What are the secrets to long, healthy and happy life?
Many people have asked the question, and there are probably lots of different answers. A good natural diet, exercise, an unpolluted environment, a supportive social network. These are all important. No doubt you’ve got your own ideas, too. But as I’ve studied this subject, there has been one thing more than anything else that has struck me about the healthiest, happiest octogenarians (and older) that I’ve met.
I believe that it’s one of the most important things you can do to keep yourself joyous and engaged in life, not just as you get old, but at any time. I’m going to discuss it in this article, and along the way you’ll learn about curiosity, shoshin, polymaths and Chinese medicine. But first, I’d like to tell you about Mr Steddon’s Guitar…
Many years ago at school, I interviewed a retiring teacher for the school magazine. Mr Steddon was an ‘oldschool’ Chemistry teacher who often called us by our surnames only, and occasionally threw board rubbers at badly behaved students. But he was generally fair, and I liked him. During the interview, having failed to come up with any particularly probing questions, I resorted to asking him what he planned to do with his retirement. I’ll always remember his answer. He said “Well… I’ve just bought a guitar. I’ve never played a musical instrument before, so learning that will keep me alive for another few years.” It was said tongue-in-cheek but I’m sure that he’d thought it through and that there was a lot of truth in that statement. He knew that being at retirement age was no reason not to start learning something completely new, and that it would keep his brain engaged and his mind active.
For some reason that idea really stuck with me. So let me ask a question… What are YOU learning at the moment?
I’m a Chinese Medicine practitioner, and for me, one of the joys of Chinese medicine is that, with over 2000 years of history, there’s always more to learn. In fact, learning has been something of a constant in my life. For instance, I’m currently filling up my brain with herbal formulas, as I’m towards the end of an apprenticeship in Chinese Herbal medicine, but I still somehow found space a few weeks ago to attend an advanced training on scalp acupuncture. The timing wasn’t great, but I went, I learnt a lot, and I enjoyed it. I do that sort of thing a lot. I can only imagine how much time (and money) I’ve spent on learning, over the years. And it’s been worth every minute (and every penny)… Because the process of learning is stimulating and enlivening at least, if it’s done the right way! And I like to learn practical things that have a realworld use at the end of them, so I’m also gaining new skills and abilities.
What’s more; when I’m not learning Chinese medicine, chances are I’m learning something else. I’ll be learning about the unusual bird I’ve spotted in the garden (it was a coal tit), or how to make a Thai green curry (it’s all about the Thai basil), or how to make my website run faster (something called ‘Cloudflare’). YOU might find them boring, but all these things interest me. And that’s the point. I don’t like the phrase much, but I guess I’m a ‘life long learner’
Because keeping your brain engaged is a crucial part of a living a vibrant and radiant lifestyle. In Chinese medicine, this is to do with something called ‘Shen’. It’s an interesting concept, falling somewhere between ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’. To have strong Shen means to be fully present, engaged, and alert. When you say that someone ‘has spirit’ you’re saying that their Shen is vibrant. These kinds of people have a lightness about them, with sparkly eyes and a lively mind. But what makes for strong Shen? Well, I’ve studied good health and ageing from all different kinds of angles and approaches. And it’s obvious to me (and probably to you, too) that people who maintain a curious, childlike interest in the world are happier and more fulfilled than those who let that innate curiosity drift away. These curious, questioning people are interested in the world around them (which also, incidentally, makes them interesting people to have around.) They too are ‘life long learners’. They have kept their childlike curiosity and wonder into adulthood, and carried on learning, investigating and questioning as they aged.
I’m not saying that you have to sign up with the Open University and study for a Masters, just that it’s important at any age to be curious, and keep learning new things. This is the ZenBuddhist concept of Shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind” The idea is to keep the open, questioning mind of the beginner, without preconceptions or judgements, even when you become an expert. The beginner is able to receive new information, and to learn and improve, but the expert too often becomes stuck in a rut, and shut off to anything that’s new, novel, or challenges his or her established position. This leads to staleness, defensiveness and lack of creativity. Most of all it leads to lack of growth. So keeping open, curious and questioning is the key. But while we’re on the subject, there’s nothing at all wrong with dabbling, or having interests in all different unrelated areas. I reject the concept of the ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, and I suggest you do, too.
Our culture values highly concentrated specialism, but there are problems with being a specialist: The deeper you go into any subject, the less you see the big picture. In my field, healthcare, these limitations become obvious. People are always telling me of their frustrations of the medical specialists who know virtually everything there is to know about one specific and narrow area of medicine, but fail to see anything outside of their own niche. They know all about wrists, but can’t help you with your arm. You may have had this experience yourself, or know of someone who has. This can often lead to a lack of ‘joined up thinking’ or even common sense. A failure to see the wood for the trees. Instead, I vote to bring the word ‘polymath’ back into common usage. The OED defines a polymath as simply ‘a person of wide knowledge or learning’, but crucially, the term has a distinctly positive feel. Quite the opposite to the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ It’s a compliment to be called a ‘polymath’.
Alternatively, you could use the term ‘Renaissance Man’ (or Woman) which is used in much the same way. Leonard de Vinci is the classic example of a Renaisance Man – A multi-talented artist, mathematician, inventor, engineer and musician. Clearly a man with diverse and varied interests and skills. Obviously a curious, questioning person! Not that you have to be a genius, like de Vinci, or even an academic. I’m just suggesting that having a broad range of interests, keeping a curious, open mind, and being willing to learn, not only makes you a more balanced, well rounded human being, it’s also more fun!
Please don’t underestimate the value of these simple concepts. As always, the trick is not to just read this article and agree with the ideas, it’s to take them and put them into action. And there’s no better time than right now.
So what new thing will YOU learn about next?
It can be anything – and you can learn in any way you like formal and organised, or informal and ad-hoc, just so long as it’s something that gets you excited, motivated or fascinated. Something that stirs the grey matter and adds value and enjoyment to your life. If, like me, one of your aims in life is to become healthier and happier, I suggest you put at least some of your time and attention on learning how to be healthy and happy. Because, actually, this isn’t something that happens on its own. Gaining the knowledge and skills of Radiant Health pays dividends.
If you haven’t already taken it, you could start with my free program ‘Conscious Cultivation’.
And once you’ve done that, just pick something else interesting to learn, and then, crucially make the time for it. No matter whether you’re in to cars, crochet, climbing, or cultivating cabbages, you can follow your interest and learn new and interesting things. Or do as Mr Steddon did, and buy yourself a guitar.
It’ll keep you young!
Neil Kingham is a natural health expert, teacher and practitioner of Chinese medicine, and author
of the bestselling book “A User’s Guide To Chinese Medicine”. Find out more about how you can
use the tools and techniques of Radiant Health in your own life (for free), at https://www.neilkingham.com/wp/cc