Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Making a Homunculus

One of the things that separates Daoism from other religious world-views is the way it has traditionally posited that the human body is an important part of the spiritual man. In contrast, most other religions have tended towards a form of dualism where something like a "soul" inhabits a body like a human being driving a car. In philosophy this dualism is known as the "Cartesian Theatre".

The Cartesian Theatre seems like a reasonable hypothesis to the naive person, but suffers from being subject to an infinite regress. If the only way we can explain consciousness is by having a little man who lives in our heads (or a soul in the machine), then doesn't the "little man" also have to have a little man in his head (or, doesn't the soul itself have to be inhabited by a soul)?

In answer to this problem, modern psychologists have posited that human consciousness is a result of complex processes that take place in the entire body. And with a little reflection this should make sense to everyone. After all, a lot of our consciousness is controlled by hormones. Our sex drive makes us act in ways that has nothing to do with reason or logic, for example. In fact, almost all of our behaviour is ultimately driven by emotions that are instinctual in nature: fear, hunger, anger, lust, envy, jealously, etc.

Physiologists refer to the human sensory nerves by creating an image that they call a "homunculus". The idea is to draw a human being where the size of the various bodily parts corresponds to the relative density of nerve endings in that specific part.

By doing so, they are presenting a pictoral representation of how our body actually feels to the conscious mind. Since the process of neidan ("internal alchemy") involves becoming more and more aware of how the internal body operates, it actually involves changing the way we experience the body we inhabit. As a result, someone who had practised a style of internal alchemy for a long time, for example taijiquan, would have a different homunculus drawing to represent how they experience the world around them. A taijiquan player homunculus, for example, be shown with a much larger set of hips and spine, as the process of learning taijiquan involves learning to be much more aware of those parts of the body than is normal in our society. Modern science shows that this is possible because the human brain can and routinely does change itself in response to the behaviour of the individual. In the case of the internal alchemist, the hours and decades of disciplined practice changes the way the brain is organized.

Beyond the nerve endings that control our muscles and joints, there are also hormones that flow through our bodies. A homunculus rendering that attempted to show how our hormones affect our emotions would be a much more difficult thing to render, but it might be interesting to think about what it might look like. For example, I have a tendency to weep at the drop of a hat when I am overcome with strong emotions. (I cry buckets at sappy movies.) I can also become filled with rage at a drop of hat. (This is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.) This also has characteristic responses, such as clenching various muscles.

Through the ages different Daoists have noticed these sorts of things and have attempted to integrate them into their understanding of the human being. An early idea was that there were specific "gods" or "demons" that inhabited different parts of the body. The idea was that the alchemist should learn to control these different Gods by living a life that starved them of what they needed to become active. In the popular Daoist book Journey to the West, Monkey (who epitomizes the untrained human mind) has a terrible temper and when he "loses it" the narrator talks about the "brain worms" going wild in his head. Similarly, there are texts that talk about different "demons" or "worms" living in the heart, liver, etc-----organs that had their own specific influence on different elements of the human consciousness.

Daoists have also created their own homunculus diagrams in order to illustrate the way that various parts of the human body interact and work to modify our consciousness. The most famous one was copied from a stone carving in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. It is called the "Neijing Tu". I have a copy on the wall of my hermitage's shrine room and have spent more than a little time looking at it trying to learn from it.

The version that I have is slightly different from the one above, but the main thing to remember about it is that it is the result of a tradition of people spending a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with the way their consciousness interacts with their body. The important point for the practitioner is not to learn how to decode the symbols that abound in the diagram, but to think about how their own experience of their body relates to the pictorial representations and what they might inform their own experience. That's because the experience of neidan is so personal that unless you find someone else who has made the same sort of efforts as you, it will be impossible to explain exactly what you are talking about without hopelessly confusing the other person. As such, the best you can do is what the person who carved the stele at the White Cloud Temple has done and leave a hint for the odd individual who will live in future generations.


Martin said...

Hello agan - this was very interesting - I'd heard about internal alchemy. I used to practice Ki Aikido (not a Taoist martial art, but not wholly incompatible), and that involves a certain amounto of "experimenting with the way ... consciousness interacts with the body". It seems to me though, contrary to what you suggest, that people who do even a small amount of this, do seem to come up with quite similar things.

Funny you should mention Descartes ... as you know he located his homunculus, the soul, in the pineal gland, behind the eyes in the centre of the head. With a quite small imaginative effort you can 'locate' yourself there - it does sort of feel, like *something*, a real thing. 'Behind the eyes in the centre of the head' is the position of one of the chakras isn't it? I'm not suggesting that chakras are "real" in the same sense as kidneys and livers, (that mistake would be a route to dangerous nonsense), but I do think they might be part of a good description of the subjective experience of human physicality. (I think the technical term in western philsophy would be a "phenomenological" description). A universal description as well - if someone like Descarte could stumble on part of it.

Another western example, where again you have this description of the experience of physicality, but combined with an attempt to change that experience of your body, might be the Alexander Technique. I'll admit I never took to it, (possibly because what I'd learned from aikido was more useful, or better articulated, or otherwise more suitable for what I needed), but it has a lot of currency in the perfoming arts.

I am of course, quite happy to admit I don't know what I'm talking about.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well, it would make sense that a Japanese art who's name translates as "the Dao of Chi" would have resonances with Neidan or internal alchemy. I do agree that there are commonalities between people's experiences---I just think that communication is exceptionally difficult.

With regard to Descartes, I wonder if someone who had been blind from birth would posit that the soul resides in the hands? That is, did Descartes posit the soul in the pineal gland because that is the focal point of our eyesight?

This isn't a trivial issue. I've done a lot of experimental meditation. One practice I did for a while was to focus my hearing the way we focus our eyes. I found that with practice I could sweep around me with my consciousness of hearing. I read somewhere about a child who was blind from birth and he had learned how to echo-locate like a bat and used this to navigate around his surroundings.

Another practice I learned was a very strange experience of splitting my consciousness into two parts---so there were two "me"s, one looking out my left eye and one looking out the right. (One of the differences I noticed between the White Cloud Temple chart that I have and the one I posted on the blog is that mine has the eyes described as one a full moon and the other as a waning crescent. The one on the blog just has two circles.)

It is darned difficult to explain things like the above to someone that you have a deep, long term relationship with in a religious institution. In fact, unless someone is also intensely following a program of internal alchemy it's been my experience that people will simply misunderstand what you are saying. That's why I think so many Daoist literature is evocative instead of phenomenological in nature. People just gave up trying to explain what they were doing and became content with simply pointing a finger at the moon.

I can understand this point of view. A large part of the reason why I'm a hermit is because I find that almost no one I meet is interested in this sort of thing. Those that say they are, are not willing to put the effort into learning that would be necessary to enter into a real dialectic with me.

So, in a way, this blog is like that stele that some Daoist carved in the 19th century.