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C O U R S E 
Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science
Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Laozi on Shutting Down the Prefrontal Cortex
Notes taken on December 16, 2016 by Edward Tanguay
Laozi has the most literal sense of wu-wei
in the sense of non-action, or do nothing
he wants to
shut down activity
shut down the trying the society has encouraged us to do
strip away desires, artificial hypocrisy and learning that's been laid on top of our natural desires
Daodejing, Ch. 48
"In the pursuit of learning, one does more each day, but in the pursuit of the Dao, one does less each day, one does less and less until one does nothing, and once one does nothing, nothing is left undone. Gaining the world is always accomplished by following no activity. As soon as one actively tries, one will fall short of gaining the world."
stop trying
but if you are able to read this book the Daodejing, you have already been learning for awhile
you are already part of the elite
we are already in a fallen world
we've already done enough and need to prevent further degeneration
get back to the naturalness that has been ruined
how to get back to the natural
his soteriological strategy
to get back in touch with the Dao
the way he wants you to do this is left unclear in the text
probably done intentionally
he doesn't want to set up any concrete practices because he doesn't want us to do anything
but still wants to get us from state A to state B
from being fallen to being in harmony with the Dao
hints that he is affecting a kind of conceptual transformation
the mysterious qualities of the text, the riddles, the rhymes
Daodejing, Chapter 1
"The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way. The name that can be named is not the enduring name. Within this enigma is yet a deeper enigma. The gate of all mysteries."
it's telling you that it is trying to teach you something paradoxical
the practice of koan meditation
something that doesn't make sense which frees you from rational thinking
what is the sound of one hand clapping
what did your face look like before you were born
the idea is that your unhewn wood will come out after you get past this need for reason
hints of possible physical practices
Daeodejing, Chapter 10
"Embracing your soul and holding on to the One, can you keep them from departing? Concentrating your qi [chee] and attaining utmost suppleness, can you be a child? Cleaning and purifying your enigmatic mirror, can you erase every flaw? When the portal of Heaven opens and closes, can you play the part of the female?"
concentrating your qi
concentrating on your breath
cleaning and purifying your enigmatic mirror
becomes a metaphor for the mind, make it empty through meditation
portal of heaven
references to physical sexual practices
the early century CE, people claiming to be inspired by Laozi are doing meditation, breathing exercises, sexual gymnastics, tantric sexual practices, taking hallucinogens
what your brain looks like in wu-wei
the state they are trying to get you into from a neurological perspective is a state called transient hypofrontality
transient = temporary
hypo = lower
frontality = prefrontal cortex
people who do long-distance running describe getting this high
they feel exaltation
they feel at one with what they are doing
they lose a sense of time
they seem to be in a state of wu-wei
when you are doing intense exercise, your body has to make decisions about where to put resources
your muscles need energy
it starts to shut down parts of your brain
your brain is a very expensive organ and at some point your body says, ok, we're not using this part much, we are going to reduce its resources temporarily, and the first part that gets shut down is your prefrontal cortex
your prefrontal cortex is your seat of conscious control
ability to make decisions
the seat of working memory
the seat of consciousness
where we keep our narrative sense of what's going on
so if you are shutting down the prefrontal cortex, you are shutting down the conscious mind to some degree
the shutting down of the prefontal cortex also occurs in sports, meditation, alcohol, drugs, and sex
features of this state
living in the present
you feel peaceful
a feeling of floating
diminished working memory
diminished attention ability
a feeling of unity
because your prefontal cortex discriminates you from others
Laozi's metaphor: mind of a child
prefrontal cortex is late in developing
it's the most recent part of our brain to evolve
it doesn't develop fully until late teens
the goal is to go back to a more primitive part of the brain
metaphors of going back home, being like a child again
let's go back to using more simple parts of our cognitive apparatus
state of naturalness
"so of itself"
in touch with natural natural, an assumption that we are good
Daodejing, Chapter 25
"People model themselves on the Earth. The Earth models itself on Heaven. Heaven models itself on the Way. The Way models itself on what is natural."
authentic, spontaneous, acting in a way that heaven made you
it's good in the sense that a fish swimming in water is good, not in the sense that self-conscious Confucians walk around saying that they are good
it's not something you have to talk about or think about, it's just something that you do
Laozi's soteriological strategy
similar to Confucius
you as a sage can attain a state of wu-wei
get a ruler to embrace wu-wei, or naturalness
will be able to influence the rest of the world to fall into this naturalness as well
Daodejing, Chapter 57
"I do nothing and the people transform themselves."
Daodejing, Chapter 32
"The Way is forever nameless. Unhewn wood is insignificant, yet no one in the world can master it."
Confucian vs. Laozian De
de = virtue
they both want to get you into the state of wu-wei
Confucian model
de is something that the rule has
he is the pole star, the center of the universe
Laozian model
rule is dark, like the valley, but all rivers come to it
you emulate the way, which is dark and lowly
Laozi's lost golden age
primitive villages
agricultural utopia
no technology, no writing, no luxury goods
no explicity morality
people are living in perfect harmony with each other and the natural world
one imagines a super-harmonious, primitive wonderland
a very appealing image
many societies have suggested this
Rousseau: noble savage
the back-to-nature-movements in the 1960s
with self-conscious primitive technology
today's counter-culture movements
anti-GMO movements
it is easy to be convinced that anything that is natural is good, and as soon as you start departing from the natural, it's bad
people just have to say that something is modified, and it can easily be labeled as bad