The Concept of Harmony related to Daoist Yangsheng and Western Medical Thought
By Matthew Banks
Modern Western understandings of health and disease are seen as grounded in science, indeed the 20th century has sometimes been referred to as “the Pharmaceutical Age.” In the 21st century this has led to disease being treated solely on its symptoms, not its causes. In turn, the idea of what is considered healthy is often based on image. Judged solely on modern ideas then, Western understandings of health and disease are almost completely disconnected to the concept of harmony.
However, if we look back at Western understandings before great advances in medicine, the predominant medical theory closely related to the concept of harmony. Humoral theory had its foundations in the idea that body and mind were closely linked and that certain foods could impact both.
Daoist Yangsheng theory’s understandings of health and disease are clearly connected to the concept of harmony. It is based upon linking body, mind and spirit together, whilst also linking these aspects to nature, society and longevity.
Humoral theory stems from the ideas of Hippocrates, one of the founders of Western medicine. Wooten says, “In Western society, we turn above all to the medical profession for help, and the doctors who treat us belong to a profession that dates back to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek who, some 2500 years ago, founded a tradition of medical education that continues uninterrupted to the present day.” It was a theory that “dominated medical thinking until the 18th century.”
The theory consisted of four humours, also known as temperaments, “blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.” Balancing these was given great importance. Bynum says they “constituted a considerable framework for understanding health and disease, and much else besides.” An inappropriate balance supposedly caused disease and affect health.
This theory based itself upon many forms of harmony. Arikha says when this theory was practiced, “Doctors continued to work on the assumption that the body and mind were intimately connected” and that “an excess of black bile produced the melancholic.” This is harmony between the body and the mind. It was shown to believe in harmony with nature and the environment; every humour had its own element, whilst “Heat and cold, dryness and moistness…determined the effects of each humour on mood, thought and health.” There are links between nutrition and health and disease: “Each food and season having its own dominant humour,” which could be influenced by time of consumption, “a recommended regime might be to avoid meat and lettuce, and to eat partridge but not duck, in the Spring!”
Despite these links between towards health and disease in Humoral theory and the concept of harmony, the theory lacked harmony in some areas.
Three areas traditional Western understandings of health and disease have not related to harmony are spirit, society, and immortality. Nordenfelt says of that time; “life on earth was not the important life. This life was only a preparation for the eternal life together with God. Thus, health in this life could not have the utmost value. It was much more important to successfully prepare oneself for the eternal life and thus live in accordance with the duties indicated in the holy literature, in particular the Bible.”
Here the spirit is seen as a separate entity to be prepared for eternal life and not linked to Humoral theory. There was no harmony with traditional society, because living for holy literature took precedence. A lack of harmonization with immortality is also noticeable, because living in accordance with holy literature brought eternal life. Harmonising these areas with health and disease was unimportant.
Nordenfelt believes philosophers like Plato impacted feeling towards health and disease, limiting impact upon society, and quotes Plato as saying: “We should not concentrate our interest and ambition on our own health and on questions on health and disease. When people concentrate on their own health and want to consult a doctor at all times, this is a sign of unsound conditions in the state.” Plato, whose books Dr Jay Kennedy of Manchester University says “played a major role in founding Western culture,” believed concentrating on one’s own health, and being active in pursuing good health, showed a lack of harmony within the state. He also believed disease doesn’t demand focus, saying: “Attention to health is life’s greatest hindrance.” From these statements its clear Plato preached an ambivalent attitude toward health and disease, going so far as to say that attention to health was a symptom of disharmony. Thus Humoral theory, as well as traditional Western understandings of health and disease, didn’t relate to the overall population; it was disconnected from the general consciousness of society.
Modern Western understandings of health and disease are rooted in science and are increasingly superficial. This comes in two parts; firstly, people’s ideal of what is healthy is now intrinsically linked to image, and that achieving good health can be predominantly achieved through scientific means, i.e. dietary supplements and surgical procedures, rather than a balanced life. Secondly, disease can be solved through pharmaceuticals, and the causes of disease are given secondary importance.
In modern Western culture it is seen as healthy for men to be physically strong. This has led to a rise in the number of men who take dietary supplements to help increase muscle mass. Many people take supplements without knowing precise benefits, or whether they are actually needed. Fréchette says, on protein supplements; “No less than 81 per cent of athletes taking supplements already had sufficient protein from their diet.” Similarly, exercise is often merely a means to achieve the desired image. There is limited harmony with what the body actually needs and wants, which is also a lack of harmony with nature and with one’s spirit.
A lack of harmony is also presented through analysis of obesity and its treatment. BBC News Health reported: “The number of people admitted to hospital in England for obesity-related reasons rose by more than 30% last year” (2010). It also reported that “The number of weight-loss hospital procedures (bariatric operations) carried out in England rose by 70%, from just over 4,200 in 2008/09 to just over 7,200 in 2009/10.” This reinforces the view that in the modern day West causes of disease are often ignored. Harmonization with the body and health is limited. Such a large reliance on medical science over natural and preventative methods indicates discord between one’s own body and nature.
Reliance on medical sciences over pre-emptive and balanced approaches, such as Humoral theory and Daoist Yangsheng is also present in therapeutic drug use. Visiongain’s 2010 report tells us “In 2009, the global over-the-counter (OTC) pharmaceutical market generated revenues of more than $60bn,” whilst “According to estimates from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, retail sales of OTC medicines in the US in 2010 were worth $17 billion, unchanged from the preceding year, and showing an increase over more than $3 billion over a ten-year period.” Western understandings of health and disease are based on a culture of science in which the symptoms are treated and causes ignored.
Daoist Yangsheng understandings are highly related to the concept of harmony in many different areas. Like Humoral theory, it shows harmony with nature, and of body and mind. Unlike Humoral theory, it also harmonises body and mind with spirit. It also harmonises with longevity and with society. Daoist Yangsheng promotes cultivation of the body; looking for harmony to stop the onset of disease, rather than just reacting.
One of the main differences between Daoist Yangsheng theory and traditional Western understandings is their relationship to longevity. In traditional Western understandings, we saw that staying healthy to achieve longevity was not considered and there was no link between the two. In Daoist Yangsheng understandings, we can achieve longevity in this life through the proper cultivation of the body, mind and spirit. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, Qi Bo tells Emperor Huang Di that “The immortals kept their mental energies focused and refined, and harmonized their bodies with the environment.” So whilst Humoral theory links the body to the environment in a way designed to keep the body free of disease, Daoist Yangsheng links the body, mind and spirit to nature, and this culminates by leading people towards longevity. Kohn agrees: “That is, one can make themselves that basis, the root, the foundation of the cultivation process, anchor oneself in physicality and transform the very nature of physical existence as part of the divine undertaking. This is the route the Daoist tradition has chosen.”
So Daoist Yangsheng understandings of health and disease relate to the concept of harmony throughout the body, and link it to longevity or eternal life. The body is a key element in achieving this goal.
Daoist Yangsheng understandings present links between health and disease and harmony of the body, mind and the spirit through approaches to exercise and nutrition. The key to the Daoist Yangsheng concept of exercise and nutrition is Qi, the Daoist Yangsheng idea of life force.
Ability to “circulate Qi well through mind-body exercise, you will be able to achieve harmony in body-mind-spirit, and reach balance in your internal qi system, which will automatically adjust your diet or nutritional habits (the body knows what is good or bad for it), and offer you the capability to fast naturally (energetic fast is important part of Daoist and Buddhist practice).” This harmonizes nutrition with exercise, whilst bringing both together in harmony with mind, body and spirit. The Yellow Emperor’s classic says exercise is important, as is emotion or mood, “One should refrain from anger, and stay physically active, to prevent the pores from closing and the qi from stagnating.”
Daoist Yangsheng differs from modern Western understandings of health and disease by preaching the importance of disease prevention over medicinal treatment of symptoms. The Inner Teachings of Taoism show this, “Medicine here is a metaphor, but students in later generations took the alchemical classics literally and thought the medicines were material substances; they gathered herbs in the mountains and compounded them into potions, vainly hoping for long life. Some gathered minerals and cooked them into elixirs, which they ingested, imagining they would thereby become able to fly aloft. What they did not realize was that material medicines can only cure physical ailments. Immaterial sickness can only be cured by gathering the primordial, true, unified, energy.” Yangsheng requires harmony of energy, and believes this is the true way to be healthy, not medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Daoist Yangsheng harmonizes with society generally. “Yang Sheng science is a required course for all foreign students who study Chinese medicine in China, but it is just an optional course for Chinese students who grew up in China,” “This policy may reflect the fact that knowledge of Yang Sheng has been taught through the Chinese socialization process in daily life; young Chinese learn about Yang Sheng through osmosis.” This appears to show Daoist Yangsheng has become part of everyday culture for Chinese people.
Overall, Daoist Yangsheng understandings of health and disease are highly related to the concept of harmony. It preaches harmony of the mind, body and spirit, whilst also harmonizing with nature. Exercise and nutrition are linked to mind and body, whilst spirit is intrinsically linked to longevity and nature. Daoist Yangsheng understandings harmonize with society; it has been accepted into the consciousness of China.
In comparison, we have seen that modern Western understandings of health and disease are unrelated to harmony. It is based around science and superficial goals. It’s concerned with how disease can be cured, not how it can be prevented. It links the body to nutrition and exercise, but is often used to achieve superficial ends, rather than to bring the body into harmony with other areas of life.
Whilst Western understandings of health and disease in the past have related to the concept of harmony quite closely, this has dissipated over time, partly due to lack of harmony with key areas of life. Conversely, Daoist Yangsheng understandings show a deep and broad relationship with the concept of harmony. It encompasses all areas of life and can be seen as a useful tool for people in the modern Western world to embrace.
Wootten, David. Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates. Oxford University Press, 2006. Pg 2.
Bynum, William. The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008. Pg 10.
Ibid. Pg 10.
Ibid. Pg 10.
Arikha, Noga. Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours. Harper Perennial, 2007. Pg. xvii.
Ibid Pg xviii.
Ibid Pg. xviii.
Nordenfelt, Lennert. http://www.fil.lu.se/hommageawlodek/site/papper/NordenfeltLennart.pdf pg. 2.
Ibid pg. 2.
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Trans. Maoshing Ni. Shambhala (publications), Boston Massachusetts, 1995. Pg 3
Daoist Body Cultivation: Traditional Models and Contemporary Practices. Ed. Livia Kohn. Magdalena, Three Pines Press, 2006. Pg 3.
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Op.Cit. Pg 5.
The Inner Teachings of Taoism, Chang Po – Tuan, commentary by Liu I – Ming, Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala (publications), Boston & London, 1986. Pg 57
The Inner Teachings of Taoism, Chang Po – Tuan, commentary by Liu I – Ming, Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala (publications), Boston & London, 1986.
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Trans. Maoshing Ni. Shambhala (publications), Boston Massachusetts, 1995.
Daoist Body Cultivation: Traditional Models and Contemporary Practices. Ed. Livia Kohn. Magdalena, Three Pines Press, 2006.
Wootten, David. Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Arikha, Noga. Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours. Harper Perennial, 2007.
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Matthew Banks studied the principles of Daoist Yangsheng under Dr Yanxia Zhao at Trinity Saint David University whilst reading for a Chinese Studies BA, and furthered this interest during a language year at Renmin University in Beijing. A qualified tennis coach and swimming instructor, he is principally interested in investigating the benefits of incorporating Daoist Yangsheng philosophy into training for both elite level and club level athletes.