One day, when I was four years old, my grandmother brought me to her workplace—a factory that was making traditional Chinese painted wooden suitcases. This must have been during the school holidays, because many of the factory’s employees had their small children with them at work that day. I, grandmother’s little princess, was perched on a ladder beside her, happily eating my lunch as I “supervised” her work.
Next to us, her colleague’s six-year-old son was watching jealously. He wanted that ladder, and I was in the way. Sneaking up behind me, he suddenly pushed me hard. In one terrifying moment, my happiness dissolved into terror as my spoon caught my lip and gashed it deeply; it began to bleed profusely.
At that moment, I believed my grandmother must have had three hands: in the very instant that she grabbed me to staunch the bleeding, she stopped her colleague from beating her son and enfolded the little miscreant in her free arm. “Don’t punish him. He didn’t mean to hurt her. Can’t you see how afraid he is? Don’t worry, little man, the doctor will be able to help Xiaolan.”
I began to howl even more loudly. She should have been protecting me and punishing him, not comforting him! The outrage was worse than the pain!
When we returned from the hospital, where they had repaired my lip (five stitches!), the little boy and his mother were waiting for us. The mother had brought congee (rice porridge), knowing that I would not be able to eat solid food with my injured mouth. The little boy apologized with real sincerity, and he was always my friend after that.
My grandmother’s compassion and forgiveness changed that boy, and me along with him. She lived in the moment, and always saw the opportunity in mistakes. Sometimes I run my tongue over the little bump that has remained on my lower lip all my life and earned me the nickname “little meat lip” from my sisters. It always reminds me of the inner beauty and wisdom that shone in my grandmother’s face, and I am sure that her spirit is with me.Happy people never count hours as they pass. —Chinese proverb
As a small child, I thought my grandmother was the most beautiful woman on earth; this has shaped my idea of beauty all my life. She gave me unconditional love and acceptance, drawing on her vast store of wisdom as she raised me from shortly after birth to the age of six. She cared for me and my three older siblings during this period when the Communist Chinese government had ordered my parents to live elsewhere—my father to work in another city and my mother to do hard labour on a re-education farm.
In this formative period of my early childhood, my grandmother was the only parent I knew. Like parents everywhere, she was determined that my life would be easier than hers had been. She protected me from harm and from the judgment of others— especially children, who can be so cruel—no matter what I did. Although I did not always understand that she was doing this, she always accepted who I was at every stage of my life.
I feel her presence every day. Remembering her “being” is deeply moving to me—especially in light of her own early childhood of intense suffering. You see, my grandmother was one of the last wave of little Chinese girls to endure the horrors of bound feet. In 1908, when she was three years old, she was subjected to the systematic breaking and putrefaction of the soft bones and flesh of her feet in order to turn them into three-inch “golden lotuses”—the standard of beauty for upper-class women. As a result, for the rest of her life, she could walk only in great pain. The sad irony that foot-binding was outlawed in 1912, just four years later, meant that she would be marked in the eyes of the Communist regime as one of those who should be forced to work even harder because of their suspect origins. The women who lived through these times learned tremendous discipline and devotion to their families and to each other, channelling their suffering into love and selfless support for others.
On my parents’ return from their time away from us, they were horrified to find that I, their youngest child whom they barely knew, had become “wild grass”—fearless, free and happy. In those difficult and repressive times, they were afraid I might do something that could place me—and possibly my entire family— in danger. I had no such sense of imminent danger, since my grandmother had sheltered me completely from harm and allowed me to develop freely under her protective wing.Hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored. —Chinese proverb
My grandmother’s life was one of great hardship in many ways. And yet she found beauty in every moment. She accepted her life as it was; she did not fight its reality, dwell in the past or project into the future. She was intensely present and conscious of the universe and her place in it. On market days around the full moon, she would practise the old Buddhist custom of awareness and compassion, buying fish, eels or birds to release into the wild to give thanks. She believed that each of these animals had its own spirit, which was at one with humans and the universe as a whole. At the full moon and the new moon, her diet was vegetarian for three days. Every day, she burned incense and prayed for the health of the whole family. She was unburdened with anger and bitterness from the past.
To me, my grandmother was the living embodiment of the Chinese characters you see at the beginning of this chapter, which mean both “inner beauty” and “inner wisdom.” Although nothing I have experienced in my life can compare to footbinding, I am filled with admiration and gratitude for my grandmother’s love and her acceptance of the family’s destiny, which prepared me for the challenges I would face.
Today in my practice, I encourage my patients to achieve this state of acceptance, from which a peaceful and balanced life flows. I find that those who are able to move in this direction inevitably heal more quickly than others. Alice, a diminutive woman of Russian origin, is one such patient. She has shown great courage and acceptance.
Alice had lived for a number of years with vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that destroys skin pigmentation in spreading patches. I asked her how she had managed to accept her condition so gracefully. She told me that she had learned the concept of acceptance through something that had happened many years previously. Alice and her husband had emerged from a children’s hospital with their nine-year-old son, freshly diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. Her husband was very upset at this news. He was thinking of the rest of his son’s life—first under the constant parental monitoring of his insulin levels and injections, and then, later on, under the restrictions this might impose on his future, as he would have to take over his own care.
As they were leaving the hospital and experiencing this intense emotion, they ran into a friend. When they told her their news, she said, “You are so fortunate! Your son will be able to manage his diabetes and live a normal life. But our neighbour’s son is dying of cancer, and there is nothing to be done.”
Alice and her husband immediately realized that their friend was right. They accepted their diabetic son’s condition and moved on, ensuring that he had a normal, active and happy life. Through their example, their son also accepted his condition and learned to manage it cheerfully and competently. Their son’s doctor even asked Alice to speak to another Russian-speaking mother who was having great difficulty accepting her daughter’s diabetes.
This experience made it much easier, when the time came, for Alice to accept her vitiligo as a simple cosmetic problem without real consequences. As her skin lost its pigmentation, it became as soft and smooth as a baby’s, and its patchiness dissolved into one creamy colour. Unlike other patients who do not accept their disease and fight it by going to tanning salons or submitting to cosmetic procedures, Alice suffered no depression or pain. Her husband gave her unwavering support; he called her “Honey Leopard” and told her every day that he loved her and found her beautiful, supporting her healing process as much as he could.
IMPERMANENCE Late one night a few years ago, the phone rang and woke me. Rarely does a late-night call bring good news: when my sister gently broke the news that my grandmother had died, I immediately felt a great sense of loss. Never again would her luminous eyes meet mine or her kind smile reassure me that all was well; never again would I be able to snuggle into her comforting warmth and listen to the endless stories that I loved so much, or caress her lined face and laugh with her.
“What happened?” I sobbed. “Was she ill? Did she suffer?” In her calm voice, my sister assured me that our grandmother had not suffered. On the contrary, she had prepared and served a joyous Friday dinner with the family and gone to bed serene and happy. The next morning, she had risen early, bathed herself and changed into brand-new clothes. Then she had gone to bed and never woken up. The cleaning lady had found her, peaceful and beautiful as ever, the incense still burning on the table beside her bed. My sister comforted me: “Grandmother has returned to her original home.” Through my tears, I began to feel calmer too. I knew my sister was right.
My grandmother’s earthly form has dissolved, but her inner beauty lives on in me and in everyone who knew her. Her essence is forever. In contrast to the beauty that emanated from every atom of my grandmother’s being, external beauty is truly impermanent. One of my long-time patients, Laurie, told me a story that brings this home. At her high school reunion, everyone there recognized her, but she recognized almost no one. She was shocked that the girl who had been the most beautiful, the most popular and the most successful in her high school days—the queen of the prom—was almost impossible to recognize. The gorgeous blonde Laurie remembered was a tired, middle-aged mother of three, drinking rye whisky from a flask in the bathroom. She had never had a career, and she was deeply disillusioned with her high school sweetheart, now a long-inattentive husband.
Laurie had been a tomboy, an outsider. She remembered how her Italian working-class father, worried that his daughter, with her fierce independence and unconventional looks, would never find a husband, had always said to her, “Laurie, it’s a good thing you’re so smart.” At the time, she had not thought much about it. But as she looked at the disillusioned beauty queen, it dawned on her that she had coasted on her early successes, based on her looks. During that time, Laurie had focused on her inner purpose, living a life of authenticity, rooted in the present moment. This had served her well. Because her inner purpose and her external life were so closely aligned, she was successful on her own terms, both professionally and personally. She felt only compassion for her former schoolmate.
THE TRICKERY OF TIME
Shortly after my grandmother’s far-away death, an elderly patient of mine came to me with a fluffy orange bundle. She told me that the little chow puppy was a gift that she believed I needed. I took the squirming puppy in my arms. As I looked into his eyes, I immediately felt that he was somehow the embodiment of my grandmother’s spirit: “She is here, in this moment!” I thought.
Nangua is pumpkin-coloured. But the reason I gave him this Mandarin name (Nangua means “pumpkin”) also has to do with the image of the pumpkin in Chinese folklore: a humble, sturdy, healthy vegetable without intellectual pretensions. We humans are the ones with intellectual pretensions. Alone in the animal kingdom, we are psychologically affected by the idea of aging and the passage of time. Nangua does not share my anxiety about the day, someday soon, when he will no longer be with me. * And if he could understand—as I sometimes feel he does—he would think I am very silly to worry about this. Seventeen is a very old age for a dog—even for a superhealthy dog like Nangua, on whom I lavish not only affection but daily herbs and vitamins, and occasional preventive acupuncture.
Every morning, Nangua awakes happy and ready to walk with me to work. He is totally absorbed by whatever delights present themselves: an interesting plant, a nice pole or tree on which to relieve himself, a laughing child or a squirrel worth chasing. He shares this happiness with me and reminds me how much there is to enjoy in the world.
At night, if all is safe and quiet and I am well, he sleeps when I sleep. But if there is danger, or if I am not feeling well, Nangua stands guard and protects me. He is never concerned with something that happened last week or something that might happen next year. Every day is a new, beautiful day. Every walk is a happy walk. Every sleep is a good sleep. Nangua is a good teacher; he reminds me that it is futile to wish for my grandmother’s earthly presence—and yet, that she is always with me. He reminds me of the joy that we can find in being, rather than doing.
Unfortunately, doing is valued much more highly than being in Western societies. In most Eastern societies, older people are revered for their wisdom and experience. They are included, consulted and pampered—and therefore, they are less fearful of the aging process and the passage of time. The concept of time is fundamentally different between Eastern and Western cultures, and is reflected in the languages we speak. In my mother tongue, Mandarin, there is neither past nor future tense. All verbs are present tense—and this encourages the concept of an ongoing now, the value of being versus doing.
In Western societies, it is common to hear the expression “Time is money.” If you are not productive and doing something, you are not valued. Time spent taking care of your health is not built into many people’s schedules. This leads to decisions that can have devastating effects on your health and your life, such as eating a diet of greasy fast food, or making quick decisions, uninformed by wisdom and compassion. While the depreciation of aging and wisdom is harmful to everyone, it is most devastating for women, who feel they must conform to a standard that is entirely unrealistic and often find themselves cast aside while they still have so much to give.
Maria, a sophisticated and accomplished professional in the media world, has begun to lie about her age or refuse to give it. Why? Because despite the shelf full of awards she has received for her work, she fears that putting a number on the passage of time in her life will depreciate her market value and actually threaten her ability to make a living.
She says that in her male-dominated sector, “I know that it will be a liability; it’s the truth, you can’t do anything about it. No one is going to say you’re too old, they’re just not going to call. I think about getting something done for that reason, even though I can’t afford it.”
You can imagine how much suffering this entails.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Inner Beauty by Xiaolan Zhao, CMD. Copyright © 2011 by Xiaolan Zhao, CMD. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.