Sunday, August 23, 2009

Traditional Chinese Medicine

I sometimes hear from people who assume that because I am a Daoist that I am a fan of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I suspect that the hidden assumption is that TCM must be grounded in Daoism, so anyone who studies the Dao should have some affinity to it. While I will admit that I haven't done a lot of study of TCM, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a negative opinion about it.

The first thing that I think people should understand is that not everything that comes from Chinese culture is "Daoist". Both Roman Catholicism and Western medicine have their origins in Europe, yet we would never assume that Roman Catholicism would have anything to do with Western medicine, or vice-versa, would we?

More importantly, I think we need to understand that TCM comes from a pre-scientific tradition. That means that none of it has fallen under the careful, collective scrutiny that our Western medicine has. Some parts of it probably works, but most of it is probably about as effective as medieval European medicine was. Lest people take issue with this, I would direct their attention to the following URLs.

The first, "Be Wary of Acupuncture, Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine", comes from the excellent medical website known as "quackwatch" and gives a very good overview of TCM. The next two come from the excellent publication known as the "Skeptical Inquirer", and are titled "Traditional Medicine and Pseudo-Science in China" , and a second part article in another issue. At least from these three essays, it seems that there are very good reasons to suspect that a large amount of TCM is worthless or worse.

Some folks might be scandalized to hear someone who calls himself a Daoist---and a religious Daoist at that---being so dismissive of this sort of thing. I would argue, however, that this is because so many people have fallen for the fallacious idea that the age of an idea gives it merit. "Ancient Chinese wisdom" is probably the phrase that comes to mind. But the fact of the matter is that this appeal to age is not much more than an old-fashioned appeal to authority. And Daoists have always been notorious for deflating appeals to authority.

The other thing to remember is that contrary to what people might think, Daoism is not really that ancient. Confucianism---which really is a faith that revers the old---existed long before Daoism. And its real claim to fame (i.e. as "the school of Ru", or "rujia"----which is the better way of describing Confucians---is based upon their knowledge of ancient esoterica, most notably the rites and rituals of the Zhou and Shang.) In fact the rujia existed before there was, by definition, any sort of "Ancient Chinese Wisdom" simply because it was only later, after the ascendency of the Chin empire, that the word "China" came to describe the area and civilization complex.

And if we are going to be totally honest, China is not even the oldest civilisation on Earth. That honour goes to Europe, which can trace its written history back to the Egyptians and Sumerians---both of which have literature that exists to this day because our scholars have learned how to read both some types of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. People who might balk at this assertion have to realise that "China" has gone through as many dramatic changes as Europe has. The geography has changed back and forth (hence the debate about whether or not Tibet is part of "China".) Its written language has changed so much that modern Chinese readers have about as much hope of understanding Zhuangzi in the original text as I had in reading "Beowulf" when I was at university.

In the face of this extensive history, "Daoism" only stretches back a small way. For example, tradition gives the dates for Laozi in the 6th century BC---about four hundred years after the founding of the Zhou dynasty and over a thousand after the founding of the Shang. Moreover, the founder of the Celestial Master movement, Zhang Daoling, was extant in the second century of the present era---which makes the religion slightly younger than Christianity and only slightly older than Islam.

Moreover, the Immortal most associated with the development of internal alchemy, Zhang Sanfeng, and the legendary creator of taijiquan, is said to have been born as either as early as 960 or as late as 1279 AD. By definition, this makes him not an "ancient", but rather a "medieval". In effect, the founder of neidan was a contemporary of Saint Boniface, Thomas Aquinas or someone who lived between them.

In contrast, if we were to look at the roots of "traditional Western Medicine" (if such a thing existed), we would probably go back to people like Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who coined the oath that Western doctors take to this day. We should also include rationalists like Socrates (469-399 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), who are often called the inventors of the scientific method. So if age is the only criteria to use for accepting something, then "Ancient European wisdom" has as much right to our allegiance as "Ancient Chinese wisdom". And given the choice, I'll opt for double-blind studies over the Yellow Emperor's Classic.

The thing to remember is that Daoism is not about preserving tradition. Instead, it is about finding the truth.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Living in a Dream

A while back I wrote a post about the "episodic" nature of human existence. This was an attempt to explain one of those prosaic things with very profound implications that comes to a person as a result of internal alchemy. That is, in case you can't be bothered to read the original post, that our experience of self-consciousness doesn't exist in a continuous stream but rather in isolated bits connected by our memories. As the Buddhists would say, we have no real experience of an ego, just individual moments when various sense experiences come together and become self-referential. (This is the doctrine of "anatta".)

To build on this point, however, it is important to understand that the illusion of self comes from the ability of memory to tie together these transitory self-referential experiences and suggest that they are bound together like the beads on a rosary.

The complexity resides in the fact that memory itself is a phenomenon that simply cannot be trusted to give us an accurate description of the past.

Most people have the naive idea that our memories exist like some sort of video tape recorder that records our experiences and stores them somewhere where they can be retrieved more-or-less the same way we had them in the first place. This is not true at all, however. Indeed, it turns out that memories can be constructed through suggestion.

Take for example the famous case of the Swiss psychologist Piaget. He had a very vivid memory of an attempted kidnapping where unknown attackers were fought off by his nanny.

"I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station."

It turns out, however, that Piaget's memory was totally false. Years after the fact his nanny spontaneously confessed that for some reason she had made the entire episode up. Piaget could only surmise that his vivid recollection could only be the result of the many times he had heard her repeat the story to others.

A lot of sad stories exist about how our naive understanding of memory has resulted in terrible persecution of innocent people. Take a look at this very informative essay by an expert in field to see how easy it is for a "therapist" to convince people that they have memories about things that simply did not take place. This might be just an interesting piece of information if it did not also come with the knowledge that a great many people have been wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they never committed. See this modern example. Pick away a bit more at this thought and consider the following: a great many people are convicted by eye-witness testimony at criminal trials. But as the above links show, memory can be very easily manipulated by police and others simply by the way they conduct their interviews with people. Lest people still believe that they know what they see, take a look at the video at this link.

If it is possible to have totally false memories planted in our minds simply because someone else strongly suggests that they did in fact happen, and that even when we are distracted we can miss a great deal, then we should be really careful when we consider our own self-image. Is our perception of what happened to us in the past an accurate record of what really happened? Or is it some sort of conditioned reflex that comes from the culture we inhabit?

I know in my case I sometimes have to watch myself with my memory because I have extremely vivid dreams. The issue is that these dreams seem so real that I begin to think of them as events that really have happened to me. For example, I have a very strong memory of going fishing once when I was a child and seeing a tanker truck emptying its load into a crystal clear stream with fish in it. It seems like a memory, yet I cannot for the life of me remember a time, place or opportunity where I could have possibly seen this thing happen. (I grew up on a dreary farm and my childhood consisted of work and very little else.)

There are several very famous stories in Daoist literature about dreams, perhaps the greatest being Zhuangzi's inability to tell if he were a philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. I suspect that most people see this as an amusing story, but I suspect that if we really did think about the relationship between dreams and our consciousness we'd be really, deeply disturbed. Most of us go through our lives without having this point deeply affect us. But the mindfulness that comes from neidan practice points out the ultimate hallucinatory experience of being alive.

I once took a very strong dose of magic mushrooms and experienced the full gamut of what we normally call "hallucinations". Two things really stood out. The first was sitting on my bed and watching my alarm clock running backwards. The second was some sort of strange "self evident" realisation that it was patently absurd to be afraid of dying. The more I think about that experience and the really powerful role that my dreams have in the way I look at the world, the more I question the self-evident facts of my personal existence. I suspect that a fully realised man might have his "common sense" so shaken by this sort of thing that he no longer experiences the world around him in a similar way to ordinary folks.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Sage is not Humane

One of the chapters of the Dao De Jing that "new age" people rarely quote is number five---the one that compares people to "straw dogs".

Heaven and Earth are not benevolent.
To them men are like straw dogs destined for sacrifice.
The Man of Calling is not benevolent.
To him men are like straw dogs destined for sacrifice.
The space between Heaven and Earth
is like a flute:
empty, and yet it does not collapse;
when moved more and more emerges from it.
But many words exhaust themselves on it.
It is better to guard the 'within'.
Richard Wilhelm trans.

I've been thinking a lot about the issues behind the first half of this chapter lately. I've been ruminating about a prediction by James Lovelock that says that by the year 2100 80% of the human race will be dead because of runaway climate change.

A while back I decided that the actual death of all these people (mainly through starvation, disease and war caused by them) is ultimately irrelevent. After all, we all die in one---mostly unpleasant---way or another. What bothered me more is the idea that we would enter into some sort of terrible dark age, which would set back human progress at best for a long time and at worst forever.

It occurred to me lately, however, that this is a real misread of humanity. It assumes that people will share and share alike until everything is gone. Reading history quickly disabused me of that notion. People are quite happy to spend resources on luxuries (like the internet) while millions of unfortunates are starving outside the walls. And the fact of the matter is that modern technological civilization is very good at killing people who do not have the same sorts of weaponry. So once the wall has been built, there will be little chance that it will ever be breached.

In addition, it seems to me that if it does become clear that climate change is now out of control due to positive feedback, that debate is going to quickly centre on methods by which mankind can directly intervene to reverse the warming effect. People are already talking about this seriously, and it appears that some methods would be inexpensive enough for middle-sized countries to attempt. (These include things like seeding the clouds with light-reflecting sulfur dust.)

Of course, any sensible person should be loathe to start monkeying-around with the global climate when we are in the midst of a crazy unconscious experiment already. But having screwed-up nature, people are going to have to start learning how to jury-rig the system to keep some of us alive. At the same time, hopefully, people will begin to appreciate what used to exist and make an equal effort to restore the natural systems wherever possible. So if Lovelock is right, and the Sahara Desert jumps over the Mediterranean and engulfs Southern Europe, whomever is still around will hopefully be planting trees in order to reverse the trend.

Having worked through the depressing first half of the DDJ's fifth chapter, I think I begin to understand the second:

The space between Heaven and Earth
is like a flute:
empty, and yet it does not collapse;
when moved more and more emerges from it.
But many words exhaust themselves on it.
It is better to guard the 'within'.

This is a statement of faith in the Dao by the enlightened sage. The Daoist doesn't labour under a sort of "Pollyanna" viewpoint---he understands that there is no God above who cares about what happens to anyone here on earth. (Looking around at the misery that surrounds us should disabuse anyone of that fantasy.) But the sage can also see that both nature and human society (e.g. the "space between Heaven and Earth"), for all their problems, don't seem to be willing to collapse. No matter what sort of catastrophes befall the Earth, people still find some way of responding with energy and creativity.

Lovelock himself seems to embody this attitude. Even though he is making the most pessimistic of predictions, he is still full of optimism and believes that when the catastrophies begin to pile up those individuals who are lucky enough to have a fighting chance of survival will be united by a real sense of purpose. The way he explains this is in reference to when he was young during the Second World War---"everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday". (Kind of a tough holiday for the Jews, Russians, etc, though.)

While I don't know if I would describe the painful demise of 80% of the human race as "one long holiday", I do understand what he is getting at. As the "Old Ones" suggest, there is no sense 'exhausting oneself with words'. It makes a lot more sense to 'guard the within'. As someone who has spend decades of my life trying to warn people about the coming era of horror, it just seems more important to guard my within and have some faith in the people around me to come up with some sort of solution when the problem becomes inavoidably obvious.

Perhaps the hardest task that confronts the internal alchemist is to give up his humanity. Yet this is a task that confronts all who leave the land of dust and walk the path that leads to realisation.