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Chapter 2. What’s in a Name?

In Chapter Two, I laid out the basic outline of the psychological DDJ model these posts are exploring. It’s time to invent an acronym, as much as I personally dislike alphabet salad, because it’s too cumbersome to keep repeating a long name and standardization has a lot of advantages. Let’s review the components to get started.

The model I’m developing comprises (so far) four components: modules representing the body, the subconscious, and the conscious; and another ambiguous category that the DDJ calls Vital Breaths. That’s a pretty simple model, but I’m sure it’s going to get more complex as I delve into it. Nevertheless, we need a name, and it isn’t going to include a word that could mislead some to think that there is any spiritualism involved. I’m not going to use DDJ words (ambiguous translations from ancient Chinese), so perhaps it would be useful to summarize the three observable components (body, subconscious, and conscious) into a single concept like tripartite, which means split into three parts. That’s pretty easy to remember. There is no way Vital Breaths is going into the name, so we need something more precise than a two-millennia-old definition from before the invention of PET and fMRI instruments, not to mention all of the other tools used by neuroscientists in the modern world.

Qualia  are defined as: “the internal and subjective component of sense perceptions, arising from stimulation of the senses by phenomena.” That’s pretty simple and unambiguous, but it doesn’t quite meet the needs of the model I’m developing because it only refers to sensory input; what we need is a more general concept that will include homeostatic mechanisms as well. Homeostasis uses biochemical factors, DNA transcription networks, bioelectricity, and other physical forces to regulate the cell behavior and large-scale patterning during embryogenesis, regeneration, cancer, and many other processes. Sensory input and homeostasis both operate as stimulus-response processes; a signal is received by a cell, organ, etc, and the system responds.

So far, we have tripartite and stimulus-response. This is primarily a psychological model, but it will be indirectly applicable to the body as well (recall the fourth component); thus, we’ll throw in organismic to explicitly define it as a biological model.

The primary mechanism to which the model can be applied is Cortical Remapping. Cortical maps consist of adjacent neurons within the cortex that are direct (spatial) representations of parts of the body, images from the retina or memory. They can be strengthened and enlarged through reinforcement, whereby connections between the body, subconscious, and mind can be altered and (presumably) augmented as evidenced by learning.

We have identified all of the components of a psychological model based on the ancient wisdom of the DDJ, but updated to be understood and applied by modern people.

For the rest of these posts I will refer to this process as Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-Response Cortical Augmentation (TOSCA) and the model as TOSCAM.

 

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.

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

The Dao De Jing: Getting from Tulsa to Chicago without a map

This is not a review, but instead the first of a series of essays about how I’m integrating the ideas contained in an ancient text into my day-to-day life. As part of my philosophical reading, I recently read the Dao De Jing; actually, I read two different translations/interpretations (a 1919 translation by Dwight Goddard revised by Sam Torode, and a 2012 translation by P.J. Laska). During the course of my reading, I was struck by the lack of any religious overtones in either translation, but only references to the Source, the Tao, the Great Way, the Way of the Sages, etc. In other words, the original authors knew that they didn’t know where reality came from and chose not to speculate. Both translations refer to the origin of the universe as unknowable. That appealed to me and thus my reading expanded into something more, which I plan to share in this series of essays. I am writing in order to have a record of my personal philosophy as it evolves (rather than presenting a manifesto at the end), for my own benefit, but I welcome comments from anyone who reads these essays.

Reading the two translations side-by-side, it is difficult to believe that they originated from the same source; in fact, there were already many copies of the Dao De Jing (DDJ) in circulation in China by the first century of the Common Era (CE). Furthermore, ancient Chinese was apparently a very sparse language, which means that there is plenty of latitude for artistic license among translators. This is not an issue because I’m not seeking the “truth,” but rather a starting point for a journey. I might add that the phrase “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” comes from the DDJ (Chapter 64). For the record, the two versions I read couldn’t even agree on the distance; the Goddard translation sends the traveler on a much longer journey of 3000 miles.

The Goddard-Torode translation will sound familiar to most westerners; it is poetic and has many apparent paradoxes that imply the deep wisdom contained (i.e. hidden) within the verses, whereas Laska’s translation isn’t particularly appealing. It reads like a first draft of the DDJ; however, it includes notes that explain the reason for many of the more controversial (I’ll take Laska’s word for this) translations. Forced to make a choice, I went with the newer interpretation but I always read both. Thus, I will include quotes from Laska’s (2012) translation in this series and only refer to the more traditional text occasionally to make a point about the difference between a technical document and a book of poetry.

The title of this essay may be perplexing, and it was meant to be so. The Dao De Jing is a series of randomly arranged signposts without a map. It tells the reader where they should be headed and gives some vague and often ambiguous hints, but it absolutely is not a roadmap. There is a lot of wisdom contained in the more-explicit chapters, which brings me to an important point about my journey: The Dao (the Great Way) is applicable at a range of social scales, ranging from the personal to the behavior of empires. I am focusing only on the personal scale, so many of the chapters (and verses shoehorned into some chapters) are inapplicable for my purpose and won’t be discussed. Following the Dao is a matter of finding a personal path to enlightenment, with no short cuts, and only a few hints.

This ambiguity appeals to me because I’m not a big believer in dogma. To make my point, I will quote from DDJ 38:

“So, when the Way is lost there remains [higher] attainment. When [higher] attainment is lost, there remains benevolence. When benevolence has been lost there remains righteousness. When righteousness is lost there remains ritual.”

In other words, it’s a long journey from enlightenment to dogma, but humanity has managed to reach the lowest rung of the ladder. This downward spiral is, in my opinion (and apparently the authors of the DDJ), the result of individuals failing to take responsibility for their actions and how they affect others. This is not a spiritual journey but a psychological one – to take responsibility for my mind and body and try to regain some part of what was understood and practiced by wise individuals more than 2500 years ago.

Notes:

P.J. Laska; The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing: A New Translation and Commentary; ECCS Books, Green Valley, Arizona; 2012.

Lao Tzu; Tao Te Ching. The Book of the Way; revised by Sam Torode; Ancient Renewal.