Chi: The Power of What Isn’t

Every morning I start my day with chi kung (a.k.a. qi gong), and many days I do tai chi (tai qi.) For those who are unfamiliar, chi is usually defined as “life force” or “life energy.” However, defining chi is neither simple nor will one find a consensus agreement. Some say chi is  “breath,” at which point its existence becomes a much less controversial, but also less explicative, concept. Others would say that chi is much more broadly dispersed than the “living” so “life force” is an understated definition.

Chi Kung are exercises combining breathing, movement, meditation, visualization, and self-massage that are used to keep one healthy. Because yoga also contains these components (e.g. breathing, movement, and meditation; though with very different specifics) some have even been known to call chi kung “Taoist yoga.” The idea behind these exercises is that chi is lost through living (some activities more than others), and can become blocked in the channels through which it is believed to move. Various exercises are used to replenish and ensure healthy circulation of the chi. Tai chi is a series of martial arts forms that are also considered to have the effect of replenishing and / or enhancing chi.

Two questions may leap to mind, especially among those who know me as a skeptic. First, do you believe in chi–despite the lack of evidence that it exists? (When I mention this lack of evidence, I am obviously not defining chi as breath or bodily fluids, in which case the most rabid skeptic would have to acknowledge its existence. However, then an entirely different set of questions is raised about the vast and complicated nature of chi kung exercises needed to circulate oxygen, which travels through blood vessels and not through channels or meridians. In other words, there’s no reason not to abandon a lot of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) / Taoist conceptions of health if one considers a narrow definition of chi.) Second, if you don’t have any reason to believe that chi is a real thing, why bother with the exercises?

First, no, I don’t believe in chi as a substance or physical entity in the way that your average Taoist priest does. I don’t mock or ridicule those who do, and I acknowledge it could always turn out that they were right and I was wrong and that my current state of ignorance combined with an incorrect deference to Occam’s Razor led me astray.

However, I have a pretty high standard for believing a person, place, or thing exists. I need to be able to observe it.  If I can’t perceive it directly, but there is some indirect sign it exists, then that indirect sign needs to be the simplest possible explanation I can imagine given my current state of knowledge. (Yes, I realize that Occam’s Razor isn’t a law, it can always be that an unlikely explanation is the correct explanation. I also know the raft of indirect signs of chi, and, yes, I’m saying I can imagine simpler explanations than an energy source that is immeasurable but powerful enough have bodily effects.) While I don’t believe in chi (or meridians, or the yet undiscovered organ called the “triple heater”) as physical things, I do believe in conceptual chi which is an object of visualization.

Moving on to the second question, I practice these exercises because they make me healthier.

This, of course, raises another question, “How can these exercises be effective if chi is not real?”

Now I have to go Socratic on my hypothetical questioner. The Socratic dialogue goes like this:

S: Have you ever been to a scary movie?

A: Of course, I have. What kind of a troll has never seen a scary movie?

S: I’m Socrates. I’ll ask the damned questions around here, thank you very kindly.

So while you were watching said movies, did you ever get startled? That is, did your pulse ever pound a bit harder; did you ever take a gasping breath; did your hands ever grip the armrest with white knuckles; or did you ever get butterflies in your stomach?

A: Of course, that’s part of the horror movie watching experience.

S: So, then, you were under the impression that the events you were watching were actually happening, and that the killer might come out into the theater after you at any moment?

A: No, of course not. Don’t be absurd!

S: And yet this thing that was not real–that was just symbolic or conceptual–had actual physiological effects?

[At this point Socrates breaks into his superiority dance.]

I think visualizing chi flow has positive benefits both mentally and physically. The mental benefits may be clear. The physical benefits result from putting oneself in the moment and conducting activities (deep breathing and movement) that help one de-stress. This process of de-stressing helps one to be healthier. Does it matter that one does the exercises as they have been handed down from ancient China? Probably not, but I believe that trial and error (even without complete information about anatomy and physiology) yield some impressive results. Of course, there are many other systems (e.g. yoga) that can work equal wonders using an approach that is quite different in its detail. (I also don’t believe in Chakras, but can imagine great benefits from behaving as if they exist.)

MindOverMedicineI just started reading a book by a medical doctor named Lissa Rankin. Rankin’s book, entitled Mind Over Medicine, presents evidence from a large body of scientific literature suggesting the mind often plays a major role in wellness by way of mechanisms that aren’t yet fully understood, but which defy the traditional view of Western medicine.

Rankin was intrigued by the vast number of anecdotal cases of what doctors call “spontaneous remissions.” Spontaneous remissions are when a patient becomes healthy in a way that defies explanation (i.e. they had no treatment, they had insufficient treatment, and they had an illness for with the body’s immune system is normally believed incapable of doing the job on its own.) She wasn’t satisfied with these one-off stories involving placebos, fake surgeries, busted radiology equipment, faith healing, etc, but rather wanted to see what the scientific literature contained by way of scientific double-blind studies on the subject.

She found there was evidence to support mind over matter when it came to illness, and that there was a fledgling explanatory literature. She also learned that while there was a large database of spontaneous remissions, there had not yet been an attempt to determine whether there were common characteristics of those who showed the “placebo effect” (getting well while being in the placebo group of a double-blind study) or other spontaneous remissions.

My point is that there is good reason for skeptics to consider that there may be a lot more to health and well-being than our current paradigm suggests.

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