Diet and Lifestyle: The Basics of Good Health

In the Tang Dynasty, the famous doctor Sun Si-miao said that, when a person is sick, the doctor should first regulate the patient’s diet and lifestyle. In most cases, these changes alone are enough to effect a cure over time. Sun Si-miao said that only if changes in diet and lifestyle are not enough should the doctor administer other interventions, such as internal medicine and acupuncture. Although most patients coming for professional TCM treatment today do need internal medicine and/or acupuncture as well as changes in their diet and lifestyle to effect a more rapid cure, it is most definitely my experience that without appropriate changes in diet and lifestyle, herbs and acupuncture do not achieve their full and lasting effect.

Form & Function

There are four basic foundations of achieving and maintaining good health. These are diet, exercise, adequate rest and relaxation, and a good mental attitude. Chinese medical theory is based on yin and yang. In terms of medicine, yin means substance and yang means function. This is similar to the Western medical dichotomy between form and function. Form and function are interdependent. Substance or form is both the material, anatomical basis of function and its fuel. Function, on the other hand, activates and motivates form and also repairs, builds, and maintains it.

We can liken the human organism to a candle. A candle’s function is to burn and, therefore, shed light. The flame of the candle is dependent upon its form. At the same time, the candle’s form, its wick and wax, is the fuel for the candle’s function. The human organism is very similar to a candle in that our various activities and consciousness are dependent upon our form, our physical body. Our functional activities are a product of consuming and transforming or metabolizing this substance. When we are young, we generate more substance than we consume and thus we are able to grow, repair, and keep our bodies youthful in shape and appearance. However, past a certain age, due to a decline in our bodily organs’ efficiency, we no longer produce an excess of fuel or substance and so we begin to consume our own form. When we have consumed all our yin substance, our organism no longer has sufficient fuel for function and so ceases or dies.

Unlike the candle which is endowed with a finite, unreplenishable form at the moment of its making, we humans are capable of taking in new form or substance. We do this by breathing, eating, and drinking. It is eating and drinking which provide us with the substance which fuels our day to day activities and which is transformed into our body’s material basis. Therefore, from the point of view of morphology or yin substance, we most definitely are what we eat, drink, and breathe.

Exercise is a form of function. It is activity. In relationship to diet, exercise is yang to diet’s yin. Exercise keeps function functioning at peak efficiency. However, in Chinese medicine, exercise and rest/relaxation are seen as the yin/yang aspects of a single issue. If we are too active, i.e., hyperfunctional, we consume too much fuel or substance. Therefore, rest and relaxation are the flip side of the coin of activity. Functional activities should be moderate — not too much and not too little. If there is too little exercise, form or material substance is not adequately consumed and transformed and starts to accumulate and gunk up the works. If there is too little rest, hyperactivity, be that physical, mental, or emotional, consumes too much substance and overheats the organism leading to burnout. This means that diet on the one hand must be balanced by adequate activity and rest/relaxation on the other.

Fire & Essence

The use of a candle as an analogy is actually quite accurate according to Chinese medical theory. Life is seen in TCM as a series of warm transformations. The root yang of the entire body is called the ming men zhi huo or the fire of the gate of life. This life fire is responsible for all activities and transformations in the body. We live only as long as this fire of life burns within us and we are stone cold dead when it burns out irrevocably.

This life fire is associated with or has its material basis in the Chinese idea of the kidneys. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are the fundamental, first organ. They are called the xian tian zhi ben or former heaven root. This means they are the prenatal foundation of the organism, both its form and function. The original source of function is the life fire described above. Whereas the most essential material basis or pure substance is referred to as the jing essence or shen jing, kidney essence.

In Chinese medicine, there are two types of jing essence. There is xian tian zhi jing or former heaven essence. This is innate at birth. We are born with a finite amount of this former heaven essence. It is our endowment from our parents and the universe at large and it is stored in the kidneys. This former heaven essence is supplemented by what is called hou tian zhi jing or latter heaven essence. This latter heaven essence is manufactured out of the air we breathe and the food and drink we consume. Nutritive essence derived from food is transformed into qi and blood. Qi empowers function and blood nourishes form. As we move through each day, our activities consume both qi and blood. If, when we go to sleep at night, we have manufactured more qi and blood than we have used that day, this excess is transformed into acquired or latter heaven essence. Some of this latter heaven essence is stored in each of the five major organs of Chinese medicine — the heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. However the major portion of this acquired essence is stored in the kidneys which then form the Fort Knox of the body.

Every metabolic activity, every transformation within the organism requires both some life fire and some jing essence to act as catalyst and substrate respectively. If there were no acquired essence, we would be just like a candle. We would only be born with so much fuel and that would be used up fairly quickly. However, because latter heaven essence, derived from our diet, supplements our innate former heaven essence stored in our kidneys, this former heaven essence is capable of lasting a lifetime.

Longevity, Diet & Lifestyle

Chinese medical theory believes that the human organism is built to live 100 years. According to the first chapter of the Nei Jing, the premier classic of Chinse medicine, most people have enough jing essence to last 5 score years. Barring accidental death or infectious disease, we are designed to last 100 years as long as former heaven essence is not squandered by excessive consumption and as long as latter heaven or acquired essence is manufactured and stored to bolster and slow the use of former heaven essence. Since latter heaven essence is manufactured from the food and drink we ingest, it is no wonder that Chinese medical theory places such great importance on proper diet and promoting good digestion. Likewise, since acquired essence is stored in the kidneys at night when we sleep, it is no wonder why proper rest and sleep are important as well.

Former heaven essence is like a patrimony or trust fund we inherent at birth. Latter heaven essence is like money which we save in the bank. It is that part of our daily economy above and beyond our operating expenses. When we store it as acquired jing essence, it and our former heaven essence together become our body’s capital. It is said in alchemy that it takes gold to make gold and that the more gold one has, the more one can make. When applied to our inner alchemy, our original gold is our jing essence, both former and latter heaven. When these two essences are full and abundant, organ function is strong, metabolism is efficient, and we generate a profit each day. Therefore, it takes jing to make jing and the more jing we have, the more we can make. When we age, however, instead of living on our interest, we run a negative daily balance and are forced to dip into our capital. Eventually we consume all our capital and we go bankrupt or die.

Essence, Qi, Spirit

It is said in Chinese that jing essence (material basis) becomes qi (functional activity) and when qi accumulates it becomes shen or spirit. Shen means consciousness and mental/emotional activities. Excessive thinking or excessive emotionality consume great stores of qi and, therefore, jing essence. That is why the fourth basic foundation of good health is a healthy mental attitude. What is meant by a good attitude in Chinese medicine is spelled out fairly exactly. When the seven emotions — joy, anger, grief, worry, fear, fright, and melancholy — are appropriate to their stimuli, these are natural subjective experiences and their experience is the purpose of life. Nonetheless, their experience does consume jing essence. Jing essence without shen or mental activity is meaningless in human terms just as a candle which doesn’t shed light is also useless. The consumption of jing essence through our conscious experience is what is called in Chinese our shen ming. Ming means brilliance or light. Jing essence’s purpose is to be transformed into the light of consciousness.

It is further said in Chinese that shen should apprehend emptiness and that this apprehension should also be reduced to nothingness. This gets a little abstruse but is worth everyone’s understanding, patient and practitioner alike. The apprehension of emptiness means that, through one’s life experiences, one understands that nothing, whether internally experienced or externally existant, is permanent or real. If one feels any experience all the way to its depth, it becomes empty. All experiences are reductable to an essential emptiness. Not only are they fleeting but they are of a single, unexpressable, indescribable taste. No matter whether one experiences joy or anger, fear or sadness, these mental/emotional experiences are evansecent and in no way alter or affect the innate nature of the shen spirit.

When one understands that the shen is inviolable, essentially unharmable, and indestructable, one’s experience, whether of good or bad, becomes like a movie projected on a screen. The movie is not the screen and no matter what drama is ennacted on the screen, the screen is not harmed or affected. If one can apprehend this, then, in Chinese, one can say that spirit apprehends the essential emptiness of experience. However, if one then becomes attached to this concept of emptiness, that itself can cause an obstruction to the free flow of reality. Therefore, it is further said that emptiness must also be understood as nothingness or no-thing-ness. When one does, this is the absolute good mental attitude which is ultmately healthy.

Deepak Chopra, in Quantum Healing, has discussed the therapeutic importance of apprehending this state of absolute emptiness which is uncolored by one’s passing and ever-changing emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Ironically, this apprehension is in part dependent upon the consumption of jing essence. It is a fundamental axiom that jing essence is consumed by the aging process and that the signs and symptoms of aging are the signs and symptoms of the kidneys becoming empty and the jing becoming insufficient. However, this process results in experiences, and if one has enough experiences and also has enough consciousness to reflect deeply on those experiences, one will understand that, no matter how many times one has been happy or sad, in pleasure or in pain, essentially it has not indelibly colored nor permanently altered one’s essential being. This is the wisdom that hopefully comes with old age. It is the wisdom of spontaneous non-attachment, equipoise, naturalness, and the willingness to let things be.

We all get old and we all die. We all experience pain as well as pleasure. These are inevitable. When we fail to recognize the naturalness of this condition and rather take it as a personal affront or attack, we run after pleasure and its means in order to avoid suffering at all cost. Paradoxically, this ceaseless running towards and running away consumes jing essence and causes the very disease, suffering, and death we seek to avoid. It is transcendance of this rat-race which the wisdom of the East possits as a good, healthy mental attitude.

Because of the above interrelationships between jing, qi, and shen, it is easy to see why diet, exercise, rest, and the development of such a good, healthy attitude are so important to achieving and maintaining good health. This book focuses on dietary therapy. That does not mean that diet is more important than the other three. The diseases of this time are due to a lack of wisdom in all four of these crucial areas. The contemporary Western diet, although it shows signs of improving, is basically ignorant. In addition, we tend to be too sedentary at the same time as being too mentally and emotionally stressed. And few of us can be said to have gained a mature mental equipoise.

It is relatively simple to say that one should get enough exercise and rest. And although Buddhists, Daoists, and Conficianists have filled libraries on how to achieve a good mental attitude, this is not something that can be well conveyed in a book. Diet, on the other hand, although seemingly open to a great deal of contradiction and confusion, is something which can be written about simply and clearly.

This material is excerpted from Arisal of the Clear: A Simple Guide to Healthy Eating According to Traditional Chinese Medicine by Bob Flaws and published by Blue Poppy Press, Inc. Call to order or for a catalog of all titles at 1-800-487-9296.

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Written by Bob Flaws L.Ac.

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