A Shifting Understanding of Chi

I have been trying to grasp the concept of chi for decades. As an undergraduate student in the eighties, I was first introduced to the philosophical ideas of Daoism, including chi and yin and yang. Then, in my mid-twenties I read a bunch of books on the foundational principles of Chinese Medicine like “The Web That Has No Weaver” and “Between Heaven and Earth” (I recommend them both). I also have five years of formal education in the field and sixteen years in practice. My understanding of chi has certainly deepened over time, though I still find it challenging to truly comprehend. And how can I? If chi is the basic thing that everything in the universe is made of, from the densest object to the most fleeting thought, it is a very large and abstract concept indeed.

Water is Chi

Chi as Energy

When I first heard about chi, the most common explanation I was given was that it is energy. With my limited understanding, I thought this meant that chi was simply the fuel that gave us the power to do things day-to-day. Later I came to think about chi in the way that physicists think about energy. If they see everything as a different manifestation of energy, then maybe I could see everything as a different manifestation of chi. However, even though this is more expansive, physicists do not consider things like thoughts to be a type of energy.
 

Chi as Lifeforce

Like the Sanskrit word prana, chi is often translated as lifeforce. This force is typically thought of as what gives living beings life and vitality. While chi does do this, it does so much more. It is also the force that makes the mist gather into rain clouds, a seed grow into a towering tree, and crystals form deep in the ground. It holds the moon in the Earth's orbit and makes the planets spin. It is also the force that gives us structural integrity and is the energetic barrier that protects us from pathogens. However, chi has even more properties. 
 

Chi as Connection

As the books I mentioned above explain, chi is the web that weaves everything together into the grand singularity that we call the universe. It is why nothing can be done in isolation without affecting anything else. This idea of chi as connection is seen in the channel theory of acupuncture. Just as chi flows through and links everything in existence, chi flows through us, knitting us together into a unified whole. Still, although chi is connective, that is not all it is.
 

Chi as Flow

The imagery of flowing water is used a lot when talking about the movement of chi. In our bodies, the first points on the acupuncture channels, which are found on our ringers and toes, are called jing-wells. As the chi moves along the channels towards the torso its pathways get deeper and wider, passing through ying-spring, shu-stream, jing-river, and he-sea points. If the chi overflows in the channels like a flooded river, there is bleeding. If the chi stagnates and pools like a parched river, there is pain. Outside of the human body, the pathway of chi can easily be seen as rivers flow down to the sea and the ocean moves with the tides. Chi is also represented by the flow of time and the flow of our lives as we transition from one chapter to the next. Chi has other properties, though, including one that is especially important in healing and medicine.
 

Chi as Shift

There is nothing in the universe that is static, including us. Everything is shifting and changing in unison all at once, all the time. Chi is what enables this process to occur. For us, it powers all of our major physiological transformations like growth, puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and aging. Since healing is a transformational process, it is also powered by chi. Acupuncture is one of the ways to tap into the flow of chi in the body to make the deeper, more fundamental shifts that are necessary for true healing to occur, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
 
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