Tao Living

The Fountain of Youth

by Derek Lin

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When she found herself in the Land of Oz, Dorothy wanted one thing more than anything else, and that was to go home. This goal sent her on a quest for the Wizard, a quest where she would face many challenges.

After quite a bit of adventuring, she finally met the Wizard. Much to her disappointment, she discovered he wasn't what he seemed. The mighty Wizard was in fact an illusion. A sham.

There was a happy ending though. Dorothy realized that she really didn't need the Wizard after all. All she had to do was click her heels and say "There's no place like home" three times. The irony was that she had the answer all along. The solution was never that far away from her.

Like Dorothy in the land of Oz, many of us in the material world want one thing above all, and that is to remain youthful, healthy, and energetic. We're on a quest for the Fountain of Youth, a quest where we face many challenges.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the Fountain of Youth takes on illusory aspects. We spend billions of dollars on all sorts of solutions promising youth, health and energy. There are numerous health products: ginseng pills, garlic pills, herbal extracts; vitamin tablets, calcium tablets, cod liver oil; exercise programs, diet programs, machines and gadgets... we try everything, and still we age.

About five hundred years ago, Don Juan Ponce de Leon embarked on a similar quest (similar but of course not identical - for him the Fountain was an actual place rather than something one could order from the Home Shopping Network). He had learned from the natives of Puerto Rico that somewhere in the isle of Bimini there existed a fountain with the magical power to restore youth and vigor for those who bathed in its waters.

He never found it. In 1521 he died a painful death, having been mortally wounded by a poison arrow. His story did not have a happy ending.

My Quest

Fast forward to the year 1990. Another explorer - yours truly - set out on a quest for better health. I sought knowledge in books, only to find a confusing array of expert opinions, all expressing different views and sometimes sharply contradicting one another.

(In that respect, not a whole lot has changed in ten years. Today we have Dr. Atkin's controversial grease-and-meat diet versus low-fat, reduced-calorie, high-fiber plans. Which experts should we believe?)

Like many bachelors back then, I decided to eat whatever I wanted and then work it off with rigorous exercise. I lifted weights and did the famous 4th Street staircase in Santa Monica. I kept at it and slowly became toned, then muscular.

This was not really the Fountain of Youth though. I was bigger and stronger, but I did not feel much more energetic than before. I still needed eight hours of sleep every night, and would often sleep in until noon on weekends. At the office, I drank a lot of coffee just to remain alert.

My external appearance had changed into something more imposing, but my internal state of health was not materially different than it had been previously - not bad, but not great either. I had found the Wizard, only to discover he really wasn't what he seemed.

Fast forward again to the year 1995. I had just started to explore the world of vegetarianism. In my exploration I encountered many new ideas, even some that went against my old beliefs. However, I remained open-minded and continued to explore. Gradually some of the pieces fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle

I learned that digestion actually took quite a toll on your energy reserves. This was why you were invariably tired and sleepy after a big meal. If somehow we could reduce the amount of energy necessary to digest food, we could use the surplus energy for some other purpose.

The best way to reduce the energy requirement for digestion was to consume food that was easy to digest, such as fruits and vegetables. Starchy foods and meats required more work, and therefore more energy, to process.

I had always thought that one needed a big breakfast to start the day right. Sure, I always felt groggy in the morning, but I told myself that I was simply not a "morning person." When coworkers greeted me in the morning and I was slow to respond, I would always mumble that I hadn't had my coffee yet.

I never suspected my sluggishness was due to the body's need to handle all the bacon, sausage, dairy products and carbohydrates I had forced into it. In retrospect, it all seemed so obvious. On the occasional days I skipped breakfast, I could still muddle along until lunchtime. How could this be if a hearty breakfast was as important as everyone thought it was? What would happen if I tried a different approach?

In 1998, I decided to give it a shot. I wanted to find out what it felt like. I changed my habits and started each day with fruits and vegetables and nothing else. Old habits died hard, so this felt a bit strange at first, but after the initial nervous jitters went away, I started to sense the difference. I felt the surge of energy and vitality that I was so sure wouldn't be possible for a night owl like me.

Other results quickly followed. My morning coffee went from two cups to one. This persisted for a while until one day, when I realized suddenly that it was already noontime, I still hadn't had any coffee yet, and I also hadn't yawned, not once. My mind was clear and I could focus and concentrate easily. I didn't need caffeine.

Gradually my sleep pattern changed as well. The first habit to go was sleeping in on Saturdays and Sundays. I just didn't need it anymore. This astonished my family - they had never known me to not want the extra sleep. They suspected that I had been abducted by aliens and replaced with an android.

The amount of sleep I needed per night went from eight hours to seven, and then to six. In a year I gained the equivalent of 15 days - half a month - of useful consciousness, simply by needing less time to sleep.

Another change came as quite a surprise. My complexion improved dramatically. Previously it had always felt dry and leathery to the touch, but now it was smooth and clear and supple. It felt... young.

Like most people, I had always known that fruits and vegetables were good for the skin. Being a guy, I never paid this bit of folk wisdom much attention, but now I was experiencing it firsthand. The difference was remarkable. It really seemed as if I had reversed the aging process to a small extent. Was this possible? I did some research and learned that it wasn't as far-fetched as I thought.

The Balance

It's all a balancing act of free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are molecules that, by their highly reactive nature, have a damaging effect on the cells of your body. Antioxidants, on the other hand, counter the damaging effect - called oxidation - of free radicals. Yin and yang.

Oxidation happens all around us. Notice how rubber bands start out soft and elastic but eventually become hard and brittle. That's free radicals at work. Imagine the same effect applied to your body over the course of decades. That's why we start out life young and pliant and eventually become old and stiff.

Antioxidants, as the name implies, retard the oxidation process. They even seem to have a defensive effect. Vitamin E and beta-carotene seem to protect cell membranes from harm, and vitamin C seems to remove free radicals from inside the cell. By reducing the impact of free radicals, antioxidants can allow the cell's natural regeneration mechanism to repair itself and erase the damage already caused.

When we're young, the body produces enough antioxidants to counter the presence of free radicals. But as we get older, stress and pollution conspire to increase the amount of free radicals in the body. Imbalance is the result.

It becomes clear, then, that we can tilt the balance in the opposite direction simply by decreasing free radicals and increasing antioxidants in the body. Eating fruits and vegetables instead of bacons and sausages in the morning achieves exactly that. Therefore, in addition to freeing up energy, this practice also delivers significant anti-aging benefits. The Fountain of Youth!

Youth Within

The most important lesson in all of the above is the notion that a truly effective solution works from the inside out. When you change yourself at the cellular level, you get improvements that radiate outward to impact every aspect of your health.

The consumption of caffeine, whether from coffee, tea, soft drinks, or pills, is an attempt to change something internal (your energy) through the application of external stimuli - a solution from the outside in. It can work for a short time, but you know the positive effect cannot last. The stimulant wears off sooner or later, and your body remains at the same level of health as before. There's no fundamental change, and no true improvements either.

Another important idea is to recognize that everyone - even the most weary and fatigued among us - still has the ability to regain the vast store of vitality that is our birthright. It isn't so much that you gain energy by changing your eating habits; rather, you remove obstructions that get in the way of letting your true energy manifest itself.

This is the physiological analog to the teaching that each of us has a pure and connected true self that, over time, becomes obscured by all the distractions and temptations of the material world. We all start out life with boundless energy, maximum enthusiasm, endless curiosity, and zest for living. Just look at any young children, and remember you were exactly the same not too long ago. Somehow, as we grow older, we accumulate self-sabotaging and self-limiting habits, and we move further and further away from the pure joy we had when we were very young.

As we extend this idea further, we arrive at the realization that the ultimate Fountain of Youth lies within. We've always had it inside of us. To look for it in external remedies such as cosmetics or plastic surgery would be no different from the folly of Ponce de Leon. Why chase after a mirage when one possesses the real thing all along? You might even get a few poison arrows for your trouble!

The Yellow Brick Tao

Dorothy's companions all wanted something from the Wizard of Oz. The Lion wanted courage, the Tin Man wanted compassion, and the Scarecrow wanted intelligence.

At the end of the story, it seemed as if they all got what they wanted. The Lion got a medal, the Tin Man got a heart, and the Scarecrow got a diploma.

But just as Dorothy came to the realization that she had the power to go home all along, so too did the truth apply to her companions. The medal, the heart and the diploma were merely tangible symbols for intangible attributes they already possessed. Throughout the entire story, the Lion demonstrated genuine bravery, the Tin Man was never less than completely compassionate, and the Scarecrow proved his smarts and resourcefulness time after time. None of them really needed external symbols to be the ideals they aspired to be.

When we look at it this way, the Wizard of Oz is the quintessential Tao story. It teaches a valuable lesson that we can apply to many aspects of life. If we apply it to the search for the Fountain of Youth, it brings immediate clarity.

My first quest for better health was similar to Dorothy's quest to go home. I invested a lot of effort into it, but the result I achieved tended to be superficial, like the impressive audio and visual manifestations of the Wizard.

The Wizard proved to be a helpful ally to Dorothy eventually, but he was not the key to her quest. Similarly, exercise had many genuine benefits, which I enjoyed, but it was not the most crucial factor in promoting overall health. My inability to understand this led me to focus on the external (muscles) at the expense of the internal (nutrition). The outcome was that I did not consistently experience the abundant energy that was my original goal. Between workouts, I often needed a lot of rest.

I still regard exercise as important, but now I also understand that it's even more important to create a true improvement by working from the inside out. Having fruits and vegetables in the morning is a good way to accomplish that. It is a basic and natural solution, elegant in its simplicity, and more effective than any protein drinks or energy bars can ever be.

Dorothy and her companions discovered they always had what they were looking for. They didn't realize that they had it, but they never lost it either. We see our solution with a similar sense of irony. Fruits and vegetables have always been readily available from any supermarket, and we have all looked at them any number of times without realizing their true value.

Like Dorothy's shoes, the true Fountain of Youth was never that far away. Now we know how she felt when she clicked her heels!