Acupuncture, Qigong and Jesus -- Why Traditional Chinese Medicine is Like Religion

Religion-alternative medicineThis isn't going to go down well with my friends who are acupuncturists, qigong instructors, and Christians.

I know a lot of very good people in all three groups. Hell, I used to be a Christian, and I have practiced qigong since 1987. I use qigong for stress management and to help maintain my center in a hectic, crazy world. I studied acupuncture for two years, had all the equipment, and even practiced on people. I don't do that anymore.

I am a skeptic.

That means I need evidence before I believe something, and I have not seen evidence that the medical claims made by proponents of alternative medicine and TCM work very often beyond what you would expect from a placebo.

I wasn't always a skeptic. My mom raised me to be a Christian, but I left the faith around age 20, when I discovered Eastern philosophy. I gave the concepts of chi and acupuncture a shot -- a very open-minded shot -- as I studied qigong and acupuncture. I wanted them to be true.

Being a skeptic means that I am not opposed to anything. I am open to evidence. If you make a medical claim, a religious statement or scientific statement and can back it up with proof, I'll believe. But I can't take your word for it. Sorry. 

That drives some Christians crazy, and it also doesn't sit well with some people who believe in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Last week, I interviewed Dr. Harriet Hall, the "SkepDoc," for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast. Since most of my interviews are with internal arts instructors, qigong masters and philosophers, some statements had been made along the way that made me feel that my audience needed to hear an alternative view on alternative medicine.

Dr. Hall analyzes clinical trials and investigates the validity of "complimentary" and "alternative" medicine (CAM). She is a retired physician and Air Force flight surgeon who knows how to apply critical thinking skills to medical claims. 

I did a couple of days of research before the interview. I learned a lot about clinical trials, science-based medicine, and the lack of evidence for chi healing and acupuncture, two of the biggest pieces of TCM.

When the podcast went online, it triggered comments, complaints and arguments from Chi Believers. A pattern emerged in some of these comments, and after promoting the need for critical thinking skills in the internal arts for a couple of decades, a new thought hit me like a two-by-four.

TCM and the belief in Chi is a religion.

Chi Believers use the same arguments that some Christians use when defending their beliefs against an atheist. Trust me. I have debated some Christians and the same talking points are used and the same strategy is employed by chi believers.

Let me walk you through some examples:

Skeptic Statement -- There is no scientific evidence that God (or Chi) exists. 

Religious response -- "You can't use reason and logic to determine if God exists. That is arrogant."

Chi Believer response -- "Acupuncture (or qigong) can't be tested by 'Western' science." 


Religious response -- "You simply don't understand. I have studied theology and have put a lot of thought and study into this. I know God is real."

Chi Believer response -- "You simply don't understand. I have studied and practiced (acupuncture, chi healing, etc.) for years. I know it is real."


Skeptic Statement -- But you can't prove that Acupuncture (or chi healing or prayer) works.

Religious response -- "I know God is real because I have a personal relationship with him. Jesus has worked miracles in my life."

Chi Believer response -- "I know that (acupuncture, chi healing, Reiki, etc.) works because it has worked on me."


Skeptic Statement -- There is absolutely no evidence that anyone has ever been cured of an illness or disease by God (or acupuncture or chi healing).

Religious response -- "I know many people that Jesus has healed through prayer."

Chi Believer response -- "I have seen patients who have improved from my (alternative medicine) treatments."


Skeptic Statement -- Randomized, double-blind clinical trials show that acupuncture (or chi healing or prayer) does not work.

Religious response -- "Modern science does not worship God. There is a conspiracy to persecute Christians."

Chi Believer response -- "There is a conspiracy among 'Western' scientists and doctors to discredit alternative medicine."


Religious response -- "You are closed-minded to evidence of God, which is all around you."

Chi Believer response -- "You are closed-minded to evidence of chi."


Religious response -- "There is something wrong with you. Something happened in your life to make you hate God."

Chi Believer response -- "You are a fascist nazi and a nihilist prick." (This was actually said to me. I had to look up nihilist. It is someone who dismisses all religious and moral principles, usually with the attitude that life is meaningless -- hardly my beliefs. Believing in truth over fantasy is sort of a moral principle, isn't it?).


Skeptic Statement -- Modern science can test any medical claim. Alternative medicine (and existence of God) either can't be tested or fails the tests.

Religious response -- "People have believed in Jesus for 2,000 years. I guess all those people were wrong and you are right."

Chi Believer response -- "Acupuncture and chi healing has been done for 5,000 years. It wouldn't still be used if it didn't work." (I tell them in that case, Astrology must work because it is thousands of years old).


Skeptic Statement -- There is a lot of violence in the Bible -- children and babies are killed by God in many parts of the Bible. 

Religious response -- "You are misinterpreting the Bible. You can't cherry-pick scripture. It is about peace and love."

Skeptic Statement -- Scientists can measure energy down to the sub-atomic level, but they can't find evidence of chi flowing in our bodies.

Chi Believer response -- "You are misinterpreting the word Chi. It doesn't mean a literal energy, it means (then they proceed to rationalize, forgetting that acupuncture relies on a literal energy flowing through meridians)."


Skeptic Statement -- We can measure all types of energy, but we can't see or measure chi and we are supposed to believe that invisible beings are watching us?

Religious response -- "You can't see air but you believe it is there. You can't see atoms but you believe they are there."

Chi Believer response -- "You can't see air but you believe it is there. You can't see atoms but you believe they are there."


Skeptic Statement -- Would you take your infant daughter to an acupuncturist if she became really sick (or take them just to a faith healer)?

Religious response -- "God works through doctors. We are not opposed to doctors." (Ummmm, Christian Scientists are)

Chi Believer response -- "Our medicine is complimentary. It is designed to be used with modern medicine." 


And so on, and so on. In both religion and chi belief, reason and science are batted away like mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. There is something wrong with the person asking the questions, you see.

I have been teaching the internal arts for nearly 20 years. During that time, I have tried to convince internal artists that critical thinking skills are crucial. We end up asking more critical questions about a new car purchase than we ask about alternative medicine. If a "master" or a black belt tells us something is true, or if it is in a book on the internal arts or qigong, we are ready to believe. The writers of books and magazines, and the people who practice alternative medicine for money, can make it sound very scientific and very convincing. Creationists are also smooth at confusing people with pseudo-scientific talk and phrases that confuse listeners (on purpose) but sound like real science. It isn't.

Once we believe, and invest time, money, and emotion into a belief (whether it is religion or alternative medicine), it takes a lot of internal strength to receive new information and realize that you need to adjust your beliefs to reflect facts.

Not everyone is that strong. Some people are, however, and that is why us skeptics continue to ask questions and shine a light on what real science says about certain beliefs that can only be accurately described as "magical thinking."

The Internet has caused the numbers of critical thinkers to increase. When I was a child, and even a young adult, I could not hop online and check out my mom's religious claims or my kung-fu instructor's medical or metaphysical claims. Now, children and adults can do that, and that means good information is only a mouse-click away.

That is why I wrote this blog post. I can be friends with people who believe unproven things, but if there is a problem here, I don't think it is with the person who demands scientific evidence -- modern scientific evidence -- when they ask questions about medical claims.

It has become increasingly obvious as I grow older, and less willing to believe anything I am told, that both chi believers and the deeply religious, when faced with questions of science, reason and logic that threaten their beliefs, will put themselves through very similar intellectual gymnastics to rationalize what is not there. 

One Philosophical Taoist's Perspective - Should We Fear Death?

Ken Gullette with his daughter, Shara in October, 1980.
Since I lost the function of my left lung a few years ago, and was told that my heart would wear out within three to five years, the reality of "The End" has been close in a way that can only be understood if you have been given a timetable for your own mortality. 

A few weeks ago, when I was told that I was essentially "in heart failure," reality again tapped me on the shoulder.

Also in recent weeks, I have had some interesting debates with a devout Christian friend of mine who believes, I suppose, that I will be cast in the lake of fire since I don't believe Jesus was divine. The way I feel about death is probably a foreign concept to a Christian -- just as their beliefs, the beliefs I grew up with, are now foreign to me.

After 40 years of embracing Eastern philosophies, particularly philosophical Taoism, I can only explain how I feel about death in the following paragraphs.

The moment you were born into this life you cried.

So did I. Everyone does. The doctor pulls us into the world and either massages us or slaps us and we let out a wail, already protesting the violence we’re suddenly experiencing.

Perhaps we have a sense that this isn’t going to be easy. If so, we are right. The easy stuff ended the moment we took our first breath and saw light and people around us.

Before that moment, all was peaceful and calm, unless our mothers ate burritos with hot salsa while we were in the womb. From the moment of conception, as we slowly formed inside our mothers, we could hear muffled sounds outside, but we were at peace.

Have you ever thought about the eternity of time that passed before you were born? Have you ever calmed yourself, closed your eyes, and tried to remember what it was like?

For an eternity, all we knew was perfect peace. No pain, no fear of death, no judgment of what is good and bad. No one judged us for what we believe, what we wore, or how much money we earned. We were at one with the universe because we were the universe – part of the same energy that created it all.

When we were born, we had no complaints about where we had been.

And so it must be with death. We will have no complaints when we get there. It is the only concept that makes sense.

Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Before we are born, there is an eternity in which we do not exist. Then we are born and exist for a brief number of years. Then we do not exist for another eternity.

Before birth, we are aware of nothing. It is perfect peace. When we are born, we are aware of everything around us, full of emotions – happiness, fear, love, hate – and we are full of striving and desire.

After we die, we are aware of nothing. It is as if we had never existed. It is perfect peace.

This is not what we want.

Each of us would like to see loved ones on “the other side.” Now that we have tasted life, we want it to continue. But even in the quiet moments of the most religiously devout, the gnawing realization is there, reminding us that this is it. There are no invisible beings watching us, none to take our hands and lead us to Heaven, none to punish us in a lake of fire, and none to sit on a throne and judge us for being human. These are fantasies created by men who want to control others. It is the philosophy of fear.

Eternal peace is a comforting thought, but only if you can get your ego out of the way, the ego that makes us feel that we are special over all other forms of life, that only humans live forever.

When you become enlightened, you are “born again” in a flash of illumination. All the man-made burdens of judgment and shame, guilt and invisible judges vanish. You are born again because on the day you are born, you have none of these concepts. You do not live under the shadow of a threat unless your parents tell you that you do -- the threat of believing their way or receiving eternal torture.

When we free ourselves from these mental and societal chains, we may now enjoy our lives, savoring each moment and each relationship. And when it is time for our lives to end, we have nothing to fear. We have lived good, moral lives full of love. We have done the best we could. We have failed at times, we have been petty and angry and jealous at times, but we have also soared at times. That’s life. The only tragedy is if life ends too quickly. I had a daughter, Shara, who died 33 years ago tomorrow, on October 23, 1980. She was six weeks old. She did not have a chance to experience the joy and pain of life. That is a tragedy.

The night before she died, she grinned so big that her mom and sister and I burst out laughing. A big, toothless grin as I talked to her in baby talk. So perhaps she did experience some joy in her short life.

There is a wonderful quote from Master Po in the Kung Fu TV series. He says, "Learn first how to live. Learn second how not to kill. Learn third how to live with death. Learn to die."

I am now in the "living with death" phase of this cycle, but after enduring my daughter's death, it is, in some strange way, familiar territory.

If we are lucky, we reach the end of our lives accepting the reality of death. Perhaps it is best if we live long enough to be ready to die. But regardless, there is nothing to fear and perfect peace to gain. We came into this world crying, and we should all leave this world smiling.

There is nothing to cry about.

Iron Wrapped in Cotton -- Does Your Philosophy Give You Internal Strength?

My daughter Shara, a few days before her sudden death in 1980. Life was about to hammer me very hard without a warning.
Do you have internal strength? 

It has been on my mind a lot during the past couple of weeks as I prepared my first Kindle ebook for publication on that very topic -- Internal Strength for Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua. It provides instruction on two basic skills for the internal arts -- establishing the ground path and using peng jin.

That allows you to begin developing relaxed power -- internal strength.

So we are supposed to take what we learn in the martial arts and also apply the principles to our daily lives, aren't we? It's not just for combat, you know.

Let's look at the concept of internal strength.

Do you have a philosophy that gets you through the rough patches in your life? Perhaps it's not philosophy but theology -- religion, faith in a higher power -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or one of countless others.

Perhaps you have a philosophy that provides a lens through which you look at the ups and downs of life and make sense of it all.

My personal philosophy leans toward philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I do not believe that invisible beings are watching us and making decisions that have an impact on us. Believing in an invisible authority figure means that someone is in charge of this chaotic universe. It fills a primal need that started thousands of years ago.

In the end, it does not matter which way you go. Does your personal philosophy provide your mind with the attribute of "iron wrapped in cotton?"

I've known Christians who fall apart when bad things happen. I've known athiests who do the same. Why does this happen? I believe it happens because of a weak philosophical foundation.

The longer we live, the more loss we encounter. You may lose a job, a marriage, your parents, and the unthinkable -- you may lose a child, as I did more than 30 years ago. You may develop an addiction or a major health problem.

No philosophy or theology can shield you from life's trials and hardships. But you need an internal gyroscope that centers you after life knocks you down. A good philosophy can help. 

When my daughter died suddenly at six weeks old, my world fell apart around me. In the funeral home, I picked her up out of the tiny coffin and held her in my arms for two days. I think my friends and family thought I was insane. I was walking wounded for a year or two after this, but even when I sat there in total grief and devastation, there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying, "You will get through it. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. How can you appreciate life if you don't appreciate the totality of death?" It was as if Master Po was speaking to me from the old Kung Fu TV show, and even as I sat there with my daughter lifeless in my arms, I knew that my philosophy was my emotional foundation, and it was working.

I have needed this foundation many times since -- the loss of jobs (TV news is brutal), the loss of marriages, missteps in relationships, and the loss of my left lung in 2009. 

Life is a rotating circle of yin and yang. There are many good times, but even in the best of times, one thing is certain; the circle turns, and bad times will come. You may be at the top of your game at the moment, making good money and in a good relationship, as I was in 2008. I was Director of Media Relations at the University of South Florida, a very stressful position that I loved. Within a week, in April of that year, I lost my job and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. This led to three operations that resulted in the loss of my left lung (a rare side effect of laser ablation combined with malpractice by a pulmonologist who failed to recognize it).

During this time, I created my membership website on the internal arts. I hit a personal creative streak at a time when I should have been really bummed out.

At the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009, near death after my lung had shut down and my heart had been accidentally pierced.
I was lying in the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009 after nearly dying when they tried to stent a pulmonary vein and accidentally pierced my heart. I was on a breathing tube, a chest tube also coming out of a hole in my chest to drain the fluid from around my heart, and attempting to drown every half hour or less as blood filled my lungs. I dropped from a muscular 206 pounds before being sick to 156 as I lay in the hospital bed in Cleveland. I had one good lung left but the diaphragm on that lung was paralyzed. I essentially was living with a quarter of my breathing capacity. 

Doctors didn't think I would make it. But I was lying there, visualizing a tournament six months later that I wanted to compete in. I never was afraid of dying. I did NOT want to go so soon and leave Nancy, my daughters, and my grandchildren, but I was not afraid. I knew that death might be coming, but instead of thinking about that, I focused on the tournament that was six months away.

At that tournament in May, 2010, I won a first place trophy doing the Chen Tai Chi 38 form. My breathing was still horrible -- my diaphragm paralyzed -- but I had to do it for myself. I had already resumed teaching, despite struggling to breathe. Over the last few years, my diaphragm was paralyzed for two of those years, but suddenly, as I pushed it with internal arts practice, it began sparking back to life.

Yesterday (as I write this), I went for a major visit with my pulmonologist after taking a chest xray, blood work and a breathing test within the past couple of weeks. He gave me the news I had suspected as I have seen my ability to practice increase. My numbers have come back up, and the diaphragm is now almost completely back to life. I'll never get my left lung back, but at least my right lung is working well. There is a little bit of capacity that I could still regain in the diaphragm, and I believe it will happen.

Sometimes, your philosophy works when you are not even thinking about it. Last night, because I've spent so much time recently working on Internal Strength for the new Kindle ebook, I thought a lot about it. When you have Internal Strength, it doesn't mean you are superhuman. You still can be battered around by life and by people. You can be sad, you can be angry, you can be hurt. But if your internal movements can be trained to function like "iron wrapped in cotton," your goal should also be for your mind to function that way as well.

If your philosophy is not doing that for you, perhaps it is time to explore others. Because no matter what you believe, the Way still runs through darkness and shadow as well as through the light -- through bitter cold as well as comforting warmth. Your philosophy should provide the foundation that allows you to walk on.

The Controversy of Falun Gong and its Repression in China

In recent years, it is said that the Chinese government represses members of the Falun Gong cult

Some people like to claim that the Falun Gong has something to do with tai chi.

Sima Nan is an investigator who tried for years to find a real chi master in China. As an investigative reporter, he was beaten severely by the followers of some masters who turned out to be frauds. In fact, Sima Nan (who is Chinese) never found a real chi master.

Hmmmm, so what does that tell you? 

When I first heard about how horribly the Chinese government was treating the Falun Gong followers, I did some research. The Falun Gong believe there is an eye in the sky and if you meditate long enough, you can see anything that happens around the world.

Okee dokee, then. As Woody Allen said, "Excuse me, but I'm needed back on the planet Earth."

Here is an interview with Sima Nan about the Falun Gong. It sheds a little light about the founder. There are reports that hundreds of Falun Gong believers have died as a result of government action. That, of course, would be very unfortunate. But our own government was investigating the Jim Jones cult when that tragedy happened, and a congressman was shot to death at Jonestown when the mass suicide happened. Should the "spiritual" beliefs of people be subject to investigation, or should they be left alone to be taken advantage of by folks like Jim Jones and the founder of the Falun Gong? 

It's an interesting controversy, but it has nothing to do with tai chi or chi kung. The Falun Gong is a cult. 

Can a Christian Study Tai Chi?

A lot of misinformation has spread about Tai Chi. The art is a very effective way to ease stress, improve health, and develop self-defense skills. So why am I asked so often if Christians can study Tai Chi?

I need to let you know that I grew up in Southern, conservative, fundamentalist Christian churches. I was baptized.

I can also tell you very clearly that there is nothing religious about Tai Chi or any other martial art, including boxing, wrestling, fencing, karate, or taekwondo.

Americans are not always well-informed about other cultures, and sometimes they jump to conclusions about things they don't understand. My daughter had a yin-yang sticker on her notebook in junior high school, and a couple of girls accused her of being Satanic.

My daughter, a very sweet girl, learned a lot during that time about how ignorant and narrow-minded some people can be. Often, however, these people are reflecting what they've heard elsewhere.

Naturally, not all Christians are this way -- I've been a member of Methodist churches as an adult that were very tolerant of other views.

There is nothing Satanic about the yin/yang symbol and absolutely nothing religious about Tai Chi. You can believe anything you want from a spiritual perspective and still enjoy Tai Chi.

Let's look at it from different perspectives. Tai Chi is a martial art. As far as I know there is nothing in Christianity that prohibits the use of self-defense if you are attacked? I don't remember being taught anything like that in Sunday School. There was a lot of fighting in the Old Testament, as I recall. David was pretty good with weapons. He had to be, to slay Goliath.

Another tremendous benefit of Tai Chi is the relaxation that comes from using it as moving meditation. Is there something in Christianity that forbids its members from relaxing and calming themselves? Perhaps some of the zealous ones believe instead of calming the mind you should turn it all over to Jesus. If that works for you that's fine. But there is nothing religious about relaxing, calming, meditating.

Let's look at chi kung -- you don't stand there thinking of Satan or Jesus. You think of your breathing, energy visualization, and calming the mind and body. It's very restful and replenishes your system just like taking a nap. There is nothing religious about taking a nap.

Some people -- when meditating -- try to feel a connection between themselves and the universe. But this is not in conflict with Christianity, either. If God created the universe, why would you NOT want to be One with it?

There is nothing religious about that but I suppose if you need to, you could assume that you are becoming One with God.

After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, I was at a very intelligent fundamentalist Christian's home (a relative of mine) watching the news. The anchor was interviewing a rabbi and a priest. During the interview the priest indicated that he and the rabbi would eventually meet again when they died -- in heaven. I turned to my Christian relative and said, "Jews don't really believe in heaven, do they?"

This very intelligent Christian replied, "I don't know what they believe and I don't want to know."

I was stunned at the willing lack of understanding -- the conscious dismissal of knowledge that would shed light on a different belief. I believe knowledge is understanding, and drove away from his house that day very disappointed, realizing that he was not as intelligent as I previously thought.

This article was triggered by something I saw online recently -- Christian Tai Chi. The site was designed by a man who -- for some unknown reason -- believed that he couldn't follow Jesus and study Tai Chi at the same time. So instead of giving it up, he modified it to reflect Christianity.

I found this attitude to be quite extremist. Would this person feel that bowling has to be modified to reflect his religion? How about baseball or basketball? A martial art is no different from any sport -- coming from another country does not make it different. It requires practice to develop physical skills just like any other sport.

A week or so ago, I received yet another email from someone asking if Tai Chi was compatible with his Christian beliefs. I decided to write this article after seeing the Christian Tai Chi ad and receiving the email so closely together.

Tai Chi was developed in a nation that is predominantly Taoist and Buddhist. Karate was developed in a non-Christian nation. Taekwondo was developed in a non-Christian nation. So was Krav Maga (Jewish). The fact that it was developed in a non-Christian nation does not make it non-Christian. Fireworks were created in China. I don't know of anyone who attends a Fourth of July celebration that avoids watching fireworks because they are anti-Christian, do you?

I've studied Taekwondo and never heard anything religious mentioned. I know a lot of Christians who are deep into karate and it doesn't seem to be an issue at all. They're fine folks and I consider them among my favorite people in the world.

I've been in hundreds of Tai Chi classes as a student and I've taught hundreds of classes and nothing religious has ever been discussed. Only relaxing, calming, and body mechanics to help you develop powerful martial arts.

In fact, the centering aspects of tai chi can help you remain calm in any crisis. Instead of reacting to tension with anger, you can relax and think things through more rationally. I've used this in potentially violent situations and was able to "turn the other cheek" to avoid violence.

The bottom line is simple -- the next time someone wonders if studying Tai Chi will violate their religious principles, tell them to stop being silly and open their minds to knowledge from other parts of the world. It might just improve their lives.