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  • The American Transformation of Daoist Cultivation1
  • Livia Kohn (bio)

Since 1965, when the Immigration Act was changed to allow Asians to immigrate to the United States, Chinese healing and longevity methods have become increasingly popular in America. Another major factor that propelled Asian healing into the public eye was the fact that James Reston, a writer for the Washington Post, came down with an infected appendix during Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1971 and underwent surgery using acupuncture anesthesia. Over the years Chinese and Chinese-inspired health methods have become known as “complementary and alternative” and, supported by the National Institute of Health, have made their way into the general health-care system.

Several new fields of inquiry have since sprung up that connect Chinese-based methods with modern science. Aside from studies that relate Chinese cosmology to quantum physics (see Capra 1975; Zukav 1979; Bock-Möbius 2012), there are particularly energy medicine and energy psychology. Energy medicine explores what qi is and how to measure it, where in the body the meridians might be located, and how exactly acupuncture, acupressure, and related methods of energy manipulation work.2 This research gradually makes qi-based medicine an acceptable mode of working with the body. [End Page 179]

Energy psychology does something very similar with the mind. It teaches exercises to enhance “energy aptitude” that bear close resemblance to daoyin and qigong and uses specific tapping techniques to release tensions, emotional trauma, and other noxious psychological patterns.3 Studies that compare both systems with biomedicine find them vastly more efficient and less invasive, paving a promising future of Chinese-inspired health care in America.

In the wake of these developments, American health pioneers have also begun to adapt Daoist ideas and methods as based on the ancient classics. In the following I will introduce two: Laozi as cognitive therapy and Zhuangzi for stress reduction.

Laozi as Cognitive Therapy

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common ailment especially among Chinese and Asian populations. Its key features are excessive worry and anxiety, coupled with overly high expectations of self and others and a general sense of lack of control. It is usually chronic and rather difficult to treat. In its extreme forms it can lead to a decrease in overall functioning, to various physical ailments, and to a shortened life expectancy.

Also common in mainland China, psychologists here have worked variously with cognitive and behavioral modes of therapy to alleviate the disorder. Especially Drs. Zhang Yalin and Yang Desen, based at the Mental Health Institute of Hunan Medical University in Changsha, have developed a particular way of utilizing concepts and life advice from the Laozi, finding its overall life principles and flexible approach to personality development particularly helpful (Zhang et al. 2002). The Daoist scholar Lü Xichen, moreover, from Central South University, also in Changsha, has described the philosophical background of the therapy in linking ancient Daoist thought as expressed in the Laozi with modern cognitive therapy (Lu 2011).

Classical cognitive therapy acknowledges the interrelatedness of cognition, affect, and behavior: how people understand and perceive [End Page 180] events influences their responses on the level of emotion and action. As described by its founders Albert Ellis (1975) and Aaron Beck (1975), it therapy seeks to help the patient overcome difficulties by identifying and changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses. It works thus by modifying beliefs, identifying distorted thinking, relating to others in different ways, and changing behaviors. The goal is a greater sense of inner authenticity reached through the appreciation of how one’s thoughts and perceptions color emotions and lead to certain kinds of behavior, how certain ways of being in the world are unhelpful and dysfunctional and can be replaced by more appropriate and lifeenhancing attitudes (Lu 2011, 37).

Most recently, the Daoist-based modification of cognitive therapy as grown in Hunan has been introduced into the U. S. under the name Taoist Cognitive Psychotherapy (TCP). It works in three stages of treatment and utilizes four pairs of principles from the Laozi as its central mode of cognitive modification. The three stages of treatment are:

1. Orientation and Assessment—developing a therapeutic relationship, introducing the...


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pp. 179-195
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