Fascination with qi
From a western perspective the idea of a living energy is completely fascinating. We truly have developed an amazing understanding of physiology. We know the human body down to the atomic level and are working on eradicating disease in unborn infants by altering the the DNA of the unborn fetus. In so many ways we recognize the absolute power of our medicine. We are also fascinated with the simple idea of qi or living energy. And we kinda think that anyone that believes in living energy is maybe just a bit insane.
The Three Treasures
One of the first lessons of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the introduction to the “three treasures” of blood, essence and qi. Blood is of course the red blood that we all understand. Essence is all the other nutritive substances in the body that are not blood. And qi represents the living and transformative nature of being alive. Blood and essence are inanimate things, where qi is the principle that these things are alive, and the physiology is a system of living tissues working together.
Fundamental types of Qi
TCM further breaks down qi to four sources: Yuanqi (fundamental qi), Zongqi (Qi from the chest), Yinqi (nutrient qi) and Weiqi(defensive qi). Yuanqi, fundamental qi, is understood to be one’s overall vitality and individual nature. It can be understood as being ones personality and individual drive as well as overall expression of health. Zhongqi, qi from the chest, relates to the activities of the lungs and transforming air into the energy that vivifies the body. Yingqi, or nutritive qi, is derived from the food and drink that we ingest. This qi is refined by the digestive system and promotes our health. Weiqi, defensive qi, functions to protect the from internal and external pathogens as well as heal the tissues from damage. TCM further states that these types of qi are interdependent upon one another. If one of them was to become weak, the whole system suffers and if one of them becomes stronger, the whole system increases in vitality.
From a western perspective this is stating that we are born with a DNA that directs our personality and physical attributes. Our breathing takes oxygen out of the air and transfers it into our blood which gives energy to all our tissues. Our body digests the food that we ingest, and refines in into proteins and compounds which support our natural evolution. And finally, our body is working hard to protect ourselves from internal and external disease and has a natural cycle of removing dead or damaged cells and replacing them with higher vitality cells. These four forces are working together to sustain life. If one of them begins to fail, it effects the whole system. If one of them increases in vitality, the whole system becomes healthier.
The study of physiology
I have simply described an understanding of fundamental types of qi in TCM and I have given simple western examples of concepts of physiology that fit the descriptions. But qi and physiology are not that simple. What is amazing is that over two thousand years ago the Chinese had such a sophisticated and accurate understanding of the human physiology. One major difference is that the Chinese observed that we are living beings, and although they may not understand exactly what that means, they recognized that this simple observation belongs in their science.
As westerners we study the physiology from a standpoint of physical and chemical interactions and try to completely remove the simple observation that we are alive. So perhaps our fascination with the magic and mystery of life energy is not because it is something we find difficult to believe. Perhaps life energy is so obvious that it is truly difficult to comprehend a science of physiology that does not try to include the concept of being alive.