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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Mystery of Chi

Two posts back I have suggested that the Chinese concept of chi is present in every culture under other names, and I recited some of them: baraka, prana, and our own concept of grace. We also have a more secular version of it, the élan vital, the life force. In actual use these words often have quite different emphases and connotations. A good example is our use of the word grace. In the religious context it is seen as a special gift from God or a state of being without sin (“state of grace”); in the social context it connotes good upbringing, charm, advanced behavior, fluidity of movement; and then there is “grace under fire.”

All of these uses of the word suggest a kind of elevated state or mode of being; the last phrase is instructive because it suggests holding on to our humanity even when all hell breaks loose. An equivalent of it, the French sang-froid, has the same connotation: cold blooded, thus above the natural state. But notice that in our usage, grace is never equated with the life force as such, whereas it is strongly linked to that concept in Asia. Our usage is the product of our culture, a product of our system of classification. We’re very conceptual. We like to separate. We’ve separated grace from the life force—and this despite the fact that our founding book, the Bible, in Genesis 2:7, tells us that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” That breath, I would suggest, is chi. The dust of which God formed the body is matter.

Now, mind you, speaking of such matters we’re engaged in the pursuit higher forms of knowledge than our science can ever hope to reach. We’re in the realms of poetry. Poetry’s favorite subject, love, is as foreign to science as is life. The poet dares to call them one and the same thing; science is silent on both. This subject is also ultimately foreign to philosophical approaches unless these acknowledge a higher realm, the realm of revelation. Conceptual approaches cannot capture the essence here, which must be experienced. Concepts divide, poetry unites. But poetry unites without destroying crucial differences that manifest in experience. Indeed the more precise our conceptual understanding becomes, the more it shatters the unity of experience—whereas the life force has the magical result of fusing—without destroying—a vast diversity of materially distinct entities into a unified organism.

One way to get a better feel for the mystery of chi is to picture this fluid, this breath of the divine, as present in everything that lives—and, by organizing matter, becoming visible. At the level of ordinary life—and that dusty little weed growing in the crack of my concrete drive is alive—we might think of chi as already and miraculously present. It announces itself. For all we know it’s also present in the inorganic realm. It may be that energy which defies the laws of inertia and keeps electrons swirling around atomic nuclei. Where do those electrons get their force? And why don’t they ever run down? Those electrons are still swirling, moving, glowing even in the coldest rocks on the frozen continent of Antarctica. And we, ourselves, seem to be made of innumerably many perpetua mobile. Chi may permeate the cosmos. It may be the strong force that keeps the quarks clinging to each other to form protons and neutrons inside the atomic core. In those tiny entities—and they are mere inferences so far as we really know—the energy is invisible. In living things it’s manifest—but, for us, it’s not particularly remarkable. Familiarity breeds contempt. That dusty weed mostly reminds me to pull it. But chi also manifests in much more mysterious and higher form—as grace. And in that form, once more, it becomes invisible. We can, however, still experience it. We experience it as beauty, harmony, intelligence, and benevolence—real phenomena that escape reduction to the visible forms that carry it. That music isn’t violins or black dots on white paper. The grace of that building isn’t merely stone.

This sort of view of chi, poetic and therefore unifying, might be dismissed as a fuzzy sort of pantheism. But what it suggests to me is actually a glimpse into the very structure of reality. I conceive of it as consisting of three distinct but closely related elements always in interaction: matter, energy, and self. Staying with the Chinese modes of naming these things, the first is yin, the receptive, the second yang, the creative, and the third is the Tao. We would call it God, the ultimate Self. A proper view of this structure, I would suggest, emerges when we imagine that the same constituent elements exist at every level of reality, not merely here in on earth. This would suggest that matter has its higher or subtle forms as well—beyond the border I keep talking about. So does energy. So does self, writ small or large. And in that case we get a conceptually sharper view of chi or grace in the bargain. Here is how I would argue that:

What appears as simple energy to us—thus solar power, for example—is chi as it manifests in a lower order of reality. What we call life is that same energy already intensified to a higher pitch, but still embedded in the lower order. It is a sign of a transition between orders, the prelude to entry into the next “mansion” that exists above ours. Living here we’re poised between dimensions, at the very point of transition. What we call grace is the life present in the heavenly reaches touching this one but only, alas, ever so lightly. To have it more abundantly, as suggested in John 10:10, we must cross over.

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