My parents live 400 km away from me, so we only see each other several times each year. During my parents’ last stay at my home, my father asked me a rather unusual question. He asked me if I believed in reincarnation. My father has not habitually meditated on these types of spiritual questions in the past, and the fact that he was doing so now was a bit unsettling. My father turned 80 years old this past March, and he has obviously been spending some time reflecting on his life, as is normal for anyone of advanced years. A Methodist by upbringing, my father has never been known to give credence to the more wacky tenets of other faiths, so I was a little surprised that he brought up the subject at all. However, it was his next question which really made me sad. “If reincarnation is real,” he asked, “at your death, would you prefer to be given another life, or would you prefer to simply vanish into oblivion?”. Perplexed, I answered, “Don’t you have to choose life? How can you prefer oblivion to life?”. Shaking his head dismissively, as if I could not possibly understand, he stated firmly that he would prefer oblivion.
To properly sympathize with my father’s answer, you have to understand that he has been in almost constant pain for as long as I’ve known him. When I was a young girl, he fractured several vertebrae in his lower back by improperly lifting heavy objects on our farm, such as hay bales or heavy bags of cattle feed. When I was seven, he had surgery to fuse his vertebrae together again, but the pain didn’t go away. In fact, the pain may have even become worse. And thus began the constant quest for pain relief that would last him for much of the rest of his life. He took all different kinds of pain relievers, both over-the-counter, and prescriptions from his doctor. He tried alternative therapies, including magnets and various herbal remedies. He had a back brace for a time, but this didn’t seem to help either. After dealing with ever-present, debilitating pain for four decades, you can understand why he might choose oblivion over life. And yet, I still found his sentiments to be profoundly distressing. If reincarnation were real and he were to get a new life, then the new body of whatever species he might become would most likely not have chronic pain. It seemed that my father had completely given up hope, not just in his own life, but in Life itself.
It is probably not uncommon for elderly people to express sentiments similar to these. The so-called “Golden Years” are often years filled with pain, reduced mobility, and loss of ability. If we haven’t yet learned to deal with loss in our younger years, we are sure to learn it before we die. And accompanying this deluge of losses, in both our own capabilities and in the people we’ve loved along the way, is the emotional weight of having to come to terms with it. These are the years when a long-held spiritual practice can sustain you, and the lack of one can break you.
Yet not all elderly people suffer with this level of pessimism and weariness. Granted, not all lives are alike, and some people are forced to endure more than others. But I believe there is something more at work here than a simple flagging of emotions. In Chinese medicine, the mind and body are known to be intertwined and inseparable. Whatever emotions are going through your mind have a physical cause, and in the case of age, this cause is most likely to be a loss of qi. In Chinese medicine, qi is said to be the vital energy that courses through all living things, including your physical body. It is this vital energy which causes you to wake up with a smile on your face and bound out of your bed, eager to face the day. The amount of qi that you have determines how many tasks you are able to complete each day, as well as how strong your immune system is, and how well you are able to digest your food. It necessarily affects every choice that you make each day, since your choices are bound by what you can actually do. And if your level of qi is low, and you know that you will not be able to enact many, or even any of your desires, then you are sure to greet the day with more resignation than enthusiasm.
So how does one get more qi? According to Chinese medicine, the organs which are most responsible for the manufacturing of qi in our bodies are our spleen and our lungs. Our lungs draw qi into our bodies from the air that we inhale, and then release waste in the form of carbon dioxide when we exhale. This beautiful cycle of renewal is repeated endlessly from the first breath we draw when we are born until the day that we die. “Breath is life!”, a friend of mine once said to me as she struggled to breathe while attached to an oxygen tank. She was in the final stages of cancer. She knew what we often forget: the oxygen from the air that we breathe nourishes and animates our entire bodies. Some of us may feel low in energy simply because we don’t take deep enough breaths throughout the day. Sitting hunched over our computers, our back becomes more curved and our chest can gradually become depressed, which prevents our lungs from filling up with enough air to give us the oxygen we need. Some people have reported improved health just by doing yogic deep breathing exercises, where we gently fill our lungs to capacity to maximize the amount of oxygen we receive and then exhaling fully to release as much carbon dioxide as possible. Exercises like qi gong or tai chi, and the Y-Dan exercises that we promote on our website, can also heal because of the increased amount of oxygen our bodies receive when we do them.
Our spleen is also important for the manufacturing of qi in our bodies. In Chinese medicine, the functions of the “spleen” include those of both the spleen and the pancreas in Western medicine. The pancreas produces enzymes for the proper digestion of our food, and if our spleen/pancreas is weak, then fewer enzymes will be produced, and therefore fewer nutrients will be available to our bodies. It is these nutrients will be used to create blood, muscle. tendon, and bone. Without them, we would soon become weak and malnourished. In Western medicine, the spleen is the organ which creates white blood cells to protect us from infection, so a properly functioning spleen is also important for maintaining our immunity against the bacteria and viruses which saturate our environment.
In Chinese medicine, there is a popular saying, “It is not what you eat, but what you assimilate that matters”, and this is why the spleen/pancreas is considered to be such an important organ. For the most wholesome food in the world cannot provide health and energy to your body if your spleen/pancreas is too weak to assimilate it properly. Hence the emphasis that Chinese medicine places on proper diet and the importance of avoiding foods which could potentially weaken your spleen/pancreas. Aside from ensuring that you eat a balanced and nutritious diet, high in whole grains and lightly cooked, fresh vegetables, Chinese medicine exhorts you to avoid foods which are known to weaken spleen functioning, such as white flour, white sugar, cold drinks, raw vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and bananas.
While maintaining the strength of our lungs and our spleen will ensure that we continue to receive good quality qi from our environment, we can still suffer from poor energy if our qi becomes stuck. For qi is not a static thing like the ground on which we walk. It is more like a body of water, that is constantly trickling or rippling or forming waves of all sizes. Qi is movement as well as substance, and if we focus only on the substance, our lives can become as stagnant as a swamp. While elderly people can suffer more from a lack of qi, as their lungs and spleen deteriorate in ability and they are no longer able to gather the qi that they need from their environment, young and middle-aged people tend to suffer more from sluggish qi.
According to Chinese medicine, it is the liver which is said to spread our qi, ensuring that it is evenly distributed throughout our bodies. If the bile ducts of our liver become congested, then qi will have difficulty moving and can become sluggish or stagnant. This happens particularly when we have been under a lot of stress, or when we eat a lot of stagnating foods, such as deep fried foods, or high fat dairy products, but it is also heavily influenced by our emotions. Anger, frustration, bitterness, and a lack of forgiveness are all sticky feelings that cause our liver to tighten and prevent movement. Every bitterly painful memory or feeling of resentment from our past can create a blockage which prevents the free flow of qi throughout our bodies, and this can shrink our potential and even shorten our lives. This is why forgiveness of yourself and of others can be one of the most important steps that you take to regain your health.
My father isn’t always as pessimistic as he was on that particular day, but when his level of pain is bad, he finds it difficult to generate any optimism. He has used some tinctures for his liver in the past, and has also tried to do daily stretching exercises, but I think it is difficult for people of his generation to develop a regular exercise routine when they stayed fit by doing physical labour, or to follow dietary advice which runs counter to what their parents fed them as they were growing up. Rather than repeatedly lecture my father, I try to be a good example of what he could do differently. As I do my regular yoga practice, I don’t hide the smile that comes to my face as I slowly raise my arms above my head and breathe in deeply. Morning sun salutations are my favourite way to build and move the qi in my body, and as my father watches, he says “Good for you!”. Maybe one day he’ll join me.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.