Zócalo Wellness

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Star Wars and Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Force By Any Other Name

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The Star Wars franchise re-awakened this winter and with it my love for that epic story. After watching Episode VII twice, scouring the internet for the back story and plot hole explanations, and re-watching the original trilogy, I started wondering, “What is it about the Force and the Jedi that has such a powerful hold on my imagination?” I’m an acupuncturist, that’s what.

Or rather, my interest in acupuncture and traditional Chinese/East Asian medicine is rooted in the same geeky fascination I have with sci-fi and fantasy. Both tap into a decidedly human desire to know the unknowable and see into the deep mysteries of our world. What drove me to study traditional medicine was a belief that human beings are not fully encompassed by the mechanistic views of modern biomedicine. As Yoda says it so eloquently in the dank swamps of Dagobah, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” I knew there had to be something more to us than proteins and DNA. And there is, but I only found a satisfactory explanation of it in traditional ways of knowing. This is what is so captivating about Star Wars. It puts a modern twist on a very old idea: that there are ways of knowing the world beyond intellectual understanding.

Qi and the Force

George Lucas’ rendering of the Force and the ways of the Jedi struck me as incredibly similar to what I’ve learned studying Chinese medicine, and its sister discipline, martial arts. It’s not surprising, then, that the Wiki page “Star Wars Sources and Analogues,” tells us that, “the natural flow of energy known as The Force is believed to have originated from the concept of prana, or qi/chi/ki, ‘the all-pervading vital energy of the universe.’” Lucas’ inspiration for the concept came from the long lineage of spiritual and religious traditions that have been passed down by humankind for millennia.

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” ~Obi-Wan Kenobi (Episode IV: A New Hope)

“It moves through and surrounds every living thing. Close your eyes. Feel it. The light. It’s always been there. It will guide you.” ~Maz Kanata (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)

But Qi is not the same thing as the Force. Qi does not just surround, penetrate and bind us all together. It IS us. It is the substance we get from food and drink, which turns into our muscles and bones. It is what powers our heartbeat and breath. It is the wind, rain, and sun. It is both the form and function of the manifest Universe, what we are made of and what powers us. Qi is much more nuanced than the Force, and has been a central concept of traditional Chinese medicine since around the last three centuries B.C. (Paul Unschuld, Medicine in China, p. 66). Chinese scholars and practitioners of medical and martial arts have had two millennia to put the theory into practice and refine it. An article on Chinese cosmology at Columbia has this to say about Qi:

“The basic stuff out of which all things are made is called qi. Everything that ever existed, at all times, is made of qi, including inanimate matter, humans and animals, the sky, ideas and emotions, demons and ghosts, the undifferentiated state of wholeness, and the world when it is teeming with different beings. As an axiomatic concept with a wide range of meaning, the word qi has over the years been translated in numerous ways. Different translators render it into English in three different ways:

1) ‘psychophysical stuff,’ because it involves phenomena one would consider both psychological — connected to human thoughts and feelings — and physical;

2) ‘pneuma,’ drawing on one early etymology of the word as vapor, steam, or breath; and

3) ‘vital energy,’ accentuating the potential for life inherent to the more ethereal forms of qi.”

The subtlety of this cosmic framework and its application to medicine is what I find so intriguing, and so useful, about Qi. In the traditional Chinese medical framework, instead of looking at the body and mind/spirit/soul as separate, with the body as an inanimate battleground or a machine, the human being is seen as a complex and complete organism. Health comes from harmony between our Qi and the Qi of the environment, society, and one’s own thoughts and emotions. Everything has its place in the whole, connected via an intricate web of function and physiological form. The being seeks homeostasis, but is never static; its inner workings are an intricate and ever-fluctuating dance. Every intervention affects the whole. The art of traditional medicine is to learn to read the complex, yet predictable, ways in which the organism falls into varying degrees of disharmony. Interventions are used only when health is compromised to such a degree that the body is unable to right itself, like a capsized ship. Interventions also work with the Force, the flow of Qi, to regain the dynamic balance of health. As Yoda points out, using the Force is a smart way to go:

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us…. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between land and ship.” (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

And, of course, the Force and its use by the Jedi is even more apparent in traditional Chinese martial arts. There we find Qi cultivation and its use in combat. Masters gain seemingly superhuman powers by conditioning their minds and bodies in specific exercises. The character of Yoda seems to be taken almost entirely from a caricature of a wizened monk, a hermit found not on a mountain, but on a desolate planet. Martial arts masters tend to look unassuming, but as Yoda points out, Qi is not about appearances and when one knows the ways of the Force one knows not to make assumptions. Even Darth Vader cautions to respect its power when he chastises a commander of the Death Star:

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” (Episode IV: A New Hope)

This is what makes traditional ways of thinking and being so powerful. Humans are not the center of the universe, but an aspect of it. If we align ourselves with the natural rhythm of the world we become a part of it and are even more powerful than we can imagine. But, this is not an individual power, to be used for self-gain. This is another way of seeing the human organism as an innate part of the whole. It is an understanding of the world that most modern people have forgotten: that the Force, by any of its names, is our greatest ally.

The Light and Dark Sides

The most intriguing similarity between the Force and Qi is the balance between two opposing forces. In Chinese cosmology these opposites are called yin and yang. These two types of Qi differentiate into all the manifest form and function in the Universe. Again from the article on Chinese cosmology at Columbia:

“Yin and yang are best understood in terms of symbolism. When the sun shines on a mountain at some time other than midday, the mountain has one shady side and one sunny side. Yin is the emblem for the shady side and its characteristics; yang is the emblem for the sunny side and its qualities. Since the sun has not yet warmed the yin side, it is dark, cool, and moist; plants are contracted and dormant; and water in the form of dew moves downward. The yang side of the mountain is the opposite of the yin side. It is bright, warm, and dry; plants open up and extend their stalks to catch the sun; and water in the form of fog moves upward as it evaporates…

…Sometimes described as ‘complementary bipolarity,’ yin and yang can be defined as 1) cosmic forces that produce and animate all natural phenomena; 2) terms used to identify recurrent cyclical patterns of rise and decline, waxing and waning; and 3) comparative categories, describing dualistic relationships that were inherently unequal but almost invariably complementary. Virtually any aspect of Chinese experience could be explained in terms of these paired concepts, ranging from such mundane sensory perceptions as dark and light, wet and dry, to abstractions such as real and unreal, being and nonbeing. Yinyang relationships involved the notion of mutual dependence and harmony based on hierarchical difference. Yin qualities were generally considered inferior to yang qualities, but unity of opposites was always the cultural ideal. The accommodating and essentially naturalistic outlook expressed in this notion of yinyang complementarity contrasts sharply with the familiar religious dualisms of good and evil, God and the Devil, which are so prominent in the ancient Near Eastern and Western cultural traditions.”

This last sentence underscores the main difference between Lucas’ Force and Chinese Qi. The former turns the primal confrontation of light and dark into a moral struggle between good and evil, the latter recognizes the cosmic struggle between these opposing forces as necessary for Creation. There is no extricating light (yang) from dark (yin). There is no absolute good and evil. Water is evil if you are drowning and good if you are parched.

Qi, the Force, is what we are working with when we put those tiny needles in your body, give you those herbs, suggest foods to eat, or tell you to take up taiji. The whole point of traditional Chinese medicine (and perhaps traditional medicine in general) is recognizing and working with the Qi in some way. We are working with what you already have, and with what is available all around us.

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive study of Qi, nor meant in any way to trivialize one of the world’s longest standing medical systems. It is simply meant to point out that part of what makes Star Wars such a marvelous story is that one of its most intriguing aspects can be found off the movie screen. As Han Solo puts it in The Force Awakens, “It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.” The Force is not pure fantasy, but something plucked out of the collective consciousness and as old as humanity. Whether you believe in the Force, Qi, quarks, germs, prana, DNA, God, or simply the flesh and bones of your own body, all the explanations we humans have of our existence are not the ultimate truth, but a mere facet of it. Obi-Wan says it best in Return of the Jedi, “Luke, you’re going to find many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

I simply suggest we keep an open mind that the Force may, in fact, be with us after all.

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