A Meditation on Energy Work and the Chinese Concept of Mind: Psychoanalytic Applications

By Merle Molofsky

…and you think maybe you’ll trust him because he touched your perfect body with his mind.

Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems, 1956-1968

From the earliest days of psychoanalysis, mind and body have been inseparable.  Sigmund Freud sought for a neurobiological foundation for the complexities of the mind, inherent in drive theory and exemplified in “A Scientific Project” and boldly stated as “The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego.”  Joyce McDougall explored mind/body oneness in Theaters of the Body (W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London: 1989).  And recently, Bodies in Treatment: The Unspoken Dimension (ed. Francis Sommer Anderson, The Analytic Press, New York and London: 2008) explored psychoanalytic concepts within the context of various types of body work, such as yoga.

My more than 20 years of participation in a countertransference supervision group with Art Robbins taught me to use my bodily sensations as an integral part of my psychoanalytic work.  My curiosity about the dazzling variety of the world led me to the art and religion and literature of many cultures, and to explore these cultures through body/mind practice, such as yoga, goju ryu karate, and Japanese ink painting.  My most profound experience of an integrated body/mind came through crisis: after a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, I began work with an energy healer, Robert Jokel, and the study of Soaring Crane Qi Gong.  Qi Gong is 4,000 years old, and there are thousands of qi gong practices.  Soaring Crane Qi Gong, developed in the 20th century by Master Zhao, Jin Xiang, is a series of five basic exercises, taking about 25 minutes to perform, and dedicated exclusively to the restoration and maintenance of physical health.

Qi is a form of energy, vital energy that sustains and informs our lives.  We can quickly have an experience of energy moving in the body by holding our palms facing each other in front of us, perhaps 10 inches apart, and paying attention to the sensations in our palms.

Energy infuses matter and is inseparable from matter.  Qi is an integration of energy and matter.   The universe manifests qi, and we are in relation to the qi that surrounds us.  We interchange our qi with universal qi in the same way we interchange oxygen and carbon dioxide when we breathe.  Soaring Crane Qi Gong guides the interchange and sends the qi through the meridians (or channels) of our body in specific guided ways.  We do this with our minds.  We put our minds where the qi should be.  Mind (yi) directs energy (qi).

When we attain a unity of mind with energy, we create change.  Developments in neuropsychology exemplify this.  Eric R. Kandel, in In Search of Memory, describes his neurological research that proved that synapses change with experience.  Our entire system learns because we experience.  Allan N. Schore definitively linked human brain development with the infant/mother dyad (Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, 2003).

Many cultures throughout the world, from antiquity to the present, have a frame of reference that values what we call energy. Energy is recognizable, perceptible, often as a special quality that people have an abundance of, a charismatic vibe.  And frequently energy is synonymous with breath.  From India, Hinduism offers “prana.”  From Japan, “ki.”  From Hebrew, “ch’ai.”  From Hawaii and the South Pacific, “mana.’  The ancient Greeks called it “pneuma,” and the ancient Romans, “anima,” which now is an essential part of Jungian thought.  The Stoic philosopher Posidonius thought that the vital force in human life was emanated by the sun.  In recent Western thought, we have Mesmer’s ‘animal magnetism,” Schopenhauer’s “will-to-live,” and Bergson’s “élan vital,” or life force.  In the 1930’s, Harold Saxon Burr, who edited the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, identified what he called the “L-Field,” a life field or energy field, postulating an electrodynamic theory of development, with the expectation of identifying the electromagnetic potential of the human body.  And of course, in psychoanalysis, we have Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen, with bioenergetic theory and orgone energy.  Jack Lee Rosenberg did extensive work with integrative body therapy.  Freud’s building blocks of human personality, as Mitchell and Greenberg so aptly put it, are the drives, initially ego drives, and ultimately, libido and aggression.  Psychoanalytic theory begins with economic theory and the theory of the drives.

Literary critic and seminal thinker Harold Bloom speaks, in The Book of J, of Jacob’s struggle to obtain the Blessing.  The Blessing is obtained from one’s father, and ultimately from God.  Speaking of Jacob’s lifelong agon, Bloom says, “We can say that his drive defines the Blessing once and for all: it is for more life.” And again, “The Blessing extends and preserves one’s name.”  (210).  And further, “The Blessing gives more life, awards a time without boundaries, and makes a name into a pragmatic immortality, by way of communal memory.” (p. 211).   Jacob is born a transgressor, a usurper, as his name suggests, born clinging to his brother Esau’s heel.  He deceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau’s Blessing from his father.  And ultimately, he wrestles throughout the night with an Angel of the Lord to obtain God’s blessing.  Wrestling with the Angel is putting focused energy to use.  It is a manifestation of qi.  Jacob ascends a ladder to heaven.  One way to conceptualize this is symbolically.  The ascent up the ladder can be the rising and flow of qi, of prana, of the serpent power in Tantric systems.  Jacob’s ladder can be seen as the energy centers known as chakras.  According to Bloom, God values the manifestation of life force in those He loves, and in acknowledgment of that life force he rewards those he loves with more of the same, more life.  In this sense, although Bloom would not use the term nor would the ancient Hebrews, Yahweh’s gift of more life is the gift of qi.  In Chinese terms, qi is available to all who follow the Tao, who align their virtuous mind, their righteous mind, with energy.  Qi surrounds us.  We need to learn how to use it.  In Carlos Castaneda’s fourth book, Tales of Power, the shaman Don Juan tells Carlos he will tell him the secret of life.  And he does.  He tells Carlos, and, through Carlos Castaneda’s written account, he tells us all.  He tells us, “We are surrounded by eternity.  All we need to do is learn to use it.”

Learning to use the energy that surrounds us is a life task.  When we work as psychoanalysts and our analysands start to free themselves from their resistances, their defenses, their inhibitions, when they begin to acknowledge their desire, when they believe they can actualize their desire and actualize their potential, they are learning to use the energy that surrounds us.  We use our qi and they find theirs.

As I began treatment for stage four lung cancer using cutting edge Western medicine, I also began work with energy healing with Rob Jokel, who taught me Soaring Crane Qi Gong. I practice Soaring Crane Qi Gong an hour or more a day, about 40 to 45 minutes in the morning and 20 to 25 minutes in the evening.  I felt immediate and long lasting benefits doing Qi Gong, as a host of small ailments that seemed part of the fabric of my life began to clear up and disappear.  Although I underwent a particularly virulent chemotherapy, being told that I would not be able to work, that I would be severely nauseous, and that therefore my diet would have to be bland and limited, I had absolutely no nausea, very little fatigue until the last several weeks of chemo, and although it was winter and I was constantly exposed to people who had severe colds and bronchitis, I never contracted any kind of infection.  I became fascinated with how Qi Gong worked, which led me to a deeper study of Qi Gong.  This paralleled my experience with psychoanalysis.  I became fascinated with how my analyst was able to recognize and understand my unconscious process, which led me to study psychoanalysis.

Learning Qi Gong led me to a study of the Chinese concept of mind, which is integral to Qi Gong practice and which differs in significant ways from Western concepts.  I will try to synthesize what I have learned from my study during the past two years.

Heart and mind are one.  The word “Xin” means heart/mind.  There is no differentiation between cognition and affective states.  What is perceived is both understood and felt.  Xin, heart/mind, guides us in our actions, in our behavior toward one another.  As Alan Roland has documented, in other Asian cultures, such as India and Japan, the individual experiences oneself as a part of a social whole.  Individualistic concerns are less important.

Tao, the Way or the Path, is intuited by heart/mind.  Tao guides us, and xin puts Tao into action.  De, or Virtue, is our internal Tao, an internalized Path in harmony with Nature.  Because Virtue is both inherent and learned, innate and acquired, it eventually feels like our second nature.

Ren, which is understood as the quality of being compassionate, or humane, moves the Tao to action.  The Tao is impersonal, but we are in harmony with the natural order of things by being fully human, therefore humane.  Our compassion helps us become attuned to the Tao, the natural path.

Although not particularly an aspect of mind, the concept of “Jing”, or vital essence, merits attention.  Jing is the essential substance underlying all organic life, and therefore, is the force that is the source of all organic change.  One way to conceptualize our experience of Jing is to think of it as reproductive energy, related to but not identical with libido.  It is the basis of reproduction and development, and has a supportive, nutritive function. Life depends on jing.  Because jing is the potential energy that develops into feminine and masculine energies, yin and yang, it is the source of life.  To be in harmony with Tao, the way of the universe, is to be in harmony with the interplay of these energies.

Virtue encompasses an inner sense of right and wrong, “shi” and “fei.”  We need to understand whether our course of action is right or wrong, in harmony with the Tao or out of harmony.  Our integrated heart/mind, Xin, senses the right and wrong of each decision.  Using our integrated heart/mind guides us to be in harmony with the Tao.

There are several types of mind energy.  De, Virtue, is our sense of right and wrong.  Shen is spirit-energy.  And yi, most often translated as mind, is a particular aspect of mind, a morally focused or righteous mind.  Through moral focus, yi moves qi.

A psychoanalyst might notice in this description that these concepts assume that internal unconscious conflict can be resolved by the focus of heart/mind, the focus of being one with the unfolding and eternal Tao.

In short, the Chinese concept of mind and its relationship to the universe is one of interpenetrating unity.  Mind and universe are in a sense inseparable.  True freedom then is the experience of harmony, or oneness.  Rather than struggling with the demands of nature, the human mind attains its full power when it is in accord with nature.

In performing Qi Gong, we aspire to a state of wu wei.  Wu means not having, and wei means acting, doing.  Wu wei therefore is doing without doing, an effortless being in harmony.  Anyone who has devoted oneself to playing music, or doing athletics, or creating a poem or a work of art, has experienced wu wei.  A contemporary translation of wu wei might be “being in the zone.”

After practicing Qi Gong for awhile, I wanted to discover a link between energy healing, Qi Gong, the Chinese concept of mind, and psychoanalysis.  The links eluded me.  I had an intuitive sense that there were connections, and I kept drawing a mental blank.

I gave up thinking and began to observe.

Many psychoanalysts look to research to demonstrate the effectiveness and truth of psychoanalytic treatment and theory.  How do we use scientific method, which relies on quantification, to demonstrate inner experience.  One of the frustrations of using the scientific model is that so much of claims about psychoanalysis are essentially anecdotal, based on individual instances, essentially experiential.  Empiricists in a certain way are romanticists.  Empirical evidence is cognate with romanticist emphasis on intensity of experience.

Practitioners of Qi Gong, like practitioners of yoga, also emphasize the experiential nature of the activity.  It cannot be taught through words, it can only be known through personal experience.  The Tao de Ching, the Book of the Way of Virtue, begins by stating that the Tao that can be said is not the Tao.

According to Wikipedia (I have not found other sources to substantiate this), in the 1970’s, the Chinese government began an effort to demonstrate via scientific study the efficacy and truth of Qi Gong practice and theory.  They actually had some success in demonstrating a small but significant change in the electromagnetic field around someone who had just completed a Qi Gong practice.  They have defined qi as measurable infrared electromagnetic waves, and have claimed that mobilization of qi by mental concentration causes changes in static water.

Whatever is demonstrable or provable here by definition remains on the outside of my experience.  Only my own experience communicates anything about energy to me.  But as a colleague who is a devoted drive theorist said to me, “Well, Merle, you do experience the drives, don’t you?  You experience libido and aggression.”  And sure enough, I do, you betcha.

My observations therefore focused on my own experience of Qi Gong and on watching Rob, the healer, work with me.  I began to internalize his technique just as I had my own analyst’s way of working.

Rob engages with my energy system, through touch and language and his perception of how I heal myself.  As I began to observe and integrate his style and his technique, I found myself in part translating what he does into psychoanalytic terms, in part giving myself over to new concepts and new ways of being.  For instance, his way of talking about my experience of my illness, from the cellular level to the physiological to the psychological, engaged me in visualizing bodily processes and personal attitudes.  As a psychoanalyst, I can call this observing ego.  In spiritual systems I’ve studied, it is called the Witness.  Observing ego helps us to discover the drive for health that is present even in the most toxic and pathological states.  We can understand the function of the symptoms, and also what the hidden gift in pathology might be – the pathway toward self-knowledge.

My understanding of the psychoanalytic attitude, the psychoanalytic stance, is that the analysand begins to identify with the analyst’s interest, the analyst’s curiosity.  Analytic attitude creates observing ego.  The same holds true with energy work.  The energy worker’s interest in the wholeness of a person, a person as process, enables that person to extend the same interest to the self.  The self does not break down into separate components, but, rather, integrates.  Integration is the goal of psychoanalysis, as we reclaim the split-off, repressed, denied parts of the self, of memory.  Through energy work we integrate physiological events as an aspect of psychological and spiritual experience.  The two styles of integrations are parallel.

A potential integration of psychoanalysis, qi gong, and energy work involves the relationship of conscious and unconscious mind.  In Soaring Crane Qi Gong, the conscious mind guides the qi, and unconscious processes become evident, though they are noted by the observing ego and allowed to subside.  Yoga practitioners are taught to let thoughts arise and subside, to float by, and float out of sight.  What if all unconscious process existed simultaneously with conscious mind, if we are mindful?  When we achieve wu wei, ‘being in the zone,” body and mind and feeling are integrated.  In Qi Gong, as we use our virtue-mind to direct energy, the energy moves.  It becomes second nature.  As a baseball player swings a bat, or captures a ball in a mitt, as a gymnast tumbles through air until the gymnast suddenly stands upright exactly where she visualized her feet landing, conscious and unconscious mind also are one.  When Freud speaks of free-floating or evenly-hovering attention, or Bion speaks of entering into a session without memory or desire, one way to conceptualize how this is achieved is to imagine a harmony of conscious and unconscious process.  When we set aside expectation – if we set aside expectation – if expectation can be set aside – we allow unconscious resonances to arise without supplanting focus on the self-knowledge of the analysand.  And we allow understanding to develop without imposing either theory or unconscious unfulfilled fantasies on the analysand.  If –

Another application is through countertransference engagement and observation:  unprocessed countertransference can disrupt our own energy systems and therefore can interfere with our free-floating attention, our analytic stance, our focus, our mindfulness.  Processing our unconscious responses – our countertransference – is a form of mindfulness, We connect with the other’s unconscious with our own, but through mindfulness.  Free-floating attention is parallel to yi guiding qi, mind guiding energy.

And yet another application is in the various aspects of object relations theory, working with projective identifications and forms of internalizations.  Projective identification of course is used defensively (though not only defensively).  It can be understood as an attempt to transfer energy, and when we help metabolize projective identifications we enable the person to effectively utilize and become mindful of her/his own energy.

How can we visualize this interplay of eastern energy system and psychoanalytic thought in our clinical work?  An example: We see the surges and collapses in energy in the other, and we help the other person visualize her/his own energic movement.  I work with a young woman who is beautiful, intellectually gifted and artistically talented, enmeshed with her very traditional Asian family, yet Americanized and longing for individuation.  Her maternal introject is rejecting of her individuated sexuality, her career choice, her marrying out of her ethnicity.  Please note that I say maternal introject, not mother.  She recognizes that her mother is quite accepting of her happy object choice.  For many years this young woman could not imagine marrying at all.  In one session, when she spoke of her sexual longing, I noticed a change in her energy field.  Her chest collapsed, the air around her seemed to fold in pleats into her chest.  In psychoanalytic terms, the introject pulled her into internal collapse.  She began to forfeit her desire. I said, “Your mother seems to be pulling you into yourself, as if there were a string at your waistline that collapsed you like a marionette whose strings are suddenly dropped.”  The body image of her collapsing energy and the psychic image of a mother demanding submission spoke to both of us.  In another session, she experienced a transference projection, expecting me to tell her how a good and obedient wife should behave, I said, “You seem to be occupying me with your mother, as if I were a puppet and she were the hand inside me.”

In another instance, I began work with a woman in her early 40’s who was concerned that she could not actualize her creative energies and develop a career path.  She enters the room vibrating, a bundle of nervous energy.  She resembles the figures in a Keith Haring painting.  She hunches forward, all her energy in her pursed lips.  She shakes her head to herself, as if forbidding herself the right to speak.  She does not speak.  She vibrates.  I see a red glow around her shoulders.  When I have these quasi-hallucinatory experiences that I have learned to identify as seeing energy patterns, I call on my inner scientist, whom I frequently repudiate under other circumstances.  My inner scientist checks for tricks of lighting, what time of day it is, am I seeing sunlight reflecting reddish highlights in her hair onto her shoulders?  I stare carefully at her hair, and the effect disappears.  I stop staring, and the effect returns.  I understand that I am seeing the burden of family interdictions weighing her down, so that her shoulders collapse and her middle body is crushed.  Although she is athletic and slim, she looks squashed down, almost dumpy.

I have seen her energy and I have intuited what it means, but in this instance I do not speak at all.  She has to bring herself out of her crushed center sufficiently to funnel just enough energy through her tight pursed mouth, to begin to speak.  If I speak first, I dominate her, as her very anxious mother dominates her with her need.  And yes, she begins to speak about the family dynamics that she feels oppress her, weigh her down, burden her.  Here I synthesize what I learned from Art Robbins and from Rob Jokel.  In his countertransference groups, Art teaches us to observe the person’s body style, body energy, asks us to sit and move like that person.  He taught us the empathy of identifications, conscious and unconscious, with what is being expressed in the body.  He taught us to pay attention.  Rob taught me to see energy manifesting, sometimes as light and color, sometimes elsewise.

I offer one last example of perceiving an energy field change.  I have worked for three years with a 30 year old woman, a devoted yoga practitioner, from an affluent upper middle class family.  She has an air of entitlement, of expectation that she will be provided for in every which way.  She presents as lively, vivacious, always on, and her high energy frequently escalates to frantic.  She has successfully overcome an eating disorder, and expresses the desperate and clamoring needs that underlay the eating disorder by a strangely addictive relationship with her meditation practice.  If she does not attend a yoga class daily, she becomes over-stimulated and anxious.   In a recent session, she spoke of her anxiety about the current economic downslide and fear that it would affect her husband’s earnings.  She spoke of the pleasures and demands of her own work.  As she spoke I had a quasi-hallucination of her metamorphizing into a Tibetan person about 55 years old.  Her bone structure and skin tone and color and texture changed.  She said, “Merle, why are you staring at me like that?”  I replied before I knew I was actually speaking, and I said, “I just saw your still silent core.”  She burst into tears and said, “Nobody ever sees that.  I don’t let anybody see that. Sometimes I find it in yoga.  But no one knows.”

My conclusion is that I inform my psychoanalytic practice with what I have gained working with an energy healer and from my practice of Qi Gong and from my interest in Chinese concepts of mind because that is what interests me.  A simple, banal conclusion.  What is important about it is that all of us bring the richness of who we are and what interests us to our clinical work, and that alone enables us to resonate with the energies of the people we see.  Ultimately we conduct the “talking cure” within an energy field that is beyond language, different from language.  I am a poet, and I love language.  I particularly love the English language, which is so conglomerate and reveals buried history in its structure and vocabulary.  I am devoted to the “talking cure.”  But I am even more devoted to that in which language is embedded, the subtle vibrations and interactions of energy that enable us to reach toward one another.

Because I always will think and feel like the psychoanalyst I am, I find that Qi Gong experience rings all the bells of the whole-field model of psychoanalytic theory that informs my work.  In qi I recognize the drives, in focusing the mind I recognize ego function, in experiencing myself in relationship to natural forces and yin and yang energies I recognize object relations, and in being a focused participatory self I recognize self psychology.  In both psychoanalysis and Qi Gong I am a bodily self, a witness or observing self, dwelling in relationship.  In a spiritual sense, I would say that I stand in relationship to the Source of All Qi.  If my understanding tells me that the Source of All Qi, that which underlies the great impersonal Tao, is impersonal in relation to me, my experience is one of an interchange of generosity and gratitude.  The existence of qi feels generous to my grateful self.  My intellect can grasp the concept of a non-personal Tao, but I still dwell in a post-depressive position Melanie Klein world of reparation and gratitude.

The concepts delineated in this paper were first presented at the IFPE 19th Annual Interdisciplinary Conference.  At the close of the presentation, psychoanalyst and Soaring Crane Qi Gong practitioner Susan Harding and I led those who were interested in experiencing Soaring Crane Qi Gong in a two-minute exercise, Double Return of Qi.


  • Francis Sommer Anderson, editor, Bodies in Treatment, The Analytic Press, New York & London, 2008.
  • Harold Bloom, The Book of J, Riverhead Books, New York, 1990.
  • Harold Saxon Burr, Blueprint for Immortality: The Electric Patterns of Life, C.W. Daniel Company, Ltd., Great Britain, 1972.
  • Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power, Pocketbook Books, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1974.
  • Leonard Cohen, Collected Poems, 1956-1968, The Viking Press, New York, 1968.
  • Inge Dugans with Suzanne Ellis, The Art of Reflexology, Element Press, Shaftesbury, Dorset; Rockport, Massachusetts; Brisbane, Queensland, 1992.
  • Sigmund Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (1895),  The Standard Edition, Volume I.
  • Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell, Object Relations Theory in Psychoanalytic Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, 1983.
  • Lao Tsu, transl. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, The Tao Te Ching, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1972.
  • Alexander Lowen, Bioenergetics: The Revolutionary Theory That Uses the Language of the Body to Heal the Problems of the Mind, Penguin Compass, New York, 1975.
  • Menahem Luz, with Marjorie L. Rand and Diane Asay, Cosmic Sympathy: The
  • Teachings of Posidonius, Berkeley Hills Books, 2007.
  • Joyce McDougall, Theaters of the Body, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1989.
  • Wilhelm Reich, with Vincent R. Cargagno, The Function of the Orgasm: Discovery of the Orgone, Farrar, Straus & Girous, New York, 1973.
  • Jack Lee Rosenberg, with Marjorie L. Rand and Diane Asay, Body, Self, and Soul: Sustaining Integration.
  • Alan Roland, In Search of Self in India and Japan, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1988.
  • Allan N. Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1999.
  • University of Hong Kong website, Department of Philosophy, no attributed author, “The Philosophy of Mind in China.”
  • Wikipedia (used to research the role of the Chinese government in researching and documenting manifestations of qi in qi gong.)
  • Zhao, Jin Xiang, trans. Chen, Hui, Xian, Chinese Soaring Crane Qi Gong, Qigong Association of America, Corvallis, Oregon, 1997.

Merle Molofsky, psychoanalyst and poet, serves on the boards of IFPE and NAAP and the editorial board of The Psychoanalytic Review. Articles in The Psychoanalytic Review, Journal of Religion of Health.

6 Responses to A Meditation on Energy Work and the Chinese Concept of Mind: Psychoanalytic Applications

  1. lou says:

    Thanks, Merle, for linking energy work with the talking cure. I consider qi as similar to the quantum field and dream energy, with manifest and unmanifest realities, all of which are useful in analysis and healing. Good job,

  2. Melanie Zarabi says:

    Thanks Merle for pulling all these healing forms, theories,and energies all together so eloquently.

  3. Amanda George says:

    Fascinating and inspiring, Merle. I’m watching the energy messages, from within and without, from me and my patients, in a new way. Thank you. <<Amanda

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