However one conceives the Taoist concept of chi, there is general agreement about what it does: Chi animates matter, infusing it with life. As a result, it is often described as the "life force." It not only permeates the empty spaces between material objects in Taoism, it is part of their composition.
In people and animals, for example, chi is responsible for the functioning of the organs, including the cardio-respiratory system. This life force circulates throughout the body with the blood so that it can provide its own particular form of nutrition to the myriad cells.
Every living organism has some way to assimilate chi. Human beings, animals, and plants alike ingest chi along with the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.
Once inside, chi moves to various locations and begins to perform its many functions. The most common of these functions are generally related to the proper functioning and continued operation of the body or plant.
There are hints here and there in our culture that we in the Western world once did recognize the mysterious life force of Taoism called chi. Have you ever wondered, for example, why a mother kisses her child's wound to try and make it better? It's remarkable that after her kiss, the pain does often vanish.
Psychologists may tell you this phenomenon has nothing to do with the kiss itself. Its effectiveness, they say, is a result of the suggestion placed in the child's mind: The pain disappears as a result of a type of hypnosis induced by the mother.
But anyone who understands the Taoist concept of chi will say that the mother passed some of her life force into the child's damaged tissue. The life force not only repairs the wound, it also serves as an anesthetic.
Another example can be found in many of the devotional paintings created by our finest artists. In these works, you can often find a halo surrounding the heads of Christ, the Madonna, the disciples, visiting angels, cherubs, and many other members of the heavenly host.
Some believe this aura to be simply a fanciful symbol created by the artist for effect. Others, however, believe they can actually see these emanations radiating from holy people and others who have cultivated the chi to a high degree.
Some gifted artists, who were especially sensitive to color and light, may have taken their inspiration for the idea of halos directly from a particularly radiant person.
Experiencing Chi: An Experiment
Most people are understandably skeptical about this energy called chi until they actually experience it for themselves. After all, in the West we have been well trained to deny even the possibility of such phenomena. While some people will never be able to sense the chi, many others do -- some on their first encounter with it.
Try this experiment with a partner, such as your child, spouse, or friend, to see if you are able to feel the chi. Both of you should either sit or stand approximately two arms-length away from each other.
Ask your partner to close his eyes and take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders and back muscles as completely as possible. Try to imagine an energy rising from the ground into your body.
When you think you can almost sense this imaginary force, ask your partner to extend an arm toward you until it is level with the floor. The palm of the hand should be facing downward.
Slowly raise your own arms and extend your fingers until they are within a few inches of your partner's outstretched hand. Using your mind, direct the imaginary energy -- what we call the chi. Move it further up through your body until it passes along your arms and out from your fingertips.
It's helpful to imagine a current of energy passing from your body into your partner's. Whether you think this is an imaginary force or not, some people feel the chi right away, even with their eyes closed.
More powerful demonstrations of the application the Taoist concept of chi can be found in Chinese medical centers, where acupuncture techniques are used on patients ready to undergo surgery. The acupuncture is used to stimulate the chi, which then induces anesthesia. Using these techniques, patients regularly undergo major operations without drugs.
Delve deeper into the Taoist concept of chi and learn about its influence on the next page.