Posts Tagged ‘TCM’

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.


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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Well, it’s kind of late. I’m still thinking of it as Friday night, but it’s really Saturday morning, but at least the house is finally quiet and I can get some thoughts down on paper at last, for whatever they’re worth. And what are they worth? I don’t know, let’s see:

September will be turning to October soon, perhaps the most significant point in the year, I think; the autumnal equinox, leaves crisping, Persephone bound for the underworld, Christmas crackers appearing in the shops, and the evenings drawing in. A switch from light to dark – no sense in fighting it. Relax. Let it in. What else? Ah, yes: I’m still battling with a leaking conservatory roof, drip dripping into a strategically placed bucket at the moment, and it’s noticeable how little time there is from arriving home from the day job, midweek, to the sinking of the sun, which leaves precious  little opportunity for outdoor DIY like that. I managed to squirt some gutter sealant into a suspicious joint last night, rather hastily, but this stuff never works, and I’m thinking I need some rubber paint now, to be liberally applied at the interface between the aluminium down-channel and the plastic gutter, where all the original sealant is now flaking away. But that’ll have to wait until tomorrow – I mean later on today. For indoor DIY, there’s always the bathroom lights I could be getting on with, half of which are out, following a wiring fault, a blown transformer and a near fire in the attic back in the spring. Normally I’d’ve tackled that one months ago but it seems to have been an unrelentingly busy year, and also age seems rather surprisingly to bring with it a waning of confidence, rather than the reverse, or is it a decline in my natural energy levels? Perversely I’m reluctant to call out a £50 per hour pontificating electrician to do a job I know I can do perfectly well myself, and all within the stringent requirements of the IET wiring regulations (Part P) thank you very much, because I’m a time served engineer, dammit, and can supposedly tackle anything,  but it doesn’t alter the fact we’ve been managing on three down-lighters instead of six all year.

Anyway, as regards my energy levels, they’re currently very good, at least according to Doc Lin this afternoon and she should know, being an officially certified practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as being an all round very nice lady, and all right probably a very good business woman to boot. I’d just emerged from an hour of acupuncture and massage at her tender mercies, and I have to admit, as I floated down to the coffee shop on Market Street, I was feeling rather good, but then acupuncture and Chinese massage always does that to me. I’ve been seeing Doc Lin for about six weeks now – hoping she can fix my sense of smell, or rather the lack of it. So far, however, Asnomia still rules.

Try smelling something strong, she says. You mean like coffee, or something? Doc Lin thinks coffee isn’t strong enough to register with my atrophied nasal nerves. How about wife’s perfume, she says. Good thinking, thinks I, to be caught by number two son later on, twisting the tops of all the bottles on my wife’s dressing table, and snorting at them eagerly,.. nothing. Damn! Erm,… hi there, spud. I can explain.

But that was later, after the coffee shop, where I sat a while and enjoyed that delicious post acupuncture feeling. I don’t care if my sense of smell doesn’t come back, so long as I can go on feeling as good as this, if only for an hour a week after Doc Lin’s administrations (except for those pins in the side of my nose which feel like six inch nails when they’re going in) Anyway, apart from that they should make this stuff compulsory. It’s dodgy thinking that causes all the worlds’ problems, says Krishnamurti, and who am I to argue, but an hour of acupuncture and massage makes you think good things, makes you think all is right with the world, makes you content with its untidiness, and your equally untidy, ambiguous position within it. It makes you feel indestructible. And even if you’re not indestructible it makes you feel like you don’t care. And anyway, it’s Friday evening and all is right with the world!

So, I’m sitting in the coffee shop – with an Americano and piece of fruit cake – how urbane I’m becoming? I think not. Beyond the windows there’s the bustle of the town, all umberella’d and hurried under a sudden shower. I love my quiet northern market towns – running always slightly to seed, but somehow managing to hang on. Indestructible we are!

Now, it might be my imagination but I have the impression people look at me strangely when I step out of the acupuncture clinic. Like I said, the coffee shop is usually my first port of call, and the waitress looked at me last week as if George Clooney had just stepped into the joint. I looked around, puzzled. Nope, it’s definitely me she’s looking at, I thought. Has Doc Lin left a pin sticking out of my nose? Is one my acupuncture points still dribbling a little after she took the pins out? Are my flies open? Weird. Or maybe I just look better when I feel better?

Anyway, I’m sitting there with my Americano and my half eaten piece of fruit cake, and I’m looking at my fellow customers out the corner of my eye, and something strikes me. Those who are coupled up are talking. Those who are alone are all of them fiddling with their ‘phones. Except me, I’m thinking, smugly. Why do people have to fiddlew ith their ‘phones all the time. Switch the damned things off, relax, enjoy your coffee. Breathe. But then I notice my ‘phone on the table where I’ve just put it after texting home to number one son. Damn! Pins out, enjoying coffee, all quiet there?

There are changes coming. Number one son is off to university next weekend. I’m secretly dreading his going, dreading my tears when I leave him there. Life is so strange, so fleeting. Five minutes (Eighteen years) ago, he was a small blue baby – sticky, sleepy, glue eyed,.. thrust into my care while the surgeons stitched his mother back together, and I felt the first searing shock of an unconditional love – a grown man of thirty four realising at last there are some things, some people, you would die for without question.

He’s brought me much joy, shall continue to do so, and I shall miss him.

Anyway, that’s enough thinking for now.

I’m off to bed.

Good night all.

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Tinnitus is a fairly common problem in which the sufferer’s ears can “hear” sounds that aren’t really there. We all get this occasionally, say when we have a cold or sometimes when we’ve been swimming – our ears ring. It usually clears up after a short time, but sometimes it doesn’t. With Tinnitus, the sounds can be very loud – like standing next to a jet engine, or they can be soft, like air leaking from a pipe. They can be steady, constant in pitch, high or low, or they can vary, like a cricket chirruping. Tinnitus can also beat in tune with one’s pulse, like a slow drum-beat.

Because of the constant nature of it, it can colour your world a sort of miserable grey and, not surprisingly, it can also trigger dark emotional responses like depression, anxiety, or just all round grumpiness. According to western medicine there is no cure for it and the best that can be done is simply help the sufferer come to terms with it, or to mask it with other, less irritating sounds.

The reason I’m writing about it is partly to record my own experience of tinnitus, and also to describe some of the interesting avenues I’ve explored in overcoming it. While I still get the odd bout of tinnitus, it no longer troubles me on a daily basis so I feel that to a large extent I have been successful in tackling it. I therefore want to pass on my experience for the benefit of those who might be struggling with it and looking for some advice.

Conventional Western Medicine was unable to offer me any hope of a resolution at all, so, desperate for a cure, I was forced to explore a very dodgy path of alternative treatments. Sceptics warned me that I was wasting my time, that I was simply in denial, and should just get used to the fact that I had tinnitus and get on with my life. This was not helpful. Anyway, after a broad study of what the alternative treatments were, I decided to try Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

I used a combination of acupuncture, Tai Chi and Qigong. The acupuncture was an expensive and lengthy business, but it did have a significant effect. It did not provide a miracle overnight cure, but rather a gradual easing of the condition over time. The Tai Chi and Qigong were less expensive and involved attending a weekly class, plus daily practice on my own. Qigong can be picked up to some extent from books, or off the web, but Tai Chi cannot – and you really do need to attend a class if you can find one.

I used Tai Chi and Qigong as a means of taking over from the acupuncture, and the techniques proved to be effective, enabling me to sustain a slow but steady recovery to the point where the tinnitus rarely troubles me now. I also feel much more energetic and relaxed. To be clear, I do still get the occasional “bad ear” day, but such occasions are rare now. When they do occur, I see them as a sign that I’m out of balance in other areas, usually tired and in need of some rest. That’s fine by me, because at its worst every day was a bad ear day.

The sceptics now tell me that my ear was obviously going to get better on its own anyway and that the TCM was still a waste of time (and money). I have no answer for them except to say that apart from easing my tinnitus, the TCM techniques I have learned have provided other benefits as well: boosting my sense of well being, making me more relaxed and energetic. Perhaps such a rejuvenation is common in one’s middle years?

I’ve been fortunate that for most of my life I’ve never felt the need to trouble the local doctor from one year to the next. On the rare occasions when I have visited his surgery, the impression I’ve come away with is of a man severely pressed for time and with a long queue of sick people backed out of the waiting room. Perhaps I have trouble expressing myself but under these circumstances I have found that doctors struggle to address any problems that I cannot point to, such as a swollen eye, or a nasty rash. Anything else, anything mysterious, anything that does not show changes in blood pressure or in blood and urine samples leaves them stumped. Tinnitus is a good example of this, but there are many other things I can think of: fatigue, lethargy, a whole raft of emotional problems, stress, anxiety,…

On the other hand, my experience with TCM has been mostly positive and in the future, while I’ll probably return to my overworked doctor with the straight forward problems I can point to, I will not hesitate to seek the advice of TCM for the other stuff.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Skepticism

TCM grew out of the philosophical aspects of Taoism, and can trace its development back some three thousand years to the “Yellow Emperor’s Handbook”. This book was the first to describe the Chinese concept of “Energy” or “Chi” and how it moves around the human body. I was introduced to the Chinese world view several years ago now, through my interest in the Book of Changes, or I Ching. However, in spite of my great respect for the Oriental take on life, I feel I was always guilty of viewing TCM as somewhat primitive and superstitious – at best a cheap, low tech placebo for the rural poor, while the urban rich, who could afford it, went to see a proper medical doctor. As for Qigong, or Chi Kung (same thing – different spelling), like many of us in the west, I had real problems with it on account of the dreaded “C” word (Chi or Qi). Qigong doesn’t make sense without accepting the existence of Chi, and the merest hint of that word has sceptics seeing red, because they say it cannot be measured, detected or, by any means other than imaginary, be said to exist at all.

Having poked around the subject for a while though, I’m persuaded that the problem with Chi lies in its historical associations – not so much with traditional Chinese thought, but with the relatively modern, Western, new-age spiritual movement that latched on to its supposed “mystical” properties and have since used it to support a belief in all manner of dubious paranormal phenomenon. But we western hippy types are not alone in giving Chi a bad reputation. Another problem with it, is its association with so called “Masters”, both Eastern and Western, who perform demonstrations of paranormal ability due to their apparent “mastery” of Chi. While these feats are undoubtedly impressive, and for all I know may even be genuine, they fall foul of the rational, skeptical mindset that’s always on the lookout for the trick – and I’m sure all of the demonstrations I’ve seen on film (see You Tube “Chi Demonstrations”), could be performed just as well by a competent illusionist. The problem here is not so much the truth of the matter then, as the perception. We might be dismissing Chi simply because of it’s bad reputation, not because it does not exist.

So, what is the truth concerning the “C” word? I can only speak from personal experience, and recently I have to admit I’ve come round to an acceptance of its existence. However, I see it more as a natural, though as yet poorly understood phenomenon, rather than a mystical super-power. One of the reasons for my “conversion” is that I’ve come to know some otherwise down to earth people who practice with and apparently “manipulate” Chi, internally, but who prefer not to call it by that name. They talk instead about a kind of electricity or energy that exists freely in the natural environment, and also in our bodies. Whatever its nature, they explained to me that if I did certain exercises I would begin to feel certain things – and feel them I did.

Swapping the word Chi for “electricity” might seem like a case of slippery political correctness, but it is an apt phrase, and I base that statement upon my practice with the range of mind-body exercises known collectively as Qigong. The sensations we experience in our body are highly subjective of course – sometimes real, sometimes imagined, and what to one person might be evidence of a physical manifestation of Chi, might to another simply be a case of pins and needles. By performing Qigong exercises, or by having acupuncture, we do experience some odd sensations: tingling, coolness, a spontateous flowing of “something” from our fingertips down our arms. We also experience an incredible internal heat that pumps the sweat out of us even though we’re doing nothing but standing still. Whether these sensations are real or imaginary is irrelevant though and what we have to ask ourselves is this: do these mind-body exercises bring about the stated physiological and psychological responses in a human body?

And in my experience they do.

Has the existence of Chi been scientifically demonstrated?

Skeptics will say no, absolutely not, but as is often the case, the fact of the matter is less clear. We may have known about Chi in the west for a long time, but we call it something else. A good book on this subject is “The Body Electric” by Dr Robert Becker who mapped out the human electromagnetic field in the 1970’s. There are no wires in the body for the passing of electrical current, more, as I understand it, a series of low resistance pathways, mostly in the sub-surface tissues, along which electrical energy finds it easier to travel. Resistance measurements suggest these pathways coincide with the acupuncture channels. Therefore, for a skeptic to say there is no basis for the ideas of Traditional Chinese Medicine in scientific fact and that “Chi” is unfounded fancy is actually not correct at all. Whatever we choose to call it, it seems there are more scientific grounds for taking it seriously and investigating it further, than for rejecting it as preposterous, as the sceptics would have us do.

I think back to my overcrowded doctor’s surgery and then to the queue outside the dispensing chemist of people getting their prescription drugs and I wonder how much money might be saved if those people could be allowed instead to spend half an hour lying comfortably on a couch with some pins stuck in them. Not everyone could be helped this way of course, and the idea of allowing ordinary people some time to relax perhaps goes against the grain of Western culture, but many could be helped and indeed are in other parts of the world.

Returning to Qigong, and having established that there might be something we can loosely term bioelectricity at work, we must now stretch our imaginations a little further and accept the possibility that one can influence the flow of this energy using the intention of the mind, and that we can also increase the amount of bioelectrical potential that we can store within the body. How might this work then? Well, in the conventional view we convert the food we eat into energy, and that’s all the energy we need. Then, if pressed, the western scientist will allow that the body has a natural electrical field that can be measured but, in the conventional view, this field is considered to be nothing more than a by-product of the body’s function. In the traditional Chinese view, however, the body’s electromagnetic field is more, and the form it takes is believed to actually influence the well being of the body itself.

Electrical energy is not just generated by the body, it is also channelled into the body from the environment. Under normal conditions the energy flows along the acupuncture meridians which emerge from the body at its extremities – tips of fingers, toes, top of the head and the perineum. If the energy field is undistorted, then it acts as a kind of blueprint that the body’s natural regenerative functions can use as a reference in repairing physical damage or fighting infection. If the blueprint is lost or distorted though, the body is thrown back upon itself and can go a little haywire – we become sick.

Through poor posture, poor diet, negative thinking, or years of nervous tension we can unconsciously impede the natural flow of energy through the acupuncture channels – just as if we sit awkwardly, we can impede the flow of blood and cause our legs to go to sleep. This has the effect of distorting our natural electromagnetic field and if these distortions become habitual and long term, things can start to break down. The other way of distorting the field has to do with external electromagnetic interference. There is no clear cut boundary to the human electromagnetic. In effect, it merges by imperceptible degrees into the electromagnetic field of the earth. Therefore the concern is that any strong local interference, such as from power lines, transformers or radio transmitters, could disrupt the body’s natural field, again messing up the reference blueprint that our natural defences use for self repair.

Or so the theory goes.

But what about my tinnitus? Could the manipulation of Chi get rid of what a western medical doctor had told me was incurable?

Well, as I’ve already said, the answer appears to be yes.

TCM and Tinnitus

TCM is not a miracle cure for everything. It aims to put the body’s natural electromagnetic field back into balance so the body knows how to repair itself. But there are some forms of damage that cannot be repaired. If we are unfortunate enough to lose a limb for example, no amount of acupuncture or qigong will make it grow back.

Our ears are delicate devices and tinnitus can be brought on by physical damage: by exposure to loud noise, by being too close to an explosion, by habitual exposure to dangerous industrial or recreational noise. It can also be brought on by poking around in the ear with a Q-tip, or through an infection introduced by a dirty finger-nail. With a damaged ear, as I understand it, TCM is as helpless as Western medicine. However, if you cannot pinpoint any such cause, if it came on suddenly and mysteriously then your tinnitus is probably the result of fatigue – in bioelectrical terms, your batteries are running down.

The body’s electromagnetic field is not a straightforward phenomenon. It divides itself into different channels, each of which provides energy for a particular bodily function. Each channel then feeds a store of energy that serves the body in different ways. One of these channels comes up from the feet and is loosely associated with the kidneys. As we age this energy can become depleted, and one of the side effects, as well as a general feeling of lethargy and exhaustion, is tinnitus.

The lesson here for the tinnitus sufferer is that although this energy can be restored, it will be lost again if we cannot identify our energy hungry habits and put an end to them. There are several reports of acupuncture having a short term effect on tinnitus: it helps, but once you stop the acupuncture, it comes back. Mine didn’t however – it continued to improve, but I was careful not to go back to my old ways, and I adopted a healthy exercise regime that seems to have kept my energy levels topped up.

In TCM, the most likely culprits in the onset of tinnitus are insufficient sleep, and, for men, sexual excess (sorry guys). Now none of this will be of much comfort if you’re a celibate teenager, and get ten hours sleep a night. But if you’re older, say past forty and sexually active (with or without a partner) this is definitely something you need to take seriously.

I was forty five, and energy hungry, working long hours with two jobs – one that paid, the other that didn’t, and I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough sleep. Acupuncture, Qigong and Tai Chi were very effective in getting rid of it, but it was a long haul. The whole process took over a year and I still practice Tai Chi and Qigong every day.

What follows is an account of my story in more detail. For those of you suffering with tinnitus, there may be something in it that can help. If, however, you’ve never heard of tinnitus then I’m just going to sound like a whingeing hypochondriac.


My tinnitus came on suddenly in the Spring of 2006. It was mainly in my left ear, and was like the hissing of air from a leaky pipe, or like the static hiss you get when you tune a radio in between stations. Sometimes we get these odd noises when we’re tired or we have a head cold, but we don’t pay them much attention and they usually go away, but this didn’t. Over the next few months the noise came and went a bit, but finally settled in until it was there pretty much all the time.

Some days I could only hear it in a very quiet room, or when I lay in bed at night – other days I could hear it over most of the everyday sounds, like watching TV or when driving. There seemed to be no clear pattern to the good days and the bad days, no obvious trigger, except that exposure to very loud noises like a washing machine suddenly kicking into its spin cycle, or using my petrol mower would turn a good day instantly into a bad one.

I waited until the late Summer before going to see the local GP. A quick examination revealed a plug of wax in the offending ear and I was hopeful that after washing it out, the noise would go, but it didn’t. I was stuffed: it seemed there was nothing more that could be done. The GP shrugged and diagnosed “tinnitus”. He said he could refer me to a specialist but that in his experience it wasn’t really worth it, that I’d be better off just getting used to it.

The real nature of the problem

On the up-side, it wasn’t life-threatening – just annoying – but I refused to believe that such an apparently common thing could not be cured. However, the internet revealed the situation to be (almost) hopeless. What particularly upset me were the “miracle cures”. When you see these – all sorts of weird devices and sounds on CD’s – all at exorbitant prices, you know you’ve tapped into one of those grey “snake-oil” areas. Look up “baldness” and you’ll get a similar crop of “miracle cures”. Well, I could live with being bald, I thought, but tinnitus: well that was a different matter altogether!

The condition seemed to worsen throughout the summer and winter of 2006. The noise wasn’t so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else, but it was noticeable over most of the sounds I encountered during a normal day, and my main worry was that it was going to get worse and worse. Then, strangely, I’d get a good day when I could barely hear the tinnitus, and I’d think I was getting better, but the following day it would be back again, seemingly louder than before.

Western medicine will glibly blame exposure to noise. The doctor jokingly suggested that I’d probably been to too many rock concerts in my youth. Well – at the risk of sounding like a bit of a bore, this wasn’t true – I’d always been keen to heed the warnings, because I didn’t want to develop tinnitus in later life. Ha! But anyway, I still wondered about noise. My day job involved working in a lab where there was a fairly constant buzz and rumble of extractors and cooling fans. These sounds were occasionally irritating, more so now that I was looking to blame them for causing the tinnitus. So I went through a phase of sitting in the lab with ear defenders on – but it didn’t make any difference, and the Health and Safety guys looked at me as if I’d gone mad when they came to measure the noise levels, because they barely registered on the equipment. So, in my case, noise didn’t look like being the primary cause then. Granted, once you’ve got tinnitus, exposure to loud noises will irritate it, but the real cause lies elsewhere. The real cause is fatigue.
I worked a fairly standard forty hour week, and I’d journey home each evening to take up my unpaid “real” job of writing. I’d work late into the night, most nights, and I’d usually unwind, as I wrote, to the accompaniment of a glass of wine, so when I did retire I’d only get a few hours kip before (if you’ll pardon me) having to empty my bladder. I didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, or a stressful job, but even from an early age I’ve been prone to nervous tension, the occasional bout of irrational anxiety in situations most of you will find innocuous, and not surprisingly I was pretty tired all of the time.

I won’t go into the sex bit in any personal detail and shall leave it to your imagination – except to say I don’t think it was a major factor in my own case. Anyway, the theory goes that sperm takes a lot of the available energy in a man’s body. If sperm is lost (during sex) the body immediately sets about making some more, consuming vast amounts of energy in the process. To a young man this is neither here nor there and he can have as much sex as his circumstances and good fortune allow, but to an older man it’s different and he needs to ration himself a bit more. In TCM there’s actually a chart that indicates the maximum number of ejaculations a man should have in a given period, depending on his age – if you’re over forty it’s about once a week or every ten days. This might seem a bit over the top but it’s something you do need to be aware of.

Measuring the tinnitus

I began a study of the tinnitus and came up with a measurement system, so I could tell how bad a day it had been. I defined three simple levels:

Level 3, I represented with a smiley face and this scored a 25, because I reckoned I only noticed it about a quarter, or 25%, of the time. Level 3 was fine – I could live my whole life at level three and not complain about it.

Level 2 was a straight faced “smiley”, and this scored 50% because I reckoned I’d been aware of it about half the time. Occasionally irritating, level 2 is not a good place to be, but it doesn’t make you feel ill, make you consider giving up your job, or cause you to fear for your sanity.

Then came level 1, which was a “bad ear day”, a miserable frowning “smiley” which scored a 75%. Level 1 was maddening. Level one was enough to have me going to bed in the early evening so I could cut the day short and escape the infernal racket. Level 1 I could not live with for very long at all and it made me adamant that I was going to find a way to cure it.

Thus began a daily chart on which I logged my scores, to see if the condition was getting worse or if it was stable. Every month I’d take an average and to my relief, the condition seemed to be fairly stable – between 55 and 60%.

I’ve read that it’s not a good idea to keep a log of your tinnitus because it makes you concentrate on it, and that in turn can make it seem worse than it really is. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I should emphasise that my log was just a quick assessment, usually in the morning – asking myself how good or bad the previous day had been. Then the book was closed and I just got with my day. Later on, I was glad of the record because, as things improved, it was easier to see the results on paper and this in itself boosted my morale and maintained my resolve to carry on with the “cure”.

At the time of writing, after some eighteen months since beginning to tackle it, I’m now down to around 35%, which means my life consists of mostly good days instead of mostly bad.

The TCM Sessions

Of all the nonsense I’d read on the internet the “nonsense” of TCM seemed the most plausible, and least expensive option, so I contacted a local practitioner. He was a Chinese doctor, trained in western medicine, but who specialised in TCM. The sessions were weekly, lasted between thirty and forty minutes and they cost me £25.00 a time. I went regularly for seven months. Now, you’re thinking to yourself that that’s a lot of money – nearly enough to buy one of those weird tinnitus-cure gadgets you see advertised on the internet, and you’re right. The difference is though, you’re only paying a little at a time, and if you decide it’s not working, you can cut your losses and stop going long before it’s cost you a fortune.

My first consultation was in February 2007. The TCM doctor checked my pulse on both wrists, examined my tongue and generally weighed me up, apparently by the look, feel and the “smell” of me. He went into some detail about family history, explored other issues of lifestyle that I didn’t think were related, and then began to suggest symptoms I’d forgotten to mention such as an embarrassing habit of breaking out into a drenching sweat for no apparent reason. I was given herbal remedies, a vigorous massage of my back and neck, and a form of acupressure on the sides of my head. The herbs were Er Long Zuo Chi Wan and Long Dan Zie Gan Wan. I kept this up for about 3 weeks but without any noticeable benefit. Then the doctor said we should try acupuncture.

If you’ve not had acupuncture [as I hadn’t] you might be nervous about it [as I was]. I discovered the pins used are not really pins at all – they are more like fine wires – and the doctor explained they are not pushed in very far – from 1 to 3 mm, depending on the location. There was a slight pricking sensation as they went in, but so long as you can relax this is hardly noticeable. Once the pins are in the sensation is more like the gentle pressure of a finger or some other blunt instrument held against the skin.

In my case the “pins” were applied to my shins, the backs of my hands, sides of the neck, the mandibles, and the top of my head. I had no knowledge of the so called meridian system at that time and therefore no idea of the reasoning behind the doctor’s choice in these locations. The combined sensation was really peculiar, but not unpleasant – in fact, after a while, I looked forward to my sessions because of their relaxing effect. The pins were left in place for about 20 minutes, while I lay comfortably on my back. The only clothes I had to take off were my shoes. The doctor was a pleasant, chatty gentleman, not long in the UK and he spoke in very broken English, a language he was studying. He was the first doctor I’ve ever met who did not treat me like a lump of meat.

On the first occasion I think I’d been expecting a miracle, but the ears were still ringing when the pins came out and I was disappointed, thinking they’d had no effect at all. However, on the way home, after that first session, I began to feel really strange – very tired, and like I’d had an electric shock. I arrived home stunned, and feeling “heavy”. The closest thing I could liken it to was, years before, when I’d been in a car accident – a sudden jarring smash that I’d walked away from apparently unscathed – but the day after I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. Then there was an occasion in my foolish youth when I’d nearly killed myself buggering about with mains electricity – I’d got away with just a warning jolt but I remembered the sensation of an electrically triggered muscular spasm. That evening I was in bed at nine and I slept like I’d been drugged, but I woke up next morning feeling fresher than I’d done in years. Unfortunately the ear was still ringing.
Perhaps understandably then I approached my next session with some trepidation. The doctor explained that my reaction had been normal – being plugged into the mains, he said, was not a bad analogy. My body wasn’t used to it, but it wouldn’t react so dramatically next time. This was indeed the case, and the following sessions were quite straight forward. After each session thereafter, I always felt deeply relaxed and refreshed.

With few exceptions, the TCM sessions stuck to a regular format: After a quick examination of tongue and pulse, I would have twenty minutes of acupuncture, twenty minutes of massage around the back and neck, then the usual herbs and I’d be on my way. The few exceptions involved a process called candling – sticking a lighted, hollow candle in my ear. Though again I found the candling to be relaxing, I could not say it had any effect on my tinnitus.

I kept all of this up for 7 months, which cost around £700 in the end – a lot of money? Well, all things are relative, and it depends how much you’re earning. It was about the price of a holiday, or a decent computer. But the important thing is: did it work?

And the answer is Yes.

According to the chart I kept the effect was immediate, though slight. Consecutive months showed a steady improvement until after six months of treatment I was down to around the 40% mark. But the improvement in the tinnitus was not the only thing I noticed. Throughout the Summer of 2007, I felt incredibly more energetic, and about a decade younger.

But I had to pack it in. It came down to money really, plus the abiding scepticism of my good lady who insisted it was all in the mind anyway, and that £100 a month could be better spent elsewhere. Admittedly, I had hoped for faster cure. I was growing increasingly frustrated by the routine nature of my TCM sessions and the slow progress. Sure, I was improving slightly, but at this rate I was going to be broke before I got close to being free of tinnitus. If I could have afforded to keep going, then I would have done so. The difference it made to my sense of well being was profound, but in the real world, as the tinnitus subsided, the TCM sessions began to feel more like a delicious luxury than a necessity.

I asked the doctor’s advice and he said that tinnitus was a stubborn thing to shift, but that we were heading in the right direction, and why didn’t I consider taking up Tai Chi as well – that regular practice might speed things up. The doctor practised it himself and looked very well off it. I found a local class and enrolled in August 2007. They taught the traditional Chen style, beginning with a fourteen week introductory course, and I was hooked from the beginning.

Tai Chi for Health

Like Yoga, to some extent it is possible to gain benefit from Tai Chi without considering or “believing in” the “internal” energies involved, but without them Tai Chi is just a form of dancing. We’re talking about Chi again, though at the class I attended, “Chi” was rarely mentioned. Instead, it was glossed over or loosely defined as a kind of “electricity” or “energy” and we were taught that whatever “it” was, it was important to have it circulating correctly, just as it was important to have good circulation of the blood and the lymph.
The Tai Chi moves, or “form”, encourage this circulation as well as developing a heightened sense of balance and improving one’s flexibility or suppleness. The “energy aspects” are also specifically targeted or boosted by special exercises known collectively as Qigong. Qigong and Tai Chi are usually taught together as one coherent system. Tai Chi was developed during a troubled period of China’s history when isolated agricultural communities were vulnerable to hoards of raiding bandits. It was a highly effective means of self defence, and each of the individual moves has an application in protecting oneself from a would be attacker. In their original form, these moves are rather uncompromising and designed to inflict severe injury. In short Tai Chi breaks bones and smashes heads. It’s therefore not the ideal sport for full contact sparring, except the highly specific form known as push hands.

The elements of posture, energy and physique one develops from practising these moves renders them beneficial either from the fighting angle, or from the health angle. Most of us in the west, practice for our health. We carry out the moves slowly and with a mind for their correctness. When, as beginners, we hit upon the correct way of moving, the correct posture or whatever, we are rewarded with a physical sensation that is unlike any other I have ever experienced.

There are thousands of Qigong forms, and to the uninitiated, it’s difficult to know where to start, but they all combine the breath with gentle movement, or static postures, and an inner sense of “energy” flow. Qigong aims at increasing a practitioner’s internal energy.

The Qigong styles I was introduced to through my Tai Chi classes were the 18 form Shibashi, and the 8 Piece Brocade. I attended a seminar on the 8 Piece Brocade in October 2007, and of the two, it was this one that I personally found much easier to get into the “feel” of. It’s also easier to remember a sequence of 8 postures than 18. It was while carrying out this sequence of simple moves that I began to feel something of my own electricity – either imagined or otherwise.

Another static Qigong posture that was taught was “standing like a tree”, a position I found incredibly difficult to hold for more than a few minutes without breaking into a sweat, but which again I found to be ultimately very beneficial indeed.

Interestingly the TCM doctor did not entirely approve of Qigong, warning me that it produced too much “heat” – in the TCM sense, and that this could make things worse for me in the short term. I was puzzled by this, as I’d been sure the acupuncture and the herbs he’d been prescribing had been aimed at increasing my own internal energy – that my flagging reserves were the cause of the tinnitus. So what was wrong with an exercise designed to do the same thing? Unfortunately, he was right though, and immediately upon beginning to practice Qigong, I recorded a slight worsening of the tinnitus. Anyway, for good or ill, the time had come for me to part company with the doctor. This was a difficult thing to do as I’d come to know him quite well by this time, and enjoyed our conversations, enjoyed also walking out of his clinic and feeling like I was floating – but my good lady had by now already issued various ultimatums, and I simply couldn’t keep it up. To be fair, 7 months had been a long time – a fair shot at it, I thought, and with some success.
I kept up the Tai Chi (Qigong and all), acting on instinct, and feeling that this was something my body wanted or needed me to do. So, I ended the TCM in September 2007 and for the next few months the tinnitus stabilised a few points up at around 42%. Then I began to practice the Tai Chi and Qigong very seriously. I attended class once a week, but practice at home for at least thirty minutes a day, every day, without fail. The Tai Chi I was learning was a relatively modern short form designed for beginners by Master Liming Yue of the Manchester based Tai Chi Centre – just 11 moves, and I picked these up slowly over the autumn and winter of 2007/2008. In the main though, my private practice consisted of Qigong.

I would begin each session with the warm-up routines I’d learned for the Tai Chi form, then do the 8 piece Brocade, usually followed by a session of standing like a tree for as long as I could. Alternatively, I would perform a set of moving exercises, also part of the Chen Style repertoire, called “Silk Reeling” . Finally if I felt like it, I’d finish off with a bit of revision on the Tai Chi form, then do the warm down exercises, another form of Qigong that supposedly settles the imaginary “electricity” to the Dan Tien – a point (imaginary or otherwise) a couple of inches below the belly button.

In Tai Chi we try to think of the Dan Tien as our energy source, a bit like a rechargeable battery, also as our centre of gravity and that any moves we make are driven by a twisting or a spiralling of energy that begins in the Dan Tien. Under normal conditions it draws charge from the food we eat and from the environment, passing it along the acupuncture channels but if these become blocked, the flow of energy is impeded. Practising the 8 piece brocade aims to relax and free up these channels, lowering the resistance, and improving the charge going to the Dan Tien.

One possible problem with Qigong practice is that to the western mind, an exercise set implies sweating and straining. This is exactly the opposite of what we want though. In practising the 8 piece brocade, we might begin to sweat, because it does raise a tremendous heat apparently from nowhere, but putting strain or “effort” into the moves is wrong – we need to relax as much as possible. Breath and intention are central to any Qigong practice. The theory tells us that energy follows the mind’s intention and its movement or flow is encouraged by the breath. One’s focus then is naturally upon the Dan Tien, which we try to develop an imaginary feel for, and this comes with practice. As we perform the movements, we synchronise them to the natural flow of our breath, tending to push as we breathe out, and pull as we breath in. Breathing is slow and relaxed, tending to be deep, the diaphragm extending down as we breathe in – the belly pushing out, and relaxing to normal as we breathe out.

In tree standing, the focus again is on the Dan Tien and the breath. The postures in tree standing vary but the style I was taught simply involve holding the arms out in front of the body, or above the head. When beginning it seems impossible that anyone can hold these postures for 10 or 20 minutes – but with patience and practice it is possible. The point of all this escaped me at first and it seemed little more than a sort of sadomasochism. It was excruciating holding my arms up even for five minutes, but after a while, incredible though it may sound, the weight of one’s arms eventually seems to disappear and it is as if they are suspended by invisible threads. But the more interesting thing, obviously, for me, was that after a few months of regular practice, the tinnitus began to improve again. As with the acupuncture, the improvement was a gradual thing, but taken over a period of six months, it was significant to the point where I can say that, in the main, it simply doesn’t bother me any more.

By March of 2008 my tinnitus levels were down to about 35% – based on my rough smiley chart. Bad ear days still occurred – but only about once a fortnight, as opposed to several times a week, when I set out in 2006. I also felt much brighter, more positive in my outlook and significantly more energetic. Needless to say, my view of TCM has changed completely from early scepticism (but what the hell I’ve nothing to lose) to one of respect.

It will not cure everything. Sometimes our bodies get themselves into such a mess we need the drastic intervention of powerful pharmaceuticals, antibiotics or urgent surgery. But there are also a lot of conditions western medicine seems to shrug its shoulders at because they’re not life threatening – “merely” irritating to the sufferer. These conditions can be both physical and emotional and in my view are symptomatic of a deeper malaise, one that western medicine will never get at because it’s too focussed on attacking the symptoms with pharmaceuticals, rather than understanding the underlying cause. With TCM things work the other way around. If the nature of the imbalance can be identified and addressed, the symptoms will disappear on their own. Even, it seems, the apparently incurable ones like tinnitus.

Advice to Tinnitus Sufferers

My advice, if you’re suffering from tinnitus is first of all see your local GP, if you haven’t already done so, if only to check for damage and to have the condition confirmed. If you’re lucky (or unlucky – depending on your point of view) you may be referred to a specialist at the hospital. From then on you can expect a lot of appointments, a lot of poking about in your ear, a lot of literature on tinnitus support groups, but no cure. It’s up to you whether you want to venture down this path or not – depends if you like hospital waiting rooms, I suppose.

Alternatively, consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine to see what their diagnosis is, and to ask about herbs, massage and acupuncture – or whatever they recommend to re-balance your system. One thing I didn’t do, and which I recommend, is to ask up front how long they think the treatment will take – so you know what you’re in for. It sounds stupid but I was too polite to ask.
At the same time, consider taking up Tai Chi, as well as the 8 Brocades Qigong, and Tree standing, also known as Zhan Zhuang (pronounced jam jong). Although the practitioner I saw was wary about Qigong, and the practice did at first seem to be working against the acupuncture, continued practice did eventually yield significant results (and for a fraction of the cost).

The other things you can do for yourself are:

1) Record the levels of tinnitus so you have a baseline against which to measure subsequent improvements.

2) Remember you’re not suffering from tinnitus – that’s just a symptom. What you’re most likely suffering from is fatigue, so make sure you get plenty of sleep – at least eight hours – more if you can manage it.

3) Avoid large drinks late at night – alcoholic or otherwise – or anything that’s going to get you up in the small hours to relieve your bladder and disturb your sleep.

4) And gentlemen, if you’re over forty, you really have to limit your ejaculations, assisted or DIY, to no more than once a week. Read Mantak Chia’s “Multi Orgasmic Man” for further information and some very interesting alternatives.

(Obviously, Ladies don’t need to worry about this aspect.)

5) Take up Tai Chi and Qigong – I had good results with the 8 Brocades, Tree Standing and Chen Style Silk Reeling. But you need to persevere – it will take you a year at least, so be prepared.

Tinnitus is a worrying condition because it throws us back on ourselves a bit. No one else is going to sort this out for you, so you have to take responsibility for improving the condition of your own body, its balance and its well-being. Tai Chi and Qigong are the tools that enabled me to do just that.

I highly recommend them.

Books and DVD’s on Tai Chi and Qigong

There are of course many books on the subject of Qigong, and Tai Chi – search Amazon and you’ll see what I mean – but in my experience there are very few good ones – I know because I’ve ended up buying a good many of them. Western authors tend to get hung up too quickly on the mystical or the paranormal side of it – and though I admit I’m a bit of a mystic myself, when it comes to what ails you I think you need to be a bit more down to earth. Forget “astral travel” and just give me something that can help me pass my day with more of a spring in my step!

Qigong forms tend to involve static postures that you hold while focusing on the breath and to some extent you might be successful in picking these up from illustrated books, DVDs or off the Internet. But by far the best way is to attend a class. Having said this, quite late on in my practice, I became aware of a book called “The Way of Energy” by Lam Kam Chuen. By strange coincidence, this book covered both the 8 Brocade and Tree Standing that I’d been learning in class. I thought this book was very well written, beautifully and appropriately illustrated and above all informative. This is a very rare exception, and learning from this book is possibly even better than attending a class with an instructor who isn’t as well informed.
As for Tai Chi, its forms involve complex and highly dynamic moves which you simply cannot learn from a book, or an instructional DVD. You need to follow a real live person, preferably one who knows what they’re doing. The books and DVD’s can then help you with your home practice and background studies. My advice in the first place then is to find a Tai Chi class and give it a try. Inquire first of all to make sure that Qigong is integral to the practice – not all instructors teach it, but in my opinion, without it, Tai Chi is simply a form of dancing. The 8 Brocades and Tree Standing are common to all styles of Tai Chi, though there may be subtle differences in the way they’re taught – this doesn’t matter. I’m learning Chen Style, which is not as common in the UK as other styles – you’re more likely to encounter Yang Style, but don’t get hung up on the names – they’re all highly respected as health systems.

A final word on the mystical side: Many forms of Qigong are banned in China as the authorities tighten up on anything that has even the faintest whiff of “cultishness” or “witchcraft” about it. The Falun Gong system is perhaps the most well known of the proscribed forms, but there are others. The only forms of Qigong that have gained the approval of the authorities are those that have proven health benefits. The 8 Brocades, the 18 form Shibashi and Tree Standing are considered such, and all are widely and openly practice in China, so there’s no need to worry about the spiritual stuff if you’re a sceptical westerner – just try if for a bit and see what happens.

I think you’ll be impressed!

Michael Graeme


The Body Electric – Dr Robert Becker

The Way of Energy – Lam Kam Chuen

The Multi-Orgasmic Man – Mantak Chia

*** updated February 2014 ***

Master Lam has now put up an excellent set of instructional videos on You Tube detailing a ten day course to get you going with Zhan Zhuang.  Episode one is here:

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