Martial Arts teachers often speak of Ki as an inner force and source of energy that flows through the body. The concept of Ki is vague and unproveable, yet reflection on experience shows that it exists. I certainly can provide no new answers, but here are some personal reflections based on my experience with Centering Prayer and traditional Tae Kwon Do (TKD).
Before I give my own reflection, here is a discussion of Ki from martial arts faq.
What is Ki/Qi/Chi?
There are no absolute right answers to this question. Instead of giving the one true answer to this, below are several different opinions.
(a) Ki doesn't exist. Everything the ki model tries to explain can be explained with body mechanics, biophysics, and psychology. There is no need to postulate some mysterious force. Science can explain it.
(b) Ki exists absolutely. Ki is an energy, a living force, a spirit that can be used to increase your strength, throw people around, etc. Subjective experience shows that ki is real. It may either be a bio-kinetic phenomena science doesn't understand yet or the power of the mind in union with the body.
(c) Ki may or may not "really" exist. It is a useful model. The ki model allows you to visualize how to increase your strength, throw people around, etc.--it doesn't matter if it exists or not. If someone invents a better model (i.e. one that is easier to visualize), then maybe we'll switch to it.
Of the styles that stress ki, some work on developing the flow of ki within their bodies. An example of this approach is Taijiquan. (Tai Chi Chuan)
One of our teachers told us that the flow of energy can be directed. TKD, we heard is not mysticism, it is the application of physics. As I vaguely recall from my High School physics, breaking a board is a matter of vectors. A strike, or kick aimed straight into a board will deliver all force into the board. One aimed at an angle, will bounce off. (The angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection, we learned.)
The same teacher said that the mind must control the body so that the strike or kick does in fact go in a straight line. If we were to observe that this is difficult – our legs do not easily move straight, especially on high kicks – we would be reminded that we needed to develop a strong mind that could control our body. This after having been told that there is no mysticism involved.
Energy – Ki – flows from the center of the body. I know this to be true. As a 65 year old, un-athletic male, I do not have the upper body strength to break boards using my arms alone. When I plant my feet correctly, turn my entire upper body with my waist muscles, keep my hands straight and tight, boards break as easily as paper. The sound is louder and more satisfying.
The board breaks when the body properly delivers force and energy. This leads us to the second aspect of Ki – the inner emotional and spiritual factors that influence the mind’s control of, and interaction with the body.
Two weeks ago our youngest son, Matt, was home on spring break from his teaching job. He had just gotten engaged.
(To a young woman that we really like. We are twice blessed in future daughters-in-law. Our older son, David will be married this October to another young woman that we really like.)
Even though Matt has moved and not been in class for almost a year, the tradition in the school is that we celebrate significant life events by breaking a board. When he got his chance, Matt kicked the board several times with his right foot, changed to his left, changed to his left hand and finally broke it with his right hand. He was determined.
Here is the application of Ki. The board breaks upon the delivery of sufficient force at the point of contact and at a straight line. It is an inanimate object, with physics and fracture mechanics of its own. It does not care whether the student has a clear mind is affected by powerful emotions. (In Matt’s case, happy ones.) A student whose mind and body are working in unison can break boards with ease. A student who is not concentrating will have to hit the board many times before it breaks.
After 1200 hours of training and a blue belt, I can testify to the truth of both cases.
Clarity of mind and focus of attention also come out of the center of the body in an analogous sense. If I put negative emotions into my gut – and I often do by setting unrealistic expectations about how much I can do and do well – those emotions will be with me when I step up to the board. If I’m they are blocking my concentration, the dull thud of my foot bouncing of the board should tell me - if I am paying attention.
At times like this, beginning students feel as if the whole school is watching and CNN cameras are about to arrive and embarrass them in front of the whole country. Experienced students know that everybody goes through this and the only thing to do “hit it again”. Eventually the emotions focus on the task and the board, uncomprehending as it is, responds by breaking.
All of this is somehow connected to Ki. I don’t know how to describe it, but somewhere down in my gut (Yoga teachers call it a Chakra), mind, body and emotions are connected. If we live our lives in harmony and learn how to deal life when it acts on its own terms rather that ours, we will be focused when we step up to the board. Ki will flow from the center. Boards break, people clap and we smile.
the question for me is: How do we gain focus before we step up to the board - or the next activity that life presents to us? When we our emotions and the distractions of life have distracted us, Welcoming Prayer is a way of re-focusing. (For a start on this, See my review of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening )
It would be great if we could do this all the time. (For one who did, read The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.)
We can’t be habitually focused, at least by ourselves. The best we can do is ask God for help; be aware of who we are and who we are called to be; acknowledge errors and fix them if we can; focus on the next right thing to be done; and be grateful for what we have and have done.
I don’t claim to do this. The best any of us can claim is “progress, not perfection.”