06 September 2007


I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life. Death hath no part in me, yet do I allot it, wherefore I am girt about with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that flows in the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind. I sustain the breath of all living. I breathe in the verdure and in the flowers, and when the waters flows like living things, it is I. I found those columns which support the whole earth . . . I am the force which lies hid in the winds, from me they take their source, and as a man may move because he breathes, so does a fire burn but by my blast. All these live because I am in them and am of their life. I am wisdom. Mine is the blast of the thundered word by which all things were made. I permeate all things that may not die. I am life.

-Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century

My reflections this week are elemental. Not only am I engaged in some private research on the elements, but I am also beginning a course acupuncture treatments for chronic sinusitis, an illness which has plagued my whole life. I found it thrilling, therefore, to find in twelfth-century visionary artist Hildegard von Bingen's writings the epigraph above on the nature of lifeforce.

Our bodies are living organisms with communities of organs working in collaboration and with a network of neurons deciding on courses of action. Our nerves are like the invisible wires that cause mechanical devices like computers to switch on or switch off in a pattern of ones and zeros. If this metaphor holds, then it also stands to reason that sometimes a body's wiring or mechanisms may not function correctly, or might encounter a problem creating an infinite feedback loop. Clearly my immune system has been running poorly and is currently experiencing a breakdown.

Western medical science can perform great miracles. I don't doubt that it is a valid path of restoring health. I do find, however, that after some 34 years of attempting standard Western medical practices: drugs, injections, inhalers, etc., I need a breath of fresh air and a different point-of-view to help solve my systemic problem. It's not just the headaches I often feel, ranging from mild to migraine. It's not just the sore throat, coughing, wheezing and general feeling of listlessness that comes with each infection. It's the constant rash of dry, crackling skin; the insane amount of water I need to drink to prevent dry-mouth; and the pressure on my brain. Sometimes it's also the millisecond of fright that arrives in the morning, wondering if I'll be able to take that first breath of the day through my nose or mouth -- or at all.

That's where the Chinese concept of Qi comes in. Qi, life energy, is a concept that I have known about since I wandered about studying Eastern philosophies during college.

A definition of Qi from Wikipedia.com

Qi, also commonly spelled ch'i (in Wade-Giles romanization) or ki (in romanized Japanese), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of “life force” or “spiritual energy.” It is frequently translated as “energy flow,” or literally as “air” or “breath.” (For example, tiānqì, literally “sky breath”, is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different

I now realize that Qi is the same word I've heard people pronounce like /chee/. Some even use a westernized spelling of it: Chi, as in Tai Chi Chuan, a martial art I practiced for a while during graduate school. Personally, I think of Qi as lifeforce, the energy that binds our bodies together and helps them to breathe and move. It's also the energy that makes us aware of ourselves and of our surroundings. It is that which creates our sentience.

Lifeforce is not unknown to the West as Hildegard's poetic writing proves. Many religions hinge around a concept of a life-force or an energy surrounding all things. It is a concept familiar to anyone who knows about the Shinto beliefs in Japan or to the cosmology of Native American peoples. And even if you aren't particularly spiritual you've probably heard of The Force. ("Use The Force, Luke.")

There must be something within my body's energy or lifeforce that is not working as it should. Why should I labor under a near constant state of illness, no matter how slight? It's been so long since I've sought any medical treatment for my sinusitis, and since I last received care for it, the world has changed. Insurance companies now accept the probability that cases like mine can be treated with acupuncture. And that is where I arrive at the Qi concept. I know someone who found great relief from sinus trouble through acupuncture. Other friends of mine have had even more serious illnesses like Crohn's disease treated successful by Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

At last I have found the right combination of willingness to try something new in the hopes of relief from my non-debilitating, yet irritating condition and of ability to afford said treatment. I found my courage and went to my first acupuncture appointment last Thursday.

The first thing I realized was that it was more like going to a massage therapist appointment than like a doctor's office visit. I didn't have to undress and wear a tiny sheet. I didn't feel cold. The room was not lit by harsh fluorescent lighting, but rather dimmed, warm light. There was gentle music playing in the background. My acupuncturist was calm and professional as any medical practitioner might be, but with that hint of empathy you don't often receive from a medical doctor. She feels my case is treatable, but she will need to see me frequently at first to get my wiring to recalibrate itself. The needles, don't hurt, by the way. You hardly feel them at all. In comparison to the years of desensitization injections and antibiotic injections I received as a child, they are a walk in the park. I know well that I will have to wait and see if acupuncture can offer me some relief, but I long for my body to be in harmony with itself.

If you are curious to know more about the relationship of the Chinese concept of Qi to medical health you might want to read an online article on acupuncture and qi or the following paragraph from Wikipedia's article:

Qi in traditional Chinese medicine
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called
meridians in English. Symptoms of various illnesses are often believed to be the product of disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi movement (interrupted flow) through the body's meridians, as well as deficiencies or imbalances of qi (homeostatic imbalance) in the various Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi (metabolic energy flow) in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens (Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, and martial arts training), moxibustion, massage to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses small diameter metal needles inserted into the skin and underlying tissues to reroute or balance qi.


  1. Although I've never tried acupunture or acupressure, I certainly believe in the concepts behind why those methods would work. I remember that any time I exercise or stretch my body or meditate -- that my pieces are all connected and need to be in balance. It's also proven that exercise clears the lymphatic system, which is key to immune function.

    I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but I've also battled sinus problems, albeit not as severe as yours. What's really helped me is regular nasal irrigation with warm salt water. I got this device called the Grossan Hydro-Pulse, which is essentially a Water-Pik for your nose. It's wonderful! Really clears out the yuck, and regular use is supposed to condition your nasal passages to become healthier.

    I also realized that I'm lactose intolerant, and that any time I ingested a milk product, I became very congested. Even now, although I use Lactaid when I have to have something dairy, I still get a congestion response. Same thing goes for most grain products for me. My body does not respond well to grains, period. My primary health problem through the years has been IBS. Through research and personal experimentation, I've discovered that the best diet for me is one based on vegetables with some meat protein -- not too much fruit or grain, and no dairy. Changing my diet cleared up my IBS symptoms very quickly. I'm convinced my previous problems were my immune system rejecting the things I was eating that my body just didn't want to digest.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and personal experiences. You are speaking about many things that I know and with which I agree. I've even attempted a number of these sorts of gentler forms of treatment.

    Yoga, for example, is another form of exercize that provides some postures (asana) that can clear the lymphatic system. I've been trying that too.

    You are about the fifth person who has suggested that I use a Netti Pot (or, I believe that's what the Indian term for that irrigation tool is). The only problem is that I've never had imaging of my face done, and fear I may have a deviated septum, physical blockage, that is, and so may not be able to get the saline into my sinus passage.

    I no longer drink milk, although I do still eat types of dairy. I am well away that lactose intolerance can be a cause of the sinus reactions, however, I don't think that is my particular problem. I've tried going off dairy all together and I still have sinusitus. So dairy is simply not my issue. I have experimented with changing my diet in various ways over the past 15 years and continue to have chronic sinusitus. This is why I'm not attempting a new form of medical treatment.

    I really feel for you about your IBS. I have another friend here in Maryland who also suffers from it.