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Thoughts on Understanding Qi

understanding qiThe first thing I think about when I consider the various definitions of Qi, is the point of view of the person creating the definition. How does this person view the universe? What historical and philosophical conditions are they, or were they, living in? Perhaps one of the most significant changes in western philosophical thought in the twentieth century has been the rise of what has been termed “constructivism.” Basically, this philosophy says that we each live from within the perspectives of our particular belief systems and we project these belief systems upon the world. Thus, often what we believe to be true is very far away from the truth. Even the word truth has been called into question. The idea is that within the province of the mind, there are no absolute truths.

Thomas Kuhn brought this idea into the world of science with his landmark work: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He posited that it is virtually impossible for a scientist to observe phenomenon in nature and make theories about it without already coming from a particular belief system about the way things work. Many scientists in the last thirty years have come to the conclusion that before we assign theories and models onto reality, we should first study the observer and his/her a priori beliefs about the universe. This does not disclude the obvious facts that exist in nature, it just calls into question the assumptions we make when we label these phenomena with words and create beliefs about them. Back again we return to the perennial wisdom of Lao Tzu who said, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” So with these belief systems in mind, I suggest that we question all definitions of Qi, entertaining them as possibilities, but taking none of them to be the “truth.” Clearly, some definitions will be more workable within the framework of Chinese medical philosophy than others. My position is that we need a definition comprehensive enough in scope to include the latest findings of western science, while still adhering to the comprehensive, holistic philosophical framework of Chinese medicine.

Taoist thought had a great impact on the early development of Chinese medicine. Maciocia, in The Foundations of Chinese Medicine says, “according to these ancient philosophers, life and death themselves are nothing but an aggregation and dispersal of Qi.” This idea reflects many current trends in thinking from disciplines that are now coming to see sets of shared principles i.e. general systems theory, quantum mechanics, and holographic theory. In this view, matter and energy can only be separated in our thinking, but in reality, they are part of a continuum. Maciocia champions this view: “The character for Qi indicates that it is material and immaterial at the same time.” Ted Kaptchuk acknowledges that the Chinese did not distinguish between matter and energy with the definition, “(Qi Is) Matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materializing.” It is useful and observable to understand qi as a continuum, with some substrata being very refined and untouchable, while others are the palpable forms of nature, each form in a state of constant change towards to other.

Harriet Benfield and Efrem Korngold in their book: Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, give this definition, “Qi is the creative, formative principle associated with life and all processes that characterize living entities. Qi is an invisible substance as well as an immaterial force that has palpable and observable manifestations.” While I like this definition, it does not clarify what separates living entities from non-living entities, in other words is a rock alive? However, They do join the concepts of invisible and substance, wedding partially the matter/energy schism in western thought. Soulie’ De Morant, in Chinese Acupuncture says, “The essential idea is of an incorporeal, subtle force. We translate for a lack of a better word as energy. Defining Qi is more difficult than defining electricity. The idea of Qi energy extends to what we call life itself.”

While all these practitioners lend insight into the mysterious force of Qi their inability to agree on a precise definition conveys the inexplicability and profundity of the phenomena. Perhaps as science comes to acknowledge the existence of this energy, more research will then lend deeper understanding into its nature, but even then, our definitions will remain maps of the territory, and not the territory itself.

© James Whittle M.S., L.Ac. All rights reserved.

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