Taoism (Daoism) sees the brain a little differently to those of us in the west (not a bad thing ;P). Many in the west might go so far as to proclaim the brain the ‘most important organ,’ but in Taoism, that big lump in your head is not even
A Taoist would probably say that he has three
Tan Tiens are like dams or reservoirs; places where we can store, transform and collect energy (a.k.a. Qi or Ch’i, which is basically a bioelectric current that flows throughout the body).
Our Tan Tiens, when activated, become the source of the Qi that flows via channels, or meridians, that run all over the body like ‘rivers’ of energy.
Qi is created by refining Jing (stored in the kidneys), and the ‘purpose’ of life, more or less, according to a Taoist, is to refine Qi into Shen (in the Middle Tan Tien), and Shen into Wuji (the absolute openness of infinite space) in the Upper Tan Tien. We have a podcast episode related to this very topic!
Finally, Wuji is merged into Tao (divine energy). Basically, one becomes immortal. Kind of like that movie Lucy, which I didn't really like, but you get the idea ;)
Humans are considered pretty special in Taoism, as beings that are living between Earth and Heaven; not fully animal and not fully cosmic.
Qi is also a substance that is between Heaven and Earth, and our atmosphere is full of Qi, which is why deep breathing is so good for us!
This is why a Taoist works so hard to cultivate Qi and preserve Jing (it's one of the reasons we love tonic herbs!) - to ensure their full potential is realized in this lifetime.
According to my Taoist teacher, Master Mantak Chia, the Lower Tan Tien is located in the lower abdomen mid-way between the navel and lumbar region, and that this Tan Tien collects sexual and emotional energies.
The Middle Tan Tien is located midway between the sternum and fifth thoracic vertebrae and collects energies primarily from the heart.
The Upper Tan Tien is located between the
Turns out, modern research is supporting what the Taoists deduced over many thousands of years of observation.
We’ve discovered that our guts and hearts both have neural cells and are supplying our brains with information all day long - read all about how amazing your brain is. Actually, there are more nerves running from the heart to the brain than from the brain to the heart, which suggests it’s the heart doing the bulk of the communication to that big lump of grey stuff inside our skull. Research into intuition is showing that it’s the heart that intuits and the brain uses its signals to make decisions. Neat, huh?
In fact, through the lens of Western science, we see that both the Lower and Middle Tan Tiens communicate with the Upper Tan Tien (or brain) in the following ways:
This is EXACTLY what the Taoists perceived - that the Twelve Principle Organs (we'll get to them below) and their channels become active after birth and assist the individual in relating to the outside world.
In this worldview, the organs are ALL sensory receptors that communicate to a 'hub' (the Tan Tiens), which in turn are responsible for unique decision-making functions. Basically, they're all brains!!! :)
So, all this super cool and nerdy info leads us to proclaim: “By golly, the Taoists were right!!”
What I love about
Ever had one of those moments when every cell in your body was screaming something but your brain was telling you something else? What about when you feel butterflies in your tummy, despite your brain knowing that you are ‘technically’ safe? These are really simple examples of your Tan Tiens being out of sync. But I digress!
The Taoists divided the brain’s functions into three levels; levels that correlate to the functions of the three Tan Tiens.
Level 1 - Survival
Level 2 - Exchange and Interaction with the World
Level 3 - Learning from Living
Taoism places heaps of emphasis on the organs of the body and their roles in cognition and our human experience. We are taught that each organ has a ‘personality,’ and controls certain actions and emotions in the body.
The 12 regular Organ-Channels and their pairing and emotions, identified by
The organs not only control emotions, but also control various aspects of the functions of the Tan Tiens too. As we observe their actions within these energy centers, we begin to see how some of the functions that we in the West assign to the brain, actually belong to other organs in Taoism.
For example, within the Upper Tan Tien the following functions are noted (and the organs that control them are in brackets):
The functions of the Middle Tan Tien and corresponding organs are:
And in the Lower Tan Tien:
As you can see, in Taoist theory, the kidneys control wisdom and intelligence. They also produce the ‘Sea of Marrow’ that forms the brain (the Taoists see the brain as a big bone, filled with marrow). The brain itself in Taoism is considered a bit of a weird organ; it’s classified as one of the six Extraordinary Fu (Organs) and is said to originate out of the kidneys. The kidneys are the first organs to form when we are tiny embryos. The pro-nephros kidneys appear a full two days before the heart (the first 'real' organ to form in
Another thing we can see by observing these relationships above is that a healthy mind, or Upper Tan Tien, requires a harmonious relationship between the Kidney organ system, the Liver, and the Heart, especially. And, well, the Lungs and Spleen do generate the Qi which feeds the brain too, so let’s face it, the whole damn body is important!! ;)
Knowing this stuff can seem a bit academic at first, but as you start to experience the body through the lens of Taoism, it’s pretty incredible to see how accurate the descriptions of the body’s functions can be through the lens of these frameworks.
What it means for us in Brain Gains, is that we can start to see that in order to nourish the brain, we really need to look at the health of the whole body.
Age-related issues (or premature ageing of the brain) are generally related to dysfunction in the six Extraordinary Organs, and depletion of our Jing. The six Extraordinary Channels deal with the process of growth of the individual and the species. They transform Jing into Qi and then Shen. In fact, they are responsible for survival, generating new life and spiritual evolution.
The six Extraordinary (or curious) Organs are:
The brain receives stimuli through the marrow (marrow conducts sensory stimuli) and the Gallbladder governs our desire and capacity to change. Kidney Jing is sent out into the world via the Gallbladder and Heart to become Shen, which basically means we gain life experience and self-awareness, and develop wisdom and become better humans, which can only be a good thing.
The heart in Taoism is the source of consciousness and wisdom, and the place where Shen resides (we send Shen up to the brain from the heart to help evolve our consciousness). In fact, many of the functions of the brain that we
Memory, rather strangely, is said to be stored in the blood in Chinese medicine. Chris McAlister, a Chinese medicine practitioner, states that it is possible that our memories are “stored somewhere in our blood cells and that the act of recall is coincident with the passing of the relevant batch of blood through the requisite memory center of the brain.” Pretty cool, huh? Might explain why sometimes something is right on the tip of our tongue (which happens to be the heart region!) when we can’t quite remember it!
The Chinese were not ignorant of the brain’s functions, of course. There are many references to the head and brain being the seat of intelligence; as well as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and the function of speech, which are all ascribed to the Sea of Marrow (A.K.A. the brain).
Taoist practice is entirely based on sensing and feeling as the primary form of cognition that precedes all other forms. It is through the nervous system that we are able to feel and sense our bodies and our environments. We can use our minds to direct Qi, but if we are disconnected from our bodies, the mind cannot give direction and guidance. In order to feel and sense, our nervous system needs to be in a relaxed state. The moment we get stressed and tense, our body loses its ability to feel and sense.
To enhance general learning and brain health, and the ability to concentrate, Chinese medicine focuses on improving the flow of Qi to the brain (which is exactly what our Neural Nectar is designed to do).
To support the flow of Qi to the brain, we also need to learn to relax, listen to and trust our ‘lower brains’ and defy what our culture so blatantly disregards is important - our own multidimensional nature that is more than just a disembodied brain on legs having abstract thoughts.
I hope that this information inspires you and helps you better understand your noggin and your body! If you haven't already, sign up for our Brain Gains newsletter for articles like this and much more!! Our podcast is a great resource to totally nerd out on, join us for the ride!
The Four Seas accessed via https://www.isshin-gakkai.eu/artiklar
Tan Tien Chi Kung by Mantak Chia
Chi Nei Tsang by Mantak Chia
Compendium of Traditional Chinese Medicine by Serena
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text by Giovanni Maciocia
Taoist Cosmic Healing by Mantak Chia