Finding the Sweet Spot

How do you know when enough is enough? Enough food, exercise, work, rest, diversion, money, anything. When is it too little? Or too much? How do you know when it’s just right? How do you find the sweet spot? We usually agree that it’s way too subjective, that each situation is different for each person, that we only know by tuning in at the moment.

This is quite true, but the Taoists actually came up with a number: If we define 100% capacity as just short of a breaking point, an injury, an overflow, a failure of some kInd, just right is somewhere around 70%.  In the West we are taught that to accomplish almost anything we need to give 100% almost all the time, so 70% makes no sense. Conversely in the East, to work so close to the edge is way too risky and makes no sense. Some of this cultural difference can be explained in terms of short vs. long term sustainability. It is not possible to sustain anything close to 100% for any great length of time, but at 70 you can go on dang near forever. In China you brag about your old age because it shows that you’ve been able to sustain your vitality for a long time. In the West old age means your vibrancy is gone and you’re nearly finished. 

Let’s take walking as an example of sustainability. Suppose you’d like to walk a mile for exercise. Say your top speed is 15 minutes which will make you tired, sweaty and winded. A lazy pace might take you 25 minutes but you might feel like you haven’t properly exercised. 70% of your top speed is about 20 minutes which should leave you feeling exercised and refreshed, and even ready to go another mile.

Finding this sweet spot is one of the keys of Taoist longevity practices. Part of the idea is not wasting energy unnecessarily but always keeping a significant amount in reserve. This is expressed metaphorically (perhaps) in the maxim that in our lives we are given a finite number of heartbeats, breaths, orgasms, etc. and we can use them up either sooner or later.

But more critical are their observations that as we go beyond 70  toward 100, the body senses increasing danger and prepares itself by holding back and tightening up. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. The closer we get to 100 the less our efficiency. Furthermore the nervous system becomes increasingly tensed up and strained. In all their research the Taoists found no way to override these side effects. 

The most common protest I hear is “But how can you ever increase your 100% if you never even approach it?” Contrary to our conditioned western intuition, the Taoists found that working consistently around 70% is in fact the quickest and safest way to increase your capacity; it happens naturally almost without you realizing it, like an unintended, beneficial side effect.

This idea is immensely difficult for humans in general and westerners in particular to understand and put into practice. When we want to do something well we almost always translate that as applying more effort. Personally, I spent way too many years practicing my Qigong around 85%, and I’m not even Type A. This came partly from being lazy with practice time and then trying hard to make up for it. Eventually I realized that this was impossible. The better strategy would have been more time and less effort, like I was always told.

70 is not an exact figure. Sometimes 80 is okay. Sometimes you have to scale back to 60. If you’re ill or injured you may need to go much lower. For example, years back I had a very important lesson when I had a persistent knot in my back which did not respond to any of the many sophisticated tricks I knew, nor to the treatments of chiropractic, massage, and osteopathy. Months into it I was able to ask my main teacher what to do. All he said was ” scale back everything to 20%” , adding ” which will be very hard for you.” Of course that’s what I did and to my surprise the knot disappeared and I was fine immediately. 

At another time a colleague at a retreat was in such pain she was instructed to not even practice Dissolving, the most benign of all the practices, which meant reducing everything to 0. At the other end of the scale, if you’re in a situation of competition or an emergency, the most appropriate level is probably 100.

The extremes are reserved for special situations. 70 refers to your daily living and practice schedule. And, generally you’re better off erring on the side of caution, or dare I say conservatism. It’s also important to notice that our capacities change from day to day, which means so does our sweet 70.

The whole process is an art. After playing with all the numbers my favorite criterion comes down to “when am I doing the thing well and still feeling perfectly relaxed, at ease and comfortable?” 

How we find the the sweet spots, the golden means, the Goldilocks points, is by a lot of experience and experiment.  Without that it’s just academic exercise, which by itself isn’t all that sweet.