Love Letter to the Universe
Yesterday afternoon, I had the honor of attending the lineage ceremony for the 2015 graduating class from the School of Classical Chinese Medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine. The students expressed some beautiful sentiments towards us teachers, most notably this sentence: “As students, we may just be your love letters to the universe.” This sentence will stick with me forever because there is such truth, hope, and life-affirming beauty in it. I feel compelled to share it here because as Chinese medicine people, we are all teachers and all need to be conscious of this role of writing “love letters to the universe.” Rather than hiding on a mountain top grazing goats (which I do a fair amount of anyway), we all choose to engage with the human realm around us, to be of service in the trust that we each have something to give to make the world a better place in our role as humans, literally BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH. To me, this “something” speaks to the Chinese notion of mìng 命: mandate, decree, destiny, calling, the job that Heaven has assigned each of us to carry out in this lifetime. And “Heaven” is here obviously meant in the traditional Chinese sense and not the Christian one, so feel free to replace the term with whatever you are comfortable with, the Universe, God, Allah, Nature, whatever…
Put on the spot yesterday in the formal lineage ceremony and asked for a few words of advice, I was not prepared to come up with something as beautiful as this “love letter to the universe” image. So here are some ruminations a day later.
I have been thinking hard for the past couple of months about this issue of what it is that we are really nurturing (yǎng 養) in the world of contemporary yet “classical” Chinese medicine. The term yǎng shēng 養生 (“nurturing life”) is on everybody’s lips these days, roughly referring to cultivating health, preventing disease, avoiding premature aging through immoderate lifestyles, unhealthy habits, stress, emotional overindulgences etc. “Nurturing life” is great, don’t get me wrong. It is an aspect of modern healthcare that Chinese medicine can contribute immeasurably to, and that modern biomedicine is only now taking seriously, for purely practical reasons. Getting enough sleep, not putting ice in your drinks when you have a cold constitution, avoiding excessive exertion just as much as excessive drinking, sex, or inactivity, eating balanced meals, providing extra care for women after childbirth or newborn babies, and addressing minor conditions like painful menstruation early on at their root instead of masking the symptoms and ignoring the problems until they blow up on a much deeper and more serious level, all of these ideas are simple yet supremely effective. And yǎng shēng is a much-needed skill that was already treasured in Warring States courts, as Zhuangzi’s famous story of Butcher Ding teaching Lord Wen Hui demonstrates.
BUT is that all we are doing? In another Zhuangzi chapter, Liezi is made fun of because of his reliance on clouds for his cosmic travels. What do the ancient writings mean when they speak of transcendence, of an alchemical (internal or external) transformation into a zhēn rén 真人 , a “True Person,” sometimes also translated as “perfected,” “realized,” or “genuine”? From the Yellow Emperor to the Divine Farmer, the texts express clearly that “nurturing the form, i.e. the physical body” (yǎng xíng 養形) is only one minor aspect of cultivation. Even if we include practices that “nurture the spirit” (yǎng shén 養神), we may still only be scratching the surface of the well of wisdom. What does it mean to “nurture our inner/Heavenly nature” (yǎng xìng) or even deeper yet, to “nurture our destiny/Heavenly Mandate” (yǎng mìng)?
Quite often, I wonder if it is just a manifestation of our contemporary cultural arrogance to even try and read meaning into these expressions of ancient wisdom, traces of enlightenment and transcendence, much less to claim to transmit them to students. Who am I to stand up front and lecture on Sun Simiao’s understanding of yǎng xìng (“nurturing the inner/Heavenly nature”) just because I can read the superficial, literal meaning of his writings? To cite Zhuangzi again, from the introduction to the chapter on Nurturing Life:
“My life -- it is something that is confined by shores! But knowledge -- that is something that is without shores. To pursue something that is without shores by means of something that [is confined by] shores bodes peril! This being so and yet to enact knowing means peril has already arrived!"
So I was quite apprehensive about giving a talk about Sun Simiao and his notion of yǎng xìng at a conference in Germany a couple of weeks ago. It turned out, however, that it was a great blessing for me to get to share the day with such a beautiful group of sincere, committed, conscious, clear individuals, each of whom contributed so much to our collective understanding during that magical day. In all honesty, I only teach because I need to learn. And I consider myself very, very fortunate to constantly have such deep conversations with people who practice Chinese medicine clinically. As intimidating as it is for me personally to initiate these conversations, it seems to be part of my mìng, my Heavenly Mandate, just like it might be part of YOUR mìng to rise to the challenge of practicing medicine, step into the authority of being a doctor in Sun Simiao’s sense of the dà yī 大醫 (“great physician”), to help other people and alleviate their suffering by being a conduit for love and light and letting the medicine work through you.
I have just returned from a vacation in Belize on a tiny island with no internet, my first beach vacation in close to a dozen years. A week of lying in a hammock, snorkeling in coral reefs, coming literally face-to-face with the largest fish in the ocean (whale sharks), and just being in the moment, in the way that I believe Zhuangzi would like us to exist all the time. While I knew that I needed this vacation badly in a yǎng shēng (“nurturing life”) sort of way, to nurture both my physical body and my spirit, I had struggled with my sense of obligations, to my writing and my teaching, to take an entire week off. It took me about 5 minutes on this island in Belize to become clear that it is pointless to intellectually ruminate over the specific significances and differences of Nurturing Life, Nurturing Nature, or Nurturing Destiny. As I learned from a very happy ship captain in the shade of a coconut tree, the secret is to be “Too Blessed to be Stressed.” My daughter says I need to tattoo that on my forehead. Instead, I am sharing it with you. May each of you feel the truth of that statement now and forever.