Friday, March 20, 2015

Mencius: What is it to be a Human Being?

I've been very, very sick with the flu for the past four weeks or so.  As a result, I haven't had the energy to do any of the regular things that give my life design and purpose:  taijiquan and writing.  Even reading fell apart, as I was simply too tired to do much more than prop myself in front of the computer and watch cheesy old science fiction shows on YouTube.

Mencius
As my energy has returned, I did have enough to glance through a translation of Mencius that I have been wanting to read for quite a few years. He is usually considered the second most important author in the Confucian canon, and someone that anyone who is interested in ancient Chinese thought should be interested in learning more about.  He is especially of interest because he promoted the ideal of the "mandate of heaven" and also was interested in the role of meditation in the life of scholars and officials.

I just got into the David Hinton translation.  As you can see from the Wikipedia article, Hinton is a translator and a poet, as opposed to a philosopher or Confucianist.  This tells me to be a bit careful about the translation, as it is possible to be a scholar and good translator, and still not have a clue about what you are translating if you haven't studied the actual field as well. 
David Hinton

So take what follows for what it is worth. the words on the page might actually bear no resemblance to what Mencius actually meant. But having said that, I am responding as a philosopher and someone who is trying to live a life in harmony with the Dao, instead of attempting to be a scholar who is trying to expand our collective understanding of a specific human being who lived thousands of years ago.  

The second part of the third book "Kung-Sun Ch'ou", riveted my attention.  Originally, I was interested about the references to the "qi flood" (more about that in another post), but the more I thought about the piece, the more I was struck by the form that it took and what that says about the human condition.  Mencius is asked a series of questions about specific individuals, and he responds to each by discussing the way those people practised self-cultivation through a specific practice.  It is, if you will, a meditation on the concept of kungfu (specifically as "applied great effort", not to mean just martial arts.)  

The words (pardon me, what do I call this sort of writing?  it clearly isn't an essay) start off referring to the ability to still the mind.  When asked how someone goes about doing this thing, Mencius makes an analogy with someone called Po-kung Yu, who cultivated "valour" by cultivating a state of mind where he never ever back off from a quarrel.  He 
never bowed down and never broke off a stare.  He knew that the least intimidation was as bad as being slapped in the marketplace.  An affront was the same to him whether it came from a peasant or a sovereign who commanded a nation of ten thousand war chariots, he'd run his sword through the august lord as easily as the peasant. He knew every insult had to be returned in kind. 
Mencius then goes on to refer to Meng Shih-she, who also cultivated "valour" and described the process as follows:

I consider defeat victory. To gauge an enemy before attacking, to calculate your chances of success before fighting---that is to live in fear of great armies. How can I ever be certain of victory? All I can do is live without fear.   
Mencius maintains that there was a difference between the two, not in the amount of valour that each manifested, but rather in the way they did it. He argues that Meng did it through the use of qi. "It's impossible to say which of the two had the most profound valour, but Meng Shih-she nurtured his qi".

Next Mencius goes on to another example, Master Tseng:
If you look within and find yourself less than honourable, you'll fear even a peasant as an enemy.  But if you look within and find yourself honourable, you'll face even an army of ten million men.
 Tseng's valour is based not on qi, but something else, Mencius says it is based on "nurturing essentials". (This is the place where knowing old Chinese would be nice, as I don't really know what it is that Hinton is translating as "nurturing essentials".)

As you can see, Mencius is contrasting three different people and their personal "kung fu" or strategies for developing a specific human quality, "valour".  Po-kung Yo built his "valour" (what we would call "physical courage") around a macho, aggressive "don't give me any shit" attitude.  He was like an ancient Chinese version of Peter Tosh constantly singing "Steppin' Razor" to himself.





This is different from Meng Shih-she, who put the emphasis on total indifference to outcome and instead cultivated a totally fatalistic attitude towards life.  A good example of this attitude comes from a Zen story I once heard.  When the Mongols were conquering China they occupied a Buddhist Temple.  Everyone fled except the old Zen Master, who was found quietly meditating in one of the buildings.  A Mongol officer came storming into the Hall and confronted the unruffled old man.  Surprised and annoyed at the lack of fear, he yelled out "Don't you understand that I could kill you without batting an eye!"  At that, the Master replied "And don't you understand that you could kill me without me batting an eye?"

There are problems with these two sources of valour, however.  The first one, the "steppin razor" type, leads to stupid, thuggish behavour and generally ends badly for the people who follow it.  The second also ends badly, because mere courage alone can be manipulated to bad ends by authority figures.  Brian Victoria has built a career around explaining how the cult of fearlessness in Japanese Zen ended up being co-opted into supporting the Imperial Japanese war machine.

The last version that Mencius cites as an example comes from Master Tseng.  It is based on morality.  The courage that he manifests comes from believing that he is "doing the right thing".  Another way of looking at these three "daos" of courage is to see it in terms of the ego.  The first one consists of building the ego up to the point where it overwhelms other considerations.  The second consists of cutting it down to the point where it's continued existence becomes an irrelevance.  And the third is that of putting it in the service of some higher good.

What I find interesting in the exercise are two things.  First, that it is possible to parse out these different ways of being a human being.  Second, that each man developed their own specific tactics to manifest a human quality that they felt valuable. Most people I meet in my day-to-day life take it as a given that the personal psychology they have is something that they were born with and/or had imposed upon them at an early age.  The idea that they can choose to nurture or starve a way of responding the world around them is totally alien.

Of course, this raises one of those "chicken or the egg" discussions.  Do people choose to be the sorts of people who want to become valorous?  Or are people simply born that way?  I'm not going to answer that question to my satisfaction in a blog post.  But it is a good place to end this part of the discussion.  In my next one I think I'll try to figure out what Mencius was going on about with his talk about qi.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Interior Life and It's Limits

Yesterday I was riding the bus to work and I noticed a woman get on, who I know suffers from some sort of psychiatric disorder. She is an older woman who once taught at the university and is of that generation of academic women who at the same time appear very prim and proper in a 1950s sort of way, yet who hold quite radical feminist notions.

As we rode down the road, I could see that she was getting slightly more agitated and eventually, she stood up and curtsied.  She sat down again for a few moments, then she eventually got up and curtsied again. Again, a shorter wait, and she curtsied again.  Eventually she could no longer sit down and got off at the next stop---even though I saw her get a transfer and suspect she had intended to remain on the bus until my destination, where other buses also stop and transfers take place.

What struck me at the time, was that I was in the midst of a bit of a "mind storm" myself in that I had some ideas rattling around in my brain that I simply couldn't stop saying over and over again to myself.  At this time, they were "I wish my wife lived with me" and "I wish my wife wasn't sick."  (She is currently in the midst of a psychotic episode, which happens about once a year or so and she lives a thousand miles away to take care of her invalid mother.)

Mystics talk about something called "the interior life", which is a life spent thinking about and contemplating the nature of human consciousness.  Meditation, "Holding onto the One", "Sitting and Forgetting", Internal Alchemy, etc, are all things that someone does who spends her time thinking about herself and the universe.  One of the things that happens when you do this, however, is that you find that within your mind there are voices and thoughts that need to be controlled or else they will eat you alive.

I suspect that the woman on the bus is someone who periodically loses her battles and that is why she stands up and curtsies.  (I wonder if this was something that she had pounded into her head when she was a little girl and it has become the symbol of her upper class background that fights against her radical feminism---making her consciousness a permanent battleground?  Stupid speculation with too little information, but that is the permanent battleground in my mind!)

A large part of my spiritual practice consists of learning how to control my consciousness.  For example, I will become more and more agitated if I do not work at calming it down on a regular basis.  I've learned, for example, that I need to read, write and do taijiquan at least a little most days or else I become progressively more "scattered" and drained of energy.  I don't know if the process was left long enough I might end up like the woman on the bus, but I fear that it might be a possibility.  I do know that if I stop the taijiquan my body starts to fall apart, though.  I get pain in my feet, knees, and shoulders.  And I start to get migraine headaches.

Last Sunday I had some friends together to try to form an organization to create a co-op retirement community.  Most of us are people who have just finished dealing with the deaths of our parents and don't have any children of our own.  This experience has "riveted out attention" to the question of what we are going to do when we are no longer able to live totally independent lives but have no children to help out. The result was a meeting where we all admitted that we should probably do something and agreed to work together to see if there is something that we can do.

The meeting went well, but I couldn't help noticing something about myself that I found annoying.  I am totally useless at small talk.  I ramble.  I fixate on my own personal problems (not everyone wants to hear about my tendonitis or the fact that my wife is sick) and tell "amusing anecdotes" that are in terrible taste.  The problem is that when we indulge in small talk the flow has to come naturally or else it doesn't come at all.  When I was younger, I didn't even try.  In social settings I would just head off to the bar, get hammered and leave early.  Luckily, while small talk is important, if you are someone who actually has other worthwhile features, good people will eventually realize that you are a bit of a "diamond in the rough" and cut you slack---like my friends at this meeting.  But I still gross myself out with my terrible inability to do the "chit chat" thing.

Last Saturday I went to a party that the city held for an old friend of mine, who has been mayor for many years and recently lost an election and is finally back in private life.  It was odd hearing her talked about by "important" people (a Chief of Police mc'd the event), but one thing was kinda funny.  A Liberal Party apparatchik talked about meeting this friend of mine and realizing that she is basically a shy person (or at least was when she started out.)  The speaker said how surprised she was by this, as most politicians aren't shy people.

This is the great thing about her worship.  She has had an interior life of some great value.  She is very smart, and, she really understands a lot of things that I suspect she will never tell most of the "important" folks she met.  That is a form of discipline I can never begin to understand.  But it is something that I can respect.  Luckily, I suspect that she understands the road I have followed in life has taken me in a different, but equally valuable direction.  The solitude that I follow allows me to work out new thoughts to their ultimate direction.  It also allows me to be frank and honest about things in a way that no politician could ever do.  (Writing a blog post like this one would be political suicide.)  It is this mutual respect that has allowed us to be friends over the years, and I treasure it.

The lives we lead have enormous impact on the way our minds work.  So choose wisely!

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One last point, only somewhat related to the above.  In comments to a past post a commentator said that he was surprised that a Blog titled "Diary of a Daoist Hermit" would be written by someone who isn't a "hermit" or even a "Daoist".  I think I have covered these issues in the past, but my wife suggested that I should explain them again.  She didn't understand the terms either until I explained them.

First of all, a "hermit" is not the same thing as a "recluse".  A recluse is someone who has decided to separate themselves from human society.  A hermit, on the other hand, is someone who has isolated himself from an ecclesiastic organization.  Monks are part of a community.  Priests are part of a church.  But a hermit is someone who has to find a way of supporting himself and gets to make his own decisions about his faith.  You will not find this definition in secular dictionaries, but they usually have only the vaguest understanding of spiritual matters.  And religious texts like the Catholic Encyclopedia always twist definitions in a way to exclude anything that might undermine orthodoxy.  But this definition is the way it was explained to me by a Catholic hermit that I met with for years.  Using this specific, technical definition, I am a hermit because I have severed my ties with orthodox religious Daoism.

Secondly, what is or isn't "Daoism" has consumed a great many academic pages, and I am loathe to raise the issue one more time.  But here goes.  The Daoist school of Chinese philosophy arose at roughly the same time as the other schools of "Legalism", "Confucianism", and, "Mozi".  The original authors were as near as I can tell, an oral tradition that resulted in the works of the Dao De Jing, the Nei-Yeh, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  Most scholars believe that these people had absolutely nothing to do with what later became known as religious Daoism.  That is a later development and was created in reaction to Buddhism, and adopted much of its ritual formalism and melded it to native Chinese shamanism, "traditional Chinese religion", and, the teachings of the early Daoists.  I make no bones about not being an orthodox religious Daoist.  But I do try to follow the early philosophy.

Incidentally, I have adopted the religious name of "Cloudwalking Owl" for a very specific reason.  My last name is old Welsh for "member of the Owl Clan".  This is not only something that I read in a book, it is also an old family tradition.  Secondly, in religious Daoism an initiated member of a Daoist Temple sometimes decided to seek wisdom by wandering the countryside and visiting other Temples, hermits and so on, in order to gather wisdom.  Since I have been very ecclectic in my practise and have studied with Buddhist Monks, the Jesuits, studied Philosophy at University, etc, I am very clearly someone who follows the path of "cloudwalking".

Finally, I actually am someone who was initiated into a religious Daoist lineage.  I was invited into the lineage by a recognized priest, offered the three sticks of incense and kowtowed before the altar of the ancestors.  The fact is that there is a very strong argument that I am a "Daoist hermit", who has a legitimate name of "the Cloudwalking Owl".  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Daoist Diet and FODMAP

I've recently started to put a bit of emphasis on my diet.  Primarily, this has come about because my wife was concerned about the way certain foods affect me.  I have suffered from what would probably be called "Irritable Bowel Syndrome" for most of my life.  I sometimes get terrible gas, horrible diarrhea, and cramps that will go on for days at a time.  I'd just basically given up caring about this problem, and just accepted it as part of life---just like my horribly flat feet. 

But since my dearly beloved is new to all of this, she insisted that I try to do something about it, so she insisted I try a gluten free diet, even though I thought that it was all just a lot of poppycock. I was complaining about this with a friend, but he sent me a link to an essay from the website, "science-based medicine" that suggested that while people might not be helped by cutting gluten out of their diet, a type of sugar that is associated with foods high in gluten might be causing them problems.  Reading this article, then got me interested in a specific diet the "FODMAP" that helps people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  Basically, this diet tries to reduce some very subtle elements of our diet that seem to cause problems with some people's digestive system.  Studies at Monash University in Australian seem to indicate that this is the only treatment that has ever been found to work with everyone who has IBS. 

This is pretty interesting stuff to anyone who's suffered this disease.  I mentioned it to my MD during my last check-up and he'd heard of it.  His exact words were "Gluten free diets are a silly fad designed to get people to waste money on over-processed foods.  But the FODMAP is legitimate medicine, I recommend it to my patients."  

The diet is pretty involved, but I have tried to follow it to the best of my abilities.  A couple of interesting wrinkles are involved.  For one, it recommends a real reduction in the amount of foods one eats that are high in gluten---except for sour dough wheat bread that has been allowed to slowly rise over a long period of time. The theory is that the digestion process allows the wild yeasts to pre-digest those elements of wheat flour that I have problems with.  As a result, I've begun to make my own sour dough bread.  

And here's a video that discusses this point :  

I also came across this press release from the university where I work that suggests that sour dough bread is good for your blood sugar levels.   

What has this got to do with Daoism?  

Well, what we eat has always been an issue with regard to what the Daoists call "waidan" or "external alchemy".  This is the old school of Daoism that suggested that people should do crazy things like eat mercury in order to become an accomplished man.  This eventually died out and was replaced by "neidan" or "internal alchemy", which was the idea that people should cultivate themselves through meditation and yoga, such as "sitting and forgetting" and taijiquan, respectively.  Modern Daoists still are interested in the effects that come from specific types of diet, however.  Quanhzen Daoists, for example, are supposed to be vegetarians and not eat garlic or onions, for example.  

I've always been very wary of these dietary restrictions because I constantly got conflicting statements about what I should or shouldn't eat.  For example, the school of Daoism I was initiated into is supposed to be vegetarian, but the teacher who ran the school was adamant that everyone should eat meat in order to be healthy.  In fact, if he found out someone was not eating meat, he would sit next to him at meals and take meat off the platter with his chopsticks and put it in the guy's bowl and make him eat it!  

Anyway, when I was at my wife's house over the Winter Solstice, she was adamant that everyone would eat only FODMAP, except for the feast.  She printed off a list of foods, both acceptable and forbidden off this site, and we ate accordingly.  I have to say that the results were quite remarkable.  I haven't felt this good in a long time.  And when I do stray from the rules, I notice problems right away.  I've been trying to figure out where traditional Daoist rules fit into the FODMAP and there doesn't seem to be much correlation at all.  They both are adamantly opposed to garlic and onions, but FODMAP is also opposed to mushrooms, which are something that my Daoist teacher recommended as being very beneficial. Both FODMAP and my teacher are in favour of meat, but Quanzhen Daoism is vegetarian.  

So, go figure.  But the one thing that his has done has got me thinking about diet as a mechanism for pursuing Daoism, which I suppose is something new.  There are a myriad of Daos to pursue in our brief lives!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Walking the Talk now available as a Paperback

Just a quick note, my book on environmental awareness, engagement and the need for practical philosophies, like Daoism, is now available as a paperback. I know that quite a few people are resistant to ebooks, so now you have an alternative.  Only $15 at Lulu Books.
http://www.lulu.com/ca/en/shop/bill-hulet/walking-the-talk-engaging-the-public-to-build-a-sustainable-world/paperback/product-22002031.html 

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Non-Resolution

I've been spending the last two and a half weeks with my dear wife, who resides in another city and country from me because she cares for her invalid mother.  Not having to work during this time, I've been catching up on reading as well as doing things with her.  One thing we did was head off to a thrift store where we loaded up on some old books (they are 15 cents a pound at her favourite one.)

Janwillem van de Wetering
We came across a motherlode of taijiquan, kungfu and Zen books, amongst others.  Included in this embarrassment of riches were the first two books in Janwillen Van De Wittering's trilogy about Zen:  The Empty Mirror, and, A Glimpse of Nothingness. These books have aged well and have created a wealth of thoughts about life, the universe and everything.

Van de Wetering was a fascinating character in that he was a pretty much total generalist.  He was a beatnick who studied Zen under real masters.  He was also a successful businessman.  He had a successful career in the police force (in the reserves) where he quickly rose through the ranks.  (He joined as a means of dealing with problems he had with his national service requirements----Holland allows someone to do other things besides military service.) And he wrote amazingly good detective novels.  I aspire to be as much of a well-rounded guy as him.

If there is an important point that Wetering emphasized in his books on Zen, it was that of what us Daoists would call "the Void".  That is, that we live in a world of complete potentiality, or, as the Laozi would say "Being comes from Nothing".  With regard to our lived experience, the point is to not hem ourselves in with our own personal descriptions of who we are.   We are not fixed in time, prisoners of our past, but rather bubbles of potential that each every moment have the opportunity to engage with the world around us in new and unexpected ways.

Moy Lin Shin
One of the very few times I ever recall hearing Moy Lin Shin (the fellow who initiated me into Daoism) talk about anything was about the importance of getting rid of the ego.  For him (remember, that everything I ever heard him say was strained through absolutely abysmal translators), the "ego" is that little voice that tells you "oh, I couldn't do that!".

That's a pretty important lesson.

In van de Wetering's book his experience with his Japanese teacher was that the trappings of Zen were ruthlessly excised if they were not immediately valuable to his training.  This extend to the point where he was strongly discouraged from formally becoming a Buddhist (what's the point?)  The only thing that mattered to the teacher was for van de Wetering to "wake up".

I feel pretty much the same way.

I recently had a short conversation in the discussion section of a past post with someone who seemed somewhat disappointed that I haven't been putting a lot of effort into writing about Daoism and being a hermit.  I suppose I haven't.  Part of that probably involves changes in my interests, but I think that mostly it comes from my increasing comfort with the essence of Daoism to the exclusion of the trappings.  I don't offer incense to the land god anymore, but I still keep the altar outside my door.  I packed up my internal altars.

I still do taijiquan, and have been teaching myself the Yang spear form to add to my other sets.  I don't do any formal meditation practice either.  But I do find myself spending a lot of time in self-observation and "holding onto the One" in my day-to-day life.

I suspect that a lof of these changes have come about from my being married.  My dear and beloved significant other has become a mirror that reflects back to me many things.  She has precious little time for pretense and "flummery", which is probably why I've packed up a lot of the play-acting with funny robes and incense.  But she is adamant that I write and do taiji.  She also stretches me in very interesting ways.

Yesterday after breakfast she got quite adamant with me about how I was using what she called "white male privilege".  What she was referring to was the way a lot of women will defer (actually shut up and not try to argue) to me when I get emotional about an issue.  We had a long talk about it, and then our day moved on.

A Keisaku being applied very mildly
Van de Wetering talks a bit about being "encouraged" by a Keisaku while formally meditating in Temple.  I've heard a lot of folks say that it is just a gentle "tap", but the way he describes it, he used to get real whacks with it in order to wake up while nodding off.  He talks about it leaving bruises and the monks wearing extra clothes under their robes in order to protect from it.  Like most things, I suspect that the severity varies mightily from Temple to Temple.

I was really upset when Misha (my wife) called me to task on "white male privilege", but in retrospect, she is trying to help me see something that I am oblivious to.  She was administering a much more accurate and effective Keisaku!  The hope is that I will wake up and learn to be more aware of my freedom of action and less trapped by my culture and past personal history.  

The problem is, however, that learning to experience "the Void" isn't just a question of being told something. It involves the emotional upset that I felt when she called me to task. It is hard, hard, hard to fight erase the ego and embrace the Void.

Zen Master with Fly Whisk
One last point I should make, because it might be raised.  I have mentioned Zen Buddhism in this post.  For those readers who might be interested in a bit of history, Zen is a school of Buddhism, but it is one that was profoundly influenced by Daoism.  The trappings of a Zen Master are the same as a Daoist sage---the fly whisk that they carry as a badge of authority was stolen from the iconography.

Daoist Immortal with Fly Whisk
In addition, the famous Ox-Herding Pictures of Zen were adapted from a Daoist source.  And, if you read books like Journey to the West and Seven Daoist Masters, you will see reference after reference to the mutual reverence between Daoists and Zen Buddhists.

But still, why write about Zen Buddhism in a Daoist blog?  Well, the fact of the matter is that until very recently there were no books available about Daoism outside of the Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Even basics like the Liezi were hard to find and the Nei-Yeh was only recently translated into English.

The same situation existed with regard to Zen when van de Wetering first went to Japan, but his book was part of an explosion of publishing that took place in the last decades of the 20th century.  A similar explosion is currently taking place now with regards to Daoism, this blog being part of the phenomenon.  But if I am going to write about Daoist issues, I have to be part of a cultural context in order to make any sense.  If I refuse to make use of available cultural artifacts---like Zen---to explain myself I will be lessening my ability to explain myself.

The point is that what is important is the Void itself, not the shape of the finger that is used to point in its direction.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Emotions

I've been really upset lately thinking about incidents where police have been literally getting away over and over again with, if not murder, at least manslaughter.  This in turn has got me thinking about why it is that I am so emotional about this sort of thing, and whether or not I should be concerned about these intense emotions.

What crystallized this for me was an interaction between myself and a professor of law from a St. Louis area university.  In a on-line magazine, he was just trying to point out the legal framework that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson Missouri police shooting came out of.  I raised the issue that the assistant District Attorney had given the jurors a piece of paper that had a law on it that listed as a legitimate reason for shooting and killing someone the simple fact that they were running away.  This was the law of Missouri until 1984, I understand, until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The important point was that there was nothing on the piece of paper that pointed out that this law was no longer valid.  At the end of the trial---i.e. after the jury had pretty much already made up their minds---the same assistant DA handed out another piece of paper that did say that this provision of the law had been declared unconstitutional, but she didn't verbally draw the jury's attention to this issue or explain the implications.

The professor did acknowledge this point when I raised it, but I left the interaction (in the comments section of an on-line magazine) really upset.  I've been trying to understand my feelings since then.

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that emotions are not bad things.  Indeed, it seems that they are essential to the thinking process.  Emotions are the "drivers" of human behaviour.  A person without emotions is not some sort of logical super being, but rather someone who has no ability to initiate action because there is ultimately no logical reason to do much of anything.  This seems to be an acknowledged fact of neuroscience, so much so that people working on artificial intelligence have developed a consensus that any thinking machine worthy of the name will have to have something like emotions programmed into it.

But why was I so angry about this professor's comments?

Thinking about them, I've come to the conclusion it was because he was trying so darn hard to be emotionally neutral in his discourse.  He didn't call the DA "evil scumbags", but rather just pointed out the law.  Of course, that wouldn't be professional.  But it would have been human.  I think that a huge part of the problems with the modern world is the way we selectively diminish the entirety of a situation in order to convey it in simplified manner.  In the process, we end up cutting out the ethical element and in the process destroy our humanity.

In this case, explaining just the law and what the DA was doing in that Grand Jury, removes the moral culpability of the individuals involved.  It lets them "off the hook" of having to acknowledge that they were consciously manipulating the jurors in order to ensure that the police officer who killed that man on the street in Ferguson would not have to be put on trial.

Think about what this really is, it is an absolutely essential part of any professional career---but it is also pretty much the most evil, vile thing a human being can do.  It happens when a career air force officer forgets that every time he organizes an air strike, there is a very good chance he is going to be killing and maiming children.  It happens when an accountant works out "the bottom line" of a business deal and refuses to admit that the decisions he supports are going to end up pushing families into poverty, destroying parts of the environment and so on.  It also happens when a politician panders to the prejudices of his constituents in order to get elected, and refuses to consider the fact that in doing so he will be perpetuating violence against minorities.

I don't know if it is a virtue or a failing in me, but I have never been able to control my sense of moral outrage in these situations.  I know that this is the case, so I have tried through most of my life to avoid jobs that got me into contact with other people because my anger rarely ends does me any good.

To cite one example, I once was involved in a neighbourhood dispute over a taxi cab company that had opened up across the street from my house and which was attracting dozens of drunken university students at three o'clock am.  These folks would literally be screaming and yelling for taxis right in front of our house----waking up the neighbourhood.  The taxi company refused to do anything substantive to stop this state of affairs.  It was regulated by the city and could very easily have been ordered to stop accepting fares at this site, but the solicitor for the police department was dead set against any sort of proactive effort and the police board deferred to his judgement.

The problem was, as I saw it, he simply refused to tell me why he was so opposed to using regulation.  If I asked him to his face about it, he simply acted as if I hadn't said anything at all.  What was particularly galling was his wife was a friend of my then significant other, and I'd actually been in his home having Christmas dinner with him.  I asked "do you think I'm an asshole that doesn't deserve to have his questions answered?", and all he would say was "no, I don't think you are an asshole."  That was it.

I mentioned this interaction to a friend who laughed and said "he was just being a good professional civil servant".  The idea is that good bureaucrats never share any information with the public that might potentially help them do anything.  It is called "gatekeeping".  If I knew what his thinking was about why he refused to use the powers of the taxi by-laws to force compliance, it would have given me some leverage to get my way in the dispute.  By keeping me in the dark, it gave him more power to manipulate me.

Of course, the thing I was upset about was that I knew people who were having their sleep disrupted and who were feeling miserable having to go to work without enough sleep.  This lawyer, in contrast, was able to have a nice sleep and simply thought he was doing his job, which consisted of allowing minimal hassle for the police department.

A sad post-script to this event came years later, long after the problem with the taxi company had been resolved.  I heard that shortly after my interactions with this lawyer, he had been diagnosed with progressive aphasia.  (This is a disease that destroys a person's ability to communicate with other people.)  This made me rethink my anger about the way I had been treated.  Perhaps he was manifesting early, subtle symptoms of his illness instead of just acting like a jerk to protect his job.

But no matter what the reason, the upshot from this lawyer's behaviour was to totally ignore the human cost of his behaviour in defence of the police department.  This is exactly the same thing that has happened with district attorney's when they subvert the Grand Jury system in order to avoid having to discipline police officers who lose control and kill people for no good reason.

My personal feeling is that every human being is always confronted with moral choices and their hands are almost never tied.  Like the Spike Lee movie says, people always have a chance to "do the right thing".  In law, this principle is enshrined in the concept of "Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum", or "Let justice be done though the heaven's fall".  In the case of DA moves to let police off the hook, the DAs know that police unions are powerful and that if they really do start enforcing the law against them with force, they will have real problems doing their jobs and getting re-elected.  Moreover, many of them actually like the police and don't want to anger people that they consider their friends.  They have the choice to "do the right thing" and instead do the easy thing.

Alas.    

One other thing I try to remember, is the injunction by the Heavenly Teacher in the Taipingjing. (This is a book that came from the religious Daoist rebellion---the "yellow scarves"---that was in the opening pages of Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)  The Teacher warns his followers to not blame people who act badly too much because we are all products of conditions outside of our control---our childhood and perhaps clinical issues like progressive aphasia. Nor should we think too highly of ourselves when we do well, for much the same reason.  I often think about this with regard to my own behaviour.  I work at a menial job even though all my life I have been told that I could accomplish a great deal more if I just applied myself. But I know that because of my mercurial nature, I could never "bite my tongue" in the ways that are necessary to be a successful professional.  What this means is that I never will be able to gain the power necessary to do much good in the world, simply because I can never amass and hold onto it long enough to be able to wield it for the public interest.

Am I suggesting that there is no sense feeling moral outrage?  No, but I am suggesting that proper behaviour emerges from the community, not the individual.  I am outraged against the way our professionals manipulate the truth in order to further their careers.  But the only way we can try to stop that from happening is through collective action.  The protests against police departments are necessary, and I am very glad to see them breaking out spontaneously all over the US.  Perhaps this will result in some badly needed change.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Be Like Water and Let Your Ego Drown!

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to "be like water". That is to say, what does it mean to "go with the flow" when life creates obstacles in your path?

I often have little patience for "groovy, hippie Daoists" who seem to interpret this ideal as an excuse to never get engaged in any sort of effort at all---especially one of a social nature.  "Why bother trying to make the world a better place?  What will be, will be."  I've always seen this rejection of civic responsibility as not much more than laziness.

But having said that, there are instances when this attitude is tremendously important.  Perhaps the dividing line is whether or not the decision to be like water and flow around an obstacle is as easy as falling off a log, or, whether it involves a great deal of internal struggle.

People usually think of "going with the flow" by referring to simply not doing something that would be a bother to do anyway.  But what if you have tremendous emotional attachment to something and "going with the flow" involves fighting against that attachment?  I remember reading an essay by a social worker who was trying to adapt Daoist principles to her practice.  She cited the example of a hard-working Chinese immigrant who had absolutely busted his ass for years to build up a successful restaurant to only see organized crime take it over.  The objective reality was that there really was nothing he could do to get it back, so after much mental anguish and struggle he decided to fall back on his cultural heritage and accept the loss and let it go.

The social worker said that Westerners were horrified by his attitude, but since she came from a similar culture, she could see how his attitude had really helped him deal with his problem.

A less dramatic example often happens at work.  Let's face it, a lot of very intelligent, well-educated people are working for managers who seem to be not much more than idiots.  How do these people emotionally deal with the situations that this forces themselves into?  I'm sure many readers have seen situations like this.  Institutions where people do not want to take responsibility for declaring items surplus, so warehouse space is rented to keep surplus items in indefinite storage.
The obligatory Dilbert cartoon
Expensive materials destroyed because the management was too lazy to investigate reports from people lower down the food chain.  Wildly inefficient if not insanely counter-productive policies developed because management simply didn't know enough about the job at hand and was too arrogant to ask anyone who did.  Managers who want very expensive and time-consuming "exemptions" from standard operating procedure, but refuse to put anything in writing so they can deny culpability if caught.  Stupid "office politics" between managers where their respective staff are used as pawns in their dumb battles. The list goes on and on, and everyone can think of examples.

I've spent long hours grinding my teeth over this stuff, and heard thousands of hours of co-workers bitch about the same things.  After long thought, I've come to a couple conclusions.

First of all, no matter how intelligent we might think that we are individually, the odds are pretty good that if anyone who ever bitched about management were made managers, they'd probably do equally goofy things. Problems come about because people have blind spots, because they find themselves in situations where they have to deal with dumb things themselves, and, because they find themselves overwhelmed by responsibilities that they do not have the time and resources to adequately deal with.  Even the smartest people can find themselves in similar binds and screw up.

Secondly, no matter what job postings may say, it is important to realize that hiring practices are not about getting the best person possible for the position, but rather about getting a "known quantity".  People often bitterly complain about "quotas" for people like police officers.  They say that the best man didn't get the job because there was a push to get women or "ethnics" onto the force.  What this complaint misses, however, is that hiring is never about getting the "best man", but rather about getting someone who is "good enough".  Frankly, the pool of people who can adequately fill any particular position usually dramatically exceeds the number of openings.  So it isn't that hard to get someone who is "good enough".

Once the people who are good enough are identified, then other issues come into play.  In the case of police, it is important to try and get the force to look like the people that they are policing.  It is also important to have a pool of officers with useful secondary skills---such as having officers who speak languages and come from other cultures to help with issues in the immigrant community.  If someone speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, he is worth hiring even if he is a bit short and out of shape, and didn't score at the absolute top of his entrance exam.

The same issues come into play with regard to management.  For example, one thing that I have found that is strongly selected for in hiring is "attitude".  People have to obviously believe in the core project of the workplace.  If someone seems to believe that the institution's success is really, really, really important, then they will have a better chance of being hired.  Cynics like myself, who don't really think that most workplaces are all that important, just don't come across as being "with the program".   So someone who is the absolute smartest might not actually be hired because the institution would rather have someone who is gungho about putting into practice the latest idiotic idea of the higher-ups.

They don't really want excellence in management.  Instead, they want competency in following orders. There is a significant distinction. So why should someone get all bent out of shape when managers do dumb things?  Their job isn't to do a really good job, it's to follow the higher ups around like puppy dogs, do what they are told, and, not do anything that is truly amazingly dumb.

Finally, the other thing to remember about working for institutions is that we only feel upset if we self-identify with the institution in one way or another. If we feel abused and angry being ordered around doing stupid stuff, we only get upset if we think we can and should do something better. But if instead one simply sees work as a means of making money, none of this stuff matters.  If you want to pay me a living wage to do something that is pretty much pointless, then go right ahead.  With that mindset, the only things that matter are whether or not the job is dangerous, exhausting---and how much I am getting paid.  Everything else is irrelevant.

There are other issues, of course. I might get annoyed at work if I am asked to do something that is objectively evil and causes misery around the world.  I might also be asked to do something that is illegal. But to my way of thinking these both come down to the question of safety. An illegal activity might lead to imprisonment or worse, so I will avoid that. Something that is objectively damaging to the environment or human society has to be weighed as being more so than the rest of our stupidly destructive civilization.  If it is, I'd suggest that it too is dangerous.  If not personally, certainly to the world around us---which, as a Daoist, I strongly self-identify with. People have every right to struggle against and avoid danger.  If there is a chance to influence things for the better, by all means struggle.  It, in your opinion, there isn't, just walk away and don't give it another thought.

And, of course, not giving "it another thought", is not easily done.  I dare say that the Chinese immigrant I mentioned above didn't find it easy to simply "not give another thought" to the business that a bunch criminals took away from him!  But his cultural background told him that the best way to deal with the situation was to strive for that ideal.  In fact, I suspect he busted his ass striving for that ideal!  But it was worth doing, because eventually his social worker believed he achieved a level of equanimity about the situation.  This is the difference between what I would call real Daoism and
"Hippie Daoism".  Real Daoism is based on hard work, Kung Fu, and it involves helping yourself deal with tough, nasty problems.  Hippy Daoism will disappoint because it is not equipped to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life.  Walking through a forest with a smile on your face is a nice thing---but sometimes a panther will jump out of a tree and you'd better have something to deal with that situation too!

The "Hippie Daoists" often make a big distinction between Buddhism and Daoism because they don't like all the meditation that goes into formal Buddhist study. I have some issues about this too, more because I think Western Buddhists have taken a very complex, integrated practical philosophy and reduced it to one key component:  meditation.  Daoism isn't well known, so people tend to read the Dao De Jing, and project their assumptions onto it. And as a result, they don't associate it with formal meditation. I would assert that this is somewhat accurate. But there is still a lot of hard work involved, even if there is less time spent on the mats. One very tough practice is to be like that Chinese immigrant and try to be like water when something very nasty happens to you. It can also be hard to do when the boss is acting like a jerk!