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Tao of Well Being




          As a practitioner of classical acupuncture for thirty years I have seen people from all walks of life who, in one way or another, have been faced with significant disruptions of their lives.  I would argue that the fundamental issues raised by people are issues of the spirit.  Their questions are:  What is happening to me, and where do I go from here?  At a certain point it seems that the usual way of doing things doesn't work anymore .  It is as if the clothes of their lives do not fit, but there are no new clothes to replace the old ones.  It is an existential dilemma that is very painful, frightening and isolating.

​          It seems that many people feel they have "lost their way".  When i say that I have "lost my way", I may mean several different things:

  • that the way in which I have been walking has become difficult or impossible to maintain
  • ​that my journey through life feels like a burden weighing me down
  • that my path has led to physical illness that has made me question my preconceptions and past priorities
  • ​that my path has led me away from others and I feel like a stranger in a strange land
  • that I can't find my way home
  • that I no longer have a clear destination in mind

that I have strayed from a path that has been laid out by those who have come this way before.

          ​All these "losses" are upsetting to equilibrium, disturb well-being and seem to demand some remediating action.  In our modern, materialist world, well-being tends to be described in terms of actions and outcomes, and health is seen as the result of activities such as exercising, learning, connecting and so on.  Accordingly, when I have lost my way, I need to do something: look around for a path, realign myself with my goals, improve my fitness levels.  But can we really assume that a focus on external activity will produce internal benefits such as happiness or a sense of well-being?

          In our time, where we are faced with challenges and possibilities never experienced before on this planet (as far as we know), we need to draw on resources that can truly support us in the most holistic ways.  We need the depth and range of consciousness available from all wisdom sources past and present to aid us in finding our own unique sense of well-being.  Purely material approaches that serve only the body and the mind, ignoring the spirit and the soul, are of limited use, and may even contribute to our feeling of having "lost our way".

          At first glance the world of the ancient Taoists is a mystery to our modern eyes.  However, when we look more closely, we find that they see us very clearly and compassionately.  They already knew what we would be up against, and, most importantly, they offered us a way to move forward where there seemed to be no way forward, no obvious path, no next step.  They showed us a way to gain or regain our true path.  Consider this conversation that Zhuangzi, ancient Taoist, imagines taking place between Confucius and Laozi on the subject of how to teach rulers how to rule:

          Confucius to Laozi:

          "I completely mastered the six classics - the Songs, the Book of History, the Rites, the Canon of Music, the I Ching, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.  I then met seventy-two rulers, expounding the Way of former Kings.  Not one of them was interested! Not one!"

          Laozi replied:

          "You were lucky that no ruler took you up on it! Those six classics are the dusty old paths of ancient Kings. They tell us nothing of the force that guided their footsteps(My emphasis).   All you expounded was their dusty old paths. Paths are made by shoes, but they are not shoes."  (Zhuangzi, 28)

​          When Laozi talks about "dusty old paths", he is referring  to a focus on the external, the material world that preoccupied the Confucians.  The Taoists were less interested in the thought/insight/activity that was produced, and more interested in "the force that guided" the production of that thought/insight/activity.  They were more interested in the inner processes than the external production.

          In order to evaluate true well-being, we need to understand how "the force that guides" affects the way we engage with life.  For the ancient Taoists, this meant engaging with a process based on what they considered to be true principles that applied as much to the health of a community and its leadership as it did to individual well-being.  Indeed, for them, proof of the validity of the underlying principles was the fact that they applied to every aspect of human life.  The primary question the Taoists asked was not "what should I do?" but "how should I "do ?" The "how" is addressed in the Neijing, the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine which is the oldest medical text from the ancient Chinese, probably 3,000 years old.  The book is a series of conversations between Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor who was the legendary founder of Chinese civilization, and his physician/teachers, especially Qibo.  Here is Huangdi's first question and Qibo's answer:


             "I have heard that in ancient times people lived to be over a hundred and still remained active and energetic.  But people nowadays start to fail when they get to fifty.  Is this because the world is changing, or is it because human beings are neglecting the laws of nature?"


             "In ancient times people who understood the Tao patterned themselves on yin-yang and lived in harmony with the universe developing practices to promote the qi, and inner work to connect with the cosmos.  They used moderation in eating and drinking.  Their sleeping and waking were regular and orderly.  They did not over-stress their bodies or their minds."  (Neijing, 97)

          The Taoists believe that if we focus on how best to live, the outcomes will take care of themselves.  Qibo focusses on people who "understood the Tao" and who "pattern themselves on yinyang​".  In other words there were true principles that were based on reality .  Reality inspires meaning and guides perspective was well as generating the force that creates external activities such as medicine, exercise, meditation and leadership.  Taoist thought sees that everything is about context, process and relationship.  Through principles such as ​​yin yang, ​the Taoists believe we are able to be in relationship with reality, the great generative field of unknowable potential that underlies all life.

​          Western understanding of reality has traditionally been based on a separation of humanity from nature.  Nature actually means life, that which "is".  So the terms "nature", "life" and "reality" are interchangeable.  Since we are also nature, the separation of ourselves from nature, is the separation of ourselves from ourselves.  Nature, life and reality, observed as quantifiable, material, objective qualities become something to be manipulated, controlled or denied.  Relationship, which is the core of the Taoist approach, is irrelevant in this world view.

          For the Taoists there is no separation of the human from the rest of nature, no separation of mind and body, no separation of self and other.  Everything is an expression of interdependent relationships.  The Taoist perspective is an ecocentric rather than an anthropocentric perspective and is being reassessed in the West, primarily because Western scientific thought, especially in the cutting-edge life sciences, understands that "reality" is all about self-sustaining networks of interdependent relationships .  Fritjof Capra, physicist and author, offers this comment:

          ​"At the forefront of contemporary science, we no longer see the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks.  We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships ; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.  The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity  is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.  Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather a cooperative dance in which creativity  and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.  And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and the patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging."  (Capra and Luisi, xi,  A Systems View of Life)

          The focus on outcomes is a focus on results - Laozi's "dusty paths"​, rather than "the force that guides".  In the Tao Te Ching, thousands of years old and perhaps the single most influential philosophical work of the ancient Taoists, supposedly composed by the legendary Laozi, the "force that guides" is accessed through the process of engaging with reality.  The Tao Te Ching says:

"Once you find the centre and achieve harmony,

heaven and earth take their proper places

and all things are fully nourished".

​(Chung Yung, as qtd in Zhuangzi, 4)

Laozi's emphasis  on "finding the centre" implies enquiring into our relationship to the centre.  Life  becomes meaningful when we discover how to go beyond what the Taoists called 'acquired conditioning" - the life that results from our biography and our survival patterns - and regain connection with our 'original nature', ​yuanshen,  in effect, our destiny.  So, well-being concerns the process of cultivating relationship with our original nature  and finding guidance from within.

          The context for the Taoist process is the understanding of reality, or true principles.  Reality is the context for well-being.  Since reality is always something beyond what we think it is, what is it we need to understand and do in order to engage with reality?  And why is this important?  For the ancient Chinese there were fundamental principles or qualities that were the basis for the understanding of reality , and essential  for well-being.  Chapters One to Eight, Understanding Reality, will explore these qualities.  They include:

                                                                                                           tao  (the way)

                                                                                                           wu (the empty centre)

                                                                                                           yin yang

                                                                                                           xin (the heart)

​                                                                                                           waxing  (the five elements)

​                                                                                                           wushen  (the five spirits )


                                                                                                           heaven and earth

                                                                                                           ming (destiny)

                                                                                                           yuanshen (original nature)

​                                                                                                           wuwei (knowing without knowing)

​                                                                                                           zhi (knowing-how)

          In order to engage with reality - an internal, rather than an external process - we must begin at start, at the place which is the invitation we have received to bring our consciousness into play, that is: our suffering.  Suffering is life.  Suffering and well-being  are like magnets irresistibly drawn to one another.  Suffering is the catalyst for well-being.  My prayer for my children used to be, "May they never suffer, but may they suffer".  There is no development without suffering.  From suffering can emerge consciousness which can then begin the transformation of suffering into well-being.

​          When we "lose our way", we become aware that we need to re-orient ourselves .  This is the first invitation sent by our suffering: awareness.  The following chapters will explore true principles, suffering and the transformation of suffering  and will describe the strategies and tools necessary to engage with reality, suffering and well-being are what I call the Meeting Place.

          We are all pilgrims on the journey.  Our inner nature demands that we finally find the path to who we truly are.  Heartbreak, illness and identity crises are the catalysts we use to arrive into the territory of ourselves.  Once we arrive into the territory of ourselves, what is the way that we can use that can help us find our way through it?  I call this way - the Meeting Place.  The Meeting Place is not an esoteric notion, it is a generative theme that applies to everything about our lives from the most mundane to the deepest, inner place within us; from cleaning our teeth to communing with God.  It is as accessible as breathing, because it is life itself - and we have all experienced it.  We have just never named it, and therefore have not been able to use it to find or rediscover our true path.  The Meeting Place is the unstated path at the heart of all Taoist practice.  It is the Tao of the Tao.

          Close your eyes. Place your tongue on your upper palate, breathe in gently, slowly, through your nose.  Pause at the top of the breath for a moment, then, breathing through your nose, breathe down deep into your belly, sending every part of yourself down into your depths.  Pause before the next inhalation.  Repeat this three times.  You will notice how different you feel from when you started.  Open your eyes.  Just three simple breaths and reality changes.  You will feel more present, more in the moment. You are in touch with what the ancients called the Tao.