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reader comments: ch'i and chi kung

12 Jan 1997
I agree wholeheartedly with your appraisal of 'chi' - at least the 'chi' that you are aware of. The 'chi' bullshit in Kung Fu magazines is trash, pure and simple. That doesn't mean, however, that the notion of 'chi' is also trash.

I practiced Tai Chi for about 6 months while living in Austin, Texas. I was taught by a Chinese gentleman who had been practicing for twenty years, and had won the national Tai Chi competition in the U.S. some years before (how they compete was never explained to me.) I practiced mainly for two reasons: to gain a better sense of balance, and to gain more refined control of my body. The teacher taught of 'chi', but taught it in a way very different from the 'chi' that you have been exposed to. To him it was a very mundane thing, very straightforward and lacking the 'bullshit' factor. He seemed a very intelligent man, and very respectable (he was a graduate student at the University of Texas). He practiced Tai Chi for hours each day, and when asked why said that it was 'a very pleasurable' experience.

One of the students, while practicing with him one morning, apparently had a 'chi' experience which he described as being like 'a full body orgasm'. The teacher said that after the proper training, that would become an everyday occurrence for him, and us as well. Another described a sensation of an electric current going up his spine (a very enjoyable electric current, apparently!) It all seemed quite interesting, but I was skeptical, insisting that I had to be able to experience it before I would believe it.

The jist of the story is this: I did have an experience that I believe to be a 'chi' experience. It seemed to encompass sensations described by the two gentlemen I listed in the above paragraph. The feeling was of a sheath of electric current (not a cord, but a sheath stretching across the spine and partially through the muscles on either side of the spine as it ascends. The feeling was decidedly under the skin, near the bones. The 'current' passed up my back from the base of my spine and then passed forward, through my neck, stopping just behind the chin. It also branched down my right arm and terminated in the right ring and pinky fingers. An observer felt a decided 'twitching' in my right palm when it was touched.

I should also point out that this was not just an 'electric' feeling. It also felt like each discreet point along the current was 'orgasming'. A better description escapes me. Extremely pleasurable.

This feeling went on for about 10 minutes, and probably would have gone on longer if I had not decided to start moving around (I remained quite still for the duration of the time). The stopping point at my chin was also starting to annoy me a little (it seemed a touch more intense than the rest of the 'current'.)

Upon consultation with JingYu (the teacher), he said that it wasn't necessarily what should happen (he said that that sheath should have been more confined to the spine itself, and not the muscles to either side), but that it was a 'chi' experience nonetheless.

I have not had another experience since then (I actually had to stop taking lessons soon after that because I was extremely poor).

I can't necessarily be called a believer. Call me an 'experiencer'. I don't expect you to believe any of it. Make an attempt, and you may experience it. I certainly don't feel it was 'supernatural' in any way. It felt like a natural extension of normal experiences. What it is exactly, I don't know, but I experienced something that was far more pronounced than normal physical sensations. The 'current' aspect was novel, but did not seem 'unnatural'.

If you have any questions concerning this, please feel free to write.
Chris Nelson 

reply: Chi as electric orgasm? Hmmm. Now there's a concept that should catch on. You sure you haven't been using The Stimulator as advertised by Evil Kneival?


6 Feb 1997
According to what I learned in my t'ai chi class, the martial arts aspect of chi came directly from the natural motions of the body experienced during meditation. The basic t'ai chi meditation posture is to stand with knees straight but not locked, feet shoulder-width apart, relaxed, with the hands held a couple of inches away from the midpoint between the crotch and the bellybutton, palms in, as if holding your belly. After a bit of practice you feel a slight "force" impelling your hands to move in a circular pattern, as if you were caressing a ball. It's rather strange but unmistakable and everyone feels it. If one stands like that long enough and relaxes enough, the sense of your body wanting to move in a particular pattern spreads. According to the myth, the motions of the t'ai chi forms came from these natural motions of the body. In my experience, meditating for a while before going through the forms made me feel as though my body "knew" exactly how the movements went. It was as though my limbs were leading me, and indeed I found myself performing the motions slightly differently after meditating, as
though my body was correcting me.

Decent studies-- null-hypothesis, double-blind, statistically analyzed-- of the effects of acupuncture, chi-kung, etc are few and far between, but at least it's obvious that these techniques do produce _some_ effect, and some of the metaphors used to describe the body in eastern medicines do have physically measurable correlates. The acupuncture points and meridians, for instance, are detectable using galvanic electrical skin- resistance equipment.

Some of the effects can easily be theorized in terms familiar to us; e.g.. practicing t'ai chi trains the body to make more efficient use of balance, muscles and tendons, resulting in increased physical strength. Some of the effects are not so amenable to explication. I have had the experience of having a fairly nasty flu completely cleared up in the space of a few hours of intensive t'ai chi "moving meditation". (I wasn't eating, drinking, or taking medicine; I was up for two nights straight writing a term paper, smoking like a fiend and popping No-Doz. By all accounts I should've _died_. I began a 2-3 hour t'ai session at 2am with a high fever, aching muscles, and a killer cough. By the time the sun rose I felt fabulous.)

reply: Just when I thought you were making sense, you tell me you cured a nasty flu in a matter of hours by meditating. I can believe the part about the smoking and the No-Doz; I doubt if you should have died from them.

One can invoke the placebo theory, but then the question of "how can meditating cure a flu?" becomes "how can the belief that meditating will cure a flu... cure a flu?". We can only begin to speculate at the answer to either question. It is quite likely that the effects of such techniques can be explained in terms of lymph, neurotransmitters, body chemistry. It is also possible that there are biophysical dynamics at play here that remain as yet undiscovered by western science.

reply: We don't need to invoke any theory since all we have is your self-evaluated anecdote.

The most salient critique of both mysticism and objectivism seems to me to be its _arrogance_. Consider that to a modern quantum physicist, the notion of describing physical interactions in terms of "particles" is wholly inadequate. We now know that what we previously perceived as "particles" are really a manifestation of quantum energy. Our ignorance of the nature of particles didn't stop us from exploring and exploiting them. More to the point, it didn't stop us from explaining them in the terms available to us at the time. And equally importantly, we were able to discard our old terms and adopt new ones when the old terms had outlived their usefulness. It's like the old joke about Ms. Right or Ms. Right Now. There may be an objective truth to something, but in the meantime you choose the metaphors that work for you and keep an open mind. Of course it is asinine to declare that chi is a pure metaphysical force with no physical correlate. But until we have a better metaphor, speaking of "blocked chi" and "polarity" will have to do. 

reply: Speaking this way may have to do for you, but it won't do for me. Sorry.

Also consider, just as a tease, that the ancient Chinese conception of chi unnervingly parallels these quantum physical models-- their description of chi, as a substance permeating the universe and manifesting itself occasionally as matter, is quite similar in a number of aspects to our current conception of the "quantum foam" (cf. recent NY Times article on the subject of quantum foam). And the ancient Chinese were speaking of spatial and temporal relativism while we were still afraid of falling off the edge of the earth. (There's an excellent, down-to-earth book on these parallels called The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, a physicist at UC Berkeley.) The objectivist skeptic might call this coincidence. The Buddhist--and the quantum physicist-- would say that we have both arrived at this observation from different points.

Anyway, thanks for the good work.
David Liebman 

reply: the concept of chi "unnervingly parallels" the concepts of quantum physics??? I don't think so. If chi manifested itself even once a century as physical matter, we'd know all about it. As for Capra's book, I read it years ago and thought it did a good job of explaining the physics and the religions, but is was completely inept when it tried to unite the two. When quantum physics reduces reality to nothingness, then it will have arrived at Buddhism.


9 Apr 1997
I have practiced martial arts for over 15 years and I don't believe in the existence of chi (other than as metaphor). I believe that the standard 'tricks' used to demonstrate chi, such as the unbendable arm and making yourself heavier, are just a combination of suggestion and subtle
bio-mechanics.

Many martial arts have become far removed from their roots as life or death systems of close combat, and have strayed more and more into mysticism. It seems that there is an inverse correlation between the amount a martial artists talks about chi and they amount of time they spend sparring/competing with uncooperative opponents. If chi is so great why is it never mentioned by judo champions - probably because the judo champions are too busy practicing their technique and doing weights to worry about chi!

My (rather down to earth) ju-jitsu instructor tells of the time he and some of his students went to a class of another martial art. The instructor of this class told two of them to hold on to his wrists, and then made a sweeping movement of his arms. They didn't move an inch. They didn't realize they were supposed to have been thrown and be flying through the air! This move apparently worked brilliantly on the instructors own pupils.
Over time this instructor's pupils must have become conditioned to throw themselves - probably without even realizing it. This is the danger of practicing martial arts without any form of reality check from time to
time.

There is only one secret in the martial arts - train hard!

Your dictionary is an excellent resource. Long may it continue!
Andy Brice


16 May 1997

Just because you can spell "Ch'i" doesn't mean that you know something about what Ch'i is. In fact, you know nothing in terms of what Ch'i really is. For it does not carry the sense of the meaning, Ch'i has no meaning in English. For Ch'i to have meaning, we have to give it one first. Ch'i is an idea originated in ancient Chinese legends (which can be found in Yellow Emperor Classics, also known as Nei-Ching or Su-Wen). The meaning of the idea is encrypted in a Chinese character. The character of Ch'i is formed with two parts. The upper part is a character means air-like substance/characteristic, and the bottom part means "rice," which is a main stable food of Chinese people, is used to represent food. Put it together, the character of Ch'i transcends an idea of "the substance of the transformation of the food we eat." Ch'i is the energy of life. As long as you are alive, there is Ch'i. However, between "what is the original idea" to "what is transmitted (in Chinese)" to "what is received (in English)" to "what is interpreted" to "what you know," how much about Ch'i do you really know?

As Ch'i is the energy of life, the way you breathe is a function of Ch'i, the way you move your body is a function of Ch'i, even the way you think (so is your entire knowledge) is a function of Ch'i, and the mere metabolism of your living cells is a function of Ch'i. The problem is you don't know that, the analytical method that you rely on so dearly does not provide you a clue on what you don't know. And you are so arrogant, you wouldn't even know if Ch'i also happens in yourself.

Ch'i is easily explainable if you have sufficient scientific knowledge. The substance of Ch'i is pressure, and the appearance of Ch'i is force. As force is the effect of pressure, and pressure is the substance of force, pressure and force cannot exist alone. Without force, pressure has no effect, and without pressure, force ceases to exist. Ch'i is used to represent the energy of the two as a whole.

Our bodies are composed of mostly water, thus a closed hydraulic system. A closed hydraulic system follows the rules of the hydraulic principle, that is, when one part of the system is experiencing a change of pressure, the whole system will be experiencing the same effect at the same time (a good example is the hydraulic braking system in an automobile). As biochemical energy is not in the Ch'i culture, we concentrate the explanation only on the aspect of physical mechanics of Ch'i.

There are only two ways to generate pressure within our bodies' hydraulic system; one is breathing, the other is the mass. The common knowledge about force is to use mass (body and limbs), such as various punching and kicking and other fighting techniques, which basically are techniques of moving the mass to generate pressure to generate force. However, the experts of Ch'i use breathing to generate extra pressure to enhance the techniques even more, thus achieve a super ability. A super ability doesn't have to be supernatural. In the hands of a master, a fist can be changed to a solid block of mass, or to a lighter–than–air void at the "blinking" of the mind, Ch'i is magical.

Now, you have learned the explanation, so you know what is Ch'i, right? Not at all. Without empirical experience you don't even know what you know is real or illusory. The problem with your half-baked scientific knowledge is that you don't know there is big [black] hole in the scientific knowledge: beyond those hollow notations and numbers, science can never tells you "what" is the substance (or essence) of the reality that it measured. The true reality is, as Dr. Einstein once put it, "purchased at the price of emptiness of content." ("The universe and Dr. Einstein," Lincoln Barnett, Bantam Books)

If you are really interesting in finding out what Ch'i is all about instead of B.S. around, there are three things I can recommend: T'ai-Chi-Skiing, Kendo, and Zen Archery. When you can DO any one of them, you will have learned what Ch'i is.

You can post this article only in its entirety non-edited, however, don't bother to comment, as you cannot do what you say, your words will be of little interest to us Ch'i practitioners. Please don't comment on something you don't know, which makes you look like the people that you criticized.
Ichin Shen
Xian-Sheng,
School of Tao Martial Arts 

reply: I can tell by Mr. Shen's tone than he is a superior being and quite at peace with himself and the universe. I have honored his request not to edit his words, but I will comment because many of my readers are not ch'i practitioners.

Mr. Shen's claim that ch'i has no meaning in English and his attempt to explain its meaning in English reminds me of the mystics who proclaim that divine union is ineffable and then proceed to describe it in great lengths, using lots of light and sexual metaphors. In any case, Mr. Shen is correct in a profound way: ancient Chinese characters nor more have an exact analogue in English than do the Mona Lisa or a Beethoven concerto. A literal translation of those characters might be something as crude as "rice makes gas." Still, I don't think the way ch'i is usually translated into English as a life-force or energy is far from the same mark set by Mr. Shen.

What Mr. Shen considers arrogance, I consider to be a difference of opinion. To me, it is the combination of various material elements which gives rise to life, not life which gives animation to dead matter. He believes that in addition to things which are watery or which have force and create pressure there is also a realm of being behind these appearances which is their real basis. In Western philosophy, we call this belief "realism" and its denial "nominalism." Mr. Shen is in good company (Plato, for example), but so are we nominalists. We consider it arrogant to assume realms of reality unnecessarily and then declare those who do not agree with you are ignorant and deficient.

Simply because a person's health can improve if they breath properly does not mean that the explanation ought to be couched in terms of such metaphysical entities as ch'i. Some of us prefer explanations in terms of oxygen carried by the blood. Breathing is magical enough without ch'i.

Mr. Shen's reply: As you said, I'm quite at peace with myself and the universe, and am still enjoy the thrills of living, doing T'ai Chi Skiing and T'ai Chi Roller Blading without ever the need to assume that there's oxygen that I have to breathe in. The modern-day science has power to destroy the earth thousand times over, however, it takes higher power to keep us alive. Why not give Ch'i a try?

reply: Why not, indeed? You keep sucking in your ch'i; I'll stick to oxygen for the time being. 


15 Jun 1997 21:

In the year since you included my short letter in your article on Chi Kung I've watched your encyclopedia grow. Every Saturday I shake my head with amazement as I find new and revised entries, and links to more skeptical resources. In a word, "wow!" I wish there was some way that skeptics could reward you for it. Get it published. Sell a million copies. Make a fortune. Retire and play golf all day. But somehow I suspect that even if you did sell a million copies, you wouldn't quit hacking away at the purveyors of the paranormal.

This morning I read the letter from "Master Shen" under the entry on Chi Kung. My initial reaction was to say, as James Randi would, "codswallop!"

But, it's possible, I suppose, that there is an energy field called "chi" coursing through one's body, the mastery of which permits one to suspend the laws of physics, and it's possible, too, I suppose, that western science has thus far totally failed to detect it in any way. It's also possible that I am a Jedi, like my father before me, and that I am going to learn the ways of the Force.

Mr. Shen's claims are familiar ones. I heard them all the time. The first is, "you don't understand." The second is, "you've never experienced it." The third is, "we can make you understand and experience it." This is called marketing.

Here's what happens: you take up Tai Chi or Aikido or whatever, and work hard for five years because you enjoy being fit and it's fun to do a sport that's a little bit different. Still no Chi, though. "Ahh," the master says, "it takes longer." He smiles knowingly. So you work at it for another two years. Still no Chi. "It takes longer," the master says, getting irritated, "and by the way, our membership rates are going up." Okay. So you keep working, and keep signing those cheques. Ten years now, about as long as it takes to get a PhD. Still no Chi. You confront the master one day. The master, setting the alarm on his new four door sedan, says, "I'm sorry. You're just not working hard enough / devoted enough / humble enough / responsible enough to learn these deadly secrets that my master passed on to me in the old country."

About five years ago I took part in a Kung-Fu demonstration during a multi-cultural festival called "panorama" in my hometown. It was fun, and I got to wave a sword around. As part of the demonstration, my teacher surprised me by asking me to hit and kick him, as hard as I could, in the stomach, chest, and so forth. I did, to no effect. Everyone was amazed, the audience applauded, we left, and the highland dancers came on. How do you do it? I asked my teacher. His answer: "Chi Kung". A few months later, working out for an afternoon in a boxing gym, I saw a local pugilist (who went to the Olympics) taking a similar pounding from a sparring partner with a medicine ball. How does he do that? I asked his trainer, a crusty old man. His answer: "No brain, no pain."

Well, that's Chi Kung in a nutshell, I think.
Graham Broad

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