CULTIVATING THE MIND
A saying attributed to the great Chinese Physician Sun Simiao provides the framework for Cultivating the Mind from an Oriental Medical Perspective
“Life comes to man but once and the past will never come again, why not control the emotions and cultivate temperament to protect against diseases?”
Unfortunately the terms “Cultivating the Mind” has come to encompass many meanings, especially in the West. When first mentioned, the terms create soothing scenes of someone sitting quietly crossed legged in a quiet environment listening to tranquil music/sounds. More often then not this approach leads to people desperately trying to control the mind insisting on… striving for… inner peace described as lack of thought processes. While meditation in its various forms does have benefit when done properly, it does not solely define the concept of Cultivating the Mind. From the medical viewpoint, cultivation of the mind relates to having a cheerful state not driven to emotional extremes through forced “beneficial” internal emotions nor excessive responses to external stimuli. Cultivating the mind can be associated with three different aspects:
- Maintaining a gentle temperament
- Observing rules of nature while following customs
- Regulating the seven emotions
Maintaining a Gentle Temperament
Corresponds to maintaining high spirits and adopting a realistic and optimistic attitude toward life. Maintaining a Gentle Temperament is not a passive endeavor, but an accomplishment. Just as modern society tends to favor monetary and status attainments, we should also place value on being able to achieve and maintain high spirits and optimistic attitudes. An emphasis on maintaining a gentle temperament and its importance in supporting Health Preservation is illustrated in the classical saying
“Cultivating temperament is better than conserving health”
Maintaining a Gentle Temperament is relatively global, non specific statement, so we can seek basic guidance from classical Chinese Medical literature in defining what it means. When cultivating a gentle temperament we are instructed to refrain from anxiety, anger, sorrow, shock/surprises, laughter and unnecessary talk. We are also instructed to foster noble ideas, values, and goals. While having goals and desires is a normal aspect of life, we should refrain from impatience in achieving them. Additionally, one should never harbor hatred and anger for long periods. Anger is seen as the most self detrimental and difficult of the emotions to deal with and should receive special attention. In the West, this is even more apparent with the stressful lives of most of the population driven by emotional extremes and slaved to ever more complex calendars. We are more than willing to give up our lives and planning to the deluge of electronic devices encroaching upon us.
Those familiar with the precepts of Oriental Medicine will recognize these guidelines as not only easing the mind but allowing for the smooth function of all of our body’s organs systems. Proper functioning of all of our body systems lessens our susceptibility to diseases both internally and externally thus extending our lives. Take as an example those in society who have achieved a more advanced age and who enjoy having reached their age. They tend to be more open and broad minded, kindhearted and cheerful while rarely ever depressed. How do we avoid depression? Where not medically/chemically related, Depression can be seen as a cascading of steps starting from Expectations. As Dr. Tan described the cascade:
Expectations lead to Disappointments which transform into Anger. Responding to this Anger we actively or passive-aggresively strive towards Punishment of ourselves or of those who did not meet our expectations (why did I, why didn’t they, he/she should have, etc.). Even when the Punishment is over there is a sense of hollowness since the original expectations were not achieved through the punishment. This result leads to Sadness which gives rise to Fear, and then Fear to Depression. The further up the cascade we are able to respond the easier it is to head off the steps further on. Managing Expectations is necessary for a Gentle Temperament and Cultivating the Mind.
Observing Rules of Nature While Following Customs
This aspect may seem a bit foreign to the Western Mind, but it can be restated. Respond to actual conditions, not to contrivances which we make from our perceptions of them. Look to the realities of a situation and act accordingly, don’t be over taken by them. Learn to adapt to changes as they occur adapting to the physical and social environment in which they are occurring. Adapting implies Change. Change can be one of the hardest things to accept and in turn respond to. We are all familiar with the adage that “Change is the only thing that is constant”.
When drastic changes occur in our daily lives, our comfort environment, and social situations it is important to respond as in Maintaining a Gentle Temperament. Don’t become disheartened and feel anxious or resentful. Adapt to the new conditions, don’t try to live according to the old. Respond to changes that can be addressed don’t expend efforts on those things that can’t be changed. Accept the new conditions and deal with them objectively. Keep the mind clear and undistracted. Meet difficulties and distress with composure.
Regulating the Seven Emotions
According to the Chinese Classics of Medicine, the Seven Emotions are Joy, Anger, Melancholy, Anxiety, Grief, Fear, and Terror. Most students of Oriental Medicine in the West are most familiar with only five of these. Regulating the emotions is not some version of Vulcan stoicism nor an effusive 60s presentation of love and harmony. Many people fail on this aspect when pursuing meditation, they seek to detach themselves from emotions and be transformed to “a higher plane”. Regulating the emotions for Health Preservation refers to maintaining emotional activity to a moderate degree. As humans we are emotional creatures and repression or suppression of emotions can lead to injurious health consequences. We should moderately vent to actively divert some of our emotions and feelings to maintaining balance both internally and externally. It is natural to moderately vent anger, joy, grief, etc., and not to repress them. This enables one to adapt to the ever changing environment and to maintain equilibrium. As an example stress is needed for proper development and adaptation but excessive stress is harmful. A strong root system of a tree is generated by its response to external weather factors, however, excess weather factors can lead to the uprooting of the tree. The tree stands up to the stresses but at some point bends and goes with the conditions or breaks.
One way of dealing with excessive emotions is found in the Theory of the Five Phases. Specific emotions are known to restrict or divert other emotions. Certain fields of Modern Psychology utilizes techniques to divert excessive and incorrect emotions. From the Theory of Five Phases.
- Grief restricts Anger
- Fear restricts Joy
- Anger restricts Anxiety
- Joy restricts Melancholy
- Anxiety restricts Fear
Looking at a situation with a different perspective can vent excess, injurious emotions. As an example, individuals who pursue extreme sports or activities do so for the adrenaline rush. They are trying to create a situation of extreme, euphoric Joy (not too dissimilar to those trying to achieve chemically induced highs). According to Chinese medicine this will ultimately result in injury to the overall health of the individual. Realistically assessing the actions they are performing to acquire these types of highs and the associated danger utilizes Fear to restrict Joy. An extreme restriction by Fear may come in the form of a serious accident which leads to no desire by an individual to perform an action again.