Part 1 – Parallels & Possibilities
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
The brain is an enchanted place. One seemingly essential to “self” yet otherworldly in its invisible, enigmatic workings.
Seeking to expose its secrets and mysteries, the shapers of last century’s biomedical brain paradigm set out to organize them with fixed lines and segmented spaces.
They imagined a static, standardized, separate brain—one that was unchanging, distinct from the larger body-mind ecology and divisible into sharply defined parts with clearly defined functions.
But with the amassment of data over recent decades, a new neuroscience paradigm emerged. Visionary neuroscientists questioned—and pushed beyond—imagined lines and stagnant metaphors.
Using increasingly sophisticated brain imaging technologies, they proved that our brains are always changing. They are, in effect, plastic throughout the course of our lives.
Such “neuroplasticity” characterizes both brain structure and function. These exist in dynamic, responsive relationship with each other, the whole body-mind and our surroundings.
More than just an updated abstraction, this revolutionary insight into the mind’s mysteries is guiding efforts to deliberately and effectively shape ourselves and others.
Neuroscientists and health practitioners are leveraging our deepening intimacy with how the brain works to design therapeutic approaches capable of influencing physical and mental-emotional patterns as well as cognitive ability, motor skills and sensory sensitivity.
The emergent neuroplasticity paradigm, while still more cutting-edge than mainstream, is expanding healing and wellness possibilities.
And yet, the essential insights of this paradigm are not new.
Awareness of an ever-changing, responsive, embodied mind has existed since ancient times, interwoven within myriad philosophies and practices long before the emergence of biomedicine or neuroscience.
Taoism—which had its own momentous impact on healing and wellness through its influence on Chinese Medicine—is one such philosophy and practice.
As Alan Watts says in Tao: The Watercourse Way: “Certain Chinese philosophers writing in, perhaps, the fifth and fourth centuries [B.C.E.] explained ideas and a way of life that have come to be known as Taoism—the way of man’s cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world, whose principles we discover in the flow patterns of water, gas, and fire (xiv).”
The mind, as part of this flow, is holistic, interconnected and responsive. It is continuously transforming, exists in relationship and is, in short, plastic within the transactional, cyclical intelligence of the universe.
A comprehensive survey of neuroplasticity discoveries, Taoist texts and the vast potential for synthesis and synergy between them would be a colossal undertaking.
The objective of this blog series is more modest: to engage in practice-minded exploration of these ideas and, in so doing, contribute to an ongoing conversation (1).
Illuminating the contours of the emergent neuroscience paradigm and evoking foundational tenets from the centuries-old wisdom of Taoism (2), it offers an entry point for further reflection, investigation and application.
The hope is that this will support insightful, effective healing practices and partnerships. Ultimately, this hope hinges on influencing the relationship—the qi (气)—between patient and practitioner.
For both, bringing awareness to the new neuroplasticity paradigm and its parallels in Taoist medicine and philosophy is aimed at shifting perspective and practice.
This then expands possibilities for healing—whether directly, by using neuroscience discoveries and techniques to optimize the effectiveness of Chinese Medicine treatment, or indirectly, by harnessing the (now evidence-based) power of intention, expectation and belief.
With this practice- and partnership-based aspiration in mind, this series is an exploration of places where science merges with art and evidence with imagination. Such places are rich with clinical insight and promise.
The resulting alchemy is all the more powerful because the “merging” poles are in truth part of one, indivisible whole.
Neuroscience discoveries and applications, considered within the sphere of Taoism-inspired Chinese Medicine practice, can enrich and guide the healing partnership between patient and practitioner.
Taoist principles, in turn, offer a more expansive, “felt” context for emerging understandings of our brains, our minds and ourselves.
In the end, this partnership—between science and art, neuroplasticity and Taoism, and patient and practitioner—comes down to one premise.
Everything—and every “self”—is always changing. This change takes place in relationship and unfolds as process.
These then—change, relationship and process—serve as three focal points in a continuing conversation and this Alchemist Clinic series.
Addressing each in turn, we’ll offer an overview of core concepts at the leading edge of neuroplasticity research, practice and knowledge.
We will then segue into discussion of parallel concepts in Taoism, pointing to areas of overlap, resonance and synergy.
Finally, each part of the series will explore how the merger of edgy science and ancient wisdom might inform and enrich Taoism-inspired Chinese Medicine practice, shifting from abstraction to application.
The first focal point, “Change,” will serve as an opening to the still-emerging neuroscience paradigm, highlighting new discoveries about the brain’s flexible form and function and introducing the “embodied” mind.
It will relate these ideas to Taoist perspectives on transformation within the context of the whole, touching on the concepts of wu ji (无极), tai ji (太极), yin–yang (阴阳) and water-as-metaphor within the context of an ever-changing body-mind-spirit.
It will also discuss the benefits of merging modern findings and ancient insights within clinical practice. Here, they offer a more complete way of framing problems and possibilities and another approach for influencing treatment outcomes.
The second focal point, “Relationship,” will narrow the lens to the transactional context in which change—and treatment—occurs.
From the neuroscience angle, it will present new understandings about the interplay between genetics and environment. Within this framework, it will address the science of therapeutic exchange, hope and expectation.
It will also explore Taoist perspectives on “pre- and post-heaven” influences and interfacing with others and our world. Looking at concepts such as qi as well as principles for guiding and shaping transformation, it will investigate implications for the patient-practitioner relationship.
The third focal point, “Process,” will situate change and relationship in time, emphasizing the continuous, cyclical nature of transaction and transformation.
From neuroscience, it will highlight new theories about the nature of consciousness and efforts to shift patterns and change the brain.
Then, from Taoism, it will look at de (德) and zi ran (自然) as qualities that support balance and wellness, situating them within a cyclical view of life and the universe.
Finally, it will place these cycles within a wider, inclusive context—locating the process of transaction, transformation and movement inside the sphere of a steady, still whole. Returning to a place of responsive acceptance. A place of wu wei (无为).
This sphere encircles the process of relational change but does not “contain” it. Rather than fixed lines and limitations, it offers spaciousness and possibilities.
In this, it aspires toward an inclusive yet unbounded approach to Chinese Medicine practice.
One that integrates new discoveries and ancient understandings, connecting the science of a plastic mind to the wisdom of the “Watercourse Way.”
1. This Alchemist Clinic blog series is a bit different than our previous posts in that it doesn’t try quite so hard to simplify complex concepts. We decided to run it anyway…but welcome dialog and questions. The series will unfold in three main sections, or focal points: Change, Relationship and Process. Today’s post serves as an introduction and overview. For the concluding post, with links to all 11 parts in the series, go here.
2. Taoism, across history and in present practice, encompasses a host of approaches broadly classified as either “religious” or “philosophical.” Although strict distinction between these two is a simplification, this series is based on Taoism in the so-called philosophical sense. It focuses on key underlying principles as articulated in modern translations, interpretations and applications of Taoism’s foundational texts (most notably, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-tzu, and the Chuang-tzu, attributed to Chuang Chou). The emphasis here is on keeping things simple and staying close to the core, rather than getting lost in the details. This notwithstanding, the wider canon of Taoist literature and practice—including that classified as “religious” as well as more esoteric practices—is rich with possibilities for further exploration in view of the neuroplasticity paradigm. For a synopsis of the historical development of Taoism, see Paul U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (University of California Press, 1985), 110. For an extensive collection of Taoist classics in translation, see The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Vol. 1–3 (Shambhala Publications, 2003).