Despite all our technology and rapidly expanding knowledge, the universe and our place in it remain a compelling mystery. (Happily so!)
Compelling on a grand scale, driving ever further innovation and development.
Compelling on an individual level – leaving us wth a personal experience that is forever shifting: between the binary world (quantified, measured, projected, defined); and our actual daily experience of the unruly unquantifiable sense and emotion of human existence. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock embodies this juxtaposition perfectly which is why many find his character so appealing. Although such a sentiment would of course be “illogical, (Captain).”
So what is the Key to life?
Modern western thought and science are busy searching and probing and smashing particles together at ever higher speeds and energies in a continuing attempt to answer this question.
In the orient, the answer has been around for millennia and is very simple: The Key to life is Ki (in Japanese, or Qi/ Chi in Chinese). It is simple, but attempts to define it and quantify it are doomed to failure. Rather like the concepts of quantum mechanics, Ki is inherently undefinable. The remarkable physicist, Richard Feynman* put it very nicely:
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics [Ki], you do not understand quantum mechanics [Ki]”.
An objective definition/ understanding may elude us, but this does not stop us from using the concepts to great effect. Please read on!
Ki is a word and a concept ubiquitous in Japan and China. It is such an integral part of their language and culture that that although very few people would reasonably attempt an explanation, there is culturally embedded, a broad sense of its meaning and universal scope. (Perhaps it is a bit like the idea of God in this respect?)
The Japanese character for Ki is 氣. Actually, the character was originally written simply 三 and meant the rising vapours which gather to form clouds. How poetic and mist-ical! Something which cannot be seen, but through its changes, its presence and effect can be sensed, experienced, perhaps understood. The lower part 米 (a type of grain) was added later, giving the idea of an essential nutritive substance to the original notion of a cloud-like vapour.
The strange thing about Ki is that despite being probably the most used term in Acupuncture, it has been incorrectly translated from its first interaction with the West. Ask most anyone (including acupuncturists!) and the answer you get will probably be something like “energy” “vital energy” etc. But look up the character Ki in a Chinese/ Japanese dictionary and none of its many possible meanings will include "Energy"**.
Conversely, look up the word Energy and you will not find the word Ki on offer!
As a result Ki is a highly misunderstood concept and remains unjustly steeped in the mystical. Sorry, but Ki is not some magical substance or force like “ether” or “prana” that our incredible technology has yet to trace and measure. Ki is real and experienced by you and me at every moment (and is in fact the very thing allowing us to do the experiencing!).
The Stuff of Life
Having accepted that it is un-definable, lets have a go at defining it! We can all agree that the substance of life is the red stuff coursing through our veins. Literally our “life’s blood”! There is nothing mysterious there. The thing is, there is something more to it than simply a sticky red liquid. It has another property that is often overlooked.
Warmth. Your blood is warm. Hot, actually. This warmth and whatever it is that results in the warmth – that is Ki. It is the indefinable spark of life itself that western science is also unable to quite put its finger on.
Actually, the physical blood itself is also Ki, but simply in a more dense format. Einstein’s e=mc² provides us with an elegant formula to understand this type of relationship.
This warmth concept is nice but it leaves us in serious danger of limited understanding. Remember the good old days of easy credit and forever rising markets? And then Lehman’s came a-crashing down. What actually changed from one day to the next wasn’t anything physical or tangible. No earthquake or tsunami. And yet everything changed. Think sentiment. Think perception. Think Ki! Nothing to touch and yet we all know what it means and experience the very real effects of its changes.
Sticking with the idea of the economy, in oriental medicine we are primarily concerned with keeping the money (Ki) flowing smoothly around the system, and trying to prevent areas of extreme concentration or lack. It is this constant movement/ circulation which is key.
The very idea of Ki – in itself – is Ki. Let me put it another way. The power in a concept transmitted across distance or time is Ki. Shakespeare’s Ki is alive! Does this mean that some actual vibration of ‘Shakey’ has somehow survived in a weird parallel universe energetic stratum? No. But the sense, delight, puzzlement or otherwise invoked in us today by his words and ideas is a manifestation of his Ki.
Events in the physical plane are usually preceded by the activity of Ki. We literally live out scenarios in our minds; unbidden and possibly unnoticed, emotions are induced and physiological changes cascade through our bodies. The anticipation of meeting a potential lover / a difficult conversation with the boss / a dreaded public speaking responsibility…
The opposite of this is rarely achieved state of MuShin (無心) or “no mind” – a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and which is thus open to everything (including Ki!)
It is the state in which a martial artist is able to anticipate an opponent’s intended strike before any physical movement is initiated. Animals are generally thought to be much closer to this state than humans, and this may explain their flight from earthquake and tsunami zones long before the actual disaster event occurs.
Environment (Internal & External)
As I write this, the rain is streaming down my window as it has pretty much non-stop for months on end. And we are told that water is supposed to be in short supply! Anyway, this is another great example of the all pervasive nature of Ki. The Japanese word for weather is 天氣 (TenKi): literally the “Ki of the heavens” in all of its manifestations.
It is the preserve of oriental medicine to understand and regulate the equally complex internal environment (weather) of the body. This can be thought of as regulating the way that the various organs and tissues of the body relate to one another. And importantly, to integrate this harmoniously with the external TenKi.
These ideas are encapsulated in the Ling Shu*** which tells us:
“A good [acupuncture] treatment feels as if the clouds have been blown away, leaving a clear blue sky.”
Anyone (un)lucky enough to be living in England over the last 5 months will attest to the deep meaning conveyed in these words and will automatically grasp, in a deep visceral and emotional sense, the meaning of Ki moving appropriately and healthily!
Under the Weather
Such concepts are also enshrined in the English language – consider how we feel, at times, a bit “under the weather.” Rather than elaborate further on the nature of Ki and such concepts as Placebo, I would instead like to share, for your enjoyment & amusement, another proposed source of this expression:
During the days when ships were powered by sail, the captains log documented everything that happened during the day. As sickness could spread rapidly on a ship, there were often times where the number of sailers that were ill exceeded the space provided in the log to record their names. During these times, the excess names of the sick were recorded in the next column, which was reserved for the weather conditions of the day. Thus, it was not unusal for an ill sailor to be listed “under the weather.
* I highly recommend reading his hillarious and fascinating book “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character”.
** This is not to say that what we understand by the word “energy” in English is not Ki. It is! But Ki encompasses a far wider set of concepts than the word “energy” can be expected to evoke.
*** The Ling Shu is one part of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine