Lao-tzu’s Taoism led to the unfolding of sciences to understand how the entire universe
is our body.
The essential premise of these ancient Taoist sciences is how our psychosomatic organism
aligns and comes into harmony with the formless realm of the Tao and with the movements of
No external form of governance can bring this about, because the fundamental principle of
external government is control and force.
What is required to achieve harmony with the Tao is a heightened level of self-governance.
This level is attained by understanding your mind and body more deeply, which allows you
to understand the greater universe more intimately.
The experience of effortless mind is something we commonly attribute to athletes, artists,
writers, poets, and philosophers.
This state of consciousness is not bound by the limitations of the mind, but rather finds
infinite expression and laserlike focus within the limited framework of our mental capacities
We generally think of this mental state as being in the zone.
We can sense this state when we watch a star athlete achieve the impossible or when a group
of musicians improvise and feed off each other’s energy to create a rhythmic synergy that nourishes
our ears and inspires our hearts.
And yet there is an intrinsic paradox to being in the zone: in all crafts, to be effortlessly
in the zone requires focused and sustained effort without any intention to achieve effortlessness
within the mind.
The effortless mind of the craftsman, then, is evoked by skillful effort without the intention
of achieving that end.
It is as though the craftsman and the craft are essentially one.
Their effort is actually effortless because it is devoid of a person “doing” it; it
is just happening spontaneously of itself in harmony with everything else.
Craftsmen have this ability to be one with their craft without the sense of a person
This is what interested the wise of the ancient East.
As a result, the documented birth of martial arts was based on the effortless mind of the
The martial artist focused on trying to cultivate an effortless mind, where being in the zone
is one’s ordinary state of mind all the time.
The first traces of spiritually oriented martial arts, and their focus on health, longevity,
and physical immortality, can be attributed to the philosophy of Yang Zhu, who is credited
with “the discovery of the body.”
His philosophy is known as Yangism.
Yang Zhu’s discovery of the body eventually led to the Taoist sciences and practices of
martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Both of these sciences are an extension of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
They extend his philosophy into a science with practical application for daily life.
But modern-day students and practitioners of martial arts and TCM lose sight of this
These misinterpretations have been growing for thousands of years and are at their peak
It is the result of interpreting Eastern philosophy through Western and New Age filters and also
of the growing population of modern Easterners who have lost contact with their traditional
(All these and the problem of taking metaphors literally lead to a misunderstanding of key
concepts, which then leads to an unintelligent spirituality.)
This leads to our modern cultural habit of embracing control, force, and intellect at
the expense of wu-wei.
Essentially this means that our world embraces the yang (masculine/Heaven/active/doing/heat)
over the yin (feminine/ Earth/passive/nondoing/cool), which is slowly but surely destroying the
The science and practice of martial arts are based to some degree on the science of TCM.
This is evident in the fact that TCM focuses on how our body is a miniature inner universe.
When we know and understand this inner universe, we begin to know the greater, outer universe
and see how both function the same.
Martial arts make use of this idea through movement methods that are supposed to open
up the meridian channels of the body.
This allows qi to flow freely, so that the mind and body are in harmony with the effortlessness
of the heavens.
This experiential knowledge attained by martial artists is supposed to transfer over into
Trust, then, is at the heart of martial arts, as they are based on the fundamental Taoist
philosophy of wu-wei.
The problem with martial arts is that they have been infected with the cultural tendency
toward doing, which becomes an intellectual game of striving for a so-called goal.
Our whole world is invested in the energy of yang at the expense of yin.
Our modern habits of doing, control, and force are deeply entrenched in both spiritually
oriented and combat-oriented martial arts.
And yet the core of both methods is the same, as martial arts are about transforming your
character to reveal your true nature.
This is the spiritual heart of martial arts, but it has been misinterpreted by Westerners
and also by numerous people in the East.
Many people think that the spiritual transformation in martial arts is about attaining powers
or experiencing some altered state of consciousness similar to a psychedelic experience.
This way of thinking is the “amateur spirituality” to which Chuang-tzu alluded.
Amateur spirituality is the attraction to peacock consciousness, meaning that people
still have the yang habit of showing off or telling other people about how peaceful and
lucid their state of mind is.
The irony of peacock consciousness is you find these people always talking about themselves,
to the point where the listener feels ill and exhausted.
This is especially true for those people trying to attain supernatural powers, called siddhis
Such proclamations prove that no real transformation has occurred.
All that has occurred is that one has become a well-trained show pony.
This show-pony attitude is yang-oriented and has nothing to do with the basis of martial
As a result martial arts in the modern world are based on the perpetual activity of yang
and failing to embrace the nondoing of yin.
We discover this yang-overyin temperament in the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA),
which is best-known through the organization of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The athletes of MMA are well-trained; many of them function at a rate of peak performance,
which can be quite a spectacle to watch.
But the problem is that many mixed martial artists and spectators believe martial arts
are about talking trash and beating the hell out of the opponent.
Though this may be entertaining for the spectator, we should not delude ourselves into thinking
this has anything to do with martial arts.
Rather it is just martial arts on steroids, polluted with the idea of yang over yin, doing
This attitude inclines one toward competition because of its innate characteristics of force
If mixed martial artists, or any combat sport athletes, for that matter, were serious about
martial arts, they would need to understand and embrace the essential tenet of cooperation.
Cooperation in martial arts is evident in the internal practice of pushing hands, known
as tui shou in Chinese.
In the practice of pushing hands, each person is feeling and moving according to the energy
of the opposing person.
Pushing hands works to undo our natural instinct to resist force with force by teaching the
body to yield to force and redirect it.
Force does not exist in this practice, because in feeling and moving according to the energy
of the other person, we are accessing our receptive yin nature.
Yin evokes the art of cooperation.
Although it may appear that pushing hands is a form of competition, it instead is a
dance, as you essentially need two to tango.
Even so, pushing hands, like many other aspects of martial arts, has succumbed to the tendency
toward the yang characteristics of competition and peacock consciousness.
In both spiritually oriented and combat-oriented martial arts and MMA, the yin art of cooperation
is at the core of all forms of cultivation.
For example, if a mixed martial artist is trained properly, he or she will know that
there is no opponent other than himself or herself.
You are essentially testing yourself against your so-called opponent.
The only opponent is yourself, and your perceived opponent is a mirror of where you are in your
The mirror of the opponent reflects back to you your spiritual development as well as
aspects of your character that have not been transformed or cleansed out of your psyche.
So no matter what form of martial arts we are talking about—including MMA—the essential
heart of the art is to blunt your sharpness.
Blunting the sharpness is a phrase used by Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching to describe the
softening of one’s rigid personality.
In martial arts, it is about evoking the yin qualities of humility, compassion, forgiveness,
respect, and honor.
For thousands of years, martial arts have been mistakenly seen as practices to cultivate
the yang, masculine characteristics of power, force, and control.
This incorrect perspective has only increased our tendencies toward competition and trying
to stand out in the crowd.
Martial arts are not based on yang over yin but on yin over yang.
They are a practice that mimics life, as the majority of the time we are in the yin of
When those brief moments of time come for us to act, we are precise and our timing is
The nature of our psychosomatic organism is to reside in yin and only activate yang when
This is actually the fundamental function of our psyche.
Our attempts to reverse this order are causing psychological problems and mental-health issues
that contribute to a world gone insane.
The natural function of residing in the feminine yin while moderately accessing the masculine
yang was explained by Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching thousands of years ago: "Know the male,
yet keep to the female: receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world, the Tao will never leave you and you will be like a little child."
In the humility of yin we do not seek to be special or to attain superpowers.
We go about our life quietly and do not make a noise about the mystery of Tao that we experience
within our consciousness, because it is in itself indescribable.
This is the elite spirituality of Chuang-tzu.
This means we know experientially, but it is not intellectually explainable.
The experience of Tao/Brahman/Godhead within is beyond knowing logically or finding a conclusion,
because it is nonlinear and eternal.
Only in the finite realm of existence can we come to logical conclusions and dissect
with our intellect.
The principal method of the practice of Zen koans in Zen Buddhism is to overcome the intellect,
and this is the prevailing philosophy of the East.
In the Tao Te Ching Lao-tzu states: "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things."
This wisdom is also found in India in the ancient text of the Kena Upanishad from the
Vedic era of India: "Brahman is unknown to those who know It, and is known to those who
do not know It at all."
The meaning of this verse is that those who say they know Brahman still have a concept
or object of knowledge in their mind.
Since Brahman transcends the mind and our thinking, no concept can capture it, and so
we cannot say we really know it.
The academics and intellectuals who believe they can explain the universe and its mystery
by somehow coming to logical conclusions are deluded.
They have lost their intrinsic sense of awe and cannot witness beauty without analyzing
Many people in the world are in the yang habit of using their intellect as a scalpel to dissect
life into pieces so as to analyze the details.
Many of us who underwent a formal education had the chance in science class to dissect
an animal, usually a frog or toad.
When we dissect a frog, it becomes a mess.
When our dissection is finished, though we can describe the frog’s internal organs,
we have lost sight of its beauty.
In dissecting the frog, we pulled it apart into discrete pieces, destroying its inclusive
When we dissect life, we destroy it.
This is occurring right now, as our world is embracing yang over yin, which is against
The perspective of yang over yin is promoted in our world from the earliest stages of education
into adult working life.
This perspective becomes so entrenched in our minds that we exhibit it in our ordinary
life as well.
We begin to anxiously think that we “should” always be doing something.
We are made to believe that if we are not doing something, then we are useless and a
nuisance to society.
This train of thought is supported by the societal mantra “Time is money,” which
actually means you had better get moving or you will miss your opportunity to succeed
Thinking in this way gives us the illusory belief that we can control every aspect of
our lives and become masters of time.
Many entrepreneurs have this mindset, and though there is a skill to becoming independently
successful, there are also a lot of pitfalls.
We all suffer from these pitfalls when we overemphasize the yang “time is money”
They include anxiety and stress.
Though we should all be creatively productive and use this life well, we have to face the
fact that we can never truly control life or master time.
The whole world has gotten itself into a big rush because we believe the contrary is possible.
But this attitude is destroying the world, because what truly nourishes the world is
being ignored—the feminine, yin bosom of the universe.
As I mentioned, the fundamental function of life and our human organism is to reside mainly
in the yin while activating the yang only conservatively.
In embracing only the incessant activity of yang, we are becoming a species that is out
of balance and essentially sick, which is affecting all other life on this planet.
The clinical diagnosis in TCM for the human race is that it is yin-deficient.
In a yin-deficient world we are internally consumed by heat, because we are constantly
seeking action, overthinking, and seeking distraction.
Yang is the internal heat that is evoked by incessant activity, and yin is the cool of
deep rest, relaxation, and nondoing that nourishes all aspects of our mind and body, and which
The American Chinese medical doctor Brendan Kelly explains in his work that a yin-deficient
humanity contributes to external climate change, because the excessive heat in our internal
climate is projected into our external culture.4 What we are within becomes our culture.
The propensity to always be doing something is a response of heat within, which becomes
the heat in the external world.
Excessive heat within our organism causes the heightened sense of anxiety and stress
that a lot of people feel today and have even become accustomed to.
This comes from being overactive, but it also comes from the yang-laced stimulants we ingest,
which cause internal heat and ultimately irritation.
Coffee, for example, is a super-yang bean that causes extreme levels of anxiety, stress,
Coffee intoxication enhances our tendency toward activity, and this in turn slowly but
surely depletes our psychosomatic organism and in turn harms the planet.
To have an organism that is incessantly doing requires a lot of external stimulation, be
that either heat-infused food or entertainment.
As I have mentioned, in TCM the little picture and big picture are the same picture.
So any change within the internal system of the human organism will be reflected in the
If we constantly consume coffee, refined sugar, refined flour, and frivolous entertainment,
to name just a few things, we will be constantly distracted and as a result will seek more
Ultimately this weighs heavily on the resources of the planet and also destroys the mind.
In allowing ourselves no time to rest, relax, or to just be bored, we are destroying our
inner and outer world, because we are incessantly in motion and essentially overheated.
What happens to any vehicle that is overheated and does not offset this with the required
amount of coolant?
Engine failure and a complete breakdown is the result, which is usually irreversible.
This is what is happening to humanity and the planet.
It is up to each of us as individuals to address our yin deficiency.
We cannot go on like this for too much longer.
Wu-wei is required to heal our yin deficiency, because it is an aspect of yin.
To heal our yin deficiency does not mean we stop being active, though this may be healing
and helpful in the beginning.
To truly heal, we are trying to find balance.
Reestablishing balance requires us to come back in accord with the nondoing, forceless,
and effortless mind of wu-wei.
This balance of life involves predominantly residing in the yin and conservatively accessing
the yang, which, as I’ve mentioned, is the art of martial arts.
Balance between yin and yang, then, is not about equal shares but rather natural harmony.
I often use a chocolate milkshake as an analogy to describe this natural balance.
For example, if we were to put 1 cup of milk and 1 cup of cacao powder in a blender we
would make a mess that would be unhealthy and sickening to drink.
But if we just put enough cacao powder, often a few teaspoons, for the same amount of milk,
then we will have a delicious chocolate milkshake.
Yang is the cacao powder, and yin is the milk, which is from the feminine bosom of life.
When we transfer this understanding of balance to martial arts, we discover a practice that
requires discipline but should not overreach its limits.
Many martial artists tend to overdiscipline themselves.
They never alter their routines, and in a lot of cases they add more to their daily
This is the yang habit—the more we do, the more we will gain.
This is against Lao-tzu’s philosophy of “less is more.”
The “time is money” mantra has affected martial arts, transforming them into a predominantly
yang activity with a depletion of yin.
As a result, many martial artists develop rigid, overdisciplined personalities.
They fear to change their habits and routines, which puts them out of sync with the ever-changing
As a result they essentially become prisoners to their discipline.
The martial arts were built on the function and harmony of life, yin over yang, as yin
is where the true source of power resides.
When we overreach in martial arts from excessive yang we are usually thrown to the ground and
In the highly eclectic Korean martial art Hapkido (extremely similar to the Japanese
Aikido), when your opponent overreaches, you only need to feel her energy and movement,
which requires no effort.
As a result your opponent will fall to the ground without any force or effort on your
It is the art of avoiding resistance.
Residing in yin, you move with your opponent’s movement, which is often full of yang force.
Though you may absorb the blow somewhat, you don’t feel it, because you are the pivot
of balance between yin and yang in their perpetual dance.
Hapkido is focused on yin cultivation.
In fact, all martial arts are designed to cultivate yin, but we are often seduced by
the power and force we attain from yang.
world deficient in yin has no idea how to cultivate it.
Often our attempts are laced with yang and only contribute to more deficiency.
This is common with martial artists who are attracted only to the yang aspect of the craft.
Anyone who is overdisciplined in any craft will have a rigid mind.
This rigid mind often has trouble flowing in conversations and listening deeply to the
other person without the yang habit of waiting for their turn to speak (usually about oneself).
You feel this distinct tension in this kind of person, not so much in their posture but
in their eyes and speech.
There is a distinct stiffness in their words that results from being too disciplined.
This overuses the analytical mind; this mind is stiff.
Even the positivity of such people has a stench of fakeness to it.
For example, when an overdisciplined, rigid mind speaks, the individual often displays
an attitude implying that she is “cool” with everything, even though the other person
can sense that she is pretending.
Pretending to be OK with everything is a yang habit.
It is the analytical intellect assuming that if we practice some form of spiritual cultivation,
then we should be good and moral people who are incapable of harming an ant.
We should essentially be Goody Two-shoes.
This is an incorrect perspective because, again, we are dissecting the world into parts
that are exclusively good and bad rather than following the natural inclusivity of nature.
We are often possessed with the idea of who I should be rather than who I am.
We overdiscipline ourselves to attain who we should be, but this idea is based on social
To try and reach this destination is an endless journey to nowhere, because it is driven by
the yang of the external world.
We cannot just be actively doing, doing, doing, in the hope that we will become better people.
In fact, we deplete our system with this attitude, which in turn contributes to the destruction
of the world.
Cultivating yin requires us to refrain from our yang tendency to always act and to overstimulate
We need to apply my chocolate milkshake analogy if we are to survive.
We need to learn how to fall as my brother-in-law did, so to speak.
As with my chocolate milkshake, nature resides predominant in yin.
Physically and psychologically we do as well, because we are intrinsic expressions of nature.
We need to learn how to truly relax—and I don’t mean sitting in front of a digital
device with popcorn, which in actual fact is not resting your mind.
Overdiscipline and overwork puts us at risk of system failure, which presents itself as
a host of mental health issues, stress, and anxiety.
As I’ve mentioned, being in the nondoing wu-wei of yin actually preserves intellectual
Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider explains how this insight made him better at his job:
"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain
as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring
as rickets . . . it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
Drastic times call for drastic measures, and the best method for cultivating yin is drastic
but essential for our well-being.
It involves fasting the mind, which I explore in depth in my book Fasting the Mind.
Essentially it is a practice for starving the mind of any stimulation, external or internal.
Methods of fasting the mind are common in the East.
Two methods are found in Buddhism; they are known as vipassana and open awareness meditation.
Vipassana meditation means insight into one’s true nature.
One form of practice is a strict ten-day silent retreat, which involves complete silence,
many hours of sitting meditation, and a vegetarian diet for the entire period.
Vipassana meditation often advocates focusing on the sensations within our psychosomatic
organism, which takes our awareness deeper and has the potential to purify the mind.
Open awareness, on the other hand, is an objectless meditation in which we engage with a simple,
stable posture while trying to empty the mind through focusing on the breath or by fixing
the attention on something in the environment.
Advaita Vedanta, a science, philosophy, and spiritual practice originating in the Upanishads
and the Vedas, offers a method of fasting the mind whereby we remain in a practice of
self-inquiry by focusing on the question “Who am I?”
All three methods have a positive effect on mental concentration, reaction time, motor
skills, and sensory sensitivity.
Fasting the mind, though, involves more than just these three methods.
It is a lifestyle that transforms life from yang-dominant to yin-dominant.
This approach is nothing new.
The phrase “fasting the mind” is first found in the Chuang-tzu text, though its practice
is much older.
It appears in a story about how to change a corrupt ruler.
In the story Confucius is the mouthpiece of Chuang-tzu.
He has a disciple named Yen Hui.
Yen Hui has heard of a ruler in the Chinese state of Wei who is treating the common people
Hui has numerous plans to change the ruler, but all of them are shot down by Confucius
on the grounds that Yen Hui is intentionally trying to change the ruler according to his
In the end Confucius has had enough and tells Yen Hui that he should fast his mind: "Confucius
said, “Goodness, how could that do?
You have too many policies and plans and you haven’t seen what is needed.
You will probably get off without incurring any blame, yes.
But that will be as far as it goes.
How do you think you can actually convert him?
You are still making the mind your teacher!”
Yen Hui said, “I have nothing more to offer.
May I ask the proper way?”
“You must fast!” said Confucius.
“I will tell you what that means.
Do you think it is easy to do anything while you have [a mind]?
If you do, Bright Heaven will not sanction you.”
Yen Hui said, “My family is poor.
I haven’t drunk wine or eaten any strong foods for several months.
So can I be considered as having fasted?”
“That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”
“May I ask what the fasting of the mind is?”
Confucius said, “Make your will one!
Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind.
No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit.
Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and
waits on all things.
The Way gathers in emptiness alone.
Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”
Yen Hui said, “Before I heard this, I was certain that I was Hui.
But now that I have heard it, there is no more Hui.
Can this be called emptiness?”
“That’s all there is to it,” said Confucius.
“Now I will tell you.
You may go and play in his bird cage, but never be moved by fame.
If he listens, then sing; if not, keep still.
Have no gate, no opening, but make oneness your house and live with what cannot be avoided.
Then you will be close to success.”
Fasting the mind thus cultivates yin to bring about lasting balance.
It requires us to starve the mind of all external and internal distractions.
When we do so, we begin to affect the mind and body at the deep level of the nervous
There is essentially a war going on in our nervous system from the overuse of yang “doing”
at the expense of yin “nondoing.”
The nervous system is the part of an animal’s body that coordinates its voluntary and involuntary
actions and also transmits signals to and from different parts of its body.
In vertebrate species, such as human beings, the nervous system contains two parts, the
central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The central nervous system contains the brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous
system consists of mainly nerves, which are enclosed bundles of long fibers, and axons,
which are long, slender projections of nerve cells that conduct electrical impulses away
from the neuron’s cell body.
These nerves and axons connect the CNS to every other part of the body.
The PNS is in turn divided into the somatic nervous system (SoNS) and the autonomic nervous
The ANS is our central focus when we are doing psychological or spiritual inner work and
It is a control system that largely acts unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as heart
rate, respiratory rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.
The ANS in its turn has two branches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic
nervous system (PSNS).
The SNS is sometimes considered the “fight or flight” system because in emergencies
it is activated to mobilize energy.
It is what we activate when we are in motion and are being stimulated through our senses.
Without it we could not do anything.
The PSNS, on the other hand, is activated when we are in a relaxed state.
We activate it when we essentially do nothing.
The PSNS is also responsible for stimulation of “rest and digest” and “feed and breed”
activities that occur when the body is at rest, especially after eating, including sexual
arousal, lacrimation (tears), salivation, urination, digestion, and defecation.
The PSNS is what makes us drift off to sleep every night.
It is stimulated most when we relax deeply.
The war in our nervous system is essentially the overstimulation of the SNS along with
an understimulation of the PSNS.
When we stimulate only the former without activating the latter, we increase the probability
of chemical imbalances in our brain.
Cultivating yin activates the PSNS, leading to equanimity.
Fasting the mind, then, not only transforms and heals the individual but also our culture.
Cultivating the cool of yin in the mind and body reduces the yang heat of our world piece
It is not an overnight phenomenon, but rather a gradual process.
You realize how addicted you are to distraction, and you understand that it will take time
to heal it through fasting the mind.
It is the same long and arduous process for the collective.
Cultivating yin and fasting the mind are both essential for understanding the effortless
mind of wu-wei, which is enlightened consciousness.
Yin cultivation methods affect our nervous system at the root level.
In cultivating yin, we diminish the yang effects of intellectual discernment, thinking, and
Diminishing yang effects also weakens the sense of “I” as a separate person.
The ability to focus the mind for a sustained period of time evokes the state of being in
the zone, which allows us to achieve the impossible.
This occurs because the conscious mind shuts down to allow the wisdom of the unconscious
mind and body to take over.
Muscle memory takes over, while the sense of “you” doing the task has been reduced.
According to cognitive science, the analytical conscious mind, the ego persona, what you
refer to as “you,” is located within the cerebral cortex, which covers the front of
the frontal lobe of the brain.
This part of the brain is known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
It is a part of the brain that evolved later than many of the others in an effort to navigate
through the increasing planetary obstacles we continually encountered.
Cognitive science refers to the prefrontal cortex’s analytical function as “cold
cognition” or “system 2.”
Cold cognition is the cognitive control function of the mind, which gives us the ability to
exert effort and discern between “this” and “that,” and which formulates our opinions
of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” based on our own personal experience.
In our modern world the cold cognitive aspect of the mind is constantly overemployed from
the beginning of life through education and then throughout working life, where it is
thought that if we continue to force our effort continually, we will achieve our desired result.
But as we all surely know, this is hardly ever achieved, because our focus is constantly
distracted by the bombardment of external stimuli.
This analytical, active part of our mind in the prefrontal cortex is physiologically expensive
if it is not supported by the more primal regions of the brain that we associate with
the unconscious mind.
The function of the unconscious regions of the brain is known in cognitive science as
“hot cognition” or “system 1.”
Hot cognition is the function of our mind and body that is automatic, spontaneous, fast,
effortless, mostly unconscious, and thought to be emotionally driven.
Hot cognition is located within the earlier-developing primal regions of the brain and is associated
with the unconscious.
Its spontaneous and effortless function is what makes our head turn unconsciously when
we see something beautiful in the environment, maybe a handsome man or ravishing woman, for
And it can sometimes be a hindrance, as when we find ourselves unconsciously reaching for
that piece of chocolate cake—a habit that arises from the way we evolved to seek sugar
for momentary sustenance.
On the one hand, hot cognition can produce all the miracles that spontaneously grow out
of the mind and universe, and on the other hand it can lead us to being unhealthy (because
there is an abundance of sugar that is constantly tempting us, for example).
This is where the discernment of cold cognition is beneficial for our well-being.
The positive aspect of hot cognition is what drives those unconscious, spontaneous miracles
achieved by many sports people; it is also what allows a musician to play her instrument
without having to think about it.
It is what allows artists, no matter whether they are painters, writers, musicians, gardeners,
or athletes, to express the unconscious wisdom of the universe that lays dormant within our
In all of these examples, the cold cognition within the prefrontal cortex that gave birth
to the sense of “I,” the personality, has shut down to allow the effortless flow
of the universe to come to life.
But we tend to think of ourselves as an “I” in the mind, separate from our body, and many
of our philosophies and religions reflect this perspective.
The sense of the mind-body dualistic split is overcome when the “I” is decreased,
leading to an integration of hot and cold cognition where the mind is embodied and the
body is mindful.
The idea of the “I” as a ruler of the body is a notion going back to Plato’s analogy,
in his Phaedrus, of the charioteer and his wild horses that need to be tamed.
Plato’s charioteer is a metaphor for our mind as master (cold cognition), while the
wild horses represent the untamed, animalistic, and ultimately unconscious body, but at the
same time the natural and spontaneous movements of life (hot cognition).
The person you think of as yourself (the charioteer), with all these beliefs, desires, and attachments,
is only your cold cognition in conflict with the hot cognitive processes, which appear
unconscious and untamed when they are not disciplined.
This overemphasizes the mind-body split and makes us believe that this is the way a human
being is in a yang-oriented world.
We experience embodied cognition, on the other hand, when our psychosomatic organism has
reached a state of homeostasis, with perfect balance between yin and yang.
When we cultivate yin, the sense of “I” submerges into the hot cognitive process of
the body, which evokes intelligent spontaneity.
This intelligent spontaneity is the skill of the craftsman and the art of wu-wei.
The irony with skill, though, is that the cold cognition is required to process the
information of any particular skill through intellectual understanding and constant repetition
before it becomes ingrained in the hot cognition, becoming second nature.
The skill and art of intelligent spontaneity is the consciousness of one who is in the
Being in the zone occurs when we cultivate yin.
Accomplished athletes, writers, actors and actresses, artists, and other achievers are
adept at cultivating yin in their lives.
The master of any craft has embodied his skill to such a heightened state that his actions
are essentially effortless and are devoid of thought or even of a sense of a person
doing the actions.
The embodied skill of a craftsman, where cold and hot cognition have merged to evoke universal
intelligence, is a metaphor for the enlightened and effortless mind of wu-wei.
This understanding is captured in the story of Cook Ting (also known as Butcher Ding)
in the Chuang-tzu text.
In the story Cook Ting is cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui.
Lord Wen-hui is extremely impressed by Cook Ting’s skill at cutting up oxen so effortlessly.
Cook Ting explains that he encounters the ox with his spirit and this allows the spiritual
energy of the Tao to take over.
He states: "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill.
When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself.
After three years I no longer saw the whole ox.
And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes.
Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.
I go along with the natural makeup, strike the big hollows, guide the knife through the
big openings, and follow things as they are.
So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint."
In China, Cook Ting’s embodied skill and intelligent spontaneity is known as “seeing
Seeing from spirit occurs when the sense of “I” has diminished, which essentially
means that the cold cognition has decreased its influence so that we can perceive reality
from the holistic hot cognition.
The Cook Ting passage illustrates how intelligent spontaneity is evoked and realized as our
nature when the sense of “someone” “doing” something has disappeared.
Even when life is in motion and actions appear to be happening, they are effortless, because
the sense of “I” doing it has disappeared.
Thus the nondoing of wu-wei evokes effortless action, where the mind is not attached or
stuck to any aspect of reality.
Cook Ting’s effortlessness and unstuck mind is a metaphor for the effortless mind in wu-wei
all the time, which is the enlightened state of a sage.
This essentially means that our natural state is to be in the zone all the time, but it
has been eclipsed by our intellectual training, which, with its tendency to dissect life,
eclipses this reality.
The Cook Ting story underscores the fact that when we are in intelligent spontaneity, we
are harmonizing with the environment.
The cook’s skill demonstrates that, when we cultivate yin, evoking intelligent spontaneity,
we see that the apparent duality of an inner world isolated from an outer world is an illusion.
In the effortless state of intelligent spontaneity, both realities are one and the same.
But this perception can only be achieved when yin cultivation has transformed the mind into
the natural effortless state.
The effect of intelligent spontaneity occurs because yin cultivation methods bring us in
touch with a function of our nervous system that has been suppressed from overdoing the
In activating our PSNS through yin cultivation, we get in touch and become more intimate with
the enteric nervous system (ENS) located in the gut.
The ENS is a meshlike network of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal
It is more commonly known as “gut instincts.”
Our gut instincts come from the enteric nervous system, and we can tune into them by downregulating
the sense of “I.”
If we do, we will hear messages from the gut louder and more clearly, and we can act in
accord with spontaneous reactions and judgment calls.
We begin to move as though we can sense the future that we are about to experience.
But all that has really happened is that the ENS is functioning without the hindrance of
the prefrontal cortex and, like Cook Ting, is aligned with the environment.
Activating the ENS evokes our natural spontaneity, removing the fog of intellectual discernment.
When we cultivate yin, our gut instincts are in sync with the environment and with each
This allows us to be natural and effortlessly spontaneous, which are signs of mental authenticity
and a pure heart.
Lao-tzu’s teaching of sticking to the yin with a conservative application of yang aligns
you with the universal order of Tao.
Your entire being becomes an extension of the universe, as the universe has become your
Its magic and splendor come to life as your perception is cleansed and intelligent spontaneity
has been evoked, bringing universal harmony to the world through your consciousness.