I have wanted to write a post for a long time, on a subject that seems mundanely obvious to me, but very much not so to most of the people in the culture around me. The subject of this post is chi, qi, prana, energy, and ‘energy work’ as a discipline.
I became fluent in seeing and using this thing starting a few years ago in much the same way that a swimmer becomes aware of how to surf waves when they’re hanging out in the ocean and all of a sudden there’s a giant wave behind them.
That is to say–I became aware of it all at once, as a matter of survival, while extremely out of my depth, and with no reliable teachers around to help me learn.
There’s a reason why it was so hard to find reliable teachers which is intrinsic to the subject (which I can describe more later) but in some ways there was no good reason why the kind of information I needed at the time was lacking. Over these years I’ve cobbled together both a theory and practical capacity that works very well for me, doesn’t require beliefs that distort anything else about the rest of my life, and I think is pretty helpful to the people in my life.
I’m going to lay out here how I think chi works:
We have nervous systems that get into states of arousal and relaxation and are much more sensitive than our conscious awareness is most of the time–unless we’ve specifically trained our conscious awareness.
This is more true for ‘sensitive’ people–people who, for genetic, personality, or cultural reasons, tend to have nervous systems that respond more often and more extremely to stimuli than the nervous systems of other people around them.
In addition, there are ways our self-system (body, mind, attention, nervous system, all that) can keep particular perceptions out of our conscious mind, either for simplicity or to solve a problem. We can, with training, learn to perceive these things in our ordinary consciousness that were previously shut out. This can be stuff as simple as ‘the sensation of the muscles in our big toe’ and as complex as ‘the behaviour we enact when we encounter the cousin we get extremely triggered by’.
There are cultural patterns of this, and in Western, professional, polite culture, it’s common to keep a lot of detailed sensory perceptions around physical bodies, shameful emotional experiences, or disgusting phenomena out of our ordinary conscious perception. From the perspective of someone trained to perceive ‘energy’, default Western attention is very ‘dull’ when it comes to perceiving the physiology of emotions, and pretty smart when it comes to ‘verbal explanations of stuff’.
People’s nervous systems tend to get influenced by how they perceive other people’s nervous systems behaving. This is pretty smart, because the purpose of a nervous system is to get a body to do things, and being aware of the details of someone else’s state is a really practical way to prepare to respond to what they might do!
A very simple example is that if you are walking alone and you see a stranger walking alone and they seem scared, your bodymind will begin to get scared, somewhat–because either that person is afraid of something you should be afraid of too, so your bodymind is getting prepared, or, because they might be scared of -you-, in which case they might attack you to protect themselves, and you want to be ready to respond to that!
(I should point out that when I say ‘you’, many people will interpret that as ‘the experience of being conscious and perceiving stuff’, and I mean both that -and- ‘everything that happens within the bounds of your body and your mental space that you can’t perceive right now, as well’. You may not notice your heartrate increasing when that stranger’s heart rate increases but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to ‘you’.)
This ‘tendency for your nervous system to get influenced by the state of another’s nervous system’ is a big part of what I think of when I think of someone being ‘sensitive’, and what many people mean when they call themselves ’empaths’.
(People who are physically bigger and stronger, or confident that they have enough money and social capacity to protect themselves in most situations tend to be less sensitive or influenced by other nervous systems because they don’t, in practice, need to so much. Also, some people grew up in environments where people were often unpredictable by other methods (like, by asking them what they were going to do) and so their bodies can learn to be extra sensitive to other’s nervous systems as a survival strategy.)
So, one part of ‘energy’ is the experience of having your nervous system get influenced by another person’s nervous system without having the conscious perception of what changed to make your nervous system change. This makes it feel like the change was ‘magical’ or ‘spooky action at a distance’, but I’m pretty confident that people can, with training, learn to perceive, if not from a distance then at least with touch, all the signals that their body is already subconsciously reacting to, and with enough perceptive skill there is no ‘unexplained influence’ or changes in your nervous system that can’t be explained by something happening in your body or mind or in what you are able to perceive of someone else’s body or mind.
This doesn’t mean those perceptions can’t be really subtle though! I have, for example, made pretty detailed and accurate predictions about what my partner’s nervous system looked like over text–but this came in the context of having spent hundreds of hours with him in person, having felt his body very closely, and having watched his behaviour over years, -combined- with the very limited sense data of how he phrased something over text. I could not do that with a stranger unless they very strongly fit a personality pattern I knew well.
One of the things that makes ‘skilled intuitives’ get better over time is that they have quite detailed models of people in general and specific people in particular which are combined with this perception data, so they can make predictions that (whether they are right or wrong) seem to predict things that can’t be known. And, good intuitives train this capacity by noticing when their predictions were wrong and incorporating that feedback–see this post on how occultists train in divination practices for more detail.
So, ‘feeling someone else’s energy’ can be explained by nervous systems wanting to copy each other, cool–but what about auras? Psychic attacks? Energetic sickness? Moving chi with your mind?
Let’s start with the concept of ‘moving chi with your mind’. To me, this is extremely straightforward to explain -unless- you believe a) that your thoughts have no influence over your nervous system, or (bizarrely) b) that your nervous system has no influence over your body.
I meet a lot of people who believe a), and I think this is one of the most bizarre outputs of Western science-influenced culture because it’s easy to notice evidence to the contrary. If you notice you believe your thoughts have no influence over your nervous system (which, remember, regulates how aroused or relaxed you are, whether you’re ready for sleep, food, sex, exercise etc), one easy way to try to refute it is to try and think something that changes how your body feels. Listening to a guided meditation that tells you to relax; imagining the person you’re most attracted to standing in front of you wanting to have sex with you–there are other ideas but these two are I think pretty obvious for most people.
Once you can notice the ways in which your thoughts influence your nervous system, you can also notice the other way around–notice how when you’re exhausted you tend to have grumpier thoughts, or when you’re scared you tend to have more pessimistic thoughts. This makes sense–our mind is getting information from our body about how it’s doing and that is fed into whatever is producing the thoughts we can consciously notice!
Another thing I think is true (that you can check for yourself with enough practice) is that nervous system changes can influence not only -what- thoughts you think, but ‘what it feels like to be conscious’ at all. Medicine acknowledges this when it includes ‘brain fog’ as a symptom of various kinds of illnesses, but you can check the next time you are sleep-deprived, if your vision feels narrower and you feel a bit stupider, or the next time you feel energised, if you notice you feel like you can ‘see farther’ and your thoughts seem more interesting and you have better ideas. The idea that our default nervous system state in many cultures makes our awareness ‘dull’ is a problem approached by many spiritual traditions aiming for ‘awakening’; one thing they mean by awakening is literally ‘a sense that your conscious experience is more alert, and aware of more stuff’.
(When I use the word ‘bodymind’ instead of ‘body’ or ‘mind’, I am taking as a foundational assumption the idea that your physical body and the contents of your mind are part of the same system, and that there would ideally be a better word that didn’t seem to imply that they’re two separate systems stuck next to each other.)
So, if it’s possible to get better at perceiving things normally outside your conscious experience, it’s also possible to get better at noticing how your thoughts influence your nervous system and your nervous system influences your thoughts, and through this process strengthen the feedback loop between the two. I’m not sure exactly whether it’s that better noticing leads to a stronger impact or merely to better noticing the impact but the outcome seems to be the same regardless–that you can develop the ability to ‘control your nervous system with your thoughts’. There are lots of caveats and I wouldn’t recommend just ‘trying to control your nervous system with your thoughts’ because a lot of us have belief patterns that can make that worse if we don’t go carefully, but you can notice that at least the connection exists and is possible to strengthen. Cool.
Ok, so getting to ‘controlling chi with your mind’. I think that ‘chi’ (or prana, energy, qi, whatever) is the name we have for the most useful kind of thought to have in order to make useful changes to your nervous system. I think it’s evidently useful because a similarly-shaped concept has emerged independently in a bunch of different internal arts traditions that didn’t interact with each other.
Basically, chi (or prana etc) is consistently understood as a flowing, liquid-but-electrical phenomenon, that you can direct by holding the intention to direct it in your mind, and that can extend beyond the limits of your body.
I think this is an incredibly useful mental experience–I hesitate to even call it a concept because it involves quite a lot of perceptions that are certainly not intellectual, although they do happen ‘in the mind’. AND, I think that because it is so useful, two things occur:
- Practitioners who use it risk expanding it to understand non-nervous-system-ish phenomena in a way that isn’t anywhere near as useful as it is for nervous system functioning (they develop woo beliefs that make them worse at doing other things)
- People who are not skilled practitioners see the ‘mental experience called chi’ as a causal explanation of a physical phenomenon, they look for it but don’t see it because they have not developed their perceptive abilities enough to see it, and also see people who talk about it being worse at reasoning about e.g. how vaccines work and conclude that it is merely a bad, wrong, harmful scientific theory that no one should believe
I think that this unfortunate weird conflict arises because of something intrinsic to how ‘holding a mental intention to influence chi’ has to feel in order for it to work well.
When you are thinking about a scientific theory, your body is very–precise, is one way to put it. You might talk in a very ordered, even, way, and hold mental images of structures in order to mentally navigate around the concept you’re considering. You rarely feel the urge to run, or cry, or express a vivid emotion to someone else. There’s often a feeling of neatness, and a desire to compare mental concepts to other concepts to figure out what they are like. We learn about the nervous system this way, if we learn about it at all. We learn labels and functions and diagrams.
For some reason that I can’t quite fully explain, this mode of being is not the right one to be in if you want your thoughts to be influencing your nervous system state the most strongly. The state it is better to be in involves less structured talking, less structured thoughts, and instead involves things that are vivid, emotionally impactful and nonverbal–images, sounds, direct perception of your surroundings. We can get more into this state if we’re caught up in a highly engaging movie–the room is dark, we aren’t afraid of being seen, and it’s socially acceptable to express stronger emotions in a movie theatre so it can feel easier to do so.
In this state, the images we see or imagine make a more direct impact on our nervous system, AND it’s harder to ‘think about things logically’.
‘Chi’ is a well-adapted mental experience that relies on being in this second, more imagistic, nonverbal state to influence nervous system activity. You don’t get to a calm nervous system by thinking ‘I am going to relax my nervous system’; you get there by imagining a ball of light sitting above your head and then bursting and pouring golden liquid down your body.
This is the kind of image that makes it easier to start driving your nervous system like a car using the mental experience of chi–you can release amplified tension by ‘feeling’ the chi release out of your body at all directions, or regain your sense of self-confidence by ‘pouring’ your chi into the ground. These images aren’t arbitrary–I think there are likely complex mappings between specific ‘intentions to move chi’ and different impacts on nervous system state, and I’m not aware of any Western scientific research that has been able to document these.
I think it’s entirely possible to get very good at using the mental experience of chi to influence your nervous system physiology while not getting confused into trusting that chi is a substance like water, or that it has out-of-body functions like moving the planet on its orbit. I think the most sane physical understanding of ‘what chi is’ is something like ‘patterns of change within a complex system that has parts that are tightly influenced by each other’ but that can be hard to understand. I think most people are not good at either scientific reasoning or subtle energy manipulation to be aware of when their understanding of one is being influenced by blindspots in the other, and then combined with a bunch of tribalism we’ve ended up in a situation where what is taboo for one camp is blindingly obvious for the other. But so it goes.
Ok so now let me talk about auras and psychic attacks. Roughly, I think it makes sense to think of an aura as ‘your mental experience of your nervous system baseline, overall, and how sensitive or guarded you feel towards potential influence on your nervous system.’ Really obvious stuff ‘weakens your aura’ by literally weakening your body–being sleep deprived, having a draining emotional relationship, feeling worried about money all the time. For some people, they want their aura to be guarded–they want to feel confident that the condition of their nervous system will not be affected by anything outside of them or their control. For some people, they tend to have a ‘weak aura’, which you can roughly understand as ‘lots of things influence them consciously and subconsciously, and they have very little control over what influences them, leaving their nervous system state at the mercy of their surroundings’.
For me, I aim for a ‘strong, sensitive aura’, which roughly means ‘my nervous system picks up on a lot of stuff, but I am very capable of being uninfluenced by anything I am concerned about being dangerous, or experiencing it in the moment without having lasting effects. i think I mostly succeed, except for rare exceptions. I’ll give two stories to explain what I mean by this.
One: I recently took a call as a suicide hotline volunteer with someone who that day was experiencing a first psychotic break and feeling possessed by a violent Joker-like character. Not only was he occasionally talking in a way that indicated he might do something dangerous (which was naturally scary to me), he was also extremely terrified and confused himself and that came out in his voice and his ideas.
If I were to be ‘energetically closed, with a shut-off aura’ to him I might speak in a very flat, formal, unaffected tone, and avoid imagining him as real human deserving of care as I heard his voice. That might protect me from feeling the impact of his emotions and arousal on my nervous system but leave him feeling alienated. If I were to be ‘energetically oversensitive, with a weak aura’ I might speak in a tone that increasingly matched his, which might make him feel understood, but also would make me feel a similar kind of insane state to him and perhaps amp up his fear even more when I was mirroring it exactly. Behaving like that would probably leave me feeling exhausted, and possibly physically sick– nauseous, feverish, or weak afterwards.
The approach I took (which I think I could still have improved on) was to let myself notice what he was feeling, and then do some mental moves for myself during the conversation that meant that perceiving that level of terror didn’t make me as afraid or as energetically aroused. These are mental moves involving my body–the image I used was one of ‘venting’ or ‘off-gassing’ energy throughout my torso, so that any tension that arose in my body during the call didn’t stay there for long. If I had handled it 100% capably, I would have been capable of having the intense, one-hour call and then ending it in a state of relaxed nervous system readiness, and taking a different call immediately afterwards. As it was, I mostly succeeded, but I needed to do more ‘off-gassing’ or ‘venting’ for maybe an hour afterwards–but once I was done, I could easily go to sleep at a normal time a few hours later and sleep comfortably. This particular experience was at the limits of my capabilities and, like building a muscle, I could imagine taking on an identical experience in a year after building more strength and handling it 100% with ease, and being capable of even more intense challenges than that.
For the second example, I want to talk more about the sense that someone is ‘doing something’ energetically to you.
I had an experience recently while I was at a public event, where by the time I was there, for unrelated reasons I was already feeling muscle soreness, fatigue, emotional strain, and cumulatively something like a ‘weaker aura’.
I then happened to run into a man who knew me but that I hadn’t seen in a long time; within a few minutes of conversation with him I felt my mind go blank, an inability to hear what he was saying, a vague numb feeling of panic, a sense of confusion, and a loss of perception of the sensations of my body. I have a very strong relationship with my body, so noticing those perceptions go away was a really concerning sign.
I excused myself mid-conversation and walked away to be out of earshot of others. At that time I had no idea ‘what had happened’–that is to say–why I had had such a strong reaction; only, that if such intense signs came up I would respond to them immediately and not repress them. I then tried to direct my mind to the sensations in my body, and I imagined the loving embrace of someone who I feel incredibly safe with, which let my body trust (along with the knowledge that I was out of earshot) that it was safe to perceive what I was experiencing.
It took a little while, but soon sensations arose–the impulse to throw up, a kind of shocked scream, and nausea like I’d been kicked in the stomach. All of these are to me signs of a nervous system working against quite intense distress–wanting me to take some action to protect against something quite bad.
Without knowing -what- the bad thing was, I imagined the safe person I know I would have access to if I needed them, let whatever movements and sounds take place that needed to take place, and ‘moved my chi with my mind to rebalance it’.
In somewhat blunt woo terms ‘my aura had been violated’ and in that moment of rediscovering the sensations I was discovering what kind of violation it was and what I should do in order to ‘restore my aura’s integrity’.
In this case, I learned that I had felt some kind of forceful too-deep intimacy from him, combined with social pressure to accept his behaviour towards me (from him and the social situation we had been in).
After resting, ‘rebalancing chi’ and contemplating it for a while I went back and began a new conversation with him, now with much better ‘energetic protection’ in the form of avoiding behaviours, the presence of others, and a commitment to allow myself to do ‘things that looked weird’ if I needed to do that in order to keep perceiving my bodily sensations.
In that conversation I established all sorts of boundaries and then was able to discuss the violation with him, in a way that didn’t make me feel violated again (props to him for being able to have that conversation; many men would not have known how).
In both stories I describe the experience ending with me reaching an ‘energetically neutral’ state–my nervous system is in a state of ‘relaxed readiness’, I’m able to perceive all the sensations in my body, my mind is clear and free of worries.
My understanding of psychic attack and particularly ‘energetic sicknesses’ of various kinds is that they involve experiences like the one in that second story, but where the person ‘attacked’ gets stuck in the overwhelmed or shut-down nervous system state for a long time, sometimes even months or years. This is pretty bad for your body–your nervous system likes being ‘relaxed and ready’ and when it’s stuck in overdrive that worsens the health of lots of other things, like your digestive system and your immune system.
(This is, by the way, I think why people who grew up in abusive environments are more likely to experience digestive and immune issues–they spent long periods in nervous system overwhelm and their body wasn’t able to repair the digestive and immune system functioning the way it should.)
When I tell stories like this to people with scientific rationalist-materialist mindsets who ‘don’t believe in chi’, they frequently surprise themselves with how open they are to accepting the story as reasonable because they thought they believed ‘chi isn’t real’. A few things seem to consistently arise as barriers to understanding the kind of phenomenon I’m describing in these stories more closely:
- There is no one whose worldview they respect who seems to talk about chi; the only people they see talking about chi are people whose reasoning they don’t think is very good
- They personally don’t perceive any of the sensations that seem to be involved, and so conclude they don’t exist (in part because they haven’t see these perceptions as ‘something you can get better at’)
- Chi as a concept seems to have been soundly refuted by science, so they reason that the phenomena it relates to must be delusions (possibly social memes gotten out of hand)
This post is in part an attempt to bridge the reasoning gap between scientific materialists who trust the science of physiology and (perhaps a little less) the science of psychology, and people who are fluent in manipulating subtle energy but perhaps don’t know or care how the thing they do is explained by science.
I should point out, this whole model I’ve laid out here is one I’ve developed and have seen a few dual-paradigm practitioners agree with–but not many. I think if science could figure out how to study chi without assuming ‘chi is a phenomenon’, and design research processes that account for the subjective impact of the specific mental-content-that-behaves-similar-to-a-belief like the mental experience of chi, we’d have a much better science of psychology!
(Note: One major problem is that as someone who is much, much more fluent in subtle energy now than I was four years ago, I’m much more capable of evaluating a subtle energy practitioner like a bodyworker, in case I need their help–but I wasn’t when I was younger and inexperienced, which was when I desperately needed them! I would like there to be a better way for energy-illiterate people to evaluate energy practitioners that is better than ‘do I believe that the story they are telling about energy is true’. I don’t know the answer but I think recognising that a practitioner’s epistemology is -not- what dictates the quality of their skills is a good start!)