Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kung Fu and Brain Plasticity

One of the reasons that I have devoted so much of my life to the study Daoism is because I think of it as a rare and endangered part of our cultural heritage. I first saw this issue articulated by a Bill Moyer's clip on television where he showed a young Shaolin monk training in a open hand routine. Moyer's said that this was "the cultural equivalent of a giant sequoia tree". The point he was making was that our ancient cultures have things that can only exist by the lifetime work of individuals assimilating the knowledge that has been gained in previous generations. And just like species of plants and animals, once this intergenerational transmission of information ends, the result is permanent extinction.

I heard an interview on the CBC the other day that has also stuck with me and got me thinking that our civilisation might soon be more willing to put energy into this process of cultural preservation. Unfortunately, I forget the name of the person being interviewed (I was doing stretches at the time), but the point he was making was that our society has laboured under an inappropriate metaphor when it comes to understanding the way our brains operate. The metaphor is that of a machine.

The problem with that image is that machines are static and unchanging---except by outside interference. And this metaphor has framed our discussion about what it means to be a human being. People talk about our personality and who we are as being the result of either our genetics, or our past history, or some combination of the both. Left out of the discussion, however, is any idea of how a human being is self-created by the individual decisions that she makes moment by moment, day by day.

The point this author was making is that this image of the brain has been proved to be factually untrue. Our brains are plastic. That is to say that they constantly change as a result of both the events we experience and the choices we make in how we live our lives. If we decide to do a specific thing---such as learn a new language---then the actions we follow in doing so actually change the way our brain is organised.

What this means for people who pursue spiritual practices, or to use the Chinese term: "kung fu", is that they are involved in a day-to-day process of changing the way their brains are organised. And when someone chooses to pursue a specific path, such as the life of a Daoist initiate, they are following an age-old process of reorganising their brain functions to operate in a way that is significantly different from those of the general public. If there is any value in doing this sort of thing, then seeking to preserve this specific cultural "evolutionary branch" is a pretty important thing to do.

I had this issue illustrated for me recently by one of my co-workers. She is a nice person, but she has absolutely no structure at all to her intellectual life. She just flits from one interest to another as her fancy strikes her. (The internet can be an addictive drug for people who are like this.) Indeed, she can see absolutely no reason why anyone would seek this sort of structure if they don't have to. But she complains about an inability to sleep and I asked her what her problem is. She said that "her mind just keeps buzzing with different thoughts". I would suggest that she the endless flitting around following one interest to another for so long has led to that "buzzing" phenomenon.

In contrast, I usually sleep like a log. But I do spend a great many hours every day in one form of practice or another---saying my rosary, doing taijiquan, introspective contemplation, and wrestling with ideas (like I am doing right now.) Part of this process is constantly forcing myself to get some sort of control over the chaotic elements of my consciousness so they follow the path that I have chosen to follow. As I have said before, the "watercourse way" of Daoism does follow the principle of Wu-wei, but it only does so if one follows the hard work (e.g. "kung fu") of internal alchemy (e.g "neidan".)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Karen Armstrong's The Case for God

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Case for God. Like everything else that I've read by her, I liked it a lot. She is obviously well read and passionately interested in religion. She is not an academic, but she isn't afraid of using big words or difficult concepts. More importantly, she isn't tied to a denomination---like many religious writers---which means that she can follow her ideas where they lead without fear of suffering professionally from her candour. (I think that this effectively muzzles a great many religious leaders who fear retribution from both church hierarchy and the people in the pews.)

Armstrong's basic thesis is that modern religious concepts have been badly damaged by apologists for religion who tried to use the authority of modern science to justify belief in God. As a result, the traditional tendency to emphasise the ineffability and transcendence of God was lost. Once God stopped being beyond our ability to comprehend, people started to emphasise the necessity of belief in specific creeds, which in turn led the way to Biblical literalism and all the intolerance that flows from that.

Armstrong believes that this is a form of idolatry in that once one accepts the notion that people can have clear and distinct ideas about what God is, then it becomes almost inevitable that these ideas become not much more thatn what believer's project upon him. This is the point where God stops being outside of human history and begins to look (at least to Americans) like a sort of cosmic "commander in chief" with a paid-up membership in the Republican party and who is a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh. (And, of course, in Saudi Arabia he keeps his wife in a veil and supports Osama Bin Laudin---.)

I'm don't think that Armstrong actually "makes her case", but I'm not sure that this would bother her. One of her key points is that religious "truths" don't actually get settled by discursive argument. Instead, she repeatedly asserts that whatever wisdom does come from religion is a result of regular personal practice---either individually or as part of a community. Moreover, she believes that the truths imparted are cannot be universally understood (like scientific truths) but instead are intelligible only to specific people using a specific shared language and who are tied into a particular relationship with each other. (This is not so much an epistemological claim---that is talking about the nature of knowledge---but more a recognition of the practical limits or our ability to communicate difficult ideas.)

Two ideas that she keeps returning to in her text are those of "bricolage" and "midrash". The first comes from architecture and refers to a process where one restricts one's materials to a specific set in order to expand one's creativity. In the same way, Armstrong believes that religions grow through the process of re-interpreting and reformulating their specific core myths. The Jewish process of creative interpretations of scripture that inspired Armstrong to use the bricolage analogy comes from the practice of creating a "midrash" to re-explain the value of ancient texts in a new historical context.

She ends the book by referring to the so-called "New Atheists" and suggests that they are trapped in the same nasty circle as the fundamentalists they despise because both have limited their definition of "God" to a idolatrist projection and "religion" to the empty positing of creedal formulas instead of ritual, spiritual practice and good works. Unless society is able to step out of this rut and rediscover the ideal of God as being manifest in our ignorance and how we live our lives, we are doomed to have to choose between these two fruitless options.