05 July 2010

What is Qi?

Qi is the basis of Chinese medicine.

We often translate it as 'energy.' This sort of works --but is inaccurate.
In physics, energy decreases over distance. The research on long-distance qi transmission, such as that of Dr. Pan, Xin documents that Qi can even increase over space. There are other differences as well.

Chinese dictionary definitions of Qi refer to gas, morale, anger and spirit. Some of these seem confusing and even humorous.

Looking at the symbolic representations that are the basis of Chinese language are much more helpful. The Chinese ideogram of Qi often has the lower part with exploding rice:

Simplification of this character in the 1950s (an ongoing part of Chinese writing from the beginning) deleted the rice. Traditionalists here may complain, but my Chinese teacher, Prof. Charles Wu of Reed College, said that an even earlier version was written without the exploding rice--only with the curling cloud symbol above. His thought was that it reminded us that energy comes from the Void-like nature of the Universe, not just food.

We sometimes correlate it to the Vedic Indian term 'Prana,' used in yoga.
This is probably closer to Qi than 'energy,' but still a foreign concept to most English-speakers.

Naturopathy has the concept of Vis. It is used at our college as a kind of rough equivalent to Qi. I'd like to find out more about it, and the history of its development. For most patients, it will be an equally mysterious term, with the latin Vis Medicatrix Naturae.

Bring back the dead languages, I say!
(In honor of my Latin teacher in 7th grade, Seymour Richard ("Dick") Peyser, who had a haircut to match his name.)

''Vital energy" is natural medicine concept discussed in English. However conventional medicine feels they moved past this concept. They don't wish to look at it again. It is a kind of roadkill on the superhighway of modern medicine. We outgrew that a long time ago.


As a kind of experiment (part of ongoing guerilla research), I asked my qigong students during a year-long class in an acupuncture program what their definition of Qi was.

The results were that when asked after 3 months of practicing together, the answers written were from either their textbook or most forceful teacher. For me as a practitioner, they sounded garbled, uninspiring and broken-down. For example, one of our greatest translator-scholars (who doesn't practice medicine) came up with the definitive definition of Qi as "finest matter influences."

But after six months, including a term of sitting meditation, something incredible happened. Each student had their own definition of Qi, one from their personal experience. The words were put into a paper, usually a few paragraphs with their experience. Each came down to a single word. In a class of 70 students in three sections, each had a unique definition. And they all worked. Personal definitions of Qi included:
  • Truth
  • Light
  • Love
  • Consciousness
  • Awareness
My question is: What is your personal definition of Qi this month, in word or a paragraph?
Please post your response. 

The Process of Classical Acupuncture

3 Features of Classical Acupuncture


In conventional acupuncture, we have tidy textbooks. They make the information bite-sized and organized.

When we look at the Inner Classic, it is an instant information overload. Other texts such as the Systematic Classic/Jia Yi Jing and later ones help wade in. My annotated spreadsheet (available via email, or on the ISSCA Forum) gives an open source overview of this ancient source text of all Chinese medicine.

The Inner Classic observed that even 2500 years ago, this medicine was too big --and that was pretty much just acupuncture. The development of herb medicine got even more overwhelming and rich.

This is much like our current predicament, where information is increasing exponentially. One estimate is 66% per year.  This will make us either very wise ... or crazy --very fast.

The Inner Classic struggled with this very issue that my students identify: there's way too much to know. The two findings from the Inner Classic in response to this are:
  • No one person can know all of it
    • Much as we'd like either ourselves or some guru to know it all, that isn't going to happen. A ego-balloon deflates, but liberation is just around that corner.
  • Walk in any direction in this medicine, and new discoveries are waiting to be found 
    • Once we adjust to this new reality, a real excitement occurs. We could be coming from a background in biochemistry, psychology, philosophy, language studies, parenting or gardening.... Chinese medicine makes use of all and any type of experience. Meaningless prior jobs suddenly make sense after we begin learning this medicine. 


This is another central conundrum of contemporary experience. 

The Inner Classic recommended the opposite of reductionism--an aspect of contemporary science that is decried by observers. Instead, they advocated treating complex diseases with multiple modalities. For example, acupuncture works better when combined with herbs; Chinese medicine works better with Western than one by itself, etc.
Likewise, the Inner Classic recommended multiple approaches to diagnosis. Using just one feature from the pulse is not done classically: it is always combined with palpating the abdomen, observing the complexion, etc. This avoids an unfortunate contemporary tendency towards overtreatment, both east and west, natural and conventional/allopathic. A single blood test or scan should not dictate a whole series of treatments. CT scans have only a 60% correlation to patient experience, according to one of my teachers, Angela Kendrick, MD. We assume it is one hundred percent. You sitting there may have 3-4 blown disks on an MRI and not know it. A bedridden patient with severe patient may have a perfect scan. Qi is more reliable to know than structure: it matches patient experience.


Group websites flare. Have you noticed how easily misunderstandings and anger can erupt on emails? The political discourse on TV shows is not worth watching. We all find our favorite news sources--Fox or the Times--and hunker down. Layoffs occur without thinking, and workplace democracy is a misnomer. Academic discourse teaches us to "make arguments" and "defend theses."  Civil discourse ... what is that?

Reading the Inner Classic is something else. The Emperor doesn't tell anyone what to do: instead, he asks questions. The responder speaks with appreciation first.

The fact that it is a group discussion at all is startling to a westerner. We are used to one point of view, be it textbooks by one author like Maciocia, or interpreters of God. As one qigong lecturer in Beijing pointed out in 1998, 'God' in Chinese would be imagined as a group, maybe a Ba Gua or a kind of committee. As westerners, there is nothing we disdain so much as a committee!!
(As my friend Mark said yesterday, "I can't get any work done, I'm in committee meetings all day.")
Reading a Chinese text that is fully translated includes commentaries: group discussions all the way through. Sometimes these exist across time, a kind of extended web forum.

It is the power of the collective over the individual, a neglected potential in our society.

The logic from this is profoundly different. One text can have differing and conflicting, unresolved views. No problem!


How to live with vast richness, complexity, and diversity?
Read and work with the Inner Classic, and others of Chinese medicine

Why Classical Chinese Acupuncture?

OK, so I'm not Chinese.
Obviously, I'm a little red.

Since 1977 though, I've been fascinated with Chinese philosophy and its applications in medicine.

It occurs to me that nobody alive today really knows what the ancient Chinese were up to.

So why should we care about something written 2,500 years ago?

What this blog site seeks to answer:
  • How is Classical Chinese Acupuncture different from what is coventionally practiced now?
  • What got lost that we need now?
For starters, let's talk about psychiatry. Maybe you read this often-circulated NYTimes article, at "The Americanization of Mental Illness".

This article states that American views of 'mental disorders' may be as influential as McDonalds, and with unintended harm.

It gets into our shared view of our minds, our beings, and reality itself.

The biomedical view of mental health issues are reduced to chemical deficits or excesses in the brain.
--How do you feel about that?

I worked for over ten years as an acupuncturist in mental health facilities. I travelled to China four times, the first three to observe the work of a qigong teacher treating mental health issues in children: Zhang, Yu-Lei. The fourth time finished two months of doctoral acupuncture training in a clinic that treated depression with acupuncture. The teacher there, Zhang, Jie-Bin in Nanjing (pictured left, in the center) who used the classics to find new ideas for treating his patients. Youth depression and suicide are epidemic in his town of Nanjing -- despite China's economic transformation. The bridge over the Yangtze river, once a symbol of collective pride in the 1950s, now struggles with a daily suicide jumper. Volunteers patrol the bridge.

Drugs can help, but they are a partial solution. Psychiatrists I worked with in the States were very open to new ideas, new options.

Mental health diagnoses are described in objective terms, with clear differentiation, but they are describing a collective subjective experience. It's not like diabetes, with objective blood tests. There are some objective markers, and mental health issues are as real as any disease in their effect.

Psychiatry is considered as something less than other western medical sciences, like neurology, which claim a more 'objective' basis. In this stepping order, 'hard' sciences like physics are the apex. The problem is, quantum physicists tell us there is no such thing as pure objectivity.

Ken Wilber wrote extensively and clearly about the western denigration of the subjective realm. He sought to re-integrate it by talking about 4 aspects of truth, much like the four directions or 5 Phases of Chinese medicine:
  1. Objectivity when single is the hard sciences like physics, describing isolated events
  2. Objective - plural are the social sciences, like sociology and economics
  3. Subjectivity in the singular sense is the realm of poetry and art
  4. Subjective-collective experience is culture and includes language

We tend to discount anything subjective in this culture as unscientific and not valid. Try to imagine life without culture and language: the Inter-subjective.

Psychiatry and much of psychology may then be viewed more appropriately and generously as
a collective subjective process, matters of convention.

Process Oriented Psychology is commendable here. Developed by a quantum physicist named Arny Mindell, their international center here in Portland. It translates psychology from states and things to processes. This is both more accurate and opens up possibilities. Instead of "having depression", "being diagnosed", and "taking something for it", the patient's lived experience is the starting point. The endpoint is: what is really trying to happen, what really wants to be expressed?

In the conventional view, patients come to us being told and believing certain ideas:
  • They have diseases that are pathologies, and potential diseases they cannot see
  • In the case of depression, it is a chemical imbalance in the brain
If we describe those as a process instead, a major shift occurs. Their label is no longer attached to a thing. And it is knowable to themselves.

Fine--but does it work?

In my experience, Classical Chinese Acupuncture is process-based. And the ideas I found there described what I saw in those mental health clinics, and what worked best in my own practice.

What we need is a Process Oriented Acupuncture. It may be similar to the classical version. There is an unfortunate tendency to translate contemporary acupuncture as symptom-based--states, relying on western medicine to define the issues uncritically. But if we talk at length with an MD or a researcher, these definitions are questioned. We need to follow their courageous inquiry.
There is also a tendency to want to give things to treat it, in the form of pills and powders. These also help, but they may distract a practitioner or a patient from this shift in worldview.

If we put a few needles in, and something changes even for a while, what does that tell a patient and a practitioner? What does it mean if we are a few needles away from changing a troubling condition that's lasted for years?

One implication is that the answers are within.
Another is that it was a matter of energy or Qi.