The nature of qi is that when ever you try to pin it down, it transforms, coalesces or disperses. What I would like to communicate in this chapter is the idea that qi is a vast concept, a worthy concept of adopting, and a comfortable concept, something that enriches our view and experience of life.
What is Qi? The word Qi has been in common usage since about 300 B.C.E. It is usually translated as 'energy' or 'vital force' which is far too limiting a definition. "In the very earliest texts qi is the vapor or steam that arises from the heating of water and watery substances and subsequently appears as the actual air that we breathe. By the time of the Huainanzi (139 B.C.E.), qi is the universal energy/matter/fluid out of which all phenomena in the universe are constructed,..."1 An important thing to understand about this word is that it is adaptable to the 'scale' in which our bodies2 are capable of feeling and practicing.
Fortunately the term qi is already in the process of being adopted into the English language, so readers are likely to have some experience with it. The first thing to say is that qi is absolutely rooted in experience, not fantasy. This is all one needs to know to begin practicing; however, for those interested in exploring the concept further, consider the following statements.
When the term qi was adopted into the Chinese language, logical thinking and analysis of historical precedent had already made a mark on the philosophical thinking of the time.
The choice to use the word qi carries with it a comfort or ease with experiences of ambiguity. It is an expression of ambiguous experience, which never the less has a feeling quality, an experience of time(s), direction(s) and can include shape(s).
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Qi is only experienced in context, when jing3 or substance is in motion or in relation to motion. For example, when we are touched, when we visually track motion, or when we feel time passing, we have an experience of jing. Jing, is an aspect of qi.
Qi is the quality of our experience which we clearly experience, but which to enumerate or dissect or 'nail down', would obscure the totality of the experience, shrinking its multidimensionality, and it's connection to cosmology. Thus, qi transmissions done through some practice, playing the flute, calligraphy, martial arts, etc..., can contain innumerable layers of intimacy.
Though we can have clear experiences of what blood feels like under the skin, a somewhat ambiguous experience is far more common. With in or around our bodies there may be 900 different cycles or rhythms going on at once. All of these can be felt. Perhaps they can even be felt simultaneously, but differentiating even five of them at a time, seems daunting. Any of the 900 may actually be undifferentiatable. The arbitrariness of naming and the contextual nature of names are imperfect tools for communicating experience, this very concept is key to understanding the use of the word qi.
Qi is unifying, it connects and permeates everything. It is zaohua--to take form and transform.
" ...Qi gives form to (zao) and transforms (hua) everything, in a two-sided operation, since it defines the fixed form but also changes it constantly. Zaohua is the Chinese equivalent of our word "creation," but it is a creation without a creator. The only constant reality is Qi in its transformations, the continuous coming and going between its undetectable, diluted state and its visible state, condensed into a defined being."4
Qi is what holds things together and what shapes and changes them. It is inspiration, that which has no substance and yet permeates everything.
Qi is time and direction, it is a body, a community or communities, in ever increasing, or decreasing, concentric circles, or spirals or formations, of smaller and larger entities which are connected because of their participation in a larger body. The body which is inclusive of everything known and everything unknown is called the Dao.
Qi is the central focus of a unifying cosmological view of the universe, which includes the known and the unknown, the detailed and a broader calculus which extrapolates the unity of all things. It can be summarized as breath but it would be a breath large enough to inhale tables and chairs, whole battle fields, and planets. It includes an ordinary sense of breath but is not confined by time, space, density, purity or refinement. Though it is not confined by history or density, it can be practically defined in a scale or a context. The temperature of one's blood can be measured but its particular qi quality can never be proved, it can only be experienced.
Qi has nothing to do with questions of belief, and it is not romanticism. Qi is not human centered and is not given a value, good or bad, personal or tribal.
Qi as a concept was harnessed by Daoists or proto-Daoists to unify different tribal, linguistic and cultural groups. The concept of qi was used to consolidate and categorize supernatural forces, including the cults of local ghosts and gods, into natural categories, like wind, water, thunder and fire. So there are fire type spirits and wind type gods. It is the experiencable qi aspects of the supernatural which allowed them to be categorized. Early Daoists used this consolidating notion of qi to bring people into unity by including them in larger qi bodies. This expansive notion folded supernatural and mythic thinking into larger categories of condensed or rarefied qi, including, larger categories of identity. It is the foundation of Han culture, the seed of Chinese civilization.
This process is captured in the image of a dragon:
"As a composite totem, the dragon possesses at least the head of a tiger, the horns of a ram, the body of a snake, the claws of an eagle and the scales of a fish. Its ability to cross totemic boundaries and its lack of verisimilitude to any living creature strongly suggest that from the very beginning the dragon was a deliberate cultural construction. The danger of anachronism notwithstanding, the modern Chinese ethnic self-definition as the "dragon race" indicates a deep-rooted sense that Chineseness may derive from many sources. "5
In this world view things with out substance, or with virtually immeasurable or imperceptible substance (mass), are included in (not excluded from) a larger cosmology.
The modern notions of science expand fragmentation by increasing the perceptible, not decreasing the imperceptible.
Folk culture everywhere speaks of ghosts, demons, spirits and gods. Modern culture everywhere speaks of bacteria, rates of infection, surgical cures, viruses, nerve dysfunction, blood pressure, toxic waste, and ultra violet rays. To Daoists they are all manifestations of qi, because qi is what we experience directly. Any of the above explanations of experience may be useful in a particular context, yet there is no need to make 'leaps of faith'. For Daoist's, science which claims-to-know, belongs in the same category as reckless shamanism, trance mediumship, and blood sacrifice. It is something to coexist with, but not encourage.
If this definition seems overwhelming, keep in mind that talking about the qi of a time sequence, a work of art, or an event is far easier than describing or defining the whole concept at once. Actually, feeling it requires no effort at all.
By practicing the same movements day after day a certain comfort, ease the familiarity with this ambiguity emerges. Add to this the element of time and one will be feeling qi momentum.
The following is from one of the earliest surviving commentaries on the Daode jing:
"Ho-shang kung says: "The Dao gives birth to the beginning. One gives birth to yin and yang. Yin and yang give birth to the breath (qi) between, the mixture of clear and turpid. These three breaths(qi) divide themselves into Heaven, Earth, and Man and together give birth to the ten thousand things. These elemental breaths are what keep the ten thousand things relaxed and balanced. The organs in our chests, the marrow in our bones, the spaces inside plants allow these breaths passage and make long life possible."6 (Red Pine)
Qi comes into being at the moment of polarization between any two divisions of experience. Movement and stillness, time and space, twisting and wrapping, up and down, or clear and turpid.
Qi gong can be viewed as an experiment with altering our physical relationship to any two polarizations.
Let's look at time and space. By slowing down the time it takes to do a movement, the refined details of that movement unfold in space, continuously transforming over a longer cycle of time, and eventually changing one's range of motion. From a purely physiological point of view both time and space are sensory perceptions, which all emerge in utero with the development of the nervous system and the inner ear, in relationship to movement.7
With qi gong the amount of time you do some movement is always being calibrated against the space you do it in. The more slowly you go, the more details emerge in the space you are moving through.
Simply doing the same gentle movements over time will give the practitioner a measure of how all the other things they do in the space of their lives effects the movement of their bodies; noticing first the effects of food, rest, and work, perhaps becoming more subtle or refined in one's observations over time.
Time cycles can be sped up or slowed down. Qi gong is relating to time in an unusual way. There are an infinite number of clocks, or swirling colored clouds, growing and shrinking around substance (jing). We can give them names like gonad time, nose time, finger time, hair time, sun time, moon time, and computer time. Qi gong sensitizes us to time, and the relationship the factor of time has to everything else, including other senses of time. This is the practice of qi gong, bagua zhang, taiji chuan, and is a link these practices have to ritual.
So as the saying goes, when we rush we are speeding toward our own death. So what is happening to our bodies over time when we regularly sit, stuck in traffic, in our cars wishing and trying to go faster?
Pain itself may be a forward or a backward movement of time. Diarrhea is fast, constipation is slow. If my finger hurts, is it because I'm getting to re-experience all the time it moved over the last three days all at once? Or is it perhaps that the next three days are being thrust upon me all at once? Repetitive stress vs. sudden trauma.
When we are aggressive, we tend to get catapulted forwards in time, when we are gentle perhaps we can go any direction in time.
Qi is a sense of many times, felt together.
Qi gong is moving while feeling time.
Part of what has been the inspiration of Daoist hermits and ritual practitioners alike, is a deep sense that we are all connected. This same feeling can also be a strong and clear inspiration for the practice of qi gong. However: Those who seek the heart of qi gong will also find themselves swimming in the weak and the murky.
1 Harold D. Roth, "The Inner Cultivation Tradition of Early Daoism", p.125, in Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., (Princeton University Press, 1996).
2 The Daoist concept of body is not meant to be limited to the 'flesh bag'. It could also be translated as community and could refer to anything from all the 'entities in the body of the adept, to the limitless cosmos itself. (see Schipper)
3 Different jing from the one mentioned earlier which means classic. This jing, which I am here calling substance is an aspect of condensed qi usually translated as 'essence'; however, it also has the meaning of "the self-reproductive quality of nature" as it manifests in things, i.e. pollen and seeds in trees, the part of our bodies which makes scabs, and as some vulgar individuals have translated it: semen.
4 Robinet, Growth of a Religion, p.8.
5 Tu Wei-ming, "Chinese Philosophy: A Synopsis," in a companion to World Philosophies. Edited by Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe. (Oxford: Blackwell).
6 Red Pine, Lao-tzu's Taoteching,( Mercury House, 1996).
7 A sense of timelessness and infinite space also seem to emerge in utero. See Bonnie Cohen, "The Action in Perceiving," in Contact Quarterly Dance Journal, Fall 87, Vol. XII no. 3.