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Qi: Where Does it Exist?

by Todd Luger, L.Ac.

[MS Word Doc]

This article relies heavily on the work of Ken Wilber, which is summarized at

The modern version of Chinese Medicine (known hereafter as TCM) reflects the interaction between the differentiation of the enlightenment and a premodern, non-western cosmology.

Modern TCM is often derided by the very students who go to study this medicine as being bereft of metaphysics, emotion and spirit. They bemoan a former age where a unified medicine of body,mind and soul was practiced by brilliant sage-doctors. Modern TCM is certainly the product of a materialistic, atheistic philosophy, Maoism in this case. However the process of studying Chinese medicine with the methods of sensory empiricism began at the turn of the century. Maoism created a dissociation, by elevating science over history and contemplation as equally valid ways to study the validity of the medical system. History was rewritten to suit the leader's whims and contemplation was dismissed as the opiate of the masses. All that was left was sensory empiricism.

However, the so-called unified age bemoaned by the romanticist crowd never existed. The last 2000 years of the acupuncture profession was actually a time of stifling dogma. The mainstream confucian idealogy that dominated medical practice dismissed both sensory and spiritual empiricism, in favor of rationalism. Rationalism meaning logic and theory divorced from empirical observations. Chinese doctors were as unwilling to even look at western anatomy texts as church fathers were look through Galileo's microscope. In China, the classical hegemony was more secular than religious, but it was dogmatic and antiscientific nonetheless. Basically, the entire corpus of medicine was fashioned to make it appear that nature, the emperor's court and the human body all worked in analogous fashion (the main purpose being to validate the emperor, of course). All dissenting books and scholars were just summarily burned in 220 B.C. The only text left called the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine has been dogma ever since, so vague in many places that it can be interpreted in myriad ways, just like the bible.

Surely lots of empirical data was gathered by assorted herbalists and high ranking people continued with buddhist and taoist practices (though usually covertly during the last 1000 years), but everything that entered general medical practice was filtered through the dogmatic lens of confucian rationalism with its blind faith in the ancestors. Believing in the perfection of ancestors is one sure sign of fundamentalism. According to science historian Joseph Needham, this is the main reason that the Chinese laid the scientific foundation for many important modern discoveries, but lacked the impetus to pursue these newly opened avenues to their logical destinations in modernity. To give but one example, the Chinese had the potential to develop a steam-powered industrial era hundreds of years before Europe, but such engines were only a curiosity to the staid elite, rather than an inspiration. They were not abandoned because of any prescient recognition about the future problems with air pollution, as some romanticists may believe.

While Maoist Scientism of the mid 20th century went to the other extreme, this was a dissociation of the already occurring tendency for traditional medicine to differentiate into its components, each with its own dignity, not shackled by the other perspectives. Thus, martial arts, meditation, art, poetry, medicine, philosophy etc. had all begun to differentiate well before communism, especially accelerating at the turn of this century. Maoism crushed art and religion as surely as had the western enlightenment, just quicker, more brutally and with the whole word watching. This collapse of the Chinese Kosmos by Maoism has led to some interesting consequences with regard to TCM.

TCM is rooted in the Chinese concept of Qi. Qi, according to Medical Sinologist Paul Unschuld, are the influences that activate and organize life. A certain amount of modern Chinese research has attempted to elucidate this concept in physiological terms. One camp has noticed that such control mechanisms are already accounted for on the material plane with things like hormones, enzymes, neuropeptides, all of which flow invisibly through the bloodstream modifying physiology in subtle and not so subtle ways. Another camp has insisted that a unified life force called qi has not yet been identified by science, but it is this force that structures and organizes macrocosmic life. Some believe this force is electromagnetic. Others, coming from a contemplative perspective, believe it is etheric, but still perhaps measurable with methods such as Kirlian photography. Unfortunately, the preponderance of reproducible evidence suggests these latter two hypotheses are false from the perspective of sensory empiricism (i.e. pseudoscience). On the other hand, modern studies suggest that the practices of yoga and qi gong can be used for healing and that such healers can exert some sort of force that can be verified, usually through observed effects (i.e. pain relief, plant growth, etc.). So what's going on?

From the holonic perspective elaborated by philosopher Ken Wilber, all manifest phenomena have physiological correlates, so what the Chinese call qi is either nonexistent dogma or it can be identified by its correlates. We have already seen that sensory evidence does not validate the existence of qi as it is described by some qi gong and acupuncture practitioners (i.e. a quantifiable natural force, like gravity). However, there is quantifiable evidence for physiological changes induced by using various traditional methods designed to manipulate qi. In fact, the Chinese maoists in their utter scientific materialism gathered a huge amount of data to support the žrealityÓ of both traditional Chinese medicine and, as an offshoot, various meditative practices called qi gong. The phenomena the Chinese call qi may be the internal, personal, subjective and culturally interpreted correlates of these documented quantifiable right hand changes that occur during activities as diverse as acupuncture and tai chi chuan. Because tai chi has been so widely practiced, as have other qi manipulating exercises, and for so long, this also lends credence to the idea that qi is a real phenomena, at least in the deeper levels of consciousness. In fact, the meditator's general perspective on breathing, prana, energy flows, etc. is very cross-cultural, at least at the level of deep structures.

It may be that qi, rather than being like gravity, is more akin to love or other emotions. It is real, but the level at which premodern cultures determined that reality was through internal methods of validation, rather than sensory empiricism. It is interesting to note the relative equivalence Chinese medical philosophers gave to the concepts of qi and emotions, saying things like anger is rising qi. We now recognize anger as an internal psychological correlate of a phenomena that also includes various measurable changes in hormones and brainwaves. But there is nothing we can measure and then show to an angry person that will have meaning to him without a lengthy explanation. The experience of anger has quantifiable components, but the experience cannot be satisfactorily be described by said measures. Likewise, the Chinese concept of qi is rooted in real internal perceptions of physiologically rooted bodily sensations (upper interpreted according to certain cultural constructs. However, the sensation of qi is not reducible to any one of these correlates (physical, psychological or cultural) and these correlates, if tabulated and displayed, convey nothing to the one who experiences qi flow. Qi is a reality of the subjective world of humanity, just as surely as love and anger.

I had a friend years ago who was beginning to explore taoist yoga after years of being deeply involved in various forms of mysticism. She wrote in an essay that studying Taoist yoga gave her the impression that one was not born with a meridian system (the etheric channels through which qi flows), but rather developed the meridians through spiritual practice. I had just started my studies of acupuncture and not yet being aware that Chinese history had offered us several different interpretations of this matter, I rejected her position as naiive. For Acupuncture to be valid, the meridian system had to have independent existence, not just be a product of meditation. Otherwise, how could it work on all people? Of course, the prevailing meridian system is one of several possible historical models, so it does not have independent existence in the same way that blood vessels do, for instance.

I now understand that acupuncture can work physiologically even if the meridian system, as described by the ancient chinese, does not exist in the physical body of my patient. And that the meridian may only be a primitive, rudimentary framework in the typical patient, maybe even just deep structures with latent potentiality. And that the various specific energetic or etheric pathways recognized by tai chi, yoga, etc. are , to a certain extent, constructed from specific consciousness altering practices. Since the revealed spiritual physiology varies significantly from place to place and era to era, these different apprehensions of the etheric body must be the local, culturally specific surface representations of some common deep structure that actually exists in the normal psyche of all humans, similar to the ability to develop language.

What is harder to pin down is whether and how these local surface manifestations of the etheric level of consciousness could reveal profound insights into the functions and relationships of the physical body and that these insights could be a basis to select rational physical and pharmacological therapeutics for the patient. Legend has it that through insights derived from meditation, acupuncture and Chinese medicine were developed. If this is a correct accounting of history, those who were not sages themselves may have mistakenly assumed that acupuncture functioned by directly affecting this etheric network. But actually, it is precisely because each phenomena has correlates that are physiological, that by creating and exploring a holistic network in the pranic level of the bodymind, one might be in a position to consciously detect strategic points of influence in the gross body.

But, perhaps, acupuncture merely affects physiology with its mechanical method and the similarity perceived between this and meditative methods is merely coincidental and just one mistake made in an undifferentiated world. Also, those who are qi gong practitioners or otherwise sensitive to etheric flows may notice changes in the žmeridiansÓ when receiving acupuncture, but these changes may not be related to the mechanism of acupuncture in less developed souls. This would also explain why acupuncture seems to have more profound effects in those who are spiritually inclined to begin with.

To illustrate, I will draw an analogy to chakras. The chakras and the nadis, which are the pathways of prana (the sanskrit equivalent of qi) do not exist as structures in the world of gross substances. In fact, the chakras are dormant until they open during the process of spiritual development. In the average individual who has not developed transrational consciousness, the (usually unopened) chakras have no impact on material physiology. They are essentially an emergent level of consciousness that can only be seenvia contemplation. They have physical correlates, as Wilber would say, but those correlates don't resemble the vedic descriptions of chakras. They are organs, molecules and ions, when viewed with the eye of the flesh. Many people say they do chakra healing, even via acupuncture techniques, yet according to Aghora Tantra, the chakras are not able to be influenced by physical methods, such as needles or herbs, unless those methods induce profound altered states of consciouness, but then the modus operandi is still a psychic one in such cases.

Yogic thought proposes that the chakras have points of intersection with physical organs (spinal plexes and endocrine glands at each corresponding level in the physical body). But physical methods, as used in ayurveda and TCM affect these glands and the nervous system, not the chakras directly. The same is true for the nadis, which are thought to manifest in the physical plane as the nervous system. Ayurveda even has a system of acupoints called marmas, but they are not thought to exert their effects via the etheric nadi system, but rather by directly influencing the gross body.

Taoist masters were the legendary progenitors of TCM. They supposedly revealed the meridian system through meditative and yogic practices and originally used only yogic methods to regulate qi flow. They also became aware of the points of intersection now known as acupoints (seven of which also appear on the chakra locations). The yellow emperor's medical classic actually begins by bemoaning a typical premodern tale of fall from grace and the need to develop acupuncture to heal those who could no longer regulate their qi internally.

Now the ability to regulate one's qi internally is an element of the next level of consciousness beyond the conventional ego, what Wilber has often called the centaur. This is the first transegoic stage and it's unfolding is associated with gestalt psychology, hatha yoga and tai ji, to name a few. So it is clear that what these sages were doing occured on a level of consciousness that did not (and does not) exist for the masses, because it has not yet been evolutionarily unfolded on a wide scale. Perhaps the pathways of qi have to be developed just as the specific pathways of intellect; they do not exist a priori (i.e. many may have the potential intelligence to make great discoveries in physics, but there is some preliminary žwiringÓ that needs to happen in the brain first through the educational process). This allows the possibility that prana, qi, bioenergy or vital force could exist as a spark of undifferentiated vitality in all beings that can be mastered through specific contemplative practices. This is essentially the most sophisticated modern view of the chakras, as well.

In fact, the simplest Taoist view of qi is that it rises and falls vertically in the body and also moves from the surface to the depths in neverending cycles. Ken Wilber refers to the level of which I am speaking as the pranic or emotional-vital or sexual. It is the first subtle body beyond (beneath?) the gross one. It appears with life, which I assume includes the first algae and microbes. This body of qi and emotions and life-force(?) has thus an independent existence in Wilber's model, but it remains unclear as to whether it is an undifferentiated force or is associated with discrete pathways at this stage. In my model, I have chosen to suggest that the discrete pathways are not an inherent feature of the pranic level, because we share that level with all life. So to say that a plant or a bacteria has a gallbladder meridian is ludicrous. But to say it has qi may be reasonable, because it reproduces, it has vitality and some sort of reproducibility, possibly even sexuality.

So perhaps the pranic level exists prior to its introspective observation, but the specific pranic pathways are paved by each traveler's intentions, rather than just being discovered by looking for entrance ramps. This would explain the great cultural differences in description of this level, despite all agreeing on its existence. Now, of course, when many people pave similar etheric paths in their psyches, they will have the basis for a shared experience of this plane, much as a common language facilitates shared experience on the verbal level. This shared construction project imparts an appearance of deep significance to something that may actually have been built, rather than revealed. This construction project is to the centaur what formal logic is to the ego, a specific method of utilizing the abilities of this level of consciousness for practical and spiritual purposes. Logic plays out as math or chemistry or philosophy; translogic enables one to create a new holistic network of bodymind connections. But the possible constructions to achieve this are potentially unlimited.

Wilber's thesis is that higher (or deeper) levels of consciousness create a new network of control and organization within the bodymind that subsumes the preexisting levels, but does not destroy them. So a qi gong master or yogi, with his open chakras and well-paved nadis, could perhaps identify strategic points of influence in the physical body that corresponded to nadi points that only existed subjectively. By controlling this deeper level of consciousness by regulating prana flow through chakras and nadis (or meridian and acupoints), perhaps they can also regulate the more superficial levels of žconsciousnessÓ, including physical matter. This could conceivably have profound effects on their health and longevity.

However, when an acupuncturist sticks needles in a patient's body, something very different may be going on. Because the patient has not yet developed the centaur level of consciousness in most cases, needling and herbs may merely exert their effects physiologically, affecting hormones and other secretions directly via the blood and nerves, not via the žmeridian systemÓ or the etheric žqiÓ. Now, by the principle of upward causation, any balancing of physiology will have a beneficial effect on the pranic and mental levels, as well. But this does not prove the prior existence of specific meridian pathways, nor does it demonstrate that physical methods directly affect the etheric qi. Only etheric methods can directly affect the etheric level, though these methods may have physical components. Examples include reichian bodywork, sexual tantra and breathwork, but these are all reduced to gymnastics without the conscious use of introspection as part of the transformative process.

Since Taoist yoga was never the dominant force in mainstream Chinese culture, it was the confucian secular rationalists who monopolized the žtruthÓ. These confucian doctors who controlled the medical discussion for two thousand years, put great faith in the words of ancestors and did not investigate their claims under normal circumstances. Because these claims were accepted without continuing transegoic introspection, living ideas became dogma, similar again to fundamentalist religion. Claims without injunctions. Empty metaphysics. Nevertheless, TCM slowly evolved over the centuries, because of various heretics who challenged long periods of rigid dogma and breathed new life into the ancient concepts.

While there are indications in the ancient source texts of TCM that the original Taoist sages were aware that acupuncture influenced the žqiÓ in a very different way than qi gong, yoga and pranayama, there was considerable confusion about this matter in mainstream circles, which has only heightened in the present day. So it is possible that the belief that acupuncture and related methods influence a materially quantifiable discrete energy known as qi is an error in interpretation. It is also an error that is typical both of the premodern rationalists (like the confucians) and the modern romantics and idealists of New Age Europe and the Americas. It is an error that makes littles sense in terms of either modern science, Wilberite philosophy, the neighboring perennial Wisdom of India or even the source texts of TCM itself. It is the confusion of knowledge gained by the physical senses with that obtained through logic, dialogue or spiritual pursuit.


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