The Tao of Health and Neuroses

Let me cut to the chase – I’m a hypochondriac in that kind of “annoying worrying way.” You can guess COVID wasn’t a picnic for me, but let’s just say I also felt ahead of the curve. However I’ve also been working to address this as worrying about health too much really isn’t, well, healthy.

As of late, I’ve done a lot of “health maintenance” as assorted regular activities piled up in recent months. I had to catch up on my vaccines. I had a colonoscopy every five years as I’m an older gentleman and it’s good just in case. I’ve had some regular tests everyone goes through and just-in-case stuff.

The test part always gets on my nerves. You go in and give blood or get wired up or whatever and then after whatever indignities you go through you then wait for results. The waiting can be nerve wracking – I’m sure you’ve been there.

So as I waited for the last of my various accumulated tests, and of course worried, I speculated how I could handle this better. Something struck me from my studies of Taoism, meditation, and mysticism.

Good health does not come from just “being healthy.” It’s exercise and good attitude, appropriate food and activities, and of course checking relevant things like blood pressure or getting enough sleep. Good health is a kind of navigation.

The tests I take regularly (my doctor prefers to test early and often to prevent things) may be stressful but they’re ways to navigate to health. There’s no difference between sending blood to the lab and observing ideal conditions for good sleep – one just involves getting jabbed with needles by a very well-mannered medical professional.

Good health lies not just on practices, but checking on yourself. By acknowledging the possibility of ill health or less-than-ideal health, you then can practice good health. It’s very – and I hate to sound this tropey – Yin and Yang.

This further made me think about various Taoist energetic practices, how one cycles and balances energies. From the simple ones to the ones I would call “questionably elaborate” they treat the body as a system not a solid thing, aligning and guiding this process of being alive.

This re-envisioning made me feel at least somewhat better. Good health is based on the chance of bad health. It’s all a system, a kind of dialogue or navigation. These tests I was worried about were just part of the overall “Tao of Health.” Seeing how all these habits worked reminded me of the insights I’d have when meditating, seeing the “parts of myself.”

Everything turned out OK as the last of the data came in. Maybe next time I’m getting jabbed or whatever, I’ll remember these lessons.

(Note, if you do investigate Taoist health and energetic practice, get ready for a ride and to be skeptical. There’s some truly amazing stuff from over the centuries, some of which seems quite modern, and there’s also bizarre and dangerous bullshit. If you want to go beyond metaphors, do be careful.)

Checkbox Minds and Deep Souls

I was discussing life with a friend of a similar age, and they brought up the desire to cultivate virtue – deep, innate character. This led to a discussion about how some people’s morality is just checkboxes, while others is a deep sense of right and wrong inseparable from their personality. Between that conversation and speculation later, I wanted to share some thoughts.

(And yes, this is carrying on a conversation by other means.)

The idea of virtue is something I’ve thought of because of its depth, the idea of having some inherent deep goodness and quality. In my Taoist interests it stands out, a quality (“Te”) one obtains through contemplation and meditation, a kind of mystical-moral gravity. My recent readings on Neoplatonic and Stoic philosophy and mysticism led me to similar ideas as well, of one cultivating some kind of depth of character. There’s something that happens when we cultivate or find an inherent force of character, being “good” so we act “good.”

The “checkbox” idea of morality is the opposite. You are good because you can check off these things, like a car maintenance list or an order form. Things are done because they’re on the list not because of ones character or any depth of contemplation.

After this discussion I realized that “checkbox morality” is no kind of morality at all. It’s doing some signifiers, not even a minimal effort. It invites cheating the checkboxes with games of language, like some kind of tax code of morality. It has nothing to do with the actor, why they do things, and what led them to their actions.

And of course, checkbox morality invites people to say “I did all these checkboxes” then still go on being a colossal asshole. I’m sure a quick look at the world will allow you to name several public figures that fit this . . . then several more . . . then several more . . .

Checkbox morality is shallow, not really moral – and is empty. Also honestly sort of boring and pretentious.

This helped me understand my desire better, and that of other thinkers whose writings inspire me. I wasn’t interested in checklists, I was interested in evolving, like some kind of moral Pokemon (steal this idea, Nintendo). The drive to virtue is a drive to grow, sometimes driven be a delightful unsettling sense that one can be better.

The quest for virtue is something real, it has depth, it’s even a bit dangerous. It’s not a list, it’s both being and an adventure.

This also helps me understand some of legends of past sages and holy men and artists I saw in the Taoist cannon and elsewhere. Groups of informal mystics and philosophers and outright weirdos gathering to discuss virtue and morality and life, and of course sometimes get completely shitfaced while hanging out. There’s a delight in exploring one’s depths with friends – like this friend and I did.

I hope this column inspires you – and I’d like to hear your own thoughts on virtue.


I Am A Whirling Thing

My meditative practices mostly come from Taoist, Buddhist, and psychological works. My goal is to sit there with myself, watching in that focused-yet-relaxed state that is hard to describe. Note of course, I do not say I want to reach a checklist of mental states – doing comes first, and I could probably write a lot more on that.

My practice is also simple – sitting cross-legged, back straight, breathing in a slow constant cycle, mind resting on breath. This is advocated in my oft-mentioned The Secret of the Golden Flower, and like that lovely manual it’s simple, yet you could also discuss it at endless length. We humans love words, and we love to use them to describe the hard-to-describe.

You’ll notice despite my love of words, I’m often cagey about discussing these things. However, there is one insight I feel fine holding forth on as it is interesting and won’t put you, my reader, at risk, of trying to force yourself to experience meditative states.

Slow, regular, even breathing is a fascinating thing to watch because it’s a cycle. As I’ve practiced in my return to meditation, I’ve realized that everything is a cycle. Breath meditation isn’t that special, really, which is why it’s so important.

We live in an environment of cycles. The seasons go in their circles, water evaporates then precipitates, animal populations rise and fall. We depend on these great circles to live – and as we have seen, ignore or alter them at our peril.

Our societies and histories are cycles. There are times of taxes and of building, of growth and contraction. Civilizations come and go – often in depressing predictability in hindsight. Humanity’s “journey forward” even seems to be a spiral of repetition, though our ignorance of our environment suggests we’re heading for a nasty swing.

Human relations are cycles. We are born and grow, roles changing and expanding. Students become mentors to other students. Children become citizens. Someone at the height of their achievements will retire (well, if they’re smart).

We ourselves are cycles. Our daily waking and sleeping, eating and digestion, birth and death. Even when we end, other cycles begin – decomposition, and some would believe reincarnation.

I can see the cycles of my life and my behaviors when I pause. There are great circles and spirals of growth. There are predictable life patterns you can see in others. There’s even simple things like foods I like then leave then like again.

Then there’s meditation.

I am a cycle of cycles and part of cycles. I am a whirling thing.

– Xenofact