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meridian systemI was lying on a table in the back room of a two up two down terraced former mill-house in Chorley, pins sticking out of my arms, my legs and my face, and I felt weird, but in a good way. No, this isn’t the opening of a piece of fiction. This was 2007 and the beginning of my journey into the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my first consultation with an acupuncturist – though my experience and subsequent journey into the esoteric, did go a long way in informing my romantic story “Push Hands”.

I’d felt I had no choice in trying acupuncture, being afflicted with a ringing ear that western medicine could do nothing about. And you know what? It worked – of a fashion. Over a period my ringing ear didn’t ring so much any more. And the sessions made me feel different in other ways. I was suddenly more relaxed, more clear headed and energetic. In short, I felt better and a good ten years younger.

Acupuncture’s not available on the NHS, and at thirty quid a session, and with anything up to a dozen sessions or more being required, depending on what ails you, you have to be sure you want to use it. But then I found you could maintain that calmness, that clear headed, relaxed feeling by practising Tai Chi and Qigong. And eventually as we practice, we feel unfamiliar sensations in the hands and the arms, and we wonder: is it Qi?

I began, years ago thinking to nail this mysterious business of Qi, because without it, I believed, TCM and all that mind-body stuff didn’t make sense. But I’ve ended with a more pragmatic view, and a greater understanding of western physiology which explains things well enough if you can only be bothered getting to the bottom of it. I still hear Qi talked about in classes, and it grates a little now, but you can approach it from different angles, both from the traditional, and the practical and the secret is not to get hung up on either. Just do the exercises, the meditation; visualise, rationalise it however you want. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it works.

One of my biggest frustrations with the traditional path is there has never been a consensus among so called masters about what Qi is, at least nothing one can glean from reading their books. With medical science, the more you read, the clearer things become. With Qi, however, the more you read, the less you understand anything at all. I’ve come to the conclusion the whole business is more of a misunderstanding, born partly out of a rejection of science in the west among those largely resistant to or ignorant of it, and in the east a willingness to present concepts in terms of what we apparently want to believe. And what we want to believe in is Qi.

In that acupuncturist’s consulting room there was a dummy with all the acupuncture points indicated as dots, with lines joining them like the map of a railway system. The lines indicate the so called meridians along which Qi is said to flow, an idea that can be traced back to a book by George Soulie de Morant, an early translator of oriental philosophy. But the strange thing is even the most revered founding oriental work on acupuncture, the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook doesn’t mention meridians. The meridian theory appears to have been an early twentieth century, and largely western, invention. It caught on and we’ve been talking rubbish ever since.

The acupuncture points are real enough. They are what we would now call neuro-vascular nodes, areas dense in fine veins and nerves, situated along the routes of the major arteries. These are referred to in early Chinese texts, a link having been found between them and the function of the organs of the body, that stimulating them can bring about certain healing effects – reducing inflammation, pain, sickness. The precise mechanism is complex and not well understood, but appears to be a result of the stimulation of the body’s natural healing mechanisms. In short, TCM works and is very effective, but the meridian theory, the model underpinning it, as presented to the west, and all its talk of Qi, is misleading at best, at worst, plain wrong.

But having said that it’s sometimes still useful to think in terms of Qi, more as a metaphor of physical effects. In practical terms, Qi has two components. One is oxygen, the other is glucose. The oxygen we get by breathing air, while glucose comes from the food in our stomachs. Both are carried by the blood to every part of the body where they combine to produce chemical energy, either for motion, or for healing and regeneration of tissue. Practices like Tai Chi and Qigong encourage deep breathing, boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood – you also get hot and you sweat because the by product of the body’s chemical equation is heat and water. Heat and water are a good sign. The movements during practice stimulate the neuro-vascular nodes, drive the lymph, and the relaxed, mindful attitude encourages a return to homeostasis, a neutral chemical balance essential for a healthy body. To practice Tai Chi or Qigong for an hour a day is to experience a dramatic change in the way you see and feel your body and the world about you.

The problem for westerners has been the gradual erosion of any romantic notions regarding one’s existence. Medical science has reduced life to a series of mechanical functions, an approach that, while advancing our understanding to miraculous levels, has ironically sucked the life out of being, and what we crave is a return to the mysterious. Perhaps in Qi we have been seeking to put the soul back into the machinery, and to revivify belief in the reality of our selves. But the path of the soul is something else, a somewhat longer journey of which the mind-body stuff can be a part, but only in the sense that in calming the mind, in freeing it from the debilitating distractions of the material life, it can then, in quieter times, return more readily to a deeper contemplation of other things.

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chattertonUnlike a head-cold there’s no working with influenza. It’s not without irony my last post should have been on the health conscious practice of Qigong – more useless talk and insufficient action I’m afraid. And the next thing I know I’m sicker than I have been in years. The universe is not without a sense of humour, but neither is sickness without its purpose.

I’m conscious of viewing the world differently just now, not so much as a firm reality any more but as a half truth, one we can render malleable through the active medium of imagination. Or we can become passive while that truth is more shaped for us by external images beamed from myriad sources: TV, computer, phone. I can watch the national news, update myself hourly on a selected slice of the world as it is presented “now”, or I can allow a different kind of prejudice – my own – to choose a path through the plethora of alternate views on the video channels of the world wide web.

And viewed through the lens of my sickness, all of these images have taken on something of the grotesque, like a circus sideshow viewed at night, under the leaping glare of an unfamiliar light. And there is a sound, like the snort and bray of caged animals and their top-hatted masters. There are donkeys preening with two tails, giraffes with two heads, snakes with two tongues. The images compete, each for a slice of momentary meaning, but only in sickness and delirium does the mind allow safe passage for these chimera into consciousness – not as the truths they purport to tell, but more as the ravings of drunks and loons. Why only in sickness are we capable of seeing that the world is not that?

For the duration of my illness at least, the world is my bed, my pillow. It is the soft press of the covers upon my chest. And it is the sound of heavy rain, falling day after day. There are no other certainties. Any other story of reality is a flexible concept. And there is no end to the stories of the world I can choose to believe in. But are any of them even remotely true?

What is it safe to believe in any more? Our only guide is to ask this: What does not go away when we stop believing in it? What does not go away when we switch off the info-screens? This is the only safe guide to personal reality, that our reality is not concocted from the lies and the grotesqueries of others with a view only to power and self aggrandisement. The only sure reality then is intrinsically local. Distance from the centre will inevitably blur it.

My sickness fades, leaves me emptied of energy. And what doesn’t go away as I surface from these thoughts is only the world that butts up against my weary senses. There is no meaning to be found in anything beyond that. I have by now tired of the news, tired of You Tube. So many images, so many voices, so many versions of a possible reality. And there is something of the intellectual demand, too, that we keep up with current affairs. But current affairs are like soap opera. It does not matter if we watch or not, keep up or not, for there is no story, no vital plot twist that will leave us behind in the reality stakes, even if we close our eyes.

Part of this meditation may be that I no longer possess the energy to deal with the world that lies much beyond my bedroom window. The winter thus far has drawn a forbidding veil.

I take a deep bellied breath, let it out slow, feel for the stirring of the Dantien.

There is nothing.

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girl meditatingIt’s a cold winter’s morning in a semi-derelict mill. A small group of middle agers lie silent on their backs on gym mats, their breath vapour rising in the unheated void of the makeshift training hall. They wear overcoats and hats against the chill. This is Qigong, western style, November, somewhere in the North West of England, and the group is exploring a variation on an esoteric Oriental technique called Microcosmic Orbit Meditation.

In the warmth of more conducive surroundings I can raise a tingle from my tummy by imagining I am breathing into it. Here in the mill though I’m getting nothing. It’s just too cold, and I can’t relax. Afterwards, discussion with my fellow adepts reveals I am not alone in this. Even our teacher is unable to claim success. There is also doubt about the precise nature of what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Our knowledge of Qigong comes from similar sources: books, private practice, personal speculation and of course endless foraging among the online dross. We’re also drawn from a range of rational, technical professions, and we’re struggling to come up with a plausible psychological model for a technique that has for centuries been described in an arcane and very flowery language. On the plus side, I discover I am not such a beginner, that my knowledge is as comprehensive as my fellows’, if not my practice, but this does not alter the fact that none us really knows what we’re doing, and most of our combined knowledge is probably rubbish anyway. Oddly though, groups like this, scattered across the mills and church halls of England, are as good as it gets. This is not to demean such groups – indeed I would never trust a group incapable of doubt, nor a teacher who talks like he knows it all.

The drive home is sluggish with traffic, and there is a sluicing rain that overwhelms the wipers. I have plenty of time to ponder my doubts. Sure, I have always struggled to marry the esoteric language of Qigong with anatomical knowledge. Nor do I believe in “Qi” as a mystical universal energy. But without a rational explanation for the observed effects of Qigong practice I don’t see how there can be any way forward in bringing Qigong – especially the more esoteric forms like the Microcosmic – to a wider audience, let alone establishing any kind of regulation among teachers. And without that we will for ever be at the mercy of charlatans and poseurs.

In the course of a morning then the whole thing unravels and years of study, of practise, of speculation, goes back to square one. It goes back in fact to the dantien. You hear that word a lot in martial arts circles. They call it the centre of being, a powerhouse, a generator of Chi or energy, even a kind of reservoir that one can charge up for future use. It lies a couple of fingers widths below the navel, in the gut. But again most of what we read of the dantien is unsubstantiated nonsense. And yet,…

In Microcosmic Orbit meditation we begin with the dantien. Gentle breathing and focus upon this region in the lower abdomen does indeed give rise to powerful sensations – tingling, fluttering, vibration. What are they? What is their origin? With the effort of imagination one then leads these sensations through various sensitive connections up the spine, to the brain, then back down the chest to the dantien. The full circuit is a difficult thing to achieve, mentally. It requires a relaxed focus, but since the sensations aroused are entirely subjective it’s hard to say if one isn’t merely deluding oneself that something is happening when it isn’t.

Is the dantien real then, or imaginary? Well, recent medical discoveries tell us of a highly energetic nerve centre located in the region of the lower gut – a thing that might indeed be the source of sensation attributed to the dantien. This is the so called Enteric Brain, the centre of a nervous system with a very brain like nexus of neurons. Just as the brain in the head regulates the autonomic nervous system, so the Enteric brain seems to regulate its own processes in the gut. There is also an energetic connection between the two systems, an exchange of information that is not fully understood but appears rooted in the body’s digestive processes.

It’s logical then to work on the premise that it is the nervous activity of the enteric brain we’re feeling when we focus on the Dantien, that such focus may heighten its activity, stimulate it or at the very least relax it into a state where it might function properly. But this is as far as one can state with anything approaching certainty.

Progress in the martial arts – or at least in so far as they have been adapted as health systems in the west – is hard won against an ill wind of misdirection and utter tripe, especially in the popular literature. Sometimes the best we have to go on is that it seems to work, alleviating the symptoms of a variety of otherwise chronic conditions. The western scientist, however, can be scathing in his skepticism, throwing away the cure – not because it does not work, but because he cannot explain it. Thus anyone who tries to take these methods seriously carries also the mantle of being a bit “alternative”.

What brought me to Qigong was stress. Without it I would by now have been a Prozac junkie for the past twenty years. As it was I managed only a few weeks in that selective seratonin uptake inhibited twilight of a world before choosing the path of “alternative” quackery. The body is built to handle short periods of extreme stress. It can generate on demand huge quantities of energy, enabling us to fight or to flee. But the modern lifestyle puts us under stress all the time, while simultaneously denying us any escape. Eventually we forget how to return to a state of relaxed homeostasis, a state in which to carry out repair and recuperation. Mind-body techniques like Qigong are important in reminding the body what it feels like to be relaxed, and, once reminded, it seems capable of returning there of its own accord.

This alone makes lying on my back in a derelict mill in the middle of winter worth the effort, that and discussion with like-minded individuals. As for explaining the Microcosmic Orbit in rational terms, my instinct says the two brain theory is definitely a good starting point. By the time I reach home I realise my morning wasn’t wasted after all. Sometimes in order to find the answer, you have to be asking the right questions.

And two brains are clearly better than one.

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man in garden doing qigong with mouseYesterday closed with a beautiful evening. But I’d had a long and rather tedious shift at the day job and I’m afraid to say I arrived home too tired and grumpy to pay it much attention at first. A weariness and a sense of despondency hung on throughout my evening meal, and overshadowed my chores. Then I stepped out onto the lawn in bare feet and began my practice. The more airy fairy Qigong books talk of going barefoot because it connects you to the earth, and to the Telluric currents, but there’s no sense to be made from any of this, no firm evidence I’m aware of that the body is influenced beneficially in any way by being “grounded”. I do it on warm evenings simply because it feels good to go barefoot on the grass. Everybody know this.

I warmed up slowly, gently, then did a routine called the Eight Brocades. There are thousands of Qigong routines but to my mind the Eight Brocades is an important one, but only because it’s an easy sequence of moves to remember, and it takes about twenty minutes, which for me is about long enough without overdoing it or getting bored.

Breathing deep and in sync with those moves, I became aware of a familiar tingling in the palms, one that by degrees came down my arms and entered my body, until by the end of the practise, I felt my whole self faintly buzzing. You can call this “awakening the energy body” if you want; sometimes I allow myself to imagine it as such, and it does feel good – it feels relaxing and invigorating at the same time – but it’s better to keep your opinions about what it is to yourself because you don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else.

Then I ran through the Yang 24 Tai Chi form, a little of the Chen Old Frame, then broke into a spontaneous freestyle that was mostly silk reeling. I closed with some Heaven and Earth Qigong, another simple set that’s easy to remember and nice to do. If I don’t close with the Qigong, settling this imaginary energy down, then I can come away not feeling as much of the benefits of practise and with a lightness in the head, rather than a more grounded awareness. Again, there’s nothing scientific here; it’s just a personal observation.

Throughout all these moves the palms were tingling, and at times it felt as if they were vibrating. The arms were also “charged”, though I make no claims for that word either and use it merely in the descriptive sense. During the Eight Brocades specific fingers experience a “fullness” – the index fingers during the second move, the middle and third fingers during the fourth. They feel swollen, they feel “charged”. These experiences are repeatable, but I don’t know what they are. You also feel a heat. It begins in the lower body, in the thighs and, if the posture’s right, it rises to the upper body so you feel an overall glow.

I used to be a ballroom dancer. Any dancer will tell you of the pleasure of movement, of how a sequence of moves can connect with something deep inside of yourself and raise a smile, raise a tingle in your bones that makes you want to do it again and again. Tai Chi and Qigong are like that – they’re slower than your usual dance routine, and there’s this element of control too, of mindful focus, and of measuring, of pacing with the breath. But dancing doesn’t result in the same sensations of heat and tingling. With dancing, the breath is not coordinated, it is the music that drives the pace. With Qigong it seems to be this coordination of breath with movement that is the key.

As I finished up, the sun was setting, and the lawn felt different through the soles of my feet. It felt colder, felt as if it were now drawing heat out of me, rather than raising a tingle up my legs. I stepped onto the patio where the stone flags had retained the heat of the day. I felt comfortably warm again, and sat down. The dusk deepened and the bats came out. I watched them for a while, thinking of nothing in particular, then brewed bush tea and went to bed.

These were are all subjective sensations and mean nothing to anyone else. I might also have appeared slightly ridiculous while I was practicing. And, since I didn’t break a sweat or feel myself getting out of breath, it’s arguable it was a complete waste of time in terms of physical exercise, and did nothing to extend my life expectancy for even a millisecond beyond what fate has already allotted. I did however feel deeply relaxed. I was able to think clearly. I was no longer grumpy, felt myself recharged, and magnanimous about the day’s events, I felt I had transcended them. I felt human enough and decent enough now to be with others.

I slept deeply and dreamed vividly.

This is the practical reality of Qigong and Tai Chi. It raises a feeling one cannot help but describe as “electric”, but seeking any definitive explanation of those sensations in the literature – either modern or traditional – is simply asking for trouble. In looking to deepen one’s practice, there is no substitute for the practice itself. It is a personal journey, a subjective experience gained through a framework of basic moves that are taught differently by every teacher, but this discrepancy is not important because the moves themselves are not the thing. Going deeper into Qigong and Tai Chi is not about “understanding” at the intellectual level. Nor is it about anyone else. It’s about you. And through you, it is about everything.

I feel most confident when speaking about the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi in terms of the vascular and lymphatic system. Privately, I can speculate as much as anyone else about the electromagnetic effects, about the energy body, about the significance or otherwise of Telluric currents, about the best times for practise, about “chi” and the yin and the yang of it. But I can’t speak with any authority, and neither can anyone else, not yet, and not until the basic research has achieved sufficient momentum to shoulder aside the justifiable caution of the scientific establishment.

There are many who will try to explain it to you; they’ll do so with a straight face and an authoritative tone, while selling books on it at a tenner a time, or inviting you to expensive seminars on it, or selling you gadgets that claim to boost your chi, smooth your wrinkles, grow your hair back and make you live for ever. But their terminology, although it might sound scientific, is never grounded on anything firmer than the dubious claims of long dead researchers or “masters” that have never been independently verified.

Yet the practice of Qigong and Tai Chi persists, and has done so for thousands of years. Why? Well, practiced as a mind-body exercise, the truth is revealed as being at the same time rather more prosaic, yet also more remarkable than any of the claims made for it by its self styled spokespersons, authorities, Masters, and book peddlers.

And it’s this.

It’s not about the body at all. Not about the physical. It’s about the mind, the immaterial, it’s about transcending for a moment our self constructed sense of self, and revealing to us the void that is as much a part of existence as the mess we can see. It is about revealing to us the truth that we are less the atoms of the physical world, the physical body, and more the gaps in between. It’s about showing us that if we can leave off bothering about the physical for a moment and just be content not knowing who we are, the stillness and the calm awareness that is left, that is who we are. From this transcendent perspective everything else becomes trivial, and it puts a bad day at the office firmly in its place.

That the body benefits from practice is something you can only establish for yourself by practising. But this is secondary, a side effect of balancing the mind and the emotions. There are many in the west who are sceptical about Tai Chi and Qigong, and I don’t blame them because the spokespersons for this kind of stuff come across like lunatics and new age flakes. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong will change your life, but don’t believe half of what you read about it, and never put your trust in anything you cannot experience yourself by simply practising. It should also be fun, never simply “worthy”, or it’s not worth doing.

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