Embracing Heaven, Nourishing Life
Food talk today is creative, complex and, at times, wildly confusing. As a culture we are constantly trying to solve the problem of what to eat. Our dietary quest is shaped by fads that come and go, ideologies mixed with fact and fiction, and science that can be used to justify almost any pattern of eating.
On top of that, our global economy gives us unending access to every foodstuff known to humankind. Driving all of this dietary effort are emotions ranging from zealotry and conviction to worry and obsession. How did something so basic as eating get so complicated?
As a psychologist and a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I respond often to this food talk with clients. Inevitably, I get the question, “What does Chinese medicine say about diet?” The Chinese health practices of ancient times followed natural cycles of the sun, moon and seasons, along with internal movements of energy within the human being. In this ancient system, food was seen as a relationship with nature for preserving the life cycle, as Earth animated by the generosity of Heaven, gifted for nourishing life. These teachings are the basis for eating and classical Chinese wisdom on nourishment.
When we look closely at Chinese dietary wisdom, we see a diversity of whole foods from land and sea arranged in a thoughtful balance for nourishing life. We also begin to appreciate that the Chinese have been studying the effects of food for centuries, long before there was a modern age of nutritional science. In order to appreciate the history of these principles, we need to understand how ancient Chinese wisdom perceived life and their concepts of Fire and Water, Heaven and Earth, and the cycles of Yin and Yang.
The concepts of Yin and Yang are often presented as symbols of opposition in balance, such as day and night, hot and cold, masculine and feminine, and so on. But in the teachings of antiquity, they refer to a very specific dynamic that generates life. The Chinese character for Yang depicts a sun in the sky sending rays of light and warmth into the earth. It represents the energy of nature coming from the heavens. The Chinese character for Yin depicts a person sitting in a house enjoying the steam coming out of cooked food. It represents the presence of energy not coming directly from the sun, but derived from elements of the earth that contain the energy of the sun, like rice, water, clay pots and firewood.
When we compare both characters, we see reference to two different states of energy. Yang is the generative force of life. Yin is the medium through which that force is conducted as life. Because of Yin, living beings have form and the ability to store and use Yang energy for life. Yin is the vessel for Yang. Because of Yang, the living body has a force allowing it to be active and enjoy a life cycle. Life depends on Yang being joined within Yin. Yin contains Yang. Yang animates Yin. Yin and Yang are an inseparable functional dynamic. The origin of Yang was called Heaven and the origin of Yin was called Earth. Heaven was seen as the invisible root force that grants life. Earth was seen as the material energy of nature that provides a vessel for Heaven within.
This dynamic moves in a cycle. In the human being, it moves as our sleep and wake cycle. When the sun comes up, we are awake and the Yang energy of Heaven is moving us about. Eventually, we use up our energy for the day and fall back to earth as the sun goes down, where we sleep to recharge for a new day. While we are awake, we take in the Yang energy from food to join with the Original Yang energy within. So, in this cycle, the ancient Chinese saw us as drawing life from two sources of Yang: the former Heaven Yang within, inherited at conception, and the latter Heaven Yang in nature embodied as sun, food, air and water.
Within this framework, the classical dietary teachings for nourishing life focused on four principles: regulating the appetites, guarding Heaven’s root, supporting digestive fire and harmonizing with the seasons.
REGULATING THE APPETITES
According to classical wisdom, regulating our appetites is key to proper nourishment. Our core appetites are exercising, eating, resting and sleeping. Exercising and eating reflect the Yang phase of discharging and gathering energy. Resting and sleeping reflect the Yin phase of absorbing and recharging energy.
Ideally, our appetite sensitivity is in synch with our behavior. When hungry we eat, when sleepy we sleep. When energized we exercise, when fatigued we rest. By following the natural rhythm of our appetites, we regulate the cycle of nourishing life. Each appetite fluctuates according to the others. For example, how much we sleep, how much we exercise and how much we rest from stress all affect how much we eat. Regularity with our core appetites and their matching conduct enables proper control over diet.
GUARDING HEAVEN’S ROOT
Original Yang is the root source of life transmitted by Heaven from start to finish of the life cycle. Think of it as the invisible force that causes cells to repair and reproduce and keeps the constancy of the beating heart. The ancients saw sleep as the time we reconnect with this Heaven force to recharge the organs of life and spark a new cycle. The transformation of food was seen as involving all of the body’s organs. Without the ability to recharge in sleep, the organs of digestion suffer and cannot efficiently extract the energy from food. Chronic stress, aggression and excessive emotion are also seen as exhausting the Original Yang and injuring the organs.
Classical Chinese teachings emphasize the cultivation of benevolence and compassion as critical to conserving our Original Yang. So, by protecting sleep and regulating emotion, we guard the precious Heavenly root and insure the proper nourishing of life.
SUPPORTING DIGESTIVE FIRE
Supporting digestive fire means protecting the energy of digestion. Nutrition equals food plus digestion. Poor digestion means poor nutrition. Chinese medicine places great emphasis on supporting digestion to benefit fully from the energy of nature.
Digestion requires the right balance of breath, water and fire. To understand the energy process of digestion, we can picture a pot of broth simmering over a fire. Original Heaven Yang is like the precious spark that ignites the fire under the pot. Digestive Yang is the movement of fire flaming upward from the combustion of oxygen in the breath. The Yin water in the pot absorbs the Heaven Yang contained in food. The cooking process is the use of Original Yang to extract and release the stored Yang in nature. The extracted essence steams upward as the waste sinks to the bottom to be eliminated. The image of extracted essence is analogous to the strong assimilation of nourishment into the blood.
Supporting digestion is critical to a good diet. Proper conduct protects the digestive fire. When eating, slowing down with deep breaths flames the digestive fire. Avoiding overeating keeps us from exhausting the digestive fire and creating stagnation. Digestion works best when we are relaxed and at rest.
It is also considered important to avoid eating too many raw and cold foods because it will weaken the digestive fire by making it work harder. Protecting against foods injurious to digestion such as foods containing allergens or toxins is necessary. Eating larger meals earlier in the day when the digestive fire is strongest is best, compared to evening when our Yang energy is starting to retreat. Some fluid at meals makes digestion easier but too much dampens the fire. Finally, feeling joyful and giving thanks for our food nurtures good digestion. The ancient Chinese saw food as the generosity of nature, gifts of Earth infused with Heaven.
HARMONIZING WITH THE SEASONS
Harmonizing with the seasons essentially means being responsive to time, which in Chinese medicine means change. Seasons are a cycle of changing times. With changes from summer to winter, climate changes from hot to cold. There are also changes in the movement of life. In the summer, life is expanded outward in full bloom. In the winter, life is concealed inward, in storage. Each season is associated with a temperature and a direction: winter, cold and inward; spring, warm and ascending; summer, hot and outward; fall, cool and descending. The cycle of seasons also happens in a day with night as winter, early morning as spring, midday as summer, and evening as fall. Dietary practices follow the cycle of change. These changes reflect the ebb and flow of Yang within Yin.
The main principle for maintaining health with diet is conforming to nature. Our appetites and behavior change with the seasons according to the state of Yang energy around us. When Yang energy expands in summer, diet supports the expansion. When Yang energy moves into storage in winter, we follow as well. The way we eat, sleep, exercise and live changes with the seasons. Eating in accordance with the seasons and the cycle of Yang nourishes life.
As a general guide, eat fruits and vegetables in season, more in spring, summer and fall but less in winter unless dried or pickled. Eat meat and fat in winter and less in spring and summer. Eat eggs and dairy more in spring and fall but less in summer and winter. Eat and drink warming food in winter, spring and fall, but more cooling food in summer.
There are also cooking methods associated with each season. Slow cooking, such as stews and baking, is favorable for fall and winter because they hold heat and maximize digestion for storage of Yang. Stirfrying, steaming, sprouting and raw foods are favorable for spring and summer because they prevent overheating. Soups are favorable for all seasons as they are considered ideal for digestive fire with the perfect balance of fire, water and nutrient.
EATING FOR SPRING, EATING FOR LIFE
As we move through spring, we support the spreading of Yang energy as it releases from winter storage. For a smooth transition, we warm Yang gently and avoid stagnation. Make use of sprouted foods and bitter greens but keep them gently warming by cooking them in soups or light stir-frying. Including spring onions and chives assists in preventing stagnation. We can lessen the use of meats and fats by just using broth. We can start sprouting legumes and seeds before adding them to recipes. Using spices such as turmeric, black pepper, rosemary and fresh ginger provide gentle warming and prevent stagnation. In addition to diet, we want to be sensitive to our appetite for waking earlier and exercising more in the mornings.
Many things overlap in our experience of eating. We eat for growth and performance. We eat for connection and intimacy. We eat for adventure and excitement. But in the end, we must eat for life. Classical Chinese wisdom deepens my love for the simplicity of following nature, eating well and eating wise. A grain, a green and a protein … digested well … and cherished in harmony with Heaven and the seasons.