What Can an Ancient Culture Teach Us About Living Longer and Happier?

About ten years ago I wrote a series on longevity. Since then, my thinking has changed a little and the world has changed a lot, so I decided it’s time to revisit the topic. Most importantly, I’ve wanted to get our community to focus on reasons to live rather than the fear of dying. My recommendations so far have been: (1) Love life and live for the present (2) Work, stretch, and relax all parts of yourself (3) Dance with consciousness (4) Reduce media consumption (5) Pay attention to your breathing (6) Eat less (7) Prioritize community and service (8) Exchange love and touch (9) Optimize your sleep (10) Laugh more (11) Keep your heart open. You can read each of these articles on our site. 

This week we’ll look at some Daoist perspectives on longevity. Longevity and immortality are goals mentioned frequently in early works of Daoism (Taoism). I have translations of old texts that detail methods for avoiding an early death: withholding ejaculation; drinking elixirs made from special herbs, metals, and animal parts; performing certain rituals at auspicious times; and wearing magical amulets. I’m not entirely convinced that these approaches prevent death, but I do have great reverence for the way of life Daoism prescribes, the essence of which is beautifully conveyed in the ancient books Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), Yi Jing (I Ching), and Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). I recommend everyone has a copy of at least the first of these. 

#12: Simplify.

One of the virtues mentioned in Dao De Jing is jian which means simplicity or frugality. It’s pretty much the antithesis of the trend among modern humans to be perpetually busy and acquire ever more stuff, more complexity, and more information. We tend to believe we need to do more and accumulate more in order to be safe, knowledgeable, in control, approved of, and happy. I would guess that most of us also have a hidden belief that our acquisitions will tether us to life and protect us from death. In practice, however, the more we subtract from our physical and psychic hoard, the freer we are, and the less encumbered our lifeforce is.

Frugality isn’t just a matter of being economical with money. It means not seeking to acquire what we already have or don’t need. It means curtailing useless expenditures of energy. It means not generating needless complications. It means keeping life simple by knowing what matters most and consistently prioritizing that above all else. It means utilizing the currents of life to get where we want to go. Dao, like water, takes the simplest path – the path of least resistance. Speaking of which . . . 

#13: Go with the Flow / Don’t Resist. 

I could write a whole book on this concept, but in the spirit of simplicity I’ll keep it brief. Going with the flow could be seen as an extension of simplicity, but it’s worth exploring this idea separately because it’s just so important. The nature of life is to change and flow, yet one of our primal impulses is to resist, to say, “No” to everything that makes us uncomfortable. It’s natural to do this, but it almost never improves our circumstances or experiences. 

If we momentarily resist something and then relax and accept it, we get right back into the flow. But when resistance is held in a prolonged way – like longstanding grievances, fears, ongoing stresses, etc. – it becomes pathological. Resistance eventually leads to stagnation, and stagnation – whether physical or psychological – squelches the flow of life and feels bad. It can make us sick in all sorts of ways. Sadly, we tend to resist feeling the discomfort that stagnation causes, which of course leads to more resistance and more stagnation. 

The solution is to stop resisting. Feel willing what’s happening in your body – including the felt experience that arises whenever you resist something. Get to know this feeling and see how readily you can relinquish it. It’s also worthwhile to dive into the feeling and see what it can teach you about yourself. What happens when you “turn toward it” and let yourself be curious about it? We have a workbook called Freedom to help you through this process. 

#14: Be One with Nature. 

The natural world birthed the human species and all other lifeforms that share the planet with us. It provides for all our needs. Everything – even the “manmade” stuff – is supplied by Nature. And yet, it’s easy as a modern human to live in a way that’s utterly disconnected from it. 

When we’re disconnected from Nature we lose something – a source of calibration and wisdom. It’s like a nutrient deficiency that hasn’t yet been defined by science. When we reconnect with Nature there are measurable positive impacts on our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Cultivating reverence for Nature and our place in it can profoundly change our lives. It slows us down. It helps us pay attention to the details. It gives us perspective. It reminds us to be fascinated. It’s a wonderful, perennial teacher. 

If we endeavor to live a longer, richer life, we might start by asking, what is this life thing? What are its patterns and cycles? How and why does it start and end? What are its limitations? What feeds it and stifles it? It’s fine to consider the ideas of doctors, scientists, philosophers, preachers, and spiritual gurus. But we’ll only get a narrow slice of the truth if this conversation is limited to what other humans think about humanity. It’s like trying to fathom Pakistani culture without actually visiting Pakistan. 

When we enter direct conversation with the natural world and life itself, we find there’s no end to what we can learn and how we can grow. The deepest revelations can’t be conveyed through an intermediary. 

We belong to Nature, not the other way around. Remembering our place in the natural world gives us a sense of wholeness and belonging; of being fully alive; of being part of something infinite and undying; of being supported and guided. It also prompts us to recognize that the way we treat our world has a direct impact on the whole system – ourselves included – and this makes the longevity conversation more holistic. Instead of asking, “How can I get more life?” we find ourselves asking, “How can I honor my species … and all species … and this magnificent planet … and the Source of everything?” 

Be well,


2 thoughts on “What Can an Ancient Culture Teach Us About Living Longer and Happier?

  1. I always look forward to and enjoy your posts — thank you so much and may you be blessed with a long and happy life!

  2. Thank you for the gentle reminder of what is truly important.
    Sending big love to all <3

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