How Does Daoism Understand Consciousness?
What is consciousness?
What is the spirit?
What is awareness?
What is it that animates each of us and gives us our own unique ability to perceive and interact with the world.
In the Daoist school, there has been an ongoing discussion on the nature of consciousness for over 2000 years and although there have been many disagreements and debates over the years, Daoism as a whole essentially came to a fairly finalistic idea of how consciousness is and how it is divided in the body and mind.
It is important to recognize that the idea of consciousness has undergone many changes throughout Daoist history, but probably the most important single word used by Daoists to discuss the essential conscious experience of the human mind is “Shen” 神
Shen refers to the concept of a soul which exists inside of the body and can also be developed in such a way that it exists outside of the body. Shen is also what the Daoists use to refer to consciousness in general. Although it is important also to recognize concepts such as the spirit (ling) and masculine and feminine souls (hun and po), as well as thought (si), intent (yi), and will (zhi), the Shen consciousness is the thing which ties all of them together.
Early Daoists such as Laozi did not bother to define the meaning of Shen, and the first major place in which Shen is described as being knowable is in the Yellow Emperor Hidden Talisman Classic in which the writer Li Chuan says “people know that the spirit is mystical, but don’t know that which is not mystical is actually the spirit.” This phrase basically means that the spirit is only mystical to people who don’t recognize it. To those who have experienced the spirit (in form of consciousness) there is no mystery and in fact it is simply present to oneself.
Later, in the Yuan dynasty, the Daoist Li Daochun who wrote the book “Zhong He Ji,” The Collected Works of the Centre Harmony, stated that the Shen spirit was actually the same energetic entity as the heart. In previous articles on this blog, I’ve discussed the concept of heart in Daoism and how it is essentially made up of two qualities, one being pure consciousness, called “Xing,” the other being emotion, called “Qing.” Xing and Qing make up our perception and feeling and are typically considered to be transmutable to the fire trigram “Li.” Li is made up of three lines, with two solid outside lines and one broken inside line ☲
the solid lines represent Yang and represent the pure “Xing” perceptive consciousness. The broken line represents Yin and the muddied “Qing” emotional consciousness.
Li Daochun was the first person in Daoist history to clearly state that the Shen spirit and heart were the same entity, although conceptually the idea was already in formation for several hundred years before hand. Essentially, Li’s addition was to say that Shen and Xin (heart) are exactly the same thing, so ultimately we therefore take away the understanding that the Shen spirit is made up of Xing and Qing, perception and emotion. What Li wanted to say by this was that it was possible to change the Shen spirit to make it into a pure yang energy, or a pure “Xing” perception. The Qing dynasty writer Shui Jingzi said in his book “Qing Jing Jing Tu Zhu” that changing the consciousness back to pure yang energy was to achieve “Yuan Xing,” or the original Xing. Other Daoists have alternately called this “Yuan Shen” or the original spirit.
One unique feature about the understanding of Consciousness in Daoist historical writing is that alterations and additions to theory which were more complete than those that predated them were often widely accepted across many schools, and although each school has its own interpretations of what it means to be conscious, they have all borrowed from each other and gradually created a very large body of theoretical knowledge that can help guide us in our practice of meditation and study of the Dao of spiritual cultivation.