Taoist Psychotherapy


Taoist Psychotherapy

by Kathryn Mickle

Emotion is the beauty and the bane of our existence. When we feel joy and happiness and love, there is nothing nicer. However when we fall into the depths of despair, we wish that we could never feel any emotion.

In Western societies there is a great discrepancy over how to show emotion, especially anger, and whether it is better for you to act it out. In therapies, such as “primal scream” which were prevalent in the sixties, it was felt that it was best to “let it all out” but, recently, they have discovered that this display of anger can be harmful to the health both of the one engaged in it as well as of the recipients of it. What is the answer then, if we agree that holding in such emotion can create sickness in your body as well as disturbance in your mind?

As a therapist in practice for many years, I have modified my methods of dealing with life’s’ problems and the emotions accompanying them. I use a mixture of counseling, hypnotherapy and Eastern practices and philosophy. Hypnotherapy helps us release conditioned thinking patterns which have been with us from childhood. The practices of Qigong and Taijiquan, with their emphasis on balance and harmony, along with the underlying Taoist philosophy, help teach people to deal with strong, emotional situations. Properly understood, Eastern practices can be a valid therapeutic tool.

In Chinese practices, emotion is acknowledged as a creator of disease stored in certain parts of the body. Some Qigong practices (such as 6 Healing Sounds and Fusion Meditation) recognize the organs which house the various emotions. Breathing and meditation exercises are practiced which recycle the emotion into a healthy energy which moves freely through the body.

In such practices, we recognize that, just as the negative emotion resides within the organ, so does the positive one. In our society, it is easy to concentrate on the negative energy and allow that to intensify, but we do not know how to make positive emotions grow. These practices help us have ways to develop positive energy.

The ultimate aim of Taoist practices, however, is to feel our emotions but to not let them take hold – to cultivate a quiet mind. The practices of Qigong and Taijigong (Taijiquan is a form of Qigong) train us to move slowly and consciously, in touch with any part of the body that feels painful. Instead of ignoring it or taking a pill to get rid of it, we hear its cry for help and realize that this is a part of us where our emotions are blocked. The tensions that we feel in our body have been built up for years by our reaction to the stresses around us.

What we are learning in the movement and philosophy of Taoist Taijiquan is another way of looking at things which is demonstrated in the movement. One of the major ideas in Taijiquan is the movement between Yin and Yang. What the Chinese mean by Yin is the more “feminine”, more receptive, passive yielding aspects of life and the Yang is the more “masculine”, active, hard and aggressive. In the practice of Taijiquan, we alternate between these two positions. At times, we have one part of our body in a Yang position and another is in a Yin position. What this demonstrates in life is the flow between these two positions. Sometimes we have to be aggressive and hard but soon after we can yield and pull back. As we flow between these two positions, we stay in the knowledge that there is always another perspective, that the main thing is to be able to flow from one perspective to another.

To achieve harmony is the main aim of the Taoist philosophy. Realizing that there is this dual quality of all things is to recognize that, in all perceived harmful situations, is the seed of the opposite quality. If you look at the Yin/Yang symbol, you will see that each part flows into the other, each is half of the same whole and each contains a seed of the other. In fact, the whole image represents a circle or a sphere which represents the harmonious movement of life. As you watch taijiquan, as a form, you will observe the circular motion of all the movements and how many of them, if watched closely, look like the Tai Chi symbol.

When we do the practice of Taijiquan or Qigong, we learn to empty our mind of all thoughts which intrude upon us. By concentrating on the slow movement and on our breath, we find that the disturbing thoughts, which might have been there at one time, have disappeared from our mind. Over time, in these practices, we learn to flow with emotions. In this world, it is hard not to feel strong, disturbing emotions, but, what is important is not how many times we feel an emotion but how many times we can let it go. In particular, the 6 Healing Sounds are ways of concentrating on the actual emotion you are feeling and doing the sound, as you visualize it leaving your organ and your mind. As you concentrate on the opposite emotion, you visualize your organ being cleared of anything destructive and anything unhealthy being replaced by the positive emotion and a healing color. These are not only thought-stopping techniques but they are positive visualizations which have been proven to have very real effect

Some of the hardest emotions to try to change are the hard-core conditioned responses which are almost automatic, whether fear or anger, which seem to come almost outside of our awareness. They creep up on us and suddenly we feel a certain way which is very familiar and even habitual. Since these have taken a while to form, they also take a while to disappear. We need to develop a new habit.The therapy called “Neurolinguistic Programming’ which was developed out of the practice of hypnosis has very specific ways of becoming aware of a habit and programming a new response. For example, a person might snap his or her fingers which is now associated with a happy event instead of a negative event.

Similarly the Taoist practice has another way of reacting to an event. If, perhaps, you found yourself feeling sad in response to a situation or a feeling of sadness came over you when you were not expecting it, the first response is to concentrate on the feeling and then go into your body and see where that feeling is. Being a hypnotherapist, I would even ask you to identify an early time in your life when you felt that feeling once before. This is usually in early childhood. I have people picture themselves as children and, bringing that childhood consciousness into their awareness, I give them exercises to reprogram it. Using the Taoist practice, I would ask the person to do the practice of the inner smile, smiling into every part of the body and into the body of the child in their imagination. If they are not visual, I would give them exercises using other senses.

Another element of my therapy is to teach another way of looking at a situation. The concept of non-attachment is an important one in Taoist philosophy and a hard one for us, in the West, to comprehend. It is allowing ourselves to feel the emotion but to have ways of letting it go. It is a way of looking at life without being part of the drama. It is a way of looking at what we are doing without being attached to the results and a way of relating to people without expectations. How do we do this in the modern world?

We have to change our way of viewing life, to see that our life is far more than it appears on the surface. It is to be able to pull aside when there is something happening which is very dramatic and is capturing our attention, and to be able to view it from a higher perspective. The Tao Te Ching says “Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return…Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.” ( p. 16 Mitchell translation) This means to me that, if we are aware of the fact that we have a universal purpose and that, as human beings we will return to spirit, we look at the turmoil surrounding us and know that we are just seeing part of the picture. To take it further, everything we are experiencing is a lesson and we can learn from it. If we do this from a detached perspective, we can see ourselves objectively and learn to move away from harmful situations. We start to see patterns in our life which are often destructive, whether it be in our relationships, work situations, or ability to attract money. Taken from this higher perspective, we start to notice the patterns which follow us and we know that we have a choice to remove them.

How can the practices of Qigong and Taijiquan help us get this new perspective? As we start to really be in touch with the movements, we allow our mind to let go of outside concerns and only concentrate on what we are doing. Our mind and body start to move in harmony, as we move with a relaxed body. The movement is slow and flowing, and, in time, we start to actually feel the flow of energy. In fact, the energy moves us. As well as feeling this chi inside us, we learn to access the energies around us; the earth energy and the spiritual energy from the cosmic forces and the universe. We find ourselves aware of a this energy and find that it is possible to connect it to our center or our core. The more we do these practices, the more we can start to feel that “still, small voice inside us”, the one we look for in meditation.

The place of Wu Chi is another important concept in Taoist philosophy, that of non-action. Non-action does not mean not doing. It is a state of complete harmony with the Tao; that is, knowing that there is a supreme force outside of ourselves which, if we follow it, will take us where we are to be. If we observe nature, we see that nothing is forced, everything happens in its cycle. We, as humans, try to force things to happen and often work against the natural flow of our life.

If we allow things to flow naturally, we would be open to hearing our intuition and following our path which is often our purpose in this lifetime. There are always things which we like to do beyond all others and, if we listened to those still urgings inside, we would follow our heart. If we watched how our body resists through pain or sickness, we would know that we are trying to force ourselves to do things which are against our purpose. It is to be in touch with that non-active state to live a long, full, healthy, productive life.

The Tao Te Ching says

Act without doing;

work without effort.

Think of the small as large

and the few as many.

Confront the difficult

while it is still easy;

accomplish the great task

by a series of small acts.

(p. 63 Mitchell translation)

What does that tell us about our life? Often we are so intent upon reaching for prestige, recognition or glory that we do not focus on the small tasks that would take us there. We spend time living in the past or the future instead of the present and always feel dissatisfied with our lives. What we need to do is be able to go into the stillness, the non-action of the moment. It is only by living in the moment that we can be in touch with true contentment. Usually we are immersed in the problems of the past or the worries of the future and we base our whole existence on those two states. That state of non-doing or inaction is a time toknow your purpose and the next action you will take. Sometimes, when we are truly in this state, if we are working on something or performing, we feel that state of complete effortlessness. Then we are in a state of non-action, even though we are acting, but the difference is that we are acting in harmony with the Tao.

How can we achieve this state through Taijiquan or Qigong? As described before, these gentle, flowing movements help us get in touch with an inner quietness but also, after we do them for a while, we get a sense of your own inner power and capability as well as a connection to spirit. In these focused, concentrated efforts we get a feeling of flowing in the present. They are a moving meditation and the postures start and end in the “Wu Chi” stance in which we get a sense of the quietness before and after movement, the power of letting go.

These practices help us calm our emotions and restore balance and harmony to our lives. They, along with the underlying philosophy, introduce a mind/body/spirit approach to traditional therapy.

Dr. Kathryn Mickle is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist who was introduced in the early 1980s to Eastern practices while doing Chinese students’ stress research for which she received international acclaim. As well as teaching and conducting workshops, she is a practitioner of Taijiquan, Qigong, Japanese Taiko Drumming and is a Certified Associate Instructor of The International Healing Tao. She is a Family Mediator, Reiki Master, Hypnosis Instructor and co-founder of Tao Institute, Products of Purpose and Wellness Institute. She is co-author of Tao Cards.