I’ve been doing Tai Chi for four and a half years now; and I’ve been doing Nei Gong (literally, “internal work”: Qi Gong and the like) over the last year. And it’s been super interesting; but also, especially as I dig more into the Nei Gong work, I keep on having to face concepts that I feel embarrassed to take seriously.

Qi is a good example: am I really supposed to think that there’s some substance energizing our bodies and present in the world around me, a substance that science is completely unaware of? That I can drink it in through the air, through my feet; that, if I do the latter, I’ll get rooted to the ground? It sounds ridiculous.

But there’s enough interesting stuff going on in my Nei Gong practice that I don’t want to stop the practice, either, and in fact I want to do it more seriously rather than less. So I’m left with an uncomfortable choice: do I try to do it but ignore all the bits that don’t fit with my pre-existing world view? Do I say “yup, I’ll just believe that Qi exists”? Do I try to maintain a split brain approach to this?


The latter of those is what I’ve been doing: my current attitude is “it’s more interesting to behave as if I believe in Qi”, while remaining neutral on the question of whether or not I actually do believe in Qi. (Or to behave as if I believe this whole system: Daoist Nei Gong, the theoretical concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine, etc.) In other words, I try to suspend disbelief enough to take the system seriously, to figure out how to analyze various situations in terms of that system, and then I see where that leads me. If it leads me somewhere interesting (and not dangerous) then great!

It’s been ages since I’ve read Thomas Kuhn, but I think the notion of “paradigm” is useful here, especially Kuhn’s point that different paradigms are incommensurable. So I shouldn’t particularly try to fit, say, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts into a modern Western medicine view: instead, it’ll be much more useful (or at least more interesting!) for me to try to understand how TCM practitioners think about a certain situation, without constantly short-circuiting that evaluation by noting ways in which it falls short from a different point of view.


Of course, taken far enough, this leads to cult behavior: I don’t want to completely disconnect my critical facilities. (Though maybe “cult” isn’t actually quite the right word: any random thing that somebody comes up with isn’t a paradigm, it needs a somewhat broad and battle-tested set of practices and practitioners.) What I’m finding useful there is to take a more oblique approach: keep my critical facilities intact, but don’t apply them in places of maximal conflict between paradigms. Instead, apply them in much more prosaic situations, about which, say, modern Western science doesn’t have much to say. (Which, ironically, actually gives my critical facilities more of an exercise, because I don’t necessarily know what the answer to a question is supposed to be in advance!)

Take, for example, the question of Qi. If I try to force the question of “do I believe that there’s a substance called Qi running through my body?”, then that sets up a high stakes conflict in a way that I don’t currently find productive. Whereas if one of my Tai Chi teachers says “when you do the Peng move in the Eight Energies drill, then you’ll bring your Qi to your hands, and you’ll feel that as a tingling sensation in your palms”, then now we’ve reached something that I can poke at myself: do I in fact feel a tingling in my palms in that move in the drill? The answer is yes; and, further more, I get a similar feeling carrying out in other places in the form. (And that feeling connects to a more subtle feeling moving along the inside of my arms.)

So here I feel like I’m on firmer ground: yes, this action does reliably lead to certain physical sensations. And, by paying attention to those sensations, by noticing other moves when I get a similar sorts of feeling, and by listening to my teacher talk about Peng, I can at least start to understand the concept of Peng, coming to terms with that part of a Tai Chi paradigm. I still don’t know whether those feelings really come from a movement of Qi, but they’re not in conflict with a Qi-based explanation, and I can let that thought sit without it bothering me too much.


And the reason why I’m finding Nei Gong interesting is that that sort of things happens pretty often: a Nei Gong teacher will, say, start by saying something like “we want to gather Qi in the Dantian and then circulate the Qi up the Du meridian and down the Ren meridian”. Which involves lots of concepts that I could struggle against; but then the teacher will say “and to gather the Qi in your Dantian, figure out where your consciousness is interacting with your body, and gradually let that point of interaction sink; and if you do that for a bit, it’ll settle down in your lower abdomen, which will make your abdomen feel a little taut”.

So I try that, and, after a bit of experimenting, I think I understand what he’s saying about where my consciousness is interacting with my body; pretty high up, at first it would only sink a little, but after experimenting a while, it started to sink farther and more quickly. And, sure enough, my abdomen would feel more taut when I did that. (And some other, weirder, stuff would happen sometimes, like I’d feel like I was looking out through my eyes as if they were a high window on the wall.)

Again, who knows what’s going on physiologically, and who knows whether or not Qi exists. But by going through this exercise, I at least start to understand a little bit more about what it would mean to operate within that part of the Daoist Nei Gong paradigm.


Interesting stuff; turns out that, if you pay attention to your body in an appropriately directed way, you’ll find all sorts of surprising things happening, and ditto with your awareness. And, as long as I can keep up this cycle of “a teacher makes a relatively concrete physical / perceptual prediction about the outcome of a certain behavior, they link it to a conceptual framework, and I try out the behavior and get something plausibly like the predicted outcome”, then I’ll keep on giving it a try; and, by doing so, I’ll be able to understand this paradigm better from the inside.

I don’t want to do anything dangerous; but I should be able to avoid that. And if it means that I sound a bit silly when talking about this stuff, well, it won’t be the first time that happens, I can live with that…

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