As you may or may not know, I have been lucky enough to spend my summer studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and Community Health in Southern China. I have learned countless lessons about medicine, health care, longevity and mental health as well as more practical things such as how to eat soup with chopsticks. This post will merely skim the surface of what I have learned so far in china but I hope that it will make you think about health and life a little bit differently. We traveled west to the border between Tibet and China and got to speak with many spiritual, holistic health masters along the way including a Taoist Taoshi, Buddhist Lama and a Dongba Shaman. Here is what I learned.. The Taoist Taoshi – Taoism is a philosophy and a religion that is said to be the foundation of Chinese culture. Most importantly Taoists practice unity of man with nature, the theory of yin-yang and the idea that we are all small parts of the great whole. Taoists believe that humans are just like all of the other plants and animals; they do not have superiority and there is no hierarchy. Taoshi’s are Taoist men, similar to Buddhist monks, which have dedicated their life to practicing Taoism. The Taoshi we met was 70 years old and still in great health. He lived in a temple, practiced taiji daily, ate food that he grew himself and played the wood flute. He started our lesson by playing the wood flute in order to awaken qi (life force) within each of us. He then proceeded to explain fundamental rules that he lives by to have a happy and fulfilled life: - Thinking to hard is far more detrimental than not thinking at all. Westerners try too hard to be healthy which disrupts the balance. - Eat simple, in-season, consistent food that your body craves. - “Leave enough space for your mind so you always have space to improve yourself” - You can be part of the circle of life and observe the flow but do not try to change it. - “Feel don’t think, taste don’t measure”What I took away from this was the idea that you cannot use logic to achieve internal peace or enlightenment. Dwelling on something or thinking too hard about being perfect will only be detrimental in the long run. The Taoshi said he eats whatever is put in front of him or whatever vegetables are ripe that day – he doesn’t worry about the nutritional value as this will actually harm his health more than eating poor quality food. He also mentioned that in Taoism meditation is not a sitting practice. He does mediation all day long when doing simple tasks. I really like this idea, as I have never been a fan of sitting still in a cross-legged position! I want to incorporate meditative chores into my daily routine. He also only eats two big meals a day – I don’t think this will be a habit I try to adopt! The Buddhist Lama – We were lucky enough to meet with a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, a Lama is a monk that is a spiritual leader that has achieved the highest level of enlightenment. His smile was intriguing. He giggled a lot as he readjusted his robe and gave off the delighted energy of a young child. He had some important wisdom to share… - The physical body is not our real body, it is a man-made illusion. The physical body doesn’t stay with us when we die; therefore it is only a temporary state and should not receive such high importance. - Abandon the illusion of external happiness. Ask what you can give, not what you can receive. True happiness can only come from within. - The root of true happiness is finding sympathy for your enemies and sharing compassion with all living things. - Before you can be a good doctor and heal others you have to find your own internal medicine. - Compassion is a choice, not an action. - We asked the lama if he could change one thing about the world what would it be. He said, “I would change myself” because that is the only thing we have the power to change. If we all work on developing our own internal happiness the world will be a better place. I couldn’t stop smiling throughout this conversation. I felt like the lama was really speaking to my soul and allowing me to find a path to my own internal medicine. At first when he said that the only way to achieve true happiness is through compassion to others I thought that this was somewhat false because I know that some activities such as eating a piece of chocolate cake make me really happy. But he explained that these external things that you think are making you happy are not sustainable. If I ate chocolate cake every meal of the day, within a week the happiness would fade. The only sustainable form of happiness is found in compassion to others. We also asked how we should become more selfless and compassionate. He replied by saying that compassion is a choice, not an action. This means that we cant set out to “do something compassionate today” because this is not sustainable. Instead we must make every choice we are faced with through out the day in the name of compassion. What is the next most compassionate choice you can make today? The Dongba Shamen - Dongba is a 3000-year-old religion and culture of the Naxi minority group in the foothills of the Himalayas. In the Dongba religion nature and man are considered to be half brothers, meaning that the traditions are strongly connected to the earth. It is an Animist religion meaning that all things including plants and inanimate objects have spirits. It is believed that any of these spirits can cause illness when there is an imbalance. Diagnosis of disease is based on fortune telling – an art practiced by the Shamen. We were lucky enough to meet a blind Shamen who told us predictions about our future using the Chinese zodiac, shells, stones and chanting. Although I am still skeptical about this practice it was very interesting to be in the presence of the Shamen and I left feeling very open minded. A few things I took away from the experience were… - “Must believe; must learn science”. He explained that both spiritual practice and science have a place in healing. - Humans are not the only things that need medication - herbs should be given to animals, plants and spirits as well. - All things cannot be explained – just because an idea such as animism seems so far fetched to me I am not in the position to judge or disprove it. When I asked the Shamen about my future he told me that I needed a strong mentor in my life to help me achieve what I hope to. He mentioned that it should be a spiritual mentor or someone in my career path that can help guide me. He also said I would be an anxious person until I turn 40, and then I will have a huge turning point. I am choosing to ignore this part because I do not believe our future is already decided. I am committed to managing my anxiety and do not feel that I will have to wait until I am 40 in order to have a break through. I guess we will have to wait and see on this one! Overall, meeting these three incredible men was an inspiring experience. It left me with so many things to think about! I am starting to see that my spiritual values are very in lined with Daoism and Buddhism, which is very exciting. I can’t wait to explore these religions further. What are your thoughts on spirituality? Do you agree with the things these spiritual leaders said? How do you incorporate spirituality into your life? Let me know! Id love to talk about it ☺ Until next time, Robin
In this article I will share how my relationship with exercise has changed over the years and how I work to reduce the unhealthy aspects of exercise in my life and strengthen the positives. Scientists agree that getting regular exercise is a great thing for the mind and body. Regular exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, aid in recovery from illness and even make your daily life more efficient. Most of us can also agree that the average person in western society could probably benefit from getting a little MORE exercise. Due to this we are bombarded with media telling us to work out more this season, get flat abs, and present fitness models as #goals. While this could potentially be good motivation for some, I believe many more people than we realize actually suffer from these messages, myself included. When skipping a gym session to get lunch with a friend makes you feel extremely guilty, or when you have to do exactly 60 sit-ups (or any other set number) in order to feel like you’ve had a good work out, you might want to think about your relationship with exercise.My relationship with exercise: Between the ages of 13 and 19 I was a competitive road cyclist. I competed internationally on the New Zealand Junior Team and earned 10 national titles along the way. During this time in my life my athletic training and performance loomed very large in my emotional psyche. So much of my energy was bound up in whether or not I was doing the right training, if I was going to peak for the important races or if the selectors could see my potential. A small cold during racing season would be a catastrophe and I would feel that all of my hard work would be wasted. My whole life was consumed by cycling, not only the time spent actually on the bike. I would eat well (for cycling), build my classes around my training schedule (for cycling), miss birthday parties (for cycling) and go to bed early (for cycling). At the time this strict rigidity around my lifestyle was important for my performance but once I stopped cycling this mindset stuck with me even though I wasn’t training for anything anymore. Working out was often a private thing for me after then. I went to the gym most days and went on runs alone so that I could push myself extremely hard. If a friend asked to go together I would get nervous that I wouldn’t get a “good enough” workout. This continued for about a year after I stopped cycling competitively. Then one day I went to the gym with a friend, and about halfway through my workout she walked over to me and said “Robin, what exactly are you training for?” I was on the spin bike doing intervals that I had previously done in order to prepare for Oceanic Time Trial Championships. I was dripping in sweat and was taking my workout extremely seriously. I snapped at her because she had interrupted my threshold interval but then began to realize that she actually did have a point. I think that having an elite athlete mindset from a young age can cause us to become very intense and competitive with our sporting endeavors. This may not necessarily be a bad thing but if exercise continues to take up as much emotional energy in your life as it used to when you were competing, but without giving any return in the form of results, it can be incredibly draining. Not to mention the added media influence also causes a lot of people to have a huge amount of unnecessary emotions surrounded with getting regular exercise. I was (and still probably still am) addicted to the endorphins that pushing your body extremely hard give you. But I needed to remember that killing myself in a morning workout, when I wasn’t even training for anything, did seem a bit silly. These workouts left me tired all day and not present during my classes. My workouts had become very rigid; I did the exact same amount of cardio with the machine set on the exact same level followed by the exact same number of strengthening exercises with no easy days and no change in intensity. I began dreading the thing that once gave me so much pleasure. I would feel empty and anxious if I didn’t exercise. Working out is supposed to help reduce stress but it shouldn’t be the only tool in your stress reduction tool-box. After doing some research and speaking with a sports psychologist I decided that I needed to change my behaviors around exercise to enjoy working out again in order to heal my body, not burn it to the ground. Steps I took towards mindful exercise:
- - I started referring to working out as “getting my blood flowing” or “moving my body” in order to remind myself that this was the ultimate goal of getting exercise. Also as an added bonus it sounds super new-age-hippy when you tell your friends your going to the Rec Center to “move your body” after class.
- I made a list of different workouts I could do and put them in a jar so that I could pull one out whenever I wanted to exercise in order to mix up my super rigid routine. I included some of my old workouts but also added some such as a 90 min hike with a friend or simply taking my dog for a jog around the neighborhood. Believe me, the first time I pulled out one of these ‘not so serious’ workouts it was extremely hard for me to not race to the gym to do intervals but over time I learned that I didn’t lose any physical progress and that I actually really enjoyed these fun workouts.
- I also altered small things about my workouts in order to move away from the rigidity. For example, instead of running for 45 minutes at level 6, I had to get off at 43 minutes and walk away. This was impossibly hard the first time. In my mind I just kept saying “its ok, ill just run home to make up for it”, but that’s not what I did. I pushed through the uncomfortable feeling of changing my routine and after doing this a few times I learned that nothing catastrophic happened.
- I put a piece of paper over the cardio machine screens in the gym so that I could practice listening to my body rather than the numbers.