Health, in all its forms, lies in listening tothe messages of our body as it seeks the perfect balance,says Eric Harrison.
In a famous Zen story, a student asks his master 'Whatis enlightenment?' The master throws the student offthe boat, holds his head under water for a long timebefore releasing him, and then asks, 'What do you wantnow?' 'Air!' gasps the student, and so answers his ownquestion.
'Air' is the root of the Chinese word 'chi' and theSanskrit word 'prana'. In the West, 'air' or 'breath'is the literal meaning of the words 'psyche' and 'soul'.Aristotle described the soul as the 'anima', or thatwhich animates body and mind. The soul, or the lifeforce,is that which enables us to breathe and continue breathing,as well as that which governs the higher functions ofconsciousness.
The lifeforce infuses every cell of our bodies. Itis phenomenally complex, subtle and intelligent, andyet we barely notice it. How would you describe theactual feeling of being alive, for example? Familiaritymakes us blind to it, and it operates mostly below thelevel of consciousness anyway. We detect the lifeforce,if at all, as a fluctuating network of mostly pre-conscioussensations in our bodies, or as subtle feelings of pleasureor pain. If our attention is continually occupied withexternal matters, we may barely notice it at all.
Because it is so hard to identify, many traditionsregard the lifeforce as a spiritual energy that is virtuallyindependent of matter. This approach leads to some verydurable myths. Christianity divorces the soul from thebiology of life, and so imagines it as being immortal.Similarly, many Asians believe in reincarnation, andregard their individual lives and bodies as being disposable.
The practical Chinese, however, saw life as being farmore important than metaphysics. They knew that withoutlife you have nothing. As a result, Chinese thoughthardly ever divorces the mind from the body. WhereasWesterners tend to locate the soul in the brain, theChinese locate it in the 'hara', which is the body'scentre of gravity. The Laughing Buddha has a huge bellybecause it demonstrates his well-rounded heart and soul.He is holy because he is 'whole'. His mind is fullyintegrated with his body.
We naturally associate chi with health, and with theways to enhance that vitality that is essential forevery aspect of life. In fact, improving our healthis not an occasional matter. Deep within us, the processnever stops. The Dutch philosopher Spinoza said theessential nature of all living beings is the relentlessurge to survive and prosper.
To survive means that we will do everything we can toget the air, water and calories we need for yet anotherday. Once we've satisfied the basics, however, we lookfor More, Much More. Once we've got enough, we seekwhat is more than enough. We also want to prosper. Wefirst want to live, and then to live more fully.
The body is not content with merely surviving. It alsoseeks out optimum health, which is another matter altogether.Similarly, to have enough money and be content is good,but to be rich and exuberant is even better. Every livingcreature understands this principle. It is hardwiredinto the nervous systems of even the simplest brains.
In practice, the instincts for survival and excess oftencompete with each other. On one hand we want health,balance and comfort, that is, we want to go to sleepwhen we are tired. On the other hand, we also want tofeel alive and stimulated, so we stay up late, talkingor watching television. We want both survival and vitality,peace and stimulation, balance and ecstasy.
The Chinese yin-yang symbol illustrates this principlewell. The universe and all the living beings withinit function by constantly oscillating between opposingpoles - light and dark, growth and decay, and so on.This means that good things are never static or fixed.They always rely on the harmonious interplay of opposites.
The Chinese traditionally see health and prosperityas a matter of attuning oneself to the rhythmic flowof the universe, as it manifests in the moment. Chinesemedicine is all about harmonising the flow of chi, andbalancing the yin/yang processes in the body.
Maintaining chi is very similar to what Western medicinecalls 'homeostatic balance'. Every second of the day,a vast ensemble of processes within us is striving forbalance and optimal functioning. They govern the ongoingdramas of immune function, hormonal secretions, bloodpressure and acidity, muscular contractions and release,the use of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, and thesatisfaction of basic appetites. Most of this is beyondour perception or direct control. We tend to feel it,instead, at the level of pleasure or pain, energy orfatigue, hunger or satiety.
Our bodies always know exactly what we need for perfecthomeostatic balance in the moment. They know the correctreadings for blood sugar, hormonal levels, temperaturecontrol and so on. No matter how sick or out of balancewe are, our minds still hold an inner template of perfection.The great stress researcher Herbert Benson called thistemplate 'remembered wellness'. The chi is continuallyadjusting itself towards that inner balance, howeverunachievable it may be at any moment.
Once we accept that optimal health is about optimalbalance, it is easy to understand why we rarely feelas good as we might. Clever as the body is, it stillcan't give us perfect health if our minds are on a differenttrack, eating, drinking and staying up late at night.We commonly do things that derange that balance, andhave usually been doing so for years.
I'm now approaching 60, and in my work I see hundredsof people who are about my age. Most of them are notdiagnosably sick, but hardly any of them seems completelywell either. Both Chinese and Western medicine clearlyidentify the core problem. We can survive while leadingthe kinds of lives that we do, but we can't expect tofeel healthy and mentally vibrant while doing so.
Optimal health demands an optimal balance. Your bodyknows how much sleep and rest it needs. Is it gettingit? We know that something as simple as poor sleep oftencontributes to anxiety, depression, overeating, poorimmune function and premature ageing. The body alsoneeds the right amounts of the right food, no more,and probably three to four hours of physical activityeach day for optimum health. How far are you from thatideal?
Of course, managing health and lifestyle still hasto be an individual solution. What suits the majorityis unlikely to be perfect for us unless we are the statisticalaverage in all respects. We can only find real balanceby attuning to our personal requirements in this moment,which are bound to be slightly different even from yesterdayand tomorrow.
Nor can we be healthy by simply attending to the body.The good routine, the pills, the gym work, the diets,the books and the medical interventions will have littlelasting effect without awareness of our mental and emotionalrequirements as well.
In fact, the only guaranteed way to optimal healthis to develop the habit of continuous self observation,or what is sometimes called 'mindfulness'. This mayexplain why research shows that meditators are usuallymuch healthier than the average population.
When we meditate, we typically sit and do virtuallynothing, while noticing our passing thoughts, emotionsand body sensations. In time, we get a gut feeling forboth stress and inner balance, and we understand whatcauses them. This awareness almost miraculously dissolvesthe stress and enhances balance, and the effect continueslong after the meditation is over. We become more consciousof that inner template of health that Benson called'remembered wellness'.
To be healthy, I need to get a clear picture of whatoptimal health actually feels like, for me at my ageand with my history. So what is the feeling of health?The Chinese are adamant that ill health is about rigidityand blockage, while health is about softness and flow.
When we relax, the body returns to homeostatic balance.The tension, rigidity, blockages and pain that are signsof ill health start to dissolve. As the body softens,the 'energy' starts to flow. The breath becomes morefluid. There is an increasing sense of warmth and openness,comfort and space in the body. The body gently humsand tingles. We also notice that certain thoughts andemotions enhance this feeling of 'good energy', andothers inhibit it.
Our bodies always have a clear image of what perfectbalance is, in the moment. If we can also get a goodmental picture of this, we can consciously adjust ourbehaviour towards it, as much as external factors permit.We will be able to eat, rest, work or play, be aloneor be sociable, exactly as much as we need to in anyday. We do have that choice.
It's all a matter of listening to the messages ofthe body. The chi (or prana or soul or lifeforce orwhatever we choose to call it) can be our constant onlineguide, if we wish. It is our internal doctor, physiotherapist,dietician, surgeon and personal trainer all in one.
Eric Harrison runs the Perth Meditation Centre inWestern Australia www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au