• William E. Leigh III

Is “qi” science or mysticism?

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

As Americans, we are amazed by the concept of energy healing. We find it fascinating that all of life in energy and simply by shifting it around we can heal our ailments and rejuvenate our bodies. It is thought that Traditional Chinese Medicine is the study of these mystical energies and the practice of implementing techniques to control them.


But to a doctor in ancient China, this study of qi was not some great spiritual mystery, it was simply medicine. Chinese medicine is the accumulated observations and understandings of its greatest scholars. Although we try to believe qi is a mystical energy, perhaps it is something else, something much less mystical and much more perceivable than we prefer to imagine.


The Chinese scholars studied the physiology like today’s physicians, but they did not have microscopes and there are few images of any effort to dissect the body. The Chinese scholars understood the human physiology by observing its function. As an acupuncture student we learn that Qi has similarities to both matter and energy. In the Foundations of Chinese Medicine, qi is described as 1) Qi is in constant state of transformation, when it condenses it assumes physical shape, when dispersed it gives rise to more refined forms of matter. 2) Qi is the energy that manifests consciousness and physical form.


When you look at the first point, you can see the description of how steam, an ambiguous gas, loses energy and becomes water. Then if it loses more energy, the liquid becomes a solid. As Ice heats, it becomes dispersed and becomes fluid. If it continues to heat it transforms into steam. In this way the description of Qi is mystical to us but is only discussing the physics we learn in grade school. And as you study physiology, you learn in how many ways the body uses heat to transform less inert tissue to more dynamic tissue.


The second statement is an effort to understand consciousness and form. This type of statement is generally understood as spiritual and mystical and when presented with the preceding statement it makes the whole understanding quite magical. But the ideas of consciousness and form flow though out western philosophy just as easily. We all have heard, “I think, therefore I am” along with other philosophical ideas about our creation. But these ideas often conflict with accepted religious beliefs. Therefore, instead of simply understanding this relationship, our culture has chosen to inquire and debate the meaning of existence. The Chinese scholars have simply stated that the relationship of consciousness and form is more of a fact and less of a conundrum.


So next time that you think of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, try to understand that this medicine is not based on magic and mysticism, understand that it is based on making observations of the real world and trying to describe them. Chinese medicine is quite similar to western medicine, but Chinese medicine was founded over two thousand years ago and their understanding is limited by what they could observe with their own senses. Western medicine is only a few hundred years old and its study of physiology is enhanced by dissection, advanced instruments, and the scientific method.

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