Free and Easy Wandering
Going with the Flow
In order to better understand the Chinese therapeutic approach to disorders of the shen / spirit, we have to first examine in greater detail the Chinese concept of healthy spirit. This concern falls into the realm of philosophy, psychology, and religion, because it involves the correct ordering of one's thoughts, desires, goals, and methods. Who is to determine what is correct? The answer is in the messages attributed to god or the sage.
To help draw attention to the fact that these philosophical /religious /psychological concepts influence Chinese medical therapeutics, we can consider the name given to a popular herb formula that is used for, among other things, mental distress, depression, and anxiety: Xiao Yao San (Free and Easy Wandering). The title given to the herb prescription makes reference to the unfettered wandering of the Taoists who prided themselves in being in tune with the movements of nature, living in harmony with the seasons, and in balance with the qi of the earth. This formula harmonizes the liver and when the liver energy is harmonized one’s relationships are free and easy going.
The corresponding acupuncture point is taichong (Lv-3), which is widely used today for depression, frustration, pent-up feelings, irritability, and mood swings; to match the herbal formula Xiao Yao San, that point would be combined with sanyinjiao (Sp-6) to strengthen the center while freeing up the circulation of qi.
Many Taoist alchemists were seeking immortality. They used a variety of means to attain their goal, including meditation, special exercises that were later to become the familiar chi-kung, and ingestion of various alchemical substances, some of which became important in herbal remedies (and, unfortunately, some included poisonous components).
Taoist Wandering: A Mind that Is Free
The fundamentals of Taoism are described in the Tao Te Ching, attributed to the legendary Lao-tzu. It is the most widely translated book from Asia. The following are some of the points that are relevant to the issues of integral health.
In chapter 8 of the 81-chapter work, the Tao is likened to water:
"Natural, whole virtue is like water; it benefits all things, but does not contend with them. It unprotestingly takes the lowest position; thus, through the virtue of wholeness, it is close to the Tao. One of whole virtue adapts to any environment. He attunes his mind to what is profound. When dealing with others, he is kind. In speech, he is sincere. His rule brings about order. His work is efficient. His actions are opportune. One of absolute virtue does not contend with anyone; Thus, he is above reproach." (12)
Joining the flow of Tao, wherever it may go, leads one to unusual places, but places meant to be visited by those who have devoted themselves to the Tao. People detest the places not because they are bad but because they are not familiar; they are held back by fear of the unknown, not trusting in the Tao. Fear is the emotion that ultimately causes the most difficulties. Going into nature and observing the flow of streams is, in itself, one of the natural remedies for a troubled mind. Learning to move gracefully around obstacles is one of the aims of practicing Tai Qi Chuan.
What came to be known as Taoism was also elucidated by Chuang-tzu. The first chapter of the book of Chuang-tzu's teachings is titled Xiao Yao; this has been translated as "Wandering Boundless and Free; or Free and Easy Wandering (like the name of the herb formula)." Xiao has the meaning of free and unrestrained; Yao has the meaning of distant; thus, the term implies going a long distance without restraint. The chapter is comprised of short sayings or stories that encourages the reader to be free of rigid concepts.
The key is to depend on no-thing at all, that is, to be free of all rigid concepts, attachments to material goods, positions of recognition, and all obstructions to movement through life, to have one's mind and body move according to the Tao, the "Way."
The realized Taoist becomes selfless (helpful to others but not concerned about receiving rewards and praise, hence meritless and nameless). In this description, it is said that to set out boundless and clear (free) is a rare and blessed thing. This roaming is not referring to actually traveling about the countryside (which is an external practice that mimics what happens inside); it refers to what goes on within the mind, either during meditation or in daily life.
This story by Chuang-tzu reflects the words found in Chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching, where the Tao is depicted this way (3): I do not know its name, call it Tao. For lack of a better word, I call it great. Being great, it flows. It flows far away. Having gone far, it returns. Man follows the earth; earth follows heaven; heaven follows the Tao; the Tao follows what is natural. The ultimate leader in the journey is that which is natural.
In another passage in Chuang-tzu's chapter titled Xiao Yao is a discussion between Chuang-tzu and Hui-tzu. Hui-tzu was a contemporary and friend of Chuang-tzu who held a contrary and competing philosophical view based on logic and rationalism (6):
'I have a big tree,' said Hui-tzu to Chuang-tzu. 'Its huge trunk is so gnarled and knotted that no measuring string can gauge it, and its branches are so bent and twisted they defy compass and square. It stands right beside the road, and still carpenters never notice it. These words of yours, so vast and useless, everyone ignores them the same way.' Chuang-tzu replied 'Now, you've got this huge tree, and you agonize over how useless it is. Why not plant it in a village where there's nothing at all, in a land where emptiness stretches away forever? Then you could be no one drifting lazily beside it, roam boundless and free as you doze in its shade. It won't die young from the axe. Nothing will harm it. If you have no use, you have no grief.
The tree that is logically useful (its wood is desirable) will be cut down; the tree that is logically useless (its wood too gnarled to be of value) is spared. So, which is better - to be useful or useless? And who is to decide whether something is useful: the gnarled tree serves just fine for shade and is not in danger of being cut down for its wood.
In Chapter 22 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu says (3):
Wise men embrace the one, and set an example to all. Not putting on a display, they shine forth; not justifying themselves, they are distinguished. Not boasting, they receive recognition, not bragging, they never falter. They do not quarrel, so no one quarrels with them.
The tree, in the story above, may be huge, but carpenters never notice it. The Taoist is likewise unnoticed because he does not try to call attention to himself; not calling attention to himself, he/she contends with no one.
Zhi Dun (314-366 A.D.) introduced Buddhism, a philosophy based on the avoidance of rigid, limiting concepts, to Taoist China. In his commentary about the book of Chuang-tzu, one passage survives to the present; it is about Xiao Yao (7):
Free and easy wandering refers to the mind of the perfected. When Chuang-tzu talks about the Great Tao, he uses the analogy of the Peng bird and the quail. Because the Peng's life is without obstruction, the bird is free from all limitation in the realm beyond the body. The quail, on the other hand, because it lives in the near and scorns the far, it is limited and obstructed in its mind. The perfected one rides the truth of heaven, soars aloft, and wanders boundlessly in unfettered freedom. He treats beings as beings-without being treated as a mere being himself. He is not self-satisfied in his wandering. Mystically one with the universe. He is not hurried, yet moves swiftly. He goes everywhere in his freedom. He is truly a free and easy wanderer.
The "Way" or Tao is freedom from worries about time (meaning worries about accomplishments that will be recognized by others), with a life that appears leisurely, like that of a butterfly fluttering here and there. However, to attain the state of true freedom, each individual must cultivate the proper attitude: to overcome the tendencies of striving for reward and resisting obstacles that seem to stand in the way.
In the Tao Te Ching (chapter 48) it is said:
"The world is ruled by letting things take their course, it cannot be ruled by interfering." Letting things take their course is often described as "being in harmony with nature." Harmony with nature requires yielding, but it results in great things.
The study of this aspect of Taoism helps one overcome the ingrained personal approach of clashing with - rather than flowing with - a difficulty that is encountered, typically a difficulty that is placed by one's own mind.
The lack of freedom of the mind influences the person's flow of qi and blood, causing it to flow erratically and bind up; the bodily condition, in return, contributes to stagnant or erratic mental function, with the potential for continued worsening of the total condition. In the Chinese model of health and disease, the free flow of qi and blood is the requirement for health and the obstructed flow of qi and blood is a cause of pain and dis-ease (there are other causes, such as deficiencies and excesses). The obstruction of circulation corresponds to both a physical stagnation (repression of natural movement) and the psychological condition we call depression, the sense of inability to move and change to overcome obstacles.
The great herbal teacher Zhu Danxi said (10):
"So long as the qi and blood enjoy harmonious flow, none of the hundreds of diseases can arise. Once they are depressed and suppressed, various diseases are produced."
Basics of Taoist Action:
Doing while not Doing (Wu Wei) The underlying principle regarding actions presented in the Tao Te Ching is that one should take care of things that are in need of doing, and then move on to the next thing that needs to be done, without any attachment to the accomplishment of the first or the potential outcome of the next. By avoiding any "attachment to the accomplishment" it is meant that one should not dwell upon such things as taking credit for it, accumulating rewards (including material things and power), or spending time with retelling it in order to get recognition.
Along these lines also, with regard to one's work, do not bother doing things other than what needs to be done. For example, one should not spend time at efforts that are aimed specifically at collecting wealth, accumulating power, or gaining praise, or even bothering others by taking up their time with unnecessary things. Moving from one moment to the next, taking care of what is necessary, and not straying from that, is the Way. So long as one follows this teaching, things will progress smoothly; but as one deviates from this pattern, obstacles and heartaches arise.
Because one does not dwell upon accomplishments nor make efforts to gain things, it is said, "nothing is done." This is wu wei – effortless effort. It should be understood, however, that this does not mean simply sitting lazily, avoiding doing anything or skirting obvious responsibilities; something is done, just not specially recognized as such.
In the absence of striving after wealth, power, or praise, one may come by it naturally, which brings its own requirements for action; these outcomes aren't necessarily bad, just not suitable as a goal in themselves.
These integral messages may be particularly relevant to the ordinary conditions that affect people today. This is about a way of being an intelligent response, not just a reaction to an event or undertaking.
Here are some sample quotations about the proper way of living (3):
"Creating, yet not possessing. Working, yet not taking credit. Work is done, then forgotten. Therefore, it lasts forever." (Chapter 2).
"If nothing is done, then all will be well (3); Or, When people are free from cunning, desire, and artifice, Everything will be well ordered of its own accord (12)." (Chapter 3)
"The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead. He is detached, thus at one with all. Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment." (Chapter 7)
"Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it. Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow. Retire when the work is done. This is the way of heaven." (Chapter 9)
"Giving birth and nourishing, bearing yet not possessing, working yet not taking credit, leading yet not dominating, this is the primal virtue." (Chapter 10)
"He who stands on tiptoe is not steady; he who strides cannot maintain the pace; he who makes a show is not enlightened; he who is self-righteous is not respected; he who boasts achieves nothing; he who brags will not endure. According to followers of the Tao, 'these are extra food and unnecessary luggage.' They do not bring happiness, therefore followers of the Tao avoid them." (Chapter 24)
"An integral being does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. (Chapter 38)
The Things to Be Done and the Way to Do Them
One can know what to do by focusing attention on such virtuous attitudes as gentleness, kindness, truthfulness, competence, alertness, simplicity, yielding (rather than obstructing), constancy, openheartedness, caring, perseverance, willingness to take on difficult tasks, mercy, economy, generosity, humility, gentleness, meditation, etc., and avoids such things as extremes, excesses, complacency, abandoning those in need, trying to do too much at once rather than take the small steps that are necessary, ignoring what is known, having desires for unnecessary things, and rigidity in ideas, as well as avoiding those concerns described earlier, such as boasting, accumulating wealth and power, and seeking rewards.
Here are some sample quotations (3):
"In dwelling, be close to the land, in meditation, go deep in the heart, in dealing with others, be gentle and kind, in speech, be true, in ruling, be just, in business, be competent, in action, watch the timing." (Chapter 8)
"Alert, like men aware of danger, courteous, like visiting guests, yielding, like ice about to melt, simple, like uncarved blocks of wood...." (Chapter 9)
"Attain the utmost unoccupiednes. Maintain the utmost stillness, and do not interfere with all the things that rush together in activity and grow luxuriantly. Knowing constancy in renewing oneself, one can extend the duration of one’s life. If one can deeply understand the extension of life’s duration, one is able to contain all things within oneself. To be all inclusive is to be impartial. To be impartial is to realize the positive, creative virtues of Heaven. Such a one will be preserved, even after the dissolution of the physical body. (12) (Chapter 16)
"One of natural integral virtue is good at helping all people impartially. Thus no one is abandoned. Because he is good at protecting and preserving all things, Nothing is ever thrown away (wasted).” (12) (Chapter 27)
*This article is a paraphrase from the writings of Subhuti Darmanda, Ph.D. entitled Towards a Spirit at Peace, Understanding the Treatment of Shen (Spirit) Disorders with Chinese Medicine. Subhuti Dharmananda is an herbalist and acupuncturist who founded the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care, Inc. (ITM), which operates two clinics in Portland, Organ and engages in a variety of educational and charitable projects related to traditional medicine). Thanks to Chuck McClintock for sending this to me in reference to our discussion about shen, po and hun. Next time will be a discussion of emotional balance.
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