Archive for July, 2010

meditation and Tai Chi Chuan, in illness and in health

July 21, 2010

“Quan Yin, Chinese Goddess of Compassion” by Ren Adams

Daily practice of meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi Chuan can be remarkably helpful in relieving stress, and, in that way, can benefit our health.  There are stories of individuals, exceptionally adept in Taoism, Buddism, yoga, or Tai Chi, who remained unusually healthy and youthful appearing until quite late in life.  In “The Tao of Pooh,” Benjamin Hoff recounts the story (reportedly true) of Li Chung Yun, who lived an astonishingly long life, appearing much younger than his age, and remaining in vigorous health.  Although he regularly practiced Taoist exercises and walked long distances, Li Chung Yun attributed his long life and good health mostly to his inner state of mind, what he called “inner quiet.”  Whether the various stories about Taoist adepts are fully true, exaggerated, or even fabricated, the message they convey, and the inner kernel of truth that they share, is that, by adopting a daily practice that cultivates serenity and reduces stress, we can enjoy a better quality of life, and probably a healthier life.

The July/August 2003 issue of Kungfu/Qigong magazine had a fascinating article about Helen Liang, an accomplished martial artist and daughter of the esteemed martial artist, Shou-Yu Liang of Vancouver (  You can find the full article at this website:

It tells the story of Helen’s ordeal with cancer, and the way that she used meditation and Tai Chi Chuan to help her get through it.

She was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma in her late teens, and underwent months of chemotherapy, which failed to put the cancer into remission.  She was still extremely ill,  and her oncologist told her and her family that the only remaining possibility for curing the cancer was a bone marrow transplant, which had less than a 5% chance of success.  Without the bone marrow transplant, the doctors predicted that she had only a couple of weeks to live.  She made the difficult decision to forgo the bone marrow transplant, leave the hospital, and live out her remaining days at home with her family.  Despite the grim prognosis, her father and their family doctor did not give up hope, and worked with her intensively on Buddist and Taoist qigong, meditation, tai chi, Chinese herbal medicine, and alternative Western medicine, in a last-ditch effort to save her life.  Every day, Helen spent prolonged periods meditating or doing tai chi outside.  Weeks passed, and she did not deteriorate or die, but rather her fevers began to subside.  The article describes in some detail her meditation practices:

“As Helen’s recovery progressed she practiced Buddist and Taoist qigong with her father, and also a serious amount of meditation by herself.  ’Every day,’ she recalls, ‘I’d go in the backyard where we had flowers and bamboo.  In the morning, facing the sun, with no noise, I’d sit and meditate.  I’d combine methods, and shorten then, tailor them to me.  I focused sometimes on the goddess Kuan Yin; I’d feel peaceful whenever I’d think of her.  So I’d do something that has something to do with her, visualize an image of healing light.

‘Another thing that really helped me, I found it myself.  I would sit there and imagine I am one with the universe, almost that I’m not there.  When you think about that, how immense the universe is—the good, the bad, disease and everything, how everything moves on, recycling, coming in a circle—you’re no longer afraid of anything.  I’d think, I’m not even sick right now, I’m the universe—feel how powerful the universe is—I’m not there and yet I’m powerful.

‘Sometimes feeling the pain, the side effects from chemo, I’d feel horrible, that’s when I meditated the most.  I’d wake up and feel refreshed—peaceful and powerful—I was the universe.’

‘One of the things I learned most is let nature run its own course.  Don’t worry about the outcome.  Worry about the process, and let nature go from there.  Always try your best, but don’t worry.  If you fail and lose, it doesn’t matter.  That’s part of nature.’”

–Martha Burr, “Opening and Closing the Gates of Heaven:  Helen Liang’s Triumph over Tragedy, Battling Lymphoma with Qigong, Tai Chi and Chinese Medicine,” Kung Fu Magazine, July/August 2003 issue

Over the course of about a year, she progressively regained her strength, and the cancer seemed to go into remission or disappear, as she continued to use Chinese herbal medicines, practice mediation, qigong, and tai chi.  She has lived to this day, 14 years after the cancer diagnosis, in good health, and she still practices and teaches martial arts as President of the Shou-Yu Liang Wushu Taiji Qigong Institute in Vancouver.

Someone with a background in Qigong or traditional Chinese medicine may have a theoretical framework that can provide some explanation for why or how Helen recovered.  But as someone who comes from a background in modern, Western medicine, who is not well versed in Qigong, and who is not typically an advocate of alternative medicine, I found this story fascinating and puzzling.  What are we Westerners to make of it?  The facts of the story seem to be indisputable:  Helen Liang is a real person, and this happened to her, and she is still alive today, recovered from an apparently fatal cancer, for unknown reasons.  To try to understand it, my tendency is to first use the framework of Western medicine to think of all sorts of possible explanations.  Could the initial diagnosis have been inaccurate?  Or could this have been such a rare form of lymphoma that so little was known about it, including the fact that it sometimes can “spontaneously” remit…in other words, could the doctors’ prognosis have been wrong?   But, on the other hand, if the diagnosis and prognosis were correct, and she really was on the edge of death, then what was it that allowed her to recover, despite there seeming to be no chance?  As the article itself says, “Whether to attribute this miracle to Kuan Yin, the goddess or mercy, to qigong, to bitter Chinese herbs, to a family’s unwavering love, or to Helen’s own will to heal her cancer, the answer is still a mystery.”

I don’t know which of these factors or combination of factors, if any, made the cancer go away.  In the parlance of Western medicine, Helen’s story is “anecdotal,” a single case, and therefore it is not possible to make any definitive conclusion about what caused her to recover.  I don’t tell this story to encourage anyone to forsake conventional medicine, or to use only alternative or non-Western medicine.  If I, or someone close to me, had a serious illness, I  would seek out conventional, Western medical care, although I respect the right of others to choose alternative approaches, and clearly, as in Helen’s story, there are situations in which one can run out of good treatment options in conventional medicine.  If I were in Helen’s situation, after the chemotherapy failed, I’m not sure what I would have decided about the bone marrow transplant.  One thing is certain, though—that the meditation and Tai Chi that she practiced was wonderfully effective in relieving her fear and stress, and in enabling her, in the midst of this situation, to reach a state of inner peace and calm…even bliss.  Helping patients to cope with the potentially crushing burden of fear and stress inflicted by serious illness is so important, but so often neglected by conventional Western medicine.  And why does Western medicine neglect it?  Even from a hard-nosed, skeptical, Western scientific/medical perspective, there are reams of convincing data indicating that severe anxiety and stress can have strongly negative consequences on our physical and mental health.

I was moved by reading about the situation that Helen faced, and by the way her meditations about the immensity of the universe and feeling one with the universe enabled her to reach a state of no fear…and by her stance of letting nature takes its course…trying your best, but not worrying about the outcome…if you lose, fail, or even die, it is OK…it is part of nature.  Who knows?….maybe her ability to let go of fear and stress really did contribute to her recovery.  In our society, we have a tendency, quite different from Helen’s, to encourage people with serious illnesses to “fight” and “battle” the disease.   This attitude of “fighting” apparently helps many people to not give up, to hold on to hope and to a sense of control.  But sometimes I wonder whether all this talk of “fighting,” “struggling,” and “winning the battle” against the disease could, at least in some people, be counterproductive, could even contribute to stress or to a feeling of defeat and failure if things don’t go the way they were hoping.  I wonder whether Helen’s stance—not of fighting and struggling, but of becoming a part of nature, doing her best to care for herself but not worrying so much about the outcome, going with the flow of nature—may be more relieving of stress and burden for some people…it would seem more relieving to me, at least.   And, in the end, by not worrying about “winning,” she won.  She embodied wu wei, “doing not doing” or “effortless action.”  Whether one is ill or healthy, it seems clear that joining the flow of nature through meditation and Tai Chi can enhance our quality of life, can help us let go of the stresses that wear us down, and can help us reach a state of inner peacefulness and happiness.  That is why I want to continue practicing Tai Chi Chuan, no matter what happens in life, letting the attitude that Helen describes sink in.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


becoming Tao: sailing

July 9, 2010

“Man in a Boat” by Ren Adams

I’ve always been attracted to sailing.  I’ve been thinking about sailing more lately, maybe because it’s summer…or maybe because of feeling upset about the horrible polluting of the ocean by the ongoing BP oil spill disaster.   Many years ago, I spent a summer working in my college’s sailing center, maintaining boats and getting some sailing lessons.  There is something soothing, yet thrilling about the beautiful boats, the gentle clinking sounds of the rigging in the wind, the white sails against the blue sky, the feeling of lift and the sound of rushing water as wind fills the sails, and the spray of water as boats move through the waves.  Recently, I’ve been thinking about how sailing resonates with Taoism.  In the Tao Te Ching, there are many comparisons of Tao to water and descriptions of Tao as flowing.

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, Stephen Mitchell translation

“The great Tao flows everywhere…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 34, Stephen Mitchell translation

“All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32, Stephen Mitchell translation

The strategies used in sailing are analagous to those of Tai Chi Chuan.  In sailing, you accomplish what you want—moving in a particular direction—not by forcing or by artificially pushing against nature with the help of a motor, but rather by “listening” continuously to the wind and water currents; by skillfully aligning yourself, your boat, and your sails to those currents and thus borrowing the energy from nature.  The awareness and listening are very important.  By staying in the moment, with a calm and clear mind, aware and aligned with the continually shifting wind and water flow,  you become a part of what is around you…in some sense you become the wind, the water, the boat and sails moving with them…you become the Tao.  Albert Einstein, who loved sailing, described an experience like this on the water:

“Never before have I lived through a storm like the one this night…The sea has a look of indescribable grandeur, especially when the sun falls on it.  One feels as if one is dissolved and merged into Nature.”

–Albert Einstein, December 10, 1931

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

finding Tao in science

July 5, 2010

“Tang Dynasty Nobleman Wanders in the Snow” by Ren Adams

My oldest son just finished kindergarten, and his favorite subject by far, and the favorite of many of his kindergarten classmates, was science.  This popularity of science among the kindergarteners may be partly attributable to the school’s terrific science teacher.  But I also think that the wonder that most kids feel toward the natural world and science is a fundamental, inherent, not yet “civilized away” fascination with Tao.  Many adults still have some of this curiosity and wonder, but it often seems at least half forgotten.

My own career in research is really driven by that same childlike, endless fascination with nature.  My wife and I wonder, sometimes, why I chose and continue to pursue a career in science that can be so grueling, but I think my stubborn persistence is mostly due to this fascination that is like a gravitational pull for me.

Many aspects of scientific work can be repetitive, monotonous, and annoying.  A career in science requires a high level of anxiety and frustration tolerance.  But there are times when we make an unexpected discovery, however small, or when I hear a great scientific presentation, that reminds me of why I do this.  For example, I remember hearing a talk years ago that gave me such a sense of new depth of understanding, and a sense of the possibility of even deeper understanding, that I felt almost like laughing with excitement at how cool it was.  It may sound unusual, but, at times like that,  I can feel a euphoria of understanding that is almost kinesthetic, a feeling akin to falling through space, much as Carl Sagan described the feeling of contemplating the cosmos, as I quoted in an earlier blog:  “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries” (Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” 1980, Random House, p. 4).  I think it is these moments that keep me going.

Dudley Herschbach, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has a surprising perspective on what someone needs to be a good scientist:

“Interviewer:  What do you think is the most important skill or characteristic a scientist should have?  Is it curiosity or perseverance or analytical skills or something else?

Herschbach:  All of those are important, but if you ask me to say the single most important one—certainly not unique to science—but the most important one is the capacity to fall in love.  To get excited, enthralled, obsessed with some question or problem and helplessly give themselves over to their destiny.

Interviewer:  Like the mad scientist.

Herschbach:  I don’t think it’s a mad scientist so much.  I think it’s fulfillment of human potential to experience this kind of thing in your life, to be fascinated by some questions.  It’s very much manifest in many scientists I know, but also artists and musicians.  You know how many of those people struggle.  Our society undervalues them enormously and yet they are in love with what they are doing.  That is why they do it at all costs.  I think that is the most important single thing.”

–Harvard Alumni Gazette, June, 1989

I remember when I first began working in a neurobiology laboratory, and learning about the incredible intricacy and complexity of the intracellular “machinery” of neurons.  The amazing complexity of it, and the fact that somehow it all works and somehow contributes to our mental functioning…contemplating all of this conjured up in me thoughts of “God.”  The thoughts were not of an anthropomorphized God, the creator, like a clockmaker, who created all of this with his hands.  Rather, I had the sense that whatever “God” or the Tao is, is manifested in this awe-inspiring and beautiful intricacy of nature.  Although there is a popular belief that science and religion are diametrically opposed (despite the fact that some of the great scientists of history were religious, like Isaac Newton), many theoretical physicists, such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, refer in their work to God or understanding the “mind of God.”  Whether or not a scientist is a practicing member of a formal religion, or believes in God in the conventional sense, there is something in scientific work that can conjure up a sense of mystery, of awe at nature, that feels, for lack of a better word, spiritual, because it helps one become closer to the mystery of Tao.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

Albert Einstein – “The Merging of Spirit and Science”

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

–Albert Einstein

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description .. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”

–Albert Einstein

“We know nothing about [God, the world] at all.  All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren.  Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

–Albert Einstein, quoted in “The Expanded Quotable Einstein,” Princeton University Press, p. 207

Although, as Einstein wrote, we will never know the real nature of things (“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”), the thrill of science is that it can get us a little closer to the Tao.   I think that is why kids love it, and why some adults hold on to that childlike fascination with nature and science.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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