Finding, Building, Using, and Understanding Chi Energy

Recently after tai chi class I was stopped by a long time student who was frustrated by what he considered a complete lack of progress developing chi energy after years of study. I was heart-broken because I had seen this person’s health improve and watched him weather a job loss and partner’s illness in a very successful way. He was an example of exactly how developing chi energy can make you resilient to what life throws at you and sort of de-age you.

So what was the cause of his feelings? He didn’t have a great understanding of what chi energy was, how to build it, and was comparing himself to very esoteric, religious, and “out there” explanations on the internet.

Chi energy is the vital source of life that runs throughout our body and also permeates all objects in the exterior world. All religious and Eastern traditions reference chi energy but may call it by different names like chi, qi, or prana. Chi energy can be developed through practices like tai chi and meditation.

I have taken my time to research and write a very lengthy description of chi energy with the goal that whatever level we are at, and whatever our practice is, that we can all make progress accessing the glorious and blissful energy in our body and around us. If you are experienced, this information will hopefully motivate you to keep practicing or help you dive deeper. If you are new, the rest of us are jealous because we wish we had this information early on.

What is Chi Energy?

Chi (氣) is an energy that runs throughout the body providing us with health and vitality.  It is also spelled “qi” and “ki” but is most often written “chi” because of its pronunciation (CHEE).  Chi is not just a human life force but is believed to flow through all living things.  The literal translation in part is “air” or “vapor” which conveys that it gives life to everything and isn’t located or found in one place in the body but permeates all organs tissue and cells.

Chi energy is the focus of tradition Chinese medicine because illness is described as a reduction, blockage, or imbalance of chi. Medical intervention such as acupuncture or herbs are intended to improve the flow of chi or address a blockage.  Chi is also a focus in martial arts systems and internal practices such as yoga, qigong, and meditation with the intention of improving and balancing chi energy.

Where Chi Energy Is Located in the Body: Culture and History Overlap

Several eastern systems of religion and thought describe chi energy centers in the body that determine our health and can be accessed and supported with activities to improve our physical and mental state.  If this sounds like complete hogwash to you, rest assure that western culture, medicine, and modern takes on our religions do not support it either.  At best, they entertain the possibility of its existence but are on standby until some “proof” is offered.

Here is why their position is valid.  These chi energy systems cannot be cut into, dissected, seen under magnification, or captured as a specimen.  Going further, it is experiential – meaning that you need direct experience to feel it and then have to try to explain your experience through language alone, not data.  True scientific discovery is validated by large scale studies and the ability to replicate results.   So western medicine and beliefs are not wrong.  They are just limited by how they define proof.

mri showing the body's energy in the brain

Know that professionally I am a researcher and I spend most of my day living in this very concrete world.  For every 10 theories I work on, 9 go on to the trash heap or are shelved because I cannot replicate my results.  I owe it to my community to not release results until I have undertaken “the burden of proof.”

Technological advancements such as the fMRI are now enabling these energy fields to be seen and even captured as adepts manipulate, move, and enhance their energy fields.  I am excited by this, but am not going to lie to you and suggest that we are even remotely close to accepting these findings within our culture.  What I will share is that these systems have been studied, advanced, and improved for many years (thousands).  There is vastness in the diversity of cultures (pretty much every culture) that had some sense of these energy systems and transmitted the ideas through writings or folklore.  Let’s take a look at a few and then deep dive into a few that are pertinent to your progress in mastering your mind.

Science, History, and Folklore about the Energy Centers in the Body

Western scientific inquiry trying to define the powers of the brain span scientific text, mythology, and folklore.  Here are just a few expanding across all of written human history:

  • Galen (ca. 130-ca. 210 CE), a Greek medical doctor first describes the pineal gland in his 8th anatomical book: On the usefulness of the parts of the body.
  • Posidonius of Byzantium (4th century CE): imagination arises in the front of the brain and memory to the hind part.
  • Nemesius of Emesa (ca. 400 CE):  anterior ventricle is the organ of imagination, the middle ventricle the organ of reason, and the posterior ventricle the organ of memory.
  • Qusta ibn Luqa (864–923): On the difference between spirit and soul– the brain controls the flow of animal spirit between the middle and posterior ventricles.
  • Descartes (1596–1650): Fascinated with the pineal gland, Descartes wrote two books describing it as the “principal seat of the soul, and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.”
  • Magendie (1828): the central brain is “a valve designed to open and close the cerebral aqueduct.”
  • Today: A few endangered species (tuartara lizard) and fossils from ancient creatures feature a sockets in their skull.  Because of the pineal gland’s direct connection to light and sleep, several independent studies hypothesize that the pineal gland served primitive versions of us as a dorsal third eye. (Zrenner 1985).

Spiritual Connection to Chi Energy Centers in the Body

Here is where West and East divide.   This “Third Eye” has long been seen as a link between the spiritual and physical worlds.  Western cultures thought about it.  Eastern cultures thought about it, and actually did something with it.  Within their spiritual traditions we find tactical steps to access the healing power of the limbic system and leave the negative chatter behind.

The Chakra System

The Chakra System of Energy Centers
The Chakra System of Energy Centers

In Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, there are 7 centers of energy called Chakras that run from the base of the spine to the top of the head.  Each energy center in the body is believed to create health and energy when open and create unhealthy mental and physical states when closed.

The 6th Chakra is located in the brain at point between the eye brows. It is known as Ajna, or the third-eye chakra and is credited with giving us clear thought, and allowing us to “see” life from the view of an observer.  This is to say, removed from our emotion and thinking.

The 7th Chakra, the thousand-petaled lotus, is located on the top of the head.  Meditation and concentration on this point enables us to raise our energy level to a heavenly state.  To experience Nirvana.

The Three Dantians

Chinese martial arts and spiritual systems such as Taoism divide the energy system of the body into 3 Dantians.  These “elixir fields” are focal points during moving and sitting meditation to clean, engage, and improve the energy in the body.

The Upper Dantian is located at the forehead between the eyebrows or third eye and is related to our spirit and/or consciousness.  This area is considered a cauldron where spirit (thought) is refined into Wu Wei or emptiness.  Sounds nice doesn’t it?  Similar to the Chakra system, you cultivate thought and then transmute it through the upper point in the head, the Ba Hui.

This of course is an overview but you can learn more about the Three Dantians in this separate piece.

Bai Hui

Bai Hui roughly translates to “hundred convergences” referring to the gathering point on top of the head where chi energy channels in the body meet. The use of “hundred” in Chinese is the equivalent to saying “many” and this point is also used in acupuncture for treating the “hundred diseases,” by clearing the senses and calming the spirit.

The Bai Hui corresponds to a physical place on the skull. On a newborn baby, it is the small, circular, soft spot on top of  the head called a fontanel and fuses as a baby grows.

Sensing and feeling within the brain

Whether you accept the spiritual or historical arguments or not, there is a huge world tradition dedicated to studying and accessing the chi energy systems of our body to improve our mental, physical, and emotional state.

Why should you learn about this and why have so many people gone through all the trouble?  Because the reported benefits include bliss, intuition, concentration, clarity, and decisiveness.

Again, western science cannot categorically prove what is written here.  But history and tradition have provided us with tactical steps for you to experience this “blissful emptiness” with relative ease. Let’s talk about how to find chi energy in a more tangible way.

out of the box chi experiment

How to find Chi Energy – An Out of the Box Experiment

How do I find my chi energy?  I know that the promise of this essay is to keep things real. To distill the esoteric down into tangible information that can applied to our life. For that very reason I have stayed away from too much talk on about chi energy, and life force.

Here’s the problem:

Every day I wake up, meditate, and do qi gong in an attempt to develop chi, build it, and manipulate it.  At least weekly I practice the tai chi form and work to use internal strength instead of overt muscular strength. I have been working for some time to come up with an understanding of what chi energy is and why we benefit from it.

Sooo….  I benefit from physically and mentally from an understanding of chi, but how doo I get that across without heading back in the direction of meditation and the esoteric?

Let’s start with a metaphor and discuss the physical. We will then meander through concepts of space, the mind, and then come back to what I think we are doing with chi as it relates to the tai chi form and meditation.

Out of the Box Experiment

I want you to think of a box. In a minute we are going to construct a diorama of the immediate world around you. But first, we need to find out how much “space” there is to work with. Let’s say that the box is 3x3x3 or 3 cubic feet. We also have the magical ability to fill this box with an exact amount of liquid without spilling a drop.

So we fill the box. Then we take the liquid out of the box and set it aside. That liquid represents the total possible volume. You with me?

Now we go about constructing our little world down to the smallest detail. I am in front of my house so my box contains the driveway, the five big trees out front, the fence two cars, etc. Take your eyes off of what you’re reading for a second and look around at every THING you “think” makes up your immediate environment.

That’s the diorama that we just created.

Now, let’s poor the magical liquid back into the box. Allow it to seep into every nook and cranny. Will it all fit? Of course not. But how much went in? 90%? 95%? The amount that didn’t fit represents the total volume of everything that you meticulously constructed.

So now tell me: Is there more of SOMEthing around us or more of NOthing around us?

Over 90% of our world is NO-thing.  It’s nothing.

How do you bring out chi energy? Chi exists in the 100% of everything.  However, when we are doing the tai chi form, qigong, or meditation, I believe it is the 90% of NOthing that we are are using, manipulating, and interacting with.

Most of us are waking up to the fact that we spend our day only interacting with and relying on less than 10% of our reality.

The tai chi forms and moving qi gong sets allow us a rare opportunity to fully integrate with the volume around us. Metaphors aside, pushing out into this empty, heavy fluid, is what it feels like to me when I am bringing out chi energy and building it.

Everybody pays attention to the things in space, but who pays attention to space itself?

eckhart tolle

In a talk about outer “space” Eckhart Tolle laughs describing astronomers who spend their entire career studying SPACE. Every discovery and huge press announcement is about some planet light-years away or a new spec of dust. They are transfixed by describing the 1% of things in outer SPACE but don’t spend time discussing SPACE itself unless they are describing the vast distance between two objects. He laughed because they correctly named it “space” but they rarely talk about it.

Inside the Box (of Rocks) Experiment

Ready for a detour? We have been undertaking a thought experiment. Now, let’s delve into the thing that is creating the thought experiment and discuss our mind.

This is important because it is the other half of the equation. If you meditate, do sitting qigong, or do the tai chi form for the calmness of mind, how is that happening and why are you doing it? It is the pairing of the mental with the physical.

We have our thoughts and emotions. Emotions are basically thoughts that are communicated to the body. These are what we experience throughout the day. However, just like with our diorama, they represent 10% or less of what is actually going on in the brain.

We have our conscious mind. “Conscious” comes from Latin – conscire – “being privy to.” This is all the thoughts and feelings that we perceive.

And we have our subconscious mind. These are the thoughts that are below what we are privy to. They represent that majority of what is going on in the brain.

These are all of our memories. It is our fight-or-flight mechanism that takes in 100% of what is going on in the real world. It is our emotional gut response that happens before we “think.” It weighs every experience in the present with every experience we have ever had! It houses all of our beliefs and more importantly, our limiting believes of what we are capable of.

So just like with tai chi interacting with the 90% of our world that we don’t perceive, meditation and any work that quiets the mind works to access the 90% of cognition that we don’t perceive.

You hear talk of quieting the mind. The real question is: which mind? The one that is causing all the problems is the conscious mind. The one with all the solutions is the subconscious mind.

So I believe that meditation is working to access and experience this big beautiful warm ocean of calm thought that lies just below the surface. Again, to me this is what it feels like. When I have a great meditation or qi gong session and successfully raise my level of chi energy (even for 2 seconds!), my ears ring into a heavy silence. I slip down below into a heavy warm SUBstance that completely envelopes me. I am not tired or hungry. I can access bigger thinking for work. I can access a better version of myself to present to my family.

Deepak Chopra has a great metaphor for us here. He describes the conscious and subconscious mind in terms of being in a boat and fishing. The conscious mind, average thinking, is above the waterline.  We experience all the wind and every storm and change in temperature. Under water, it is calm and unaffected. We fish by throwing many lines and hooks into the water. In rare occasions and with practice, we get to experience what is beneath.

How Do You Bring Out Chi Energy?

A person can bring out chi energy through mind-body activities like tai chi or yoga, moving meditation such as qigong, or sitting meditation. A focus on breathing and posture that is paired with connecting with everything that is around us is the foundation for building chi energy.

I am trying to keep this conversation as grounded as I can so that all of us can use whatever practice we do to find and build chi energy. At it’s foundation, we make progress when we interact with more of the world around us that we aren’t usually in the habit of perceiving.

I wouldn’t do something just because some guru or tradition just told me to do it. My bull crap-meter would go off and I would want an explanation. Yet, here I am suggesting that you continue your practice, no – do it more!

What I am saying is that millions of practitioners over thousands of years have improved their life, have unleashed their health, have taken a measure of control of their mind or at least learned how to live separate from it, because they:

  1. Became aware of this false dichotomy about what is around us and what is not
  2. Had a tradition/practice/prayer/form/religion that gave them tools to access it

For me that’s tai chi (physical) and qi gong / meditation (mental). The answer to the question: How do you bring out chi energy? is to study our actions, our thinking, and reframe how we see the world around us.

How to Judge Our Own or Other People’s Chi Energy Level

I want to end this discussion by sharing insights gathered at a seminar with Master Chen Bin because this same awareness can act as an early warning system for disease and illness if you are attuned to the signs. It shows not only how to build and improve our health but how to detect when our health or the health of others is low. Think of these as signposts to let you know when you are stressed, have low energy, or are on the verge of getting sick.

Three ways to evaluate the low chi energy -poor health of a person:

1) Length of Breath

The length of one’s breath determines a lot.  During a full and deep breath, enough oxygen is taken in to reach all of the extremities.  The intercostals rotate the ribs pulling your entire upper body into better posture.  The diaphragm expands down to compress and massage the organs.  This has positive effects on digestion. Shallow breathing is the breathing normally saved for protective postures and only guarantees that the central body is replete with oxygen, circulation, and warmth.

2) Tone of voice

Using Tai Chi to Avoid Illness

A deep, resonant voice is connected with the breath but it also is an auditory warning system of sorts.

How is our voice when we are stressed?  In general, I don’t think we freely admit that we are stressed until it is really bad:  “I’m not stressed!! Da*^ it!!”  By listening to our voice we get an indicator of our true state.

How do we sound when we are tired?  Voice is literally powered by the lungs.  Capacity and force create volume.  When we are fatigued it is hard to sound like Chef from South Park

Our voice lets us know if we are internally hydrated.   When we run out of water, our vocal folds let us know with parched airy breath.

3) Greetings

Chen Bin went on to add that a person’s chi energy is most evident when they are meeting or greeting someone.  When are we at our very best?  When we are introduced to someone new.  We perk up, paint on an ingratiating smile, make eye contact,  articulate clearly and deeply, and offer a firm hand-shake or hug.  So in this situation, with our very bestest bestest intentions, have you ever met someone who was raspy, struggled to raise their mouth from a frown, and gave the limpest and clammiest of handshakes?  A greeting should be the best representation of our energy.  If we are not able to rise to the occasion or if it is a struggle, it is a sign that our energy is on the way out or low.

Judging YOUR OWN Chi Energy Level

I undertook a 6-month study of my health to find out how healthy I was and if it could be improved.  While I was generally healthy, I was still susceptible to allergies, exhaustion at times, and even other people who were sick. What Chen Bin introduced at this seminar was mind-blowing to me.  As I started to notice when my voice was not robust and resonant, when my interactions took energy from me rather than giving me energy, I realized that fatigue or illness were around the corner.  Greetings and voice are now daily sign posts telling me to sleep in, drink more water, eat more or improve my nutrition, or nap.  These minor re-calibrations mean that the major illnesses are kept at bay.

Judging SOMEONE ELSE’s Chi Energy Level

It goes without saying that I am attuned to the moods of others.  It allows me to be more compassionate than reactive when a coworker is combative and I know who to avoid if needed.  When deciding what my family is going to do on the weekend.  Recently the answer has happily been NOTHING! more often which before wasn’t a conceivable option.

Now, are you ready to become an energy expert inside and out of class?

Boost Your Immune System Naturally with Tai Chi | Prevention

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health

Are you interested in developing your sensitivity to the three dantians and increasing your energy?  Check out Good Morning – Good Evening Qi Gong

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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