32. Vital Force; Ki, Chi, Prana

Steve Pietrykoski from the UCSD dojo asks the following question:

“In the “Aoinagi Karate Syllabus”, you discuss ki in chapter four. You wrote that ki “is a vital force, a spirit of unshakable strength. It is not a mystical power; it is an attitude.” When I started on the martial path short years ago, my scientific mind had a hard time accepting the idea of ki, more specifically that as a person I could feel and manipulate this energy, but I’ve grown to believe that this is possible. I have to admit when I read this statement I was kind of in kyo. The rest of the chapter deals with ki in a rather scientific fashion, and I was wondering if you would expand on the metaphysical aspects of ki (if any), and perhaps what you define as mystical that ki isn’t.”

To begin with, I can’t.

In the second place, nobody else can either.

What I can do for this question is what all previous people have done with it. I can talk about it, but I can’t answer the question directly. The reason is that the question is in the form of the verb “to be” and there is no way that a state of being can be explained in words. “What is ki?” Ki is ki. Everything else is a discussion about ki. This discussion could become much more involved than mere explanation, however. I have chosen this format because of the inherent character of ki. It is our vital force. That encompasses a great deal; thought, action, emotion, mood, character, self-image, belief system, personal history, will, spirit, initiative, perspective, drive, motivation, and even environment.

My mind keeps wandering back to a statement by Haldane, “the universe is not only stranger than we understand but perhaps stranger than what we can understand.” This rather well epitomizes ki also. Ki may well be not only stranger than what we understand but perhaps stranger than what we can understand.

Vital force or what we call ki has allowed Armstrong to walk on the moon, Napoleon to conquer Europe, Michelangelo to sculpt David, Mother Teresa to work with the dying in Calcutta, Einstein to develop the mass-energy equation, Townsend to implement rotation of crops in medieval society, Peter Abelard and Heloise to attain and maintain a love affair, Peter the Apostle to endure martyrdom, Alexander the Great to build Alexandria in Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa, Blondin to walk across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope, Joan of Arc to rally France in the 100 Years War, and countless other magnificent accomplishments of humanity.

But vital force does not stop with the grandiose. Vital force emerges in billions of childbirths, and even in the sexual copulation which brings forth these billions of childbirth, in the battles which all humans sustain against disease during lifetime, in the maintenance of support for our parents and children, in the tenacity of holding a job or going to school and in thousands of other major human experiences or circumstances.

But vital force does not stop even with these major conditions. Vital force permeates daily living; in the appreciation of a sunset, in a massage, in a sharing of life with another, in a chess game, in a draught of cold water on a hot dry summer afternoon, in petting your dog, in a good meal, in good company, in combing your hair, in selecting the clothes to be worn that day and in the millions of things that just make up life.

Vital force is not just grandiose nor is it just petite. Vital force is the living force of our otherwise molecular existence. It involves the magnanimous and the mundane, the known and the forbidden, the rare and the commonplace.

And, yet, vital force differs from one person to another. It is not, as some people claim, a uniform characteristic by virtue of human existence. Allow me to show you by a simple comparison. You are reading this essay now. You are taking an active part in living on a level which depends on your current state (mood, attention, concentration, awareness, emotions, etc). John Doe lies in the San Bernardino County Hospital ICU in deep metabolic coma. The difference between you and John Doe is not one of human life for both of you are living human beings. The difference is vital force. The doctors nourish John Doe by IV food and water. You eat and drink as you desire. The respiratory therapist breathes for John Doe by mechanical ventilation. You breathe without even thinking about breathing. The nurses empty John Doe1s urinary catheter bladder and clean his body as necessary. You accomplish these tasks as needed. You are self-sufficient in body functions and independent in thinking and feeling as well whereas John Doe is dependent on others for many living functions. There is (I hope) a great deal of vital force difference between you and John Doe. If you are having difficulty understanding what I aim at try to compare aspects of vital force between you and John Doe such as mood, attention, concentration, awareness, emotion, thought, will, spirit, activity, expressiveness, receptivity, etc. There is a vast deal of difference between many aspects of John Doe1s and your vital force. Your ki is far more desirable from an ordinary healthy human perspective.

So, then, there is a difference between human vital forces, at least as far as between a person in coma and an alert person reading an essay. But why should we not accept that there are differences in vital force among many or nearly all humans? And if we do accept that there are differences among humans in the area of vital force why should we not look for ways to enhance vital force?

In truth vital force differs among different people. Even within one individual vital force waxes and wanes thru the days, months and years. Your alertness may occur at a particular time of the day and wane at any other time of day. Many people have low vital force during the autumn while others lose vital force at Christmas time. Some people lose vital force as they age in years until they silently slip away into oblivion where the vital force vaporizes. We are not constant at all. We vary. And as we vary so varies our vital force. Sometimes we are high when others are low and vice versa.

This discussion would be meaningless if it were not possible to enhance vital force. If the vicissitudes of vital force over the day and months and the gradual decline in vital force over years were inevitable then the only thing to do would be to change our attitudes towards the nature of vital force. But the changes of vital force are not immutable. We often have partial control over our own vital force. However, the amount of control is personal, dictated by our own desire, self-image, self-efficacy, self-esteem, personal history, home and social environment, peers, family goals and most anything else that contributes to you being who you are at any particular time.

Although the amount of control we have over our vital force may vary, all conscious people can have at least some control over the destiny of their own vital force. If we choose our destiny to lie in the realm of high vital force we can do somethings to move our destiny to the realm of high vital force. If we choose our destiny to lie in the realm of degenerate vital force we can do somethings to move our destiny to a nadir as well. If we don’t choose one or the other then we choose to allow our destinies to be determined by the myriad of factors and forces which frequently lay claim to our own personal lives, impersonally or otherwise.

So what can we do?

Apparently first, we must choose.
But choice requires desire.
So even before we choose we must have desire.
But desire is often predetermined by our personal history.
If we have desire, we choose—

If we don’t have desire…We are stuck….We are stuck….WE ARE STUCK

We cannot choose until we have the desire to choose, but desire is personal and uncontrollable. Either we have it or we don’t.

And either we will choose or we won’t.

This discussion in content has been the introduction to the life of a bushi (shugyo-sha) for more than five-hundred years. The bushi needs and wants tremendous vital force. Those who desire move into the realm of building vital force. And for a few centuries the realm of building vital force has been called severe training (shugyo). The gyo whose martial training has entered the realm of enhancement of vital force chooses by desire the life of shugyo.

The training of a samurai (bushi, shugyo-sha, warrior) entails the most simple axioms in life on one hand and the most drastic abstractions on the other. It is like the samurai is asked a verbal question and must give a physical answer. His or her brain works overtime to procure a higher vital force. Given the already complex lifestyle of the 1990s with work, family, church, home, yard, cars, boats, toys the bushi delves into those realities of life which enhance his or her vital force, not as a side-show but as a feature presentation.

What makes shugyo severe is its reality. And that reality is that the very essence of our life’s quality is inexorably tied to OUR CHOICE OF DESTINY.

I’ll be right back. I’m going to have a bowl of strawberry shortcake.