“When you find the Qi, it will amaze you. When you cultivate Qi you will discover something new every day. Some of what you discover will be realizations about nature and your surroundings. And some of what you discover will be revelations of the inner realm and your own true nature.”—From a quote within a quote from Roger Jahnke’s “The Healing Promise of Qi,” McGraw-Hill, 2002
I love the scientific method. I learned about it in my first psych class at Oberlin College, in 1960—learned that you form a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis, controlling for every variable except the one you’re testing. Your results have to be replicable, and statistically significant. None of this “well, my brother-in-law drank a lot of prune margaritas and now is in remission from colon cancer, so prune margaritas must be a cure for colon cancer.”
In 1960, Oberlin’s psych department was dedicated to psychology as science. We were interested in that which could be observed, measured, tested. We put rats in Skinner boxes, which were translucent plastic boxes not much bigger than a bread box with a bar the rat could push to get food or water. Sometimes the rat would push the bar and there would be food or water, sometimes there wouldn’t; we’d vary the “reinforcement schedule” of “would” or “wouldn’t” to see how it affected how quickly the rat would learn that pushing the bar was the thing to do.
Poor rats, all pointy-nosed and skinny-tailed and yellow-white. They were hungry, or thirsty, depending on the experiment, and some of them became quite anxious and dysfunctional when put in a Skinner box. But this was science. Measurement, not hearsay. Objectivity, not subjectivity.
I am 70 now and devoting myself to the absolutely unscientific pursuit of qi (which is pronounced “chee” and sometimes written “chi” in accord with an older system of writing Chinese words using the same letters we use to write English).
You can’t see qi. You can’t measure it, at least not using conventional means. You can’t really even define it. I can say that qi means “life energy,” but what, exactly, does that tell you?
And yet I spend hours standing by the window in my study slowly, very slowly, moving my arms, rising, sinking, sometimes bending down, using my hands to build and balance the qi in my body and connect with the qi of the universe. My neighbors probably think I’m nuts. I attend evening classes and weekend seminars—so many that I have memorized the password to my PayPal account from paying for them. I become elated, I despair, I doubt, I discover.
I can’t tell you what qi is—only that I can feel it. And that feeling it is changing my life.
The Chinese word for the practice of cultivating one’s qi is qigong. There are thousands of different systems of qigong, including the many forms of taiji. (Yes, you will often see taiji spelled tai chi and pronounced “tai-chee,” but it really should be pronounced more like “tai-jee,” and according to the current system of writing Chinese words using Roman letters, pinyin, the proper spelling is “taiji.”) (For the record, pinyin was devised for Chinese use, not for the benefit of English-speakers, which is why we must deal with things like “q” sounding like “ch” and “x” sounding like “sh.”)
Most Americans have heard of taiji. They know it’s movement done slowly, and they may think it improves balance and keeps old people from falling and ending up in nursing homes. They may also have heard that it’s a form of meditation, and that it can help people of all ages relax and de-stress. There’s less talk, at least in mainstream media, about qigong.
When I started studying taiji 10 years ago, I was primarily seeking a form of meditation. I was still working and probably sleep-deprived, and when I sat down to meditate, I invariably nodded off. I figured if I were upright and moving, I wouldn’t fall asleep.
I did stay awake doing taiji, although I was working so hard trying to do the form correctly that for a long time, it didn’t feel much like meditation.
However, eventually, at least some of the time, doing taiji began to feel quite delicious. I would use words like expansiveness and flow, even honey and butter, trying to tell people how I felt—but I never used the word “qi.”
My teacher, Martin Mellish, used the word so matter-of-factly that it didn’t seem appropriate to ask what, exactly, he meant by “qi” or to say that I didn’t feel anything distinct from the rest of my body. To me, the word “qi” was like the word “god,” which means very different things to different people. Using it made me nervous.
This became a problem when I started teaching taiji to a small group at my church . How could I teach taiji without using the word “qi” when everybody else used it as if its meaning were obvious? “Qi” was the proverbial elephant in the room: It had to at least be acknowledged.
So I tried. I’d define qi the way most books do: I’d tell my students that qi was life energy—which, to my mind, was a real cop-out because it sounded like an explanation when really it explained nothing at all. Once I shared that a Seattle taiji teacher had told me he thought qi was endorphins coursing through the body. Another time I took one of my qigong books to class and read a list of ways that qi might be experienced. The list ranged from sensations like warmth and tingling to emotions like expansiveness and even bliss.
I hated the list. What sort of thing has so many seemingly unrelated characteristics? But the list was at least something I could offer my students; it was a nod to the elephant.
Looking back, I realize that by then, I was actually experiencing some of the things on the list, but what I experienced seemed so ordinary, I didn’t see how it could be qi, and I still had trouble getting the “q” word out of my mouth without feeling embarrassed.
Martin always started his taiji classes with a bow. We’d close our eyes and he’d talk us through postural imagery. He’d say that Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, was offering us golden cords to support our heads so that the rest of our bodies could relax, our shoulders could drop, our spines could lengthen, our tailbones could sink towards the earth. Then he’d say, “Let your arms float upward to the level of your heart, and let your hands be drawn together as if by some force, and bow.” And I would think, “Well, OK, but I’m going to open one eye to make sure my hands don’t miss each other in mid-air.”
When I started teaching taiji, I began each of my classes with a similar programmatic bow—and I always included the part about the hands being drawn together as if by some force. I did it because that’s what Martin did—but also because I thought that even though it didn’t mean anything to me, maybe it would mean something to some of my students, and I didn’t want to deprive them of it.
Then one night, at least a year after I started teaching, as I was saying the words about hands being drawn together with no more expectation than ever before that I would feel any unseen force, precisely that happened: My right hand was sucked toward my left hand.
I was blown away. This was qi. This was something I’d never felt before, something I could neither explain nor deny. I told my students what had just happened. One of them, a good friend, thanked me for sharing that I had experienced that force for the first time because she had never felt anything and thought it was a shortcoming on her part.
That moment changed everything. Qi existed. I knew I had to explore it, I had to know it. A door had opened into an aspect of existence that previously had been hidden from me. All my life I had tried very hard to understand life and the human experience without much success. I had come to realize that words could only get me so far. I had wanted to meditate to get beyond words. And now here was something, not much really, but something that might be the key.
You don’t have to have read a lot of science to know that while we may feel pretty darned solid, we are really mostly energy, an orchestration of tiny particles whizzing about in otherwise empty space. In that moment when my hands were pulled together I had felt some aspect of the energy that was me, that was life, that was the universe. I was amazed, I was excited—and I was grateful.
I didn’t know that this experience would also undercut the way I judged whether something was crazy or made sense and that I would become a lot less certain about a lot of things. But more about that later.
I only knew that I needed to study qigong.
Curiously, I no longer experience qi the way I did in that first pivotal moment, when my right hand was sucked towards my left. I feel energy between my hands, but it’s more subtle and complex. Sometimes I’ll think, “Well, I guess that sucking feeling was what it took to get my attention”—and then I can hear a voice in the logic centers of my brain saying, “Barbara, Barbara, Barbara, what kind of talk is that? Do you really think there is something wanting to get your attention?” Who knows?
Today, I feel comfortable speaking the word “qi”—and I would describe it using pretty much the same terms as were in the list I once read to my students. As warmth, as tingling, as expansiveness and sometimes even euphoria. I would also say that to me, qi can feel like a density, a presence, a pressure. And it moves, or doesn’t. It flows, it billows, it streaks, it swirls; it’s faint or strong; it drags its heels and doesn’t seem to want to go where I think it ought to go next—or, whoosh, there it just went. Sometimes, it can feel incredibly heavy, and I wonder if I’m building my biceps guiding my qi.
Qi is real. It is something, perhaps many things, or perhaps many manifestations of the same thing. And it’s calling to me.