Through recent mergings of Asian and European culture we in the West are becoming acquainted with the idea of Chi through meditation practices. exercise forms like Tai Chi, and Asian medicine. But I don't think there is a clear idea of this phenomena that fits into our Western scientific thinking. Usually Western devotees of the Asian traditions just adopt the traditional Asian way of thinking about Chi which just doesn't jive with any way a hard headed pragmatic Westerner, scientist or not, thinks about things. So lets drop all of the seeming magical attributes of Chi and I will try to present a way of thinking about Chi that fits with Western common sense and scientific thinking. Of course the model for Chi which I am presenting is just a hypothesis which fits my experience.
Think of Chi as just the energy which runs our nervous system. This is a little different from the energy form that run our muscles though still connected. The Nervous system is composed of cells which form a network pathways throughout the body which allows movement of electrical signals that run our senses and all the rest of our body functions. We might think of the nervous system as out bodies wiring but electric wiring functions differently. Nerve cells transmit signals both through the movement of electric signals (potentials) which move along the surface of the cell down its long arms, and chemical transmitters which move the signals to the next cell. We must also remember that these nervous system cells are also semi independent organisms with their own lives and and energy. The nervous system is not like an electronic circuit with a single source of energy but little independent electronic units with their own energy.
The brain is also part of this system. It is the seat of both our consciousness and our thoughts. The relationship between consciousness, thoughts, and nervous system energy in the rest of our body is also important in understanding Chi. We use consciousness and thoughts to direct nervous system energy to activate muscles. We can also direct conscious attention to the various parts of the body to activate and energize the nerves in the various parts of the body. This will enhance sensation in that part of the body where attention is directed. It can also be demonstrated to warm that part of the body if the attention is directed with enough concentration. Experienced meditators notice both these effects
We must also recognize that our whole body takes part in our thought process. Most thoughts cary emotional content and emotions are felt in our body. These bodily feelings also sway our thoughts. Emotional feelings take place primarily through a series of centers running up the central axis of the body starting at he coccyx where sexual feelings reside, then stomach, chest, throat, and head. These emotional centers are called Chakras and are important in many meditation systems. I assume that there are nerve bundles at each of the Chakra points which create the intensity of feelings associated with our emotions. I recently read that scientists have identified a nerve bundle associated with the stomach Chakra.
I hope that this has not been to dry but maybe this next part will be more interesting.
Assume that Chi is nervous system energy. We are generally not conscious of nervous system energy because we are use to a certain level that is with us most of the time. It is just simply how our body feels. We certainly notice it when we are low on energy but generally our nervous system energy exists in a narrow range which is created by a balance between energy coming in through food and breathing and maybe also in other ways, and our expenditure of nervous system energy through thought and physical activity and just being alive. Now lets say we cut down our expenditure of chi through stopping or just slowing down thinking and immobilizing our body. Now we can accumulate chi to previously un-experienced levels and experience the effects of this unusually high level of chi.. This is what can happen during meditation especially if we can stop thinking.
I am not sure what is the physical nature of this increase in chi. Maybe it is an increase in electrical potential and/or neurotransmitters in the nerves. What I do know about as an experienced meditator is how to accumulate Chi, something about the effects of unusually high levels of chi. and now after years of practice some conscious control of these effects. To begin, high levels of chi can have various effects, some blissful and some very uncomfortable. A fellow Zen student told me this story. He was at a retreat in British Colombia when after several days of meditation a participant complained of his head getting hot. Then in the middle of meditation he got up and said his head was on fire. He ran to a sink and put his head under water. When that didn't work he ran down the street in a panic and jumped off a dock into the Straits of Georgia. I have not experienced any so uncomfortable a chi effect but I have experienced heart palpitations and at other times profuse sweating from high levels of chi. High levels of chi have also given me deep experiences of bliss, joy, love, compassion, and insight.
Accumulating chi is not easy. It takes deep concentration and an ability to calm thinking. It is also necessary to control thinking and emotions for extended periods of time so that the accumulated chi is not spent on thoughts and emotions. The practices of mindfulness and non-attachment which are the basis of Buddhist practice and meditation is a formula for the accumulation of chi. There are several meditation practices which utilize Chi in various ways. In the Indian meditation system called Kundilini Yoga as well as in various form of Tantric practices the practitioner attempts to move the vital energy up the spine until it activates all the Chakras from the coxxys to the Crown Chakra at the top of the head. Practitioners of Vipassina meditation use the Chakra between the eye brows as a focus of meditation.
In Zen we rarely even talk about Chi but if you practice in the lineage of Hakuin Zenji then maybe there is considerable discussion of Chi. Hakuin's story is very instructive. Hakuin was a prodigy meditator. The depth of his experience as a beginning Zen Monk was unusual. He would often have strong experiences of Chi rising through his body. He would often rise and do a little jig during meditation, these experiences were so joyous. He thought of these experiences as kensho and considered himself enlightened but his teacher still saw much ego in him and would not give him transmission as a teacher. After several years as a monk Hakuin developed a lung disease. Though it was probably Tuberculosis the disease was diagnosed as a burning of the lungs from all his Chi experiences. The result of this diagnosis is that he went to a Taoist Hermit who was reputed to know quite a lot about Chi. This Taoist taught Hakuin how to control the Chi by the simple practice of moving the focus of meditation from the the upper chakras to the chakra just below the belly button called the Tanden. We think of the tanden as the stomach chakra but if we are sitting deeply and we fully breath out all the air in our lungs then with that last little squeeze to get the last bit of air out we will feel the tanden. Amazingly this practice seems to have cured Hakuin of his lung disease.
Used as a focus in meditation the Tanden becomes a storehouse for Chi. A stomach filled with Chi calms one's mind and deepens one's meditation. It is from the stomach that Chi rises and activates the chakras going up the central axis of the body. Once my meditation deepened to a certain point I started having lots of Chi experiences. Sometimes it would spontaneously rise into the chest (heart chakra) and I would be filled with love and joy. Other times it would go right to the head and I would be filled with wonderful insights. Eventually I developed a certain control of this phenomena and could use certain thoughts to lift Chi into the higher chakras. It was wonderful but also temporary. When the experience was over I would find that I had used up much of my stored Chi, my mind would become highly active again and the quality of my meditation was greatly reduced. Then again I would go to work deepening meditation and building up Chi. This cycle would be repeated several times during retreat. At some point the thought occurred that to truly deepen meditation I should not let Chi be drained and instead hold my focus in meditation and keep the Chi down in the stomach as Hakuin was taught. Now I experience instead of the quick rising of Chi the slow filling of the whole body.
In some systems of meditation the focus is all on the head, feeling the breath in the nose, attending to the chakra between the eyes, trying ti get the Chi to rise to the crown chakra We Occidentals seem to always want intellectual insight. We tend to think that Enlightenment is just some sort of magical insight. If I may be so bold, insight is only a small portion of Enlightenment. More important then any one insight is the state of mind which opens to us in truly deep meditation. This state of mind is quiet and serene, not at all intellectual though from this state of mind a certain understanding is natural. Attempts to "figure it out" are counter productive as are attempts to force the rising of Chi before one's meditation has sufficiently deepened. This is why in the Zen school we put our focus on the tanden and let the Chi naturally rise.
Letting Chi slowly fill the whole body over a period of several days several subtle changes happen. As Chi fills the stomach breathing slows and becomes much deeper. The mind quiets, and the breathing becomes so relaxed that I feel like I don't have to breath in at the end of an out breath. It may be several seconds before I breath in. As chi fills the upper body i start to notice a certain feeling of pressure, which is very hard to describe. I feel it in the whole body. It is not uncomfortable. It is accompanied by deepening concentration in meditation. And in the act of concentration I have a strong feeling of energy. This feeling of energy deepens as I collect more chi. Concentration becomes so deep that I disappear in the act of concentration. I can also go in the other direction and drop concentration on any one focus and just take everything in all at once. Now I feel Chi rise to my eyes and ears and feel deeply awake. The chi seems to naturally lift me up and straighten my spine. It is like I just become a single sense organ.
I feel the Chi as not only pressure but also as a vibration throughout my whole body. The vibration even has a perceptable frequency. The strength of the vibration increases and the frequency seems to slow down as the level of Chi increases. Eventually I feel like I am filled with Chi when the Crown Chakra, the top at of the head, tingles. It is though I can feel my hair grow and when I close my eyes the inner vision is sparkerlers shooting out of the top on my head. When I am filled with Chi right to the limit the feeling of energy in meditation becomes extreemly intense and when I can no longer hold all that energy,some of the energy seems to naturally drain out of the to of the head. Such a stange phenomena. And then when the energy drains a bit I settle into a deep serene meditation filling up with Chi again. When filled with Chi if I close my eyes there in an inner brightness which noticably darkens after Chi drains.
I imagine that when filled with Chi all the nerve cells throughout the body become extreemly energised. Sensations become enhanced. Colors become more brilliant. Subtle sounds that might go unnoticed in a normal state of mind become intensely beautiful. Even bland food might seem unusually tasty. Everything seems filled with energy, even the space between things seems filled with energy. The whole Universe comes alive, and we realize that this is our life.
It is difficult to over state the role of Chi in deep meditation. It may take years of practice before one begins to deeply experience Chi but once expereinced, with some understanding, it can become an invaluable tool in continuing to deepen one's practice.
Maybe we shouldn't think of Chi dualistically. It may seem to be a unique phenomena, this special energy that we can put into a conceptual box. Our life's energy comes to us not only from the food we digest and the air we breath but also the light we see and the sounds we hear and the things we touch. All interaction is the eb and flow of Chi. We are embedded in a sea of energy. We are porous, we are more then just porous. There are no sharp boundries. We might think of ourselves as individual and seperate but we are just temporary energetic phenomena. All things are just temporary energetic phenomena.
Sitting in meditation feeling this energy move in and out of our bodies, energize our thoughts and emotions, giving us vitality, connecting us to the world around us, our sense of a personal boundry begins to dissolve. Our understanding of our deep conection with the rest of what is grows. This is spiritual growth. Zen is about breaking down this personal boundry and clearly seeing what we are in relation to the rest of what is, this unbounded Universe.