Cultivation and longevity are not simple matters of “do this one trick and all your problems go away”. Like cultivating a garden, it takes regular attending to, and a slow understanding of context that means rules shift and change depending on circumstances. We can have guidelines, but there are no “if x, then y” style recipes.
We can, however, look at specific aspects in a categorical way to make sure we aren’t letting anything slip. In this article I’ll break down the key components that make for effective cultivation that leads to real longevity according to the Daoist vision.
Longevity and Immortality
We see longevity not being about ‘living for a long time’ but rather spending the time we have effectively and realize our potential. There is a concept we call Jing, which are basically the physical building blocks of our incarnation – some might compare it to the Western DNA idea. More simply, we can think of it like the acorn, which contains all of the potential of becoming an oak tree inside it, but to realize the full potential as an oak tree needs to be cultivated over its life after being planted. The longevity idea means that if we cultivate ourselves properly, we can realize our full potential as this particular human being. Along with this seed of potential, comes the idea of a built-in number (that is unfairly different for each of us) that counts down until our death. Just as the oak tree can only live so long, so are we bound by a particular length of life. We can’t increase this number, but we can stop it from counting down quicker than necessary by taking care of ourselves.
Our capacities to cultivate ourselves are skills that improve with time. To compare it to cultivating a garden again, with practice you get better at knowing when to water the plants, when to fertilize, when to give them a rest and so on. The longer you’re at it, the more your garden thrives, the more it thrives, the easier it is to make it thrive even more. It’s the same idea with self cultivation – at the start we are going to mess things up (a lot) and be quite clumsy. Over time we get more sophisticated with everything we do and we are able to achieve much more with much less effort. It’s a positive feedback loop that gets exponentially more powerful with time.
On the other hand, if we don’t do anything and just let nature take its course, we will naturally decline towards death, getting rapidly worse as we pass into our 40s and beyond.
You can see here the idea is to maintain a youthful vitality until the day we die. At the beginning of our life, we have the natural vigor of youth on our side, but our cultivated capacities are not so great. At the end of our life, our cultivated vitality is excellent, so even though our natural youthful vigor is gone, we still have loads of energy.
What are the aspects we need to consider to help the little cultivated vitality line shoot up as it does in the graphs above so we keep our energy until the day we die?
We see a formal daily practice as absolutely critical to revealing the potential. Instilled in the concept of Jing is the need to put an effort in to allow the possibilities to come out. We take a bit of time each day, distinct and separate from the motions and distractions of our daily lives, to turn our attention towards ourselves and start exploring what’s really going on with this thing I call ‘me’. This ‘me’ seems to be made up of a body, a mind, some kind of interaction between the two we might call energy or breath, and a lot of mystery.
I’ve talked about the formal daily practice plenty in other articles so I won’t delve too deeply into it right now except to say it includes study of the external body, the internal strength (Nei Gong), the breath and internal alchemy, the emotions and the mind. It’s a huge topic, and very critical, but it’s not the only element…
Part of creating a formal practice means understanding how habits and willpower work, and how to work with them. We have detailed principles in our tradition that guide us in creating and maintaining a daily habit (and by extension other habits that we need in this adventure called life), how and why we fall off the train, and what we can do about it to get to the point where our practice becomes as effortless as having a shower each day or brushing our teeth.
I want to be clear on this point – EVERYONE is capable of building these habits, even if right now for you it seems like it’s impossible. It’s not, and understanding that this kind of thinking is also a habit that can be worked with is one of the keys to building better habits.
Informal practice is when the rubber hits the road. We must strive to integrate what we discover in our formal practice in our day to day lives. A practice that does not leave the training hall is not particularly useful. I may be king of push-hands, and able to meditate for hours, but what’s the point if I don’t bring these qualities into my conversations, my walks to the shop, the way I hold myself with my peers, or how I navigate traffic on my way to work?
The informal practices (which we also might call micro-practices) let us see how much the formal practices have been assimilated. Do we naturally find our ground and a calm mind when the shit hits the fan in the mundane world, or does it still need the specific context of training? These moments will give us clues as to where we need to put our attentions in our formal practices, and also destroy any fantasies we might have built while training away from the chaos of life.
In my tradition, we make use of the human map and mind map, as well as the study of the mind through Shen Gong and Shen Dan, to give us a thorough understanding of the unconscious processes that determine whether we assimilate the qualities of our practice and can express them in real life (or not).
It is a little cliché, but also quite magical. We put stuff in our mouths every day, and somehow that stuff turns into “us”. We are quite literally made up of what we eat, and to ignore our eating habits can be like driving with one foot on the accelerator while the other is on the brake.
The Da Xuan tradition has a very clear approach to food, based in Daoist medicine (and its newer relative Chinese medicine). We start with the foundations of generally eating very fresh food that we have prepared ourselves, made up primarily of fresh vegetables and meat, while reducing or removing all the difficult to digest stuff that everyone already knows about (sugar, alcohol, sweets, deep fried stuff, most grains – the usual suspects) . We also look at when we eat (the rhythm of our eating dramatically affects our capacity to assimilate the food), what we are doing while we are eating, and how we can use exercises to improve our capacity to assimilate our food. Using the Five Elements theory, we can also make direct links between the functioning of our spleen/stomach, and the clarity of our thoughts (and then for even more fun, we can link this back to our personal imbalances as seen on the human map).
Sleep is a deep topic in our tradition. A time for the Shen (spirit/mind) to rest, and for us to digest the emotions of the day through dreams. We don’t tend to move into dream analysis, but we can link repeating dreams to long term blockages, that resolve or change as the blockage is resolved. To have an effective sleep we need to look at the lead up to sleep, making sure the hours before bed give us time to drop into a state of rest BEFORE we hit the hay. We have plenty of ways on working on these pre-sleep habits.
Once the sleep time is settled into a good rhythm of deep restoration and clean emotional digestion with the dreams, we can start to look at the topic of lucid dreaming. We have a big syllabus of dream work that can be undertaken once the lucid state is freely accessible, including the possibility to travel and meet ancestors, to train in ways not possible in the real world (full contact machete fight anyone?) and many other very interesting possibilities.
At some point we must accept that if we do things whenever we please, we will spend a lot of time fighting the natural rhythms of the world and this is exhausting (to say the least), and so not particularly conducive to good longevity. By studying our rhythm of life, and comparing it with the natural cycles of the world, we can put ourselves in alignment with our environments, which are far more powerful than we are as individuals, and get an assist from nature rather than fighting it.
For this we can study the circadian rhythms of the body according to Daoist medicine (following the five elements theory and Yin Yang principles of the Yi Jing/64 Hexagrams), and then start to integrate this with a study of seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn), times of day, and the study of forms and space with traditional Feng Shui principles. We have plenty of practical tools, including seasonal Nei Gong practices that change throughout the year.
Deeper studies of Qi Men Dun Jia and Bazi (the celestial mandate) help us look at timings of more subtle energetic openings that will determine when it is best to do specific practices or activities based on the particular individual.
What I’ve mentioned above are keys crucial to longevity, but it can be interesting to know that there is even more to it than just this. Studies of the influence and relationship to the Invisible world, intuition, messages, wishes, devotion, prayer and much more make up a big part of the Daoist repertoire. I won’t talk about them here right now but there may or may not be a book coming from my teacher on this topic very soon…
In the meantime, it’s nice to know about all of these things but they are basically useless unless we apply. This means doing it rather than speaking about it (I know, I know, there’s an irony in writing articles speaking about topics then saying don’t speak about it – it’s the curse of being a teacher but not at all necessary for the practitioner).