Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Freedom and Discipline

I have spent a lot of time wrestling with the issues of “discipline” and “freedom”. This might seem a trifle odd for someone who calls himself a Daoist. After all, am I not supposed to be the ultimate “go with the flow” type? Didn't Alan Watts call Daoism “the water-course way” and use the analogy of the leaf flowing downstream to the sea?

In actual fact, if you spend some time studying Daoist arts and Daoist monasticism, you will find that it is quite a rigorous path. I found this out personally when I went to my first taijiquan class and found that my legs were so tired afterwards that I had to crawl up to my apartment because my feet couldn't clear the treads! People who wish to live in Daoist monastic communities or pursue the path of internal alchemy quickly find out that they have to work, work, work!

Of course, only a very simple-minded person really thinks of freedom as the ability to sit in an easy chair and eat potato chips for the rest of her life. Real freedom is intimately linked with discipline. That is to say, a person who is incapable of choosing to not give in to his desires is not really free. A drug addict or alcoholic does what she “wants” to do (i.e. inject or drink the drug of choice), but people still say that he has a “monkey on his back”.

Having said all of that, there is an important paradox here. Many people become so addicted to discipline that it too becomes another monkey on their back. Take for example the issue of dieting. It is terribly important to watch how much we eat. If we don't, the mountain of poisonous, over-rich food that our modern capitalist society is constantly trying to seduce us into eating; plus our extremely sedentary lifestyle; will push us into eating too much. But if we assign too much of our consciousness to counting calories, we run the risk of becoming obsessive.

The same point can be made about exercise, saving money, cleanliness, etc.

This particular part of the problem seems to come down to the ends that are being sought. We diet in order to keep from gaining weight. But we do not seek to avoid weight gains simply in themselves, but rather as an intermediate end towards the greater goal of being healthy. If we lose too much weight, we risk becoming sick by that means too, so we rationally avoid this. But substitute a more socially defined objective, such as being “attractive”, and we make the issue much more complex. Young women internalize the ideal of “you can never be too rich or too thin” to the point where they see themselves as being overweight long after they have gone below their ideal body weight.
This is the key point of anorexia: people internalize a cultural norm to the point where they ignore their own personal experience.

In a related vein, people often suggest to young people that they should join the armed forces in order to “learn discipline”. I would suggest, however, that what happens when someone goes to boot-camp has a great deal in common with becoming ill with anorexia nervosa. The process of basic training has been designed to take people and get them to so identify with the group (i.e. the armed forces) that they will no longer view their reality from their own individual perspective (e.g. if I go over that hill I will get shot and die), but rather from that of the group they are involved with (e.g. if I don't go over that hill I will disgrace my regiment and let down all my friends.) As such, people in military service are learning a very specific and limited form of “discipline”, one that involves taking orders from others and subverting one's own will to that of a patriarchal institution. Obviously, such a thing has only a limited value in “civvy street”, which is why most ex-soldiers completely return to previous patterns of behaviour as soon as they are demobilized.

Getting back to the issue of Daoism, I would suggest that the important point of following the “water course way” is not to avoid any discipline at all, but rather to pursue a specific form of it. The Daoist would not want to become so identified with some social norm that they damage their health in pursuit of it. Instead, it seems to me that a Daoist path involves picking and choosing a path (or “water course”) that makes sense to the individual Daoist herself, instead of picking up one that society has chosen and heavily promoted for its own purposes.

Of course it is a terrible mistake to starve yourself to death or become cannon fodder in an unjust war. But those are very obvious and clear-cut examples of the danger that come from internalizing an external discipline. And I would argue that we see similar, but less clear-cut examples all the time. In the sad cases of sexual abuse occurring in religious institutions, it strikes me that the fundamental problem is not the sexual abuse, per se, but rather the habit of deference to authority that kept the abused children from fighting back and their parents from making a huge, public stink. Why didn't the altar boys scream at the priest instead of freezing like a deer in the headlights of a car? Why didn't the parents “name names” during church meetings or call in the media? Everyone in the institutions involved was at least a passive participant in the cover-up process. I would suggest that this is because the “discipline” of deferral to ecclesiastic authority had become so ingrained that the people involved that it would not have occurred to the people involved to act in their own best interests.

(Lest someone waggle their fingers self-righteously about this example from the Church, I would suggest that anyone who pursues Daoism should also ask themselves how much of their actions are being guided by cultural icons that came from bad martial arts movies and the “dao of Star Wars”. )

There are further layers of complexity, of course, such as the relationship between our consciousness and the work (i.e. “kung fu”) that we are already doing, and how that influences our choices. As well, there is the further issue of habit and how we use it to solidify the gains that past effort has made and how that relates to the concepts of “will” and “freedom”. All of these are tremendously important to the practice of neidan (or, “internal alchemy”), so with any luck I will get to them in future posts.


gukseon said...

I think this post is right on target. As an American, I feel absolutely inundated with the word "freedom": whether it's somebody claiming that this is a "free country" or trying to justify the atrocities in Iraq as being for the sake of "freedom". Increasingly I'm of the opinion that true "freedom" is not something that can be given to you by a political institution. What good is political freedom if we are enslaved to our own desires?

Incidentally, your contrast between the person who is addicted to pleasure and addicted to discipline reminded me of a discussion I had recently about two very contrasting passages from the Daodejing and the Liezi:

"The five colors make man's eyes blind;
The five notes make his ears deaf;
The five tastes injure his palate;
Riding and hunting
Make his mind go wild with excitement;
Goods hard to come by
Serve to hinder his progress.

Hence the sage is
For the belly
Not for the eye.

Therefore he discards the one and takes the other."
(DDJ, 12)


"Yan Pingzhong asked Guan Yiwu about the cultivation of life.
Guan Yiwu replied: 'Indulge it, neither block nor impede it.'
Yan Pingzhong asked: 'How is that achieved?'
Guan Yiwu replied: 'Satiate the ears with what they want to hear, satiate
the eyes with what they want to see, satiate the nose with what it wants to
smell, satiate the mouth with what it wants to say, satiate the body with
what it wants to feel, and satiate the consciousness to go where it

'What the ears want to hear is music, and not getting to hear it is called the obstruction of hearing.
What the eyes want to see are beautiful colors, and not getting to see them
is called the obstruction of sight.
What the nose wants to smell are sweet aromas, and not getting to smell
them is called the obstruction of scent.
What the mouth wants to discuss is being and non-being, and not getting to
discuss them is called the obstruction of wisdom.
What the body wants is to be secure in it's leisure, and not gettting that
leisure is called the obstruction of comfort.
What the mind wants is to be set free, and its not getting to travel is an
obstruction of the original nature."


Taken together, I think these two passage illustrate both sides of "freedom". (sorry for the extra-long comment!)

Bill Hulet said...

Yes, I thought about referring to the Liezi in this posting, as this is a very important point in that text. I don't have a good Liezi myself, and I'm not a big fan of "truth texts" in arguments anyway, so I gave into my sloth and didn't mention it. Thanks for the comment, it does the work for me. ;-)

gukseon said...

hahah, no problem ;). I really only had these quotes handy because I was talking to somebody about this very issue recently...

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