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Lessons from the Nei Jing: What is “Meaningless Work”?

In a previous post, we discussed one of the first questions that Huang Di asked his wise minister Qi Bo. Qi Bo pointed out that people in “antiquity” were able to live past 100 years old without much physical decline partly because “they did not tax themselves with meaningless work.” What does he mean by this? What kind of work is “meaningless”?

One interpretation is related to Daoist beliefs, which heavily emphasizes preserving the “vital forces” in order to achieve immortality. As we live and do various activities, this is said to expend our vital forces or energy. The aging process that is observed is thought to be attributed to a slow depletion of this energy. Immortals or 仙 “Xian” are those who through various practices transcended humanity by preserving this energy and usually also gained supernatural powers. Obviously hermits and recluses do not do any “work” to begin with. It is likely that they would regard doing anything outside of the cultivation practices that are meant to increase their lifespan to be “meaningless” in the first place!

This idea of depleting energy can also be seen in the medicine. In the medical theory, various activities are noted to be more damaging toward certain organs or vital substances. For example, the health of the eyes and eyesight is often attributed to Liver Blood. Staring at a computer screen for too long at first causes eye strain, which is one of the earliest manifestations of the depletion of Liver Blood. Doing this continually over a long period of time starts to damage the Blood in the body as a whole, and may generate more systemic symptoms such as dry skin, brittle nails, insomnia, or dizziness. What started as a more isolated issue can spread and become a systemic one. We can view over-activity as a form of this “meaningless work” that Qi Bo mentioned.

Moderation is a key aspect of Chinese philosophy and is reflected in the medicine as well. Balance is important. If one just takes the interpretation that “meaningless work” just means over-activity, one is likely to avoid doing all activities all together. As those in the physical therapy field know, one of the biggest enemies of health and well-being is a sedentary lifestyle. More often than not, people nowadays are not doing enough.

This often leads to a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. Taking an example of knee pain, obviously exercises do not feel good and in the short term may even cause more discomfort. However, not doing anything can lead to de-conditioning and weight gain, which can further exacerbate the issue and further discourage someone from exercising again.

For this type of patient, the key strategy is to find the balance in getting enough activity without causing too much pain. I have found for some patients the combination of physical therapy and acupuncture produces good results. The physical therapy focuses on strengthening muscles and improving range of motion, while on the acupuncture side there is a focus on improving circulation and allowing for faster recovery. This allows patients to recover faster and tolerate more exercises, which in turn would allow them to build strength quicker.

The idea of avoiding “meaningless work” does not mean that we should do nothing to preserve our energy just to live a long time. The medical theory mostly warns against doing too much, which can lead to various consequences to our health and well-being. In this modern day and age it is necessary to work or be active, be it for self-improvement or to provide for others. The rising rates of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes related to a sedentary lifestyle in the modern day often point toward too little activity or misdirected activity, which is also “meaningless”.

Once again, balance is key to health and well-being. For those who are on the go all the time, remember to rest every once in a while. For those who often feel like they are doing too little, start with something small and get more active. Any steps toward trying to live a more balanced life would serve one well!

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