The Japanese and Chinese languages are rich in proverbs, often attributed incorrectly to Confucius. In fact so much so that a genre of schoolboy jokes, based on what Confucius is supposed to have uttered, developed and are revived with great hilarity generation after generation. As usual, a quick Google search reveals numerous examples. Tellingly, here is the first result I came across:- “Confucius Say: To make a long story short, don’t tell it….” But I will….
One such pithy phrase, of unknown origin, is “Cool Head, Warm Feet.” Granted, this is not exactly going to have you splitting your sides, but believe it or not, this short phrase contains within it the secret to long health, happiness, enlightenment and a large bank balance. Well, ok, the last of these qualities does not necessarily follow, but perhaps you would be sufficiently satisfied with the first three to continue reading and maybe even give it a try….
Yin & Yang
In acupuncture theory, people are always going on about Yin and Yang. It all sounds very deep and philosophical. And it is. Or rather, it can be. Depending on the context – and whether or not it was said by Confucius. But it can also be really rather simple and practical. Refreshingly so, in fact. For our purposes, we can think of Yin and Yang as relational qualities of anything. So your list of all things “Yin” might include Female, Interior, Below, Cold, Inward, Downward. And your common shopping basket of “Yang” would be Male, Exterior, Above, Warm, Expansive, Upward. You can experience these qualities for yourself in any daily phenomenon. Light a match, for example, and you will notice that all the heat is rising up and outwards. Open the fridge door and feel the cold air falling downwards onto your feet ….
Looking at ourselves, the head and upper body are Yang (above) in relation to the Yin of the Feet and lower body (below). Since heat rises, there is a tendency for the warmth of the body (energy) to accumulate and stagnate in the upper body, leaving the lower body and feet cool and unloved. This unfortunate state can result in obvious symptoms such as a red complexion, headaches, tight neck/ shoulders, insomnia, palpitations, anxiety. The lower body lacking available energy and warmth may manifest cold/ numbness, diarrhoea, menstrual difficulties, water retention… And if the cold feet are particularly pronounced, perhaps an empty bed! What are we to do?
Mix it Up!
Remembering our proverb, Cool Head, Warm Feet, you will notice that we are being asked to mix our Yin’s and Yang’s!. Something interesting is being hinted at here. Some ancient oriental sage worked out that in order to maintain our health, we need to somehow take the warm Yang energy from above and get it to accumulate down below. In fact, this process of (re)circulating and mixing is life itself. There are all sorts of strategies and methods for achieving this end. But the fundamental thing to remember is that the warmth (energy) will go and accumulate where it is most being used.
On a physical level this means that exercise should be weighted heavily in favour of the legs rather than on development of the upper body. This will draw the energy into the lower body and produce a strong physical and energetic foundation. Importantly the shoulders and upper back should also be as relaxed and open as possible.
When you feel compelled to exercise your upper body, such movements are best carried out as a whole-body exercise whereby the legs and the “core” of the trunk are recruited as a foundation for the movement of the shoulders and arms. For example, a push-up (or any ‘plank’ variation thereof) should be performed with as much focus on and muscular tension in the abdominals, buttocks, thighs and calves as can be achieved. The second area of focus is then to connect this rock-hard lower body foundation with the arms, through correct flexion of the chest and shoulder girdle muscles. Yes, a push-up can and should be a whole body exercise, perhaps leaving only the muscles of the face to be relaxed….
Of course this proverb is much more profound than simply asking you to do squats. Us humans have brains with a voracious appetite for energy. This organ 1/40th of our mass, reportedly consumes about 25% of our energy and oxygen (making it remarkably similar to the USA in terms of world population vs energy consumption). Anyway, the point is that our simple proverb is also pointing to the less-physical aspects of our existence. The mental and emotional.
Today’s always “on” “connected” “multi-tasking” mode of existence results in over-use of our Yang mental “muscle” and essentially a “hot” head full of accumulated excess energy. Living more and more in the virtual world, disconnected from the inconvenient truth of our physical realities. Extreme cases of this in Korea have actually been responsible for the death of computer games players and worse, their children! Whilst extreme, these examples hint at the disconnected state we are, to a lesser degree, occupying. Even when we are not actually logged on, the excess “hot head” is often chronic leading to an inability to switch off, a lack of mental clarity, and being controlled by emotions and addictions.
This loss of a sense of reality and awareness is actually a pathological state leading to all manner of possible symptoms and eventually to serious diseases. It is also the opposite of enlightenment. So how can we resolve this? Obviously we have to live in this modern world with its tools and delights. But we also have to accept that biologically the body which we (hopefully) inhabit has pretty much the same instruction manual as that which our ancient sage was blessed with. If he, in ancient times, felt the need to suggest a cool head, how much more essential in today’s networked society! So how can we ensure that we are able to adopt a posture of cool, calm concentration rather than allowing ourselves to be flustered, reactionary and ungrounded?
The key is in adopting strategies and habits which allow us to switch off. To unclip, unplug and relax. (More about Relaxing in my next Newsletter). Essentially we have to find ways of coming out of our minds and inhabiting our (lower) bodies and our senses more fully. In English one expression which fits well is “finding ones feet”. In oriental practices, there is a focus on bringing one’s awareness out of the virtual and cerebral and into the lower abdomen. This is actually the location of your own personal bespoke “Medicine Factory” (your 丹田) – more about this in a future newsletter.
Of course many martial arts, meditation techniques etc. can be of benefit if practiced correctly. But in this next Newsletter, WuWei 無為 (relaxing within action), I discuss some simple habits which can help us to follow our ancient friend’s advice on a daily basis to ensure optimum health and perhaps even enlightenment, should you be so inclined.