If the old wise Taoist takes care of his body and the circulation of chi in his organism, it is because he is preoccupied with the te of the Tao Te Ching. This te points to a path, a way to live, a way to perceive the world, a mental attitude, and an ability to accommodate to what is. For Taoists, it does not consist in spending a thousand lives to straighten the spine but to plan an aging process that lasts but a lifetime. Moreover, for them, to attempt to render one’s body perfectly balanced does not necessarily make for a serene and durable aging. To impose on oneself schemata that seduce one to think one way about the body demands less work than to try to appreciate how the laws of nature
evolve bodies so different from one another. This diversity may well have useful functions that conscious understanding is unable to grasp. If we observe individuals who live more than 100 years while maintaining their mental health, we notice that is not necessarily those individuals with particularly supple or well-balanced bodies. The following anecdote illustrates the Taoist point of view.
Tzu-ch’i of Nan-po was wandering around the Hill of Shang when he saw a huge tree there, different from all the rest. A thousand teams of horses could have taken shelter under it and its shade would have covered them all. Tzu-ch’i said, What tree is this? It must certainly have some extraordinary usefulness!â But, looking up, he saw that the smaller limbs were gnarled and twisted, unfit for beams or rafters, and looking down, he saw that the trunk was pitted and rotten and could not be used for coffins. He licked one of the leaves and it blistered his mouth and made it sore. He sniffed the odor and it was enough to make a man drunk for three days. It turns out to be a completely unusable tree,â said Tzu-ch’i, and so it has been able to grow this big. Aha! it is this unusableness that the Holy Man makes use of!â (Chuang Tzu, 1968, IV, p. 65)
In the same way that a knotted tree survives the others because the carpenter cannot saw boards out of it, a deformed and bent man survives the others because he is never recruited for war or hard labor.24 Lao Tzu approaches this appreciation of biomechanics from another angle, when he declares: