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.