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Daily Rhythm – The Chinese Clock

The physicians of ancient China strongly emphasized the importance of ‘regular life rhythm’ and ‘living in accordance with the universe’ for maintaining health and longevity.

“Regular life rhythm is the first and most important key to health and longevity in Chinese Medicine”

Chinese Medicine is based on the assumption that we are a small part of a much larger natural order. It is believed that observation of the universe and nature can give us insight into understanding ourselves.

When observing the workings of the universe, by watching the movement of the sun, moon, tides, seasons and stars, the first insight is ‘change’, described by the Daoists as the ‘only constant in the universe’. They then noted that this sequence of change occurs in cycles that are rhythmic and regular, for example, the day follows the night, the full moon follows the new moon, and the summer follows the winter in very regular cycles and times.

This regular movement of the universe – based on ancient spherical astronomy – was the basis for Daoist philosophy. All natural systems, in particular the life processes of plants and animals, live in accordance with those rhythms. This is the basis of Yin-Yang philosophy, the complementary opposites where everything is moving in cycles and when the Yang peaks the seed of Yin is born and so on.

‘Natural laws rest on this principle of movement along the line of least resistance. These laws are not forces external to things but represent the harmony of movement immanent in them. That is why the celestial bodies do not deviate from their orbits and why all events in nature occur with fixed regularity.’

Yi Jing – Book of Changes (11th Century BCE)

Based on long-term observation, in combination with the belief that we are a small part of a much larger natural order, the Daoists assumed natural laws must be the same for humans. Regular rhythms in sync with the heavenly rhythms maximize bodily functions, and in doing so maximize health and longevity. The idea is that the universe has a rhythm like a pendulum and when we swing in rhythm with this pendulum, the universe can run through us.

“The idea is that the universe has a rhythm like a pendulum and when we swing in rhythm with this pendulum, the universe can run through us”

Let’s take a moment to ponder the idea of rhythms and cycles, smaller cycles within larger cycles and all life events and phenomena unfolding through a kind of cyclical spontaneous cooperation. From this perspective of life being a series of cycles, our human life span represents our largest cycle and the one we ultimately desire to influence.

Cycles of Life

This goal of living a ‘full-potential’ life cycle is less about physical longevity, but more in the idea of revealing our destiny and living out our design, gaining greater order and the realization that we are all unique and have a natural, and meaningful contribution to make. Note, that in Daoist philosophy, it seems less about the end and more about the inner desire and design to live in sync with the universe.

“The best way to do this and influence the larger cycle is to start now with the smaller cycles”

In the observation of a tree in the forest or a planet in its orbit, there is no ambition or desire, just balance within itself and balance with its environment and its destiny is revealed. The key here is balance within yourself and your environment, which can never be separated. Living this balance will give you the best chance of your ‘destiny unfolding before your eyes’, referred to by the ancients as wúwéi 无为, non-action, and considered to be the highest and most profound learning in Chinese medicine and philosophy.

We can start living wúwéi right now, by living in accordance with the daily cycle. In Chinese medicine, Qi cycles through nature and humans in a regular daily rhythm. Every 24-hour cycle sees the ebb and flow of influence from each of the 12 periods, which we can relate to the zodiac animals as well as the 12 organs of Chinese medicine. Interestingly, time cycles divided into 12 parts are common in the ancient world and are clearly used in Chinese culture – I believe this was originally based on astronomical observation of the 12 full moons that we see in the annual cycle as well as the fact that there are many advantages in dividing a circle by 12, instead of 10. Regardless, the words and philosophy behind it are simply signposts to reality. The ancient Chinese people, who had balance, harmony and health central to their world-view, observed, tested, retested, and then applied their theories to daily life over millennia. This process led the ancients to suggest that acting in harmony with the 12-period Chinese Clock is the most valuable guide to maximize health.

It is also important to note that these times are a modern adaption and it is actually about the position of the sun and that shifts with the day and the seasons. For example, in winter we should go to sleep earlier and wake up later.

“One should go to bed late and get up early in spring and summer, and go to bed early and get up late in autumn and winter.”

[The Yellow Emperors Classic of Medicine – approx. 300BCE]

After 3000+ years of observation from the longest continuing civilization on earth, life rhythm is considered the most important key in Chinese Medicine preventative health. In fact, I believe all successful cultures shared similar knowledge and actively cultivated these rhythms. The major benefit of the Chinese medicine approach is that they made it the foundation of their health science. I feel it is even more important now, in the age of unprecedented choice and responsibility, than it was in the past. The power of humans to develop oral and written language, and then to collect that information in books (such as classical texts and imperial archives), allows us to observe results over centuries and apply those towards greater depths of understanding. This is key to human success and differentiates us from the rest of the animal world.

Understanding that we are part of nature is the essence of Daoism. Aligning ourselves with those forces that created us is the first and most important step. The Chinese Clock is an ancient code to guide us back to feeling connected to the regular rhythms of life and the universe.

Use this condensed wisdom as your guide in how to best achieve health and balance starting right now!

Short Version of the Chinese Clock

5am – 7am : Get Up • Let Go Of The Old • Work On Yourself

7am – 9am : Eat A Healthy, Grounding Breakfast

9am – 11am : Do Your Most Important, Least Enjoyable Work Of The Day

11am – 1pm : Connect With Your Own Purpose • Inspire Others

1pm – 3pm : Slow Down • Rest & Digest

3pm – 5pm : Back Straight • Finish Your Workday Strong

5pm – 7pm : Switch Off • Reflect On The day • Share A Laugh

7pm – 9pm : Socialize • Seek Pleasure

9pm-11pm • Ride The Wave • Go To Sleep

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I’m a shift worker?

Indeed, modern life is not always so straightforward and in certain professions, we do need people in our societies to work nights. The first thing is that the ancient Chinese did not say directly that the daily clock is the key, they said that regular life rhythm was the key. My suggestion is to line up your day around the same rhythm with the times adapted to your shift and wake up time. For example your shift starts at midnight – so make midnight line up with the 9am activities I have suggested above and follow the rhythm – i.e. wake up at 7pm, breakfast around 10-11pm, work starts at midnight, lunch 3am, try to finish work around 8am, dinner at 9am and sleep between 11am and midday.

The key is to keep this rhythm as much as possible so I suggest if you are working nights, it may be better to choose doing that consistently for a while or for larger blocks (3-6 months) rather than switch to day shift every 2-weeks. The daily rhythm you create in itself will stabilize the bodily functions to some extent and you will achieve optimum function according to your conditions. You can still live the lunar and seasonal rhythms, maybe even put more emphasis on that.

Note: sleeping 12am-8am will never be as good as sleeping 10pm-6am and living and working according to the Chinese Clock, as that is built into our design – like a plant that thrives on a south-east aspect, can still live ok on a south-west aspect, however it’s ability to flower is compromised. So, you should be paid more for night-shift and it is always easier to swim upstream when you are young – look towards the future and choose to best align yourself with natural rhythms as much as possible.

What if I do my best work at night?

I have many clients that tell me this and I understand that many people are extremely productive and creative at night. When you live in a rhythm where your work is mainly done in the evenings, you usually wake up feeling heavy and it takes you some time to get going. The morning is a battle and usually, you don’t feel clear until the afternoon and then you feel better as the night comes along.

The quiet, combined with the slight misalignment of the spirit combine for great creative work and you can be very focussed and productive. It is not a surprise you think you are a night person. I have come to believe this is more to do with habits rather than inner-design, although I will say that there are certain personality and Chinese medicine patterns that feel a greater pull to this type of living. The creative work done in the wee hours of the night is still the real you and a beautiful expression of your inner self, however, it is not sustainable. True creativity can also come from imbalance and that is why many creative people tend toward substance abuse – they get hooked on the fuel that is giving them access to their shinning mind, the heavenly realm. That is still real and having this experience and knowledge can empower a person, but continuing to use substances and imbalanced ways of living, neglecting the earthly body, to access the shining-mind can only end in pain. Many people will be fine living this way for years, even decades, but then as we age it becomes harder and harder to swim up river. The same lifestyle that worked for us before starts to crack open, manifest imbalance, physical or emotional and we often don’t understand why.

True sustainable creativity can only come form healthy, balanced functioning organ system and to have that you need to live in accordance with your design. We need to be firmly rooted to the earth for our heavenly spirit to feel at ease in our heart and do what it needs to do.

By all means, access these creative feelings, feel the inner-pull to do so, use these experiences and the knowledge that you have this potential as your motivation, as your knowing. Then, make the proactive choice to start to do the daily work of aligning yourself with the universe so that this can come out in your life in a sustainable way. My advice is to choose to live in accordance with the daily cycle as much as possible – start with 5-days a week!

Note: this type of change gives far superior results but takes repetitive input and time – stay focussed on it for a year before you judge it. The key is Long-Term Orientation (LTO) and after 20-40 years of this lifestyle you will gain clearer access to the shinning mind and then you can go beyond it, that is why most Asian masters produce their best work after the age of 60 years old. The best part is that they still have the energy to actualize their creativity – bring it to others in the most profound and meaningful way.

If I have had a late night, what should I do the next day?

Yes, social occasions and an active and engaging social life are also important parts of health… it’s all about balance. If you occasionally have to work very late, then this can also apply to you. The medical classics don’t have a lot of direct advice on what to do after a late night, so I will give you what I feel is best to minimise harm from the occasional late night.

Regardless of whether you have been partying or working, my advice is to still wake up reasonably early (within 3-hours of your normal wake up time) and follow the cycle as best you can, eat proper meals and then have a much more significant nap (2-3hours) after lunch in the middle of the day. The basic theory is that we try to maintain the daily up and down rhythm in energy output adjusted to the late night. We have created an aberration in the rhythm and we are seeking to gain harmony with the old rhythm without compromising the need for 7-8-hours sleep.

For example, you are out partying Saturday night til 2am. My suggestion is you sleep til 8am, get up, drink tea (esp. if alcohol involved) and have a hot breakfast. Then, go for a walk, get out and be active! Have a nourishing warm meal for lunch at noon and then have a 2-hour nap/rest (aim for 7-8-hours total sleep in the 24-hour cycle). Cruise through the afternoon, dinner at 7pm and early bedtime.

Good to go for work the next day! Well, not at your full potential but doing the best you can, considering the circumstances. This way you should slip back into the old rhythm with minimum disturbance.

When we feel the costs outweigh the benefits of our behaviour, we should choose to modify the behaviour.

What if I have a young baby who constantly disrupts sleep rhythms?

A worthwhile challenge indeed, babies and children are wonderful but they can really mess with your rhythms. Newborns are notorious for sleep cycle disruptions as they are still developing their ability to regulate and find rhythmic function. Babies need support and stimulation at the right times of day to help them create a healthy rhythm – see below ‘Is this rhythm also important for children?’

For the primary caretaker, usually the mother, the focus should be on prioritizing adequate amounts of sleep. This often requires sleeping when the baby sleeps during the day – even if outside of these Chinese Clock recommendations. Firstly, aim for total 7-8 hours sleep (naps included) a day. Then focus on including other activities that really nourish you. Then, attempt to fit that into this Chinese Clock rhythm. If you can’t sleep during the day, focus on scheduling deep rest and relaxation activities.

At this time of life for the parents, the winds of change are blowing strongly, both physical and emotional, and it is an opportunity for transformation. Seek new sustainable rhythms to be etched into your adult life – see this as an opportunity, a new adventure, less a hindrance. I have many female clients who prepare wonderful foods and feed their babies, yet skip breakfast themselves. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and as a busy mother, you need to prioritize it. I often hear they are staying up late on the Internet when they have a chance to have some ‘me-time’. ‘Me-time’ is important and needs to be scheduled. However, try to avoid late at night when you finally get an opportunity to get some of the your best quality rest in the 24-hour period.

Make a list of activities that really ‘nourish you’, ‘energise you’ or ‘make you come alive’ after doing them and schedule them into your day/week as best you can in accordance with your child’s sleep rhythms and the Clock. Support your child in finding a good daily rhythm, which helps them and also you for planning your activities. For nourishing activities that are physical (yoga) try to do them in the first half of the day. If they are restful (putting your feet up with a book), try scheduling them in the afternoon or when you baby sleeps. Do your best to use your time wisely. Remember being well informed and aware is one thing… being well informed, aware and strategic is another. And that makes all the difference!

Note: If you are a mother who is breastfeeding, you should sleep and eat more than you normally would. Chinese medicine considers breast-milk akin to Blood. Blood is considered to be one of the finest substances the body can produce, which in turn requires energy and resources. That means while you are breast-feeding the body needs to produce more Blood above and beyond the basic requirements. The most influential factors in the production of Blood are sleep and digestion. If you don’t have reserves, the production of breast-milk will be compromised, or your bodily functions will suffer as a result of all the milk (Blood) you are providing for your baby. In Chinese culture this is particularly important in the first 100-days after giving birth. Use this advice as a general rule while breastfeeding and adjust your priorities according to the amount the baby/toddler relies on breast-milk. Eating proper and adequate meals as well as good quality rest at the right times are the keys here giving you the best foundation to best deal with changes at this time of life and the challenges that accompany that.

Is this rhythm also important for children?

When a baby comes into the world, its ability to regulate rhythmic functions are still not fully developed. Babies need support and stimulation at the right times of day to help them create a healthy rhythm. We know that their body temperature, hormones and metabolic processes are not yet synchronized with the sun, as in adults.

Alternations between eating and not eating, activity and sleep, are essential in fostering this learning. The structure, and adaptability of a persons rhythmic system as an adult is related to how it was imprinted in infancy. The imprinting of these rhythms is created by daily life’s little actions related to eating, playing, bathing and sleeping at different times during the day and the seasons.

The more clearly a baby’s day takes rhythmic shape in the course in the first weeks and months – mornings at home while doing housework, afternoons spent outside being carried in a sling – the more strongly they will experience the course of the day and the difference between day and night and be able to respond with their entire body.

To encourage your infant to develop a 24-hour rhythm it is helpful to pay special attention to getting up in the morning and going to bed at night (always approximately the same time, where possible). Waking with the morning sun and preparing for sleep with brushing teeth, reading/songs and lights out. Sleep rhythms during the day change and become more regular as the baby moves to toddler and the idea is to lead them to a healthy midday nap. This midday resting (or minimum quiet time) is an essential part of child rhythms in China up until the age of 6 yo, where you are then left to your own preferences. Even adults in China traditionally have 12pm-2pm lunch break to eat a proper meal and have a rest.

Meal times are very important and all of our cultures used meal times to set rhythms in the daily cycle. Cultivating clear meal times and proper meals is a major key to healthy digestion. Chinese medicine believes that the child’s digestive function is still developing during the first 5 years of life, so what and how we eat affects how we develop. Cultivating strong ‘digestive-fire’ while young is incredibly important to a healthy and balanced physical and emotional state. Minimising snacking or over-eating outside of those times is challenging but well worth it. Be careful about milk and yogurt as this can reduce children’s appetite – maximum 2 servings of dairy a day. Snack break mid-morning and mid-afternoon is ok and focus on seasonal fruits and light snacks so when its meal time, kids are hungry.

In our experience, this means more breakdown and tantrum potential before meals but then kids eat well, more harmony during and after meals while the overall child thrives in health. The child who loves snacks and not good at eating during mealtime, lowers breakdown and tantrum potential before meals, but does not eat meals well and whines and whinges between and after meals, and often develops health conditions, often related to respiratory, skin or psychology.

What if I can’t sleep before 11pm?

The easiest way to catch the night wave 9–11pm is to live in accordance with the daily rhythms consistently. My first tip, and the usual starting point, is to get up earlier. If you are getting up at 7am or later, it is no surprise you are not tired before 11pm. Aim for 5am in summer and 6am in winter. Be productive in the yang part of the day — sunrise to noon — and you will generally feel better and feel like your life overall is falling into place better.

The other potential problem is that you have a midday rest but it is too late or too long. Try to limit your rest to 15–30 minutes, providing you are in a good rhythm (between 18-70 years-old. Try not to rest later than 1.30pm, we should be back to work by 2pm.

Ensure you eat dinner no later than 8pm.

If you are still unable to feel tired before 11pm, try increasing physical exercise earlier in the day, preferably early morning.

A hot foot bath at 10pm can do wonders to slow the system down and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

Why is the morning so important? Isn’t this simply from when we were farmers and didn’t have electricity?

Think about what you do when you are up an hour earlier and then think about what you do if you are up an hour later? Which of those activities are better for you in the long run? You will find it no surprise that cultures all over the world recommended getting up early.

‘The early bird catches the worm’ — UK and Europe

‘A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda’ translated, ‘whoever gets up early, God is with them’ — Spanish

‘Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund’ translated‘the morning hour has gold in the mouth’ — Swiss/German

‘From 5–7am you have an opportunity to carve your block. If you don’t carve it, someone else will and you never feel in control of your day… hence you never feel in control of your life’ — Ancient China

Think about, wherever you are in the world, what time you need to get up whether you are part of the military or the monastery? For the highest levels of order in the physical and spiritual realms, the recommendation is to start by getting up early and having three regular meals on time.

For the ancient Daoists it is relatively simple, observe and follow nature. Plants and animals live in accordance with these cycles as they are unconsciously connected to nature. Like those plants and animals, man is also a function of nature. However, man is conscious and when he consciously chooses to submit and follow natural law, he lives in harmony with it, giving him the highest level of natural order and the greatest chance for his design to reveal itself.

Knowing without doing, is not really knowing!

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.

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