22 January 2009

The Phenomenology of Qi

This had been on my mind anyway, and Ebonmuse gave me the perfect excuse to expound on it. The problem with telling people that there is no such thing as qi, is that many people have experienced a sensation that they interpret as qi. Ebonmuse even has a physiological explanation for one of these sensations: The Ideomotor Effect. Beautiful stuff, particularly as something like this very effect is taken advantage of in push-hands. From Wikipedia: "The ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously. As in reflexive responses to pain, the body sometimes reacts reflexively to ideas alone without the person consciously deciding to take action."

Mark once asked Kayo Robertson how to follow someone who wasn't moving. Following in push-hands means, essentially, responding to another person's movements, and simply staying with those movements (without tensing up). Kayo responded, "You think you're not moving?" Kayo placed one hand on the center of Mark's chest and told him to try and not move. There were still small movements that Kayo could follow and use to push Mark out. Wikipedia describes reflexive movements, but I think unconscious or unintentional would be a better descriptor in this example.

Ebonmuse also suggests that most of the other reported effects of qi flow are due to suggestibility in the practitioner. There are some instances where I strongly suspect that is the case; look for Henry Wang's push-hands videos on You-Tube, for example. There are some problems, however.

My first experience with qi was before I had any idea there was such a notion. I was riding on a bus, either in junior high or high school. My feet kept getting hotter and hotter and hotter, as if there were a coal burning roughly in the center of the bottom of each foot. I looked around, wondering if something was wrong, but no one else seemed to notice. With great effort, I managed to pull my feet up off the floor, and the sensation decreased noticeably. Years later, I had a similar sensation during a qigong exercise, and suddenly I knew what it was I'd felt on that bus. Even stranger, the place where I'd felt the hot coal has a name: the bubbling well. Certainly, my latter experiences could have an element of suggestibility to them, but that begs the question of why I felt heat in a location that is believed to be a center for qi flow before ever hearing of qi flow or that there was an energy center in that location.

Another problem with the pure suggestibility hypothesis is that beginning taiji students often spontaneously report feeling heat in their hands. Usually I don't even mention qi unless students express interest in it, or mention such sensations. I'm not claiming that the only explanation is a metaphysical energy source; I am claiming that the sensations are real and a result of the taiji practice. What the practice does to result in those sensations, I can't say, at least not in physical terms. It's simpler, and more useful, just to call it qi-flow.

Why? Because it feels like an energy flow. Mentally, it can be manipulated as if it were an energy flow, at least in one's own body. If it's not an energy flow, then it's probably an artifact of the way the brain processes information coming in from the body. That's not going to help people figure out what to do with those sensations, however. And they are useful sensations in the context of taiji. They tell practitioners when the body is lined up correctly, and treating the sensations as actual energy flows tends to give people exactly the right impression for adjusting their own postures. Most of the time. Every so often I locate a different flow that turns out not to be the one we're aiming for in the taiji form, and then Don and I argue about it, and he nearly always turns out to be right.

As for where the maps of the meridians and such came from, I would bet solid money that they came from practitioners of the martial arts and meditation, noting where these "energy" concentrations felt like they were located, and whether they felt any flows between them. One more personal anecdote: in our morning warm-ups, we rub the centers of the right palm around the center of the left foot 36 times, and then switch to left palm on right foot. I was told this was supposed to be good for the kidneys. After a few weeks of practice, I could feel a sensation, almost like an electrical current, running from the center of my palm, up the arm, over the shoulder, and down to the middle of the back, where it seemed to collect. I had to look up where the kidneys were, and it turned out that they were exactly where the energy felt like it was collecting. It took several years before I got a similar flow running up from the center of the foot to the opposite kidney, and I still don't always get that one: it seems to depend on getting the presumed energy centers in the feet and hands precisely lined up.

Do I think there's actual electricity flowing from my limbs into my kidneys? Possibly. Then again, it may just be another artifact of the way the brain processes sensation. What I know is that I experienced that in the absence of any expectation of feeling such a flow, and before I knew for certain where my own kidneys were located. So I'm inclined to be dismissive of anyone who just dismisses the meridians as hokey nonsense with no physiological correlates. There is something to them, even if it's not a literal energy flow.

For the record, I would like it if qi turned out to be energy in the sense that the term is used in physics. That would just be cool. However, I don't think I'll be convinced of that until/unless I manage to physically affect some inanimate object without physically touching it. And, yes, periodically I do try. I suspect that if I ever did succeed, my first thought would be to wonder if I was having a psychotic break-down.

12 comments:

John said...

I won't argue with you about your sensation of qi. I can accept that. A recent post by Orac comes to mind. Check out the comments. Every commenter defending qi is using your understanding, but that isn't what Orac is talking about. He's objecting to claims that qi is a magical force that can do all sorts of fantastical things, but which, under reasonable experimental conditions, somehow fails every time.

Qalmlea said...

Yeah. I have seen no evidence of such a "magical force." I would like to, honestly. It would be awesome if it worked like "The Force." The closest I've seen to that is videos of Henry Wang's pushing-at-a-distance... which looks to me like there's some sort of hypnosis-trance-inducing effect. Still interesting and impressive, but ultimately not "The Force."

Qalmlea said...

One more thought: I think the reason I tend to argue when people just dismiss qi is that they then usually follow with something like "Thus (taiji|qigong|etc.) are complete bunk." The exercises are very good for the body, and I've found that they help my mental state as well.

As for instruction... My teacher is open to whatever works for a student. Since qi-imagery works for me, he talks about it a lot with me. It doesn't work so well for Melissa, so he usually finds other ways to describe things for her.

John said...

"usually follow with something like "Thus (taiji|qigong|etc.) are complete bunk." "

Some people cannot separate the good from the woo that has historically been attached to it, because they don't seem to understand that taiji and qigong (yoga also gets this a lot) are more like sports (now) than religions.

Unlike religions, Catholicism for instance, taiji and qigong are not empty rituals designed to condition people to accept the woo. They have real benefits because they are exercise forms have been refined over centuries to be very efficient and effective. The woo is just sort of tacked on, not an essential basis to the whole.

Qalmlea said...

I have to disagree, somewhat. Part of what taiji and qigong do is to put the body in positions where the sensation of qi is more likely to arise. In that sense, qi cannot simply be removed; at the very least, the body principles that tend to bring about the experience must still be included.

However, it is not necessary to think of qi as more than those bodily sensations. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn't. I lean towards "hoping that it's more," while remaining very skeptical about the chances of ever proving that.

Too-much-Mythbuster-moment: I was just imagning putting voltmeters, etc, on Henry Wang during his pushing-at-a-distance demo...

Chris | Martial Development said...

There is a difference between cooperation and hypnosis, that most viewers of the Henry Wang videos fail to appreciate. The videos show a cooperative practice method--not gullibility, or a hyperactive imagination.

Qalmlea said...

Oh? That's a thought that hadn't occurred to me... but my teacher's experience doesn't quite fit. He experienced one of Henry Wang's distance-pushes, and said that he consciously tried to resist it, and failed. So, at the very least, the cooperation is not always at the conscious level. *shrugs*

Chris | Martial Development said...

With respect, if your teacher is one of Henry Wang's students (or even if he is not), he may not have been fully non-cooperative--both physically and psychologically.

For example, most all Taiji students operate under the premise that Taiji has value. Why would they do it otherwise? True or false, this belief colors their perceptions and their behaviors.

Personally, I have had practice partners confess that they could not resist my force. Actually, they could not resist it without changing something they did not care to change.

Qalmlea said...

Not having experienced such a push, all I can do is return to my teacher's report. And he indicated that he willfully and consciously tried to just root against Wang's push, and was unable to do so.

What I have found in "normal" push hands is that when I'm pushed out, it's because I've run out of useful responses (often due to responding incorrectly at the beginning of the push), and have no where left to go.

I'm not sure what you mean by "changing something they did not care to change." Possibly I'm just not at a level where that makes sense to me. But when I'm at the end of my root, and find that turning will not deflect the force, I simply step out. Doing anything else would be insisting, and only train in bad habits.

If I slow it down, I explore the position I find myself in, looking for an "opening" that will allow me to deflect or absorb the force. And all of that makes it sound like a much more conscious process than it is. If there is an opening, I move through it until I get stuck or until my partner is pushed out, whichever happens first. If there is no such opening, I step out.

"Don't insist; don't resist." That's the push-hands mantra we use. I just feel like I'm missing something in your description (and I have to go to work at the moment, or I'd sit here pondering some more).

Chris | Martial Development said...

When one miscalculates the appropriate amount, or vector of force to use in a particular maneuver, and therefore declines to respond appropriately under the mistaken premise that doing so would break the rules of the push hands game, then they may report an "inability" to counter. That apparent inability is actually unwillingness, or a self-imposed limitation--which can be interpreted as an excessive desire to cooperate.

You've probably experienced this before, but I did not describe it well. No big deal.

I have elaborated on this basic point in a few posts, including:
In My Dojo, Cheaters And Failures Are Welcome.

Qalmlea said...

^/^ For good or ill, I don't analyze my push hands in that manner. For me, it's a matter of whether I can respond without tensing up or using excessive force. It's not that those are "against the rules" so much as that they "train in bad habits."

In general, for most of the people I've pushed with, I think it's more a matter of unconscious tension interfering with free movement rather than not responding due to unwillingness to break the rules. But that attitude may be something that depends on the style in which a person was taught, too. *shrugs*

Chris | Martial Development said...

Yeah, nobody ever frames it in those unflattering terms I have chosen--especially when referring to their own actions. But...

I submit that the rules we follow, yet dare not admit, manifest themselves somatically as "unconscious tension". In fact, this is nearly a tautology.

"Don't train in bad habits" is one such rule.