Om mani padme humdrum.
Let’s get something out the way: I did not like the Netflix Iron Fist show. I’m not interested in bashing it or any of its creators—I just didn’t personally like it (and, yes, I have read the comics).
I’m also not, at least not in this article, going to discuss the cultural politics surrounding the show or the Iron Fist comics character in general even though I do have plenty to say about it. (Space limitations and all that.)
In this article I’ll simply be using Iron Fist as a timely excuse to talk about what chi is—and what it isn’t—since so much of the character’s mythology is wrapped around chi, the martial arts and Asian mysticism. The Iron Fist mythology, entertaining as it is, often gets people interested in chi and wondering if they too can cultivate and channel it in some way. While this article doesn’t purport to offer the definitive word on chi, it will attempt to suggest one pragmatic way of approaching the topic for the average person.
But to do this I have to start with a short personal story.
A portrait of the artist as a gullible seeker
I’m a 2nd generation Korean American but at one point I lived in South Korea for fourteen years. There were many reasons for this but I’ll skip them all except the one that’s most relevant here. It involved a certain very stereotypical reason for a Westerner to go the “Far East”: to try to become enlightened (*snort*).
Now, years later, I try to do what I can to hepl dismantle the cultural baggage and misconceptions surrounding loaded terms like “spiritual enlightenment.” But in my 20s the idea of pursuing it seemed like a more straightforward affair.
After years of going to Buddhist temples, talking to monks and being generally dissatisfied with their canned answers and attempts to “recruit” me, on one hand, and my own confused and sloppy attempts to meditate on the other, I finally came upon—quite by accident, in fact—two people who seemed like potential guru candidates. To avoid confusion, since I won’t use any real names, I will call one Real Master and the other, Fake Master.
To be fair to Fake Master, he sold himself more as a martial arts expert (which he genuinely was) than a spiritual teacher per se. But in conversations he displayed an impressive range of knowledge about Asian religious traditions and even about the occult, an area I once had a strong interest in (which I’ve since renounced, thanks to the influence of Real Master). And he seemed keen on showing off his knowledge.
Fake Master really talked a good talk. And even in retrospect I acknowledge that he was both a very skilled martial artist and a highly intelligent armchair scholar. But the man had serious issues. And once I started seeing these issues on display, the realization hit home that all his talk about spiritual, mystical stuff was just that—talk. It was partly factual, partly speculative knowledge gleaned by a sharp mind from a lifetime of reading, but that’s all it was. And this is the first lesson that any student of the Asian religious and/or philosophical traditions must learn: that there’s a world of a difference between knowledge gained through books and wisdom that is transmitted personally from teacher to student—wisdom that is lived, practiced (the same way you’d practice a free throw), and even enforced, if necessary, by a good whacking of the stick.
Still, I will always be grateful to Fake Master in a way because if not for him I would not have met Real Master. Real Master was not a teacher in any of the Buddhist traditions as I had initially hoped to meet. He was a master of philosophical Taoism (as opposed to religious Taoism, for there are big differences). At first I was kind of disappointed that I wouldn’t be studying under a Buddhist master, but Taoism, with its ruthless pragmatism, was precisely the philosophy I’d need to endure the challenges that I would eventually face and still face to this day, not always as perfectly as I’d like but if not for Real Master I’m certain I wouldn’t have lasted this long with my sanity intact—er, mostly.
I ended up learning from Real Master for about ten years and still occasionally do through emails. Even after ten years I’m still just a true beginner who’s only barely scratched the surface of what I’d like to learn. I can, however, talk with some degree of confidence about chi, at least from the philosophical Taoist perspective.
Everything you wanted to know about chi (but were afraid to ask)
So, young grasshopper, do you seek to harness the power of chi? Then here is my advice:
Forget everything you have heard or read about chi.
Sound harsh? Sorry, philosophical Taoism can be kind of irreverent at times. What I mean is to forget about chi as it’s commonly portrayed by the media, not just in fiction like the Iron Fist comics and show but even in a lot of magazines, blogs and sometimes by teachers of certain traditions who speak of chi as if it were some kind of magical force which will allow you to do amazing things. That kind of chi isn’t real.
Now, there are actually ways in which chi can in fact be argued to be “real,” but real in ways that can be explained in non-magical ways. But the kinds of articles you sometimes see in popular media rarely go into these complexities. Then of course the skeptics out there understandably, and rightfully, react by saying chi isn’t real. Well, it’s not necessarily so black-and-white. My own preferred approach is to bypass the whole argument of whether chi is ontologically real or not, and to simply say that for most average people, spending too much time thinking about chi and all the amazing things it would allow you to do (everything from having multiple male orgasms to stopping the aging process), and wondering what exotic methods you can use to channel it, wouldn’t be the best use of your time.
I also want to clarify that I’m addressing the average person here, not the specialist. If you’re someone who’s a serious, long-term student of a tradition in which chi is an important concept—traditional Chinese medicine or qigong, for instance—then perhaps you’ll study layered meanings of the word “chi” in all kinds of ways that average people would not have occasion to. Understand that I’m not here to try to “debunk” your field of work but merely trying to dispel certain common misperceptions and to offer an interpretation of chi that, for average people, could be a more practical way of approaching the subject.
Remember Fake Master? He talked about chi too. He too talked about it as if it were some kind of magical force that, despite being invisible, pervaded reality. He even claimed that in a world in which basic resources like clean water, food and air were to become scarce, we could still survive by cultivating our chi. And he claimed he would show me how to do it. I waited. He never did show me.
I later asked Real Master about Fake Master’s claim of being able to survive on chi in a polluted environment. Real Master’s response was basically: hell, no, you need clean air.
And that, my friends, is one of the marks of a spiritual teacher who is grounded—someone who never abandons science and plain common sense regardless of what other ideas he may happen to teach.
How to really “gather your chi” like Iron Fist
Now I’ll talk about a way to interpret the word “chi” that I find to be the most pragmatic (for me, anyway). Just one caveat: what follows is unavoidably going to be a grossly simplified summary of what I’ve learned. I’m going to try my best to summarize—and I’m pouring all my “chi” into the attempt—but it’s possible I will fail, just as the Netflix Danny Rand repeatedly (and almost laughably) fails to channel his chi.
So what is chi?
- Chi can be understood as the level of efficiency in the flow from stimulus, to analysis, to decision, and finally into response/action.
- Conversely, chi can be understood as minimal internal friction in the flow of stimulus, to analysis, to decision, to response/action.
Some quick definitions:
Stimulus: Literally anything you perceive through sensory perception: sight, sound, smell, taste, physical feeling, and thought.
Analysis: The way you consider and decide, at the subtlest level of thought, how to respond to the stimulus. Most often it’s an extremely subtle and unconscious process. The first step in the chain of analysis is a thought. Given that the initial stimulus itself could have been a thought, the stimuli is analyzed with further thoughts which in turn become stimuli in themselves, which in turn trigger simultaneous feelings that also become stimuli, all of which can then become an overwhelming jumble of thought-feeling stimuli which can create “kinks” in the flow of psychophysiological processes.
Response/Action: Your inward and outward response to the stimulus which sometimes takes the form of physical action and sometimes doesn’t. You won’t always have outward responses. But you will always have inward responses, however subtle.
Internal friction: (I’ll explain this in a second.)
stimuli → analysis → response/action
This entire process occurs countless times in countless ways at both the micro and macro level for each person every single day. It can take anywhere from maybe a minute (as when I’m looking at a selection of ice cream and trying to choose a flavor) to a split second (as when an aggressive stranger confronts me on the street and I need to choose how to react). Likewise the level of feeling and emotion involved can range from miniscule (choose ice cream) to extremely intense (respond to aggressive stranger).
The range of experiences this process encompasses is just about infinite. And for most people most of the time, the process is unconscious and invisible. But with a practice of concentrated self-observation, it’s possible to see this process occurring right down to the subtlest levels. It’s like using a microscope to examine cells, only instead of a microscope you’re using refined concentration, and instead of cells you’re observing the flow of mind-body processes.
One of the most salient things you eventually start to see when you do this over a sustained period is how conflicted thoughts and feelings—what I’m calling internal friction—occur at virtually every level with just about every bit of sensory stimuli that you could experience on a given day. Another thing you start to see is how profoundly exhausting this can add up to be, especially over time, even for one who is physically robust, and all the more so for one who is not. A more subtle thing you start to see with further practice is how this everpresent internal friction undermines the optimal efficacy of your actions, of how you interact with the outer world, and of how you respond to events ranging from the most negligible event to the most disrupting trauma. And all in barely perceptible ways.
So when it is said that chi is “energy,” in a way this is correct. But it isn’t magical energy or even physical energy per se. Chi is (1) efficiency in the process of perceiving, analyzing, and responding to stimuli, and (2) efficiency in the metabolism, flow and usage of mental and physical resources in that response. It is a psychophysiological process.
When you have a “lot of chi,” the stimuli of the outside world is less draining and your responses to that stimuli are also more dynamic and effective. For an advanced practitioner or genuine master, psychophysiological processes occur with enough efficiency such that she might really be able to do some pretty amazing things. But it isn’t magical. It’s simply how the mind and physical body work in all their immense, magnificent, interwoven complexity.
“Chi” is therefore just a useful semantic shortcut, a metaphor, to refer to all of the above without having to say the whole thing each time. And if all this is very confusing that’s because I’m trying to compress what is best explained over the course of hours in several short minutes. (Sorry, trying my best.)
So if you are one who has done certain practices intended to cultivate chi, and it feels like you have more energy, that’s because you do. But it’s because of the reasons I’ve suggested, not because of magic. Or maybe one of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “three laws” would be appropriate here: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Though the “technology” we’re speaking of here is inner technology that’s so sophisticated and complex that it may very well have seemed like magic to early humans. There is much wisdom to be found in ancient texts, but we have to be able to translate the language in ways beyond just linguistic.
Why, then, for those who have faithfully done chi exercises, do those exercises seem to work? Well, they do work. But it is because these practices by default tend to require intense concentration repeatedly over a sustained period, which gradually leads to changes in brain chemistry and structure, which in turn then translates into physiological improvements. Not surprisingly, it’s the same reasons that scientists have observed experienced meditators as having a variety of physiological benefits. 1
Virtually any genuine meditative practice that involves intensely focused concentration can therefore boost your “chi.” In fact, this is sometimes achieved unintentionally in limited, specific life areas by people who might have no interest in meditation or chi but who practice something consistently for a very long time, as in the case of an elite athlete. In My Life and the Beautiful Game, the great Brazilian soccer player Pelé wrote:
“I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their teams or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt.”
Sound like chi? It is.
So what’s the difference between an elite athlete and the Taoist who wishes to consciously cultivate “chi”? The difference is that the Taoist is trying to have the “chi” spill over into every life area, including and especially everyday interactions with other human beings. It doesn’t mean that “chi” will enable him to automatically become good at everything without practice. It means that in the process of trying to learn a skill there will be less internal friction, which often translates into better learning.
Herein lies one of the many problems with the Netflix version of Iron Fist. Despite showing Danny in supposedly deep meditation again and again with annoying repetitiveness—not to mention having him mindlessly utter pseudo-Buddhist aphorisms without acting on them—this version of Iron Fist shows a shockingly high degree of internal friction and low efficiency in all his interactions with the world, be it in the form of physical combat or simply making better decisions. And with all that meditating! What’s he even doing during these meditations, thinking about what to order the next time he’s at Starbucks? I mean, I understand the challenge that the show’s writers faced in trying to portray a flawed, relatable hero who at the same time is supposed to be one worthy of the Iron Fist. But they didn’t just make him flawed and relatable; they made him a hypocritical dufus.
To this one of my heroes, Bruce Lee, himself deeply influenced by philosophical Taoism, might have said to Danny, “Young man, stop wasting time meditating. It’s not doing you any good. Get some therapy or take an anger management class instead.”
“It hits all by itself”: the Bruce Lee model of dynamic chi in motion
Just as with exercising your muscles, with a consistent meditative practice one’s baseline efficiency (or baseline “chi”) can improve, but just as with muscles if you stop working out it eventually fades (something I’ve been guilty of in recent years for various reasons). But also as with muscles, you can temporarily “pump up” your chi with a burst of focused, intense concentration. To bring this back to Iron Fist, this is what is being symbolized when Danny gathers his chi into his fist. And the chi punch itself is symbolic of extraordinarily focused, optimal action unencumbered by internal friction, which then in turn allows the normal physical processes of the body to operate with heightened efficiency. Never mind that the Netflix Iron Fist seemed to suck at everything he did; the comic book Iron Fist is at least able to do this well in the area of physical combat.
But Iron Fist the character was inspired by a very real person who was able to do this in a real-life way: Bruce Lee.
When I study the life and art of Lee I see someone with “strong chi.” However, quite appropriately, at least to my knowledge, Bruce Lee almost never wrote or talked about chi (neither did the historical Buddha, despite the association of chi with Shaolin Buddhist monks). According to one anecdotal account, Bruce didn’t even believe in chi, and if we’re talking about the magical kind of chi then I don’t believe in it either.
Lee’s “chi”—perhaps most famously demonstrated in his one inch punch—can instead be fully explained by biomechanics, and even more fundamentally than biomechanics, by neuroscience. It comes as no surprise then, that one of the areas of the brain that, based on current neuroscience, was probably highly developed in Lee is one of the same areas that are highly developed in advanced meditators. 2 3 4
In Enter the Dragon there’s a great quote by by Bruce Lee (via his character):
“A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” [emphasis mine]
This is, in more ways than I can go into, a profoundly Taoist quote. At the heart of the expression “it hits all by itself” is the very kind of heightened efficiency, with minimal internal friction, in the flow and usage of mental/physical energy from stimulus to response/action that I’ve been talking about. When there is little or no internal friction in an action, it’s almost like you’re not even the one doing it. The usual “you” is constantly infused with doubt, complexes and inner conflict so when these are temporarily lifted it’s no wonder that it doesn’t feel like “you.”
Have you ever talked to a master artist talk about what it’s like when he’s in the state of flow? You might hear him say things like, “The song wrote itself” or “The painting painted itself.” It’s basically the same principle.
“Hack away at the unessential”: the lazy person’s guide to raising chi
There’s another, easier way to “increase chi,” at least in terms of the kind of chi that I’ve been talking about, and it involves no meditation whatsoever (‘cause ain’t nobody got time for that).
Bruce Lee said, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance,” and he also said, “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” I suspect he wasn’t just talking about outward style and technique. He wasn’t even just talking about the martial arts. He was also talking about one’s inner experience and the internal organization of information and mental processes.
Sensory and stimuli overload is increasingly coming to be one of the defining experiential conditions of our time. The causes and perpetuation of it are understandable, but unfortunately it can also be incredibly draining on your “chi.”
Think about it: if certain stimuli cause a lot of internal friction (e.g. your boss yelling at you), and your mind/body are already busy trying to efficiently process that stimuli, then adding more and more of other kinds of stimuli will put a further strain on your system. Can you remember a time, perhaps, when a stranger on Facebook said something to you that was trivial but you almost went apes**t on him anyway? And later you looked back and marveled at how you could have ever gotten so emotional given how trivial an incident it was? That’s an example of your threshold for uncomfortable stimuli being surpassed. And it’s one reason, among others, why we sometimes overreact to things way, way out of proportion. And, yes, such incidents will drain your “chi.”
One way to therefore boost “chi” without conscious cultivation is by simply monitoring and filtering out certain kinds of stimuli that aren’t directly contributing to your most important goals at the moment. Or as Gold Five from Star Wars put it, “Stay on target.”
To summarize, young grasshopper, there are two basic ways to gather your chi, feasible for the average person, that I’ve discussed in this article according to my definition of “chi”:
- Periodically turn off or avoid draining stimuli if/when it’s in your control. This could be anything, but a good example is your smartphone. I’m not saying you should get rid of it (though I did). I’m just saying you can sometimes turn it off or put it away. You might find that it makes a significant difference on your brain, mood and well-being—i.e. your chi.
- Learn to either ignore or to better process uncomfortable stimuli when it’s beyond your control. Unlike with simply avoiding or turning things off, sometimes there are certain stimuli you just can’t control or avoid. Normally, this can be tremendously draining on your chi, but you can learn to not let it be quite as draining. Unlike the method above, however, this one isn’t really a “lazy” method as it does take practice but it is very much possible to raise your threshold for uncomfortable stimuli. You will still have your limits, but they will be improved from before.
When done in conjunction, the above two methods greatly simplify your inner experience which in turn boosts your “chi.” When such inner simplicity is further combined with an effective use of outer simplicity—whether in the martial arts, the creative arts, human relationships or anything else—you just might be able to come up with your very own version of Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch.
At that point, of course, the question would then have to be asked: what will you now do with your “one-inch punch?”
I couldn’t answer that question for you. Instead, I’ll just close with a Buddhist prayer altered Pop Mythologist-style, with a touch of Taoist irreverence:
May all beings be awesome.
May all beings be free.
May no beings be d**kheads (unless they are being D**kheads in which case they should go ahead and be D**kheads).
May all beings be given the fair opportunity to realize their awesomeness. (Even though no one will ever be as awesome as Bruce Lee.)
- Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B-H, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, Fricchione GL, et al. (2013) Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0062817
- R.E. Roberts, P.G. Bain, B.L. Day, M. Husain; Individual Differences in Expert Motor Coordination Associated with White Matter Microstructure in the Cerebellum. Cereb Cortex 2013; 23 (10): 2282-2292. https://doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs219
- Laneri D, Schuster V, Dietsche B, Jansen A, Ott U, Sommer J. Effects of Long-Term Mindfulness Meditation on Brain’s White Matter Microstructure and its Aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2015;7:254. https://doi:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00254
- Posner MI, Tang Y-Y, Lynch G. Mechanisms of white matter change induced by meditation training. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:1220. https://doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01220.