Today’s Student Question is this:
Are there any dietary restrictions that Taoists follow?
Diet can be a complicated Taoist topic. Oh Boy, let’s dive in!
Taoism explores how to live a long graceful life. Diet directly impacts a person’s longevity and health. As a result, Taoists do look at diet in a very serious way. We are what we eat.
For a Taoist diet and health are connected and an important part of how each person should live.
He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skill of the physician.
However, the type of diet you will explore depends on the Taoist Lineage you hold towards.
Generally speaking at a higher level, Taoist practice states: As you age, slowly learn to eat less and avoid processed foods. As we age, diet becomes part of a Taoist’s spiritual practice.
For example, there is the practice of Bigu. This translates to avoiding grains, but it’s more complicated than that. In the Zhuangzi you will find this reference:
Far away on Mount Kuyeh there dwells a spirit man whose skin is like congealed snow and who is gentle as a virgin. He does not eat any of the five grains, but inhales the wind and drinks the dew.
So bigu mixes dietary ideals with spiritual practice. Because combining physical with spiritual practices will introduce some interesting contradictions in a person’s life. This means people have taken the practice of bigu too literally at times when a more gentle spiritual touch is required in the balancing of a bigu diet. So some people will take the practice of bigu to breatharian extremes. Fasting is great for meditation, and spiritual exploration and minimal eating practices can be a great tool for improving one’s health. However, we are physical beings, and if we take it to the breatharian extreme, a person just undercuts the physical part of existence to purely become spiritual. That isn’t a balanced approach to existence, nor a healthy approach to exploring spirit. Remember we stress modesty as a core part of Taoist practice. That modesty also applies as minimal eating practices, BUT if you push minimal eating practices too much, you are not modest, you are extreme.
If you consider this in modern terms, bigu logically extends to minimize eating any overly processed food. Considering all the grain issues people seem to have, gluten intolerance, celiac disease, GMO issues, all the studies that show the damage from eating processed foods is quite high. So there is wisdom to the general Taoist practice of eating simply. But as I hinted earlier, you will find those who take this too far also.
Yin & Yang Diet
You will find lineages/people that heavily apply yin and yang and the seasons to eating principles. So you can find Taoist works that will delineate in great detail, lists of how what and when to eat. The trouble; diets like this are very localized, hard to satisfy as you roam around the world across different cultures and find people adapted to fit different needs. Humanity is quite expansive, and these variances mean many different diets are required for humanity depending on your ancestry, environment, and lifestyle considerations.
When considering yin and yang, a person uses food to balance out your state of being relative to where your yin/yang balance was in any given moment.
Yang foods are warm/hot, higher in calories. These foods are used to treat cold problems and improve blood circulation. Yin Foods will help calm a person. These are foods that help eliminate toxins and cool a person down.
Yang Food: Eggs, Mushrooms, Pumpkin, Garlic, Peach, Prawns, Beef, Ginger, Coffee
Yin Food: Tofu, Banana, Cucumbers, Cabbage, Asparagus, Seaweed, Apple, Orange, Wheat, Crab, Duck
If you Google this topic you will find quite a bit of material on this. It’s a very deep topic.
Looking Deeper into Diet
Notice in the seasonal description of diet I include a line that says you should ingest more sunlight in the spring. This is because a diet is more interconnected to other factors than people realize. We need other inputs such as sunlight to produce secondary level nutrients then. So sunlight produces melatonin, vitamin D3 and helps prevent many diseases. Sunlight improves a person’s ability to explore life with shamanic practices.
This goes much farther than just needing sun, relationships (yes relationships also factor into diets) and other trace element supplements. For example, I will not eat meat raised with inhumane practices. To do so is to torture other life spiritually. To eat such meat passes the inhumane processing of the food back into the body and then limits my own life. Most meats massed produced in the modern world is based on inhumane practices. This isn’t a statement to be a vegetarian. A Taoist will eat meat, and as a Taoist, I have a varied diet, including some meat. However, it’s important to have respect for our food’s life cycle. Think about this for a second. If an animal or plant were tortured during its growth process, then its fear, its stress, its imbalanced upbringing would be pushed into its essence. A cow’s hormones are the same ones humans use. To eat such food: is to devour fear, is to place any accumulated stress hormones or illness into your own body. Eating such food doesn’t promote a long life: rather, it promotes a life of fear and more industrial inhumane practices.
Additionally, inhumane industrial practices regarding food processing ripple out and change the very culture which a Taoist lives within. The workers at such facilities take on the aspects of the inhumane practices. It affects the workers and ripples out to reduce their own lives. Eventually, a culture that treats its food without respect treats its workers and the general population with the same inhumane practices of food production. It comes full circle to limit and even prevents a long or healthy life for everyone in society. To a Taoist, everything is connected and part of the weave of life. No action is fully independent of another. Taoism requires treating food with the same respect given towards your own body.
Part of a Taoist diet includes knowing where your food is coming from and being aware of the entire process of obtaining and processing that food.
Generally speaking eating what is in season is a good idea. Since the foods tend to flow to the season they are harvested within.
Diets are Personal!
Growing up as a westerner, I initially was only taught to think about diet only in terms of calories and basic nutrients. Also, Westerners tend to think there is a perfect diet out there, that it is just a question of finding the right one.
Diets are much more complicated than people realize. Diets are about:
- Nutrient balances
- The balance of foods that support the many different types of symbiotic bacteria in your body
- The balance of foods that give you resistance to viruses and harmful bacteria
- How to balance out nutrients relative to mind, body and yes even spirit
- Physical Actions
- Blending in outside influences like the sun to generate secondary nutrients from the primary nutrients
- Changing the balance of diet relative to how you age, and situations you find yourself within
- Balancing out toxic inputs and allergens
- Preparation and timing of the food you eat
- Countless other factors
For me, diet is important. I almost was killed with food poisoning in 1997. I needed to spend a good decade refining a new balance in my life and diet. Then only to discover in aging all my internal balances were always in flux, which meant my diet over time was always evolving to balance out my life. I have come to accept that diet represents a process I will dance to for my entire life and enjoy exploring it.
Taoism is a practice that encourages a person to be a strong, vibrant individual. The baseline of who you are comes out of the very diet you live against.
I don’t personally look at it from a Yin / Yang perspective because that is too complicated for me. Even working at a basic level diet is pretty intricate. I focus on expanding and using my inner awareness and pay attention to what I eat. I do my best to keep my diet simple but varied in scope. I enjoy and give gratitude to what I do eat. As I age, I am striving slowly to reduce what I eat, which is harder than it sounds. Depending on my state of health or feelings, I vary my diet accordingly to my inner list of foods which I have learned that work for me. I am also always, very slowly, working to improve how I eat. I am not in a rush to get it all right; this will be a life long process.
Because as we age, our internal balances changes so much, a person has to be willing to change and adapt what they eat as they age to match nutrient needs and lifestyle requirements. In other words, there will never be a one size fit all diet. Diet will always shift and change relative to you, your life, and needs as you grow.
To a Taoist, even with the concept of minimizing what we eat, you discover diet is a rich & complicated evolving topic. Once you understand this simple truth: that diets evolve as you age, it opens a person to live more fluidly as you use diet as an additional powerful tool in shaping oneself. Diet cannot be underestimated in defining who you are as a person.