The Vital Force Within Us All
Now that our previous blogs have introduced you to the Five Elements and the idea of yin and yang, it’s time to get acquainted with another fundamental concept of ancient Chinese philosophy: Qi. Qi is the pulse of the cosmos. It is the vital force within us all. Picture a bellows. A bellows is a material thing made of wood and metal. We use them to blow air onto a fire in order to stoke the flames. However, a bellows is useless until we force through it. Likewise, we are an empty vessel until the breath of life is blown through us. Most simply put, qi is another way of saying energy. But it is more than just energy. In the Chinese tradition, matter is also a component of qi. Chinese sages did not distinguish between matter and energy. To them, these phenomena are one in the same.
Matter into Energy and Back
Let’s analyze this idea a little more deeply. Matter is constantly transforming into energy (burning of fossil fuels) and energy is constantly turning into matter (the creation of life). Thoughts are energetic. So are emotions. We cannot dissect thoughts and emotions, put them under a microscope or hold them in our hands. Does this mean they do not exist? Quite the opposite, thoughts and emotions can be frighteningly real. They are felt deeply. Their existence is obvious to anyone with a central nervous system and a brain. To go a step further, as Franz Kafka put it so poignantly:
“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently focused our attention upon.”
Kafka understands that thoughts become emotions and emotions create behaviors and behaviors create actions and action creates reaction. Added together, the quality of our thoughts determines the quality of our life and the quality of our character. The intangible is the mother of the tangible…and vice versa.
If you’re uncomfortable looking at this from an emotional point of view, not to worry. A more scientific perspective may resonate with Albert Einstein’s most famous equation:
E stands for energy (the unseen force). M stands for mass (a tangible, measurable piece of matter). C stands for the speed of light. The little 2 means squared or multiplied by itself. So, energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This means that Einstein proved that energy and matter are two aspects of the same thing. Matter can turn into energy and energy can turn into matter.
Back to the Beginning
Whether you prefer a more objective or a more subjective approach, eventually you’re led to a perplexing question: where does all this qi come from? It comes from nowhere – it just is! It is matter on the verge of becoming energy and energy on the verge of becoming matter. The Chinese character for qi looks like this: 氣. In fact, this character is really two ideograms (an idea expressed in writing) put together. The small character on the bottom left that looks like an asterisk means fire 米. The rest of the character 气 means a kettle of rice or water. So, in earliest of times, this symbol for qi was the energy or steam that is produced when fire and water is combined. By taking two seemingly polar opposites and bringing them together, energy is produced.
Tying It All Together
It’s now time to fold qi back into yin, yang, and the elements and see how it affects our day-to-day lives. Fire is thought of as yang and water is thought of as yin. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are thought to house these polar energies of fire and water and the union of these opposites gives rise to our vital energy, namely qi. Too much yang, fire, heat, activity and our system burns too hot depleting our water and causing stress and anxiety. Too much yin, water, cold and inactivity and our system runs too frigid causing depression, fatigue and low sex drive. On a grander scale, our physical bodies are fire, consuming and burning resources. We take in food and literally cook it inside ourselves. This is why we incorporate the cooling qualities of yin or water. It keeps the furnace burning at a reasonable temperature.