MR: It sounds like from childhood this has been a love of yours.
AM: I think it’s my wanting to know how the world works. More importantly, how people work. Maybe even more importantly, how I work.
AM: If you study Chinese classics, you’ll find many definitions for chi. Here in the West we think of chi as energy, and that’s not entirely correct. The theory of chi is that chi is a substratum out of which the universe manifests, or arises. So that implies that chi contains, or is the substratum of both matter and energy. Here in the West we have a notion of matter and energy as being a dichotomy—whereas everything is chi. Writings as far back as the 10th and 11th centuries describe that when chi is condensed, matter is formed, and when chi is dispersed, space is formed. So chi is simultaneously matter and energy.
So what is chi when we say that we are working with chi in the body? We’re usually referring to the non-physical parts of us. That could include thoughts, electro-magnetic energy, infrared energy—the body emits heat in the form of infrared and there’s electromagnetic energy in the connective tissue of the body. And of course there are thoughts; even nervous energy can be considered chi. So when we’re talking about chi of the body, usually we’re referring to those parts that are non-physical.
We do not have a similar concept in our Western culture and language, so I think it’s appropriate that we use the word “chi” for chi, and not refer to chi as energy. Even throughout history in China and Japan, this notion of chi has had many definitions because it’s something that we can’t really see. We say that chi is responsible for movement, but it’s not movement itself. So, that can lend the imagination to a lot of things. Personally, I think that in metaphysical terms, chi is consciousness.
Let’s start at the beginning. This notion of chi comes from Chinese naturalist philosophy, which we often call Taoism or Taoist philosophy. The ancient Taoists, through their examination of the universe, proposed that this universe that we are now in at one time did not exist. They theorized that at one time there was nothing. Then, out of this nothing, came something. But then they said, if the primary reality was nothing, how can there be something? So at the same moment, they theorized that the moment that there is something, there is a container for that something. So you have something arising out of nothing and at the same moment there is a container. This is the basic theory of yin and yang. Yin is that which contains yang, which is expanding or manifesting out of nothing. Here you have the metaphysical theory of yin and yang and their relationship manifests as continual motion, because if yin and yang were completely balanced then the universe as we see it would disappear. So there’s a continual expansion, containment, expansion, containment of this universe.
Most people are familiar with the yin-yang diagram, called the Taijitu or Tai Chi diagram—it’s of two fish swimming into each other. That symbol represents this idea of yin and yang interacting with each other. So where they interact, where they meet—the interface between yin and yang—is metaphysical chi. This is where chi is. Chi is found at the space where yin and yang meet, the space between the in-breath and the out-breath, between thoughts, between the relationship between self and other.
MR: How do you actually feel that when you’re doing Chi Kung? Or Tai Chi? Or acupuncture?AM: From the metaphysical definitions of chi, we can come down into the more mundane aspects of chi. The character itself represents steam rising up, and there’s an implication of digestion and air. Chi is the word used for “air” or “breath.” So when we’re working with chi, it often implies that we’re doing things that involve air. It could also imply that we’re doing things that imply consciousness or focused attention. Chi in the physical body comes to us through the foods we eat. The word that’s used to define chi changes according to its function. The chi you get from food is called “gu” or “gu chi.” The chi you get from air is called “kong” or “kong chi.” In the body, when we’re really talking about health and chi, we’re talking about proper respiration and digestion, and this gives us the chi for functioning. So when a doctor of Chinese medicine is analyzing the body, she can’t analyze the chi directly, but rather the manifestations of chi. This can be seen on the skin and the face, and the eyes, on the lips, in the shape of the body, in how a person moves, in how they act, their emotional state, how they eat, how they rest, how they relate to others. All these are manifestations of how chi is working in the body.