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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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mariaTai Chi has been around for a while in the west, Yang style appearing among the Chinese diaspora in the USA as early as the 1940’s. Qigong methods, although much older in origin, appeared more recently in the West, from the 1990’s. As a health system, both are practiced with a slow, mindful intent. The breath is measured and deep. They’re supposed to work, we’re told, by manipulating “chi”.

The literature talks of “chi” as a form of subtle energy that flows around the body. If chi is abundant and free flowing we are healthy. If chi is low or blocked, we become sick. This is where acupuncture comes in, being supposedly a more direct way of intervening in the body’s energy system, unblocking chi and improving its flow by needling a network of points in the subsurface tissues. Claims for the efficacy of Chinese “energy medicine” are impressive, though the research papers thus far translated are said by Western pundits to be of a poor quality, lacking the “blinded” trials and large scale studies one would normally expect. This makes it hard to differentiate between genuine efficacy and placebo. The best we can say is the results, though interesting, are thus far inconclusive. There may be something in it, there may not.

Those researchers who are most sympathetically inclined are at their best when seeking to explain things without using the “Chi” word. They speak instead of oxygen and glucose and bio-chemical energy. These processes are well understood and fit into the more mechanistic western paradigm. From this perspective it’s all about breathing and movement. This boosts the vascular and lymphatic systems, which increases the available energy for healing, for general health, and a sense of well-being. There’s no need to bring “chi” into it. Any claimants who fail this test and insist on using the “chi” word to paper over the cracks of a more rational analysis, risk an ignominious labelling as charlatans, cranks or crackpots. This would include most self proclaimed Qigong Masters, “healers” and unaffiliated researchers of energy medicine operating today.

The problem for me, as a practitioner of Tai Chi and Qigong, as well as an interested student of its background and science, is that it feels like there’s more going on than blood and lymph circulation. It feels like the nervous system is becoming highly active when we practice, that there is an “electrical” component. There is tingling, feelings of fullness, of electricity moving through the body. These are subjective sensations and could be anything, but, as far as I know, they are unique to Qigong and Tai Chi, and I would like to understand them better. However, in my last post on this subject I described having reached the stage where I was persuaded to abandon further enquiry along these lines, having found the literature far too obtuse and contradictory to make any headway with it at all.

I was happy instead to side with the work of Douglas Kendall et al, who present an alternative and convincing body of work that rebuts the Chinese concept of “chi” altogether, exposing it as a kind of Western mistranslation, that what the Chinese actually meant was something else entirely and more closely akin to Western concepts in the first place, though predating them by a few thousand years. Yes, Qigong and Tai Chi work, but not as a result of anything spooky, says Kendall. It’s purely physiological. Adopting this position we find ourselves on safer ground, but as a practitioner it also feels like an unsatisfactory retreat.

There is another large body of work by researchers who represent a hundred year long tradition of energy medicine, this one entirely western. It proposes an electromagnetic “energy body” as a pre-requsite for life, rather than as a by-product, and claims that in maintaining the health of the energy body, we maintain the health of the physical body. This work has many correlations with the concept of “chi” and is generally supportive of the eastern energy system. It began in the early part of the twentieth century, and has rumbled on in various backwaters ever since. It’s very interesting, but delving into it as I have been doing recently doesn’t help to clarify things at all.

As far as I can make out the work has been sidelined by the mainstream because no one has been able to reproduce the key experiments under the rigour of contemporary controls. What surrounds it in fact is the odour of something a bit fishy. It lurks in the shadows rather than under the illumination of a universal revelation. Its commentators are restricted to You Tube, where they appear shoulder to shoulder with the crazy cat videos. This does little for their reputation, but neither has it stopped them from going on to brazenly market gadgets for plugging into the “energy body” – the purpose being to “boost” or “repair” it, thereby arresting the onset of sickness, old age and death. Modern, western energy medicine promises us the elixir of immortality via gadgets with flashing lights. What’s not to like about it?

Now, I’m sure there is a kernel of truth in it, that the electromagnetic field of the body is indeed an integral part of its function. Robert Becker (Body Electric) has done most to establish the foundations of it, showing us how regeneration of tissues and bones following injury are all presaged by fluctuations in the body’s electrical potentials. Injuries that are reluctant to heal can indeed be encouraged to do so by artificially boosting the electrical potentials by external means. This much has been proven and accepted by the mainstream, but it’s a long way from the claims of latter day gurus.

Becker’s work seems not to have led anywhere in more recent times, except as footnotes in a greater mythology whose adherents are to be found quoting and misquoting him. Sadly, I’m unable to find any evidence of reliable science built upon the foundations of his work, and all the contemporary pundits are after is simply selling us stuff.

Energy medicine is not taught at “respectable” universities. Medical students do not emerge with a vocabulary that includes “energy bodies”, “the etheric” or “auras”. They do not talk of the electro magnetic elixirs of immortality. Progress in coming to any firm conclusions about all this stuff therefore is slow, and the answers seem as far away as ever. Is this because researchers are held back for want of funds and fear of ridicule? or is it because the research has already adequately established there is nothing in it but quackery?

So, amidst all this fog where does that leave the humble and more rational practitioners of Qigong, and Tai Chi? Well, in terms of the “energy body”, we’re going to be on shaky ground for a long time to come and must be circumspect in all our dealings with it. We must recognise that whenever we speak of bioelectricity as a more western friendly correlate of “chi” we are still entering a controversial field. We risk deluding ourselves and misleading others when we speak of it, so we’re better holding our tongues. That said, I do find it useful to think of an energy body when practising. Indeed any sensation of the body registered by the mind is the result of processes going on in the nervous system and therefore “energetic” in nature. But to develop a more acute awareness of it is one thing, to extrapolate from it all manner of dubious claims is quite another.

More about Tai Chi and Qigong, in practise, next time.

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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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Baoding ballsIn the 1954 movie “The Caine Mutiny” Humphrey Bogart plays the haunted, eccentric and much hated USN officer Captain Queeg. It’s a story in which Queeg finds himself up against accusations of incompetence lodged by his long suffering junior officers, two of whom he’s had hauled before a Court’s Marshal for mutiny. One of the most memorable images of the film is of Bogart rotating a pair of ball bearings in his hand as a stress reliever, while he glares moodily at his oppressors like a man possessed.

People manifest different habits when it comes to unconscious stress relief, not all of them quite so cinematically dramatic as Bogart’s ball bearings – biting nails, biting the inside of your mouth (one of mine), twiddling your hair, your eyebrows(another one of mine), or the ends of your mustache  or picking your toenails. Whatever the habit, it’s temporarily soothing for the doer, but it can be frustrating, even intimidating, for innocent bystanders.

A step up from Bogart’s ball bearings are the so called Chinese “healthy balls” [sic?]. These have the added curiosity of a chime built into them. As you rotate them against each other, you get a pleasing vibration in the palm of your hand – but again to anyone trapped in your company, the sound can be really annoying. I bought them because I liked the look of them, rather than believing they possessed any special healing properties, and I don’t play with them all the time – honestly.

Several of the major organs of the so called energy body have meridians that pass through the fingers, then through the palm of the hand and the arms, as they thread their way into the physical body. The constant dinging and vibration as you rotate the balls are supposed to stimulate the meridians which helps maintain a balanced energy body, which in turn regulates the physical body and keeps you healthy, hence the imperfectly translated: “healthy balls”.

That’s the theory anyway, and I should have an open mind about it, being otherwise such an advocate of alternative therapies, but my sense of smell which was temporarily restored by acupuncture, disappeared about a month ago and, in spite of continuing weekly sessions where I basically have pins stuck in my face, I’m now back to my old anosmic self – perhaps not helped by a stubborn chest infection. I’m therefore not really in a mood to talk about TCM, because I’m frustrated by anosmia – and for various other reasons as well.

Indeed, I feel very much like Bogart, oppressed and misunderstood, so I sit sour faced this evening, juggling my ball bearings. But the ball bearings are no good, Humphrey. You see, the frustration you feel creates a very negative kind of energy that you channel into the motion of those balls. It temporarily diverts the energy, stops it from damaging you, but the source is still there, eating away at you all the time, even when you’re asleep. What you’ve got to do is defuse it. Bad things happen you see? There is misfortune and suffering. That’s life, and its how we deal with it that’s the important thing. So take a deep breath, and let it go.

Well, that’s easy for you to say, says Bogart, but some things are just so goddamned awful, you can’t simply let them go, can you? Like your crew-members ganging up on you and trying to get away with mutiny by challenging your competence. But I think you can let it go, Humphrey. Indeed, I think we must. Lao Tzu said that if you’re frustrated or depressed, you’re living in the past, contemplating things that have already happened. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future, contemplating what has yet to come. So, let it go, steady yourself in the moment. Let the sediment fall, then clarity will be restored. Stress and anxiety cloud the thoughts. They stop you from seeing straight, stop you from making the right decisions for yourself and others in your care.

I once asked a TCM doctor if those “healthy balls” were any good, since he had a pair on the shelf in his office, and of all people he should probably have the straight dope on them. And he said, well,… if someone’s annoying you, you can gain temporary relief by picking one up and hitting him with it. Other than that they’re probably useless.

By all means juggle your balls or twiddle your eyebrows, but letting go feels so much better. This is not to say we retreat from that which oppresses us, but if we can rid ourselves of the reactionary cloud of negative emotion, we act as we should – wisely, skilfully and in the clear light of day – rather than being influenced by darker energies, which will always waylay us and lead us into making bad decisions.

I hope I have the good sense to take my own advice!

Goodnight all.

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As a recovering Anosmic, currently in the hands of a doggedly determined TCM practitioner, I find that once again I really have no choice but to affirm the validity of this idea of an energy body. I’ve had no sense of smell for years, none at all. The western medical paradigm – the one that treats the body as a sort of chemical machine – failed to explain the issue, let alone provide a cure and, since it wasn’t life threatening, essentially washed its hands of the problem.

So I asked a practitioner of TCM, and she invited me into her consulting room. She stuck pins in my head, my face, my hands and my shins,  gave me a massage, talked about building up internal Qi with a herbal tonic, and about opening blocked energy channels. Then she sent me away with some Ginko and Ginseng and told me to come back next week for more of the same. After about eight weeks, my sense of smell started to reappear.

Progress was halting – it still is, but it’s getting firmer, and surer now. It came back for a few days then went away again. I had recurring bouts of Phantanosmia – the whole world smelling of something putrid that wasn’t really there – and I wondered if it had all been a fluke, if I wasn’t just back to square one – i.e. nowhere, or rather nose-where. But then I began to smell subtle things, things that really were there. It took time, but gradually my scent memory began to plug itself back together – the scent of coal fires on an autumn night, the scent of freshly split firewood, mown grass, the scent of tea, a smokey car’s exhaust, my wife’s perfume,…

Hold that thought.

My good lady’s been wearing this particular scent for years, gifted to her by a relative and I’ve never noticed it before, but suddenly it’s there, and I’m thinking: what the hell is that? that’s not a pleasant scent at all. What do I say? Don’t be an ass. I say nothing for now – and she never reads my blog, I hope. The bottle’s nearly empty anyway, so I think a trip to the fragrance counter at Boots is in order. Clinique! Now there’s a scent I used to love, and Chanel,… oh, my,… there’s whole new world out there,.. but which one??? I’m almost giddy at the prospect.

I hope I’m not tempting fate by going on about this again, that I won’t at some point simply lose my sense of smell once more for no apparent reason, but I can’t help it. The whole world just smells so damned good right now – well mostly good. Interesting, the dilemma’s faced by the recovering Anosmic. But of course, these are issues I’m delighted to be dealing with.

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The short answer appears to be yes.**

I’ve been anosmic (no sense of smell) getting on for a couple of years now. Before that my sense of smell was intermittent to put it mildly – sometimes sharp, though mostly non existent. But to lose your sense of smell completely is a hell of a thing. Yes, it’s insignificant compared to going blind or deaf, because you can function quite normally, and the only danger in it is you might not smell the presence of life threatening things like gas or smoke. But for the sufferer, the world becomes a very bland place indeed.

Our sense of smell touches us in subtle ways, triggering memories, or adding immeasurably to life’s experience. To walk over a peaty moorland or through a rose garden and not smell it is to take away so much of what the world has to offer, disengaging you from it emotionally – because a sense of smell does connect you intimately with life – arousing you, comforting you, warning you, or even sometimes repelling you. And to take all that away? Well, you have to be without it for a while to understand what that means.

I’d reached the stage where I was thinking I was going to have to get used to it. My local GP was unable to offer me anything other than a steroid based nasal spray that made me ill. So, I decided to visit a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who rather spookily turned out to be the spitting image of a character from one of my books* – we’ll call her Doc Lin**. I’ve had TCM before for a bout of tinnitus. That was a very positive experience and quite an education, so I wasn’t going into this blind – any skepticism I might have felt regarding TCM had already been banished during that earlier episode, some five years ago. I knew TCM worked for certain things, but would it work for anosmia?

Doc Lin reassured me that, yes, TCM could probably help – that she had helped others with anosmia and it was certainly worth a try. I’d need around 12 sessions, she reckoned, one each week. It would cost me £350 if I paid up front, then there would be herbal concoctions to pay on top – maybe another £100. Of course when you’re used to free healthcare, you balk at the cost of paying for treatment, and wonder if you’re being spun a line by someone more interested in your money than your health. So yes, it was a risk, but it’s not every day you meet a character from one of your books, so I gave the gal my card and I signed up.

The sessions involved an exam of tongue and pulse and some diagnostic questioning, then thirty minutes of acupuncture, followed by fifteen minutes of massage. I’ve also been taking a liquid mixture of Ginko Bilboa and Ginseng. I’m eight weeks in now. I’d found the sessions very relaxing, and energising, but my sense of smell had remained stubbornly absent.

Until a few days ago.

It was a jar of coffee beans. I flipped the lid off it and was overwhelmed by the scent. It came as such a revelation, I was quite emotional for a while. But alas, the experience was all too fleeting. Indeed, by the time I’d stuck my nose in the jar for another delicious whiff of it, I was back to my old anosmic self. However, these brief glimpses of a world restored to all its glorious scented completeness have been recurring with increasing frequency. I’ve smelled both strong odours, like coffee and camphor and tea-tree oil, but also what I’d describe as more delicate things like camomile tea, and toothpaste. I was also walking in the hills at the weekend and smelled the earth for the first time in years. It drew me up, and made me gasp with wonder at it.

As I write, it’s gone again, so my recovery is somewhat fragmentary and tentative but, even such as it is, I’m very grateful for it, and for once I feel I have some good news to tell Doc Lin when I next see her. I’m sure things can only improve further from here.

If you’ve lost your sense of smell, and western medicine has been unable to help you, it does seem possible that TCM, however it works, can achieve the  impossible, and restore it. So don’t give up, don’t resign yourself to a textureless world. Go and talk to a practitioner of TCM.

*If you’d like to meet Doc Lin, you’ll find her in my story “Push Hands” here.

**Update July 2013. It didn’t last. It was a glorious scented interlude, but all too brief – disappearing after only a few weeks. After that I tried the ENT department of my local hospital where I was diagnosed with nasal polyps and had more luck – all be it temporarily but for much longer, with a course of antibiotics and corticosteroids. That acupuncture worked was immensely satisfying, but that it worked for so short a period, was also disappointing. See my other blogs pieces on anosmia for more updates on my intermittent journey back to a scented world.

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