What is qi? This question seems to haunt the study of the internal martial arts. Some practitioners take the view that the mention of qi in traditional training methods is a quaint and antiquated concept with no practical application. I disagree. The masters of old were often sparse in their instruction - they did not throw out useless concepts.
My own introduction to qi came through Chen style TaiChi and Qigong, pressure point fighting in Ryukyu Kempo and from the study of several holistic healing modalities based on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Because my initial exposure to internal healing and martial arts was nearly simultaneous, they have served to support each other and have provided a better perspective in understanding qi. That is the perspective I want to share here.
The first thing to understand about TCM is that it is based on the holistic philosophy of Taoism. And, that modern quantum physics finds a great deal in common with Taoism. At the root of both is the common principle that “everything is energy”. This single concept unites matter and energy for the physicist (E=MC2) and the “ten thousand things” of creation for the Taoist. Everything that exists, - solid, liquid or gas – thought, feeling and emotion – alive or not, is ultimately understood through the atomic and subatomic energy states. Everything is energy, and energy and its expressions are the language of both TCM and the internal martial arts. We are either restoring energy balance (healing) or creating an energy imbalance (martial).
In TCM the term “qi” is used to define a very broad range of energy and information combinations. Basically, qi is a communication medium. It has two major parts – energy (wave form) and information (data / instructions carried on/in/by the wave form). It is “life force”? Yes, because it carries energy and information between the body’s organs and cells that sustain life. This sounds like the body’s central nervous system doesn’t it? It is. TCM sees no separation between the digital central nervous system and the analog “current of injury / repair” that flows through the meridian system. The general term “qi” is holistic as it relates to all the body’s energy systems.
Specific to TCM the overall term qi may describe the body’s three treasures (jing, qi, shen) as different qi states and at the same time be descriptive of the central qi state associated with the middle dantian. Qi can be prenatal (yuan qi) or post natal (zheng qi). Post natal qi could be food qi (gu qi) or “air qi”. There is also meridian qi (jing luo qi) and organ qi (zang fu qi) and so it goes, with many divisions and types of qi. Each type of qi represents different combinations of energy and information specific to their function.
As the body’s communication medium, qi is an indicator of what occurs within. This means that qi is an invaluable tool for the internal healer and martial artist, providing insight into all that goes on in his / her body as well as the body of the patient / opponent. We all have the innate ability to both sense (see and feel) and manipulate qi. We do this constantly at the subconscious level as a part of the body’s autonomic functions. The subconscious mind monitors literally millions of bits of information per second. Through awareness training, the internal healer / martial artist can selectively monitor the information contained in the qi medium. This is a matter of using awareness and intention to bring the conscious / logical mind into sync with the subconscious. In the martial arts, one aspect of this is called “listening (ting) jin”. In Western terms this is probably best expressed as a combination of interoception and exteroception.
There is an axiom in internal studies that goes as follows. “The body leads the mind, the mind leads the qi and the qi leads the body.” This axiom reflects how qi is woven into and utilized by the internal arts. Based on this axiom, qi skills are at the heart of all internal training. The ability to manipulate qi comes from the relationship between thought and qi. Simply put, thought is qi - both are energy and information. The energy of the mind can link directly to the qi energy of the body – body and mind are one, not separate. An example of qi in internal training is seen in meditation.
The Wild Goose system seated and standing meditations (jing gongs) begin with the “open awareness” meditation. Open awareness is an observational meditation, where one sits quietly and observes the thoughts and energy flows of the body. We do not attach to what we observe, but allow the observation to continue unimpeded. If we find we have allowed the logical mind to pursue a thought or energy sensation, we then allow our attention to return to just observing. This cycling between observation and following a thought or energy, represents the meditation cycle. When our observation takes in these thoughts and energy flows, we are working with qi.
When our observations find disturbances in the qi, this is evidence of a blockage - some retained stress from an injury, illness or emotional trauma. When we can observe such blockages, the observational method shifts to one of dissolving the blockage and directing it out of the body. As these blockages are cleared, our thought process is refined. (In the Wild Goose system, there are multiple meditations that work on qi balancing, circulation and clearing.)
Consider the evolution of a thought as a bubble rising from the bottom of a lake. Think of the bottom of the lake as pure consciousness - the source of all thought. As the thought is born, the bubble rises and its size and clarity are affected by the surrounding water. Think of the surrounding water of the lake as the ego or individual personality. The ego is constructed of all the positive and negative life experiences that combine to color our thoughts. When the bubble breaks the surface it explodes – in the case of the thought it has been colored by the ego before it bursts onto the conscious mind.
When we use qi to clear the blockages caused by previous stressors, it is like turning the waters of our imaginary lake crystal clear. This clearing results in a more efficient process where a “true thought” emerges into the conscious mind, unencumbered by the individual ego. This moves us toward the goal of the internal arts which is to operate from this unencumbered state of pure consciousness.