“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”
– Lao Tzu, Dao De Ging –
Two boxers wholeheartedly congratulating each other after a gruelling ring fight; a runner immersed in blissful joy at the end of a painful ultra-marathon; the overwhelming joy of an exhausted mother holding her new born baby after labour…
These events are just examples of the apparently oppositional, dualistic nature of existence but when we observe them carefully, we see co-existence, continuity, and a flow which moves in a circle where one aspect and its opposite create a flawless narrative. This viewpoint has been one of the pillars of Taoism, a philosophical system which has influenced the spiritual, socio-economic and political life of China for millennia, and is still practiced as a religion today.
Taoists contemplate Tao, the Source, the Way, the all-encompassing, dynamic, undefined energy from which everything originates spontaneously. That of which everything is made, and to which everything returns, in endless transformation cycles. As we look at yearly seasons for example; winter, spring, summer and autumn move into each other flawlessly and the process restarts and repeats itself endlessly. This is also true for the seasons of human existence and life’s prime driver…..Health.
Creating a healthy mind, body and spirit for myself, and assisting others to achieve the same has been a consistent goal throughout most of my life. This passion was influenced by my young father’s premature death at only forty-six. I was only twelve at that time and could not make sense of such a dramatic overturn, in what I considered the law of nature and the cycle of human existence: you are born; you become an adult; you may be blessed with your own family; you age and then ultimately depart whilst your grandchildren are growing up. This was supposed to be the natural course of life as I had witnessed all around me up until that point. Not long after that time, I came across Taoism as part of venturing into martial arts practice, which shed a different, less ‘linear’ light on the concept of existence.
Polarity, described in Taoism as the presence of the opposite principles- Yin and Yang, is always in front of us because we cannot explain a quality or event without having its counterpart clear in mind. Night and day, black and white, good and evil, life and death. Comparisons and judgements give us the most important tools to analyse all aspects of life, but what we often forget, differently from the Taoists, to acknowledge that this polarity is just the surface of an underlying universal, unifying force.
A simple event like an ankle sprain may help us understand this concept better. If our observation stops at the swelling and redness we see, as well as the pain we experience when we try to move it, we see illness. We came to that conclusion because we compared it with the feeling and appearance of our other ankle, which we may regard as healthy.
However, if we go further with our analysis, we may acknowledge that the illness we experience is actually ‘Health in progress’.
Immediately after the sprain, our body is releasing healing-rich fluids from the blood (plasma exudate), giving the ankle a swollen appearance. At the same time, the immune system deploys substances which fight possible injury-related infection (inflammation), hence the redness. The nervous system also sets up a strategy using pain to warn and protect us from further damage.
Over the following weeks, our injured (ill) ankle will naturally return to normality (health). We could define this process as our ankle’s Ill-Health Tao.
A question may rise: What if something happens along the process?
Another Taoist key principle may help us answer this: ‘Wu Wei’ or ‘action through non-action’. To be present to and to live in harmony with nature, its rhythms and with what it teaches us at any given moment. ‘Navigate the current of the river instead of pushing against it’ as the mythical father of Taoism Lao Tzu would tell us. This concept may seem too idealistic, utopic and passive in our complicated modern-day life. However, think of top athletes performing at their highest level, effortlessly, almost without conscious effort, fully immersed in their flow and you will witness Wu Wei. Looking once again at our sprained ankle may also give us further insight.
The art of non-doing: ‘Wu Wei’
“Align your body, assist the inner power,
it will then gradually come on its own.”
(Verse 11, tr. Roth 1999: 66)
Depending on the degree of damage, we are aware that our sprained ankle will need a certain amount of rest to heal properly, especially if swelling and signs of bruising (hematoma) are present.
Now, my opinion of how long I should wait before returning to my daily life activities may differ significantly from yours because:
You have a sedentary job unlike me.
I am a smoker, overweight and out of training unlike you.
You apply ice and keep your leg elevated, I may not.
You take anti-inflammatory drugs, I don’t.
You are patient, I am not.
These variables will deeply influence the fate of our individual ankles in terms of recovery, however one thing makes us all equal: we both have to stop moving the ankle and let nature take its course. Wu Wei will then happen (proper healing) through our adherence to nature’s action (optimal repair through meaningful rest) and nature’s healing mechanisms (action) through our rest (non-action).
If the example of the injured ankle seems simplistic to explain the flow of Ill-Health and Wu Wei in particular, we can then apply these taoist principles to a broader subject like nutrition.
The Wu Wei of Healthy Eating
Over the last few years, scientific research in the nutritional field has underlined the importance of how much and when, rather than just what to eat. There is obviously no need to say how relevant the impact of this last aspect is, especially if we look at the damage the official diet guidelines seem to have inflicted upon western social health throughout the last 50 years. Non-communicable chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases have been on a constant rise ever since.
With regard to how much we eat, a millenary practice like fasting has reclaimed its popularity in recent times and its positive effects on health have been strongly backed up by extensive scientific literature.
Let’s look at food consumption as a Yang (active) principle for a moment: we intake food so that our body can produce energy to perform daily activities, store surplus energy, repair and rebuild itself.
Let’s now look at fasting now and consider it as a Yin (passive) principle: not eating, in normal conditions, only happens when we sleep at night, nonetheless, our digestive system is still active as it is processing dinner. So, virtually, our digestive system never fully rests. Occasional water fasting for one/three days is now recognised by nutritional science as a powerful health strategy able to promote DNA repair, elimination of old cells and their metabolic debris and reduction of adipose tissue whilst maintaining lean active muscle mass just to mention only a few effects.
All this by ‘Action through Non-Action’
Suspend the intent of eating, offer stillness to your digestive system so that your body will regenerate and thrive: this is, for me, a magnificent manifestation of Wu Wei. Hunger, as we know, is the end product of many stimuli: physiological appetite and metabolic needs (health) but also distress, frustration, comfort and reward (distortion). The latter four can easily cause an over-feeding loop ending in long-term illness (type 2 diabetes, obesity etc.). Responsibly programmed fasting turns the Yin-Yang ‘wheel’ gently around and forward so that health can be restored in the long term. However, action through non-action originates from a choice and choosing is always a challenge as it can bring an unexpected change.
Change by Challenge, Challenge to change
‘New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings’
Whether we embrace life’s challenges with a Wu Wei attitude or try to control every aspect when facing them, we will find ourselves in the stream of life and exposed to changes. The word ‘CHALLENGE’ is an extension of the word ‘CHANGE’ and the word ‘CHANGE’ in turn contains the word ‘CHALLENGE’. Call it a funny coincidence, but I cannot but bow to the stunning truth and power behind this wordplay. Human growth is the product of a myriad of adaptations following a myriad of more or less intentional challenges we face in our lives from birth to death.
How does this relate to Ill-health?
Lao Tzu – and many other great philosophers from all times and cultures – would probably give us precious advice for a start:
‘Know and master yourself, and you will find health’.
To do this, we have to look at our lifestyle and beliefs, and then challenge them with honest intention. This should apply not only to the inactive individual, the smoker, the depressed or overweight person but also to the one who trains relentlessly, the one who follows a strict, cutting edge diet or follows a thorough sleep routine. Challenging our health habits, even when we think they are good enough, grants us access to the experience of both the limits of polarity and of change as a journey into personal growth. Only by embracing challenge we can break resistance to change so that the ill-health cycle follows its course.
Let’s go back to our ankle for a moment: It has recovered thanks to our decision to rest and allow repair mechanisms to work properly. However, full return to normal function is yet to happen and will now depend on what we do next.
We are at a crossroads; we could decide that further rest or going cautiously back to our normal daily life activities would be sufficient, or we could decide to be more pro-active and expose the ankle to increased challenge and load.
It is so tempting to try and identify which one is more adequate to turn the Ill-health wheel into the right direction! After all, further rest may be needed if we don’t feel 100% sure and do not want to have a relapse. What if, on the other hand, prolonging rest or reducing movement to the basic daily life activities was in fact hindering a return to full normal function? That’s where taking a good look at ourselves through our lifestyle and beliefs may give us some clues.
Is our reluctance to start loading our ankle with increasingly intense exercise/activity a reflection of our tendency to procrastinate, to ruminate, to be indecisive? Do we start loading too soon because time is gold, or because other people’s judgement influences our behaviour, or because we have felt a sense of guilt in being inactive?
Our actions are motivated by our biases. Biases are strong and nothing can change them but challenge. No one says that change is easy, and challenge can be painful, but listen to the great philosophers, statisticians, elite athletes and poets and they will tell you that beyond the challenge of doubt, uncertainty, fear, physical pain, hardship and despair there is growth, peace and personal greatness, in a continuum which, a long time ago, Lao Tzu named Tao.