; Cwyn's Death By Tea: A "Bit" about Qi ;

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A "Bit" about Qi

"Impression," 2014 Yunnan Sourcing
I want to write a bit about the concept of qi in tea. People have an understanding and experience with this quality of tea, but describing it in a rational way is difficult, and can get contentious at times. We westerners hit a brick wall when talking about qi because we get slapped up against our cultural dualism, a split between science and religion. We also get stuck because ethnic religious ideals embedded in our culture contradict the concept of qi. I will start with more general issues on why this concept is difficult to promote in the west, and then finish up with my more personal experiences.

Qi is the Pin Yin for breath, Chi is the Wade-Gilles. The compounds in tea that are identified with the qi effect are generally referred to as theanine. Theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier and increases the production of alpha wave states in the brain that we experience in REM sleep and during meditation. The practice of meditation is the exercise of observing one's breath. The goal is to lengthen the attention span in order to discover more subtle internal sensations. Circulation of the breath is the movement of qi. Qi is viewed as a life energy that permeates all living things.

The Problem of Pantheism

The concept of qi is the life energy of the universe, not merely theanine. What does it mean to say that a cake of tea contains qi? If we view qi as Oneness, or One energy, then this very general idea doesn't clash so much with western religious notions of spiritual energy from an all-powerful, Omniscient and Omnipotent God. However, qi found in an object is problematic in western theology. A tea cake is an object, not a person. Pantheism is the idea that Everything is God, and the essence of the divine can be found in all elements of nature. So God can exist in a tea cake, a wafer, a tree, or animals. For the "qi/God is in everything" concept to hold logically true, a Tea Cake must be the same as a tree, an animal, a table, a bridge, a rock, a child, a rosary, a crucifix, and a communion wafer. Either all is One or all is Not One, for every Set A we have Not A. As soon as we split qi into objects that "have it" over objects that don't, we no longer have a singular concept of qi. Instead we have a dualistic concept of positive and negative.

What do we call things that don't have qi? By definition, everything must have the same universal energy, or the concept is flawed. Tea cannot possibly have qi in a way that any other object lacks. Unless of course we are referring only to the chemical compounds. What about relative qi? Does qi exist in degrees, with more qi in humans and somehow a lesser amount in animals and plants? If not, then what makes a tea cake more than any other object? I could eat an orange or a yak and the same effect exists and I'm merely ascribing more to a tea cake out of fantasy thinking or only because the chemical compounds are fooling my brain.

This logic problem is where science gets hung up on the idea of qi, making systematic study impossible. For qi to make sense, it must be everywhere and in everything, or we run into problems of definition. Trying to prove Qi exists is a similar problem that Thomas Aquinas grappled with trying to prove God exists, we find a tautology, a circular argument that falls back upon itself.

I think the best scientific idea we have right now is the theory that all matter contains particles from the original Big Bang, when matter "won out" over anti-matter by an unexplained fraction of a chance, the moment when perhaps an intelligence beyond us made the call. So maybe the energy of qi could be the remnants of the original creation of matter in the universe and all matter is equally filled with this creation energy. Einstein and Hawking tried to come up with universal ideas of everything. But the truth is, universal theories are problematic once we begin to differentiate one object or being from another and then attempt study specifics. Einstein's flirtation with Pantheism came via reading Spinoza. In the 19th century, Catholic Christian theology rejected Spinoza, and declared the notion of Pan-theism as heresy. As a counter-argument or attempt at clarification, theologians came up with an idea known as Panen-theism. Panentheism is by far more prevalent in western culture.

Panentheism and Eschatology

Panentheism is the idea of God as Omnipresent in all dimensions but also removed, existing in another reality outside of the objective world we know. Instead of spiritual energy existing in everything equally, the Human Being is viewed as the center of the universe. Objects or non-human beings like animals are thus viewed as lacking soul, or essence. If God is said to dwell in an object or person, it is only in another dimension, not actually within the real properties of the object. In this view, life force energy cannot be said to exist in any object. Under this notion, a puerh tea cake certainly does not qualify as an appropriate vessel for divine energy. 

Where Pan-theism means Set A is divine everything, under Panen-theism the Divine Alone is Set A and everything else is, by default, Not A, until proven otherwise. The heavenly dimension where God/Allah/Jehovah exists is where the righteous dwell, along with 40 virgins and a resurrected Jesus. Where we live is outside of that dimension, though the divine can somehow insert or intervene, a moved or unmoved mover. But God would never deign to lower to a teacake, though God is viewed to have lowered himself into bread in the myth of Jesus, a singular exception that Christians believe. A saint is made and not born, holiness must be rigorously tested. Such a rationalist western idea, and a far cry from the unifying life energy in the concept of Qi.

Early believers in the resurrection of Jesus believed Christ would return imminently, which gave a defining eschatology to the Christian religion, though all religions have theories of the End Time. Christianity and Islam both have a most urgent eschatology, earthly life doesn't compare with the world to come after death. Heaven is not earth, and the point of religious practice is to leave this world and get to the next one with a front row seat. If a divine Qi exists, it is in an alternate dimension and the whole goal of life is to hurry up and get to this new dimension.

Urgent eschatology is both a method and a lifestyle. When you expect or hope to die tomorrow and wake up with the Divine, you live accordingly and keep yourself on a path worthy of such a fate and avoid anything that could affect your spiritual expectations. Very likely this conformity means adhering entirely to the tenets of your own tradition and avoiding exposure to anything outside of it, or contrary to it. I've observed this struggle in a tea friend who wants to get into puerh tea, but is dealing with a religious tradition which disapproves of caffeine addiction.

An urgent eschatology is a method of spiritual progression worldwide. Most religions have some notion that a Fast Path to divine union is possible. Tea can fit into an idea of the Fast Path, along with mushrooms, weed, LSD, meditation postures, Tai Chi, frequent Communion, evangelical practices such as talking in tongues, ecstatic dancing and singing, faith healing, revival meetings etc. At the very same time, eastern and western traditions of meditation also advocate Rejecting all Manifestations, specifically ignoring experiences of minor ecstasy in favor of pushing toward the ultimate union with the divine. Like St. Therese of Lisieux advocated, throwing oneself into the arms of God like a little child, rejecting everything else and everything less than God alone. This notion of rejecting all but God has taken hold in western culture more than we realize, back to a time when Jesus was expected to return imminently. If the world ends tomorrow, one finds it difficult to believe in, or care about concepts like a life force permeating a tea cake. Overcoming a preference for the Big over the Little means a culture must reject the idea that our Personal God/Messiah is coming to get us anytime soon.

Rejecting all but God can also include rejecting society and ideas outside of our cultural tradition, making the adoption of concepts like qi even more unlikely, unless qi is already a part of the tradition you're in. Immigrants to the Americas brought with them language and cultural religious traditions to their new country. But after immigrating, most ethnic groups keep to themselves, viewing the outer culture of the Americas with a moral suspicion. Major western religious groups all share a tendency to view holiness as endemic to their own cultural group. In other words, the path to holiness and the divine is due to participating fully in a cultural religious tradition that excludes those outside of it. So here we have powerful family traditions that erect a massive cultural barrier between those on the inside and those outside. Even if some unifying concept like spiritual energy exists, cultural groups reserve this energy for themselves and specifically condemn anyone outside their group as inherently unable to obtain the same experience. Such exclusivity adds to the logical and theological problems already present in the idea of a unifying life force energy potentially located in a beverage.

Anyone born into such a cultural tradition is likely stuck for some time. Maintaining the integrity of the group is a powerful force for at least two more generations after immigration. Once people assimilate and begin adopting a more secular lifestyle, they feel more free to start borrowing ideas and become more individualistic, more prone to personal philosophy that may depart from their original ethnic enclave. So today we have people who might belong to a western religion but they also attend yoga classes, and nobody sees any contradiction in that. For many people, exploring eastern philosophies is additive, or part of a pick-and-choose consumerist mentality with spirituality.

Summing Up...

So let's sum up the problems with a concept of Qi in western culture, and why such an idea is difficult:

1. Proving qi exists seems impossible, as a tautology.

2. Whether Qi exists in relative degrees.

3. Unresolved logic problems, what has qi and what doesn't.

4. Culturally rooted Christian theology has rejected the idea that a divine energy can exist in any object except a communion wafer.

5. Western philosophy promotes the idea of spiritual energy existing in an alternate dimension.

6. Major Western religions have an urgent Eschatology, a focus on life after death and arriving at another dimension.

7. Most religions have a Fast Path method, rejecting "lesser" spiritual manifestations in favor of the alternate dimension, full union with the divine, or the after death experience.

8. A moral view that drugs or artificially-induced states are not the same as spiritual states, even when an analysis of the brain action shows they are the same.

9. Immigrant religious groups promote the idea of salvation from within the group, making the adoption of new ideas difficult for at least two generations.

Faith and Belief

I think we can reasonably conclude that the concept of Qi, aside from the chemical compounds present in tea, is not a concept that currently can be studied with scientific method. So, right now Qi is an idea of Faith and Belief, relative to the Individual. Here we are again in the Relativist Universe of Tea. You can tell me "No, Qi is objective" but I think you'll end up in a tautology when you try to explain it. Instead, we'll have an easier time of it moving to the other side of our brains, that of internal experience. St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite monk who wrote of the dark night of the soul and union with the divine, instructs that the pre-requisite is to quiet the senses and empty the rational mind. All that is Objective is put to sleep. We need to do this if we want to explore whether Qi really exists in tea as an experience greater than the sum total of its theanine content. 

During my training as nun I was sent to study at a meditation center with a Sufi master who also had training in unitive methods across religious traditions. I was exposed to the concept of Qi when taught the first 40 postures of Tai Chi, psycho-calisthenics, Buddhist walking and sitting, breath techniques, and even the idea of circulating deep breaths when giving a social hug. Circulate the qi with your neighbor. The point of all of this, along with the training I'd had as a novice in Catholic inner prayer, was to prepare myself for a life as a contemplative nun in which the goal is nothing less than union with the Divine. My training emphasized the idea of the human being as the ultimate container of Qi. When I first encountered the idea of qi in a tea cake, and the idea of looking for this experience in tea, I felt rather uncomfortable thinking of qi in an object like tea.

I learned that a continual practice of observing the breath eventually will pay off if you have Manifestations, regardless of the type or source. Manifestations are experiences which we cannot explain any other way except as spiritual or religious. Feeling Qi in tea is one of these experiences. Most spiritual masters instruct us to deepen our attention and continue our breathing and prayer practice when a Manifestation occurs. I was taught to observe and deepen the experience when it happens, rather than chase it away. I might have to let go of cultural exhortations that tell say "you must not feel that" when the Manifestation occurs. At the same time, both Christian and Buddhist teachers say we should not develop an Attachment to the manifestation. We are to look further, to look for God above all. Or the Nothing of the Void if that is what you believe.

I have had a type of Manifestation since the age of 33. It is the experience of everything around me as a golden wash of light. I see and feel this. It came after a change that happened to me psychologically due to my practice. This was a difficult change and I sought a swami to help me through it. Christianity does not have all the spiritual guidance tools I needed due to the Fast Track and Urgent Eschatology. Which led to the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton traveling to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand when he needed more help. He knew where Catholic contemplative method ends, and how much more developed methods are in Buddhism and Sufism, just to name a few. Because of Thomas Merton, I know when I need help from traditions outside my own training. I hit that underdeveloped wall in Christianity which is where Manifestations like Qi reside.

The manifestation I have is something I participate in, rather than fully control. I might be able to do more with it if I had more help today, but this is not very important to me. The experience of the light comes and goes. I can relax into it, and do my breath practice as I've been taught. Sometimes I get it when drinking tea, but I haven't noticed that physical sensations from tea automatically produce the manifestation, even when tea drunk. I can relax and breathe and very often experience the manifestation whether I'm drinking tea or not. But I have been taught very clearly that experiences like this are NOT to be sought, because a person can get stuck in them like a side road on a highway. They are not an end in themselves, despite all my jokes about Tea Drunks. My jokes are part of my Foolishness, as Francis of Assisi taught about embracing the Fool in ourselves. I believe that it is entirely possible to participate in something that my rational mind finds absurd.

Where to Go from Here

I'd like to recommend a book Spiritual Cannibalism by Swami Rudrananda. Rudrananda born Albert Rudolph (1924-1973) in Brooklyn, New York, was raised in Judaism and became a practitioner of Ratha Yoga. I think some of the principles of Ratha apply very well to consuming tea. Swami Rudi's method and practice was entirely about the physical body. The human being is the greatest container of Qi. Rudi's work is very short, just a couple hundred pages, but these were very helpful to me in physically assimilating emotional experiences through his image of the body as a Blast Furnace.

Garbage in Yunnan. If all is one, there is no contradiction.
"An open fire fed by enormous logs burns large amounts of fuel. A pot-bellied stove uses less wood but gives more heat. So, too, a calm exterior not only conserves the inner fuel but, being less visual and external, does not capture the mind. It also heats deeply and for longer periods of time. A person seeking truth should not be caught by outer drama or illusions. Within a spiritual being, deep surrender should collect fuel from everyone and everything. It is our conscious need that continually brings us this material for our internal furnace. Everything, to be of service to make us grow, should be consumable--surrendered and used as fuel."


"A steady diet of refined food or vibrations will not suffice to attain the ideal growth that is theoretically possible. It is not possible for a human being to change the inner condition by just fasting or altering the diet. To effect a real change, conscious effort is needed to clear out the system and allow it to grow organically strong enough so that it can absorb the change. Real change takes several years of effort."

Swami Rudrananda, 1973. Spiritual Cannibalism. Links Books.

Qi experience from tea is like pouring water on the hot pot-bellied stove so the steam rises up. Just because we drink tea with qi compounds, we don't become qi because we already ARE qi. Our bodies and the tea are all one in qi. The qi reminds our bodies and instructs our minds in what we really are, especially the mind because it is a slow donkey which understands nothing, Brother Ass as Francis of Assisi used to say. If we think tea is the only thing with qi and we ourselves are not qi, then we are experiencing an essential lack, a need. A craving for sugar, or chocolate, has been compared to a need for love. If I think tea merely contains qi, then I am forgetting who and what I am.

Still the Split

If my writing here is indicative of anything, it illustrates the split between rational thought and experience within a particular cultural background. The only possible middle ground is to continue to observe and to feel. Drinking tea provides an opportunity for continued contemplation, regardless of our traditions and beliefs. We are closer now than 20 years ago to absorbing ideas like qi which are not native to the west and we have more tools with which to study experiences contrary to current scientific reasoning. Our cultural experiences are a door we pass through to new understanding and the fuel for the fire that heats our Tea.

Easter 2015


  1. Deep thoughts indeed. Too deep for an ill thought through comment in response. You provoke me to think on, and for that is am very grateful.

  2. This is appreciated and read with care.

  3. I have been thinking about this all day. Thanks for putting Spinoza and also the idea of eschatology back on the ol' radar. I'm going to think about breathing next time I drink tea, instead of my laundry or the garden or doom metal records or the Internet. Thanks for digging deep.

  4. Your contributions to the discussion of tea are truly and deeply appreciated.

  5. Thank you very much for your eloquent post.
    I'm just wondering, how does the concept of Panentheism come to terms with hierophany? There must be an explanation for the Sacraments, otherwise you could eat any wafer and say "this is the body of Our Lord", and how do they explain manifestations of the sacred in mundane objects or places?

    It remains a question of faith if you believe that the Qi of some tea has an influence on you. You can relate to the concept much better after having a succesfull therapy with acupuncture or homeopathy, because you fell the difference between "before" and "after". Western understanding cannot explain the effects, but if you understand it as modulating your life force, you can also believe that other things have effect upon it.

    1. As I mentioned, the view of the Divine in an alternate dimension includes the idea of insertion or intervening in human affairs. Biblically, God stoops. At the same time, ethnic, tribal and folk beliefs often intermingle with those from organized religion, such as the holy dirt at Chimayo, NM. I think some of the manifestations can be tribal or folk, and interestingly some arise at times of great stress, such as Lourdes or Fatima.

  6. Replies
    1. Only if you play Super Smash Brothers Melee on the GameCube and I get to be Ganondorf.

  7. Hello Cwyn,

    A thought provoking entry. For me you really hit it on the button when you mentioned “to observe and to feel”.

    Personally clean living and an overall awareness of oneself goes a long way towards connecting me to this sixth sense (if it can be called that).

    A most enjoyable read.

  8. Dear Cwyn,

    Many thanks for the thoughtful post, which was a great pleasure to read. My tradition seems approximately similar to your own, with a Christian and Zen upbringing, and this leads me to appreciate your writing. Much I agree with, some I might debate, all of it I enjoyed.

    With best wishes,


  9. as a scientist I think that the qi is simply an effect of different chemicals on the brain and/or body. Looking at it from the perspective of religion or philosophy might lead to a simple placebo effect.

    1. If you are designing a scientific study to measure an effect, you do need to isolate quantifiable variables. However, in order to define the variables we need to do exploratory anthropological research to identify words and concepts about the effect we wish to study. The problem with qi for people is finding words to describe the effect. This is where theologians, historians, linguists and aestheticians become valuable to a research team to explore the broader perspective and do the case study work.

    2. I think psychofarmacology already has the terminology to describe the effects of CNS active compounds. we do not use theologians, historians, linguists and aestheticians to describe the effects of tranquilizers, painkillers, alcohol ...or the combinations of them. Theology makes certain things more exciting for some people but at the end it brings only speculations, at best.

    3. Science is nowhere near showing statistical causality with any effect of puerh tea at the moment. Even effects such as cholesterol and fat reduction have weak associations if you review the research. The issues with qi-related compounds are the same.

      The problem is we are dealing with multidimensional variables and a complex human physiology. We have no single response to qi just as we have no single response to medications for a variety of human conditions. we have differences between and within gender. In a multi variate theory, at best we can analyze factors. Looking at qi compounds has more in common with research into medications for brain conditions like mental illness, but we can only explain a very small piece of the picture of how these compounds affect some people and not others.

      My point is, research is likely to remain speculative simply because there are too many complex systems involved to isolate variables that can be applied beyond small samples of cases. This is why descriptive research is just as valuable.

      Thanks for your comments, keep writing, I enjoy reading your thoughts. :)

    4. I see your point, and I agree that the picture is incredebly complex due to a huge number of factors (provided mainly by the human body). But to stay intellectually honest one should accept what we know and has been proven and admit what we don't know instead of making up explanations from thin air (as those religions and philosophies you mention in your post ). Western science is dealing with the effects of chemicals on the human body trough clinical trials, which can easily take a decade and involve thousands of patients. The results is often just and answer if the drug works, if it is safe and not the mechanism of action. But that's the best we have. Long story short, based on what I read around the net, for most people cha qi is the effect of the tea on the body (relaxing, uplifting, tranquilising, sedating...). The final effect of the cha qi is influenced by the chemicals in the tea (probably a complex mixture of biologically active compounds) and by the actual physiological and mental condition of the tea drinker. This is a very complex situation and probably no one with take the effort to study is deeply, but we still should not drag in the "supernatural" however cool and attractive it might be.

    5. Norbert, if you read the post carefully you will see I mention the scientific compounds at the outset. And you're right, the piece focuses on religious and philosophical views. But to say I made them up myself shows a lack of familiarity on your part with a history in the humanities.

      It also shows a lack of familiarity with qualitative research methods. When ethnography and case studies are not part of the research, disasters happen such as the recent Seroquel XR trials through the University of Minnesota.

      Ethnography shows profound differences between cultures. In the U.S., for example, the phenomenon of "falling out" during gospel singing is common in the south, which is ecstatic fainting. This is not faked. At the same time "falling out" is virtually non-existent in the north. If we merely studied southerners, we would conclude that gospel singing causes fainting and is normal. If we studied only northerners we would not make this association. Cha qi is not merely chemical, many people never feel the effect at all. If you don't believe that, read reviews of 2005 Naka by white2tea. Many people get an incredible qi from that team and others feel nothing.

      Finally, we never "prove" theories in science. We show correlation, association, and and degrees of certainty. Effects from any substance are measured with a rather high degree of error. This may indeed be the best we can do, but it is not proof. This is why we also need to consider qualitative research in order to understand a full picture.

    6. I have participated in qualitative research which involved hearing voices (still a taboo topic in Western culture). Despite the fact that I have a physics background, I know that such experiences are best handled by honouring (just paying attention, writing stories and poems, even tea rituals :) ), rather than rationalising them. I just don't use my empirical tools when such wyrd experiences happen.

      I learned that the hard way, through dream work. Not fun. I didn't get the idea (in the past, but still learning :) ) that there were many ways of interpreting one's experiences and so got stuck in the "one true interpretation" mentality.