This article was originally written for The Dragontree
When someone asks me to explain Chinese medicine, I start by saying that without Qi, there is no Chinese medicine. (Qi – “chee” – used to be written as “chi” or “ch’i.”) Qi is often translated as “vital energy.” Really, it’s the stuff the universe is made of. When Qi is densely packed, we perceive it as solid matter. In diffuse form, Qi manifests as less tangible things, like gases, heat, and smells.
Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai (1020-1077) wrote, “The Great Void [the space that contains everything] consists of Qi. Qi condenses to become the myriad things. Things, of necessity, disintegrate and return to the Great Void. If Qi condenses, its visibility becomes effective and physical form appears. Every birth is a condensation, every death a dispersal. Birth is not a gain, death not a loss.”
In the context of health, Qi is used mostly to refer to the energy that animates us – which is called Human Qi (Ren Qi). Human Qi can be subdivided into a number of different types based on its functions. Qi is used to as a general term to express one’s overall state of vitality, our total energy, or True Qi (Zhen Qi). A healthy person can be said to have an abundance of Qi or strong Qi. A weak or ill person may likely have a deficiency of Qi and/or stagnation of Qi. Disease factors in the body are referred to as Pathogenic Qi (Xie Qi). The overall capacity of the immune system is referred to as our Righteous Qi (Zheng Qi), which circulates at the surface of the body as our Defensive Qi (Wei Qi). The vital essence (oxygen) we extract through breathing is known as Clear Qi (Qing Qi), Great Qi (Da Qi) or Heavenly Qi (Tian Qi). The food we eat also contains energy, which is called Food Qi (Gu Qi).
Qi has a diverse range of definitions – including breath, air, ether, vapor, spirit, vitality, flow, scent, and matter. No single English word can unite all these ideas, but “energy” works better than any other word I can think of, especially if we consider that energy and matter are one. The ancient Chinese didn’t differentiate the two, and ever since Einstein came up with his famous equation to express this idea (E=mc2) the West has been catching up.
While everything is composed of Qi, differences in quality, configuration, and density yield different substances and phenomena. Likewise, all atoms are made up of the same basic subatomic particles (electrons, protons, and neutrons), but different configurations of these particles may result in gold, carbon, or oxygen, and combinations of atoms give us an infinite array of living and nonliving, visible and invisible things. If we look deeper into subatomic particles, superstring theory tell us they’re not really “particles” in the usual sense, but more like vibrating strands of energy. Strands of different lengths give us different kinds of matter, similar to how the different strings on a guitar produce different tones. In the same way, people are Qi and rocks are Qi – Qi of different qualities and configurations, but ultimately the same basic stuff.
Science is able to explain most mechanisms of the human body and disease, but it lacks an overarching explanation of life itself and the intelligence through which everything works as a unified whole. Perhaps such a task would be less elusive if Qi were part of the vocabulary of science. Beyond the ways in which it informs the practice of Chinese medicine, Qi theory can be of great value in broadening our understanding of health and life itself. It can also help us feel more connected to the world.
Qi theory becomes even more scientifically plausible when we consider some well-established facts of “solid” matter. Every atom consists of a tiny nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. Surrounding this, and accounting for essentially the entire volume of the atom, is a negatively charged “cloud,” occupied by one or more electrons. The electrons themselves are referred to as “point particles” – they don’t really have any volume, but simply give a negative electrical charge to the region they occupy.
If an atom were blown up to the size of a football stadium, the nucleus (the only part of the atom with any significant mass) would be the size of a marble at the center of the field. This means that for every marble-sized nucleus, there is a region of negatively-charged empty space surrounding it, proportional to the size of a football stadium. Therefore, atoms, the things that comprise all matter, are over 99.9999999999999% empty space. And the parts that aren’t empty space – the particles – aren’t really particles, but vibrating strands of energy. So, there you have it.
If everything is essentially empty space, why can’t we walk through walls? As I see it, there are three main reasons. First, in the same way that the same poles of two magnets will repel each other, the negative charges of the electron clouds of the atoms of your body repel the negative charges of the atoms of the wall. This prevents one thing from moving through another. Actually, physicists tell us that whenever two objects come into contact, there is no “real” contact. That is, the negative charges of the surface atoms repel each other and will not allow them, on an atomic level, to actually touch. Even in the case of a wrecking ball smashing into a building or a knife cutting into an apple, the atoms’ charges just push one another out of the way.
The second reason you can’t walk through a wall is that even though you’re mostly empty space and the wall is, too, because of the way your atoms and the wall’s atoms are packed together, there’s no room for anything else there. It’s true that it’s mostly empty space, but it’s also true that it’s empty space occupied by energy.
Finally there’s this: you can’t walk through a wall because you don’t believe it’s possible. No matter how much you convince yourself of Qi and how everything is mostly empty space, chances are you have some extremely deep “agreements” with yourself and the world about the basic laws of reality. You’ve seen solid objects collide way too many times. The mind is almost incapable of allowing a different outcome – of allowing itself to be wrong about such a fundamental thing.
This is also why we so rarely witness miracles, why so much of the “paranormal” is relegated to New Age bookstores and cable television specials. When we experience something that conflicts with our very deepest beliefs about the world, the mind instantly reinterprets it in a way that doesn’t conflict with anything.
Speaking of which, while apprenticing under a senior acupuncturist early in my career, I treated a man who had undergone intensive training as a Native American shaman. The culmination of his training was that he and all his comrades had to jump through the skin of a very large drum. All I can tell you is that he lived to recount this story and he didn’t strike me as delusional, a druggie, or a liar. When we start to open to the possibility that any and all of our beliefs could be wrong, that we really don’t know anything for absolute certain, the world shows us things that push our mental envelope.
It may help loosen the envelope to know that natural phenomena already “break the rules.” Back to things passing through other things, we’re far more permeable than we believe. For instance, as our sun burns through the process of nuclear fusion, it continuously emits tiny particles called neutrinos, and about one million billion (1,000,000,000,000,000) of them pass through our body every second.
So what? The reason I have discussed this energetic matrix at such length is because if this is what we are – 99.9999999999999% empty space with a little bit of vibrating energy – it makes the prospect of altering the body through subtle means more plausible. What, after all, do we need to change but a little energy and lots of empty space? Not only should change be possible, but the timeline required should be much shorter than we would expect through conventional medicine.
Dr. Peter Borten
Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten