Chapter 1. A Psychological Model Based on the Dao De Jing

The Dao De Jing (DDJ) presents an abstract model of behavior that can be applied to every social context, as illustrated in DDJ 54:

Cultivate it in oneself and the attainment will be genuine. Cultivate it in the family and the attainment will be all-sufficing. Cultivate it in the village and the attainment will be lasting. Cultivate it in the nation and attainment will be overflowing.

These words convey the concept of developing a holistic (the basis of the DDJ’s teachings) approach but with different tools used in different social settings. There are many chapters that explicitly describe the problems attendant with not applying the Great Way to the nation as a whole, and even to the relationship between the village and the nation. I am not going to address any of these but instead focus on the personal level. Thus, I will turn to DDJ 42 and quote a rather abstract paragraph that I will expand on in this post.

“The Way generates the One. The One generates Two. Two generates Three. Three generates the myriad beings. The myriad beings carry yin and embrace yang, fusing vital breaths to create [sustainable] harmony.”

There are a lot of metaphysical concepts buried in these few sentences, which is no different than (for example) examining Schrodinger’s Equation and expecting to understand quantum field theory. The difference is of course that the authors of the DDJ didn’t have advanced mathematics to describe the concepts they were trying to convey, and neither do modern psychologists. They used symbols (ancient Chinese) and these have been interpreted by linguists, so let’s not get hung up on semantics.

The first thing we need to do is lose the metaphysical constraints, which are a modern construct. That is, the Dao De Jing was received in the West as a spiritual guide associated with Daoism (an Eastern religion based on the DDJ but with a spiritual interpretation). That’s how most of us have heard of it, but that’s not what I’m doing; I am using DDJ 42 as an abstract map and I’m going to apply modern psychological concepts to this map. The only part retained is the relationships between the objects (parameters in my model).

The Way refers to the Dao, which is the unknown state of Nonbeing. It isn’t a deity and in fact is repeatedly referred to as a primordial state of nonbeing as in DDJ25:

Something formed in chaos existed before the birth of Heaven and Earth. Vast and still, solitary and unchanging, it moves in a cycle and is not in peril. It can be thought of as the mother of the world.

Not that different than the Big Bang theory.

Continuing, The One is traditionally interpreted as a state of being that includes everything in the universe, both animate and inanimate, physical and spiritual. For my personal model, I interpret Being as beginning at some point during fetal development; maybe at conception or possibly when the brain begins to develop during the third week of pregnancy. It isn’t important because this is an abstraction that I will set aside unless it becomes useful as I develop the model further. We’ll see.

The Two referred to in DDJ 42 is typically interpreted as referring to Yang and Yin. We’ve all heard those words before: I’m treating Yang as an emergent (pseudo) force that is responsible for individual physical and mental activity, like kinetic energy; Yin is the balancing force analogous to potential energy. My interpretation of DDJ 42, as represented in the model, is that when a person is born, Yang and Yin (the Two) replace Being (the One) as dominant processes as an infant begins to explore the world. These opposing tendencies remain operating throughout our lives although not as identifiable organs, thoughts, or behaviors; this is why I refer to them as emergent pseudo-forces. They are convenient for studying processes that are not well understood by psychology, biology or neuroscience (e.g. biofeedback and homeostasis through hormonal production).

The Three is usually interpreted as Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. This choice of entities implies that the DDJ was originally (remember all of the copies and interpretations of the now-lost original text) developed as a holistic system intended for application to the entire ecosystem. However, my model is restricted to the personal so I’m going to apply them somewhat differently than the names suggest. I will first define these components and then explain my choices.

Heaven is assigned to the physical entity; that is, a human body including the brain and everything physical. Earth represents the subconscious mind: memories, emotions, personality traits; what some scientists refer to as System One. (The only way to influence it is through repetition, like learning.) Humanity refers to the conscious mind, sometimes called System Two; the mind that senses and thinks and we typically consider to be ourselves. Note that the conscious mind functions when we sleep and is only out of action when we are unconscious, i.e., knocked out or anesthetized.

These parameters were chosen to be consistent with DDJ 25:

Humanity’s law is Earth. Earth’s law is Heaven. Heaven’s law is the Way. The Way is a law unto itself.

Thus, our conscious behavior (Humanity) is dominated by our subconscious thoughts, emotions, and memories (Earth), which are ultimately controlled by our physiology (Heaven). And of course, our physical nature is determined by ongoing unknown processes during our life (Yang and Yin), prenatal development (Being or The One), and ultimately by who knows what (Nonbeing or The Dao).

The Myriad Beings (or Things in some chapters of DDJ) are what I call expressions of our tripartite body-mind system. These include actions, thoughts, and physical conditions (like being tired, hungry, etc.); anything that originates from our physical and mental state. We are like self-contained vessels on the ocean’s surface. This brings us to the last parameter, the Vital Breaths from DDJ 42 (above).

Vital Breaths in my model represent a range of biochemical and biophysical processes associated with both mental and physical development as well as behavior; such as hormonal secretions and electrical signals between cells, etc. These are beyond our ability to consciously sense or control. Fusing them is the mechanism whereby a balance is reached (recall that they originate from the pseudo-forces of Yang and Yin), leading to homeostatic equilibrium. For example, cell metabolism is controlled through feedback mechanisms to maintain our bodies at a constant temperature; another example is the “Fight or Flight” response: when confronted with a perceived danger, we may feel our chest tighten and want to flee, but we may instead choose to go on the offensive and get in the first blow. These potential responses are available through our subconscious personality and are analyzed by our conscious mind; thus, we (Humanity) can choose which to express, unless overwhelmed by Vital Breaths that are out of equilibrium.

That ends the description of the basic model. I will refer to this chapter as the model is further developed and applied in later chapters.


Notes: The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing, Translated by P.J. Laska, ECCS Books, Green Valley Arizona, 2012.

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