It is said that the Tao cannot be spoken, only received.
It is ephemeral in nature, phenomenological in body, received as a state of grace often when least expected. But is it truly unspeakable?
Things can be known without having been learned and this concept reflects the words that have been spoken about the Tao.
How do we come to “know” what we haven’t learned and is there a state or process that can be developed to illuminate and assist so that the Tao can be understood and maybe even spoken?
In the Buddhist tradition we practice stilling the mind by eliminating the cause of suffering, our passive thoughts. We contain thoughts that have been told to us by others and in turn we have retold to ourselves, repeating the messages ad nauseum is an act of passive thought that meditation can help to resolve.
In psychology the term for this type of thought is called rumination and it is a result of conscious engagement of the unconscious with thoughts. Typically the function of the unconscious in our current culture is to do, it maintains our internal systems—breathing, heart rate, digestion, hormonal and elimination functions.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~ Albert Einstein
When the unconscious is engaged in the realm of thought, our thoughts can take on a life of their own.
Let’s be honest, in the heat of a moment or after a failed conversation, who doesn’t toss the experience around looking for that ideal statement…the one that would have gotten through and allowed the desired point to be made.
By actively engaging the mind to find a solution to a mental task, we trigger a cascade of activity in our brain that doesn’t always end once we find the perfect come back.
The unconscious mind has a will of it’s own, and once attention has been called to a task, the unconscious will continue to search for the best solution and has some interesting ways of reengaging the conscious mind.
Selective attention is a term that describes this unconscious process. For example, when thinking about buying a new car, do you begin to notice that particular model more often than usual? Or if you hear the phrase, “don’t think about a polar bear,” how long can you hold off the image from showing up? My guess is not long.
The unconscious doesn’t grasp contractions, it focuses on the concrete term it knows, polar bear, thus abracadabra you imagine what your trying to avoid, and the law of reversed effects is activated against conscious will.
One method for learning to understand what we intuitively know is called the scientific method. It isn’t fancy and it isn’t always properly used, but when it is used properly, nature favors the open minded observer with her truth. Mystics have used this method long before the term was coined and so have explorers.
If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve. ~ Laozi
This is where the Tao that can not be spoken comes into play. Why can the Tao not be spoken? Is it heretical to speak of it or is it simply beyond our capacity to verbalize?
I would wager (I’m a gambler and I come by it honestly) the latter is true, and it is only relatively true at best. With the advent of neuroimaging studies, PET and fMRI scans, much has been learned about the neuropathways, the ways that the brain processes information. And yes, there is much, much more to be learned.
Anyone who has taken a human anatomy course has likely learned, and just as likely forgotten, that the brain in the head is not the only brain we possess.
During neurogenisis the brain is divided into two parts, one part forms in the head, the other forms in the solar plexus and manages the aforementioned unconscious functions of breathing, digestion, elimination and maintaining a heartbeat. It is called the enteric nervous system (ENS).
The pathway from the ENS, the Vagus nerve, takes an interesting turn on it’s way up the spinal cord to the brain in the head. When a signal enters the Cerebellum, or little brain, it splits and take two pathways. One goes directly to the sensory motor strip and the other travels directly to the executive functioning area of the left Prefrontal Cortex (lPFC).
If your still here congratulations because it is here that my theory begins.
What’s most important about the branching is that the verbal portion of the brain is completely bypassed in the process. Information from the ENS results in either doing or thinking, language is not involved. Is that why the Tao is unspeakable and if so, then is there hope that the Tao and Nature may yet have a turn to speak?
There has not been a lot of research on the ENS because it isn’t as sexy or prosperous to do so and because it’s hard work. Scientists tend to work on the easy stuff first and save the hard stuff for later or more often for others to do.
There is good new too.
Our culture may have invited an unintended consequence by demanding specialization, which has previously resulted in isolating scientific inquiry. Scientist’s who have a singular focus, which provides depth, are beginning to come together—due to the complexity of the problems we as humans face.
The process of integrating knowledge across specializations, which provides both breadth and depth, is becoming the new normal. Just like a creative mind puts pieces together to generate new knowledge so are our scientists coming together.
Instead of saving the hard stuff for others, scientists are banding together from a wide spectrum of specialities to welcome in a new era of collaborative science. Is this the beginning of the conscious variety of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious?
Stay tuned for part II on how accepting the unknown can inform consciousness.
The Tao will be spoken.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
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