Qi is one of the most fundamental concepts in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncturists stimulate the qi, often crudely translated as ‘energy’, when treating their patients. But is there actually such a thing as qi? Many sceptics tend to dismiss the idea because the qi has never been identified anywhere in the human body, as is also the case with yin, yang and the meridians. In this they are, of course, absolutely right.
Qi is untraceable
You can dissect the body, study it with an MRI scanner and make as many x-rays as you like, but you will never find qi. And that is because everything that is known to us in the universe is made up of qi. From the most solid of things to the most ephemeral, from your very bones to the overwhelming emotion you experience upon the birth of your first child: all of this is qi. Looking for qi in the body is like looking for your house inside your living room only to eventually conclude that your house does not exist at all.
The qi concept entails a universal feature of ‘everything’. Based on their observations, the ancient Chinese concluded that there is another reality hidden behind the permanent forms that we are able to perceive, a reality in which everything is in a constant state of flux. In India, Buddha arrived at the same conclusion by using meditation to study the reality of his own body in a critical, systematic and extremely concentrated manner. He identified change as being the only constant in the universe and dismissed the notion of the existence of an eternal God.
In the West, it took us another 2500 years and the invention of the microscope to discover that everything we perceive as real is made up of molecules, atoms and even tinier particles that are in a constant state of motion. These particles also carry an electrical charge. Positive and negative particles attract and repel each other, which keeps them moving perpetually. What we perceive as reality is actually an electromagnetic field that is completely invisible to us. Qi can possibly be seen as an electromagnetic field with positive and negative charges – yin and yang – that cause particles to move. In this analogy, yin and yang are the poles whose opposite charges cause movement. However, translating oriental concepts into western ones is always a precarious and almost impossible business.
My wife and I
It may of course be entirely unimportant what qi is exactly and whether or not it actually exists. Maybe we should view qi simply as a useful concept that can be used to understand and influence reality. A concept or idea does not necessarily have to be ‘real’ in order for it to be useful. For example, the relationship between my wife and I is about as ‘real’ as qi is. You can dissect our bodies and examine the space between us all you like but you will never find our relationship. However, it is very useful to introduce the concept of a ‘relationship’ if you want to understand or influence our behaviour towards each other. The very word ‘relationship’ means that my wife and I react to each other’s behaviour.
The whole picture or the details?
Thinking in terms of relationships is crucial in all of Chinese philosophy. An event in one part of our body prompts a reaction in another part, which in turn causes one or more reactions elsewhere. This results in a wave of reactions throughout the body. You could interpret these waves as the flow of qi. In Chinese medicine, you never concentrate solely on only one organ or other part of the body. You always look at how any malfunction affects the system in its entirety. All the various systems in our bodies, such as our nervous system, our hormonal system, our muscles and our blood circulation, are so intrinsically tied to each other that you could quite easily argue that the isolation of these systems so prevalent in western medical thinking does not actually exist at all in the reality of any responsive, living organism. Whereas western thinking attempts to understand the whole by looking at the details, Chinese thinking always strives to understand the details from the perspective of the whole. Illness and cure cannot therefore be viewed separately from the ‘whole’ person. Qi transcends both body and mind.
Let’s take a closer look at one of those waves. You experience something unpleasant, which causes you to feel down. You are dejected and you retreat into yourself. You might even be depressed. Also, the words we use to describe such a feeling were not chosen by accident. Similarly, the Chinese would say that the feeling described above is a result of insufficient rise and expansion of qi. However, the effect of a drop in qi is not just limited to a person’s mental well-being. The ‘patient’ also often appears pale, complains of feeling shivery, is exhausted, hunches over when sitting, has a deep and weak pulse and has lost the sparkle in their eyes. Whenever I treat such a person, I identify and use points that I know will have a specific effect on the flow of qi. During the treatment I am always on the lookout for any subtle changes that might indicate that the qi is reacting in the way that I hope it will. For example, I like to see some colour return to the person’s face and to feel their pulse become faster and stronger. In this way I can check whether or not what I am doing is correct in terms of diagnosis, location and dosage. Working with qi certainly sharpens the senses.
Same eyes, new specs
When you start to view reality using the qi concept, it is like putting on a new pair of glasses. So many things appear clearer and sharper. It may take some time, however, to adjust your focus because your new qi glasses are fundamentally different from the Western ones you have been peering through since the day you were born. When I put on my qi glasses during my very first day as an acupuncture student, I immediately found myself seeing double. Fortunately, it was quickly pointed out to me that this was completely normal, because in the Chinese way of thinking it is always a matter of ‘this and that’, as opposed to the western approach of ‘this or that’. So, in Chinese medicine, it is always about healing and meaning, body and mind; using your qi glasses, you look both within and without and you can see that something can be two different things at the same time; that something can exist and not exist simultaneously. When I first heard this I was completely bamboozled, but also very intrigued.
Voyage of discovery
It soon transpired that my new glasses marked for me the beginning of a fascinating voyage of discovery, one that will probably last for the rest of my life. My understanding of qi is constantly being broadened and refined by everything I experience on a day-to-day basis. My qi glasses provide me with a clear picture of exactly what is troubling my patients and helps me to do what is required to restore the balance needed to tackle their ailments and rediscover their inner strength. Learning about qi has also made me aware of the influence that I can exert on others and of the subtle reactions that occur within me. And this has helped me to choose my words carefully when I speak, to accept my own limitations and to display empathy and patience towards others. For me, qi is not only an intellectual concept but also a very personal experience and way of life. This concurs with the Chinese tradition: gaining an insight into qi requires not only that you understand it but also that you experience and ‘live’ it.
So does this mean that the qi concept is the one and only ultimate truth? Of course not. In many cases it is extremely useful to be able to view a problem using your qi glasses, while in other cases the analytical, differentiating western approach is more suitable. And it is usually a combination of both that turns out to be of most benefit to the patient. We should try not to get too hung up on our principles and also to remember that these ‘glasses’ come in many different shapes and sizes.
To conclude, it will be a source of much delight to me if I have succeeded in explaining why it is I dedicate much of my life to something that does not actually exist, without you simultaneously thinking that I am stark raving mad. However, I will be no less delighted if you do think that I am indeed completely bonkers.
Translation: Danny Guinan