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The Road Back -- One Heckuva Pothole

Why a Cell Phone is a Lot Like Chi

News articles have been springing up about phantom vibrations that cell phone users feel. It seems that our brains are so accustomed to anticipating a vibrating cell phone when it's being worn on our belts or in our pockets, that even when the phone isn't there, we can suddenly feel it vibrate.

Our brains learn to anticipate the vibration, and something will trigger the impulses in the brain that make you feel as if your phone is vibrating even when it's back home on the table.

When I saw this story on NBC News this weekend, I saw a parallel to the sensations that so many people say is "proof" that chi is real. They'll do chi kung exercises and they'll swear that they feel tingling or heat or all types of sensations.

I've felt the sensations, too. In fact, there's one chi kung exercise I do and I can feel a ball of energy going from my dan t'ien through my right arm, jumping across from my right hand to my left hand, then coursing through my left arm and back to my dan t'ien.

Your brain can feel a lot of things that aren't real. Anyone who makes the leap of logic that "feelings" are proof of reality are actually guilty of false logic.

Have you ever had a hard time going to sleep at night? I have, and I'll sometimes lie there and imagine myself floating on an inflatable raft on an ocean. After a moment, I can actually feel myself bobbing up and down on the raft, in the water.

If I -- at that moment -- actually believed I was on a raft floating in the ocean, I would need to be taken in for psychiatric treament.

So why do people believe that chi is real just because they have programmed their minds to feel something?

Well, I'll tell you why. Because critical thinking skills are hard to come by, and aren't taught in school. I'm sure you can come up with many instances where people believe in some pretty strange things with every fiber of their being, things that seem pretty impossible, but that doesn't stop them from believing, and getting steamed at you if you don't believe.

I've said for a long time that people who spend too much time and mental energy trying to "cultivate  chi" are missing the point of the internal arts. And from what I've seen, and from the people I've met, the ones who spend the most time doing this have no idea how to use the internal arts the way they were intended -- for self-defense and combat.

Now forgive me, I have to go. I think my cell phone is vibrating.


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The problem with discussing chi is that it is a fuzzy term. If you read Chinese texts, it comes across as something like the Force in Star Wars, some universal and pretty magic life energy.

I don't believe in any such supernatural energy.

Also, your theory that chi doesn't exist even though you can feel it is a valid one. Feeling it doesn't qualify as scientific proof. However, the theory that whatever you feel there actually has a physiological basis is equally valid.

And the things sceptics do when there are conflicting theories is to devise experiments to disprove one of the theories, or in short, apply science.

Now unfortunately to my knowledge nobody ever did any scientific studies on chi in the internals arts. But there is some research that looked into forms of meditation related to the Daoist practices, such as the one Dr. Benson did with Tibetan monks. A good overview of the latter can be found here:

It describes how the monks manage to heat up parts of their body using a special form of Yoga (no pyrokinesis, just a couple of degrees). The technique they are using is described by Benson as follows:

"In the perfected practice of g Tu-mo meditation, prana (wind or air) is thought
to be gathered from the fragmented condition of normal human consciousness.
This wind is then directed into an alleged main channel through the central part
of the body, where the swirling winds ignite an intense “internal heat.”" (from "Beyond the Relaxation Response").

This does sound a bit like collecting the chi in the dan'tien to me, just different.

Maybe you're right, and there's nothing. But maybe even though there is nothing in the physical sense, chi might be a useful tool for directing the focus of attention of your mind to certain parts of the body. And finally, maybe there actually is some physiological effect waiting to be discovered in there.

Ken Gullette

A couple of comments:

1. This was an article in a student newspaper. Having been the media spokesperson for the 9th largest public university in the nation, I can tell you that almost every story in the college newspaper that I was interviewed for contained several factual errors, and often they quoted me saying things that I absolutely didn't say. As a result, I don't believe anything I read in a college newspaper.

2. Dr. Benson appears to have a vested interest in proving that miraculous feats are real. After all, it's great publicity for his Mind/Body Center.

I would love to see the results of a double-blind study duplicating the feat such as raising your body heat enough to dry out a sopping wet sheet in an hour in a cold room. I'd like the sheet to be soaked not by other monks but by people who didn't know what was happening. I'd like to see this same feat performed under conditions designed in partnership with the Randi Foundation, for example.

I rarely believe studies done by people with a financial interest in a particular outcome.

That said, I do believe, based on objective studies, that meditation does have the ability to "re-wire" the brain with some beneficial effects. This is one of the reasons I think chi kung is very worthwhile.

Anyone who can raise their body heat enough to dry sheets like the dryer in my basement is raising their body temperature enough to kill themselves, so I'm a little skeptical of that one. As the old saying goes, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," and so I'd like to know more about Dr. Benson's methods before coming to a conclusion one way or another, but at face value, I don't usually put a lot of faith in something fantastic when the investigator stakes his livelihood on the outcome.

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