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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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Baoding ballsTai Chi and Qigong are now very popular exercises in the west. Derived from Chinese martial (fighting) arts, they are also practised for their positive effects on mental and physical health. These benefits manifest as: improved vitality, flexibility, stamina, and a sense of well being, all of which makes them a valuable antidote to the stresses of modern living. The literature also talks of healing injuries and chronic conditions that defy conventional medical intervention. Calmness, a positive outlook, and an alleviation of the symptoms of anxiety and depression are also reported. So what’s not to like about it?

Well it depends if all those benefits have been proven, or are merely anecdotal and for a long time western medical science has taken a dim view of it, not even bothering to investigate them. Why?

Wel, due to differences in language and culture, it was long believed in the West that the Chinese attributed such benefits to a mysterious phenomenon called Qi (Chee). Since Qi could not be adequately theorised, let alone detected by the prevailing Western Scientific paradigm, Qi and any health system that is derived from it is bound to be dismissed as hocus pocus.

It’s not surprising therefore that scientific studies of Tai Chi and Qigong are few, and for a long time about the only documented benefit was that the practice reduces the risk of falling over. This might seem rather obvious, that the practice of movement will aid in the development of a heightened sense of balance, but it is important we be able to maintain this sense well into old age, where a simple fall can have serious consequences. Tai Chi, with its slow, gentle, low impact movements is the ideal solution and worth practising for this factor alone. But is that it? Is that as much as Science will concede?

Well more recent studies suggest practitioners of Tai Chi and Qigong are also at less risk of hypertension, and that practising while ill can aid recovery, or minimise symptoms, in particular of Arthritis, also the body’s physical reactions to harsh treatments for cancer. This suggests there is more going on, that the practise is impacting the body at the biological level. But does this also open the door to dubious claims regarding the properties of Qi?

Not necessarily.

My own conclusions, based on a reading of the various literature, both learned and popular, as well as my own practice, is that Qi is the manifestation of a colossal misunderstanding, both linguistic and cultural. It is western practitioners who have effectively invented Qi in its current and least understood form, namely a subtle energy that cannot be detected or measured, and have promoted it as a fiddle factor responsible for all manner of otherwise unverifiable phenomenon.

While it’s almost certain there are subtle aspects of energy we do not yet understand, it is not necessary to involve ourselves in speculation upon them before we can make sense of Tai Chi and Qigong. It is better to think of Qi as another way of expressing biological and mental process that are already accepted in the west.

The body uses Qi in order to support life. It is the energy that powers thought, as well the processes in the body, Qi that energises the muscles that grant us power and motion. It is also the energy that repairs injuries and fights illness, restores us to the natural blueprint of our original biology. When Qi is weak, all these things are impaired. When Qi is strong, we possess these things in abundance.

What we appear to be describing here is Qi as a life force, and not in dissimilar terms to the new agers and so called Qi masters, but let’s take a closer look:

Qi is gathered from the environment, but what we gather is not a subtle energy, more simply oxygen. Another vital aspect of Qi we gain from food, namely glucose. The natural processes of the body combine the oxygen with glucose to create energy at the point of use, that is at the cellular level. It is the circulation of the blood which carries the components of energy to wherever they are needed. Motion, healing, normal function all draw upon our energy reserves. If energy is lacking, function is impaired. If circulation is impaired, the components of energy, the oxygen and the glucose, cannot get to where they are needed.

Tai Chi and Qigong combine movement, breath and mindful focus in such away that regular practice naturally and gently improves the levels of oxygen in the blood, and the degree to which it is circulated. But where Tai Chi and Qigong differ from other exercise systems is in their emphasis on an induced relaxation response. In other words we relax the body by mentally willing it. This engages the autonomic nervous system, enabling to it to carry out its primary function of restoring the body to a state of balance and it is in this state that healing takes place naturally.

There are many books on Tai Qi and Qigong which begin with the unproven assertion that Qi is a subtle energy, then proceed to build a thesis on top of it. This requires the reader to buy in to what is essentially a belief system, one which unfortunately cannot always be adapted to answer the questions raised during practice. For many years it was a stumbling block in my own study, and it is only by a return to a more grounded analogy I have been able to make any real progress.

The relatively new field of Quantum Biology may yet yield theories of life that will use a language reminiscent of the old “new age” notions of Qi, but it’s early days and certainly a long time before the first text books appear along those lines, if indeed they ever do. For now though it is not necessary to take that leap of faith. The current biological model, crude as it is, is sufficient to explain what practitioners have known all along, that Tai Chi and Qigong are good for you.

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meridian systemPeople have been asking me about my practice of Tai Chi recently and, naturally enough, they also want to talk about Chi. What is it? they ask, or more likely: Does it even exist?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the concept of Chi, at least in so far as it is presented in many books on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Martial Arts – i.e. as a form of “subtle energy” moving about a pathway of invisible meridians. I am more easily accepting of it as an amalgam of effects produced by normal physiological processes – improved blood and lymph circulation, oxygenation, also a psychological component that works to induce a relaxation response. This is fine, it is within the realms of my experience.

But the sensations induced by practice – tingling, numbness, fullness – also suggest a bioelectrical component, that the nervous system is becoming activated when we practise, and in ways no other physical exercise can duplicate. This is where the going gets tough. The more one reads about it, the more confused one becomes, especially when seeking a coherent explanation in those books that deal with the so called “meridian theory”. Here, the texts, be they written by Chinese or Western “practitioners” talk of the flow, the storage and even the projection of chi. But they vary so widely in their explanations, to the extent that the principles each book appears to be describing are more the author’s personal interpretation of a myth to which the reader is invited to subscribe entirely on trust.

This is not a reliable basis on which to deepen one’s understanding, nor less for explaining it to someone else, or one risks merely perpetuating the myth while most likely also adding something of one’s own equally groundless twists to it.

My actual experience of Tai Chi and other mind-body techniques like Qigong, is that these methods do have a positive effect, both mentally and physically. I’ve used them to successfully tackle back injury and tinnitus. They are also deeply relaxing, so I do not suggest a decade of practise is now exposed as a monumental delusion – only that attempting to pursue a deeper understanding of them through meridian theory is perhaps not a good idea.

More recently my investigations have led me to the writings of western medical professionals and to a persuasive argument that suggests the “meridian system” is a myth, and a surprising one at that, being actually a Western, rather than a Chinese invention, a product of the “new age” rather than deepest antiquity.

Western medicine is often accused by the more holistically inclined (myself included) of being a bastion of wooden minded materialism at the beck and call of Big Pharma, but among its more open minded practitioners there is also an increasing willingness to look at the results of TCM techniques, like acupuncture, and to ask intelligent questions, no longer in order to merely debunk it as has been the case in the past, but, where it works, to document its efficacy, and to attempt an explanation of it in less mystical terms.

On the physical level, the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are derived from improved circulation of the blood and lymph, also increased levels of blood oxygenation induced by means of deep, abdominal breathing that is an integral part of practise. But anyone who has read up on the subject is also inevitably beguiled by this dense mystical heritage of “meridian theory” and the idea of an all pervading “subtle energy” somehow superimposed upon the physical body. Consequently, I have always felt that to deepen my knowledge and my experience, I would have to understand it from this esoteric, traditional perspective. It’s ironic then that my efforts to pay homage to it in this way have had the opposite effect, only grinding my progress to a halt.

But what if the notion of chi as a subtle energy were an invention, not born of ancient Chinese superstition, but of fairly modern western adepts reacting against the materialism of their own times, and simply mistranslating the original texts? It sounds flimsy, but the evidence presented by Donald Kendall in his book “The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine” is very persuasive, that indeed since the dawn of the twentieth century we have been perpetuating a myth born out of a popular need for the magical and the unknown – a need that continues to this day, and to which I am also prone.

Nearly all “energy work” titles quote among their primary sources the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook, a Chinese medical treatise compiled around the first century BCE. But what’s puzzling is that if we do indeed refer back to this book, we find no mention of the meridian system as it’s depicted today, nor any reference to chi as a form of energy. This is surprising because I have always surmised that it did. However, as Kendall points out, it reads more like a conventional medical textbook with sections on anatomy and pathology.

What the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook says is that the lungs extract “something” from air that is vital to life – what we’d now call oxygen – which is then carried around the body by the blood. This does not read like a witches cookbook of pre rational beliefs, but rather an early and highly competent description of how the body works. If this book is the true basis of TCM then something significant was lost in the translation, to say nothing of the fact that something was added that was highly misleading.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook was translated by several westerners, most notably Georges Soulie De Morant, whose 1939 version is still in print, still influential, but also controversial in that the mystery of chi arises first here with a critical mistranslation of the word as “energy” when a better translation would be simply “air”. The Yellow Emperor’s handbook also details points on the body which we would recognise now as acupuncture points and elucidates upon the theory that needling or stimulating these points produces therapeutic effects. De Morant made copies of the diagrams, then added his own interlinking lines and, so the argument goes, invented the meridian system. Acupuncture points do exist. We now understand them to be areas particularly dense in fine blood vessels and nerves. Stimulating them does produce effects in the body – reducing inflammation, pain, and restoring the body’s balance, but the medium of transmission here would appear to be more accurately the nervous system, not De Morant’s meridians.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook does not describe chi moving along meridians, but rather some essence of air moving along blood vessels. So, what we think of as a uniquely Chinese system of medicine involving a mysterious energy called Chi, is in fact a western invention, and a fairly recent one at that. What the ancient Chinese actually developed in the first millennium BCE was an understanding of the body’s functioning that the west did not catch up with until the seventeenth century. But if any of this is true, and I’m persuaded that it is, what’s equally remarkable is how so many Chinese scholars since then have themselves adopted and helped perpetuate the essentially meaningless “western” myth of the meridian system.

Contemporary western medicine is looking more into the therapeutic effects of acupuncture, with many medical professionals performing acupuncture themselves. It is available as a treatment for certain conditions on the NHS and for which there is good evidence to support its reported efficacy. But further acceptance of the technique, and progress with an explanation for how it works has been slow in coming, held up in part I think by the obfuscating myth of the so-called meridian system. Only by dispensing with it can progress be made in truly integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine into the west, and also, perhaps ironically, of deepening one’s own practice of Tai Chi and Qigong.

Be aware then that to get hung up on the nature of chi is to risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of a bewildering myth, and if a man would make progress it is always better to keep both feet on the ground than to flap one’s arms uselessly as if they were wings that would take flight in thin air.

References:

Kendall, Donald, The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Kendall, Donald, Energy – meridian misconceptions of Chinese medicine (article)

Kresser, Chris, Acupuncture (blog)

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tao of tinnitus cover - smallIt’s a while since I wrote anything on this subject, and until recently I’d largely forgotten what a big part of my life tinnitus used to be. A constantly ringing ear is definitely no joke, but in my own case I think I was fated to get it, because without it I would not have been forced down the path of investigating Traditional Chinese Medical theory. Nor would I have discovered Tai Chi or Qigong, which I believe were helpful in controlling my tinnitus. But more than that, the Tai Chi and Qigong have gone on to become a part of my life, to the extent that I no longer feel complete unless I’m practicing. The sense of calm-tingly-quietude that comes after even half an hour of practise is a very special thing indeed.

From the western medical point of view, there is as yet no cure for tinnitus – this in spite of the so called “evidence based” ad-served “miracles cures” we see online, at the cost of many thousands of pounds. But think about it, if there really was an evidence based, double blind tested reliable cure, it would already be available on the National Health Service for free. Given the degree of distress caused by tinnitus I’m sure health professionals are as keen as anyone to develop a lasting cure for it, but as of yet we don’t have one. Any other treatment therefore,  of the “alternative” variety, and more especially those treatments that cost a lot of money, we have to approach with considerable circumspection, and with our quack radar fully operational. We live in a materialistic society which means, sadly,  its would-be leading edge entrepreneurs aren’t interested in your suffering at all. They are only interested in your money.

Imagine my dismay then when I discovered a young man of my acquaintance suffering from tinnitus, and who had grown desperate enough to blow £40 on an ebook that promised miracles, but which, after a load of useless flim-flam delivered nothing. He knows of my own journey with tinnitus, but his rational mindset would not allow him to accept the efficacy of ancient mind body techniques that are essentially free. I understand this, because I didn’t believe in them either, and anyway the idea of having to practice something every day in order to remain free of tinnitus seemed just too onerous, requiring far more discipline than one has time for on top of all the other daily demands.

£40 is a lot of money for any book and I’d expect a lot from it in return – like the meaning of life perhaps. The scam-bells should have been ringing, but he was desperate enough to punt a day’s wages on it. The experience left him feeling only more empty and desperate. It reminded me how vulnerable I’d been during the darkest days of my own tinnitus, and I remembered too how, if you felt there was even a half chance an unbelievably expensive book, or a weird gadget would contain a single thread of wisdom that might set you on the path to recovery, you’d gladly pay up.

My response to all of this is another ebook, but this one is free. My book is based on my experience of tinnitus and, while offering hope, doesn’t promise miracles. It lays out a regime of simple meditation and qigong exercise for restoring calm, which will hopefully clear up the tinnitus in the process, or at least bring it under control to the point where you feel you can get by. All the techniques, all the information you need is freely available online. My book points you in the right direction, offers some side notes to get you going, and says yes, this worked for me.  It does not mean it will work for you too,… but it might.

My family still roll their eyes at my “alternative” outlook, and I accept that I may be something of a Qigong bore, but my experience of these methods has always been positive at least in terms of restoring a sense of well-being, and in any case I believe it’s better to be on one’s feet and doing something rather than lying flat out under a cloud of depression, doing nothing. But my main point here is you don’t have to risk your life’s savings on it as well.

If you’ve got tinnitus and you’ve surfed in looking for information, my little book at least gives you something positive you can try. If it doesn’t work, you can call me a quack but at least it hasn’t cost you any money. The downside to Qigong is that in order to realise its benefits, and to stay well, it must be adopted as part of a daily routine. Most of us will either simply not believe in it, or we’ll tire of the early sessions, and we’ll give up on it long before the benefits have set in. It therefore doesn’t suit everyone, but those who do take it up, and stick with it, speak well of it.

Click the pic to get the download. This book is served form my public Dropbox folder and will always be free. If you find it for sale anywhere, let me know and I shall wish down a shed-load of bad karma on the miscreants.

My success with Qigong is not unique. Other meditative methods, like Yoga also report positive results with tinnitus, attenuating the volume of the ringing, calming the associated anxiety and dealing also with the feelings of despair. The emotional dimension of sickness is not to be underestimated, and any method that addresses it is worth investigating. Yoga may suit you better but my knowledge of Yoga is limited to the gleaning of information on meditative breathing. I’m  lacking a good teacher in my area to get me going with it any further, otherwise I’d probably become a Yoga bore as well. Which brings me to my final point: if you need help getting going, or in finding the motivation to practice regularly, there’s no substitute for joining a class, if you can find one.

Tinnitus puts us in a dark place, a place where trusted forms of conventional medicine cannot help. The problem with Traditional Chinese Methodologies, like Qigong is that many of us of us simply don’t believe in them. We try everything else – medicines, the “top” specialists, even professional looking clinics with their “miraculous breathrough” adverts in the so called respectable press. We tend only to come back to the meditative methods when everything else has failed. Perhaps it’s only then we feel able to devote sufficient time and effort to the method, because we’ve nothing to lose. It would be better if more of us could give these methods the benefit of the doubt earlier on. They won’t cure everything, but by returning us to a sense of inner wellness, they free the body from the negative effects of our emotions, so it is better able to heal itself.

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