Chi - from the physical to the ethereal

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Someone asked me to explain Chi and I thought I’d explain it in terms of the connection between the spiritual and the physical.  Then I realised like the old man, who is asked directions to some place, answers “You can’t get there from here.  If I were you, I’d start from someplace else.”

For the philosopher Descartes the universe was made up of two substances; mind and matter.  For him the human was both body, the physical thing that we see, and the mind, the thinking, self aware, observer.  Not an unusual view.  We all speak in terms of ownership.  I say “this is my car” and you understand that I’m referring to two things; the car and me, the “I” that owns it.  When I speak of my body I do the same; I refer to the body and me, the “I” that owns (lives in) it.  For Descartes the greatest problem was: if I am like a thinking spirit in a biological machine, how does the spirit/mind control the physical body?  If a ghost tried to drive a car, wouldn’t his hands go through the wheel and his feet slip through the pedals?
 
In many religions and spiritual ideas, it is not the existence of the spiritual that is ever a problematic issue, but how to reconcile the pure, the higher, the holy (pick your adjective) with the brute fact of the physical.  It’s like the guy who says, “I can get the idea of the holy God, but not when I look at the world around me”.  Or “When I’m sitting with my lover late in the evening I can believe that we pre existed this life, that we have somehow known each other in a previous life, that there is meaning and purpose to the lives of each of us.  But when I look at the drunken behaviour of the masses at kicking out time my belief is over stretched”.

It is often not the existence of some spiritual or even energetic (meaning having or of energy) reality beyond the physical universe of matter, time and space that is a problem, it is the bridge between that is a problem.  In some thinking, at the source is a timeless essence becoming tangible; the transcendent becoming immanent.  The heart of many philosophical systems is a description of this story.  The Tree of Life in Kabbalah is a sort of map of the process by which the eternal being, so beyond our understanding that we have no frame of reference, becomes present on this world.  Or/and it is a map of a human; plotting the levels from pure spiritual existence to physical presence in this universe.

Plato’s analogy of the cave was, in part, a description of how we, in this imperfect physical world, can relate to the eternal realm of ideas.

Another story might be of a spectrum of consciousness that has at one end our intellectual analysing mind, goes into our unconscious mind, a place of memories, attitudes and beliefs, passes through the physical zone of emotions and the chemicals that make their impact on our bodies.

Another story has our conscious minds creating blueprints of the future which our emotional imagination can create for us as an experience. The unconscious mind doesn’t care if the experience is real, imagined or remembered, the emotional experience will have the appropriate physical response.  This is the point where the experience is thrown out there for the universe to manifest as reality in your life.  This is sometimes called ‘the law of attraction’ and has been called ‘prayer’ or ‘magic’ at different times.

Quantum physics is the new boy on the block with a story of infinite possibilities; of particles in multiple places and nowhere at the same time, that aren’t really existing, but are actually just a number of potentials that will be manifested according to the attitude of a sentient observer.

Each of these stories is someone’s attempt to map out this journey on the continuum from the ephemeral noetic realm of timeless, spaceless, matterless being to the solid reality we live in.  Each story tries to make that connecting step when we gaze into the heavens and wonder at why there is something rather than nothing, when we consider that the universe did not have to exist, but does, when we walk into a cold hard lamp post and pain and the blood assures us that, not just the whole universe, but this particular lamp post shaped bit of it has a very immediate impact.

One of these maps comes from Taoism.  It describes the steps that are really a continuum of energy.  To make sense of it I’ll have to use modern western terminology. 

Our subconscious mind is in touch with our bodies through the emotions.  So, you think of a scenario and the bit of your brain that you aren’t really aware of (or at least, can’t directly control) sends chemicals out to the body that we experience as emotions.  (Its called the hypothalamous and the chemical messages are called peptides.)  You could say that emotions are the story we tell ourselves to make sense of these physical experiences.  Or they are the lines we draw to join up the dots of bodily affects.  Now at this level where subconscious mind meets body we generate a lot of what Carl Jung called ‘libido’ in a broad sense and one might call ‘psychic energy.’  This is Jing (or Ching) in Toaist thinking; the first of three types of energy.  It can be immediately controled to the extent that we can choose to control our thinking and thus influence our emotions at the level of bodily response.  The easiest way to learn to cultivate this energy is the most obvious and explains the sexual practices of the Jade Dragon and White Tigress teachings.  Hindu and Buddhist teachings have similar practices to cultivate control of this energy.  Jing is the energy nearest the physical, the least refined.

More ethereal than Jing is Chi (or Qi).  It is best understood by its effect.  The greater it is, the more joy, the more possitive someone feels; they will have increased vitality.  Perhaps harder to describe than to recognise.  Just below the navel and in the centre of your body is the Dan Tien.  In Hinduism this would be the second Chakra, a swirling disk of orange light.  The Dan Tien is where Chi is stored.  It comes in with the breath and can be used or directed anywhere else in the body or indeed out to elswhere.  All three kinds of energy work together and can’t easily be separated, like the colours in the spectrum, you can refer to three colours, but you can’t point to exactly where one becomes another.  However as Chi is the middle one it is used to describe any phenomina involving all three.

The highest and most ethereal energy is Shen.  It might be better to translate it as spirit.  It is pure mind; not as we often think of mind as a process, thinking, using logic, mental activity, but rather the underlying awareness.  Something like ‘attentive awareness’ might be a good translation.  The observer, the self aware “I” that is able to better know itself to be part of the whole.

It might help to say that Shen leads Chi which leads Jing.  It might help to say that Jing can be purified/refined/transformed into Chi which can be transformed into Shen and that this is the aim of spiritual development.

So the mind, through active thought, influences the unconscious generation of emotions and the energy of Jing, which can be refined to increase the Chi, strengthening the Shen that is the foundation of thought and, as you’d expect from Toaism, completes the circle.  Though not so much a circle, rather an upward spiral.

Jo-Sifu Mark Ringer - Norwich Kung Fu Academy