Energy Medicine East and West: A Natural History of Qi
David Mayor and Dr Marc Micozzi Publishers: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier 2011 Softback, 393 pages RRP: £31.99
(Reviewed by Richard Bertschinger, EJOM Vol. 7 No. 1)
Rarely comes a book which shatters our ill-formed opinions about how we practise our acupuncture and reaffirms the solidity of the tradition within which we work. In this book, loosely entitled ‘Energy Medicine’, David Mayor and his co-author Dr Marc Micozzi talk a great deal about that which the Chinese would perhaps prefer not to talk about – the foundation of our craft – in a single word ‘qi’.
The editors have assembled a regular pantheon of contributors whom, in measured style, scientifically explain what qi is, where it came from, how it is central to the tradition and practice of Chinese medicine; in part how to deal with it, and to a greater extent what it does. This is indeed an achievement – for qi itself is intrinsically chaotic, yet here, using a cacophony of voices, they have found a way in which qi may just be extensively and cogently discussed. If I might be allowed to pick up one striking idea from the introduction (by James L Oschman) it is that all long-standing disease may well turn out to have one underlying cause – chronic inflammation. And inflammation, an imbalance of electrical charge, may simply imply that, as energy-rich organisms, we are losing touch i.e./ physical contact, with our feet placed on the earth below. At a time when our global biosphere enters a spasm and crisis, how true this is.
Every ten years or so, comes a book which becomes a milestone in the establishment of the acupuncture profession. The Essentials of Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, written by the three colleges of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing in the 1970s, was one. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia, was another, and Peter Deadman’s A Manual of Acupuncture in 1999 another. Now comes David Mayor and Marc Micozzi’s Energy Medicine East and West: A Natural History of Qi – a compilation, distinctly that expresses, in thoughtful and ecumenical manner, the multifarious and enigmatic nature of qi, in its many names and guises – electronic, sensual, vapid, biological, chemical (sadly they omit the sexual and neuro-humeral, and there is surprisingly little acknowledgement of the work of Wilhelm Reich).
However the paper entitled The Physiology of Qi alone would make this book worth buying. We know, of course, that qi drives Blood, but how many of us realise that Blood, which contains a multitude of salts, is also an excellent electrolyte. Our bodies indeed are living batteries, storing jing, moving qi and radiating shen. The authors of the chapter, Hakima Amri and Mones Abu-Asad , express clearly an idea which many of us, although we study and practise in good faith, still have at the back of our mind – ‘how can a concept so poorly defined still be so useful in medicine?’ Their answer describes the oxygenation of the cell in detail (which I also remember learning about in my first physiology lectures by Dr Tim Gordon, thirty years ago at the Leamington college). Their clear explanation of the importance of the Krebs cycle and the physiology of the cell (qi being basically homologous to oxygen, which is also universal to all living things) raises the question whether the Chinese were aware of this some 2,000 years ago.
Their description of the yin and yang of cellular energetics supplies all the ammunition we need to convince any more ‘medical’ acupuncturists that qi exists. It is not too much to assert that probing qi, in this way, in theory and practice, will, I am sure, supply us with all the raw ideas and experimental evidence from which, with a little work, the next ten years will see a sound, coherent and easy way of testing the action of qi (given a little tweaking of the research paradigms). Unless of course we believe, as staunch traditionalists, that the Chinese have given us an adequate and complete system already.
If I have to carp at all, the one failing of the book may be its slightly one-size-fits-all approach. Ideas, each of which could spawn a hundred more pages apiece, pepper the book – open it at random and on a single page I come across ‘the connective tissue matrix’, ‘cavity dynamics’, ‘bioenergetics’ and ‘bioinformation’. Similar forays yield ‘the human ordering matrix’, ‘transmutation, ignition and incarnation’, ‘synchronicity and the flow of connectedness’, and ‘the chaos connection to qi’; as well as discussions of ‘thought field therapy’ and ‘root, branch and sequence therapy’. If you find topics such as these tasteful, you will enjoy this book.
However it is a quite wonderful read. I had the light on far into the night and I simply could not put it down. Mayor and Micozzi have assembled some 25 authors who express, admittedly, a broad and catholic view of qi; but this entirely does justice to its nature. Meticulously referenced, it must have been a headache for the editors to organise such a diverse set of contributions. Yet here they have managed to set up a milestone, illustrating a summary of contemporary views on, and attempts to understand the inchoate nature of such a subject as qi. Here at last we have the first frameworks, the light pencil sketches and cartoons, from which as it were we will form the beginnings of a true science of qi. This is why this book is important...we just need more work on modelling and language. Joseph Needham (editor of the great Science and Civilisation in China project) famously said that the difference between science East and West was that one emphasised ‘relationship’, the other ‘substance’. The Chinese produced no Democritus. The fluidity of yin-yang and wu xing logic gives their science a genius, a certain resonance – which can perhaps better be felt than expressed. I say this with caution, for if it is true, it unfortunately has deep consequences for scientific literature. If there is one idea which can be salvaged and might bear fruit I would suggest ‘permeability’. Permeability, with its implication of tissues and membranes, gases, interaction and transparency, the ‘among’ and ‘movement through’, could be central to our future understanding of qi (which is primarily yang after all). I leave this as a suggestion to others.
Energy Medicine East and West: A Natural History of Qi is a book unequalled in its breadth, depth and coverage of contemporary ideas. The authors have taken a subject...intrinsically chaotic...and given it room to breathe and come into the light. It is thrilling to read these many authors speaking of the ‘elephant in the room’ (which is how we might characterise the denial of some Western medical acupuncturists to acknowledge the ubiquity of qi). I am reminded of the old Hindu story of the blind men and the elephant: one thought the beast to be like a fan, feeling its ear; one thought it to be like a spear, feeling its tusk; one thought it to be light and airy, feeling its tail; one thought it to be hard and solid, feeling its foot, and so on. This is not intended as a criticism of Mayor and Micozzi’s work; it is just to raise a smile at the temerity of our approach, as individuals, attempting to understand it all. But don’t be mistaken. Go and find a copy of this book and be prepared to be fascinated and gripped by its story.
Richard Bertschinger Richard Bertschinger has taught Taoism and worked as an acupuncturist in the West Country for many years. He is the translator of The Secret of Everlasting Life (2011) and Yijing: Shamanic Oracle of China (2012), both Singing Dragon publications.