By Michael Turk
Today qi is commonly referred to as energy, yet qi is a mystery to modern science. In Chinese philosophy, qi is a subtle substance that pervades space; in Chinese medicine, qi is a physical sensation described as the feeling of something strange moving in the body experienced by patients who receive acupuncture or moxibustion.
Scientists and scholars may disagree about the existence of qi, but traditional Chinese medical dictionaries all agree that the sensation of qi felt during acupuncture indicates a successful response to insertion. Some scholars discuss the question: Is qi matter or energy? And is that even the question?
What is qi? Is it matter, energy, spirit, or something else? And how will knowing what it is help explain the concept of qi? Sometimes authors look to the Greek words pneuma or psyche. Pneuma is a name for “air inside the body” and psyche is a term for “spirit,” used to distinguish between “living and nonliving things.” When qi, an Eastern concept, is compared to Western concepts such as ether, energy, or spirit, these different concepts cannot be substituted for the true meaning of qi in Chinese philosophy.
I will use the Chinese pinyin spelling “qi” rather than try to find a good English word to translate the term “qi.”
To get a better idea of the term “qi,” let’s examine its use in the well-known 5th-century BCE humorous story from the Liezi that tells about a man from the state of Qi (same sound, different tone and character) who was worried the heavens might collapse and fall into pieces, depriving him of food and sleep.
A friend consoled him with “Heaven is only an accumulation of qi; that same qi is everywhere. Why then do you worry about a collapse of heaven?”
The man said, “If it’s true that heaven is an accumulation of qi, why don’t the sun, moon, and stars fall down to earth?”
His friend replied, “Those bright lights are only shining masses of condensed qi. Even if they did fall they wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
The man continues to question and his friend continues to give answers until a sage declares, “What does it matter? One cannot know when the end will come. Why then worry if the world will be destroyed or not?”
Here qi seems to be a subtle substance found everywhere. This is not the complex theory of qi found in traditional Chinese medicine. A fundamental theory of ancient medicine is the theory that many types of qi form a complex interacting system found everywhere in the human being.
The next author Xun Zi (312-230 BCE) makes a distinction between qi and life, two agents of change. He then explains the role qi plays in the lives of people and the power people have in controlling the qi in their lives.
Xun discusses the concepts of qi, life, awareness, and judgment, stating that all can change the world. The subtle qi of water and fire changes things but has no life; furthermore, some living things have awareness but only people possess judgment. Therefore people have qi, life, awareness, and judgment. Judgment is the power to distinguish and influence change.
All ideas and theories are in the head, but the experience of qi is in the body. Patients receiving the traditional Chinese method of acupuncture experience qi regularly. Though the sensation can be uncomfortable, it is a favorable sign. Patients say qi sensations feel as if they are radiating, tingly, achy, heavy, and various other sensations. The qi sensation changes with the diagnosis and how the needle is inserted.
One of my patients, Erica D. says, “Sometimes it feels like a small energy bomb shooting sensations like beams toward distant parts of the body.”
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