Nurturing Life

or Paying Attention to Why We Act

Why do we do what we do? This is rather a big question. If we get into specifics we’ll be here forever. However, one answer to the question is that generally we do what we do because it is necessary or because we think it is a good thing to do. Put another way, we do things because they make life better than if we did not do them. In the Daoist tradition, the subject of making life better, yangsheng 養生 or ‘nurturing life’, is considered to be rather important.

Fundamental to nurturing life is knowing what to be careful about:

Those who do not know what to be careful about have not yet begun to make the distinction between those things that lead to death and those that lead to life, those things that lead to survival and those that lead to destruction, between what can and cannot be done. … This is called great delusion.1Lü Shi Chun Qiu 1.3.

Whether we move in the direction of life or in the direction of death is a matter of understanding what is of true value and what is of value only when put in the correct perspective. Warnings such as the passage above from the Lü Shi Chun Qiu, China’s earliest philosophic encyclopaedia written c. 250 BC, are also found in the Zhuangzi, one of the great classics of the Daoist tradition. The following anecdote concerning ‘making the body whole and nurturing life’ is found in both texts:

In today’s modern world people do too much with their bodies and throw away their lives, martyring themselves for things. Is this not sad? Whenever sages make a move, they are sure to consider why and how they are acting. If today someone were to use the Marquis of Sui’s pearl (a famous jewel) to shoot at a sparrow eight thousand feet away, they would be laughed at. Why? Because that which they used was important and that which they sought was unimportant. How much more precious is life than the Marquis’s pearl!2Lü Shi Chun Qiu 2.2; Zhuangzi 28. The word I translate throughout as ‘body’ also means ‘life’ and ‘self ’.

Another passage that is shared by these two texts is more specific about what to be careful about:

One who can honour life, though noble and wealthy, will not allow the pursuit of that which nourishes to injure the body; though poor and humble, will not allow the pursuit of that which profits to tie up the form. People of today, who hold high office and honoured rank, all think only of how serious it would be to lose them. Eyes fixed on profit, they recklessly destroy their bodies. How is this not delusion?3Lü Shi Chun Qiu 21.4; Zhuangzi 28.

Guarding against the pursuit of profit at the cost of our health and well being is a fairly straightforward and clear message. We see people chasing money and burning themselves out all the time. It’s the all too familiar competition to be the ‘richest man in the graveyard’. The Japanese have even coined a word for it: karoshi 過労死, which means ‘death from overwork’. The term is now international and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001; an ominous word for the beginning of the new millennium.

However, the idea of not allowing the pursuit of that-which-nourishes to injure us, needs a bit more reflection. ‘What is it that nourishes us?’ is a question with endless answers: food, exercise, work, shelter, music, art, things that we like; which is to say, anything that enriches our lives on all levels. How is it that going after such things can cause injury? The answer is: through lack of moderation. Even the best things, if taken in excess, can cause harm. Water, the most life-giving of substances, will kill you if you drink too much if it. This is one of the primary laws of yin and yang: if you take yang to its limit it will flip to yin and vice versa. For instance, if you do too much, it will exhaust you and you will find that you cannot do anything at all: yang has changed to yin. Extremes damage.

If we use up our bodies, our energy, our lives in chasing those things that nourish us, we achieve exactly the opposite of what we intend. This is because we have reversed the relationship: rather than using things to nourish life, we have spent our health, our lives, on acquiring things. These ‘things’ that damage our lives are not simply material possessions. It is the same with exercise. Take the present craze for extreme sports such as marathon running and Iron Man events. After a marathon a person’s immune system is suppressed for about a month and, more seriously, the heart is damaged. It is the same with everything from food and sex to study and meditation. Too much of anything comes down to one thing: the delusion of using a pearl to shoot a sparrow, of not knowing what to be careful about.

Yao yielded the rule of all under Heaven … to Zizhou Zhifu, who said, ‘To make me the Son of Heaven, that would be alright. However, just now I have a worrying illness, which I am trying to put in order. I do not yet have the leisure to put all under Heaven in order.’ All under Heaven is of the utmost importance, but he would not harm his life because of it. How much less for anything else! Only one who would not use all under Heaven can be entrusted with all under Heaven.4Lü Shi Chun Qiu 2.2; Zhuangzi 28. See also Laozi 13.

If we cannot be trusted to take care of our own bodies then we cannot be entrusted with anything else. Such a lack of care demonstrates that we have a distorted relationship, not just with our own bodies and selves, but with the whole world. One that is out of balance and extreme. This is what Laozi calls the ‘dao of man’, the opposite of the ‘dao of heaven’:

The dao of Heaven is like drawing a bow.
What is high it draws down,
What is low it lifts,
What has too much it lessens,
The dao of Heaven lessens what has too much
while adding to what does not have enough.

The dao of man is not so,
it lessens what is not enough
by offering more to what has too much.
5Laozi 77.

The ‘dao of man’ is a distortion that compromises one’s perceptions and interactions with everything. This is delusion indeed! The Lü Shi Chun Qiu, makes this point with particularly vivid and unambiguous metaphors:

The body is that for which things are done, all under Heaven is that by which things are done. Attend to that by which things are done and an understanding of the light and the weighty will be obtained. Now, if there were those who cut off their heads in order to change their hats, or that killed themselves to change clothes, everyone would certainly consider them confused. Why? Because hats are for adorning the head, clothes are for adorning the body. If you kill that which you want to decorate and make the decoration all important, then you do not know the reason for acting! These days those who go after profit are like this. They endanger their bodies and injure their lives, cut their own throats and chop off their own heads in order to chase profit. They also do not know why they act!6Lü Shi Chun Qiu 21.4.

A surprisingly common instance of not knowing why we are acting can be found in the internal arts. It is very easy for us to get stuck on making a posture or movement absolutely correct. All too often we push or force our movements and postures in the attempt to do them flawlessly. The result is that we injure ourselves or we simply rob our practices of all benefit and enjoyment, and we give up. This is the equivalent of cutting off one’s head to change hats. The whole point of our practices is to nurture and enhance our lives, not to do them perfectly for their own sake.

Doing neither too much nor too little is the path to making the body whole and nurturing life:

Wrong: there is none more abundant than excessive desires,
Cause for blame: there is none more grievous than desiring gain,
Calamity: there is none greater than not knowing what is enough,
Knowing enough of what is enough, this is constantly enough.7Laozi 46. This is the Guodian version (the oldest extant edition c. 300 BC), which, in my view, is the most complete and internally consistent, though it is not as regular as the received version. This passage builds its series of warnings in a way that the later versions do not. The first caution is against the all too common misdeed of having too many desires. The next is against the source of immense suffering: the error (jiu 咎 means both ‘fault’ and ‘blame’) of desiring gain. The final warning is against the disaster of not knowing what is enough. The last line of the passage offers the antidote to these closely related ills: know when enough is enough.

Text and translations ©Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2015&2017.


Do Not Let the Great be the Enemy of the Good

I don’t know whether Bruce is intentionally referring to Voltaire’s famous phrase, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” “The best is the enemy of the good” but he often warns students, “Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.”

By this he is cautioning against the trap that many fall into of not doing what they are able to do, because they cannot to do it perfectly or at least as well as they would like to be able to do it. In this way the ‘great,’ which is to say the desire to do something much better than one’s capacities presently allow, prevents people from gaining the benefits of the ‘good,’ which is doing what they can.

This impediment to practice is not new. The Huainanzi, the most sophisticated articulation of the philosophy and statecraft of the Han Dynasty, considered this very question over two thousand years ago:

If someone waits to harness a Yaoniao or a Feitu [legendary horses], then in this age they will not drive a chariot; waiting to be matched with a Xi Shi or a Mao Qiang [legendary beautiful women], then to the end of their life they will not have a family. So, without waiting for the brave and talented of ancient times, people themselves are enough, because what they have they also use.
Indeed, Qiji [a legendary horse] could cover a thousand li [over three hundred miles] in one day; a tired, old nag needs ten rest stops, but it ten days it will also get there. 1Huainanzi 11.17.

We of course have not heard of Yaoniao, Feitu, Xi Shi, Mao Qiang or Qiji, but it is easy enough to replace them with modern equivalents, such as the most expensive sports cars for the horses and our favorite actress or actor for the beautiful women: If we waited until we owned a Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita (I just looked it up) we would never drive a car, and if we waited to date Gisele Bündchen or Dwayne Johnson (also just looked up) we would remain single.

Qiji, the fastest and strongest horse in ancient China, is a particularly good metaphor in the practice of the internal arts. In our instant, want-everything-yesterday culture many want to cover a great deal of ground at once, and when they find that they are not progressing as quickly as they would like, they give up. This is a great shame. In order to progress, all that any of us needs to do is to use what we have. That will be enough. This brings us, as always, to Laozi:

Calamity: none is greater than not knowing what is enough
Error: none is greater than desiring gain
Knowing enough of enough is always enough! 2Laozi 46.

In this context, the error is to desire to accomplish our goals faster than we are able to and then to give up when we cannot do the impossible. This is not to know enough. Such an attitude will guarantee that we fail. That is the calamity. The remedy is simply to do what we can. By using what we have we will get there. This is to know enough. It is much better to do something than nothing. And it is only by practising at our present level that we will ever attain the level of skill that we desire. The attainment of any skill is like climbing a ladder: there are no short cuts. It is impossible to miss out rungs. The good news is that, whatever rung of the ladder we are on, provided that we have adequate instruction, we have enough to make progress. What we need is always right in front of us: the next rung. It is the only step that we can actually take. This view is encapsulated in a saying from the Tai Chi Classics, which is found throughout Chinese philosophy and practice: “Many mistakenly forsake the near in pursuit of what is far away.” It is only by doing what is near at hand that we will get anywhere.

The internal arts are not fast practices. It is not possible to go on a weekend course and become a master, this is true of any authentic craft or art, but with regular practice the benefit to our lives can be profound. One of the keys to success is not to let the great be the enemy of the good.


Text & Translations © Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2010 – 2017.


Winter: the Dao of Storage


The three months of winter are called closing and storing.
Water freezes, earth cracks.
Do not disturb the yang at all.
Early to bed, late to rise. (You) must await the daylight.
Make that which is of the heart/mind as though hidden, as though concealed,
as though (you) have a secret intention, already obtained.
Leave the cold, seek warmth.
Do not leak the skin.
Urgently hold onto the qi.
This is the winter compliance of qi;
the cultivation of the Dao of storage.a
To oppose these principles injures the kidneys.
(Consequently) spring will bring paralysis and fainting
(and) there will be little to offer (your) sprouting.1Neijing Chapter 2.

Winter is the time of the kidneys, which are the basic source of energy in the body. They act very much like batteries. At this time of year we need to recharge them by protecting and nourishing them. This is done by storing our energy rather than expending it.

This is the most yin of the seasons. When the weather turns cold, everything in nature goes to sleep. As the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, the Neijing, tells us, ideally we should reduce our activity, go to bed earlier, and get up later, so as not to ‘disturb the yang at all’. Like fish sinking to the bottom of an icy pond, or like a daffodil bulb in the cold ground, we should let our energy sink deeper inside us. It is only by storing its energy in winter that the daffodil can flower in spring. Similarly, it is only by resting and storing our energy now that we will be able to ’sprout’ – have the energy to increase our activity – when spring comes. So, this is not the time to start jogging, doing aerobics or anything else that will bring our energy to the surface and make us sweat, or, as the Neijing puts it, ‘leak the skin’. We should avoid rushing around. Instead we should go to bed early, get up late and stay inside where it‘s warm.

The mind also needs to rest. The kidneys are closely associated with the fundamental drive that is called zhì 志 in Chinese. Zhì is often translated as ‘will power’. At its most basic level, it is the survival instinct; that which keeps us going in the darkest times. In less extreme situations it is that faculty which identifies and works towards goals and towards attaining the things that we want. It is the zhì that is spoken of in the line: ‘Make that which is of the heart/mind (zhì) as though hidden, as though concealed’. Now is not the time to activate the zhì. To do so would call on the energy of the kidneys. Rather we should put away our desires in winter and let them rest. In this time of letting go and quietening desire, chapter 46 of the Laozi, the great text of Daoism, is worth contemplating:

Calamity: there is none greater than not knowing what is enough,
Offence: there is none greater than desiring gain.
Thus knowing enough of what is enough is always enough!

Knowing enough of enough is reflected in our passage from the Neijing in its instruction that we should make the heart/mind ‘as though (you) have a secret intention, already obtained’. It is usually with the attainment of our desire that we are, if only briefly, satisfied and able to truly relax. These passages point to a more subtle option, that of letting go of desire itself, which leads to a much more profound and enduring stillness.

Basho, the great master of the Japanese poetic form now known as haiku, who was deeply influenced by writings of the Daoist master Zhuangzi and Chinese Chan/Zen Buddhism, beautifully invokes the importance of stilling the heart-mind at this time of year in his winter poem 1687:

First let us cherish
the plum blossoms’ heart
winter dormancy.2No. 341. The original is: まづ祝へ梅を心の冬籠り (mazu iwae / ume o kokoro no / fuyu-gomori). My thanks to Rachelle Allen-Sherwood for her help in translating this poem. Any mistakes are my own.

Just as in Chinese, the ‘heart’ in Japanese is also the ‘mind’. It is the core of who and what we are. This poem celebrates the flowering of plum blossoms in the spring, which is possible only because they conserve their essence through the cold of the winter. In the terms of the Neijing, by observing the winter compliance of qi and cultivating the dao of storage, the plum blossoms have plenty to offer their sprouting when spring arrives.

Autumn is, ideally, the time when we gather that which nourishes us and let go of that which is no longer of use to us. Now, in winter, it is time to store what we gathered and to allow our systems to rest in stillness.

The dominant element now is water, which naturally flows downward, cleanses, nourishes and goes very calm and still when not disturbed. When water becomes still, it is able to let go of what it is holding in suspension, allowing the sediment to settle out of it. It then becomes clear and reflective, like a mirror.

Both Daoism and Buddhism use this image of still water becoming clear and reflective as a metaphor for the stilling of the emotions and the mind through breathing and related mindful practices.

Tai Chi Fundamentals (Energy Gates) is a powerful winter practice. It activates the water element in the body. Standing is very yin, as is Cloud Hands when we focus on the downward flow of energy. Both practices strengthen the kidneys and help them to store energy better. One way of complying with winter in our Tai Chi or Qigong, is to allow our form to go as smooth and liquid as possible, attending more to the inward and downward flows. To this end we should avoid stopping to correct ourselves. Instead, we should simply note any mistakes to adjust the next time around while maintaining the flow of our movement as best we can, without strain. The closing and bending actions of any form are the ones that encourage the storing of energy. It is also useful to focus on allowing the hands and feet to become very soft. This is the time to let go of the desire to accomplish anything in our practice.

At this time of year, it is best lie down and rest for a while after practice and gently put our attention on the kidneys, letting all of our energy collect there. During the day 3.00-5.00pm is a particularly good time to rest as it is the time that the kidney system is strongest.

Eating what is in season is always a very good way to comply with the qi of the time. Nuts, especially walnuts and chestnuts, are particularly good for the kidneys, as is lamb. Avoid cold food and drink as your body must burn energy to warm it up before it can be used. This is part of ‘leaving the cold and seeking warmth’.

Text and translations ©Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2017-18.


Autumn: the Dao of Gathering


The three months of autumn are called containment and balance.
Heavenly qi is quick, earthly qi is bright.
Early to bed, early to rise: all participate with the rooster.
Make that which is of the heart-mind peaceful and tranquil
in order to weaken the punishment of autumn.
Gather and collect the spirit and the qi.
Make the autumn qi balanced.
Do not direct that which is of the heart-mind outwards.
Make the lung qi pure.
This is the autumnal compliance of qi
and the cultivation of the Dao of gathering.
To oppose these principles injures the lungs.
(Consequently) winter will bring diarrhoea
(and) there will be little to offer one‘s storehouse.1Neijing Chapter 2.

In autumn the predominant element is metal, 金 (jin). The two systems in the body that are most strongly activated at this time are the lungs and the large intestine. Both organs have the function of gathering in what is essential and of letting go of what is not needed. In the cycle of the five elements, metal is traditionally the first, as much as any circle can have a beginning or end.

After the growing and lengthening out of summer (the element of fire), and the centring and integration of long summer, or Indian summer (the element of earth) it is now time to soften and draw our energy back in.

This is the best time to get back on track and to lay the foundations of our health for the next year. The way to do this is not to start dieting or running ten miles a day, as these are spring and summer activities; though even in summer it is better to walk. Rather, as the Neijing tells us, it is time to still our hearts and minds and to gather and collect the spirit and the qi. This is the appropriate yin response to this yin season. Just as the trees are drawing in and letting go of their leaves, it is time for us to let go of what we have been carrying around all year, which is no longer of any use to us.

Breathing is a very powerful way to let go of our tension, whether it is physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. It is one of the primary cycles of yin and yang in the body. Having inhaled we must let go of it before we can take any more in.

Just five minutes spent focusing on the breath each day — ‘making the lung qi pure’ — can have an extraordinary effect on your health and peace of mind through autumn and winter. Those who have learned longevity breathing are very well equipped to make the most of this time of year. But even if you haven‘t yet learned the full method, just sitting and focusing on your breath can make a big difference. Ideally keep your chest relatively still and allow your belly to move with the breath (out on the inhale and relaxing back in on the exhale), keeping the breath as smooth and quiet as possible with no stopping between the in and out breaths. Chapter 5 of Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body explains the method of longevity breathing in detail. 2B.K Frantzis, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body, 2nd edition (Berkeley: Blue Snake Books, 2006).

Dragon & Tiger Qigong is also a very good way to strengthen and support the lungs. One of the primary references of ‘dragon’ in the name of the set is to the health of the lungs, because, as everyone knows, dragons are creatures of the air. Hence the potency of the dragon movements for the lungs.

The lungs are responsible for the distribution of the protective wei qi 衛氣 around the body. The stronger the lungs the better our immune system and general vitality.

The organ that is most responsible for letting go of what cannot be used in the food we eat is the large intestine. In Chinese medicine this organ is closely related to our ability to discriminate between that which nourishes us and should be kept, and that which does not and should be discarded. This faculty works on all levels: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Just as there is yin and yang in everything, autumn is not just about letting go of what we no longer need or what is holding us back. It is also about gathering in that which nourishes and strengthens us. In England apples and pears now hang on the trees. The crops that grew through the spring and summer are being harvested and stored for the winter. These two sides, letting go and gathering, must be balanced.

While in hotter places, such as Bermuda, autumn is not quite so apparent, the very beginnings of the cooler, dryer weather of November can occasionally be detected as the days shorten.

The very beginning of something is the best time to prepare for the coming change. It makes the transition easier. This accords with the Daoist principle of doing what is easy before it becomes difficult. Laozi 63 says, ‘chart the difficult when it is easy, act on the great when it is tiny’. While chapter 64 advises us to, ‘act when something has not yet come to be, regulate when it is not yet disordered’. 3See also Laozi 52, ‘To see the small is called enlightenment’. It is the hallmark of the wise.

In the same vein the Neijing, later in the same chapter as our Autumn passage says:

The sage does not treat those who are already sick,
but treats the not yet sick,
does not treat those who are already disordered,
but treats the not yet disordered.
The person who is already sick and then takes medicine,
or who is already disordered and then seeks treatment,
is comparable to one who is thirsty and then digs a well,
or one who forges weapons only after the war has begun.
Are not these measures also late!4Neijing Chapter 2.

Small, relatively easy adjustments at the beginning of a time of change can eliminate the need for making drastic alterations later on. The appropriate activities of each season prepare us for the next so long as we make the necessary adjustments at the right time. This is why people visit their Chinese doctor at the change of each season, even when they feel well, to nip any imbalance in the bud by adjusting their diet and activity. In this way they avoid getting ill later.

The reason many people fall sick in the autumn is because they do not adapt to the change of season. Now is the time to begin protecting ourselves from the cold and especially the wind with scarves and wind-breaking coats. The activities of the summer are over. Rather than spending our energies, it is time to start saving. If we continue to act in the autumn as we did in summer, we can expect to get sick. The Neijing warns us that if we do not act according to the dao of gathering, which is now underway, it will lead to diarrhoea in the winter. If this happens, at precisely the time when we most need to store and conserve that which nourishes us, our bodies will be unable to distinguish properly between what we must keep and what we must let go. And if we let our nourishment go we will become depleted and ill in the winter.

This, then, is the time to practise containment and balance, to let go of what we do not need and to gather and collect the spirit and the qi, and make the lung qi pure.

Eating what is in season is always a very good way to comply with the qi of the time. Eat more warming foods and drinks. Jasmine and, later, oolong teas should replace your green tea. It is a great time for fruit and vegetables: blackberries, plums, apples, pears, pumpkins, squash, leeks, courgettes and parsnips etc. Pears are especially good for the lungs. It is also a good idea to cut down on those ‘dampening’ foods that congest the lungs such as beer (anything made with yeast), sugary foods and especially dairy products.

Text and translations © Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2017