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Hypnosis and Ch'i

by Philip H. Farber

Originally published in The Journal of Hypnotism.

The study of meditation often crosses over into the belief systems of the cultures in which the meditative forms originated. Very often these beliefs are unfamiliar, conflicting, and perhaps not very useful for modern practitioners in Western societies. Examples of these might be devotion to various deities or acceptance of particular creation myths. However, there is one concept that remains a constant across so many different forms of meditation, martial arts, and healing practices that it deserves some examination, not perhaps in terms of truth, but in terms of usefulness. That belief is the idea of a life force energy, called chi in Chinese systems, ki in Japanese systems, prana in Indian systems, and various other names in other practices.

There are those who take ch'i to mean a kind of cosmic energy that pervades everything. Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics, relates ch'i to the quantum field, describing both as "a tenuous and non-perceptible form of matter." The Eastern sources, however, are almost bewildering in the diversity of definitions applied to ch'i. Ch'i is the life force energy, but it is also inner energy, intrinsic energy, and, most provocatively from the point of view of a hypnotist, focus of attention.

Ch'i is something that is presently undetectable by Western scientific methods (or, at least, generally accepted Western scientific methods) and is often relegated to the category of pseudoscience or superstition otherwise reserved for such antique concepts as ether and psychic vibrations. Oddly enough, though, we do have some concepts very much like ch'i that are generally accepted, at least on a conversational level, if not on a mainstream scientific level. We usually accept the idea that "willpower" or "will to live" can make the difference between success and failure, survival and death in many situations. We often accept that some people can influence others simply "by force of will", "power of belief", or "energy level." (I.e. "His level of energy is so high that he inspires everyone around him!")

Whatever you presently believe about ch'i, the really exciting part of this is that the power of harnessing ch'i is demonstrable. In many Aikido schools the phenomenon of the "unbendable arm" is practiced (along with numerous other similar tests of ki). To really understand how this works, you'll need to visit an Aikido school and have someone demonstrate, but, very simply this is a test of the strength of the elbow joint of one arm while its owner is in various states of concentration and muscular tension. The arm is extended and placed on the shoulder of the tester, allowing for a slight curve in the arm. The fingers are extended. The tester then places both hands above the elbow of the arm and puts weight on the arm, attempting to bend it. Aikido students quickly discover that a simply relaxed arm, or an arm with muscles tensed to resist the test, are not nearly as strong and unbendable as when the testee breathes, relaxes, and imagines energy flowing through the arm, out the fingertips, and beyond arm and hand. Is there really energy flowing through the arm? It doesn't really matter - the experiment works time and time again.

I think there is a very simple way to understand ch'i that is both appealing and useful to the hypnotist. In this model, ch'i is the energy of consciousness itself. It is the "focus of attention" and all that includes - the pictures that people create and look at both internally and externally, the sounds and voices they listen to internally and externally, the feelings they are aware of both internally and externally, and the tastes and smells they can either experience or imagine. Is this starting to sound a little more familiar and down-to-earth?

As hypnotists, this is the stuff we deal with on a daily basis. Our clients come in, sit down in the trance chair and start to tell us about how they organize their consciousness. If you pay attention, you quickly learn that they sort images (and sounds and feelings) in space around them and inside them. While they (and you) may not characterize these images as such, they pretty closely match the various phenomena ascribed to ch'i. That is, if a person's attention is fixed in one area of their body, they will manifest symptoms, abilities, weaknesses, and strengths directly related to how they are visualizing that body part. If a person's attention is fixed outside the body, and spread out over a number of different visualizations, they will, as you might expect, act scattered, "spaced out," or "uncentered." If they are strongly focused on a particular activity or subject, they will tend to have strong abilities (or weakness) in that activity, depending on how and what their visualization includes.

The Eastern systems of meditation and martial arts have extremely refined methods for focusing ch'i - that is, for directing attention in useful ways. While much of this has not been verified (or even tested, for that matter) by Western science, it has been practiced and studied in the East for thousands of years. In Yoga, for instance, the chakras mark areas of the body in which energy (prana) can be concentrated by meditation, with specific effects derived by that practice. If you focus and maintain your attention, for instance, in the heart chakra, you will develop abilities, experiences, and states of consciousness that are consistent with other people who similarly concentrate their attention. In Chinese systems, the meridians also mark flows and localizations of ch'i in the body. If an acupuncturist's needle draws consciousness to a particular point on a meridian, consistent effects will be produced.

Aikidoists practice bringing the energy and attention to the body's center of gravity, called the hara, a spot inside the body about an inch or two below the navel. The hara becomes the center of a sphere that surrounds the body. Many of the movements are designed to draw your opponent out of their own sphere and into the influence of yours. Whether or not the "energy" of ch'i really exists in a tangible or currently measurable way, aikido practitioners quickly learn that the martial techniques are dramatically more effective when such concentration is applied.

It might be an enjoyable exercise to add a ch'i practice of some sort to your own meditation. First note where you habitually place your attention. Is it concentrated in one area or areas? Is it all over the place? Does it form a particular shape? Is it more in some parts of your body than others? Once you've mapped where you usually keep your ch'i, you can experiment by surrounding yourself with imaginary geometric figures - cubes, spheres, pyramids - and let your awareness, the aura of your perception and attention, take those shapes. Do you experience different subjective feelings? Do you have different kinds of thoughts while using different shapes? Are some shapes easier for your to practice with than others? Do factors like symmetry and balance play a part in how the shapes feel?

Again, this is a huge subject that will likely merit more exploration here in the future. I hope that this little bit, here and now, will be suggestive of ways in which this concept can be applied to the many and varied things that you do.


© copyright 2004 Philip H. Farber. All rights reserved.