- SHEDDING A MUNDANE LIGHT ON THE CONCEPT OF PRANA -
For a number of reasons, and though the main concern of this website is Yoga, I have a soft spot for Bruce Lee when it comes to illustrating my current level of understanding of certain concepts, because he was both super human and all too human. In this article, we are visiting once more the notion of Prana, making a detour via Chinese models again (cf. 3 DAN TIENS on this website, the sister article to this one for the link between Chi and Dantiens). What I find particularly expressive about the above painting is that the three aspects of Prana or Chi as understood and articulated in the Chinese culture are naturally suggested. We'll get back to that by the end of the article.
words and reality, or catching water with a sieve:
Our concern here is to give the reader keys to better grasp the concepts of:
- Prana (Indian culture)
- Chi/Qi (Chinese culture)
- Ki (Japanese culture)
- Life Energy, Breath of Life (Western culture)
For our purpose, all the words here are considered to be synonymous and pointers to something that should be felt rather than defined.
Indians talk about Pranas and Nadis, Chinese about Chi and Meridians, and we find in those and several other cultures descriptions of subjective feelings and impressions that are trying to be mapped through 'subtle anatomy' models. In my opinion, and some might disagree, 'energetic models' of the human being are imperfect attempts at describing something the nature of which can only be elusive. Each model arises from the conditioning of a distinct culture, and so each model's orientation will approach the problem from a slightly different perspective. Indian and Chinese paradigms are different, yet both attempt to do the same thing: establish a map of the one territory. Reducing reality to words and other symbols has its advantages, but the only important thing is to experience the 'thing in itself'. Then labels don't matter as much. There is only one 'energy system' or whatever label is used to point at it, and it is better to experience it than to describe it.
I insist that 'subtle anatomy' maps are necessarily inaccurate descriptions of indescribable experiences or subjective feelings. Again, there is the one reality which is independent of our labels, and our feeble attempts to describe it with language. Each attempt at encapsulating reality in a frozen symbolic model is like catching water with a sieve. It is a partial description that captures some of the essence but is markedly incomplete. And the flavor of each paradigm (Indian, Chinese etc...) is the partial picture that is determined by this particular culture conditioning.
Take Love for example. You just read the word, but you didn't feel the feeling. Love has been described in a myriad of different ways in songs, poetry, painting, endocrinology, metaphysics, literature, philosophy..., but none of these can and will ever replace the feeling of Love. Confusing the explanation for the actual feeling is just playing with words and illusions, and devoid of substance. An explanation or a model or a set of symbols is just a useful way of communicating ideas between people who aim to experience the subject of the communication directly.
We're about to move on but we'll stress the point one last time. Our descriptions of Energy/God/Tao/Prana or whatever terminology we choose to use is necessarily incomplete and approximate, because the medium used and our own inner understanding as well are incomplete and approximate. It doesn't matter if the system is the product of thousands of years or Taoist or Hindu thought or something Rael made yesterday (joke). The particular tradition may have developed a definite and precise paradigm of existence, but that is still not the thing. It is an imperfect pointer. The thing in itself transcends by nature our ability to describe it ("The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao").
with the above in mind, what is prana or chi...
After this theoretical introduction, we are going to come back down completely and demystify prana/chi, using the terms interchangeably. Prana/Chi is far from being unexplainable: among other terms, 'breath' is a possible translation, though 'vital energy' or 'breath of life' as general terms would seem more encompassing. But those 'dirty words' still somehow miss the point.
Prana/Chi refers to an energy within ourselves that keeps us alive: it flows through the body through designated tracks, the Nadis/Meridians. Again, the models do not exactly overlap, and it is not a big deal. Many people with a scientific mind will find that description senseless and abstract (me, for example). As they can't see or sense or measure this energy, they don't believe in it. Taking the description at face value just because one feels attracted to eastern disciplines and would like to be seen as a spiritual being is as irrational. It would be nice to be able to develop more of a practical understanding of what we are referring to.
Most people don't have a problem looking at their toaster as an instrument that comes alive via electrical current flowing through the device on designated tracks, the wires. They'd argue that electricity is easily felt if you receive an electrical shock, hence it is an objective thing. What if a gorgeous woman passes by and you're a guy and she turns around and looks at you? Aren't you going to feel some kind of 'electricity'? What if she asks you "Haven't we met before?", isn't that going to increase the 'voltage' of the feeling ?
Why doesn't the fresh meat at the butcher move ? It's formed of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves etc... No matter what I do with it, something is missing to put it in motion. Life is missing. What is this thing that could give it Life ? a kind of Energy, Prana, Chi. We still don't really know what Life is. This leap is not unreasonable. At our individual level, this only translates as a subjective feeling of aliveness. It is as simple as that. Without that Energy, there is no motion, no thought, no emotion. Nothing. In this sense, everybody senses Chi, even without any training. But we are not paying attention to it in those terms, or simply take the miracle for granted.
So again we are using the words Energy, Chi, Ki, Prana interchangeably. The concept is related to the scientific concept of energy. The word is essentially a pointer to something that should be felt and experienced.
Scientifically, we are comfortable if objective measurements can be made that can/would overrule subjective observations. In the practice of Yoga, we want to feel things for ourselves, and remain empowered through the process of self perception and self healing.
When we place our attention in a region of the body, something happens beyond the concentration on the particular spot. Prana is channeled to the area. We feel something there that can even translate as a slight increase in temperature on the surface of the skin or a tingling feeling. The Chinese say that 'Chi follows Yi', Yi being the mind through attention and an intention.
Another reason why it might be difficult to focus on Prana has to do with the way we pay attention to things nowadays. Bombarded with sensory stimuli, all kind of things compete for our attention all the time: TV, internet and all media, objects, advertising and the constant creation of artificial desires. It is not by chance that energy systems were noticed in the distant past: the ancient world, with no diversion, allowed for people to be much more attuned to their bodies and feelings, making them naturally better at noticing 'energy' movements.
The general Chi/Energy of Life is broken down by the Chinese into 3 essential forms: Jing, Qi and Shen.
Prana seems to be all kind of things. Let's consider it from the most practical perspective. An Asana is performed, a pranayama tried, an acupressure point pressed, a kata is done or even watched, a massage gotten. Immediately, we feel different, there is a different 'energy'. It doesn't matter if the mechanics remain unknown, we handle the energy by feeling it. And in order to do that, we need to pay attention and be in the here and now.
back to bruce lee...
I like the painting. The blurred definition between the martial artist and its surroundings reminds us that we are not separate and clear boundaries are artificial in a world that is just a sea of energies expressing themselves in different ways. Where does Bruce Lee begin, and where does what is not Bruce Lee abide ? Where is movement and where is stillness? Where is balance, and where is momentum ?
Beyond that, Bruce Lee is his little energy factory, with the three currents of Jing, Qi and Shen. The artist captures well the three of them. Jing, the essential, sexual, primal energy, the vitality, the sea of potential finding an expression through the bodily energy, the general Qi. We can see that bodily Qi in the tremendous energy of movement that pervades the painting, the dynamism that jumps at the viewer even though it is a static painting. But all that would be impossible without a focused Shen, a clear spirit, empty of noisy thoughts and gently ready to apply itself to the task at hand with an unyielding firmness: we see Shen in the eyes, as two little dark pits, two balls of black fire.
And there we have it: two ways to describe the same thing. Two models of representation meaning to convey the same notion. The diagrams above via abstract symbolism stimulating the intellect, or the artwork, abstract symbolism stimulating the emotions.