Part 3 – On the Path: Introducing Taoism
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
This is Part 3 in an Alchemist’s Notebook blog series exploring places of resonance, merger and synergy between neuroplasticity and Taoist-inspired Chinese Medicine practice.
Three focal points frame the series: Change, Relationship and Process.
Today, we begin with the second installment on Change, shifting our focus from new science to ancient wisdom.
At least as far back as the 5th century B.C.E., Taoist philosophers already had our plasticity figured out.
Like today’s neuroplasticians, these ancient Chinese visionaries saw beyond rigid constructs and dated paradigms. They recognized continual, cyclical change as the Way, or Tao, of the universe and ourselves.
The origins of Taoism are very old.
As scholar and translator Thomas Cleary writes: “The Taoist wayfarers were heirs to several sources of most ancient knowledge” (1). Among these, he lists shamans, diviners, curers, chieftains, historians, scribes, descendants of refugee colonies and “subliminated or spiritualized” individuals existing on the edges of ordinary society (Cleary 102).
Although ancient Taoist texts dating from the 18th through 20th century B.C.E. were lost, enduring classics emerged during China’s “Warring States period” (403–221 B.C.E.). This period saw continuous struggle among feudal states, accompanied by a breakdown in old ways of thought and moral codes. From this era of political and intellectual upheaval, the “Hundred Schools of Philosophy” arose, each espousing particular values and worldviews.
The Taoist school emerged in dialectical relationship with other major philosophies of the day—most notably, the Confucian, Mo-ist and Legalist schools. Its early texts addressed the rulers, offering advice on how to govern, as well as ordinary people, counseling a judicious, balanced path aligned with primordial wisdom.
Rejecting “the earnest moral strivings of the Confucians and Mo-ists and the harsh and meddlesome measures of the Legalists,” Taoists advised a simpler course—one characterized by “quietude” and non-striving (2).
This embrace of simplicity and stillness was not a call for passivity or stagnation. Rather, the Taoist approach was to move with the flow of change rather than against it.
Taoism’s foundational texts were most likely written between the 5th and 3rd century B.C.E. (3). These are the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-tzu, and the Book of Chuang-tzu, attributed to Lao-tzu’s philosophical heir (Chuang-tzu, or Chuang Chou).
The Tao Te Ching contains 81 short chapters and unfolds in sparse, symbolically weighted words. Transcending historical and personal context, “the pronouncements of the text dwell in a kind of void, like so many timeless axioms” (4).
In turn, the Chuang-tzu’s three sections, known as the inner, outer and miscellaneous chapters, contain “a collection of stories and monologues illustrating and expounding the teachings of the Tao Te Ching” (Cleary 4).
Together, the books set forth “the philosophical and practical core of classical Taoism” (Cleary 4).
The Taoist school and its early writings also left an important imprint on another classic: the Huangdi Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), compiled between 200 and 220 B.C.E. This work, in turn, became the foundational text of Chinese Medicine.
Taoism, like the emergent neuroplasticity paradigm, looks beyond a rigidly stylized, compartmentalized view of nature and self.
Rather than work in sharp lines, it renders its metaphors in sweeping brushstrokes, capturing “the texture” of human interconnectedness and totality of being (5).
The Tao, as the source and substance of this totality, defies efforts to define or name it, hence the opening of the Tao Te Ching (6):
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things. 
This unnameable whole is, in Alan Watts’ description: “the ultimate reality and energy of the universe, the Ground of being and nonbeing” (7).
Or, as Cleary writes, adding an element of human agency: “In its most encompassing senses, the Way means the way things are, the source of this natural order, and methods of harmonizing with the vital spirit of the Way” (Cleary 101).
Its manifestations—the tangible ten thousand things—exist and cease to exist within its context. Like the human mind, this context is not a concept or a place, but a process that unfolds as change.
The change of the Tao is continuous and creative. Lao-tzu calls it “the woman, the primal mother” . For him, it “has to do with production, reproduction, transformation, with continuous, evolving, wonder-ful creation” (8).
Everything in the universe reflects and comprises its patterns—including the body with its plastic brain.
As the Chuang-tzu declares: “If we are delighted even to be in a human form alone, insofar as the human form changes in myriad ways, without ever an end, the enjoyment therein must be incalculable” (Cleary 89). Here at least, transformation is not simply accepted but celebrated.
As a way to “generalize” the process of change in the universal macrocosm and human microcosm, Taoism uses the concepts of wu ji (无极), tai ji (太极) and yin-yang (阴阳) (9).
Wu ji is symbolized by a simple, empty circle representing the Tao’s original, undifferentiated nature. It is a bounded simulacrum of an unnameable, unbounded process.
From this circle emerges all movement—all life—as the tai ji symbol takes form. A curved longitudinal axis divides the circle into light and dark. One side is yang, the other yin. Each contains the seed of its opposite.
Within the parameters of this now differentiated whole, change occurs in relationship. Yin and yang are opposite yet complementary aspects within a single sphere.
Arising from the same source, they move in dynamic rhythm—intertwined and inter-transforming.
Any notion of dualism is illusory: one aspect cannot exist without the other and indeed, is always in the process of becoming the other.
The parts of a thing, or moments in a supposed sequence, can only exist in relation to the whole.
In the words of Lao-tzu:
The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces. 
The Chuang-tzu likewise makes numerous references to yin-yang polarity, while the I Ching presents different “permutations and combinations…in terms of the sixty-four hexagrams of yin [broken] and yang [unbroken] lines” (10).
All three works reflect the premise that the Tao (the “one”) gives rise to yin-yang (the “two”), through whose interactions creation and change emerge.
As Greg Johanson and Ron Kurtz write in their guide to Taoism-inspired psychotherapy: “The continuous arising of the opposite of one thing to balance another, which balance generates a new third reality, is the basis for the constancy of change in life” (25).
For Taoists, such depictions are mere representations, able to evoke the Tao but not embody it.
Conceptual abstractions of that which defies conceptualization, they risk missing the point.
Taoist texts celebrate the simple, the accessible, the useful. They thus look to the natural world as a felt, grounded guide.
In this spirit, both the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu adopt water as a “principle metaphor,” its currents mirroring “the course, the flow, the drift, or the process of nature” (Watts 41).
To excerpt passages from Lao-tzu:
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. 
Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know where to stop.
Knowing where to stop averts trouble.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea. 
The Tao, reflected in flowing water, is always moving, always changing.
It offers a reminder of continuous transformation in our world and ourselves. It likewise offers a model for riding and guiding transformation’s currents.
Lao-tzu recommended that we “emulate the Tao” by “using the potent metaphor of the flowing patterns of water in everyday life” (Watts 6).
Modern works illustrate how this might look in therapeutic contexts. Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang, for instance, in Working Out, Working Within: The Tao of Inner Fitness Through Sports and Exercise, weave it into their guidance for cultivating strong, responsive body-minds.
As they emphasize throughout, the Tao “continues to remind us how the most flexible parts of the world overcome the most rigid” (11).
Highlighting the value of this approach in channelling and expanding our innate capacity for change, they state: “The Tao teaches you to be flexible with beliefs, as rigidity will block your growth. Fixed mind-sets…obscure the unlimited boundaries of your potential” (12).
In our next installment in this series, we’ll explore how this looks within the context of Chinese Medicine. Building on Parts 2 and 3, Part 4 will discuss the benefits of merging modern findings and ancient insights in clinical practice.
Here, they offer a more complete way of framing problems and possibilities and another approach for influencing treatment outcomes. One Chinese Medicine modality, acupuncture, will serve as an example.
1. Thomas Cleary, The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Vol. 1-3 (Shambhala Publications, 2003), 101. Citations of Cleary here are from this work.
2. Burton Watson, in his introduction to Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Tao Te Ching (Shambhala Publications, 2007), xxiv.
3. Watson says these two works probably originated in the 4th or 3rd century B.C.E. (xxv). Alan Watts, in Tao: The Watercourse Way (Pantheon Books, 1975), says they probably originated in the 5th or 4th century (xiv). Meanwhile, The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, dates the Tao Te Ching to around 500 B.C.E. and the Chuang-tzu to around 300 B.C.E. (4). Their authorship is likewise uncertain, with many scholars regarding Lao-tzu as a “purely legendary figure” (Watson xxvi), although Watts does not rule out his existence (xxiv). According to Cleary, the philosopher Chuang-tzu wrote the seven core, “inner chapters” of his text, while the remaining chapters are by various authors believed to be his followers (5).
4. Watson, xxviii.
5. Ted Kaptchuk, in The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine (McGraw-Hill, 2000), offers a poetic survey of traditional Chinese Medicine theory and practice (298). Here, he is describing Chinese Medicine generally rather than Taoism per se. This notwithstanding, his rendering reflects the “Taoist spirit” within Chinese Medicine (304).
6. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Tao Te Ching or attributed to Lao-tzu are from the translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (Vintage Books, 1972). The chapter number follows in brackets.
7. Alan Watts, with Al Chung-liang Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way (Pantheon Books, 1975), 40. Citations of Watts here are from this work.
8. Greg Johanson and Ronald S. Kurtz, Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te Ching (Bell Tower, 1991), 25.
9. Wen-Ching Wu and Shou-Yu Liang, Qigong Empowerment: A Guide to Medical, Taoist, Buddhist and Wushu Energy Cultivation (Way of the Dragon Publishing, 1997), 89.
10. Watts speculates that the I Ching (Book of Change) was part of oral folk tradition of “indeterminable antiquity” but “as a specific text” did not influence Taoism until after Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. He nonetheless underscores this “common element” in the rationale of the I Ching and early Taoist philosophy (27). Given the focus here, on a plastic, changing brain, the I Ching warrants at least passing mention.
11. Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang, Working Out, Working Within: The Tao of Inner Fitness Through Sports and Exercise (Putnam, 1998), 65.
12. Ibid, 12.