Teaching Stories: Wei Qi and Ch’ang Mai
Sometimes “book learning” gets illustrated in the most astounding ways. When this event happened, I had been acquainted with the Penetrating Vessel (C’hang Mai) for many years already and my experience of it was pretty much what was written about it. It is one of the first energy channels to form – starting in the fertilized egg – and along with the Belt Vessel (Dai Mai), the Conception (Ren Mai) and Governing Vessel (Du Mai) gives rise to more Strange Flows (Extraordinary Vessels – Qi Jing Ba Mai), which give rise to the other energy pathways, meridians and subsidiary channels. It is also called the “sea of blood” and lies along the trajectory of the fetal notochord, which develops into the heart and blood vessels. It is also called “the sea of the twelve meridians” and “the highway conduit.” It is associated with blushing and with orgasm. Those associations should have been clues, but I didn’t really get the intensity of its action until that early spring evening in Madison Park in New York City.
I had been teaching all day in Manhattan with my teacher and mentor, Iona Marsaa Teeguarden, who was also staying with me and my children in our apartment in the Bronx. She and I had been teaching for a week already and, as was usual on the rare occasions we got to see each other, staying up late talking. Essential to this story is the fact that I had also scheduled some clients in my office in Manhattan after our teaching day was done. By 10 pm that night I was beyond tired.
My usual practice was to take an express bus home to the Bronx from the top of Madison Park in Manhattan. This is actually a thriving business area and home of several district courts during the day, but in the evening the ladies of the evening take over and the corner of 26th and Madison is usually full of people. The ladies are doing their thing on the corner, johns are cruising by in cars and taxis, negotiating and making deals; there are always several people waiting for the express buses that both begin and end their route there. There are usually two or three of them idling while the drivers take their dinner break. If you are a New Yorker, this is a pretty safe place to wait for a bus. Lots of people, limited wait.
Speaking of New York, let me say a word about Protective or Defensive Qi (Wei Qi). The Wei Qi is described as running between the skin and muscles and preventing the invasion of “aggressive qi,” which in Chinese Medicine usually means climate: cold, wind, damp, etc. But in New York “aggressive qi” can come from human beings. Your Wei Qi becomes a personal radar scope, registering anything that enters – or even sends too much energy toward – your personal space. Most New Yorkers live in the realm of Wei Qi. Oddly enough, in the aftermath of 911, the city seems less prickly to me, perhaps because there is a sense of community fostered by shared trauma, but this was before that. Especially in Manhattan, the lines between poor and wealthy neighborhoods get fuzzy and the physical distance between them is mostly in the mind. If you take public transportation you get to meet everybody except the limosine people and they’re a different kind of dangerous. Wei Qi seems pointless to the point of ludicrous when you are literally packed in, tushy to tummy with your fellow New Yorkers during subway rush hour. But if you’ve lived it, you know what I mean. My shoulder may be pressed into your chest, but I will know instantly if your intentions aren’t honorable and I’ll be ready for you. A hundred years ago ladies used hatpins to protect themselves. Today, it’s pretty much a very loud, embarrassing voice directed at the miscreant with lots of attitude. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with one of the obvious crazies and then it’s a whole other story. But I won’t go into that here. My point is, that as an ordinary New Yorker, you never know who’s in your vicinity and you must be alert. If you have a modicum of self-preservation, you quickly develop three hundred and sixty degrees of awareness around you at all times.
My point in bringing this up is that the Wei Qi “wells up” to the surface into the Sinew Channels that feed the muscles from the principal meridians. If there isn’t a lot of Qi to go around, they tend to get short-changed unless there’s a screaming threat off the starboard bow.
This particular evening, my level of Qi was pooling somewhere inside longing for the comforts of home that were still an hour away. I did not notice – at first – that the top of Madison Park was deserted. No buses, no hookers, no commuters or taxis or johns. Not good. I also did something I never did when I was more alert and survival oriented – I sat down on a park bench facing the sidewalk on 26th street to wait for the bus. The alarm system was turned off and my head was in my navel.
I only became aware of the kid with the stick when he was already standing next to me on my right side. It is telling that I was not startled or apprehensive. I was too tired. The kid was slapping his stick – a broken rung from a kitchen chair? – against his palm as he said “Do you have any change?”
Now this is a fairly common question on the streets of New York. Homeless people on the streets and hustlers on the subway are constantly asking for money. Every New Yorker develops his or her own unique response to this. A friend of mine makes sure he always has a bunch of quarters in his pocket so he doesn’t have to say no to anyone. Most people simply refuse to acknowledge the presence of the one asking. Eye contact opens you to that person and you don’t really know what you’ll find there or in yourself in response. Compassion? Sympathy? Delusion? Despair? Danger? Too risky. My usual response is to mutter, “No, sorry,” with just a quick glance of acknowledgment in the other’s direction. Frankly, I wish I could hand out $10 bills. I know how delightful it is to get unexpected money. And, yes, I know what most of those bills would go for, but that’s the deal when you really give away money. Give away. No strings trailing back to your own life lessons.
However, I was pretty much trapped here. In my surprise at the kid’s presence I had turned my head to look at his face full on for several seconds. So I said, “No, I just have enough for the bus.”
“Well, then,” he said, still slapping his stick against his palm, “Do you have a dollar?”.
At this point in time, some of that deep pool of Qi started to climb towards the outside. I had the feeling that there was some kind of coercion going on here. Not much, admittedly. The kid was about twelve and skinny and not as confident as the stick would like me to believe, but something had to be done.
I had worked for awhile with Bronx teenagers who were survivors of sexual assault and abuse and I took the “street fighting” classes in the program right along with them. I didn’t do much street fighting on the desert in California where I grew up and figured it might come in handy sometime. This was the time.
The first thing we learned in our class was to use the voice. Put power into it and yell. Sometimes that’s all it takes to put off a predator who’s looking for weak prey. So, almost without thinking, I put all the qi I had at the moment into my voice and said, very loudly, “NO!”
The kid was obviously startled and he looked off to his right at something across the empty street. How had I missed them? Coming toward us was a group – I won’t say gang – of maybe six or seven kids. They seemed to be led by an older kid of about fifteen who was carrying a baseball bat. And no, they didn’t have Little League uniforms on.
The kid next to me said to the leader, “She yelled at me!” This was clearly not playing fair and he was outraged.
The leader beckoned him over and the group of them proceeded to have a conference there on the sidewalk about 10 feet away from me.
I was still sitting on the park bench, in pretty much the same relaxed (exhausted) posture I had been in since sitting down, but my brain was starting to wake up. I’m saying to myself, “They are deciding whether to leave the crazy lady alone or to beat the crap out of her.”
At that moment I felt every ounce of energy in my body drain down into my legs. It was the most remarkable sensation. The image in my head was like a cartoon thermometer dropping down to the bottom. And as I observed the physical phenomenon, my head said, “The Classics say that in anger the energy rises to the head and shoulders. In fear it drains into the legs. I must be afraid.”
At that moment, a yellow cab with its blessed halo, the “vacant” light on top, turned the corner onto 26th street and headed down the block toward me. I do not think I walked to the street. It would have given the kids too much time to notice. I think I levitated like I was on a pogo stick to the street, just as the cab was passing, waved it down and jumped in.
And that, my friends, is the meaning of the term “highway conduit.” You want to get somewhere fast, you take the quick road. And in a pinch, “the sea of the twelve meridians” can draw all the energy from all the regular channels and commit it to survival, whether that means sending it to the head and shoulders to fight with teeth and claws or sending it to the legs so you can run the hell away.
Iona still laughs at me because I didn’t just take the cab home. Nope. I was a New Yorker. I got out at the next stop on the express bus line to catch the bus home, my legs shaking so badly from the aftermath of the adrenalin rush that I could hardly stand.
For more on the Penetrating Channel and Fright, see “9/11 and Running Piglet Qi”
These are not the only stories about the Penetrating Vessel. There are many other functions; including the very important male and female developmental cycles: “The Cycles of Seven and Eight,” that will have to wait for another time.