Systems and Selves of the Chinese and the West

22nd October, 2021   ·   ~15 minutes


What does the model of the body in Chinese philosophy, medicine and religion suggest about the nature of the mind and consciousness? Is there a meaningful separation between mind and body, and, for that matter, the surrounding environment, or not? What does this say about personhood, or notions of the self? Using relevant passages from our readings and other reputable sources, begin a discussion of this subject.

This was the midterm paper for my class Tai Chi, Qigong, and Traditions of Energy Cultivation in China. See my learning thread on twitter here.

Pretty much immediately after the completion of the essay, we read some more material that overturned some of the conclusions (of the first two sections) that I had reached in that the intertwined-ness, and even transcendental aspects go even deeper than what I had seen.

That said, I think my description of the Chinese model still holds well as a high-level understanding, and that the connections I drew are still a nice additional layer of comparison. How I analysed the self in relation to the Dao in the third section (which is my favourite section) still stands on its own and, as of the time of this edit, doesn’t need much revision.

However, I have yet to receive feedback from the professor, so I most likely missed a lot of things, even on my own grounds. I’ll update this preamble accordingly.

Systems and Selves of the Chinese and the West

What picture of the self and mind arise from the models presented in Chinese philosophy and medicine, and how might that provide a different angle compared to typical modern Western conceptions? After laying out a version of the Chinese model, I discuss three aspects to consider this question. One: with how interconnected and interrelated everything is, does it even make sense to have such a clean internal (self) / external (environment) distinction? Two: what does the relationship between the mind and the body tell us about the self? And three: what do the mystical accounts of inner cultivation suggest about the role of the self? From the first two views, I argue that the typical Western sense of the self still broadly holds — the mechanics are swapped out, but, with some adjustments, we can still move about our day-to-day free from existential groundlessness. In that second view, I relate a few modern Western ideas that are resonant with the functional explanations of the Chinese models. However, this radically changes as we consider the mystical potentials. What the self ought to be and serve as, as well as what the ‘self’ is capable of, veer beyond the the boundaries of the typical Western model. I argue there that the ego self has become irrelevant, and the ‘Dao system’ is what now produces the actions.

Fig 1: Chinese model.

As a rough overview, what the Chinese models provide is a different way of understanding what composes the systems of the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ worlds, how those systems function, and how those systems relate to one another both within themselves, as well as between the two ‘realms’. What the models reveal is a tightly integrated ‘internal’ system of mind + body, which are heavily and directly influenced by a multitude of ‘external’ forces, forces which run by the same, coherent laws that the internal system operates under.

Fig 2: Western model.

Crudely, one Western version of how the self might be viewed is the sense of it as an autonomous, singular 'thing' that has control over itself, and that stands in contrast to the external world. A functional explanation would be that the seat of the self is in the mind, which controls the material stuff of the body (which is an appendage to the mind), which then moves around in this external world that is governed by a host different kinds of systems that don't relate to one another in the way that the Chinese models This is a folk dualistic model of the self. I think that despite us now being dominated by materialist assumptions, many in the West still intuitively hold a dualistic view. The mind, which is its own system, controls the body, which runs by a separate system. The mind interacts with the body through will, but how the mind is doing psychologically (whether emotionally or morally) doesn't have direct physical influences on the I mean this moreso in the sense of things like we don't get sick from being angry all the time. Likewise, how the body's doing (e.g through the food it consumes) doesn't have direct impacts on the mind. These two systems are also different from the various systems of the external world. The explanations of how and why the external world impacts the mind + body the way it does, is separate from how the external world functions within itself. For example, how well a nation is socially doing isn't really related to why there weren't that many natural disasters, both of which aren't connected to how the seasons work.

The Chinese models (and also emerging Western models) point to a much more interconnected cosmos.

From the Dao comes qi (the "material and tangible aspect of the Livia Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 2, and from qi, there forms the 10,000 From Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 12: "In ancient China, philosophers believed that qi was the fundamental substance that made up everything in the world and that all things came into being through the movement and flux of qi." The 10,000 things all spring from the same source (and so works with the same ‘primitive’ of qi, if you’ll allow me a programming metaphor), and all ‘speak’ the same ‘language’ of yin/yang and the five phases. This is why the ‘external’ has such a tight influence on the ‘internal’ (and why some believe that the ‘internal’ has direct effects on the ‘external’ — I’ll discuss this in the third section).

The two layered theories of the yin/yang and five phases classifies phenomena (things / processes / states / characteristics / patterns From Ping-Chung Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine Second edition (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2016), 38: "The elements were seen as symbolising patterns of motion, characteristics or states of phenomena or kinds of processes, and it was believed that all things came into being because of the motion and change of these five elements." into their respective categories, and then describes how the categories relate to / interact with one another, whether through transformation or generation or restraint and so on.

Qi is connected to those two theories through two aspects. From one, the flow of qi (classified by kinds of yin/yang) is directly systematised into the five phases, which describes how and in what order the qi transforms and produces Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 4. From another, the five phases describes how the body (organs, and thus emotions) works with qi, which is important since not only is qi what "flows through and animates all the different systems of the human Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 4. qi's "quality and movement determine human Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 3.

On the levels of both the individual, internal system as well as all the layers of external systems, how harmoniously the qi flows (i.e how in line it is with the proper order and amounts of the five phases and the yin/yang) determines whether the qi is 'zhengqi' or 'xieqi'. Zhengqi manifests through "regular weather patterns and the absence of disasters, and as health in society, the peaceful coexistence among families, clans, villages, and Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 4. Conversely, xieqi is

... disorderly and dysfunctional, and creates change that violates the normal order. When it becomes dominant, the qi-flow can turn upon itself and deplete the body’s resources. Thus, any sick person, decimated forest, or intrusive construction no longer operates as part of a universal system and is not in tune with the basic life Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 4.

The idea that there is this universal order by which everything, at all levels, operate by, and can be in or out of harmony with, is further reinforced by the explicit correspondence of all kinds of (to Western eyes, wildly disparate) phenomena with the five phases:

Source: Compiled from Kohn and Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 4; Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 40.

This points to what Leung calls the “ideology of holisim”, where we see people as smaller universes (microcosms) embedded within a greater, surrounding universe ( Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 30.

To highlight the level of the individual, those bodily aspects of organs and the ‘mind’ parts of emotions (and even virtues!) are directly interdependent on and co-influence one another:

In Chinese medicine, the mind, emotions and body are not seen as separate but as a continuum. A person’s emotional and mental states are seen as having a significant impact on the body and vice versa ... If a person is excessively angry, for example, this can injure the liver (and if there is dysfunction in the liver, conversely, this can impact on the emotional state and manifest as irritability or Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 31.

As we widen in scope, external factors, "in addition to other individual factors such as gender, age and Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 31. are also a big consideration for how the 'internal system' is functioning: "Treatment takes into account many environmental factors including geographic, climatic, seasonal and environmental (for example, air-conditioned Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 31.

What does all this tell us about how the 'self' (the internal I'm hand-waving here and doing a rough equating of the self with the internal system, although it's of course much more nebulous and contested than that.

The first way to consider this question is through this other question: with how interconnected and interrelated everything is, does it even make sense to have such a clean internal/external distinction? Based on what has been covered so far, I would argue yes — our modern, commonsensical idea of the self as a discrete, bounded 'thing' which centers agency and is meaningfully 'apart' from the 'external' world still holds. There are still references to interior and exterior diseases (which are distinct types of Leung, A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine, 62. long-life methods being Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 68. and ideas of taking fate into our own hands to align with the laws of Paul U. Unschuld, Traditional Chinese Medicine : Heritage and Adaptation, trans. Bridie J. Andrews (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2019), 38-39. The practices and even the theories surrounding e.g emotions assume that there is still a separate ‘self’ that can act on these practices, and act in moderation and control with regards to emotions and thoughts. When things get out of balance and continue to stay out of balance, I believe that this is the result of the willful self directing its actions in a non-harmonious way.

Even with the ideas of housing spirits in our Zhang Qicheng and Wang Jing, “Embodying Animal Spirits in the Vital Organs: Daoist Alchemy in Chinese Medicine.” In Imagining Chinese Medicine, edited by David Dear, Vivienne Lo, Penelope Barrett, Lu Di, Lois Reynolds, and Dolly Yang, 18:389–96, (Brill, 2018), I see them as yet another part of us that does things to us outside of our conscious control, and whom we’re responsible for taking care of. I would draw the comparison to how we shouldn’t drink too much to take care of our liver, or how we have all these autonomous cells that act ‘on their own’ without our conscious control, and yet are still ‘part of us’ in many ways.

Some concepts surrounding death and souls also point to an individual soul that can continue to cultivate qi, that can sue people from the grave, that we appease with worldly things (food, drink, incense), and that we have to set up legal contracts for, for new Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 35. In the same text, it does talk about there being two spirit aspects (and after writing this essay, I learnt that some thought that there were even more than two), one of which immediately returns to Heaven as 'shen'. Since that section didn't have any further description as to what that aspect of shen does and how it influences worldy matters, I unfortunately can't integrate it into the discussion. On top of that, I'm not sure how those two spirit aspects impact the person while they're still living. For the West, our Christian heritage, with some modifications, can intuitively make sense of this too.

The second way of considering the question of the self is the relationship between the mind and the body. Here, the Chinese model rejects that Western one. Instead, the mind and the body are part of one integrated system with strong influences running both ways.

I think the modern Western world is slowly developing some intuitions and understanding surrounding this. For instance, nowadays there's the prevalent advice of maintaining good 'sleep, diet and exercise' for not only physical but also mental health. While many are still surprised that these seemingly simple and disconnected-from-mind activities can have such an influence on our emotions, the idea is gaining ground. Feminists have battled for a more 'embodied' way of understanding the self for quite a while Minna Salami, "Identity Erotics" in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity, ed. Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal, (Perspectiva Press, 2021). and potent psychotherapeutic frameworks like the bio-emotive See and the ideas in van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score all point to how emotions (and trauma) manifest in very physical ways, and how working on our psychological health can have direct physical impacts.

Academically, the most recent wave of cognitive science, termed 4E cognitive science, grounds our mind in our body and our environment too. The 4Es are: embodied, embedded, enacted, This information is taken from a few episodes of "Awakening From the Meaning Crisis". Youtube video, posted by "John Vervaeke", 2019, It's an astoundingly good lecture series (50 episodes at 1 hour each) and has a fountain of profound ideas throughout. For a synoptic overview, I recommend this 2 hour interview:

Briefly, embodied points out that there’s a deep continuity between our most abstract, cognitive abilities and our most embodied, sensorimotor actions. Our body is what makes our cognition possible, and the way the body continually evolves to be ‘fitted’ to its (physical and social/cultural) environment involves constraining and guiding our minds. In a simpler way, the state that our bodies are in has direct consequences on the state of our minds (and cognitive processes). Biological ‘fittedness’ isn’t just a property of the creature, but a relationship between the creature and its environment, i.e how it’s embedded within it. How our minds and bodies are shaped is inseparable from the environments we dwell in. How our minds and bodies are enacted actively shape how we ‘bring the world’ into our cognition — observation isn’t a passive act. Extended refers to how we're natural-born See Andy Clark's book Natural-Born Cyborgs (2003) where (for example) we can 'feel' the edge of the The argument goes beyond that to things like the content in notebooks and usage of pens becoming part of our cognition too.

What 4E cog sci argues for is that our minds are inseparably codetermined by our bodies, and how both are shaped is dependent on the environments we're in, and in fact our minds could extend to include the external to operate within our Some great complication and discussion can be had through relating this last part on extension to the Chinese models, but I've already written too much.

What the ‘environment’ is from a more recent but unfortunately niche, Western perspective can be filled in by theories such as those from Kurt Lewin and his “psychological ecology”, where to understand behaviour, we have to first study ”[the] 'nonpsychological' data to find out what these data mean for determining the boundary conditions of the life of the individual or Kurt Lewin, "Psychological Ecology" in People, place and space: A reader, ed. Jen Jack Gieseking, William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert, (New York: Routledge, 2014), 17. He gives an example of such nonpsychological data through food habits:

Food habits do not occur in empty space. They are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of being awake and asleep; of being alone and in a group; of earning a living and playing; of being a member of a town, a family, a social class, a religious group, a nation; of living in a hot or a cool climate; in a rural area or a city, in a district with good groceries and restaurants or in an area of poor and irregular food supply … Neither group “habits” nor individual “habits” can be understood sufficiently by a theory which limits its consideration to the processes themselves and conceives of the “habit” as a kind of frozen linkage, an “association” between these processes. Instead, habits will have to be conceived of as a result of forces in the organism and its life space, in the group and its Kurt Lewin, Psychological Ecology, 17-18.

Another example is Ken Wilber's four quadrant Which, to be fair, is most likely heavily influenced by the vast amounts of Eastern spiritual teachings he was immersed in. where there's the subjective, objective, intersubjective and the interobjective. Anything in, e.g, the subjective quadrant, is also intertwined with what's happening in all three other Ken Wilber, "What Are the Four Quadrants?", posted on October 28, 2014, Daniel Schmachtenberger beautifully lays the quadrants out and relates it to examples like how people cutting down old growth redwood trees isn't just because the company is evil (subjective quadrant) or are all neurologically wired psychopaths (objective), but because our current economic system (interobjective) only values money, and so the tree kept alive is worth nothing while it cut down is worth $100,000, and (I'm stitching on an argument from Tomas Björkman) the reason why we only value money is because of the metanarratives we collectively hold ( Daniel Schmachtenberger, interview with Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova, Future Thinkers, podcast audio, February 10, 2017, Daniel talks about this section starting from 31 min 38 sec; Tomas Björkman, The World We Create (Perspectiva Press, 2019).

The Chinese models points to a very different kind of 'complexity' and The comparison of the two would be a fascinating exploration, as well as the broader question of what different kinds of complexity and interconnectedness even means. One part of it is that it presents there being a multitude of factors, but ultimately all those factors relate to this underlying, universal Law that coherently explains all of them, and that we can strive to be in harmony with. The 'revised' Western model I present above only points to how there are a multitude of factors without an underlying logic as to how all those factors systematically influence one another and the individual. For example, while the West has the laws of physics, emergence makes it We can't reasonably think about what a dog is at the level of atoms, even in terms of the 'objective' aspects of e.g the biological or behavioural. and that only covers the material realm.

One primary point of drawing these comparisons is to say that while the Western framework struggles against the mechanistic and causal explanations of how things work and relate to one another as well as the ontological and metaphysical ones on the nature of things, with regards to the self, the high-level idea of our mind and body being tightly bound together and so should be in harmonious relationship with one another, and that we ought to factor in a whole host of incoming external influences — these don’t require a big shift in the day-to-day Western conception of how the self relates to the world, with most of the adjustments relating to behavioural changes for better health.

This starts to dramatically alter as we move away from the mundane maintenance of general wellbeing to the mystical directions. The ideas of the self we've had so far is now framed as something that we ultimately want to decenter. 'We' should operate, instead, from a different 'source'. There is still a bounded conception of the self, but the ground of what it ought to be goes beyond the typical Western As Roth himself points out, in the West, Christian mysticism seems to gesture to a broadly related cluster of concepts, but still with important distinctions.

I'll be mostly basing my analysis and conclusions off of Harold Roth's work on classical Daoist apophatic meditation. Roth presents that there are three characteristics that classical Daoist texts have in common over its two Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation" in Introducing Contemplative Studies, ed. Louis Komjathy, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 93.

  1. Cosmological: The Dao, or Way, is the “foundational unifying power or force in the cosmos”.
  2. Inner Cultivation: The Dao can be directly experienced and merged with through apophatic practices, where we gradually empty out our minds and through focusing on the circulation of qi.
  3. Application: We ought to apply the fruits of our internal transformation onto the external world. If we’ve successfully done that, we’ve attained “flowing cognition”.

Roth's "bimodal mystical experience" covers the last two Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation", 122.

There are two common states that the inner cultivation practices result in:

“tranquility” (jing)—the mental and physical experience of complete calm and stillness—and “emptiness” (xu)—the mental condition of having no thoughts, feelings, and perceptions yet still being intensely aware. States of tranquility and emptiness are both closely associated with a direct experience of the Way, perhaps the penultimate result of apophatic inner cultivation Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation", 99.

With these states as foundation, the practitioner develops various traits, the most famous being ‘wuwei’ where:

one can take no deliberate and willful action from the standpoint of one’s separate and individual self, and yet nothing is left undone (wuwei er wu buwei). This works because adepts have so completely embodied the Way that their actions are perfectly harmonious expressions of the Way itself in any given Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation", 99.

In my view, when we have merged with the Dao, our separate, individual and willful self becomes irrelevant.

A major consequence of this is that all that willful action from the previous discussion of toiling about and trying to align the endless aspects of food and emotions and activity and so on — all this is leapfrogged by this ‘direct access’ to that Law that we’ve been working so hard to be in harmony with.

Not only that, the very emptying of our minds directly allows our "various perceptual organs comply with their inherent patterns ... This allows them to function spontaneously and Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation", 103.

Rather than micromanaging and following a huge set of rules and procedures for every situation, the way I understand it is that the practice allows us to internalise the ‘Dao system’, or perhaps functionally overrides our normal ‘ego’ self system such that ‘we’ will naturally produce the most harmonious actions in all situations without any effort on ‘our’ part, since ‘our’ actions is now generated by the Dao ‘self’ system.

Curiously, there is still this part of us that is aware of the fact that 'we' are doing things effortlessly. I think the Buddhist ideas of Awareness might be at play here, or to take a Western version, William James' distinction between the 'I' and the 'me', where the 'I' is the subject that, like glasses, we see through and by the means of it, and the 'me' is the bounded, spatial temporal "The Elusive I part 3 - The Cognitive Science Show", Youtube video, posted by "John Vervaeke", April 16, 2021,

We can get some insight from this passage:

No longer attached to the limited perspective that derived exclusively from her own individual self, she maintains an awareness of this Dao as the very foundation of her consciousness and of the world with which she Harold D. Roth, "Daoist Apophatic Meditation", 95.

Based on this, a more accurate description might not be ‘internalising’, but rather ‘tapping into the source of’, where there’s this root source which everything is connected to, and that we can bathe ourselves in its continuous flow and allow that flow to float us downstream. In this way, the 'ego' self is still there but is no longer in the driver This is why I described it as 'irrelevant' rather than 'replaced'. and the 'I' is also still observing, but is distinct from the Dao.

This suggests some fascinating things. The first is to note that the ‘Dao’ itself is not clearly shown as an ‘intelligent’ and ‘conscious’ being. It seems to me (connecting to the previous metaphor) that it is akin to a river from which everything is created, and by which everything adheres to (i.e everything operates under its ‘flow’). The second is that not only can we tap into this deeper root, we in fact ought to be ‘controlled’ by this non-conscious There's some amazing work done by Iain McGilchrist on the left/right hemispheres that I don't have the space to get into, where there's some connections between the right hemisphere's mode of attending to the world: of viewing the world as an interconnected whole where every thing is always set within a context (a node within a web) and never a discrete, abstract, boxed off thing, where things are a continuous gradient rather than in parts and sections, where everything is always 'grey' as opposed to black/white, where it picks up on the implict (as present in poetry, in metaphors, in art) rather than the explicit kind of propositional 'knowledge' (which the Daoist practices wanted us to get away from) and so on. This relates to the way that the Chinese models frame the world, and I think doing these practices allows us to be much better at understanding and intuiting the Chinese models. His book The Master and His Emissary is brilliant but is a gigantic tome. More accessible is this dialogue he had: This completely flips the West’s lauding of our conscious mind, with its Reason.

Even more radical than that is the idea that cultivation can have direct influences on the 'objective' world through "enhancing the universal Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 6 Modernity is said to be defined by its separation of, to take from Karl Popper, the "three worlds" of the objective, subjective, and the Tomas Björkman, The World We Create. Because of our dominant materialistic worldview, the objective influencing the subjective and the intersubjective makes sense. But for the subjective to have direct impacts on the objective, without having intermediary 'objective' actions, is completely out of the bounds of our modern Western model. However, within the Chinese model, it makes complete sense since all we're doing is tapping into the Dao, which everything stems from, and so if we're working with the Dao, we're of course having some 'root access' influence on I think this is even different from qi being used for magical powers (see for example Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 68) because with that, we're working with and being charged with this 'qi' stuff, which we then 'use'.

To summarise, I think the Chinese models of how the world functions, with its rules and web of influences and how the internal and external systems are thus connected — these don’t bring anything too shocking in terms of how Westerners might relate to the self in the day-to-day. However, the potential of how the self can relate to itself and the world is greatly divergent from the Western models. Modern Western society on the whole is pretty awful at talking about the potentials of the There are of course many great Western philosophers, mystics and psychologists in the 19th and 20th century that have tried to fight against this, but that has barely touched public consciousness. The 60s didn't do much to help. It is only recently that we've started to develop positive psychology, which looks at the person not only in terms of where they're broken, but in terms of excellence — how do people excel beyond the "Awakening From the Meaning Crisis". Youtube video, posted by "John Vervaeke" With the spiritual and meaning crisis we're currently in, we'd do well to start figuring out how to integrate these rich Chinese philosophies and practices of transcendence into the West.

Works Cited

“Awakening From the Meaning Crisis”. Youtube video. Posted by “John Vervaeke”, 2019.

Björkman, Tomas. The World We Create. Perspectiva Press, 2019.

Kohn, Livia. Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

Leung, Ping-Chung. A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine Second edition. New Jersey: World Scientific, 2016.

Lewin, Kurt. “Psychological Ecology” in People, place and space: A reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking, William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert, 17-21. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Qicheng, Zhang and Wang Jing. “Embodying Animal Spirits in the Vital Organs: Daoist Alchemy in Chinese Medicine.” In Imagining Chinese Medicine, edited by David Dear, Vivienne Lo, Penelope Barrett, Lu Di, Lois Reynolds, and Dolly Yang, 18:389–96. Brill, 2018.

Roth, Harold D.. “Daoist Apophatic Meditation” in Introducing Contemplative Studies, edited by Louis Komjathy, 89-143. Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Salami, Minna. “Identity Erotics” in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity, edited by Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal, Chapter 12. Perspectiva Press, 2021.

Schmachtenberger, Daniel. Interview with Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova. Future Thinkers. Podcast audio, February 10, 2017.

“The Elusive I part 3 - The Cognitive Science Show”. Youtube video. Posted by “John Vervaeke”, April 16, 2021.

Unschuld, Paul U. Traditional Chinese Medicine : Heritage and Adaptation. Translated by Bridie J. Andrews . New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Wilber, Ken. “What Are the Four Quadrants?” Posted on October 28, 2014.

First Published : 16th October, 2021
Last Updated : 22nd October, 2021
Word Count : 4,580