Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Beginings of a Theory of Qi

I've never been very comfortable with the idea of "qi", nor with the "qi-gong". Primarily, this is because the concept is associated with a lot of vague, "New Age speak". For example, take a look at this definition that I just found at this site just by doing a Google search.

Central to Taoist world-view and practice is qi (chi). Qi is life-force -- that which animates the forms of the world. It is the vibratory nature of phenomena -- the flow and tremoring that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. In Japan it is called “ki,” and in India, “prana” or “shakti.” The ancient Egyptians referred to it as “ka,” and the ancient Greeks as “pneuma.” For Native Americans it is the “Great Spirit” and for Christians, the “Holy Spirit.” In Africa it’s known as “ashe” and in Hawaii as “ha” or “mana.”
I hope I don't hurt many reader's feelings, but this definition is so bad that, to quote Wolfgang Pali, "it isn't even wrong".

The reason why it is so bad is that if you look at the words this definition uses, they don't really mean much of anything.  For example, what exactly is "life force"?  "Force" is a term from physics that can be defined as "mass times acceleration".  In this context, I can't really figure out what it could mean.  As I see it, the fundamental problem in this definition is that it is attempting to see life as a concrete entity in itself (i.e. a "life force" that "animates" matter.)  Modern thinking is that life is not a substance but rather an activity.  It is what is known as a "homeostatic process", or, a complex process or series of processes with feedback loops that preserve the process over a given period of time.  A simple example of a homestasis is the flame on a candle---the heat of the flame melts wax, which allows the liquid to flow up the wick, where it vaporizes and catches fire, which in turn heats more wax to feed the flame.  

In other words, what we call "life" isn't a "thing" so much as an "activity" that comes about through a very complex series of processes.  Talking about it as a "thing" called "qi" is what philosophers call a "category mistake", or the mistake of describing something as being something that it simply is not and then attributing to qualities from that category that it doesn't manifest.  The philosopher Gilbert Ryle gives the following example of a category mistake:  "The Prime Minister is in London, and the Foreign Secretary is in Paris, and the Home Secretary is in Bristol, but where is the Government?"  The mistake lies in thinking that the "government" is something alongside its individual members.

So the way people talk about "qi" puts me off, because the language of almost everyone I hear talking about it is so flawed that it suggests to me that they haven't thought too much about it and clearly don't know what they are talking about. 

Even worse, people who talk about "qi" often talk about the "evidence" that they have for its existence from the demonstrations of "Qi Masters". When I see these demonstrations, what I see looks like nothing much more than simple stage magic. Lest people call me a "narrow-minded skeptic", take a look at this video that explains a similar sort of thing from the Indian Yogic tradition (think "prana", not "qi".)  I'm posting on a Daoist blog because it is that rare thing from television---short, and to the point.

I also managed to find a clip from a similar sort of program in China---with a translation---that exposes a similar sort of "qi fraud".  Unfortunately, Chinese television seems to suffer from the same "issues" as North American---a need to create false tension and pad a simple story in order to sell soap.  As a result, this clip drags on considerably, but it is worth seeing if you have the time.

So if I'm so critical of how people talk about "qi" and the way charlatans milk people's credibility, do I just dismiss "qi" out of hand? No, because I think that there is a real phenomena going on here. I have experienced the flow of "qi" and I think that it is a really important part of human health.

Most people have experienced "qi" when they do taijiquan.  In my case, I've felt my hands warm up, strange pulsing in the roots of my teeth and the crown of my head, etc.  Please note, however, that feeling something is not the same thing as knowing what it is or even being able to define it.  

If you pursue Daoist meditation, you will also eventually come across what's called the "microcosmic orbit".   I believe that this was once an esoteric teaching, but a fellow by the name of Mantak Chia has been selling books and giving workshops on it for quite a while.  (I've heard anecdotes to the effect that Western "seekers" have gone to Daoist temples and Masters offered them "hidden, esoteric knowledge" that turned out to simply be what the Westerner learned at a quickie workshop in his home town.) 

Briefly stated, the "microcosmic orbit" consists of sitting comfortably, concentrating on your breaths, doing Daoist "reverse breathing", and guiding your qi up your spine to the top of the head and down the front of the body to the Dantian. 

There are a lot of claims about this process, but one that seems to work for me comes from the realm of psycho-therapy.  It seems to work with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  My therapist, who is a Yoga instructor as well as holding a Master's degree in some school of therapy, says that the feelings we have in our body are directly related to our psychological well-being.

This makes perfect sense to me, as the reason why I decided to go to therapy in the first place was because of the wild physical feelings I was having as a result of the PTSD.  The worst of these were the flash backs, which involved heart palpatations plus being drenched with sweat.    When we are in therapy, she has shown me the way my bodily sensations are related to my mental state.  (At one time I laughed at her because it became clear to me that she was physically manipulating me "like a puppet" by asking me to bring up specific memories, which in turn triggered emotional states, which in turn triggered specific bodily feelings.  She was able to monitor my mental state by watching my posture.  She said that what she was doing was a form of "desensitization therapy" for me, so my memories would no longer be so hard on me.)

You do not have to have a dramatic psychological problem like PTSD to be familiar with the way our mind interact with our bodies.  For example, just about everyone has experienced the dramatic physiological effects that love has on our body.  For example, several times I've had the experience of being in love with a woman only to find out that not only was she not similarly attracted to me, but that she was in love with someone else.  The comedy cartoon "The Simpsons" does an admirable job of illustrating this feeling in one of its episodes where Bart falls for an older girl.  

So what exactly is happening when we experience these sorts of feelings?  There are two possibilities that come to my mind.  

First, I've heard that modern scientific research seems to suggest that the brain and body interact in subtle and complex ways to make decisions and manage consciousness.  We have tended to think that we just think with the brain and digest food with the liver, for example.  But it may very well be that the liver releases complex hormones that have a dramatic impact on the decisions we make and what we believe.  Certainly, our gonads seem to have some impact on our sex life, which in turn is directly related to many of our conscious decisions.   

Secondly, it may be that while we are feeling something in our body what is really happening is something like "phantom limb syndrome".  That is, since every experience we have is mediated by the brain, there is no reason to believe that any bodily feeling we have could not be a "trick" that the brain is playing on us---just as it tells many people with amputated legs that the leg is still there.  

I suspect, actually, that both of these things are happening when we experience "qi".  

My therapist goes on to make a further leap, one that makes sense to me.  That is, she believes that the experience of bodily awareness that is common to all esoteric meditation traditions---including Daoism---is a process whereby we can consciously change and repair the physiology of our brains (or, perhaps our brains and that element of our bodies that we have up until now assumed was part of the brain.)    The circulation of "qi" in the body when we are doing taijiquan or the "microcosmic orbit", therefore, is a process whereby we are repairing damage to our brains.  In my case, that is the trauma from a horrific childhood.  

No wild cosmic powers.  No lightning bolts out of the hands.  But a damned important thing none-the-less!  

I was once told by a Zen priest that harsh experiences are the "entry ticket" to the contemplative life.  (I believe he got into Zen as a result of being a soldier in the Korean war.)   People forget about how brutal and harsh life can be, and often was for even the elite in ancient China.  I suspect that Neidan and other types of meditation practice based upon qi came about as a way of dealing with the problems that many Daoists had to have had.   I suspect that it can also bring about new ways of looking at the world and unlock hidden potential too.  But I haven't had much experience with that yet, so I will leave that subject to others or perhaps a future post.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Oral and Written Traditions

I've been thinking a bit about the difference between oral and written traditions lately. I've started reading Ellen Chen's wonderful translation with commentary of the Laozi, and she argues that, contrary to the more common opinion among modern scholars, that it is the creation of one person and that it was originally written down. This has shaken my previous belief that the Laozi is a collection of sayings from an oral tradition that was written down over time. Not having the ability to read ancient Chinese, I pretty much have to accept the authority of the scholars who do, which leaves me pretty much in the dark about what to think about the origins of the DDJ. If nothing else, it is an important lesson to learn that what we know we see "through a glass, darkly", to quote St. Paul.

Having said that, it doesn't undermine a pet theory of mine about the way oral and written traditions influence society. People have a modern belief that oral traditions involve bards and story-tellers memorizing their epics the way actors memorize the lines of a play. But in actual fact, I've read that ancient epics likes the Iliad, Odyssey, etc, were more improvisational than that. Bard and story tellers would know the basic outlines of the story---having heard it many times themselves when they were the apprentice running around with a bowl collecting money from listeners---and improvise their language as they recited. After years of practice, they were able to create rhythmn schemes in the same way that accomplished jazz musicians can follow chord progressions and key changes while noodling around with a theme or rhythmn.

What's interesting about this sort of "improvisational literature" is that it is fluid. That is to say that when a bard said something that really resonated well with the people listening, there was a tendency to include it or something like it in all future performances. Similarly, if someting didn't go over well, it tended to get discarded. And these changes tended to get passed onto the apprentices too, who would then make similar sorts of changes before their works were passed on to the next generation of bards. What was happening was a form of natural selection. Over generations and generations, I suspect that this process would be able to change just about anything into a great work of literature.

As an aside, this makes me wonder if maybe we should rethink the whole idea of "genius". Perhaps "Homer" wrote down a very, very old oral tradition that had been refined by generations of very good bards. Perhaps the bards took an "OK", but not great, poem by a fellow named "Homer" and refined it slowly into something amazing. Either way, it looks like there may not have been an enormously gifted blind poet who deserves most of the prase.

Even works that were written down instead of orally transmitted can go through this sort of process. In some cultures, at some times, all books were written by hand. If the books were copied by literate slaves, then probably the most one would get would be simply mistakes. But if people reading and enjoying texts were making copies for themselves or friends, then there had to be a tendency to change, add and remove bits as a form of "friendly editing". There is evidence of this in books from this stage of social evolution. For example, take a look at this discussion of the different elements that scholars have found in the book of Job in the Old Testament. That is, if we find copies of books that were created before the "standard edition" was created, we often find some significant differences between different versions. So some change can happen even at this stage, although I suspect hand-written books rarely evolve as much as oral traditions.

I think that this phenomenon is tremendously important to religions. That is because religious scriptures are tremendously important to the way the traditions develop. And I believe that in order for these traditions to stay relevant and true to the original spirit of the faith, they need to constantly adapt and evolve to the social and physical conditions that people find themselves in. As long as the unifying story and teachings of the faith are oral in nature, they can adapt to the needs of the people. But once they get written down, and especially when they get mechanically reproduced, the religion ceases to adapt to the needs of its followers and instead, the followers are forced to adapt to the words of the scripture.

This is a very bad thing. In fact, I recall hearing a teaching story about a Zen master who had inherited a mass of scriptures when he took over a Temple. He had the monks pile up these scriptures and burn them. When asked about why it was he was doing this, his answer was that he had to burn them in order to preserve them. I would suggest that this action and answer makes sense if you understand the way oral teachings can adapt to changing circumstances whereas written ones cannot. Let me repeat this in order to emphasize the point, to save the spirit of a teaching, you sometimes have to destroy its outward manifestation which is confining and perverting it.

I wonder if perhaps the reason why the Black form of American Christianity sometimes seems so much more dynamic and progressive is because historically it has been a church composed of many illiterate people. (Think about it, who is the exemplar of Black Christianity: Martin Luther King Jr.? Who is of comparable stature in white Christianity? Jerry Falwell? Billy Graham?) At first, the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read or write. After emancipation, the rules of Jim Crow made if very hard for most blacks to get any sort of education. What this meant was that people were able to adapt and improvise their understanding and form of Christianity without having to bend and twist themselves to fit the confines of 2,000 years of church history.

I've thought a lot about this issue because of a sometimes angry debate in the scholarly community about the value of certain "versions" of the DDJ that have been written by people who have no understanding of ancient Chinese---and often no Chinese language at all. I probably find myself in the worst situation of all in that I have sympathy for both positions. On the one hand, I agree that it sounds preposterous that someone would write a version of the DDJ without knowing the original language. But on the other hand, I think that we are now entering into a new age where religious texts need to be freed up and become fluid again---like they were in oral traditions. It is a great thing that so many different takes on the DDJ have been published. Many, if not most of them are probably dreadful and will not survive the process of natural selection. But some of them will perhaps bring some new point of view, and new, more relevant spirit to the living tradition of Daoism.

I wish something similar could happen with all religious texts. Moreover, I wish people felt the courage to write new texts based upon their understanding of the divine. And I wish that people could enter into a form of collaboration---just like those ancient bards did with their audiences.

The funny thing is that modern technology actually makes this not only possible, but trivially easy. To that end, I've set up a wiki that is designed to facilitate the creation of collaborative religious scriptures. You can access it here. Feel free to upload new stuff, create new threads, change stuff I and other people have posted. And by all means invite other people to the site and put links to it for others. Change the artwork---go nuts! If someone wants to support the thing and move over to a better site or pay Wetpaint for a different type of wiki, contact me.

The site is a gift from me, the Cloudwalking Owl, to the entire human race. Use it and make something wonderful.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Dao and Compassion

Someone asked me about Daoism and compassion a while back and I didn't have any answer to her about the concept. I suspected that it was important, but for some reason I totally drew a blank. I mentioned this to a dear friend and fellow Daoist, and she pointed out chapter 67 of the Laozi and his mention of the "three treasures":

I have always possessed three treasures that I guard and cherish.
The first is compassion,
The second is frugality,
The third is not daring to be ahead of all under heaven.


Because I am compassionate, I can be brave;
Because I am frugal, I can be magnanimous;
Because I do not dare to be ahead of all under heaven, I can be a leader in the completion of affairs.

If, today, I were to

Be courageous while forsaking compassion,
Be magnanimous while forsaking frugality,
Get ahead while forsaking the hindmost,
That would be death!

For compassion,

In war brings victory,
In defense brings invulnerability.

Whomsoever heaven would establish,
I surrounds with a bulwark of compassion.
(trans. Victor H. Mair)

According to our friends at Wikipedia, the actual literal word that Mair is translating as "compassion" is actually "ci" which can be translated as "compassion, tenderness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, benevolence". The thought image that the old Chinese word evokes would be that of a mother caring for her child.

So what exactly is compassion? And how does one become a compassionate person?

I think the first thing to consider is that compassion is a form of love.

Of course, there are different types of love and people seem to have different aptitudes for experiencing it. A lot of people have a hard time understanding the difference between sexual desire and love. In addition, many people's experience of love is exclusively familial in nature---the love of a parent that is exclusively directed towards her children. Is this compassion? Probably not if it just extends to a person's immediate family and no one else. I read once about a mobster who had a child killed by a driver who hit him when the boy darted out between two parked cars. The driver was considered totally without fault by the law, yet he disappeared never to be seen again. That mobster may have loved his son, but I don't think his actions were those of a "compassionate" person. History also presents us with many examples of horrid despots who seem to have genuinely "loved" their children yet treated their subjects brutally.

Take a look at this TED lecture by Karen Armstrong. It's about twenty minutes long,
but well worth the time. She talks about a lot of things, but what I want to emphasize is her idea that the core of religion is not belief but rather action. Moreover, the specific action at the core of all religions is that of living a life of compassion. And the way to act out our compassion is by following the so-called "golden rule". That is to say, don't do anything to anyone else that you wouldn't want done to yourself.

According to many religious teachers, such as Karen Armstrong, this is not just one of the key principles of religion, it is the core principle. Moreover, many believe that it is not just core to some religions, it is core to all religions.

The Scarboro Missions have put out a poster that has quotes from the largest religions of the world that supports this point of view. (I have a copy on the wall of my living room. It was given to me by the Scarboro brothers for giving a talk on Daoism for one of their retreats.) (Incidentally, the Daoist quote is: "Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain and your neighbour's loss as your own loss." Lao Tzu, T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218. I believe that this is one the popular Daoist scriptures that circulated amongst the literate lower classes.)

I don't think, however, that compassion should be as if it is a moral imperative, or, something that we should do. I think that this is because to feel compassion is a mixture both of feeling and desire for action. And if someone simply doesn't experience a sense of real compassion, he simply cannot force himself to have it. In contrast, I don't think it is possible to really feel compassion without being driven to actually manifest that feeling directly into action.

And what exactly is that feeling? I think that at its best it is a sense of complete empathy with the "Other". It is a sense of putting that person's value on par with your own. It is a case of directly feeling that the other person is just as important in the grand scheme of things as you are. A corollary is an honest attempt to try and understand the world from her point of view---"feeling in your bones" the completely different life story that she has lived through.

This is not a common way for people to think and feel about others.

Sometimes we see them not as subjects within their own rights, but simply as means to an end. Mostly people understand that this as a bad thing, but even the best of us fall prey to it once in a while. Unfortunately, a great many elements of our society foster, encourage and reward this type of thinking. For example, business people ultimately have to think about how to make money off the work of their employees if they want to be really successful. While sometimes business models are so very innovative or productive that an owner can pay his staff really well and still make a tidy profit, this rarely happens. And when it does, competition usually conspires to drive down profits to the point where labour invariably becomes part of the equation. Finally, even if it were possible to pay workers exceptionally well, this leads to the issue of how much the owners are thinking of the well-being of their customers.

Unfortunately, many business leaders seem to be of the opinion that life is inevitably a "war" of all against all, and that this gives them the "right" to squeeze as much as they possibly can from their employees no matter how profitable their business is. (I had a friend who worked for a big accounting firm which allowed her to have a priviledged insight into the interal finances of some local businesses. She said that there didn't seem to be any correlation at all between how profitable a business is and how it paid its employees. Some made a huge profit and payed the minimum wage---others were barely afloat and paid their people well.)

Most people who do not have economics degrees would agree that greed is a vice. But a lot more people believe in the concept of "justice", which I would suggest is just as damaging to the ideal of compassion.

Justice seems to be based upon two different elements that seem to me to be totally antithetical to the idea of compassion.

First of all, Justice is supposed to be totally the same for everyone. This is symbolized on the statues of "Justice" by portraying the woman as being blindfolded. At first blush, this seems like a good idea. We don't want rich and powerful people allowed to get off simply because they are rich and powerful. This ideal is also sometimes described in terms that "justice should fit the crime and not the person". The problem with this is that when this principle is pushed to extremes, it can forbid the justice system from trying to understand the psychology of the individual criminal. And once we really do try to understand people, it becomes a lot less easy to harshly judge some of them.

This came home to me in an article I read in the "New York Times Magazine" about a lawyer who specialized in sentencing hearings. The reporter mentioned a specific case where an armed robber had stolen some money from the cashier, was walking out the door, turned and totally gratuitously fired on the person at the till, killing him. This was all recorded on video camera, so the issue of guilt or innocence was not up for discussion.

As you might imagine, the jury was howling for this guy's blood. The sentencing lawyer brought in evidence of this person's background that totally turned around their opinion. He brought in evidence that this fellow had been horribly, savagely abused during most of his childhood. One thing I remember was that he had literally been kept in a cage in a dank, dark basement by his father for long, long periods of time. This guy was a menace to society, so the jury had to do something about him. But because the sentencing lawyer had forced the jury to understand some of the motivation that went behind the "senseless act of violence", it was able to develop some compassion towards the situation he found himself in.

A second element that creates a clash between Compassion and Justice is that of "punishment". This is represented by the sword that lady Justice carries. In our society the legal concept of punishment has two elements. At its best, the idea is that if people experience a significantly unpleasant result of a behaviour, they will stop the behaviour. It is also hoped that others watching the punishment will learn a vicarious lesson and avoid copying the convicted criminal's behaviour in order to avoid suffering his fate as well. (My understanding is that both of these justifications are demonstrably false, most criminals are people with bad impulse control who never think that they are going to get caught---so deterrance simply doesn't work. And incarcerating people with signficant internal anger problems only adds fuel to their fire.)

At its worst, however, punishment becomes a public ritual where both the victims of this particular criminal's crime, others who have been subjected to similar crimes, and others who feel outrage at the existence of all crime, are able to give vent to their anger. It used to be that the actual execution used to be public. Now, however, the only venue that people are allowed to give vent to these sorts of violent emotions tend to be the trial itself, pages of newspapers and political debates. I suspect that one of the latest versions of this type of emtional spectacle has been the trial of Omar Khadr.

On the face of it, it seems cruelly absurd that this young man, who was raised in a crazy, pro-Al-Qaeda household and who was captured during a horrific fire-fight with special forces at the age of fifteen, would be convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to 40 years in prison. (The argument was that he is a war criminal because he was out of uniform---under that reasoning one would think that every single Taliban fighter in Afganistan would also be considered such. It appears that the real sentence will be eight years in Canada due to a deal negotiated earlier in exchange for a guilty plea.)

In contrast to these notions of retributive justice, there are alternative models of "restorative justice", that try to step beyond issues of "right" and "wrong", and instead consider how to heal the dislocations that crime creates in society. Similarly, models of "rehabilitation" try to use the best knowledge gained from psychology and sociology to try and understand why people commit crime and help the criminal work out ways of becoming a more productive member of society. As I see it, these systems of "justice" could be made to be compatible with compassion, but the fact of the matter is that it seems that they are becoming unpopular with our current popular opinion, which seems wedded to a retributive model based on venting strong emotions and punishing offenders.

I've put considerable amounts of space in this post to the criminal justice system not because I have any very cogent argument on the subject, but rather in an attempt to try and give people a chance to "walk through" the emotions involved in trying to understand compassion. As I it seems to me, compassion is a specific type of love that builds bridges between you and another person. In contrast, when we label someone as "evil" or "hated", we are building a wall between us. And I think that if Karen Armstrong and the Scarboro Missions are right (which I think they are), then when we call someone else "evil" and start to hate them we are walling ourselves off from the "divine" (I choose to call this "the Dao", but others will call it "God".)

There is a teaching story that talks about a man who is trapped on a cliff. Above him is a ravening tiger, below a pack of wolves. He can't climb up, he can't climb down. But right in front of his face there is a trickle of honey from a bee hive farther up. He sticks out his tongue and tastes the honey---nothing ever tasted so sweet.

When I was younger I thought that the "moral" of the story was that we face signficant problems in life and instead of dealing with them, we distract ourselves. As I've grown older, I realize instead that the story is about the fact that we face problems with no solutions at all. So all we can do is reach out and taste what sweetness that life does offer us.

The sense of peace and love that comes from honestly feeling compassion towards another human being is that sweet taste of honey that is the consolation of life. It is what people have called "God" or the "Dao". And the honey gets sweeter and deeper the more we expand our circle of compassion so it includes not just our family, or our friends, or the people on "our side", but also the dirty, the smelly, the angry, the wicked and our enemies. It even extends beyond the human race to all the creatures of the earth. Maybe in future generations our compassion will be stretched to include creatures from other planets.

But if it does, the honey of life will become that much sweeter.

Another long, rambling mess of a post. But if you wade through it, I think there are at least one or two things of value.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Dao and Frugality

Being frugal is a constant theme in Daoism. In a sense, Daoists were the first proponents of what we now call "voluntary simplicity". Their stories are full of anecdotes about fellows who were once wealthy and powerful who chucked it all away so they could move to the countryside to live in the equivalent of tar paper shacks and subsist on food from their garden and what they could gather from the forest.

The point wasn't the same as that of St. Francis of Assissi, who saw poverty as being intriniscally groovy and something you "offer up" to God. Instead, it was simply an attempt to cut out all the stuff that makes life annoying in order to hold onto the stuff that makes life worth living. So a Daoist wouldn't take any pleasure in being cold, dirty or hungry---like some Christian saints. But he would be happy to wear straw shoes he wove himself because the hassle involved in doing what you have to do in order to afford expensive leather boots wasn't worth the effort.

And it is a bit of a misnomer to talk about Daoist "poverty" anyway. Real poverty in ancient China involved starving to death or being pushed around by bullies---none of the Daoists in the stories were into that. Instead, it was more about choosing to create your own definition of what is "acceptible" and living by that code instead of having to accept those imposed upon you by others.

But if someone chooses to do this, it can cause a lot of social problems. People invest a great deal of their self-definition and sense of self-worth in the things they own. Think about the pride people put into their cars, houses, clothes, etc. If you honestly don't care too much about this stuff, these other folks can sometimes be really offended because they see your way of life as statement about the shallowness of theirs.

Even if people say that they aren't too concerned about the things they own, I find that more often than not they are consumers of experiences. That means that if they don't go on about their house or car, they end up bragging about the trips they've been on. Sometimes this can involve just going to lay on a beach in the sun at a Club Med resort. But more often it's the people who do adventurous things like backpack across India or do wilderness canoe trips that talk like this. But no matter how much they protest about the intrinsic value of travel, it always strikes me that the real value for them seemed not much different from the sort of guy who brags about how groovy his sports car. The "story" about travel is usually the most valued part of the experience, and ultimately going on trips is about buying a story to wow your friends.

If you question the ultimate value of this sort of travel "one-up-manship", I find that people often retaliate with the line that "if you haven't travelled, you can't possibly know what you're missing". As a matter of fact, I have travelled a bit, even if not very much. I just never really found anything all that groovy about it. Buying a ticket to China and touring Daoist Temples, for example, is no substitute for spending years practicing taijiquan, meditating and wrestling with ancient texts. Even someone who travels "like a native" or works in foreign aid projects can easily come away from the experience, IMHO, with only a very limited ability to understand where they've been. After all, many colonial "old hands" were convinced that they totally "understood" places like India and Vietnam---even though the history of the 20th century proved them completely wrong. And these folks didn't just go on a two-week excursion---they sometimes spent most of their lives surrounded by these other societies. This fact comes about for the simple reason that wisdom doesn't simply come from experience, it comes even more from the process of self-examination.

For me, when I listen to the tales of travel overseas I constantly find myself thinking about the oceans of jet fuel that get burned so tourists can brag at parties. I don't see this as being any intrinsically better than the elephants and people who used to suffer horribly so people could own ivory gee-gaws from the Congo . People who strive to become one with the Dao almost inevitably become aware of the interconnections between the way they live their lives, and how it affects other people around the world. Above my kitchen table I have a translated poem that I pulled from a Daoist teaching text: Journey to the West, it refers to exactly this sort of connection.

Hoeing millet in the noonday sun,
Sweat drops on the ground beneathe the millet.
Who understands that of the food that's in the bowl,
Every single grain was won through bitter toil?

In ancient China the wealth of the elite scholarly class was all based on taxes raised by poor peasants. So even the most modest silk robe and the smallest sinecure of so many bushels of rice per year ultimately came from the sweat of someone toiling away in the hot sun. Deciding to chuck away one's honours in order to live a life of simplicity could be seen as an act of signficant moral courage.

Like most things, however, there are complexities.

The Confucian worldview believes that one's primary responsibility is to your family. And how this was expected to work out was through bonds of obligation that place a person as a link in a chain that connects to both parents and children. The greatest sin that a man could commit would be to not provide male children to continue the family name. Only slightly below that would be casting away all connections with your parents. And only slightly below that would be not marrying. And eventually, only slightly below that would be to not move heaven-and-earth to provide financial security for all of these people.

Similarly, I think that a lot of people don't understand how much social pressure is exerted today upon people to ensure that they stay on the treadmill. Parents are often experts at laying guilt on their children to live up to their expectations. Moreover, deciding to "opt out" of the rat race means that you end up with a lot less resources to do things like jump in a jet airplane in order to fly across country for a family reunion. And doing without a car can mean that a person can't visit mom for Christmas dinner because she lives in a place that is inaccessible by public transit. This can result in a lot of stress, as for many modern people---just like ancient Confucians---"family is everything".

In effect, when the old-time Daoist chucked away his career to live a life of frugality in the countryside he was jumping off the treadmill and leaving his family to fend for themselves. I don't think people who read books about these characters often understand how crazy and wild this life choice really was.

In a related vein, if someone walked away from the Confucian "rat race" they were also turning their back on the Confucian "safety net" too. If you bailed out of your responsibilities to your family to live as a hermit in the countryside, they also turned their backs on their responsibility to help you when you got old and sick. The idealized vision that we have of the wise hermit never shows him sick and starving. In "Star Wars" style Taoism, Yoda never gets sick and starves to death in his lonely hermitage. But this had to have happened all the time in ancient China. (Ordinary people starved to death all the time, after all.) Other things happened too. In Bill Porter's book on modern Chinese hermits, Road to Heaven, I recall him writing about a young woman who helps out an older Daoist in a hermitage. One day she went out to fetch water and was attacked by a leopard----luckily she was carrying a glaive for self-defense and killed the beast. Life before the welfare state was plenty darn scarey in and of itself, anyone who decided to turn their back on society altogether was going into a much scarier place.

So why do people turn their back on the rat race?

I suppose the obvious reason is because it is a "rat race". We only have so many years to live our lives, so why not enjoy at least some of it? And, as I have pointed out above, if we participate in a "system of exploitation" aren't we ethically bound to try and extricate ourselves from it?

If we start thinking about our obligations to others and the insecurity that comes from the frugal life, then the issues become a little more thorny.

The more I think about it, however, the more I come to the conclusion that "security" of any sort is more of a mental construct than an actual, real thing. In our modern economy a steady job is increasingly beyond the reach of most people. We all know that the physical health of either ourself or those we hold near and dear is also something that simply shouldn't be taken for granted. Even closer to the vein, we should also remember that our mental health is also something that can evaporate without warning.

In effect, all we really have to rely upon is the specific, particular moment of "now" that each of us currently inhabit. As we progressively move away from it in time we have less and less cause to assume any sort of stability or continuity. I suspect that the ancient Daoists understood this fact and had developed their own sort of personal accomodation to it. Perhaps the best known statement to this effect that modern Westerners know of comes from the New Testament:

That's why I tell you: Don't fret about your life---what your going to eat and drink---or about your body---what you're going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn't there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don't plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You're worth more than they , aren't you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don't slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thown into an oven, won't (God care for) you even more, you who don't take anything for granted? (Matthew 6: 25-30)

The Jesus of the Gospels seems to have believed in a literal Father God in the sky who would make everything right after we die. Like most modern people, I simply cannot believe in such a thing---it just seems too out-of-step with everything else we know about the universe.

But Daoists were different. Many of them did not believe in any sort of conscious existence after death. And those that did seem to have believed that this was reserved for a very lucky few instead of the many.

It seems to me, therefore, that most of these frugal-living recluses probably didn't believe that there was some sort of "cosmic insurance" policy in their hip pocket that would make the consequences of their life choices disappear at the moment of death. Instead, what I think they did was gain the ability to see beyond the comforting illusions that sustain almost everyone else (e.g. that bad things will always happen to the "other guy".) Once you do that, I suspect (for I'm not there yet, although, I think I get glimpses once in a while) that you realize that everything we do ultimately involves walking a high-wire over a bottomless void.

Once someone realizes that his life is not much more than a short existence on a high-wire anyway, he also realizes that doing without now in order to be better off sometime in the future is not much more than a case of gambling a sure thing for what might turn out to be not much more than moonshine. Wisdom comes from learning this fact in your bones. Serenity comes from becoming happy with it.

Personally, I think that I'm well into the "wisdom bit" but seem to have a significant bit more to go before I end up in the "serenity" part.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Religion is not Psycho-Therapy

I've been thinking a lot lately about how psycho-therapy and spiritual practice relate to each other.

For most of my life I've had a pretty low opinion of psychology as a discipline. This probably comes from the introductory courses that I took in University. These did absolutely nothing to try and explain what therapy of any sort looked like and the quality of the science was absolutely dreadful. (I remember having to read a paper with a graph on it that would have failed an intro statistics course because it consisted of a dozen or so points that were joined together like a jagged lightning bolt---which signified absolutely nothing at all.)

My recent "adventures" in PTSD has caused me to do a dramatic reassessment of this opinion. First of all, the description of the symptoms associated with my complaint has proved to be so "spot on"---with the dissociation, flashbacks and recurring nightmares, that it would be silly to deny that the profession has actually been able to define a specific syndrome with some accuracy. Secondly, I have been significantly impressed by the way the profession has been able to come up with a technology that has been able to help me.

The therapy that I am following is called "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing" (EMDR), which basically involves bringing up painful memories and having the therapist initiate a form of rapid eye movement by having me follow her fingers as she waves them in front of my eyes. I've done some reading on this therapy in the skeptical literature and there are questions about how important the eye movement is to the therapy as opposed to simple process of talking through my past experiences with a sympathetic therapist. And the theoretical explanation of how the eye movement helps (some say it involves "reprocessing" childhood trauma), doesn't really seem to be based on orthodox brain physiology. But in spite of this, the literature still seems to indicate that the therapy actually works.

Even these caveats are reassuring to me. Real medicine doesn't have everything tied up in neat little bows. Instead, it advances by fits and starts. We forget this now, but until we developed a lot of our most recent knowledge, a lot of therapies were developed purely by trial and error. For example, many medicines that we take for granted---such as aspirin, morphine, etc, were derived from herbal concoctions and no one at all had a clue how they worked. Yet they did, so we used them. I suspect, in the same way, that we really don't know why some psycho-therapy works and others doesn't. But by being part of the scientific culture, people share their experiences and test out different practices to see how they work. And fortunately for me, this new PTSD therapy seems to be effective (at least in my case.)

This leads me to the main subject of this post. What is the relationship between religion and psycho-therapy?

As I see it, a large part of religion, or "spirituality", has always been the search for some sort of psychological healing. Buddhism, for example, is based on the ideal of personal enlightenment as a end to human suffering. And the solution it offers is specifically based on learning to see the world in a new way, not in trying to change the world as it is into some sort of heaven on earth.

Daoism has significant similarities in that it teaches the ideal of the "realized man" who learns how to accept the world as it is and live in harmony with the Dao by following the "watercourse Way".

Like all religions, Christianity is a mixed-bag. But the sort of Liberal version that I believe makes the most sense to me, would posit that the message of Jesus is about learning how to live a full life in the midst of a world that is damaged by "original sin". That involves doing your best to be a good man by helping your neighbours (e.g. the "golden rule") and it also involves having a significant degree of fearlessness when confronted by evil (e.g. picking up your cross and following Jesus.) It also involves having a signficant degree of faith in the ultimate value of life and optimism about the future (e.g. "be like the lilies of the field".)

As I see it, these different spiritual traditions all have significant psycho-therapeutic value as ways of looking at the world.

Beyond the theory, however, they each developed specific meditational practices aimed at learning how to quiet the mind and develop habits of being that allowed at least some practitioners to develop some serenity in the midst of a troubled world. Meditation, prayer, ritual and so on, can help. Indeed, a self-help book that I read on PTSD by a member of the Menninger Clinic specifically recommends meditation as a way of managing the anxiety that is a key element of PTSD. He also suggests that "faith" is a key element of personal recovery: faith in yourself, faith in the therapist, faith in the therapy and faith in your eventual healing.

The question arises from my new-found respect for psychology about why bother with religion or spirituality at all? If we have problems, why not go to a psychologist instead of a priest?

I think that the first answer is that psychologists are primarily focused on individuals who are in "crisis". In my own case, I was having flashbacks and was desperate to find some way of avoiding these very troubling experiences. I think that the sort of issues that religion deals with aren't quite so immediate. People can have real doubts about the meaning of life, but that isn't the same thing as being totally paralyzed by fear while suffering from heart palpitations and sweating buckets.

There are practical issues around therapy, though. It is very expensive and even the very generous benefits package that I receive from my workplace plus the Canadian healthcare system refuse to pay anything towards my therapy, which comes to $100/hour. Obviously anyone who didn't have as much disposable income as I do would find this cost prohibitively expensive. As long as therapy costs so much, there is going to have to still be a place for the work of "amateur" therapy in the form of spiritual practice. But it might help immensely if people teaching meditation and prayer were able to take some introductory courses in psycho-therapy in order to recognize people with specific problems and had some understanding of the issues involved. It would be wonderful if ecclesiastic institutions could offer real, science-based counselling as part of their spiritual practice. I recognize that pastors at churches often receive some training in counselling while at the seminary, but I doubt if many Buddhist, Daoist or other teachers can make the same claim.

There is another element to this issue that I think needs to be considered. As a discipline, psycho-therapy tends to treat individuals. Religions are often considered in the same way. But it could be argued that they also offer therapy for entire societies. I first thought about this when I read something by Thich Nhat Hanh where he wrote that he thought that the next great Buddhist "world teacher"
would not be an individual, but rather a community.

I think that Hanh is onto something there. Part of the problem that our society faces, IMHO, is that people have gotten too in the habit of thinking of us as individual human beings and not enough as communities. I suppose that this makes sense, given the extreme individualism that our society holds so dear. But I cannot see how this makes individual people any stronger. Instead, I think that it tends to make those individuals more vulnerable to being manipulated by outside forces. Paradoxically, I think that the only real ability that we have to grow as individuals is with the loving support of a community of friends and neighbours. Take them away and we become totally dependent on the economy for everything---food, shelter, entertainment, opportunities for personal growth, etc.

Moreover, one of the things that I've learned from dealing with PTSD is to have a lot more humility when it comes to my ability to be self-created. It takes a lot out of any sense of "rugged individualism" to realize that at the age of 51 I am still trying to come to terms with the damage done to me by my family, almost 40 years ago.

All of these have taught me that, in agreement with John Donne, "No man is an island". And if we are interconnected, it strikes me that the role of religion and spirituality is to develop means of fostering that interconnectedness in a positive and helpful way.

This isn't to say that I don't acknowledge all the horrors done by misguided, confused and out-and-out vile religious people. But everything that human beings do carries the fingerprints of human frailty. And religion and spirituality are no worse (even if no better) than anything else.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Xin: HeartMind

I've been going through a fair amount of emotional "Sturm und Drang" recently as I try to deal with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has got me thinking about modern discoveries in brain physiology and how they relate to the ancient Daoist understanding of human nature.

Up until very recently Westerners have considered that the entirety of what it means to be a human being resides in the brain. In effect, the human body was simply a mechanism that existed to make the brain mobile and to serve it's demands. In science fiction terms, human beings are not much more than "cyborgs"---machines with brains controlling them. In the crudest possible terms, the idea is that if you could cut out the brain, and attach it to something else that would keep it alive and be able speak for it, you would find that the entire personality of the human being was still there.

The cartoon show "Futurama" plays with this idea by having a large number of celebrities' heads preserved in jars. The result is a being that is just like he or she was before the process. (Which allows the writers to make jokes about current celebrities while still placing the show a thousand years in the future.)

Modern research in brain physiology totally rejects this idea. As I understand it, scientists have found out that the brain is dramatically influenced by the hormones that are released by our entire body. Of course, a moment's reflection should point out that a disembodied head would no longer have either estrogen or testosterone being released into the brain---which means that probably it would cease to feel any sexual desire. In addition, without an intestinal tract, hunger would no longer exist.

Beyond these obvious issues, there would be a great many other things missing too. For example, a large part of the exhilaration we feel in life comes from the physical sensations we have when doing things like moving with speed, grace and dexterity. It is to mimic this experience that people like to ride on things like roller coasters, for example.

Take a good look at this photo. It gives me a feeling of vertigo, which again involves the release of hormones into the bloodstream, which influences the way our minds operate.

The experiences I am having in trying to deal with my PTSD directly relate to the way the brain and body interact. One of the worst elements of PTSD is having "flashbacks". These are dreadful experiences where I feel all the emotions that I felt when I was experiencing absolute and utter terror as a child. The emotion registers itself in physiological responses: I am drenched with sweat, my heart races, etc. My body is creating the hormonal response that evolution has prepared for the situation of having a tiger jump out of the bushes, yet I am safe at home with nothing but memories of my childhood threatening me. Even when I'm not having a full-fledged flashback, my recent experiences have consisted of feeling very sad and a smaller amount of anxiety for most of the day for a couple weeks---which is tremendously exhausting.

The ancient Daoists had a much better understanding of this phenomenon than does our modern, Western society. I understand, for example, that ancient Chinese simply doesn't have a word for "mind" that is separate from the human body. Instead, they have the word "xin", which scholars translate as "heartmind". The ancients probably saw the world this way because they observed that our consciousness is directly related to the way our body feels. When we are disappointed in love, for example, we literally feel a deep and horrible pain in our chest where our heart resides.

Another aspect of this, something that I really don't know much about, is the school of Daoism that posited that there were specific "spirits" that lived in different parts of the body. These spirits had to be tamed in order that the individual would be able achieve a long life and maybe even become a realized man. It's sometimes a foolish thing to try and project backwards a modern understanding into an ancient concept, but I wonder if maybe that was also some sort of intimation of the way our bodily hormones influence our consciousness.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology

I've recently been a bit negligent with regard to posting on this blog because I've been going through a period of pretty rapid personal growth. It's been painful, but I think that I've managed to make some real progress in dealing with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has been a pretty complex job---it's involved work with a therapist, in-depth reading on PTSD, and hours and hours of communication with a friend of mine who has offered real help based on her own problems with another issue.

One other thing that has really helped is Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution. There are a lot of good things in this book, but one thing that I find really useful to consider is his take on "evolutionary psychology". As he explains the term, modern brain physiology says that our brains consist of evolutionary "over-lays". This means that discrete elements of our brains evolved during different parts of our evolutionary history. This means that there is a part of our brain that is very similar to the brains of fish and reptiles, another that is similar to that of lower-order mammals, another that is very similar to monkeys and primates, and another part that is pretty much unique to human beings.

What this means for our lives is that each part of this multi-layered brain has a direct impact on our consciousness. This means that the "lizard brain" is what pushes us to be aggressive and competitive, which is pretty important to basic survival. The lower mammalian part of the brain is what drives our emotions and allows us to bond with other creatures in order to create social relationships such as parent/child, husband/wife, team/player, and so on. Since lizards and fish don't nurture their young or work in groups like wolves or cows, this new ability was necessary to ensure the survival of lower order mammals.

Once primates came onto the scene, however, more complex stuff became important. This included things like how to get along with other primates because the pecking order in monkey troupes is really important. This led to the complex way our minds constantly fusses and tries to work out different "scenarios" that might result if we follow a specific type of action. This leads to the noisy "internal dialogue" that Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism call the "monkey mind".

Finally, human beings have the added complexity of being able to think of their own place in the world through self-awareness. Evolutionarily, this is important because it allows humans to not only react to situations, but to also make long-term plans that allow us to do things like plan for the future and work out complex strategies based on different scenarios. These in turn allow us to do things like create societies and technology.

The problem for people is that these different elements of our make up don't always work well together. Every person has their own particular issues and it is very common for the "lizard brain" to sometimes overwhelm the higher mind, which leads to things like problems with anger management or getting into stupid sexual entanglements. For others, their "monkey minds" cause problems either by constantly harping on potential problems, which leads to anxiety disorders (like PTSD) or that old academic problem: "analysis paralysis". Other people become so caught up in their higher brain functions that they end up making crazy life choices based upon their crazy idealism. In a way, I think that this explains the people who become terrorists---they so obsess about the particular idealized view of the world that they lose all perspective about it.

Another problem is the mismatch between what our brains have evolved to do, and the world we find ourselves in today. For the overwhelming majority of human existence, our primary environment has been in small hunter-gatherer groups. We're supposed to be hunting woolly rhinos, not writing computer code, dammit! I think that this explains why governments seem to fixate on trivial issues while ignoring honking huge issues---for example, why is it that people get so upset about gay marriage while turning a blind eye to climate change? I would suggest that it is because our brains evolved in a situation where the interpersonal relationships in the small tribe were very important whereas things like the weather were "just there" and not something that we had any control over at all.

When I look at my own personal consciousness from this point of view, I have a lot more forgiveness for the times that I have not lived up to the ideal that I expected of myself. I also find that I have a lot more forgiveness towards other people now, because I understand how much of their behaviour is governed by urges and instincts that are not appropriate to our present reality---yet which are still very hard to ignore.

This isn't to say that I now give everyone a "free pass" on life's responsibilities. People still have to learn to "do the right thing". But I now have a greater appreciation of the difficulties involved. I hope that this new appreciation will eventually give me some wisdom that might make it easier for myself to progress towards a greater integration of these different elements in my being.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poetry, Songs, Goths and Industrial Music

I've recently been spending a lot of time in correspondence with a dear friend who lives in another country. One of the things that I've learned from her is how important music can be for understanding and communicating emotions. And by "music" I also mean poetry, which finds its expression in our society almost entirely in the form of lyrics. Like a lot of people from all ages, I've found that poetry talks to me and articulates the emotions that drive my life. I thought that I'd toss out some of these influences and share some of the music that has filled my life.

One of the themes that has dominated my life has been the horror I feel at the slowly accelerating ecocide that we are all living through. Being a practical sort, this sort of thing makes me angry and has driven me to take action in a variety of ways. I've worked in politics, written hundreds of pages of articles for the media, organized protests, done community organizing---I even sued Walmart once. Motivating me was a sort of dark rage that fueled a self-image as an "eco-warrior", sort of like the knights errant that come out of Chinese literature like "Water Margin".

One of my favourite Industrial bands, "VNV Nation" sums up this feeling very well in their song "DarkAngel/Azreal". The lyrics are as follows:


In your dream you see me clear
I have no restraint, no fear
Powerless I watched from faces I'd assumed.
My purpose set. My will defined.
Caress the air.
Embrace the skies.
Escape the sorrow and restraint of mortal cities.

Give me time I will be clear.
Given time you'll understand
What possesses me to right what you have suffered.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.

So many years I stood among the thoughts
and tears of those I served.
Among my own I was alone through my own doing.
All the years I walked unknown
behind the faces I assumed.
Powerless to clear your mind of what you'd suffered.

They fall again.
They fall again.

Give me time I will be clear.
Given time you'll understand
What possesses me to right what you have suffered.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.
There is no faith in which to hide.
Even truth is filled with lies.
Doubting angels fall to walk among the living.
I'm in this mood because of scorn.
I'm in a mood for total war.
To the darkened skies once more and ever onward.

I'd only come here seeking peace.
I'd only come here seeking me.

It seems I came to leave.

It isn't just a feeling of anger at the death of nature that I feel and see reflected in the music I listen to, it's also a sense of loss and sadness that comes from realizing that it is too late. We should try, but the fact of the matter is that the people who can see the future are doomed to be Cassandras who will ultimately be ignored. This Namnambulu song seems to be somewhat optimistic, but ultimately it is a plea and a call to arms more than a plan to action.

Now or Never:

As we have wandered thousand years
through centuries of blood and pain
I don't believe that god can feel
our mere existence

Technology is who we serve
as we kill by remote control
we do not see and do not feel
disaster is coming

It is time to know that it's now or never
There will never be another chance
What is wrong in doing things together
If you try to take another glance
Now that you've been tryin' so hard to get there
It would be a shame to just let go
Nothing's gonna happen if you just stare
Wouldn't it be hard to never know

Is there no way to intervene
to change belief of those who rule
or do we really have to face
our self-extinction

If he has ever been above
then he must truly be asleep
or we must pray for our souls
that he is forgiving.

I think that another theme that these Industrial/Goth songs are wrestling with is the death of traditional spirituality and a desperate longing for something more. I think that is what all the vampire, ghost, zombie, etc stuff is all about. Possibly the best articulation of this comes from the band Ashbury Heights in their song "Eternity at an End".

Eternity At An End :

Overnight our world went flat
Can't do this and can't do that
Long live mediocrity
Greater than the deep blue sea

Eternity is at an end
We have no more Gods to send
No one longer hears our prayers
We are left to our despair

Eternity is at an end
There are no more rules to bend
We have played our final card
Killed the play in which we starred

Freedom has been torn to shreds
Three Cheers For The Newlydeads
Honor doesn't mean a thing
Empty words a pleasant ring

I don't know if the average Goth would articulate this, but I can't help but thinking that all the dark clothing, black lipstick, etc, is the same sort of thing that Johnny Cash used to do when he refused to wear anything but black clothing. As he explained it, he was in a sort of permanent mourning for all the injustice he saw in the world. In much the same way, I think Goths are in morning for the death of many things---including nature and God.

I can really relate to that. If I weren't so old, I'd probably be out their wearing the clothes and pancake makeup too. But it is a youthful thing and the most I could end up looking like is a sort of Goth Colonel Sanders, which would just be silly. But I truly love the music, which seems to have adapted the very best elements of the pop and classical traditions.

Even though most of it is very sad, some of it has a sort of chilly elegance and beauty. Consider this song by Qntal. The song is sung in medieval German, but I found this translation on the Web. The video on the Youtube emphasizes a sort of neopagan idea of the power of nature and the feminine. Contrast that with the despair of Ashbury Heights and Namnambulu's songs, which are saying that there is no God in the sky who cares about our fate. Qntal's song is a finger pointing towards some future alternative. It is cold, and chilly, but it is hopeful none the less.

Von Den Elben:

By the elves many a man was enchanted,
So was I enchanted by strong love
By the best woman a man has ever befriended.
But will she for that reason hate me,
And stand up against me,
Willing to take her revenge on me
In doing what I ask of her; then she will make me so happy,
That my life will perish with joy.

II. She rules and is in the heart of mine,
Lady and mightier than I am myself,
Hey, if I ever could have that much power over her
That she stayed faithfully by my side
For 3 whole days
And some nights
Then I would not loose the life and all the power,
Yes, she is unfortunately much too independent of me.

III. I am inflamed by the light of her eyes so bright,
As the fire does to the dry tinder,
And her treating me like a stranger offends the heart of mine,
Like the water the glowing embers,
And her high spirit
And her beauty and her dignity
And the wonders, they tell of her good deeds
That is bad luck to me - or maybe good.

IV. When her bright eyes turn to me in a way
That all through my heart she sees,
Who would dare go in between and trouble me,
He must have all the joy of his totally destroyed,
I must stand in front of her,
And await my delight,
Just as the little bird (awaits) the light of dawn.
When will I ever achieve such happiness?

I could go on and on about this music. I listen to classical music---both Western and Chinese---but this goth industrial stuff is what I put in my MP3 player and listen to when I walk to work. It is sad, but one thing that I've learned over the years is that we have to accept and work through our emotions if we ever hope to get beyond them. And I think that the Goth music embodies the sadness that many people feel for the death of nature and God. Until we are willing to feel this sadness and work our way through it, we will never be able to make the transition to something better.

So if you can, find some time to listen to their laments and if it fits, wear something black. We're all at a funeral and it is only fitting to dress in mourning.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stunted Vocations

I've been thinking lately about how our society totally fails to understand and support people with spiritual vocations. I know that in my case I went for years and years of my life feeling that I had a strong, personal need to get really involved in some sort of religious organization. But every time I tried to reach out to connect I was pretty much told to bugger off.

One time I reached out to the pastor of my parents church and asked him what his ministry consisted of, and he said "Drinking tea with little old ladies and working with the cub scouts." At the time I was appalled, but I think he was just trying to say "don't even think about the Christian church, because it isn't for you."

Another time I answered an advertisement in a magazine for the Claretians. I wrote a few letters back and forth to the fellow in the advert, but when I pointed out that the only religious experience I'd ever had was with Buddhism, he wrote that I should probably stick with them. (Just as well, the Claretians suffered horribly in what Noam Chomsky calls "the CIA's war against the Catholic Church"---I don't think I would have wanted to end up in a dead in a ditch somewhere in Central America.)

It even occurred to me once to "swallow my intellectual pride" and make an honest attempt to join the local Roman Catholic community. I went to a few classes of an adult catechism class, but was so horrified by the gobble-dee-gook that the priest was spouting that I gave up. (I had read far too much Biblical scholarship by people like Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to be able swallow all the nonsense.) I also found that no matter how I tried, I simply could not walk through the doors of a church---it was like some force was keeping me out. (Maybe I'm a vampire?)

All through this period of searching, I was also spending ten years studying philosophy at university. This was somewhat intellectually satisfying, but also deeply frustrating. "Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom", but I couldn't see very much wisdom being manifested by the people who were teaching me. Indeed, I once asked a professor about what a student should do who was really seeking wisdom and he got quite uncomfortable and said he didn't have any idea what "wisdom" was or why I would ask a philosophy professor about it.

His reaction and philosophy professors in general puzzled me for years, but I eventually I was able to figure out the disconnect. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I required a great deal of education to understand the issues at play.) Academic philosophers are not selected on the basis of their wisdom as philosophers, but on the basis of their abilities as academics. This really came home to me when I attended the memorial service of the professor I've just mentioned. Lots of colleagues talked about him, but not one said he was a "wise man". Instead, over and over again they talked about what a great scholar and academic he had been.

I might aspire to someday being a wise philospher, but I know I will always be a lousy academic---and I couldn't care less.

As readers of this blog will know, I eventually ended up getting initiated into a Daoist lineage---which is sort of like being ordained as a Daoist "priest" and have become at least a little comfortable as a "hermit". But for the vast majority of "seekers", I don't think that just hoping for something similar to happen to them is a viable option.

I don't think that I was alone in trying to find some sort of answer to the "vague itch" of an unfulfilled vocation. At one time I did some disciplined research into religous cults and I came across an article by a sociologist of religion (Eileen Barker) who had done surveys of people who had joined the Unification Church (or "Moonies".) She found out that the highest correlation between joining or not joining the Moonies she could find was how one answered question about whether or not one had had some sort of relgious experience (I forget her specific wording.) She said it was remarkable---the Moonies had not only checked it off as being highly relevent, they'd written notes in the margins saying thing like "YES!!!", whereas the control group had checked it as being irrelevent and wrote notes like "What a bloody stupid question!". Barker's comment on this finding remains stuck in my memory "It is perfectly acceptable to tell your college room mate who you slept with the night before, but there is no possibility that you would tell him or her that you'd seen a vision of the Virgin Mary."

In other words, what was attracting people to the Moonies was some sort of spiritual calling that our society seems incapable of fulfilling in a better way.

This is a key problem for our society. It simply doesn't know what to do with people who have religious vocations. The mainstream religions have "dumbed themselves down" to the point where it is almost impossible for someone with any sort of intelligence and self-respect to get involved. Not only does this keep people on the outside looking in, it tells every other segment of society that the whole enterprise of religion is a total waste of time---which is only indulged in by the stupid and venal. (I think that this is why so many folks who describe themselves as "Daoist" go to great lengths to point out that they aren't religious Daoists.)

The problem with this is that many people who have religious vocations are people who really do experience the world in a very different way than others do. They can be "tender hearted" in a way that makes life in a totally secular world very painful to live in with its coarseness and needless brutality. They can also be people who have religious experiences and who need help from experienced others integrating these into their way of looking at the world. And part of this can be a deep need to "give" to the world in a way that it is very difficult to do on your own because secular society refuses to assign any value to this sort of activity. Just leaving these people to flounder on their own strikes me as evidence of a society that simply doesn't know how to honour all of its citizens.

Every other society that I have ever heard of has made an place for people with religious vocations. Primitive societies had their shamans and "medicine men". The ancients had their philosophers like Plato and Diogenes. The Chinese had Daoist and Buddhists clerics. The Muslims have Sufis. The medievals had the Benedictines, Fransciscans and many other orders. But I'm not sure that modern society really has a place for anything like that anymore, and I think that it not only creates a vacuum in the lives of people like myself, but I also think that it leaves a hole in our entire culture.

I've personally been able to carve out my own niche, but it has come at a real price. I have wasted many years of my life because I was rarely able to find any source of help to deal with the spiritual issues that confronted me. Moreover, my ability to use what gifts I have and insights I have gained, are profoundly limited because I exist as an isolated individual instead of being a member of a like-minded group. Far, far worse, I have met others who have lacked my opportunities and who have floundered most of their lives without being able to meet with the direction that could have really helped them on in the world. How many others have simply quietly slipped beneathe the waves never to be seen again?

What a waste---.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dao of Violence

I've been thinking a lot about violence lately.

I read two books by Gwynne Dyer: War, and, The Mess They Made, and saw a "docu-drama" titled "The Baader Meinhof Complex" about the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists that terrorized Germany during the 1970s.

Dyer has an encyclopedic understanding of all things related to war and the military. And as a result, IMHO, he's an indispensible resource when it comes to understanding why it is that states do what they do. His suggestions have that "ring of truth" to them that I always hear whenever someone says something that manages to be not quite "Left" nor "Right" in orientation.

For example, he says that the invasion of Iraq was not in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction or because Saddam Hussein was aiding and abetting terrorists who were bent on attacking the USA (the rightwing line.) Nor does he think that it is "all about oil" (the standard leftwing assumption.) Instead, he thinks that a group of neoconservatives in the upper reaches of the Bush administration believed that if the USA had some sort of spectacular military victory, it would push its military prestige to the point where no other state would even attempt to challenge it. This would extend the period where the USA is the world only remaining "super power" indefinitely.

This strategy blew up in the neocon's faces. The US army was shown to be a bit of a "paper tiger" that simply couldn't deal with a mass, popular insurgency that wages a "asymetrical war". Moreover, the government of George W. Bush behaved so erratically that it alienated just about every other government on earth, which dramatically weakened its influence. (Dyer quotes an anonymous Japanese diplomat who said the USA was acting like a "six year old with a loaded shotgun". I've also read quotes from Vladmir Putin of Russia that say much the same thing in that the "USA is running around like a lunatic with a straight razor".) As a result, America will be leaving both Iraq and Afganistan a much, much weaker nation than it was when it went into them.

The point that strikes me as a Daoist about all of this is that reading Dyer, I cannot see how any of this could have been avoided. As I see it, there is a huge strain of American thinking that is really grotesquely out of step with reality. Not all Americans, but enough to have a huge influence, really do think that their nation is somehow "different" from all others, and doesn't have to play by the same rules. This is the doctrine of "American exceptionalism". This belief is that the USA is uniquely chosen by God and/or history to be inevitable leader in human progress for all of history. And as long as this naive type of hubris exists, it will be impossible for the USA to deal with the systemic problems that plague the nation.

If you think about this "exceptionalist" worldview, a lot of the country's behaviour becomes easier to understand. America refuses to take global warming seriously because "the American standard of living is not negotiable". It refuses to sign onto any global convention that would limit its ability to do as it pleases on the world stage, such as the landmine treaty and the International Criminal Court. And it went totally insane when a group of terrorists attacked it and instead of seeing the problem as one of law enforcement---like any other nation on earth does---blundered around trying to re-enact WWII.

(Lest this last point seem insensitive, consider the fact that Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India flight from Canada in 1985 and that killed 325 people---most of them Canadian. Since the population of Canada is one tenth of the USA, this is equivalent to 3,250 Americans. Only 2,996 people died on "9/11". Yet Canada didn't decide to invade the Punjab or declare war on Sikhism---it sent out the police to try and find those responsible and bring them to trial. Why couldn't the USA do the same thing after 9/11?)

I don't blame any individual person for this assumption. After all, it has been part of the American psyche since the founding of New England and the American Revolution. Indeed, I suspect that in some sense just about every nation on the earth has people who think that they are "exceptional" in the same sense. (Adolph Hitler surely seemed to think that the German people were equally "exceptional".) But the extreme power that America has held in world affairs since the end of both WWII and the Cold War has shielded it from the "wake up calls" that most people suffer when their self-assessment collides with reality.

Well, the wake up calls are now marching down the pipeline.

These include things like 9/11, two wars that it cannot win, the destruction of New Orleans and the financial collapse. But if my read of the American media is right, most of the supporters of the exceptionalist point of view are looking for scape-goats instead of changing their behaviour. What what I've seen of Sara Palin and the Tea-Baggers, they blame Barak Obama and "socialism" more than they do a series of really dumb decisions by George Bush and company. Once those damn "socialists" and "Europe-lovers" get out of office, then things will be able to "right themselves".

As a Daoist I don't get mad at these people. They are simply working through the cultural implications of living in a nation that has been very rich and very powerful for a very long time. Now that the inevitable "crack up" has arrived, it is going to be a very painful process whereby people adjust to the new reality. The same thing happened to Britain when its Empire drained away. And before that, it also happened to France when its hegemony over Europe was ripped away by Germany.

Dyer is a good writer and he has a good grasp of history, but this point came home to me when I watched the film about the Red Army Faction terrorists in 1970s Germany. Watching the movie, it occurred to me that their actions were almost inevitable because of German history. The terrorists had been born during the Third Reich and most of their parent's generation had been either passive or active participants. As the most idealistic of an inherently idealistic stage of life, these people lived in the ultimate "generation clash". They were obsessed by the Vietnam War and oppression in the Third World; and absolutely fixated on the issue of why their parents had done nothing to fight against the Nazi regime. When you understand the emotional bind that they found themselves in, the ideal of armed "direct action" seems almost inescapable.

In effect, the Red Army Faction was a sort of "cultural fever nightmare" that Germany had to get through in order to come to terms with the Third Reich. I suspect that the Tea Party is going to turn into something similar in the USA. In both cases it is hard to not see all the waste and be upset, but I think that a "man of Dao" should remind him or herself that this is just a necessary stage in the development of the nation.

Sometimes we breath in, and sometimes we breath out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Post-Biblical Christianity

Last night I was doing some research on the internet about liberal Christianity and I came across the most amazing podcast by a fellow by the name of Michael Dowd.
Dowd Espouses what he calls "post-Biblical Christianity" and has written a best-selling book titled "Thank God for Evolution". (I haven't read the book yet, but I did order it from my library.)

From what I can see from his websites, Dowd argues that Christianity needs to drop any sort of pretence that the Bible has any sort of "grip" on ultimate truth. It is a common place amongst Liberals to assume that people's understanding of the natural world has advanced to the point where people know that animals evolved instead of being created by some sort of miraculous event. But Dowd goes one step further and points out that our moral understanding has advanced as well. The old Testament is filled with statements that support genocide, racism, sexism, etc, etc. As Dowd points out, the God of the Bible could be defined as a "terrorist" according the rules laid down by the FBI.

What Dowd suggests is to simply accept the fact that people's understanding changes and that when we figure out something new we just have to accept the new truth and move on. If the Bible contradicts the new truth, so much the worse for the Bible. It's clear that Dowd isn't tossing out religion, because he sees a very important role for it in our society. He just thinks that it needs to be governed by the same sorts of processes that everything else in our society follows.

I find this really refreshing. If I'd met any religious group that followed this formula (and also had some sort of prophetic vision---which, unfortunately, the Unitarians don't seem to have), I'd have joined them in a flash. I think it is pretty indicative of the state of Christianity that Dowd only started teaching this specific vision after he'd been fired as a Protestant Minister for having an affair with one of this parishioners. (I don't blame him for this, I don't know the specifics and who hasn't been tempted?) If he hadn't been bumped out of the pulpit, he might never have had the courage to say what he really thinks about stuff. That's the real problem with Christianity---"the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity".