Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

I follow several blogs dealing with the environment, peak oil and other issues of great importance to the future of the earth.  One that I recently found is by a physicist who takes the time to work through all the numbers involved in specific issues.  It's called  (of course) "Do the Math" and I find it a tremendous breath of fresh air.  What I do not find a similar breath, is the way my mind falls into old, worn-out ways of reacting to situations that routinely arise.

I was reading the "comments" section when I came across the following brilliant piece of analysis:

Mass transit is a non-starter until the crime problem is dealt with.  If people are assaulted on the train or bus or thieves use it to spread to new territory, nobody will want it to come near their town.

I responded with an angry comment that the moderator graciously edited somewhat instead of simply deleting:

[edited the fangs out]
[Whoa, there!] Are you suggesting that everyone who currently uses public transit is either a criminal or so “beyond the pale” that they don’t care about all the thugs they ride to work with every day?
I had a half-dozen acquaintances die from auto accidents when I was in secondary school. This is far from an isolated experience for people who live in the country. I haven’t known anyone killed in a robbery. Why is it our society chooses to “swallow camels while choking on gnats”?
One of the great things about this blog is that the author really does try to “do the math” instead of making moronic statements based on emotion.  

I can see that I am well on the path towards what always happens when I enter into a debate.  I get so emotionally engaged with the subject that I can easily be egged into pissing off the moderator/voters/editors/whatever to the point where they eventually bare me from the group.

Emotional engagement is a good thing insofar as it gets people motivated to actually do something.   It has gotten me to run for political office, organize community groups, do very risky things like suing Walmart, and so on.  But it also makes me so angry that I tend to go off like an H-bomb whenever someone says something that I believe is so ignorant and hurtful that it simply could not be an honest mistake.  In the above case, my blood boiled from the obvious assumption that the reader was working from----namely that the sort of people who use public transit consist of an "under-class", many of whom are undesirables that any sane person would want to keep physically outside of their community.  One wonders if skin colour might be part of the equation----.

The problem with my emotions is that because I cannot control them any better than I do, I am always vulnerable to anyone who realizes that they can get me into trouble any time they want simply by making this sort of outrageous statement.  Since most referees and audiences respond to the tone of a discussion more than the content, this means that anyone who can get me angry will almost always win the battle.

This "Achilles Heel" has plagued me all of my life.  It is why I have never developed a career, even though I have gone through periods in my life when I really would have liked to be a "success" in some sort of conventional sense.  (Actually, now I consider myself quite a considerable success, but that doesn't change the fact that I haven't always thought so.)   It has certainly dramatically lowered my influence on society, because it means that a great many folks just dismiss me as some sort of weird person who has anger management problems.

I have some understanding about why it is I act like this.  When I was young every authority figure in my life was either too dumb or too out-of-control for me to every assume that they were acting in my best interest or that their advice was worth following.  I also spent a great deal of my life walking around being completely enraged by the idiocy that I had to put up with in my day-to-day life.  Modern biology teaches that when a child develops in this sort of environment it becomes "hard wired" to be angry most of the time.

That pretty much describes me.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that having understood this point, I should be able to no longer be imprisoned by this behaviour.  But the fact of the matter is that knowing that I am going to act like this is absolutely no preventative from doing it time and time again.  The only real way of avoiding this sort of thing is to totally avoid spending any time in situations where I can meet people like the guy who wrote the original comment on the "Do the Math" blog.  Being so emotionally engaged is why drives me to do things like take a train instead of an airplane to visit my fiance even though she lives 800 miles away (to lessen my carbon footprint.)  But it also is why it is almost impossible for anyone to understand why I do so.  It leaves me totally frustrated as a human being.

I wonder how often this sort of dilemma faced old-time Daoist recluses?   Perhaps many of them were simply passionate people who couldn't control their emotions enough to keep a straight face when confronted by the vile, idiotic things they heard and saw in court.  Some folks are never meant to hide their hearts.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One of the concepts that people take for granted, but which I have always had a hard time understanding is that of "discipline".  People tell people who eat too much or smoke that they should "learn to have self-discipline".  The problem is that this concept is based on the idea that people always know the right thing to do, but do the opposite anyway.

My experience trying to stop smoking got me thinking about all of this.  I was able to stop smoking over and over again, but each time I started again, it wasn't a case of my losing any sort of "hold" over myself, but rather a case of my becoming depressed and no longer seeing the reason why I should care if I smoked or not.  There is a subtle issue here.

As I see it, most of the things we do in our life are habits.  The person who exercises regularly doesn't have self-discipline, he just has a healthy habit of exercising regularly.  Where discipline comes into play is when someone consciously chooses to change their habits so they stop, for example, slumping in front of a television all night and instead decide to spend the time exercising instead.  The discipline comes into play for the month or so that it takes to create the habit that results in inertia carrying someone into doing exercise instead of watching "the Simpsons".

A key component of this self-discipline comes from keeping our "eye on the prize" so we don't get depressed and start thinking "what's the use" (as in my example of resuming smoking.)  Another part comes from not allowing ourselves to be distracted to the point where we forget that we wanted to change ourselves and create a new habit.  Even if I want to exercise, I might be halfway through a bag of potato chips and "Family Guy" before I remembered that today was the day I was going to start exercising.

As I see it, a key element of developing enough self-discipline in order to change our habits comes from reminding ourselves that we exist and have volition.  In Daoist terms, I see that this is what various teachers meant when they said we need to "hold onto the One".  My primary source of this comes from the Nei Yeh, but it is also something strongly suggested by the Celestial Master in the Taiping Jing.  This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of "mindfulness", but I think it has a very different resonance in that the Buddhist ideal is that of passive watchfulness.  The Buddhist image reminds me of someone sitting quietly and watching the world around them, whereas the Daoist one seems to me more of someone holding onto the "core" of their being so they can affirm themselves in a world of distractions.  This makes sense to me as I see the goal of Buddhism to be Nirvana, which is a negative concept of letting go of bondage to the earth;  whereas the goal of Daoism is to become a Xian (what I call a "realized man") or a being that is still very much engaged with the world around him, but is able to transcend many of his previous limitations.

The connection between "holding onto the One" and "self-discipline" also makes sense of the importance of "kung fu" in Daoist practice.  It doesn't really matter where one puts their dedicated practice---whether it is writing poems, gardening, cooking, making quilts or doing taijiquan.  The fact that you have to "hold onto the One" in order to achieve any sort of progress in the art means that you are also treading the path towards realization.