In this essay, I will be exploring the concept of health according to Daoism in comparison with modern societies’ view on health, as well as how health relates to Qi gong and spiritual growth.
Additionally, I will share some of my personal experiences in regard to how one may experience, measure, and track health in a simple, tangible, and verifiable way. This is important, because I think too often people view health and spiritual growth in vague, ambitious, and idealistic terminology, whereas I believe Daoism can provide us with a more grounded and systematic approach.
Modern understanding of health
What’s promoted as health is usually fitness, but fitness generally does not equal health. Obviously both are important, but we shouldn’t sacrifice one in a quest for the other as is often the case in modern times. Health, today, is usually understood as one of, or a combination of ,the following:
- Absence of pathology.
- Physical beauty or attractive physique, i.e., being “ripped” or “fit.”
- Performance of rote physical fitness, i.e., running, lifting weights, etc.
- Fitting into a pre-defined “normal” bell curve of abstract chemical amounts.
- The ability to go to work and be productive.
This way of understanding health is so extremely short sighted and inhumane that it is difficult to know where to begin when trying to break it down. The most basic way to understand it would be to take it back to the axioms of its underlying cosmology, which are basically:
1. There really is a solid physical world.
2. This solid physical world is made up of separate parts, such as, chemicals and particles.
3. This solid physical world and its separate chemicals dominate each other mechanically.
4. Our consciousness is somehow separate from this solid physical world.
5. This solid physical world had a beginning creating moment and thus a creator—or the big bang.
6. Things might suck now, but the best is yet to come at a later date, i.e., heaven, evolution, capitalism, scientism.
If we understand the assumptions of this cosmology then it’s really quite easy to understand how and why it views health in the limited and mechanistic way in which it does, and why it places little to no weight into personal conduct, experience, and responsibility.
Now let’s compare some of the underlying axioms of the Daoist view, which I want to clarify is not really a Daoist view, but is based in the Han cosmology from which Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism draw.
1. There is not a solid physical world, what appears to be solid is just a temporary manifestation of chi vibrating at a particular frequency.
2. The “physical world” may appear as separate things, but are all essentially combinations of the same underlying five elements.
3. The natural world is not a mechanistic machine, it’s an intelligent aspect of Dao.
4. Our consciousness is not separate from the world of “things.”
5. The world had no beginning and has no end, thus time isn’t real in the traditional sense and is more a social construct of convenience and organization. There’s actually only the fluctuation of yin and yang as studied and understood through the I Ching.
Implied within this Han cosmology is that who we are is a natural manifestation of the cosmos, interconnected with, and made up of the same five elements as everything else within the world of things.
It’s also implied that health is already built into the intelligence of our organism and thus not something we need to anxiously and feverishly rely upon the external world for. If that natural world is fundamentally intelligent and self-correcting and our organism is a manifestation of this, then it’s fairly easy to see how one may arrive at such a logical conclusion within this paradigm.
If we want to work with and increase our own intelligence, then we probably want to study and observe natural principles to then be able to integrate them into our lives and thus experience them directly. It’s also easy to see how this idea could seem so alien and incorrect, if we believe that we are separate from the mechanical physical world, which someone else created as a way to test us, so that we may be delivered to somewhere “better” someday.
The modern understanding of health is fundamentally impotent because, from the very start, we are inherently divorced from our own experience as humans and at the mercy of blind chance, thus we are set up to rely upon external authorities to tell us what to do and to save us from ourselves. What makes the Daoist/Han view literally empowering is that it tells us that we are manifestations of the natural world, in the same way the Earth grows trees, it also grows people. As such, we are not set up to be divorced from our own experience, but instead encouraged and provided methods, i.e., Qi gong, to be able to directly experience natural principles within our own body.
Observing Natural Health
Nature is in constant movement, flow, and transformation; the sun, the moon, the stars, the solar systems, and the universe at large are always rotating. Rivers, streams, and creeks are always flowing. Subatomic principles based on quantum physics are always moving. Our normal healthy metabolism, respiration, and circulation are always moving. If these things weren’t moving, they would be dead; if we consider what separates a corpse from a person, it probably comes down to some aspect of movement.
The great principle to be derived from this should be obvious: If you want to harmonize with nature, you need to keep moving and keep things fresh. This applies to health or to achieving any kind of goal. If we are at Point A but want to be at Point B, then obviously we are going to have to move to get there, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Thus some kind of systematic process of transformation is going to have to be applied, practiced, and integrated.
What is Health?
Based on my understanding of Chinese Medicine and Daoism, health can be defined thusly: Where there is movement and free flow, there’s health. Where there is blockage, stagnation, and fixation, there is dis-ease, or a lack of ease.
While this may seem like a weird definition, you can observe it in nature. When a stream is flowing with clean water and sustaining an affluent ecosystem, the stream is considered “healthy.” However, dam that same stream, and you will see infestation, dirty water, the growth of fungi and algae, bacterial development, and the loss of nourishment.
This same process can happen in our own body. If you were to tourniquet your elbow, for example, everything from the elbow down would be robbed of nourishment. Your lower arm would be cut off from the blood supply and all the nutrients that keep that part of the body alive. That specific blockage, or stagnation, is going to cause a lack of ease, or dis-ease. If you go in and increase movement and free flow by practicing Qi gong, then there is going to be an increase of health.
This also happens on the psychological level. You have positive or negative experiences that cause you to form limiting self-images, which cut you off from different aspects of yourself, thus creating a kind of blockage or form of stagnation within your system. Through the practice of Qi gong and the subsequent relaxation, openness, and increased flow of Qi, we can start feel more whole, grounded, and rooted with in ourselves and thus start to notice some of these mental fixations start to loosen up so that we can let them go. This process of letting go is often experienced as sense of lightness or increased vitality within the body.
Another way I have found it helpful to define health is: Having a state of wellness in which our mind is clear, our emotions are balanced, our body is free from illness or injury, and in which we possess a strong sense of vitality and well-being. It is almost important to understand that health within Daoism, is not a fixed concept, nor are its definitions. It’s a fluid process, a set of flexible and adaptable principles which allows us to apply them to our unique situation and thus experience them first hard.
How to measure health
We need to know if something is actually improving our lives and well-being to understand if it is truly “healthy.” There are an infinite amount of strategies, paradigms, supplements, herbs, diets, cleanses, fasts, and detoxes that promise “health.”
Doctors, authors, and PR agents all have different takes on how to be healthy: “You should do this,” or “you should avoid that.” You could believe one over the other, but at the end of the day, how do you know if something is actually making you healthier? Here are just a few ways in which your overall health could be measured and calculated:
- You have a strong back and fluid joints.
- You have good circulation of bodily fluids, including the blood, lymph, synovial fluid, cerebrospinal fluid, hormones, etc.
- You are emotionally balanced.
- You have an ability to breathe deeply and fully in a relaxed, comfortable manner.
- You have balanced internal organ functions.
- You have a smooth and relaxed nervous system.
- You have the ability to engage in all of life’s activities in comfort and with good stamina.
- You have a fulfilling sex life.
Obviously, no one matches these definitions of health to the fullest degree, but these criteria generally are markers of a high quality of life and thus a high probability of happiness and satisfaction. These criteria are not the only criteria, just some examples that provide an opportunity to track progress and results.
Qi Gong’s Relation to Health and Spiritual Growth
I see the relation between Qi gong and spiritual growth as primarily three principles which I will illustrate below and then explain in more detail:
- The progression and structure of Qi gong, Nei gong, and Nei Dan.
- Organization of five elements and five spirits.
- Understanding that the spiritual is rooted in the energetic and physical planes.
These understandings are what make Daoism more natural, holistic, and pragmatic as a spiritual growth practice than what is commonly available in modern times. It’s been my experience that a great deal of spiritual traditions tend to deny the body in hopes that it will elevate the spirit, or the more hedonistic opposite of glorifying and worshipping the body in hopes that it will lead to transcendence. Both are somewhat forced and thus not really natural, common sense, or in alignment with the Han/Daoist cosmology. It’s out of alignment in the sense that Daoism never says Heaven is better than Earth or Yang is better than Yin, it is more interested in the dynamic interplay of the various aspects of the energies. Basically Daoism seems to quite okay with paradox whereas many other traditions want one side of the paradox to somehow win or be superior to the other.
In Damo Mitchell’s book White Moon on The Mountain Peak, he defines the basic functions of Qi gong as:
- Regulate the body and soften the joints.
- Structure the body so it can fully relax major muscle groups.
- Work to make the breath long, deep, and smooth.
- Regulate energetic flow through the acquired meridians.
- Calm the mind, as much as possible.
These functions of Qi gong align with the definitions and criteria of health as discussed earlier and can lead us to understanding a fairly simple, common sense, and pragmatic wisdom. It’s likely going to be a lot easier and more sustainable to grow spiritually if our body, breath, and mind are regulated, balanced, and calm. This then allows us to have a more solid foundation and basic level of health, which then prepares the body to be able to more safely handle and move through the Nei gong process, which then can allows us to move more into Nei Dan and/or meditation, and thus begin to systematically work with the very aspects of our consciousness/Shen. Simply put, it’s going to be difficult to achieve high states of meditation if our energy system is congested or imbalanced and our physical body is tense or tight. This understanding is a logical progression if we study the framework of the Wu Xing which tell us that each element is associated with an organ pair and that each organ has its own psycho-emotional-spiritual dynamic, or Shen/spirit. So if you improve the health of the physical organ then naturally the spiritual and energetic aspect to that organ will also become healthier, and vice versa.
This natural progression of Qi gong to Nei gong to Nei dan also mirrors the progress in martial arts from external to internal, or hard to soft, in the sense that traditionally a student would start with more external and demanding styles to build basic skills and physical conditioning and then gradually over time move into softer and more internal styles. Part of the wisdom here is that without a solid foundation in the basics and a properly conditioned physical body, deep growth or spiritual experience will be hindered, or perhaps even be somewhat unsafe, if forced ahead of its time. This is something which is really missing from modern life as very few people have the time, energy, or ability to engage in such a long, rigorous, and demanding process. Also we have been conditioned with the ideologies of scientism, creationism, and capitalism so we tend to feel a kind of entitlement and a sense of neglect for the importance of the basic fundamentals, which creates a kind of “Just add water” mentality. It’s kind of like, if you don’t know how to manage a thousand dollars, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll know how to manage a million, and in fact, if you’re given a million, you’ll probably just end up worse off than before. Statistically speaking, many people who win the lottery actually end up worse off than before, which illustrates exactly what we’re talking about.
Personally, I can’t speak from any meditative states or high spiritual experiences, but I can say that I do notice feeling more calm and relaxed through the practice of Qi gong, which then seems to provide a natural state of surplus, which creates a deeper sense of okay-ness and an easier ability to say “screw it” when necessary. At a very low level and basic way, this represents a kind of spiritual growth to me, as it allows me to approach life feeling more calm and with more of an ability to laugh at things, which supports the process of letting go of areas of blockage, stagnation, or fixation. The ability to laugh at something and see the absurdity of it, or see it more humbly from a place of, “I don’t know,” functions to break up the glue of some of our attachments, and thus facilitates the view of our life from a more clear and sometimes wise place.
I’ve tried to briefly explore the concept of health, Qi gong, and spiritual growth according to Daoism in comparison with modern society. I believe Daoism contains a profound element of naturalness, deep wisdom, and simple common sense that provides a systematic framework that allows us to experience, measure, and track health/spiritual growth in a simple, tangible, and verifiable way, without over emphasizing one aspect over another. There is really so much to explore and study just from a purely theoretical basis, yet also the ability, through practices like Qi gong, to experience theoretical concepts directly and viscerally. It’s this marriage and intersection of theory and experience which I believe makes Daoism a truly superior, empowering, and sustainable system of health and spiritual cultivation.
Author: Brandon Gilbert
Editor: Travis May