What is Qi?

What is Qi? This is a question we are often asked by patients, since Qi is such a key concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And indeed, even if we are not asked, we need to explain about Qi so that the patient can understand better as to what their problem is and how we are treating it. Explaining what Qi is, however, is no easy thing. Sometimes we may talk of energy circulating through the body, but this is only a very rough and ready way of understanding what Qi is.

It strikes me that there are two ways of going about answering this question. The first one is to try to explain Qi from the outside, in the abstract. The second is to encourage understanding from the inside, as an actual experience. It is a bit like if you were to ask what New York was like. One way to answer this would be to read a few books about that city, watch a film, go on the internet, even talk to some New Yorkers. Another way would be to get on a plane and go there. Or even better, to live there for a while – only then, perhaps, will you really know New York.

So you could read some books about Qi, even do some scientific experiments to try to measure it; or you could experience it. How do you experience it? Through self-awareness, especially as mediated by such practices as Qi Gong or T’ai Chi. If you really want to know, the equivalent of living in New York would be practising Qi Gong under the instruction of a master.

Practising Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in the west raises a lot of interesting problems. In particular, there is a lot of effort expended on testing, explaining and understanding this medicine scientifically – the assumption being that only medicine which has been scientifically verified can be useful, and indeed that all medicine can be scientifically verified. This leads to a lot of (quite expensive) effort in trying to understand things like acupuncture and Qi, but this understanding is almost always of the ‘read books about New York’ type, because this is how science works. This means that someone can be an expert in acupuncture and Qi, by which I mean they know all about it, but have no living experience of Qi at all.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are several different kinds of Zen. One type is called ‘Mouth Zen’. This is the Zen of people who know and talk a lot about Zen, probably having read hundreds of books about it, but in fact have not the faintest idea what Zen is, probably because they do not practice Zen. This illustrates, I think, the radically different approaches represented by western science on the one hand, and eastern spiritual, martial and medical traditions on the other. Of course the term ‘Mouth Zen’ is derogatory, but it would be wrong to insist that the kind of approach it represents is always inappropriate, only that there are some things (albeit rather important things) which cannot be grasped by it. Qi, and therefore acupuncture, it seems to me, may be one of these things.

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