In traditional Chinese culture, qi (more precisely qì, also chi, ch'i or ki) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as "natural energy", "life force", or "energy flow". Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of "qi" is "breath", "air", or "gas". Qi is a purely hypothetical concept.
Concepts similar to qi can be found in many cultures, for example, prana in the Hindu religion, pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culture, lüng in Tibetan Buddhism, ruah in Hebrew culture, and vital energy in Western philosophy. Some elements of qi can be understood in the term energy when used by writers and practitioners of various esoteric forms of spirituality and alternative medicine. Elements of the qi concept can also be found in Western popular culture, for example "The Force" in Star Wars. Notions in the West of energeia, élan vital, or "vitalism" are purported to be similar.
What Is Qi (Chi)?
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.”
In China, the understanding of qi is inherent in the very language. For instance: The literal translation of the Chinese character meaning “health” is “original qi.” The literal translation of the character for “vitality” is “high quality qi.” The literal translation of the character meaning “friendly” is “peaceful qi."
Many Different Kinds of Qi
Practitioners of Chinese Medicine and qigong have identified many different kinds of qi. Within the human body there is the qi that we’re born with, called Yuan qi, or ancestral qi. The qi that we absorb during our lives from food, water, air and qigong practice is called Hou tain qi or post-natal qi. The qi that flows at the surface of the body, as a protective sheathe, is called Wei qi or protective qi. Each internal organ also has its own qi/life-force, e.g. Spleen-qi, Lung-qi, Kidney-qi.
According to Taoist cosmology, the two most fundamental forms of qi are Yin-qi and Yang-qi -- the primordial feminine and masculine energies. Many qigong practices utilize Heaven qi and Earth qi, as well as the qi that emanates specifically from trees, flowers, lakes and mountains.
Balanced & Free-Flowing Qi = Health
The fundamental insight of qigong and Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and herbal medicine) is that balanced and free-flowing qi results in health; while stagnant or imbalanced qi leads to disease. This is true not only at the level of the human body, but also in terms of natural landscapes -- mountains, rivers, forests -- and man-made structures -- houses, office-buildings, and parks. In the same way that an acupuncturist diagnoses energetic imbalances, and works to re-establish free-flowing qi in the human body; so does the practitioner of Feng Shui perceive energetic imbalances in natural or man-made landscapes, and then apply various techniques to remedy those imbalances. In both cases, the goal is to establish a more open flow of energy in the particular (internal or external) environment.
We can understand Taoist ceremony, also, as being a form of qigong or Feng Shui, since specific actions and arrangements of ritual objects are used to invoke the flow of sacred energy. Like a powerful acupuncture treatment, the successful ritual opens a portal between the human realm and the realms of the spirits, Deities and Immortals.
Feeling the Qi
The capacity to perceive the flow of qi directly -- to actually see or feel it -- is something that can be cultivated through training in qigong or acupuncture. Like any skill, some people are better at it than others: for some it seems to come “naturally,” for others it’s more of a challenge. Even if it’s not consciously cultivated or acknowledged, most of us can tell the difference between someone who has “great energy” and someone from whom we feel a “bad vibe.” And most of us are able to notice, when we enter a room, whether the atmosphere seems relaxed and uplifted, or tense and heavy. To the extent that we notice such things, we are tuning into the level of qi.
We might be in the habit of perceiving our world in terms of solid shapes and forms. What Taoism teaches is that we can train ourselves to perceive in other ways; and a good place to start is with our own human body. Though we may now experience our body as being rather solid, at a molecular level it is comprised mostly of water – a very fluid substance! And at an atomic level it is 99.99% space – a vast (and infinitely intelligent) emptiness.
As we practice qigong and Inner Alchemy, we cultivate the capacity to perceive at all of these different levels – to feel ourselves and our world as fluid, and as spacious; as well as being filled with apparently-solid forms. As we become more adept in this way, we become aware, directly, of the vibratory nature of all-that-is. Not only do we experience our bodies as being comprised of patterns and flows of qi, but also come to understand that “emotions” and “thoughts” are also forms of energy. These insights give rise then to the potential for newly-powerful and deliciously-creative action within this tremoring world.
When we feel pain in the arm, we rub it. When our stomach feels uncomfortable, we rub it. It is natural to treat the area where the pain is. It is not natural, and not intuitive, to treat places far away from where the pain originates.
However, this is what acupuncture does all the time. This is where the miracle of acupuncture lies. The standard explanation in the ancient text is: When qi does not flow, pain occurs. When qi flows, pain disappears. Pain is treated to enable the flow of qi. But what is qi?
Qi is a sort of mystery to people who have not experienced it. Normally an acupuncturist will have to wave his arms to explain to his patients with words like, "Qi is a sort of energy that flows in the meridians and carries some information from one acupoint to where the pain is." Can we say something more precise than that now, in scientific terms? Yes. The answer is:
- Qi is vibration.
- Qi is oscillation of the meridians. More precisely, qi is quantum oscillations on the system of meridians.
- Qi is what carries the effect of acupuncture from one acupoint to other parts of the body.
The oscillations on the meridians are like oscillations on a piano wire. When we hit the piano wire, the wire oscillates, and we hear the sound. We cannot see the propagation of sound from the piano wire to our ear, but we feel the oscillation of the piano wire if we use our hands to touch the wire. The sound in the air is the oscillation of air molecules. We cannot see the oscillation of air molecules, but when sound hits our eardrum, we hear the sound. Sound has energy, and carries a type of message to the ear.
When a needle is inserted into an acupoint, the patient will feel a little pain. More sensitive patients will feel qi moving along the meridians. Qi is the oscillations of polarized media in the meridians (which are most likely made up of stable water clusters with permanent electric dipole moments, as we discussed in an earlier article in this series). We cannot see the propagation of qi with our eyes, but when qi reaches the problem area, we can use infrared image techniques to see its effect.