A Constitution for a Democracy of Consciousness

In this blog, I advocate trying to achieve what I call a “democracy of consciousness,” where all your inner voices, values and feelings get a fair hearing in your conscious attention.  For most of us, the values we pick up from our family, peers and society over the years tend to censor this inner democracy, and it takes a sustained conscious effort, with lots of practice, to allow your inner voices the hearing they really want.  It can also be an emotionally challenging experience.  Some of those voices may have painful emotions attached to them, and other voices may be in conflict with each other.

I’ve recently been working on my own democracy of consciousness, and as I’ve done so, I’ve been coming up with what you might call a “constitution” for that democracy.  As with a country’s constitution, the rationale for a constitution is not to take sides in the democracy, but to establish the fundamental ground rules for how the democracy should be implemented.  What are the bedrock principles on which everything else should stand and move?

The following is my own “constitution” that I’ve been developing.  They go deep into the heart and soul of our human experience, and it’s in that place, deep in the experience of your mind/body that they will make the most sense.  It’s a work in progress, but so far it’s been helping me a lot, and I hope it may do the same for you.

CONSTITUTION FOR A DEMOCRACY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
You are what you intend to be.
There is no such thing as success or failure.  There is only experience.
Intention flavors experience.
Intention allows you to love yourself.
In a democracy of consciousness, you are always the victor.
————————–
Loving yourself is loving everything.
Love integrates.  Kindness lubricates.
Lovingkindness is love in kindness.
—————————
Listening to the body is wisdom.
When barriers go, energy flows.
The more energy you spend, the more you have.
The two constituents of life are energy and love.
There is no social status, only energy flows or blockages.
————————–
Transcending the self is becoming immanent in the universe.
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I give thanks…

I give thanks to the trees, the sun, the trails, the wind, for being there.

I give thanks to my lungs for breathing me.

I give thanks to Pete Townsend for Baba O’Riley.

To Keith Moon for drumming me.

To Roger Daltrey for singing to me:

“I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right.

I don’t need to be forgiven…”

I give thanks to William Blake for telling me

“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

I give thanks to my mind for carrying me along in its currents.

I give thanks to my li for sustaining me.

Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing,
This is superior.
From not knowing to knowing,
This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te.
When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity).
When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness).
When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.


[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

[3] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II. London: Cambridge University Press.

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.  It should be noted that another part of the pfc, called the fronto-polar cortex, was active during the improvisation.  This area is thought to be related to integrative functions, and is distinct from the “effortful” planning functions of the lateral pfc described in the post.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.

Re-weaving the Rainbow

As the scientific revolution took hold in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people were horrified by what seemed to be the destruction of the Nature’s spirit at the hands of mechanical forces.  The Romantic poet, John Keats, memorably wrote in his poem “Lamina”:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy? …

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…

Unweave a rainbow.[1]

Does the scientific method unweave the beauty of the rainbow?

Since then, we’ve had two hundred more years of unweaving.  Laws of nature have been formulated and reformulated.  Mysteries of nature have given up their secrets.  And the split between the scientific and the spiritual view of the universe has become a chasm.  A poignant modern expression of this can be seen in an Amazon review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, a book that posits a reductionist view of evolution where each of us is seen to exist for no reason other than to act as replication vehicles for our genes:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper – trying to believe, but not quite being able to – I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further.  This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.[2]

This blog, Finding the Li, will explore ways in which that beautiful rainbow of Nature’s mystery can be rewoven by a confluence of science and spirituality.  My underlying proposition is that there is no necessary disconnect between the two.  There are, no doubt, scientific belief systems that are incompatible with the search for meaning; and there are spiritual belief systems incompatible with scientific rigor.  These are all grist for the Science vs. Theology debate that has endured for too long, trotting out old truisms in new clothing.

My interest in this blog is, instead, to explore the ways in which rigorous science can expand its project to access the mysteries of nature, and to engage the perspectives offered by some of the world’s great spiritual traditions that remain compatible with the findings of science.  My hope is that, in this exploration, people like the reviewer of Dawkins’ book may find “something deeper” while remaining committed to the intellectual rigor of the scientific method.

There’s a companion blog to this one, called Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, which is dedicated to analyzing how the uniquely human capabilities of the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – our ability to create abstractions, symbols, value systems, and to live by them – have created an imbalance in our human consciousness, which I’ve characterized as a “tyranny”.  While that blog diagnoses what’s happened to our society and our collective consciousness, this blog explores ways to potentially remedy this imbalance, and move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”

One way to think about what this means is to consider the difference between the notions of “control” and “coordination.”  Traditional approaches in our Western culture view the role of the pfc-mediated part of our being – variously referred to through our history as the “soul,” “reason,” or “will” – as one of control.  The pfc’s faculties are meant to control the demands of our bodies and emotions, and by doing so, enable us to transcend to a higher spiritual or intellectual plane.  However, to the extent that our living beings are viewed as complex, self-organized systems, then the role of the pfc can begin to be seen instead as one of coordination.

In a 2004 paper, systems biologist Mihajilo Mesarovic and colleagues write about the difference between control and coordination:

There is a critical distinction between control and coordination.  Control is ‘dictating what is to be done’.  Coordination is providing ‘motivation’ for the controllers (regulators, modules, subsystems) to act so as to advance the overall system’s objective while the subsystems are performing their own functions, modified by coordination…

In a multilevel, hierarchical system… the task of the higher-level regulators is not to control but to coordinate, i.e. harmonise the functions of the first level regulators under changing conditions.[3]

Mesarovic et. al. are discussing complex biological systems in general.  My proposal is that we humans are complex biological systems par excellence, but that in our Western culture, we’ve learned to view our pfc’s function as controlling rather than coordinating this system.  When I describe moving towards a “democracy of consciousness,” I’m talking about learning how to devolve power back to those other aspects of our being, and develop our pfc’s faculties for coordination rather than control.

Does the conductor coordinate or control the orchestra?

One of my favorite metaphors on this subject is that of music.  I’m going to propose in this blog that music offers a more powerful metaphor for how our minds really work than the common cliché of “brain as computer”.  Think of the conductor of an orchestra… what’s he doing?  Controlling or coordinating?  Or a mixture of both?  How does an improvisational jazz band keep it together?  Who’s in charge?

It might not seem like a big change, but this shift in our awareness that I’m proposing involves a fundamental restructuring of our sense of ourselves and our values.  And, ultimately, I believe this is what’s necessary if our global society is going to truly resolve the great imbalances of today’s world, manifested in global climate change and the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years.

Here are some of the topics this blog will touch on, all of them interrelated.  I’ll add links to the topics below as I publish posts on each particular subject:

  • How current approaches to self-organization add to our understanding of evolution, challenging the old reductionist “modern synthesis” developed in the early 20th century.
  • How Chinese traditions of the Tao and Neo-Confucianism can help illuminate modern theories of self-organization and evolution (this is where we’ll come across the “li” in the title of this blog)
  • How Buddhist approaches to consciousness can help us transcend the pfc’s metaphor of the self.
  • How neuroscience sheds light on the power of meditation to help us towards a democracy of consciousness.
  • How “animate intelligence” contrasts with our more conventional understanding of “conceptual” intelligence.
  • How we can reharmonize our own animate and conceptual consciousness, and in doing so, play our part in re-balancing the human impact on the environment.
  • How all these findings can lead to a new set of global values for the 21st century.

Enjoy the journey!  And please share your comments whenever you feel you have something to say.


[1] Quoted by Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.

[2] Cited by Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, p. xiii

[3] Mesarovic, M. D., Sreenath, S. N., and Keene, J. D. (2004). “Search for organising principles: understanding in systems biology.” Systems Biology, 1(June 2004), 19-27.