Becoming who we are: Daoism and health
‘It is one of the commonest of our mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all that there is to perceive.’
– Charles W. Leadbeater
When comparing and contrasting modern society’s view of health to that of Daoism, it is easy to slip into a rant about the reigning Western Medicine Supremacy model and the unfortunate enslavement of the general population to it.
Worshippers of scientific materialism, these supremacists are the adolescents when it comes to the investigation of ‘health’, yet have the loudest voice. They judge and denigrate traditional-medicine elders, with little understanding of any system other than their own. Anything that cannot be measured with their limited tools is dismissed, labelled as quackery and anti-science. When patients die after using supremacist medicine, they are lauded as having fought the good fight; when patients die using traditional medicine, they are accused of being misguided or tragic. Simultaneously self-righteous and fickle, these supremacists run after pharmaceutical, diagnostic and treatment fashions, declaring them as mandatory truths for all to adhere to, while simultaneously discarding the ‘evidence-based’ truths they lived by the day before. They claim scientific rigour without turning that lens upon the constant inconsistencies and fallacies of their own model. Double standards abound. Traditional medicine would be regulated to the point of obliteration if it caused even a fraction of the iatrogenic or nosocomial illnesses, addictions or deaths that are attributed to conventional medicine, or if traditional herbal remedies, rather than the pharmaceuticals, were poisoning our waterways and drinking water.
Desiring to embrace diversity, many attempt to pursue the latest natural health trends reported in the media. They proclaim disdain of doctors, yet ultimately defer to them. Use of antibiotics is decried in supermarket chickens, but not in their own human bodies. The majority remain beholden to the supremacist fear-based ideology, unquestioningly lining up for their flu vaccines and dutifully scheduling their annual exams. They anxiously await the decrees of ‘healthy’ or ‘diseased’, as determined by scans and blood tests. Handed down from doctors, like priests delivering a message from God, these proclamations are either passes to continue on another year of potentially ‘unhealthy’ living (simply because ‘the numbers’ fall in range), or doomsday scarlet letters of illness, embedding panic or a subtle unease into the fabric of one’s being. ‘Health’ in this system has little to do with one’s actual experience, and offers little in the way of self-empowerment, self-awareness and self-responsibility.
Some doctors wear badges of tolerance, say, by touting the benefits of meditation, mind you, only after the Harvard study ‘proved’ its efficacy. Like Columbus ‘discovering’ America, medical researchers can be experts at ‘discovering’ that which has been already known. Prescribing Vitamin D with one hand, they dole out prednisone like candy with the other. They cultivate a bedside manner and erroneously call it mind-body medicine. One can’t fault their shortfalls. As genuine as these doctors may be, their diagnostic and treatment tools, developed in isolation and based solely on that which can be measured, will never breach the compartmentalised barriers that are set up, between the body, mind and spirit, and between individual and environment.
In this climate, even traditional practitioners kowtow to gain legitimacy, seeking validation of their thousands-of-years-old medicine through modern research, spending hundreds of hours learning the supremacist language of pathology, and proudly working alongside ‘real’ doctors. Many enthusiastically find hope in the promise of ‘Integrative Medicine’, without recognising that ‘integration’, for the most part, currently consists of co-opting and bastardising the beautiful cohesive sphere of traditional wisdom and cramming bits of it into the square hole of conventional medicine.
People within this system are robbed of the potential existing within their own bodies, minds and spirits. They are disconnected from relationship with the exterior natural world, and live under the fear of disease, rather than mastering how to be whole and well. In a cyclical manner, the medical system becomes as pathological as the society it serves.
As an antidote to all this, embracing the Daoist perspective of health and embodying it via methods like Qigong can begin to remove the fear-based shackles of the supremacist model, replacing them with trust, re-empowerment, connectedness, acceptance of life, illness, and death.
I could go on and on in this vein…
But, upon reflection, what does this rant of divisiveness bring to my life; how does it assist in the cultivation of my spirit? I have gladly left this behaviour behind, but the arguments still roll off my tongue with ease. Even though these proclamations don’t rile or linger with my emotions, such talk reeks of hubris and disdain. It does little to connect me to the harmony and virtue of my spirit to focus on the seeming shortcomings of the other. On the contrary, it evokes a slight derisive glee within. To abandon or refrain from such talk is not out of moral obligation to be ‘good’, but out of a recognition of how such indulgence has the potential to create vibrational seeds of discord, either in myself or in others. If I wish to embrace health from the Daoist perspective, I cannot discount how my actions, emotions, and words, and how much I dwell in dualistic discriminations, aligns with my life path, or might alienate those whom I encounter from discovering and embracing the beauty of Daoism.
Good men are not argumentative,
the argumentative are not wise….
…The Way of Heaven is to benefit, not to harm,
the Way of the Sage is to do his duty, not to strive with anyone.
So enough about ‘Us vs. Them’…
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The discrepancy between Daoist and conventional approaches to health largely stems from the differences in how ‘health’ is defined. Health in Daoism is not predicated solely on the absence of physical disease. Physical health is also important within Daoism, but only as part of the picture. Because a seamless relationship exists between body and spirit, and between individual beings and the universe as a whole, good physical health has importance in that it offers a more efficient body-vehicle through which to experience life and provides longevity for further spiritual cultivation. As Chinese-medicine teacher and Daoist priest Jeffrey Yuen stated (something to the effect of): ‘Healing is not about saving lives; it is about saving souls. To die is not to lose; to live is not to win.’ Because the body is recognised as a temporary form, we can still lay claim to ‘health’ even in the presence of disease, if we have cultivated our spirit. The spiritual aspect of ourselves is considered paramount to achieving health, as seen in this early passage of the Huang Di Nei Jing:
In ancient times those people who understood the Tao patterned themselves upon the Yin and the Yang and they lived in harmony with the arts of divination… by these means the ancients kept their bodies united with their souls, so as to fulfill their allotted span completely… Nowadays, people are not like this… their passions exhaust their vital forces… they do not know how to find contentment within themselves; they are not skilled in the control of their spirits… for these reasons they reach only half of the hundred years and then they degenerate.
To vastly simplify, spiritual growth in Daoism does not mean to become other than what we are, but rather to recognise what we truly are and to live in connection with Wuji (the emptiness containing all potential), in awareness of the nature of all things. This full awareness goes beyond the obvious tangible world that we are mostly familiar with.
Astrophysicists determined that what they can see/measure in the cosmos accounts for just 4% of the universe. The other 96%, referred to as ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, are aspects of the universe that are unknown, yet exert forces on what we are able to perceive. In Daoism, since we are regarded as a microcosm of the macrocosm (the universe), perhaps the 4% corresponds with our tangible body, while the other 96% represents our elemental energies (Jing, Qi and Shen) and the forces of Heaven and Earth—aspects that scientists are unable to measure, but ones that have been described by Daoists for thousands of years. We can utilise Daoist wisdom to understand the cosmic and cyclical forces that comprise both the outer universe and our inner selves. Through deeper awareness of these extra layers, which previously seemed hidden, we become freer in our lives and in how we see ourselves in the interplay of everything. This expanded view makes it easier to relinquish clinging to our physical state and to ultimately accept its inescapable degradation.
To illustrate the phenomenon of our existence, Daoism uses descriptions of ‘spirits’ that comprise us and elucidates how our emotional lives can impede spiritual clarity. ‘The Spirit wants to be embodied because it has a lesson that needs to be experienced. That lesson is the curriculum, it is the search, it is the quest of your life.’ The original spirit (Yuan Shen) carries the pure message of Heaven within us. The Shen Zhi, the aspect of ourselves that reacts or responds to our emotional desires of our current incarnation, is seen as the lowest expression of the Divine. Additionally, the five elemental spirits (which are fundamental to, and popularised by, the theory and practice of Chinese medicine) reside in the five Yin organs of the body. These include the Shen, Yi, the seven Po, the Zhi, and the three Hun.
Rather than see these as entities possessing us, one might think of these ‘spirits’ as varying forces that we embody, each force having different functions. Worry, grief, fear, anger and anxiety are associated with each of the elemental forces. Imbalance of these emotions can manifest physically in disease. In addition, if we are overwrought or consumed by acquired emotions, it becomes difficult to access the clarity of our nature, thus affecting our spiritual cultivation. ‘The important thing is not to be prey to one emotion, not to be preoccupied by some kind of desire which is not the realisation of your own nature. Because that realisation allows you to be able to really see what it is, to see yourself and also what happens at the exterior.’ Mastery of the emotions is key for spiritual growth. This does not mean we should not express nor have emotions, but that it is important not to lose sight of our true nature amidst our emotions. ‘…a life full of emotions is not endangered by anything provided that in your mind you always have authentic cultivation of self. Not of self for self, but of self in order to be fit for what you are from nature and what you are to become from destiny.’
Our destiny/life path is referred to as our Ming. It is created and handed down from Heaven when we are born. It is considered advantageous for our development to travel that trajectory in the smoothest way possible.
We are too often sidetracked from the priorities of our lives… Our Spirit is dampened from the movement of going straight ahead into this adventure of life, and we often disassociate ourselves from that purpose because there are some things that have traumatized that pathway, the movement of Qi.
Most of us, upon introspection, could identify when we are being pulled off of our Ming from either external or internal circumstances. When this happens, our health can be further affected.
If there is a problem coming from my ability as a person to follow or not follow my own nature, because of some kind of wrong decision or inability to keep in touch with my spirits, all the mechanism of renewal of the essences and qi can be disturbed… Little by little… my vitality diminishes. At the same time the influence of my spirit is diminishing, and the inner access to the direction of my life gets worse and worse and disease appears.
Ideally, living as much as possible in accordance with the mandate of Heaven can ensure judicious use of our essence. ‘The intent to remain congruent with the “will and intent of heaven” is what gives the individual virtue (De). It is through the development of his or her virtue that the individual establishes a healthy relationship with the Dao, Heaven, and the spirit world.’
* * *
‘If I cannot stay well by a normal diet and temperate living, the sooner I die, the better for me and the society of which I am a member.’
I enjoy this quote from Scott Nearing (who lived a robust and healthy life, dying at age 100 via purposeful fasting) because it demonstrates self-responsibility in achieving health, not just for the individual, but for society as a whole. Nearing was not Daoist, as far I as I know, but anyone familiar with his homesteading life (from the 1932-1983) would likely agree he lived in accordance with his Ming or mandate of Heaven. His life exemplifies how achieving vital health without modern medical intervention is not an elusive concept, rather it is there for the taking if we are willing to observe the natural world around us, and learn, listen and live accordingly. Classical Daoist texts such as the Dao De Jing and the Huang Di Nei Jing outline extensively how one can live according to Dao in each moment; this serves as preventative medicine. ‘Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty, or forges weapons after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Are not these actions too late?’ Yang Sheng (life nourishing) techniques include recommendations on diet, lifestyle, meditation and living in harmony with nature and the seasons. At first these concepts may appear to be intellectual or too restrictive, but as one begins to embody and understand the cohesiveness and strengths of the system, it becomes effortless to live in line with it.
* * *
Qigong is one Yang Sheng practice to maintain a state of health and is also the foundation to alchemical practices. Regulating the body, breath and mind through Qigong exercises, we become familiar with the inner workings of this vehicle that carries us through our lifetime; we gain experiential understanding of the concepts of Heaven and Earth, Yin and Yang and the five elements. Qigong and Dao Yin exercises nourish us and release stagnation, which is considered the primary cause of disease in Chinese medicine. The initial focus of Qigong may primarily be on the Jing level; however, and as sensitivity increases, we can begin to work on the Qi level. Since Jing, Qi and Shen are all manifestations of one another, spiritual development is inevitable.
The normal Daoist Qigong training process is: 1. To convert the Jing into Qi; 2. To nourish the Shen with Qi ; 3. To refine Shen into nothingness; 4. To crush the nothingness. The first step involves strengthening the Jing, then converting this Jing into Qi through meditation or other methods. This Qi is then led to the top of the head to nourish the brain and raise up the Shen.
Much of my Qigong training with Lotus Neigong (LNG) thus far has primarily focused on the physical level, but the ripple effect into the energetic and spiritual levels is palpable. With the 2+ hour daily practice commitment, Qigong is a defining moment of my daily structure and constant companion through which to experience life. It connects me with my surroundings and to the flow of the varying weather changes, both internally and externally. This LNG training has been a perfect funnel through which to channel the lifestyle, mental attitude and spiritual development that I have previously cultivated. It is like a magnifying glass concentrating sun rays into a more focused direction for the coming years—physically, energetically and spiritually.
Laying a foundation in strength and alignment has been exceptionally significant. This redirected my structural development away from the potentially unhealthy trajectory it was on, by utilising what youthful vitality remains, before my tendons and sinews became desiccated and solidified. Just prior to starting with LNG, I had become mildly complacent in body conditioning. Despite the recognition that my expanding torso reflected disharmony (stagnation in the Dai Mai), addressing it wasn’t a priority. It was a storage closet that I’d clean out at some point, but not today, not this year. It is remarkably easy to continue through life in whatever subpar morphology we have become accustomed to, especially when we are not significantly disabled by it.
LNG inspired me to clean this closet. I have a new found reverence for the importance of a strong core and how much vitality it brings. It seems so obvious now—how the efforts, benefits and development of one’s Qigong are greatly diminished without the strongest, most flexible (but not slack) and aligned body possible, and that a strong core is key to achieving this. Without such motivation/instruction from the LNG programme, it is doubtful I would have devoted so many hours on daily planks, crunches and press-ups, especially in the name of Qigong. In fact, I had developed a mild disdain for such exercises as being unhealthy because of the potential for creating tightness and being excessive. I still believe such exercises done in isolation can cause imbalances, but when practised with the principles of the ‘honeycomb’ connection, in combination with Qigong afterwards, then openness, flow, and elasticity can be created.
Another missing piece in my previous training was the focus on the elastic lines while relaxing the muscles. I could always go into a mabu or a low pubu stance, but this was by using muscle strength and innate flaccid flexibility. Stretching with the elastic lines instead and releasing out through the Jing Jin required my starting from the beginning. It can still be challenging to find that sweet spot, but the connective feeling within, when it is found, is illuminating in its strength and buoyancy.
Mentally, I observe varying emotions and watch my monkey mind. Doubt surfaces sometimes: ‘Is my Lower Dantian spinning?’; occasionally I note my lack of inclination to prostrate or run about. But such thoughts do not, by any means, dominate my sessions. Other experiences arise and are let go of (magnetic pressure in the hands, sense of body distortion, pulsations, warping of time and movement, sharpened vision, an impression of x-ray vision, etc.). For me, the consistent tangible validation of the Jing flow is warmth spreading through the body and having warm hands during Qigong even on the coldest days. Most often, I engage the exercises with trust and openness, appreciating the ‘aha’ moments of connection as we delve into the layers of each movement, and enjoying the moments of silence and spaciousness when they come. Comfort and contentment arise in the inner understanding of myself, others and everything around us as continuous vibrational flows of Qi.
External changes are visually subtle, as there is still a lot of progress needed to re-align this physical structure that took many years to create. But the shifts are profound in affirming the body’s transformative power. With a stronger core and better alignment, I can drop my mind more easily into areas that used to feel amorphous. It is as though an antenna is receiving the message more clearly. A natural growth of clarity has opened. Qigong gives me the time/space to observe, to balance my five spirits, to connect with my Yuan Shen, to allow my Ming to express itself unimpeded and to its fullest vigour and to be the springboard into exploring my energetic self. And most of all, Qigong allows me to be content in what is. For me, this is the ultimate state of health.
 Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Ch 81, trans. John C.H. Wu (New York: St. John’s University Press, 1961), 165
 Yuen, Jeffrey, Cultivation of the Practitioner Lecture notes (New York, Swedish Institute of Massage, 2000).
 Veth, Ilza, trans., The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966), pp 97-98.
 Yuen, Jeffrey C., Light on the Essence of Chinese Medicine: The Ling Shu Vol I. (Newton, MA: New England School of Acupuncture, 2001), p 11.
 Johnson, Jerry Alan. Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy. Volume 1: Energetic Anatomy and Physiology. (Pacific Grove, CA: International Institute of Medical Qigong, 2005), p 67.
 Rochat de la Vallée, Elisabeth and Claude Larre. The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. (Cambridge, UK: Monkey Press, 1996), p 6.
 Rochat de la Vallée, Elisabeth and Claude Larre. The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. (Cambridge, UK: Monkey Press, 1996), p 15.
 Yuen, Jeffrey C. Light on the Essence of Chinese Medicine: The Ling Shu Vol I. (Newton, MA: New England School of Acupuncture, 2001), p 12.
 Rochat de la Vallée, Elisabeth and Claude Larre. The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. (Cambridge, UK: Monkey Press, 1996), p 35.
 Johnson, Jerry Alan. Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy. Volume 1: Energetic Anatomy and Physiology. (Pacific Grove, CA: International Institute of Medical Qigong, 2005), p 114.
 Nearing, Scott. ‘Refusal letter to physician who was offering him exams and medications’. Loving and Leaving the Good Life. by Helen Nearing. (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing,1993). Kindle Location 1734.
 Ni, Maoshing. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc, 1995) p 7.
 Yang, Jwing-Ming. Qigong: The Secret of Youth: Da Mo’s Muscle/tendon and Marrow/brain Washing Classics (Boston, MA: YMAA Publication Center, 2000) p 44.