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Chapter 6. Anomalous Visual Qualia and Losing the Way

This chapter discusses the anomalous visual qualia reported in Chapter 5. First, we will refer to the Dao De Jing for guidance to interpret them in terms of the TOSCA model. Finally, we will examine their interpretation with respect to pursuing a path to enlightenment . Quoting from DDJ 42:

“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.”

This verse was discussed in Chapter 1. It’s time to refine that first-cut. The myriad beings/things have already been refined from “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 now define them as qualia, generated in the conscious mind, in response to the arrival of packets of visual (for now) stimuli generated by the ordered firing of connected neurons (bits and bytes). This focuses on electrical signals and ignores chemical signals. We’ve thus restricted the TOSCA model to electrical communications (i.e., neural pathways or virtual networks carrying packets). This doesn’t restrict its application however since the central nervous system (composed of neurons connected to the brain) runs throughout the body.

Yin and yang were introduced as pseudo forces in Chapter 1 with the implication that they were invented by the authors of the Dao De Jing as an explanatory mechanism for a binary process (on or off). It is reasonable therefore to refine the definition a bit: Yang and yin represent the binary states of the individual neurons that contribute to packets merged into qualia.

Fusing vital breaths from yang and yin carried by qualia (myriad beings above) suggests that the definition used in Chapter 1 is no longer sufficient. The refined definition of vital breaths from DDJ 42 is that they are the packets arriving from the distributed network of neurons supplying the components of the final perception. This puts us on the path to how to interpret the anomalous qualia presented in Chapter 5.

Let’s differentiate an abstract object from a process. From DDJ 25:

Something formed in chaos existed before the birth of Heaven and Earth. Vast and still, solitary and unchanging, it moves in a cycle…We do not know its name. If a word is needed we call it Dao…The Way [Dao] is a law unto itself.

This is a reference to the universal unknown, but hints at the application of principles that can be inferred from the Way to earthly matters. There are many references in the Dao De Jing to the Great Way. This one from DDJ 18 gives a hint (that’s all you ever get from the DDJ) as to what is lost when the Way is abandoned:

When the Great Way was abandoned, the ideas of moral perfection and correctness appeared.

In other words, morality and correctness are artificial concepts introduced when the Way is not applied to the activities of humanity. Someone following the Way doesn’t need socially constructed ideals of behavior. This duality of the Way is probably the source of Taoism (Dao is also translated as Tao; I’m not an ancient Chinese scholar), a non-ritualistic religion that espouses joining with the natural flow of the universe. That’s not where we’re going in this study. This holistic interpretation is too metaphysical, although the result is the same. The TOSCA model doesn’t assume any metaphysical phenomena, but instead interprets the Dao (Great Way) as an abstract plan for mental-physical development. In other words, no belief system is required or encouraged.

The Way influences qualia in an indirect way, as alluded to in DDJ 34:

The Great Way floods forth. It can flow left or right. The myriad beings rely on it to live and it does not refuse them. It accomplishes works of merit, but does not take possession of them. It clothes and feeds the myriad beings, but does not act as their master.

And from DDJ 51:

The Way gives life to the myriad things. Its endowment rears them, matter forms them, circumstances complete them…its endowment fosters, increases, nurtures, shelters, nourishes, supports and covers them.”

In other words, the Way guides the creation of qualia in consciousness, but cannot be expected to magically control how we think. It is only a plan of action. Our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions are created in our conscious minds from the huge number of neurons firing systematically. Often, however, neurons misfire or fire in a pattern following a less-than-optimal sequence of events (e.g., make a bad decision or don’t see everything in our field of view).

Finally, we can return to the anomalous visual qualia in the title of this chapter. The wild display of partial images I reported in the previous chapter are not the result of the orderly arrival of packets to my consciousness. My inability to control them, much less create them intentionally or stop them, is strong evidence that they are created by randomly arriving packets from the visual cortex. In a perfectly functioning tripartite mind-body system, visual qualia without retinal input (i.e., eyes closed) would only be created on demand, as when remembering or imagining, and they would be complete if not highly detailed. Something is malfunctioning.

The Dao De Jing refers to losing the Way and what happens; “moral perfection and correctness appeared.” In other words, we create rules to replace the  smooth operation of our minds. The rules our subconscious/conscious mind creates aren’t necessarily accurate, just as social mores can vary widely among nations and through time. To recover the Great Way (the Dao), we must influence (but not master) the communication pathway from the conscious to the unconscious mind. The feedback loop identified in the visual cortex.


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

Chapter 5. Anomalous Visual Qualia

In the previous chapter, I referred to the inability of some people (including me) to intentionally create visual qualia. It might be asked why this matters? The short answer is, it doesn’t; but this blog isn’t about short answers. The purpose is to interpret the Dao De Jing in a meaningful way, as more than paradoxical proverbs. Unifying the three-part body-mind system requires a method to improve communications between these components.

The motivation can be found in the name of the model: Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-response Cortical Augmentation. The packets of processed sensory data that I’ve been discussing are the primary stimuli for the conscious mind. Its response consists of qualia, like mental images. The TOSCA model is a tool to help us visualize the communication pathways that make up virtual networks. Thus, by focusing our attention on the qualia, we can apply standard learning techniques like repetition and elaborative learning to improve (augment) these virtual networks. Better communication may even improve functioning of brain regions responsible for different mental processes (e.g., memory, attention). That’s the long answer.

Before going any further, let’s review how visual images are processed in order to understand how visual qualia are generated. Recent research on how images are processed in the brain is summarized in an article in Science Direct.

Each brain hemisphere has a complete visual cortex that processes one-half of the visual field (from both eyes). The right hemisphere processes the left half of the visual field and the left hemisphere visual cortex processes the right half of the visual field. These two half-fields are compiled into a single full-field image somewhere in the cortex. I couldn’t find an answer to that question, so I will assume that this process is part of being conscious, i.e., qualia are created after visual processing is completed.

I have referred to symbolic versus pictorial mental images. A pictorial representation is like a bitmap, a one-to-one mapping of the visual field to neurons in early processing of visual input. This has been demonstrated in mammals and even people. Higher levels of visual processing add symbolic information (e.g., color, motion) before the output is sent to the prefrontal cortex. Everyone sees pictorial images when their eyes are open, but how this is done isn’t known (or else is being kept a secret because I couldn’t find anything about it). Let’s rack it up to being “conscious” again.

The visual pathway also includes feedback between higher and lower level functions (e.g., from  an identified and classified image with attached memories etc. to the generation of a raw image of the retinal input). Several studies suggest that mental images are part of speeding up perception. They are created, or retrieved from memory (the mix isn’t known), by higher visual functions and passed to lower ones as a first-guess at what’s being perceived. Such mental images may well be created constantly and simply not used at times; for example, when the eyes are closed.

This brings up an interesting question: are mental images memories, or something new, created on demand? If they are memories, they should appear as something recognizable, even if distorted. On the other hand, if the mental images we perceive (eyes closed) are new, we would expect to experience something that is clearly not a memory. I’m not sure the distinction is important, however, because even a newly created quale would necessarily be influenced by our experience and thus memories. Either way, communications from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind is occurring when visual qualia are intentionally created.

I probably should have added a separate post for what I’ve said above. Nevertheless, we have the background to understand (at least qualitatively) how visual stimuli can be far removed from anything we see in the physical world, and how the qualia are created by our conscious mind.

In order to identify any changes in the response (visual qualia) to stimuli from the visual cortex (the packets transported on the virtual network), we need a baseline. I will use occurrences of visual qualia from my experience during intervals of mindfulness meditation (i.e., introspection) at the beginning of the study. For the record, I am of a sound mind and have never experienced auditory or visual hallucinations in my life (not even when I tried LSD in my youth).

I will characterize visual qualia using five parameters: 1) KIND (e.g., geometric shapes, people, things); 2) ORIGIN (e.g., location in the visual field, the way they appear, intentionality); 3) DURATION (estimated in seconds); 4) COMPLETENESS (e.g., entire objects, pieces of objects); 5) STABILITY (e.g., the degree to which they change in appearance).

These are subjective data and are based on memory. I will try and keep notes in the future. However, they aren’t subject to much change from one introspection session to another. There are probably some I missed.

KIND. Only objects were perceived. No landscapes, or movies, etc. They consisted of people, cars, geometric shapes, animals (cattle, bizarre chimera), unidentifiable objects reminiscent of totem poles, and colored blobs. There were also monstrous apparitions like deformed heads (see STABILITY below). The background was consistently black. The colors varied widely, with many bright hues, but also deep shadows. All objects were in sharp focus. No fuzzy edges. Colors for human and identifiable animal skin were normal. I didn’t notice any textures. The visual field contained more than one, often many, objects simultaneously.

ORIGIN. Most objects were moving, sometimes towards me and passing out of my visual field as if going past me. Other times they took the opposite trajectory, and passed me as if on a highway. All trajectories were straight with constant velocity. Most moving objects within a time frame of 1-10 seconds had the same velocity and trajectory. A few, mostly people and animals, appeared in the center of my visual field and didn’t move.

DURATION. No individual object remained within my view more than a couple of seconds, depending on velocity. The fixed objects were unstable and morphed (see STABILITY below).

COMPLETENESS. Nothing was complete. Some aspect of every object was missing. For people and animals, there might be only a head, sometimes with an irregular hole centered on the nose, sometimes one side seemingly melted away. The same applied to the animals. Pieces of cars consisted of grills, fenders, etc, but no complete cars. The blobs were smoothly irregular with no holes.

STABILITY. Any object that was either stationary or moving slowly transformed into something else, often radically different. For example, a human head melting and wobbling as it turns into a monstrous apparition. However, I don’t recall any animate object turning into an inanimate object. Nothing remained the same for more than a second. Even the transforming stationary objects dissolved within a few seconds, to be replaced by something moving through the visual field. Collisions caused morphing to occur, but mostly between moving and stationary objects. Moving objects did not collide with each other. It was like the Cirque de Soleil on steroids.

In the next post, I will discuss these anomalous visual qualia in terms of the TOSCA model and show their relevance to the objective of the blog – seeking a state of enlightenment through the Dao De Jing (The Great Way).




Chapter 4: Visual Qualia

The next few chapters are going to focus on visual perceptions, but not of objects in the physical world. That will come up eventually but as part of studying the Dao De Jing, I am more interested in introspection. For example, here is a quote from DDJ 16:

“Attain the utmost emptiness, secure unbroken stillness. The myriad things arise together and we watch their return. Though they flourish in great numbers, each returns again to the source. Returning to the source is called ‘stillness.’ Stillness is called ‘returning life.’ Returning life is the meaning of constancy. To know constancy is enlightenment. Not to know constancy risks disasters.”

This quote discusses the relationship between the myriad things and the objective of this blog — enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment is a state of stillness, in which the creation and destruction of the myriad things (defined in Chapter 1 as expressions of the tripartite body-mind system that comprises us as individuals) is accepted as natural. They shouldn’t distract a person from more important matters.

The previous chapter introduced the concept of qualia, but now I want to explicitly state that the myriad things (and myriad beings) referred to in the DDJ are qualia in the TOSCA model. These are built from packets traveling the virtual network that permeates our brains. These packets are constructed of bytes, which are composed of bits, which are individual neurons (and what state they’re in – on or off). This chapter discusses visual qualia that originate from within the body-mind system.

Everyone dreams and most of us remember at least something about our dreams, which usually involve visual images, even if only poorly recalled. There are several reasons for this: the hippocampus (which moderates the transfer of data from short-term to long-term memory) changes its functioning when we sleep; neural transmitters that promote memory formation have different concentrations during sleep; dreams occur in a mental state similar to mind wandering, and thoughts simply aren’t recalled in that state (a good reason to write down epiphanies immediately). Those completely imaginary visual images in our dreams are qualia.

Dreams are of no direct use in applying the TOSCA model, however, because even though we are conscious when we sleep, we have no control over our thoughts. We turn instead to visual qualia that we perceive when we are awake and able to take some kind of action. (See The Mind’s Eye.)

I’m going to interject my experiences with creating visual images to set the stage for the discussion. Books about psychology and neuroscience often have visualization exercises, in which the reader imagines, for example, a red letter, or some kind of image like a boat, etc. I tried to follow along but could never see the image, but only imagined it and manipulated it following the instructions and understood the exercise. But I never saw anything. I ignored this discrepancy and assumed it was simply a case of ambiguous words – semantics.

I’ve been practicing meditation (actually introspection with a metaphysical label) and sometimes I would sit quietly with my mind as blank as I could make it for up to thirty minutes. I had always ignored the strange images I would sometimes see after about ten minutes. It didn’t always occur, so I assumed (again) that they were random images from memory. I read about this phenomenon and discovered that creating mental images is quite common, so common in fact that researchers invented a name for people with no ability to see with their mind – Aphantasia. It hasn’t been investigated much because (apparently) the psychologists who study vision and brain function are quite familiar with the phenomenon. (They must have assumed that everyone was like them.)

What  these two experiences imply is that I can’t intentionally generate visual qualia. And I’m not the only one. Conversations on the topic are obfuscated by not having a clear definition of a mental image. The mind’s eye is a catch-all phrase for imagining something, whether descriptively or visually. This leads to dividing visual qualia into two types:  descriptions that can be thought of as a list of characteristics (often very detailed) of an object; and actual visual images created in our visual cortex and passed to…wait a minute – just where is consciousness located?

There is no answer to that question, but recent work has found a link between the brain stem (most basic part of the brain) and two other regions in the cortex. As I said in describing the virtual network within our brains, it is distributed and that applies to everything else, including consciousness. So, the images created by separate visual processing circuits in the two halves of the brain (the left-brain processes the right visual field from both eyes, and vice versa) are sent along the VN to be constructed as qualia by the distributed consciousness system.

The next chapter will discuss how these qualia might be perceived through personal observations. The data are necessarily subjective in this kind of study, so I’m going to be using myself as the test subject.




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

Zimmer, The Brain: Look Deep into the Mind’s Eye, Discover Magazine, 2010.

Gallagher, Aphantasia: A Life without mental images, BBC News, 2015.



Chapter 3. Perceptions as Qualia: Bits, Bytes, and Packets

The Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-Response Cortical Augmentation model (TOSCAM) consists of four components so far: the human body; the subconscious; the conscious mind; and as-yet undefined stimuli, which I temporarily referred to as qualia. This post will explore this last component in more detail.

I did some more reading and discovered that perception is conceivably more complex than simply seeing or hearing something. Philosophers have constructed many theories to try and understand what we see, etc., including the physicalist model, which (greatly simplified) proposes that nothing is going on in our mind. A signal, like the light spectrum from an object we are viewing, is processed into a series of neurons firing and sending a representation of the object to our prefrontal cortex, where it is perceived as it really is. That sounds pretty straightforward, but someone pointed out the existence of hallucinations and other phenomena like phantom limbs, that aren’t representations of anything a person is experiencing. One concept that grew out of this discrepancy is Sense-Datum Theory.

Vastly oversimplified, Sense-Datum Theory proposes that sense data consist of both content and intrinsic non-representational features (e.g., blobs of paint comprising a painting). This latter signal is what is called a quale (qualia is the plural). Unfortunately a quale can’t be measured and is nothing more than a hypothetical construct, so there’s a lot of controversy associated with the idea. For example, many philosophers treat it as the sensation of perceiving (e.g., how does it feel to “see” red).

Here’s an interesting summary from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see note 3): “…we still seem to be left with something that we cannot explain, namely, why and how such-and-such objective, physical changes…generate so-and-so subjective feeling, or any subjective feeling at all…Some say that the explanatory gap is unbridgeable and that the proper conclusion to draw from it is that there is a corresponding gap in the world. Experiences and feelings have irreducibly subjective, non-physical qualities…There is no general agreement on how the gap is generated and what it shows.

To muddy the water even further, here’s another interesting comment on qualia as representational: “If I feel a pain in a leg, I need not even have a leg. My pain might be a pain in a phantom limb. Facts such as these have been taken to provide further support for the contention that some sort of representational account is appropriate for qualia.

I was going to drop the concept of qualia in my model and instead use a concrete word like sense-datum as the information-carrying medium for perception and let the philosophers argue about the details. However, I’m not going to be publishing my model in any peer-reviewed journals and I like the idea of a simple word rather than a phrase. I’ll keep qualia with the caveat that it is being used in a representational sense. I accept “some sort of representational account” as good enough for my purposes.

Without espousing Sense-Datum Theory, I am going to use the following definition of a quale (actually a sense-datum): an immediate object of perception, which is not a material object; a sense impression. I’m only using the concept, not the theory. In fact, neither quale nor sense-datum are very useful because they leave us with a vague concept of something we are aware of (perception) and not how the perception was created. How is a quale (sense-datum) created? (I’ll use the parentheses in this post only.)

Let’s think of the brain as a computer network. This is an old idea and it isn’t particularly applicable; after all, there are no main network cables within our heads but instead trillions of axons connecting every neuron to practically every other neuron with an uncountable number of intermediate neurons between them. We can get around this gross oversimplification by introducing the idea of a virtual network. For example, perceiving an object (philosophers like to use tomatoes) is the result of a complex process that turns the electrical signals from over 100 million rods and cones into an image, which is then identified, cross-correlated, and delivered to our prefrontal cortex, ready to be acted on. We may cut the tomato up or put it in the refrigerator for later use. However, those millions (who knows how many) of neurons are firing synchronously to deliver the total package of what we perceive as a “tomato.” I’m calling this organized firing of millions of neurons a virtual network (VN). A virtual network isn’t static. For example, here are some neural frequencies during different mental states.

Beta (β) 12–35 Hz Anxiety dominant, active, external attention, relaxed
Alpha (α) 8–12 Hz Very relaxed, passive attention
Theta (θ) 4–8 Hz Deeply relaxed, inward focused
Delta (δ) 0.5–4 Hz Sleep

These data suggest that any given VN (say, that associated with looking at a tomato) is at risk of being deleted as often as 35 times per second, and at best lasts a couple of seconds. Obviously, we can hold a thought or perception longer than this; what this implies is that any specific quale (sense-datum) must be refreshed or updated continuously or it will be replaced by something new (perhaps a carrot lying next to the tomato).

To complete the network analogue for the TOSCA model, we need to define qualia in more detail. The digital model of bits (binary device that can be on or off, 0 or 1, etc.) seems appropriate to describe the smallest unit of information transfer among neurons, which are either on or off. Some arbitrary number of neurons firing in unison as part of generating a quale (sense-datum) is somewhat analogous to a byte for the TOSCA model. In most computer applications, a byte consists of eight bits. This is the smallest unit of storage in computer memory, but we don’t have that restriction in the brain. Nevertheless, it is a useful concept because a byte is not sufficiently large to generate the perception of a tomato. For example, a few dozen neurons (bits) could form a byte that contains information only about the color of the tomato, and other bytes would encode other characteristics (e.g., location in space, roundness, softness).

To assemble a quale (sense-datum) for the perception of an object, thought, emotion, etc, we need to organize all those bytes coming in from millions of neurons over the VN. This can be done using the concept of a packet borrowed from digital networking. A packet contains both data and information about how it should be decoded, a perfect idea for the model. For example, groups of bytes can be virtually organized into packets that contain shape information, etc, and telling the receiving part of the brain (e.g., the prefrontal cortex) which ones go together. No one has a clue how this is done. It is an abstract concept even in brain research. We only need the concept to continue; and with the idea of multiple packets arriving from different brain areas with information about what they contain, a quale (sense-datum) can be perceived.

This has been a moderately technical post, but it was necessary to have a complete concept for the TOSCA process before applying it to real-world examples. The next post will focus on visual perception and how it can be studied, using introspection to examine and control qualia, or sense-data.




Qualia. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published Wed Aug 20,

Huemer, Michael, “Sense-Data”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

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.


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.


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.