Friday, June 15, 2007

The Interior Life

I've been busy with lots of things over the last couple weeks, which is why I've been away from this blog. All of these things are very different: working on my patio, attending meetings, going to municipal committees to deal with neighbourhood nuisances, etc. All of this has kept me so busy that I haven't had time to keep up with my taijiquan and meditation (indeed, I could be doing that now instead of working on this blog.)

But through this I've been reading The Masks of God by

Joseph Campbell. I just got through his discussion of Shamanism and was struck by his contrast between the shamanic religions of hunters and the priestly religions of hierarchical civilizations. The distinction is that the shamanic quest is geared towards expanding the self and seeking deeper and deeper wisdom. In contrast, the priestly quest is that of submitting to the will of the collective society. I found this statement important to me because it resonates with my experience as a recluse.

Daoism is a tradition that has connections with shamanism---even to the point where there are still practitioners who become possessed by individual gods and spirits. Moreover, Daoism has always been a faith where wisdom is perceived to come from an isolated individual who pursues his own wisdom. (Indeed, one of the translations of the word Xian--usually translated as "immortal"--is "mountain man", or, recluse.) The great thing about Chinese civilization is that it allowed Daoism to continue as a minority religion even though it developed its own priestly faiths in the forms of Confucianism and Buddhism. In the West, the Abrihamic faiths destroyed anything else that threatened the ecclesiastic hierarchy---and routinely persecuted any mystical elements that developed within their them.

Of course it is one thing to say that a person has isolated themself to pursue wisdom, it is another to actually do it. One of the themes of shamanism is that of suffering. One of the metaphors that Campbell says is very common throughout the literature about shamanism is that of the shaman being "ripped to pieces" in a psychological crisis.

I have been thinking of this in the midst of the various projects that I have been working through. I find myself constantly thinking about just about everything I do. At its worst, this manifests itself in "analysis paralysis". But I am a very productive individual, so I probably don't have to worry about this becoming a persistent syndrome. The one thing I do find within myself is a huge fear of "not doing the right thing". I worry about the way I build my patio---trying to balance off my interest in not having too big an ecological footprint with my concerns about the other members of my housing co-op thinking I'm not "keeping up my share". I'm also constantly worried about whether or not I spend enough time meditating and doing taijiquan; or; whether I obsess too much about it. I wonder if I spend too much time on activism; and; whether the religious, spiritual side of life is not some elaborate superstition. I worry about whether the whole Daoism thing isn't some ridiculous exercise in cultural appropriation. I worry----well, I'm sure you get the picture.

I think many folks might simply dismiss the above as a form of neurosis. There is some truth to this, but it is also simply what it means to be a man with an "interior life". And the interior life is the means by which a recluse or hermit (or shaman) deepens his or her wisdom. In the outside world society goes to great lengths to avoid reference to an interior being. For example, if someone at a workplace starts to make reference to deeply held beliefs, almost invariably her co-workers will attempt to change the subject. If she is feeling sad about something, people will try to cheer her up. If it is something else, maybe political, then usually she will be quickly teased into shutting up or changing the subject. People don't talk about serious things and learn instead that social interaction has to be reduced to light banter. Eventually, people lose the ability to express deep feelings. Maybe some people stop having them. (We never really know because it is so common for people to have strong feelings yet not be able to articulate them because of the intense social conditioning we have internalized.)

I'm not about to say that this social conditioning is without its uses. Our society is probably too complex to allow much genuine human interaction. The trains would probably stop running on time if the engineers were allowed to spend more energy expressing their true feelings! (I do suspect that we perhaps have too little energy spent on deep thinking and feeling, though. I suspect that if we elected leaders with a little more interior life we would not be facing our global climate crisis.)

For someone who has specifically decided to follow the life of a Daoist recluse--in the early 21st century, in an urban, Canadian environment--this is a large part of the pain that I have to bear in order to gain the prize of wisdom. I must constantly be in the grip of a battle between my interior nature and the external conditioning that holds our society together. It means that I not only find myself stuck in internal disagreements about the right course of action, it also means that I am constantly battling with friends, family and neighbours about the choices that I have made. (And perhaps seeing battles that do not really exist---.)

Through my life I have come to the conclusion, however, that Socrates was right when he said that "The unexamined life is not worth living". Sometimes the pain really does feel like the flesh is being stripped off my bones, but a greater degree of wisdom is always the end result.


The Imugi said...

I think the distinction between a shaman and a preist is an important one to make. Gerandus Van der Leeuw's "Religion in Essence and Manifestation" is a somewhat dated phenomenological account of religion, but he devotes several chapters explicating the differences between shamans, preists, spiritual teachers, etc.

Daoism definitely seems to have preserved its shamanic origins. Speaking of which, have you read Bill Porter/Red Pine's commentary on the DDJ? He identifies some of the imagery with the shamanic traditions in Ch'u. I thought the metaphors relating to the moon were especially fascinating.

Bill Hulet said...

No, that's one version of the DDJ that I don't have. I didn't realize that he had added translations of Chinese commentary, which is something that I would like to look at. I'll see if I can get a copy somewhere. Thanks for the suggestion.

The Imugi said...

No problem :) I personally found the Chinese commentary in his edition to be really helpful, especially since he draws on writings from all different time periods and traditions ; Confucians and Buddhists as well as Daoists (and lots of variety amongst the Daoist sources as well). It's definitely among my favorite translations/resources.

I also recommend his book "The Road to Heaven", where he travels into some fairly remote areas of China to interview Daoist and Buddhists hermits.

Bill Hulet said...

I have read _The Road to Heaven_ and really enjoyed it. I think I learn a lot more from first-person accounts by modern, Westerners than by pouring through translations of ancient texts.

Oddly enough, I have been involved in a great many discussions about versions of the Dao De Jing and had many people recommended the Red Pine version. Yet you are the first person who mentioned the commentary---which is something I've been thinking might be of use for some while. Perhaps most Westerners who call themselves "Daoists" think that scholarly study is antithetical to the faith. ;-)

The Imugi said...

Ha, I think you are right about certain Western Daoists! ;-) There is sometimes a tendancy to overemphasize elements of chapter 19, I think...("Give up wisdom, discard cleverness, etc.")

I also found "The Road to Heaven" to be very helpful. As much as I love the ancient texts, I definitely think a modern, first person account like "Road to Heaven" can often be more useful to one's practice and understanding. The language can be less unambiguous, and the application of certain principles seems more concrete. :)

Dan said...

found your blog by chance (was searching hermit related stuff on google). Read a dozen posts and liked them. A little 'stopping-by' note.