On the occasion of Trey’s recent un-birthday, I remarked that he had yet to reach the real milestone, the 60th, which in traditional Taoist, and Asian cosmology generally, is a significant one. There is a sixty-year cycle based in the wuxing and stem and branch theory. Before dismissing this as not germane to the “philosophical” thrust of this blog, please note that I consider the philosophical/religious distinction somewhat arbitrary, made by westerners cherry-picking and interpreting the texts and traditions for support of pre-existing socio-political or personality predispositions. Although there is ritualistic temple-oriented Taoism, the underlying principles of Tao and the cultural and historical milieu in which they developed are one (just as western thought and “practice” is rooted in Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian attitudes). Although we don’t generally do it, you can make a distinction, I suppose, between “philosophical” Christianity and “religious” Christianity, but really only someone outside or sailing against the tradition is likely to do that.
The 60-year cycle though, to this yin creature, makes sense, and it suggests to me a physical Taoism that is referred to in both the “philosophical” and “religious” realms. Taoists have long been preoccupied with the physical maintenance and condition of the body to be in balance in the world. For women, the physical connection with the universe is for most of our life, a chronic condition. One of my first qigong teachers, a kind and sensitive one-time karate champion, once said, sympathetically, “It’s hard to be a woman.”
In a post comment earlier about tattoos and Barbie dolls (strange, the topics that turn up here) I voiced my concern about the early puberty of girls in westernized culture, even before I read the article (a recurring theme over the past decade) in the most recent issue of Time magazine. (There is also some concern that boys may be subject to early puberty, but it seems less easy to measure, and I sensed a so-what attitude, “so they ejaculate early, boys will be boys.”) And, concerning the other side of the coin, in yet another memoir by one of the hip generation of women discovering menopause, Sandra Tsing Lo wrote in the Atlantic that, “all women are different” (from each other, to say nothing of men)…but suggested that maybe the menopause, generally complete by 60, is a returning to the girls we once were. That is, our reproductive cycling is perhaps the out-of-norm, not the other way around.
It is my observation, from that yin sensitivity to physical cycles, that at this certain age, women, and men too, have the opportunity to return to the personhood we were developing at 12, but which was so rudely interrupted by the biological destiny thrust upon us by the universe (and now, too soon, like an artificial climate change phenomenon). Women who found complete identity in the aspects of this destiny spend their later years in a Joan Collins drive to stay attractive, cling to younger men, or if of the nurturing persuasion, obsess on grandchildren, or become social moms, putting notable noble nurturing energy into community causes. But some of us may be glad to be rid of that entire identity, still yin, but returning to the wonder of childhood—learning, exploring, creating, and playing with the energy of a 10-year-old, albeit with five decades of acquired wisdom and experience, to use or abandon.
I recently have taken up the paintbrush, a Chinese one, and have been drawing and painting with abandon and fervor, in the way I once did before I “became a woman,” like a girl with her crayons, spending whole rainy afternoons in artistic play. Had I been encouraged—an interesting word, to be given the courage—I might have pursued this passion through my life, like my teacher and friend who paint like magicians because they’ve been doing it daily for 30 or 40 years.
I also observe in men similar “return” phenomena. Men who die a week after their retirement or vegetate in the La-z-boy have probably failed to rediscover who they were before they “became” adult and burdened with worldly concerns and red dust. Those who do, tend to become the pre-adolescents they once were, clever and exploring, or preoccupied with toys and torment.
There is a tradition in certain Taoist sects (and other spiritual traditions too) to retreat after 60, to turn inward to develop that part of ourselves that we lost in the hormonal shift called growing up. That’s one reason for maintaining health and energy. It is too bad that today’s children may be experiencing that moment too soon. I only hope they can live long enough to complete the cycle of return and enjoy the spring of their lives once again. We who aspire to Tao-based lives often talk about being childlike, returning to that less-carved state of wonder and innocence. But perhaps only after we achieve a certain age, can we really accomplish that.
“Things grow and flourish and then go back to their root.” (TTC v. 16 tr. Joseph Hsu.)