Taoism is a 5000 year old system of health and healing that emphasizes building good health and preventing illness, instead of trying to fix what’s already gone wrong. In the Taoist system, patients pay their doctor to keep them healthy. If they get sick, they stop paying the doctor. This is why Taoist practitioners are so motivated on keeping patients healthy. The tonic herbs are geared to this approach. They aren’t so much used as medicine to cure specific symptoms, though they do have a powerful capacity for healing. Instead these herbs are truly amazing for building and maintaining radiantly good health. To ‘tonify’ means to strengthen.
People tend to think that Chinese medicine is complicated. If you try and understand the herbs without having a basic understanding of the system behind them, then it does seem a complete mystery. It’s actually fairly simple if you understand the basic principles and the categories of herbs. Rather than having to learn about thousands of individual herbs, if you understand about the energies known as the Three Treasures and about the five Organ Systems, then it becomes simple to choose the right herbs.
There are two kinds of herbs in Chinese medicine; medicinal herbs and tonic herbs. The function of medicinal herbs is to fix something once it has already gone wrong. There are many thousands of medicinal herbs, and some of them can be harmful if taken inappropriately, so they are only used for short periods of time in the correct dosage as prescribed by a practitioner of Chinese medicine.
Tonic herbs are different. They are very safe and can be taken in large quantities over long periods of time, with few exceptions. Their function is to build strength and health so that acute illness doesn’t happen in the first place. There are relatively few of them and they are highly prized.
The Taoists’ aim is radiant health. This is a guiding concept, and it means ‘health beyond danger.’ It means that your immunity is so high and your overall health so good that you are like the sun; nothing can harm you. Bugs and viruses, occasional over-exertion don’t affect you. You become untouchable by any disease or infection.
First, let’s look at the Taoist (pronounced dow-ist) philosophy behind the system of tonic herbs.
What is Taoism?
In the West in modern day UK politics, the main right wing party is the Conservatives and the main left wing is the Labour party. In China there is Taoism and Confucianism. Confucianism is more about social control and the good of society. A sense of the importance of the community is very strong in China. Taoism is more about the individual and about being one with nature rather than what benefits society.
The Taoists look at what is most in alignment with nature and what is most in alignment with the heaven and the earth – how to ground and connect with the earth and how to connect with the heavens, which is your true purpose or spirit or destiny or however you prefer to think of it. The Taoist perspective is very much about what’s needed for the flow of energy and connection between heaven and earth’
As the Taoists see it, a human being is a bridge between the yin of Earth and the yang of Heaven. There is no attempt to define earth as a vale of tears and a hotbed of sin as some Western religions do. The earth is simply the other dimension to heaven, with the human as the bridge between. In fact our job is to be that bridge. They considered that the longer you do that job, the better off you are which is why longevity is such a prime focus in Taoism. In Western religions the message is that life on earth kind of sucks but you get your reward in heaven. Unsurprisingly this means we have less of a focus on how to be healthy and to live longer! Part of us feels it might be better to wait for the next life to really start living.
The Taoists believe that to make our experience right here right now on earth the best possible and to make that experience last as long as possible, we want to cultivate the Three Treasures which are the three types of energy. That’s why they called them treasures; they’re the most valuable things we have. Any other treasure is less valuable, not only gold and material possessions but more abstract things like love and peace. If you don’t have energy you can’t enjoy and appreciate any of those things. To the Taoists, energy is the most important thing in the world.
Taoists are also focused on the here and now, on presence. In the West most of us spend a lot of our time in our heads, lost in our thoughts. We are wallowing in the past and worrying or fantasizing or speculating about the future. What’s going on right here right now in the present moment is the Taoist focus.
The Taoists are empiricists. This means acquired wisdom by observing and experimentation. Conversely we tend to have a prior theories and ideas about what is happening and then try to get life to conform to that theory. But the ancient Taoists were interested in the way things are rather than the way we think things should be. They wanted to understand how life actually works and they took detailed notes as they tested and observed which is why we know so much about the Taoist system today. Theirs is a tradition of medicine that goes back much further than any other system in the world; around 5000 years.