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Musings for the Modern Mystic

Chi. Is it real? Or just an old, out-moded mystical belief that stubbornly refuses to die? Here we look at the history, science & techniques of chi...

How To Use Chi Energy: What It Is and Where It Comes From

'How do you relax?' 'Oh you know... chai tea, tai chi...' ~ Lisa Simpson Share on X

So. You’ve come to this article because you want to learn how to use chi energy. While we will indeed get to it, the first thing that must be done is to throw out all of those terrible habits you’ve developed over the years while surfing for information on the internet. If you’re serious about really learning how to use chi energy, it’s absolutely fundamental to slow down before you do anything else.

This means no skimming, no jumping the gun, no anxiously pushing for instant gratification because (even though you may be unaware of it) you feel perpetually ‘out of time‘ — these things are the very antithesis of chi energy and the proper harnessing of it!

Believe it or not, there was once a time when people assimilated information in a manner far different than the frenetic pace we’ve all grown used to over the last couple of decades; that is, slowly, intently and with purpose. Just as one must chew their food fully before swallowing it if they want digestion to take place properly, so it must be done with information that we truly want to integrate, especially when said information is about something as foundational as learning how to use chi energy.

So indulge me here. Settle in, relax, and pretend you’ve got one of those old-timey newspapers in your hands…

How To Use Chi Energy: A Witnessing Presence

You’ve probably come upon this awesome scene at least once in your life—most likely when you were walking through a park, enjoying the vitality of early morning nature: small groups of people, dressed in loose clothing, standing a few feet apart from each other, knees bent, faces lifted to the horizon, arms moving slowly and gracefully, as if making secret markings in the air.

It’s a compelling thing to witness, and maybe you were even tempted to stop for a while and take in this hypnotizing ritual a little more fully, but didn’t want to intrude.  So, you moved on, promising yourself to find out, at some point, what the whole thing was all about. But, maybe, other than discovering that you’ve witnessed a Tai Chi practice, you never really delved any deeper into the subject…

Starting With The Fundamentals (Literally)

While it is indeed possible to learn how to use chi energy without understanding the fundamentals — just as it is with anything, for that matter (think electricity) — you’ll fare far better down the road if you do. The integration of relevant foundational principles always makes the difference, in the end, between wielding a particular tool well, or masterfully. And while practice indeed makes ‘perfect’, your passage through the inevitable ‘obstacles’ you’ll encounter along the way will be far more smooth if you’re already in the know when it comes to certain basics.

Let’s break it down, going back to the Tai Chi practice in the park. The second word in Tai Chi is, of course, chi (sometimes spelled as qi). The literal translation of chi is “breath”, but the ancient Chinese used this figuratively to denote “life force”— in other words, that which makes us alive.

Indeed, having spent millennia observing and studying life in its myriad forms (which includes death, it must be noted, as no true philosophy can ever look at one without considering the other) the ancient Chinese, as with so many other cultures (which we’ll get more into below) formulated a belief system based on the recognition of an intrinsic, universal energy within, around, through and between everything — which includes, of course, nothing.

This concept formed the basis for Chinese medicine and the numerous practices derived thereof. These include Chi Kung, Falun Gong, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Acupressure and Acupuncture, Reflexology, Orgone Therapy, Pranayama, Yoga, Feng Shui, and Martial Arts. All of these were developed to improve the physical, mental and spiritual faculties of human beings together through the guiding and harnessing of chi energy. 

How? Well, when it comes to physical phenomena, no matter how dense, inert or vacuous its various manifestations may appear, all of it is, down to the most fundamental levels, in motion. Everything is vibration and frequency, and everything has optimal rates of both.

Understanding this is key when it comes to learning how to use chi energy, because not only is chi the fundamental energy at the heart of all matter, it’s within all of the patterns of expression that follow as well. So when you work with chi, you are working with flow. It is, quite literally, a holistic medicine.

Chi: Only One of Many Ancient Names

As with any system, when the energy at its heart is not trapped or stagnant, but flowing freely, it creates a state of optimal wellness—a healthy, strong, and vital physical expression in space and time. And this is what people who know how to use chi energy do: remove blockages to return optimal flow to the system and/or augment that flow for even better performance.

So people who work with and utilize chi could be seen as ‘systems technicians’ of a sort — body ‘engineers’ trained in both unclogging chi energy and practicing keeping it expressing well. However, there is a vital difference between engineers in most traditional fields and those working with chi energy: chi is a non-physical phenomenon. Thus, it is an ‘invisible’ energy that cannot be dealt with directly through empirical means — only its effects can be measured.

The caveat here, of course, is not the method itself, but the philosophy that’s grown up around it. Because materialism — which forms the foundational, automatic (unconscious) ‘operating system’ of beliefs that drives the western world and all of its dominant institutions — purports that if something can’t be directly measured, it doesn’t exist, the funding for such studies (until more recent years) has been virtually nil, and next to impossible to obtain.

This view has trickled down from the tip of the mountain to the rest of us, leaving the concept of “invisible energy” sounding rather abstract and fey, even to the everyday, regular consumer.

It may be surprising to learn, then, that while this view appears to be universal to most (due to mainstream media), it would likely be far from reality were one able to take a true consensus of the beliefs from all people around the world. And it certainly would not be confined to the world of the ancient Chinese. Indeed, under different names, and in some cases, with some minor conceptual variations, its existence has been acknowledged throughout the world for thousands of centuries.

It is known as prana in the Hindu religion, pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culturelüng in Tibetan Buddhism, ruah in Hebrew culture, ki in Japanese culture, the Great Spirit among Native Americans, and the Holy Spirit in Western religions. And, of course, it’s the energy that comprises The Force in the Star Wars Universe, if you want to venture into the realm of ‘fiction’ (George Lucas has spoken of how the idea came to him from a Near Death Experience).

And these are only some of many, many examples. So, in a near complete 180 degree turn from the so-called ‘dominant’ opinions on the topic, we actually find the idea of an ‘invisible energy’ as the cornerstone of all life is far from a new one.

“Here we find the still-confounding ‘wave-particle duality’ paradox — particles that can somehow be measured as both, and evade being perfectly pinpointed in time and space. And what are they swimming in? The nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces of nature, of course! All of it — energy.”

What is The Scientific Take on Chi Energy?

Regardless, lets crack open the current scientific take on such phenomena by engaging its principle method: reductionism.

With the exception of single-celled organisms, each human is made up of nearly 40 trillion cells (including the single-celled organisms — the human microbiome — the number is closer to 100 trillion) each with their own individual structure, from membrane to nucleus.

Going deeper, we find atomic relationships and biochemical reactions, but it’s not until we get to the subatomic level — particularly the level of elementary particles — that things begin to get truly strange. Here we find the still-confounding ‘wave-particle duality’ paradox — particles that can somehow be measured as both, and evade being perfectly pinpointed in time and space.

And what are they swimming in?

The nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces of nature, of course, inter-connected and inter-dependent (and you can add ‘intra’ in there as well) in an impossibly complex matrix of, as previously mentioned, frequency and vibration, that create the universe as we know it. All of it — energy. All of it, ‘thing and no-thing’ at once! Indeed, ‘invisible’ energy. 

Before and Beyond Materialsm

As mentioned, the internet is abuzz with many arcane ‘science vs chi’ debates that will take you knee-deep into the intricacies of matter and energy fields, quantum physics, and Einstein’s E = mc2  theory, so if you’re a proof-driven empiricist, you can certainly indulge to your heart’s content in these academic discussions on the web. 

For those of you, however, on the truly cutting edge of the wider philosophical issues at play, it is somewhat of a moot point, destined to go nowhere until we’re well into the wake of the next big scientific revolution.

What does that mean? Well, as Paulo Coelho once said: “To change the world, we need to combine ancient wisdom with new technologies.” 

Could it be that chi is in fact both?

There have been some stirrings in the scientific community now for a while — not coincidentally in conjunction with the rise of free information on the web — that are beginning to shake the foundations of the previously mentioned materialist paradigm we’ve been living in for over a century-and-a-half. A paradigm that has, up to this point, been considered unshakeable, not unlike the creationist perspective that preceded it.

At the forefront are two philosophies: pansychism and panspiritism. Without going into the similarities and differences therein, both are based on the idea that consciousness is a primary aspect of the universe, not an emergent one — the complete opposite of materialism.

This means, like TCM, that they’re based on a fundamentally unifying, holistic perspective, not a classifying, purely mechanical one. This is no small difference. It is, quite literally, the determining factor between having a soul or not.

Not only does this have astounding implications concerning what we may truly be — and what we may therefore be truly capable of — but it puts a new twist on an aspect of physics currently acknowledged by both paradigms, but no less astounding: that linear time is an illusion. If consciousness really is the intrinsic key we’re missing, then reality as we know it suddenly becomes far more flexible.

Time: Totally not moving.
unsplash-logoSamuele Errico Piccarini

Under these implications, learning how to use chi energy, from a ‘scientific’ perspective, doesn’t seem so archaic anymore. In fact, it seems prophetic — both ancient and futuristic.

If each of us are in fact the universe in microcosm, and said universe runs on a foundational principle of consciousness outside of linear time, then we possess the innate ability to consciously know and work with the conditions therein, however ‘aware’ of it or not we may be at this point in our evolution.

In presupposing the ability of certain intuitive faculties, it liberates TCM from the mud of materialism, allowing it the potential room to bloom into the lotus flower it may very well have been all along.

If you insist on ‘evidence’ as we currently comprehend it, however, it would seem you’re out of luck. The bottom line is that while no measurable evidence has been shown to prove chi exists, neither have there been any studies to conclude that it does not. (We’re talking here about the phenomenon itself, not its effects, which of course pose their own challenges when being measured.) Of course, this is the argument that makes the dualist perspective impossible to both prove or refute.

What we’re left with is of course anecdotal—mostly related to the subjective effect chi-based treatments, practices and applications deliver. It’s what you would idiomatically refer to as “the proof is in the pudding.” Yet there does seem to be vast quantities of this “pudding” around.

Numerous traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners and patients throughout the world avow cases of genuine health restoration through such treatments as acupuncture, herbology, and other chi-based practices designed to adjust the proper ‘circulation’ of chi.

How To Use Chi Energy: Maps and Meridians

As previously mentioned, chi-centered traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) postulates that the body has natural patterns and channels through which chi circulates (referred to as meridians), that act as branches connected to bodily organs and functions. Just as it is with the Indian notion of Prana and the nadis, in TCM, illness is the result of disrupted, blocked or unbalanced chi movement through the body’s meridians.

So, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners aim to balance and enhance chi to bring the body and mind into a state of health by stimulating certain points in the body, thought to be connected to particular meridian systems.

Image: Shutterstock

“Although this TCM model has no analogue in western medicine, it’s worthwhile to observe that the Chinese physician’s chi map of the body is nearly identical to a modern map of the nervous system…”

Although this TCM model has no analogue in western medicine, it’s worthwhile to observe that the Chinese physician’s chi map of the body is nearly identical to a modern map of the nervous system, and that there was a small but interesting stir regarding something known as the ‘Primo Vascular System’ — the purported anatomy of the meridian system — in a study on cancer metastasis.

For TCM practitioners, optimal health is achieved when there’s not only sufficient quantities of chi, but also the right balance of various types of chi, and the free flow of chi in the right way. Negative health conditions (including mental health conditions) occur when some or all of these factors are lacking. These conditions can be caused by food and/or lifestyle choices, physical injury, congenital conditions, etc.

Being holistic, TCM’s focus is on how the body functions as a unit, (digestion, breathing, aging), not so much on how each anatomical structure is doing. In this way it differs from the reductionist approach of traditional western medicine.  TCM practitioners trace health symptoms to patterns of an underlying disharmony, by measuring the pulse, inspecting the tongue, skin, and eyes, and looking at the eating and sleeping habits of the person, among others.  

TCM treatments can include dietary recommendations, herbal prescriptions (to be either ingested or topically applied), acupuncture (insertion of needles at certain points to balance the flow of chi), specialized massage, moxibustion (burning mugwort on or near the skin at an acupuncture point), cupping (which caused a controversy at the Olymypics a few years back) or meditative/non-moving exercises.

Are chi-based treatments effective?  Again, as with any phenomena as yet unclear under the materialist paradigm, many swear by them while others remain skeptical, citing no direct proof, and speculating that these practices may just be a clever way to separate patients from their wallets. Because this argument can truly persist well beyond the remainder of our physical lives, if you’re in the former camp, the best thing you can do is toss your doubts and inhibitions, and simply decide to tap into your deeper intuitive faculties.  

If you need more, writer Kent Fung, a former business editor at a Boston daily newspaper who has trained in martial arts for over 20 years, and has written many articles on the subject, has this to say:

“I have had good experience with TCM treatments for chronic conditions (both as applied on me, and as witnessed on others). [They’ve] been effective at various skin conditions where years of various Western treatments have failed, for instance. That includes my eczema, and others’ acne and rashes… TCM treatments can be great at treating musculoskeletal conditions (arthritis, etc.) and injuries (strains, sprains, etc.). Some elite athletes use acupuncture to aid recovery from gruelling workouts. People suffering from chronic conditions such as fatigue and digestive problems can also find significant relief through a good TCM practitioner… In general, I don’t recommend TCM as a first resort if you have access to a modern, Western healthcare system. But I do recommend it if Western treatments have failed, and often the TCM succeeds where the Western treatments have failed.”

Harnessing Your Cosmic Chi – Tai Chi Anyone?

The ancient Chinese postulated that chi expresses itself throughout the universe, assuming an endless variety of forms. Over the centuries, the Chinese developed various disciplines in learning how to use chi energy for benefits specific to us human beings. 

One such discipline is Qigong – a practice involving coordinated breathing, movement and awareness for exercise, healing, meditation and training for martial arts. It typically involves rhythmic breathing with slow stylized movement, a calm mindful state, and visualization of guiding chi. Tai Chi is a modality within Qigong.

Dr. Andrew Weil is a well-known and respected American physician and spokesperson for holistic health and integrative medicine.  He says:

“While the existence of chi is controversial in the West, many Eastern disciplines including tai chi and acupuncture are based on a fundamental belief in this basic ‘life energy’ force. It is thought to pervade the universe, and to be subject to direction and control by trained human beings.”

Dr. Weil’s website promotes Tai Chi instructions by Barry Brownstein (B.Sc., M.Sc., M.Ac., Lic. Ac.,L.M.P., Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM).  He recommends visiting Barry’s website for videos showing exercises that harness the chi in a human, such as learning how to use chi energy through breath work, developing your chi physically, focusing on the energy and mental level of chi, and others.

It’s interesting to note here that breathing and mindfulness techniques almost identical to chi-based practices have long been recommended by western psychologists and other mental health professionals treating patients with nervous disorders, such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and insomnia.

Deep breathing exercises and visualization practices, known as Relaxation Response or PR, are often taught to patients with mental health issues, to calm and soothe their over-acting nervous system sensitized by trauma, stress or fearful thinking.

It is believed that these methods tend to trigger physiological — and perhaps energetic — mechanisms, that move the body into a state of deep rest.

It is also well understood by healthcare professionals that attitude helps in healing. It’s not everything, but it does help.

“Tai chi… might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice… has value in treating or preventing many health problems.” ~ Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publication, May, 2009

Chi In Martial Arts

Photo by Leslie Jones on Unsplash

Exercises that develop your skills in learning how to use chi energy — specifically the supply and flow of chi — are also one of the foundational elements in martial arts training. The most notable of chi-focused martial arts are Baguazhang,  Xing Yi Quan,  T’ai Chi Ch’uan,  Snake Kung Fu,  Southern Dragon Kung Fu,  Aikido,  Aikijujutsu,  Luohan Quan, and Liu He Ba Fa.

Bruce Lee’s martial artistry on and off the screen is world-famous – all of us have most likely withnessed his mastery at least once. Lee’s techniques evolved over time and eventually became known as Jeet Kune Do (JKD), but his life-long influence was Taoism, a chi-centered philosophy.

In Taoism too, chi is a primal substance that animates the universe, and is the force that sets the world and everything in it into motion.

Martial arts gurus such as Lee, along with other screen legends like Jackie Chan and Jet Li were (and are) life-long students of martial arts practices that centred around learning how to use chi energy.

They teach that stronger, more abundant chi, properly channeled, can result in more powerful techniques: more powerful strikes, increased ability to withstand blows, and greater overall stamina and resiliency.

Indeed, there have been many awe-inspiring demonstrations of chi in martial arts, including an ‘immovable body’, the ‘unraisable body’, the ‘unbendable arm’, and other feats of super-human power. Shaolin monks have been known to harness their chi with enough power and efficiency to throw a needle through glass:

Michael W. Long is a scientist, founder of several Life Science companies, who has been practicing martial arts for 20 years: 

“As a scientist, I find Qi a difficult concept as it is essentially untestable,” he says.  “That said, I have an appreciation of the unknown and as a martial arts practitioner have performed some Qi-like maneuvers. For example, when holding a contact-pad chest high and having someone kick it (a common martial arts drill). Most people hold the pad with their feet in some form of a front stance — shoulder width apart, front leg bent, back leg straight — to absorb the force of the blow.  I stand with both feet together. As the blow hits, I think of extending my “Qi” down into the earth. Even with powerful kickers, I am rarely knocked back; never down. Is this Qi? I don’t know. I suspect it’s a way of thinking that allows the body to do something natural, albeit unconscious. In this case, it’s likely an overall tensing of the axial skeleton and rapid but unperceived counter thrust. That said, I’m only aware of the thought, which is actually a visualization of the contact and its force.”

The Bottom Line on Chi

When it comes to the research on learning how to use chi energy, it is still in its infancy and there is a lot to be discovered before knowledge evolves to the point where it can explain, in empirical terms, why Chinese medicine works or where the amazing powers of Qigong masters – such as raising their body temperature to the point of producing steam, holding red hot metal objects with bare hands, and performing all other kinds of humanly inexplicable feats — comes from.

Still, there is no denying that millions of people have been successfully treated in China and all over the world by Chinese medicine based on chi, including Qigong, acupuncture and acupressure that directly deal with chi energy.

Another quote from Kent Jung on the topic:

“…the theories of qi seem to be at least a useful mental construct for deriving solutions in Chinese medicine and in the Chinese martial arts. Working through hypotheses involving qi — balance of yin and yang, flow through meridians, etc. — have tangible, proven real-world effects on one’s health and one’s ability to fight. To wit: does an acupuncturist actually manipulate qi? Maybe, maybe not: but the effects are undeniable. Do (some — not many, but a few) internal kung fu stylists (Taiji, Xingyi, Baguazhang) really manipulate qi to generate uncanny physical power in striking and throwing? Who knows. But the power is undeniable, and unexplainable through any obvious (visible) theory of biomechanics / Newtonian physics.”

And since this has been going on for more than 5,000 years, one would think that someone along the way might’ve started to shout, maybe, that the Emperor has no clothes?

When it comes down to it, however, if you really want to learn how to use chi energy, the best thing you can do is just ‘test the mettle’ yourself — leave all intellectual doubts to their respective arena, and get out of your head and into your body.

Start a vigorous meditation and martial arts practice and find out for yourself. Learn Qigong, or any of the other various modalities mentioned here.

What’s stopping you? You’ve got the basics now, but truth be told, you’re still sitting in a chair looking at a screen. Why not go hunt for some of that ‘pudding’ yourself? You could always follow it up with a nice cup of tai chi…

Monica Kucharski
Monica Kucharski


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