“A person only lives for 100 years, but worries enough for 10,000.” This ancient Chinese proverb reminds us that anxiety has always plagued mankind. Worrying about the future and regretting the past both bring about unnecessary suffering. Fortunately, traditional Chinese medicine took mental health seriously, and its practitioners continue to offer guidance for harmonizing mind and body based on principles that have worked for thousands of years.
The great healers of ancient China were masters of the Tao, and they laid the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine. The Tao refers to the way of nature, the natural flow of heaven and earth. By following the Tao, one harmonizes with the Tao, and through a process of enlightenment, one can come to understand the great Tao that guides all aspects of life. Throughout history, Taoist masters have explained different aspects of life and the inner workings of the world.
Some Taoists delved into the properties of herbs and minerals. Others also learned to harness the energy channels of their bodies. They drew diagrams and wrote guides such as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Their terminology can sound mystical to us today, but the wisdom within their old manuscripts and diagrams is still some of the best guidance we have for living well.
The power of tranquility
Being anxious or resentful is like living simultaneously in the past and in the future. This suffering can be overcome through the simple but difficult task of living in the present. We think of our neuroticism as a product of the digital age, but our ancestors faced their own stresses and discovered their own ways of dealing with them. One of these techniques is meditation.
The benefits of meditation go beyond stress relief, says U.S.-based Dr. Serene Feng, who runs multiple clinics under the brand New York Four Seasons Acupuncture. “All the inspiration and ideas that you need will come to you when you calm down. I often get inspired right away after meditation.”
Feng practices Falun Dafa, an ancient system of meditation and qigong. She says that while she was in medical school, her mother took up Falun Dafa, and she quickly saw its incredible benefits. After graduation, Feng also started practicing, and it was through her profound experiences of meditating and studying the philosophy of Falun Dafa that she realized how powerful traditional knowledge is. That’s when she began studying traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Feng, meditation unlocks subconscious powers within the body, which also has an impact on the surrounding environment. “When doing meditation, it feels like you’re in a magnetic field. Like your whole body has a field around it, drawing in good things,” she says. But it takes more than closing your eyes and relaxing—meditation requires focused concentration and regular effort. “If you can do meditation every day, it’s like tidying up and organizing yourself,” Feng says.
Cycles of the day, cycles of the body
“We talk about yin and yang in the body,” says Feng. “The sun is the symbol of yang. It’s high energy. When the sun shines, it’s time to wake up, take in that yang energy, and put it to work. Coming to nighttime, this is the time to replenish yin energy. During sleep it comes in very naturally, you don’t have to do extra work.”
Feng often references the 12 cycles of the body’s natural clock as defined in traditional Chinese medicine, wherein each organ and system of the body has a peak time for performance as well as for rest. She says that most of her work is helping people to harmonize with their bodies’ natural rhythms.
“A lot of people use Western medicine for diagnosis and Chinese medicine for treatment,” says Feng, who first graduated from a Western medical school before embarking on her studies of traditional Chinese medicine. If someone knows they have a kidney problem, for instance, the doctor may hone in on the patient’s habits at the crucial periods for the kidneys, which have peak activity from 5 to 7 p.m., and peak rest from 5 to 7 a.m. Perhaps the patient is an early riser and drinks caffeine at a time when the kidneys need to rest, or perhaps the diet is interfering with the organs’ performance. Through herbs, acupuncture, tui-na massage, and other techniques, a traditional Chinese doctor can help get the body back into its natural state of flow.
The main goal of treatments of traditional Chinese medicine is to help patients fix the lifestyle problems that provoke their underlying conditions. Prescriptions help to alleviate symptoms, but Feng says that most of her practice is dedicated to consulting with people about their daily routines.
“If a depressed person tries to regain their energy just by eating something or taking medicine, it won’t help that much. First, you have to look at what you’re doing to your body, and pay attention to your body’s routine,” she says.
Guidance for good sleep from traditional Chinese medicine
“If you find yourself becoming more irritated during the daytime and losing your temper as the day goes on, it is a yin deficiency,” Feng says. “After just two nights of poor sleep, the skin becomes dry and bowel movements become difficult. You think you need to eat more fibre or find a new lotion, but the problem persists, and the sleep deteriorates more. It gets hard to concentrate, memory gets worse, and you look for other products. But truly, if you have a few nights of good sleep, so much can be solved.”
The link between sleeplessness and negative thoughts is clear, and the impact is staggering. Insomnia affects about 30 percent of all adults at some point, with 10 percent suffering chronic insomnia. After all, who hasn’t gone through periods of life where it just seems impossible to get a good night’s rest?
“Always try to solve the problem through lifestyle changes,” Feng says. “When doing meditation, the body calms down, and the yin gets replenished. Meditation is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to solve insomnia. It brings the body into balance.”
Of course, at the end of a long day, not everyone can just sit down in meditation position to reset the body’s daily clock (although the great Taoist sages would say that we’re all capable of doing this). But for those of us tightly wound up and struggling to concentrate for longer than a goldfish, Feng offers some tips for a good night’s rest. “Two hours before sleep, soak your feet in hot water, and do some acupressure on the centre of the feet to release tension.”
Herbs and aromatherapy can help us fall asleep as well. Zhu Xi, a writer during the Song Dynasty, put dried chrysanthemum in his pillowcase and wrote about the benefits. “As I gently stroked the pillow stuffed with dried chrysanthemums, the fragrance of the flower brushed my face lightly. I drifted away into slumber. The next morning, I overflowed with ideas and thoughts.”
The wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine, like the wisdom of ancient proverbs, is found beneath the surface. It’s too profound and complex to explain, which is why, perhaps, the best way to understand it is to sit down and concentrate on nothing at all.