannot perceive an individual neuron, neither can we consciously command it. The body does not understand logic, language or conceptualisation. We can not talk to the body using syntax and grammar. We talk to the body using visualisation and feelings. If you imagine yourself performing an action, you will get better performing it. If you imagine yourself being happy, you will become happier. This visualisation and concentration is a core part of traditional meditation and tai chi teaching and in the latter is called yi/shen (translated as "mind intent").

So back to chi

Chi is not energy. A fact that I think should be almost indisputable. [Before anyone of a traditional background objects, please note  it is not for me to prove that it doesn't, it is for you to prove that it does. After all, if I claim that pigs can fly, the onus is not on you to prove that they don't, but on me to prove that they do. In the centuries that chi as a concept has existed, no experiment has yet been devised to prove its existence, a fact which I think speaks for itself.]

Chi is not energy, but do not despair traditional reader, I am not dismissing it out of hand like some arrogant philistine. Chi is an incredibly sophisticated visualisation framework (in the top down sense). It also does indeed feel like there is an "energy" inside you if you truly listen to your body and practice hard (bottom up sense). The crucial distinction is that there is a difference between what something feels like, and what is actually there. In scientific terms, chi is not energy, but in practical terms if you actually start paying attention to your body it feels as if it is.
This is a beautiful realisation (at least to me). What it means is that the full body of literature and teachings on controlling and directing chi is valid and useful, as it directly corresponds to how things feel. It is not wrong, and I can look my teachers in the eye again, as it is just a way of describing a feeling or emotion, like any other. At the same time, although the model is entirely valid and extremely useful, it is subjective, and so there is no need for chi to actually be energy in reality, and science breaths a sign of relief. Let me draw an analogy here - consider love:

Q: Can I devise a scientific experiment to measure “love energy” directly?
A: No.
Q: Is love a way of describing an internal subjective sensation using a common language to exchange ideas and thoughts about feelings and emotions?
A: Yes.
Q: Does love actually exist?
A: No.
Q: Do I feel like it does, so it doesn’t matter anyway?
A: Yes.
So there it is, when you deal with other people, the better the interaction is, the more love you feel. Perhaps a better word for love is the Buddhist concept of metta (i.e. loving kindness), along with it's allegory, hate. The better your interaction is with yourself, the more chi you feel, and of course it's allegory is pain. Chi is not energy - it is an emotion, a feeling, a sensation - a realisation that rather than invalidating it, emancipates it. After all emotions may not exist in a pure physical sense, but they certainly have real world effects. Love is about society and relationships. Chi is about internal physiology and well-being. Love and chi are in a sense the same thing but in different contexts. It cannot be a coincidence that they both originate in the gut.


  1. I just read your post from last september addressing the question of "does chi exist?" or something of the like.

    I commented more in depth there and I don't want to repost it but I'd be very interested to pursue a dialogue in this subject as I am a tai chi "traditionalist," student at a graduate program for Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as the child of an immunologist and a dermatologist.

    If you would check out that post (namely the bit addressing the significance of the physiological structure - if any - of acupoints) and have interest in continuing a possibly pointless but maybe worthwhile pursuit, I would be game.

    I like the way your train of thought has developed in the last few months, there more of us thinking like this everyday. Personally I believe we can take it further with some global collaborations.

    1. Interesting point. I posted a response on the other thread. Thank you for the comments and positive feedback. Would be more than happy to get involved with any kind of collaboration, if there is something practical we can do/discuss/research.

  2. I am not very experienced, AT ALL, that being said, I have read Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming's Taijiquan Theory. I've also watched some of his videos. What I gathered from those resources was this(And I wonder if you agree but with some additions/comments)

    That Qi is the energy made available through the atp conversion of food(glucose) and air, in the cells and bloodstream, as well as the nervous systems connection with the quality of this "energy".

    The effects of high or low blood pressure/sugar and what not, on a person's physiology.

    I believe that, along with a body's overall well being is the substance to the "feeling".

    I'd like to read a thread by you on this, as you are much more experience in both ends of the spectrum, than I.

    Please excuse my brutish method of trying to say what it is that I did, and this is not meant to be seen as some sort of challenge to what you said, just adding to the dialouge as well as asking questions from someone who's opinion I would like to hear(with your unique perspective). Because I too would like to bridge the gap of understanding or the loss in translation of the knowledge passed on in the east, to the "scientists" =)

    1. Don't worry Ymorse, I'm not the least bit offended! In fact on the contrary, I'm delighted and thankful for your comment :-)

      Please excuse me if I don't exactly understand your question, so I'll just try to answer what I think you're driving at.

      To me the fundamental question here is -"is there some physical quantity called chi that is missing from Western science?". I believe the answer to that quite clearly no as I discuss above. To anyone who thinks otherwise I simple say "prove it", and the conversation ends (or more usually diverts into an essentially religious debate).

      Given that it doesn't exist, what this means that we are all talking about the same physical things, and therefore the only issue is around translation. Not translation purely in the linguistic sense, but also in the conceptual and cultural sense. So let me give you an analogy to aid that translation. You say "That Qi is the energy made available through the atp conversion of food(glucose) and air, in the cells and bloodstream, as well as the nervous systems connection with the quality of this "energy"."

      So let's consider a computer instead of a human. The ATP conversion of glucose in a human is really the electricity feeding into a computer, which is used to spin hard drives and drive its electrical circuits. Just as we have to keep putting food, air and water into humans to keep them alive, so we have to keep putting electricity into computers to keep them alive. Our nervous system (and hormones etc) is now like the computer software that we run. We use our nerves and hormones to accomplish tasks, to move objects, to communicate, based on the feelings and emotions from our senses. Our computer software allows us to do the same things - to accomplish tasks, to move objects, to communicate, based on its sensors and the information it receives.

      Now, clearly there is a relationship between the software we run and the electricity it uses, if I'm playing the latest computer game, my computer gets superhot and burns through a lot of electricity with all the numbercrunching. Moreover, from a computer science perspective, when you actually get down to it and start to analyse the system in detail, it is quite hard to articulate the difference between electrical interactions, hardware and software and so on - just like the supposed separation between mind and body.

      So what does chi mean? Well, it's just a concept, a phrase, a meme. I could spend hours discussing my computer in terms of chi if I wanted. "It's running a bit slowly, at the moment because it's been up all night working hard and its chi is low", "this computer has really blocked chi, because it's built up a lot of rubbish and neglect over the years, no wonder it keeps throwing errors", "look at this newly bought computer, look how innocent and pure its chi is, everything is so smooth and effortless"....

      Chi is just a way of thinking, a way of communicating concepts. It doesn't matter what language you use, the underlying nature of reality is the same. But of course some languages are more suited to exploring particular aspects of reality than others. Western tai chi practitioners seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to understand, "what chi is" which is ultimately futile because it doesn't exist. I don't spend time wrestling with "what French is" or "what formal legal drafting is", they are just languages to be learnt.

      That's what I was trying to convey above in my post. If you keep searching for this mystical thing called chi, you will always be stuck. Accept that it doesn't exist and just focus on learning the language. After all the language of romance and love accomplishes staggering feats, despite the fact that love as a physical quantity doesn't exist.

    2. Would you do a post on xin/yi as well as Qi in regards to Jing and Shen? What does it mean to lead the Qi to the brain and bone marrow?

  3. Sorry I had written a nice long reply to yours yesterday, but I guess I forgot to do the captcha and it didn't go through..Which is well really disappointing.

    I had agreed with you, in that Qi described as an "extra" energy source is incorrect and doesn't exist, but as a concept placed in the Qigong/Taijiquan models it does I would say, as a "way" of doing through our central nervous system.

    So if Qi is just "efficiency" what is Jing (essence),and Shen (spirit)in relation to it? Using the 3 treasures model? (as requested in previous post)


    1. Thanks Ymorse - we seem to be in agreement about the most fundamental aspect of chi - that it is not in anyway "supernatural".

      In response to your further questions, I'm afraid I will just have to say watch this space! I don't have all the answers at the moment, but just like you I am searching for them. The search for these translations and understanding is after all the whole the raison d'être of this blog :-)

  4. I like what you're saying and the way of explaining chi in a western scientific understanding. I think it's important to do so. Yet, from this viewpoint it seems like your saying chi doesn't exist because we can't prove it. You compare it to love... and yet although we can't scientifically measure or quantify love, consciousness, etc... we do know it exists, as you say in more of a feeling, sensational and subjective type of way versus being able to point at it and say "oh there it is".

    So if you can feel the chi.. like you can feel love.. then doesn't it exist even if scientists cannot quantify or measure it from an objective standpoint?

    Science is an ever evolving study of the universe. We can only prove things and improve our understanding of how the universe works by way of our current technological advancement. Maybe we do not have the technology to measure or prove that chi exists at this point.... just like we couldn't use electricity or harness the power of the atom hundreds of years ago. Yet that potential power and energy was always there even if we couldn't measure it or fully understand it from our limited awareness at the time.

    1. Thanks very much for that comment, it was highly thought-provoking. Clearly it important not to throw the baby with the bathwater. What I'm quite categorically NOT saying is that “chi in any of its interpretations” does not exist. What I am saying is that people use chi to explain all number of ridiculous things the most prevalent being "chi is energy”. It is therefore important to try to build your own filters to understand and separate "the feeling of chi” (the love analogy) from the rest. Chi exist just like love exists. However I don't commonly run into people who claim that love is a form of energy, or encounter a plethora of “love masters”, that claim extraordinary abilities to manipulate the flow of love in their body. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? So it is with chi.

      For someone to claim "it" doesn't exist, you first need to define what "it" is. For me (as above) chi is only a feeling and as with all feelings it is perfectly reasonable to spend your whole life trying to explore and define it, just like poets, philosophers and artists have been doing for millennia with love. However if you think "it" is some kind of energy force that science has not yet been able to explain, I'm perfectly happy stating that that “it” does not exist. True like all good scientists one can never be 100% sure as future discoveries are always possible and you cannot prove a negative. But it seems to me that the chi-as-energy theory would require a violation of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) which is just about the most fundamental law in science (as I have written about in other posts). In other words, overturning something which is such a core bedrock would be the most astonishing and revolutionary discovery, most likely in the entire history of science. Ever. So, one has to draw a line at some point, I mean how many 9's do you need to add to 99.999999%, before one accepts it is 100% in all practical senses?

      As the great Carl Sagan said "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". For chi-as-energy there is no evidence and "I felt a little funny this one time my sifu pushed me" doesn't cut it. Anyone who thinks to the contrary needs to take a reality check, because their name will echo through eternity for all time, above Newton, above Einstein, above anyone you care to mention, if it turns out they are in fact correct.