Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Straw Dogs Barking at the Moon

Even though I call myself a "hermit"---and I know that that is the path I tread---I still try to connect with ordinary folks. (Perhaps this foolishness will pass if I get older.) But many times these efforts only leave me feeling even more isolated than I did before. A few weeks back I attended a Unitarian church service that brought this unpleasant truth back to me one more time.

It was supposed to be a service devoted to the idea of "social activism". When I heard the people talk on the subject, however, what I heard was not too much more than a statement about ego gratification from the individuals involved. The folk singer talked about how he used music to promote the "good". The retired nurse talked about her "second career". The therapist talked about how to avoid "burnout". And the young woman Muslim talked about how it is to be a visible Muslim in the public eye.

No one talked about working to fix the world's problems.

Afterwards, the congregation formed a circle and people spoke of their reactions. Mostly all I heard was people's excuses for doing so little to get involved in the world. The visiting speakers mostly spent their time trying to make these people feel good about themselves. At one point the folk-singer said that "anyone who signs a petition is an activist".

When the microphone came to me and people asked for my reaction, I simply said "I have nothing to say" and passed it on.

What else could I do? If I had said what I really thought it would have created a riot. I could have said that it is absurd the these upper-middle class people with good jobs, vacations and fine educations didn't have time to be more involved in their communities. That all the privileges that these people have been given only make sense if they are used to help others. Or that they have so devalued the concept of "citizenship" and "personal responsibility" that they are reduced to the level of being not much more than irresponsible children.

It occurred to me, however, that the visiting activists, the discussion circle afterwards, and the church itself had absolutely nothing to do with making the world a better place. Instead, it was about forging the emotional chain that is essential to building a strong congregation. Indeed, even though I felt repulsed by the whole experience, everyone else remarked about how much they enjoyed the service. And why wouldn't they? It had turned into an exercise of relieving the guilt that many of these people feel for living in a world that is palpably going to pot without their having made any significant sacrifice in their own lives in order to solve its problems.

All of this comes down to the way people confuse their feelings with the world around them. At its simplest level, people indulge in the so-called "pathetic fallacy" and act towards inanimate objects as if they were sentient beings. For example, I had a neighbour who used to get so angry with his appliances when they didn't work that he would throw them out and smash them on the driveway. Other people swear at their car when it won't start, and so on.

What is at work is the idea that human consciousness exists in a stew of emotions---both within our own minds and when interacting with others. Indeed, emotional cuing is an essential form of communication. I first became aware of this fact while watching a very cheesy, Jerry Bruckheimer television show titled "JAG". This show pushes the stereotypes of American conservatism (the gruff, yet fair authority figure; brash and daring military hero; the brilliant, yet nerdy young support figure; the supportive, nurturing woman; etc.) It also uses very blatant musical cues to manipulate the emotional reaction of viewers. In particular, a trumpet solo is used repeatedly in all the episodes as a mechanism to alert viewers when some sort of patriotic appeal is being made by one of the characters so they can react appropriately.

One might think that using such creaky devices wouldn't work on a cynical, educated viewer like myself. But in actual fact, I respond just the same as the cheesiest worshipper of Ronald Reagan. The difference is that after the fact my conscious mind "kicks in", analyses what has just happened, and makes sure that I don't do anything foolish based on these emotional cues. But that is because of my own particular "kung fu" of trying to understand my mind through contemplation and meditation. The people in the Unitarian Congregation---who after all are not Daoists---do not do this sort of thing. As a result, they simply fly wherever their emotions take them.

The Old Masters who wrote the Dao De Jing understood this issue. That is why they say in Chapter Five:

Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs.

The point is that everything that exists is totally indifferent to our feelings. There is no loving God up in the sky who cares about how we feel. Our sense of outrage against injustice, our sense of guilt over our many weaknesses, our love for the people in our life---none of that has any more value in life than the rage a person may feel when their computer crashes in the middle of writing an essay or when their car won't start on a cold morning. And all the good feelings that people felt towards each other in that Unitarian service will have zero impact on global warming, the war in Afghanistan or any other important issue facing our nation.

And as someone who aspires to being a sage, I have to learn to have zero concern for the feelings of those people. Something I am still far from achieving.


Cody5202 said...

i enjoyed reading your post,

Will you tell me why you describe yourself as a hermit, and what made you believe this to be the truth about your self?

Bill Hulet said...

I started calling myself a "hermit" after I did some one-on-one study with a Catholic hermit. He said that the point is not whether or not one has anything to do with other people (people who live totally isolated lives are "recluses"), but whether or not one has a connection with a specific religious community. Since I am estranged from the Daoist Temple that initiated me, and haven't joined any other, I am a Daoist hermit.

With regard to the Unitarians, even though I have signed the book and formally joined the congregation, I am really not a member of their social group and feel quite isolated from them. I feel much the same way from pretty much every other element of the world I live in too.

In a way my life is an expression of "being in the world, but not of it".

Anonymous said...

Interesting , I appreciate the response , Another question for you, What is your daily life like?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Usually, I wake up when I wake up. Then I feed the animals (I have fish and a cat), take care of the fire and start the kettle for hot water. Then, I usually do about a half hour of walking meditation (ten centuries on my rosary.)

Then I usually spend an hour on the computer reading the news or doing something else, having breakfast and doing odd jobs.

Sometime in the morning, I will go outside and offer incense to the land God.

Later on, I do about an hours worth of neidan----several different taijiquan forms plus some stretching and zhuang exercises. I only do this Monday to Friday and take weekends off---and instead go to the farmer's market on Saturday and the Unitarian Church on Sundays.

My life is built around making a living. I have a full-time job (I work nights), but I also consider other things equally important. I consciously built a network of friends through my involvement in the Green Party and the Unitarians, so I will have a "safety net" for times of illness and financial distress. This has already paid significant dividends as I was able to buy a home for only $59,500 by doing it as a partnership with another. This is considered jaw-droppingly cheap in our Real Estate market.

In addition, I also consider "do it yourself" part of making a living. I do most of my home renovations myself and am making my hermitage into a model home for environmental sustainability. I also make my own beer and wine, and am now doing home food preservation.

As a result, I have to constantly be careful that I do not over-commit myself to things and make time for relaxation. I used to do "sitting and forgetting" when I came home from work, but recently gave this up and just do some light reading. I suspect that I will get back to the sitting meditation, though.

donna said...

Our church youth group when I was a kid used to go out into the community, cleaning houses for older people, for instance. We were taught that service was part of our faith.

These days I do therapy dog work with my golden retriever Darwin.

I don't think building community is a bad thing -- it does help to connect people and make them feel included. It doesn't seem like you felt that connection at this particular service, though.

UB40 did a reggae song about this -- "It's a Long Long Way From Here" that pretty well sums up what you're saying:

It's a long long way from here
Don't you worry yourself my dear
It's a long long way from here

Drought and famine in TV land
Read the sunday papers credit card ina your hand
Sing your song of freedom just to ease your troubled mind
And save your guilty pennies for the ones you leave behind

The burden that you carry from the cradle to the grave
Is like a badge of honour that you wear upon your sleeve
You make your contribution and you shed a little tear
And stage your celebration just to show how much you care

You obscure your stolen power with hypocrisy and lies
Your talk of understanding is a wafer thin disguise
You glorify my image but deny me flesh and blood
You radiate with goodness when you hear me beg for food

Those rivers of blood will flow again
Someone changed the lyrics but the song remains the same
You can build a wall of protocol to keep the wolves at bay
But history dictates that someone has to pay

It's a long long way from here
Don't you worry yourself my dear
It's a long long way from here

th said...


Thanks for the perceptive comment.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with building community. That is why I go to the Unitarians in the first place. What concerned me was that this was being substituted for actually trying to deal with the problems that beset the planet.

And this is a significant issue with this church group. I applaud the idea of going out to clean houses for people. It won't save the planet, but it does help others in a significant way.

I know the people who spoke at this event and most of them do good work. I was more annoyed than anything else about the way they were talking. It was like they were "sucking up" to people in order to not offend them.

Newton Mukuka Mbazima said...

Just to add a post of a TTC translation i have, if you don' mind:

Set a good goal in mind. Acquire a good wealth of knowledge exercise good self discipline. Perform only good deeds.
The natural world is like bellows. The shape changes, but the essence remains, ever moving, ever producing. (Tao 5)

Anonymous said...

I find your post to be exceptionally precise, and i'm not trying to just flatter you like they did to make one another feel good at the church. I think it's important to be fully aware of what is happening in our community, considentally I was too a witness to such absurdities when i attended a church serive out of curiousity.

I faced the similar problem when I tried to create an eco village community on the property I've purchased, i was naive to believe that everybody wants to be the living proof of a self-sustainable community but the reality showed quite the opposite. I learned that people are deeply entrenched in their destructive habbits, yet like to talk about a change, about a greener healthier tomorrow, etc...

I read many of your posts and curious to know if you are from Guelph? I live in Guelph and wondering if there is a possibility to meet in person to discuss some of the Hermitry concepts.

It's odd how I find myself very much in your shoes, isolated, pretty much a hermit following a somewhat spiritual path in attempt to acquire more knowledge and expend my awareness.

I hope this comment does not appear too intrusive, if we cannot meet, perhaps you can direct me to a place where i can find likeminded people to talk about what's truly relevant - issues concerning the path of self realization.

Much thanks,