Part 6 – Relationship Plus Resonance: Self in Concert
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
This is Part 6 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.
For an introduction and overview, see Part 1 – Parallels & Possibilities. For the three installments on Change, see Part 2 – On the Edge: Introducing Neuroplasticity, Part 3 – On the Path: Introducing Taoism and Part 4 – Past Meets Present: Plasticity in Practice.
For the first installment on Relationship, see Part 5 – Nature Plus Nurture: Mind in Context. Today, in the second Relationship installment, we will explore how Taoism aligns with the neuroplasticity paradigm in seeing “self” as a meeting of genetics and environment, of nature and nurture.
Long before the emergence of epigenetics, Taoist philosophers espoused a “transactional view of the world” (1).
This view encompasses relationship between individuals as well as between self and universe. It recognizes the merger and continuous interplay between heaven, human and earth—a dance finding expression in every aspect of body-mind.
In the words of Lao-tzu (2):
All things arise from Tao.
They are nourished by Virtue.
They are formed from matter.
They are shaped by environment. 
Like the neuroplasticity paradigm, Taoism sees “self” as a meeting of genetics and environment, of heaven and earth (or “pre- and post-heaven” influences).
The mind is not only embodied, but relational. It exists in concert.
This transactional existence is one of movement and transformation, aligning with the new science of a plastic brain. Alan Watts, seeking to render the Taoist perspective in metaphor, offers the following:
“The seed grows into the plant by an expansion from within… Certainly, [it] is gathering nourishment from the environment, but the process is no mere sticking together of nutritive elements, for it absorbs and transforms them…” (Watts 50)
This process of being and becoming is not haphazard, but rather, follows the cycling of yin-yang within the parameters of the whole.
Everything in the universe, including body-mind, mutually arises. And everything mutually defines—indeed creates—everything else.
In Watts’ words: “As the universe produces our consciousness, our consciousness evokes the universe” (Watts 53).
This occurs as movement, as change. As a continuous unfolding in accordance with the “organic order” or patterning of the world.
Like neuroplasticity, Taoism presents the body-mind as an active participant in this process.
Greg Johanson and Ronald Kurtz, in Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te Ching, capture the concept as follows:
“The wisdom is within. It is not run by authority from without. It takes whatever comes to it from without and processes it in complex ways before it decides what is experienced and how it will express itself in response. The amount of energy it has is of less importance than how information is processed to use that energy. A human mind can organize a small amount of energy to accomplish incredible feats…” (3)
Within Chinese Medicine, shen (神) and jing (精) offer one way to conceptualize such indivisibility of “pre- and post-heaven” influences and agency (4).
Shen, in a universal sense, refers to the configurative force—that which causes anything to take form. Narrowing the focus, we arrive at its broad meaning: the life force, or “spark of life,” within each individual. Looking closer still, we find ourselves back at the embodied, relational mind.
Meanwhile, jing, at its most universal, represents undetermined structive potential—that which shen acts upon, causing it to take form. From a biogenetic angle, it includes our DNA blueprint, passed down through the generations and finding expression within an individual body-mind.
This place of merger—of connection—between heaven and earth, jing and shen, self and world—is the stuff of relationship, of qi.
Efforts to define qi, to cage it in concept, are like attempts to describe Tao or locate mind. It is an exercise in assigning names to the unnameable. An attempt to intellectualize what can only be intuited and experienced.
But qi, like mind, is the crux of being and becoming.
In Taoism (and Chinese Medicine), it is the impetus for transformation and the transformation itself. It is this thing, that thing and the relationship between them (5).
Akin to “information” in modern information theory and “elementary particles” in quantum physics, it spans the continuum between energy and matter (6).
It makes change—including plasticity of brain and universe—possible. It comprises the connections and the connecting of an embodied, relational mind existing amid all that was, is and will be.
Taoism, while embracing the mystery—and the qi—behind life’s manifestations, does not become mired in abstractions.
It returns again to the assessable, the useful.
Within the context of daily existence unfolding as transactional change, it offers advice on finding balance and helping others to do the same.
In Taoist texts, the sage relationship between teacher and student, or ruler and ruled, is one of suppleness and subtlety.
In helping others find a balanced place, where transformations of body-mind align with natural cycling and patterning, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu advise doing enough but not too much.
They point to the power of modeling rather than controlling, guiding rather than directing, being wholly present rather than asserting forceful presence.
As stated in the Tao Te Ching:
Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
Can you avoid separation?
Attending fully and being supple,
Can you be as a newborn babe?
Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
Can you be without stain?
Loving all men and ruling the country,
Can you be without cleverness?
Opening and closing the gates of heaven,
Can you play the role of woman?
Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?
Giving birth and nourishing,
Bearing yet not possessing,
Working yet not taking credit,
Leading yet not dominating,
This is the Primal Virtue. 
Taoism also embraces the creative, expansive nature of our innate flexibility.
Recognizing its power to prevail over rigidity, it urges cultivation of plasticity’s promise while skirting its pitfalls.
For existing in concert with others, it counsels balancing between softness and hardness, yielding while remaining responsive, and seeking equanimity within impermanence.
In the words of Lao-tzu:
The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.
Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change. 
So we see embrace of change without craving it—recognition that there is no need for external seeking because so much possibility is already present within the “uncarved block” of our brains and ourselves.
Part 7, the final installment on Relationship, will draw connections between these ancient principles and modern understandings of neuroplasticity and epigenetics, investigating implications for therapeutic exchange and connection.
1. Alan Watts, with Al Chung-liang Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way (Pantheon Books, 1975), 50. Citations of Watts here are from this work.
2. 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.
3. Greg Johanson and Ronald S. Kurtz, Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te Ching (Bell Tower, 1991), 69.
4. The definitions of shen and jing here are from course lectures by Dr. Warren Fischer at the Academy of Classical Oriental Sciences (ACOS) in Nelson, British Columbia.
5. Again, this definition is from Dr. Fischer.
6. For an exploration of the parallels between the concept of qi in traditional Chinese Medicine literature and modern information theory, see Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, by Yoshio Manaka, with Kazuko Itaya and Stephen Birch (Paradigm Publications, 1995).