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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Qigong in Shanghai

I'm on the way home from a consciousness conference in Shanghai — CSTS (Consciousness, Science, Technology and Society) conference.   One of the more intriguing aspects of the conference, for me, was the significant number of Chinese researchers and practitioners there who were involved with parapsychology, qigong and other related areas…

I’ve been reading for a while about a multi-decade project in Kunming dealing with macro-PK (psychokinesis), remote viewing and other capabilities among schoolchildren.  I had emailed with one of the researchers involved with the project before, but hadn’t dug that deep.   At CSTS I met a number of young Chinese researchers who were involved with gathering and analyzing data from the psychic children of Kunming; they showed me some videos of their work.   These “kids” were quite matter-of-fact about their work — they had observed various children’s anomalous abilities many times, and viewed their role as documenting and studying the phenomena rather than trying to prove their reality (as they assumed the proof to have been completed well before their entry into the project).  I’m planning to coordinate with these guys to visit Kunming sometime in the next year to check out these phenomena personally and see if I can help with experimental design, data analysis or theoretical analysis or whatever…

On the other hand, one of the parapsychology-oriented presenters at the conference somewhat rubbed me the wrong way.   He had a lot of exciting-sounding talk (in Chinese, translated for those of us in the audience who needed it) about channeling the mind of the universe, and so forth.  He then offered a demonstration of his system for teaching people to channel the mind of the universe… and brought up some of his young female students to the front of the room.  One of them proceeded to recite a short poem in an ancient Chinese style.  He then noted the complexity and difficulty of writing a poem in this archaic formal style, and said that no modern youth could do that on their own — it could only be done by channeling the minds of the ancients, via the mind of the universe.   Later on, this same teacher demonstrated qigong healing on an elderly man with serious stiffness in the fingers, due to a previously medically diagnosed problem.  There was much talk about the cosmic wisdom of the universe and such, but the elderly man professed that at the end of the process, he felt a bit better but his fingers were still stiff.

I did have the distinct sensation of seeing some sort of energy jumping up and down out of the elderly man’s body, at one point.  On the other hand, it’s possible I was just sleepy and drifting off into some sort of dream.

I’m not going to assert that this teacher was lacking in special abilities or engaging in fraudulent activities, or anything like that.   But for sure, his demonstrations sent my Skeptic Sense way tingly.  According to the Chinese I asked, the student’s poem was competent but not especially exceptional.  The amount of glowing evangelism about the channeling of the mind of the universe seemed far out of proportion to the magnitude of the phenomena displayed….   It didn’t escape me that the teacher was running a commercial school and seeking tuition-paying students…

The next day the Kunming-project guys took me and Ruiting and another Hong Konger, L, to the Qigong Museum, a half-hour taxi ride across Shanghai.   The historical displays there were fascinating, and the ancient illustrative artworks were ornate, complex and beautiful.

Some random photos I took at the museum are here:

(My pictures come nowhere remotely near doing  the museum justice; I didn't photo the stunning ancient drawing and such, but merely a few of the tech-y displays and machines.)

There were also some intriguing electronic devices on display — electrical Qigong machines from the 1990s.  These had a bunch of dials and knobs on them and seem to have been used to generate electromagnetic fields configured to affect the body in certain ways.  The tour guide was quite negative about these devices, opining that qigong would always work better when manifested by a biological human being.

And there were some photos of experiments done capturing qigong energy in various glass-bulb-type containers.   I asked the tour guide what results had been obtained from this work, and he said there had been 10,000 papers published on this and he wasn’t qualified to summarize them, but there had been a lot of positive results.

Ah, and some photos and information about the history of qigong-based anesthesia in Chinese operating rooms.   It appears to have worked as well as chemical anesthetics, with fewer side-effects.   Note that we don’t yet understand, within Western medicine, how chemical anesthetics work; the anesthetics in current medical use were figured out via trial and error.

After our tour through the museum, a Qigong master — who had been at the consciousness conference, but had opted not to give a presentation to the crowd — offered to give us a practical demonstration.

He asked L to stand still and relax and close his eyes.   He then projected energy at L through his hand — and we watched, bemused and impressed, as he pulled L’s body back and forth, from a distance of about 12 inches.   L (someone I know fairly well) tends to be skeptical of qigong, psi and other such things, and clearly was not complicit in the demonstration.  When the demonstration was done and L opened his eyes, L was quite surprised when we told him his body had been swaying back and forth in coordination with the qigong master’s hand.

The master then tried to do the same trick with me, but it didn’t work.  I was standing there in a state of fairly deep relaxation, doing yoga/meditation breathing and so forth.   When it was done, the master said it had failed due to a blockage of qi in my right knee, which he said had an old injury in it, from at least 5 years before.  I don't know if this was actually the reason -- I'm a difficult case for hypnosis too.   However, it's true that my right knee is mildly shaky due to a skiing accident I had 16 years ago.   He then offered to try to cure my knee — and indeed, when he laid his hands on my knee in his special qigong way, the knee started feeling extremely hot and felt like it was vibrating deep inside at a high rate (a quite different feeling from what happens if the knee is physically shaken back and forth or if someone rapidly vibrates their hands on the skin).

Afterwards, outside the museum, the master looked carefully at L’s body and correctly diagnosed a couple minor medical issues of L’s.   He looked at me and noted a problem with my lower back, which so far as I know does not exist (my lower back feels fine and has never given me any problems so far); I did have an upset stomach from my dinner the previous night, though, which he did not note.  I asked him to take a look at a woman who was there with me, and whom I knew to be in the 7th week of pregnancy — not far along enough to be showing at all.  He looked at her and after a bit of scrutiny said “The baby is healthy, and your health seems good, congratulations.”

Of course, none of this was skeptic-proof, but it was nonetheless pretty impressive and compelling.   The impression I got of his qigong sensing and diagnostic process, was that it was a mix of things: careful observation and inference and medical experience, plus some sort of bioelectromagnetic field wizardry (involving both perception and manipulation of bioelectromagnetic fields, in ways that Western science does not yet encompass), plus probably some sort of psi component as well.

Teasing apart these various aspects of his abilities is interesting to me, because I have a Western science oriented perspective.  It’s interesting to me to figure out what aspects of what he does are due to psi, what aspects are due to weird bioelectromagnetic field dynamics, and what aspects are just due to him being a keen observer and a charismatic guy and a good doctor.

On the other hand, from his point of view, it doesn’t really matter much which aspects of his practice fall into which of my Western analytical categories.   Chinese philosophy and Chinese medical practice are holistic by nature, and what matters is the state of consciousness he achieves, and the medical cures he facilitates, rather than the explanation of what he does in terms of a particular combination of phenomena belonging to carefully-formalized reductive analytical categories.


Aaron Nitzkin said...

Really interesting account, Ben!

Back when I was qi gong training with a master weekly, one night I went to a bar, and I was talking to some people I'd just met, and I was distracted by the physical sensation of energy radiating out of one woman's abdomen, standing next to me; it felt like standing next to a qi radiator; I could feel waves of that tingling heat coming off her, that I'd learned to feel in qi gong class. I had to ask, and yes, she had found out that very day that she was pregnant.

Yes, I recongnize there could be many mechanisms at work here, including unconscious perception of physical clues. Nevertheless, as a qi gong student with a qualified master, I felt "qi" many times--most as heat or static-like tingling, bu also as other qualities less tangible and more difficult to define. At one point I was able to pass my hand over somemone's back from a distance of about 8 inches and accurately sense where they had muscular knots (we learned a lot of massage). I also felt qi in other senses while doing push-hands.

My tentative take on the whole thing is . . . as far as the word "qi" refers to "literal" energy, it simply refers to energy, the same energy recognized by western science, not any hypothetical mystical force. All the statements made in Taoist theory about qi are consistent with the western model. Everything is made of qi. Life depends on a regular cyclic flow of qi through the body in several forms. The two most basic "kinds" of qi are yin qi (potential enenrgy) and yang qi (kinetic energy). Qi can be conducted through bodies and projected across distances. None of these ideas requires skepticism if you believe in the fundamentals of western physics.

In TCM, I believe the word "qi" is being used as a metaphor for the performance of various bodily systems; for example, "heart qi" is a metaphor for the performance of the entire circulatory system.

However of course, the human ability to manipulate qi in miraculous ways, and the relationship of qi gong to the paranormal are more difficult issues, about which most Chinese qi gong practitioners are also skeptical. I do believe there is a significant amount of deceptive showmanship and audience hypnosis involved in the performances of some qi gong masters, especially those that advertise. The best masters I've met also did not advertise, like the gentleman that tried to help Ben's knee.

I applaud your growing interest in this stuff, Ben! I'll lookk forward to future posts about that :-)

Anonymous said...

If you've tried practicing Qigong (just with the breathing and movements) you will definitely feel it. No doubt there is a whole lot of side quackery that is attached to this just like anything else, but to experience it directly makes you realize that there is something to it and its BIG as in a paradigm changer that we in the West have zero understand of. I don't know what "qi" is exactly, and my best explanation as to what Qigong is would be "cultivating biomagnetism".

Bill Lauritzen said...

Some interesting stuff regarding psi, although I am somewhat skeptical. I wrote some material about psi which I may email to you. I think you might find it interesting.

Regarding qi: I did a rather deep dive into this area in my book, The Invention of God: The Natural Origins of Mythology and Religion.

Of course the ancient people did not know the elements of the periodic table.
They would have observed 1) people dying and stopping breathing, 2) people stopping breathing and dying, 3) people unable to breath due to smoke from fires, etc.. Of course some of them would have guessed that there was something invisible around them, (in the air), that kept them alive.

When they saw someone get burned in a fire (or later cremated purposely) all that was left was some ashes. The rest seemed to have disappeared into the surroundings. They hypothesized that people were made of this same mysterious “energy” surrounding them, and that when they died and the body decomposed (and again simply seemed to disappear into the surroundings) that energy returned to the surroundings.

Of course this curiosity was the stimulus for modern chemistry and eventually led to the discovery of oxygen (a necessary “energy” for our body which is composed of 65% oxygen.)

I go into much more depth about this in my book, but Chi or Qi, which is called the “vital energy” in the ancient Chinese teachings, means “breath.” “Tai chi,” the slow moving exercise, means, “highest breathing,” and “qi gong” literally means “skill at breathing.”

More recent publications translate “qi” as “energy” or “vital energy” or “universal energy” or “vital energy that circulates round the body in currents.”

It’s possible that there is some bioelectrical effect in play in some of these modern “demonstrations” (which I am also somewhat skeptical of as I can easily be fooled by skilled magicians), but I am quite confident that the original impetus for the discovery of qi was the early human wondering about what we today call oxygen.

Reiki (pronounced ray-key) is a Japanese word representing universal life energy, the energy that is all around us.

Atman, from India, means breath: from Sanskrit ātman, literally ‘essence, breath.’ MacBook Dictionary

Prana, also from India: breath, considered as a life-giving force.

Psyche: via Latin from Greek psukhΔ“ ‘breath, life, soul.’

etc., etc., throughout the world

Hebrew: Ruach
Egypt: Ba

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Improbable events tend to happen within the means to make them seem improvable.

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