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Submitted by Ken Rose on February 1, 2007 - 3:58pm.
Rhythm and Qi
This is a note on a discussion that has been going on on the CMN listserv for the past few years.
My friend Elisabeth Rochat visited us on Greenwood Ridge last October. She taught a workshop on Extraordinary Vessels and we had a dinner conversation on the topic of the Dao De Jing that was extremely delicious and nourishing in every sense of those words. We even had some time to walk in the redwoods and simply think and chat. I showed her the brief essay I put together last year in which I suggest that along with “communication”, “change”, and “motion”, the English word “connectivity” is perhaps the best choice to translate the ancient Chinese sensibility associated with the word “qi” 气. She sat at my kitchen table, and when she had finished reading she put the pages down and nodded and pursed her lips. “I would say,” she offered, “that you have omitted an important notion…” And then she paused just long enough to get me well situated in the silence. “Rhythm.”
It is the rhythm of qi, the pace and quality of the timing of the endless and eternal changes of yin and yang that result in what we know and call and experience as qi. At least that is more or less how she put it. But as soon as she’d spoken the word, I realized that she was right. My four suggested cognates, connectivity, communication, change and movement did indeed lack an important aspect and dynamic of qi. And rhythm is precisely that missing element. In her recently published book about qi, Elisabeth makes the point quite clearly that ancient Chinese writers who employed qi and its various associations and allied concepts and constructs were most definitely concerned with the rhythm of nature’s changes when they wrote it out. As the ink containing qi flowed from their brushes their minds moved towards a set of sensibilities about the nature of phenomena and of our awareness of phenomena that was deeply informed if not set in motion by an underlying sense of rhythm. To this day you can feel the beat of their world and of their worldview just by reading even brief passages of the surviving texts in which qi and its companions can be found.
I’m often asked, either directly or indirectly, what any or all of this has to do with medicine. For some the question…as well as its answers…are all too obvious. For others they remain confounding mysteries no matter what is said or written. But perhaps a few appended words of explanation might serve to illuminate the idea for those who seek such understanding. As I describe in another paper more directly on the topic of time, the experience that informs the information related to disciplines such as acupuncture and Chinese medicine is one that is mediated by a sense of time that is distinctly different from the kind of time sense and experience that abounds in the contemporary world. But without rehashing those arguments here, we can simply acknowledge that the baseline of temporal perception, i.e., the feeling of the movements in the world by which we become aware of the presence and passing of time, matters a great deal to the sensibilities that evolve in the very same minds that are experiencing, perceiving, and thinking and feeling about time. These are the minds that entangle in the bodies, and it is in this entanglement that we find ourselves when we are talking about life, death, health, and disease.
Medicine is all a matter of time, of time sense, of the intervals that pass between the systole and diastole of each beating heart. One cannot practice a medicine that so heavily emphasizes the feeling and interpretation of pulses without thereby embracing at least implicitly the primacy of time sense…and of rhythm in the understanding and execution of strategies for medical intervention. And that is precisely what we mean when we talk about evaluations and actions taken and directed towards rehabilitation of a patient’s qi.
If this proposition seems unacceptable, compare the situation of a modern American city dweller, for example. Our modern individual is likely to awake by alarm at an appointed hour and travel on a tight schedule by various means of transportation (the speeds of which are all closely regulated and maintained by law and by very real physical effort and expense) to a workplace where time is money and money is the basis of all survival. What a stark contrast to the life experience of an ancient Chinese thinker who rose with the stirring of the air and animals that always accompanies the dawn…if not by the reappearance of the sun’s light itself and who conducted his or her activities throughout the day on the basis of the cascades of cyclical events that follow endlessly from the coming and going of this light.
The thinking and the ideas and therefore the theories and practices that come from and that utilize the sensibilities and paradigms of qi are all subsequent to and dependent upon the feeling of the rhythms of perception and awareness and, ultimately, the light and the darkness, that defined the experience of those ancient minds that coined and used the word for the very purpose of conveying their insights into the nature of reality to their descendants. This conveyance of information to later generations is of paramount importance in Chinese civilization, based as it was from such an early point in its history on the worship of ancestors. There must always be someone to construct and conduct appropriate observances at the ancestral altars and tombs. And indeed even the great movement of life and death came to be subsumed in this same sensibility of the rhythm of qi.
I’m continually revisiting the topic of the definition, that is to say the meaning of qi; and as we are now gearing up to set off on a collaborative project on the subject of qi and complexity I thought it was worth our time to spend a few more moments contemplating what this curious old word really does mean.