Monday, October 27, 2014

Be Like Water and Let Your Ego Drown!

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to "be like water". That is to say, what does it mean to "go with the flow" when life creates obstacles in your path?

I often have little patience for "groovy, hippie Daoists" who seem to interpret this ideal as an excuse to never get engaged in any sort of effort at all---especially one of a social nature.  "Why bother trying to make the world a better place?  What will be, will be."  I've always seen this rejection of civic responsibility as not much more than laziness.

But having said that, there are instances when this attitude is tremendously important.  Perhaps the dividing line is whether or not the decision to be like water and flow around an obstacle is as easy as falling off a log, or, whether it involves a great deal of internal struggle.

People usually think of "going with the flow" by referring to simply not doing something that would be a bother to do anyway.  But what if you have tremendous emotional attachment to something and "going with the flow" involves fighting against that attachment?  I remember reading an essay by a social worker who was trying to adapt Daoist principles to her practice.  She cited the example of a hard-working Chinese immigrant who had absolutely busted his ass for years to build up a successful restaurant to only see organized crime take it over.  The objective reality was that there really was nothing he could do to get it back, so after much mental anguish and struggle he decided to fall back on his cultural heritage and accept the loss and let it go.

The social worker said that Westerners were horrified by his attitude, but since she came from a similar culture, she could see how his attitude had really helped him deal with his problem.

A less dramatic example often happens at work.  Let's face it, a lot of very intelligent, well-educated people are working for managers who seem to be not much more than idiots.  How do these people emotionally deal with the situations that this forces themselves into?  I'm sure many readers have seen situations like this.  Institutions where people do not want to take responsibility for declaring items surplus, so warehouse space is rented to keep surplus items in indefinite storage.
The obligatory Dilbert cartoon
Expensive materials destroyed because the management was too lazy to investigate reports from people lower down the food chain.  Wildly inefficient if not insanely counter-productive policies developed because management simply didn't know enough about the job at hand and was too arrogant to ask anyone who did.  Managers who want very expensive and time-consuming "exemptions" from standard operating procedure, but refuse to put anything in writing so they can deny culpability if caught.  Stupid "office politics" between managers where their respective staff are used as pawns in their dumb battles. The list goes on and on, and everyone can think of examples.

I've spent long hours grinding my teeth over this stuff, and heard thousands of hours of co-workers bitch about the same things.  After long thought, I've come to a couple conclusions.

First of all, no matter how intelligent we might think that we are individually, the odds are pretty good that if anyone who ever bitched about management were made managers, they'd probably do equally goofy things. Problems come about because people have blind spots, because they find themselves in situations where they have to deal with dumb things themselves, and, because they find themselves overwhelmed by responsibilities that they do not have the time and resources to adequately deal with.  Even the smartest people can find themselves in similar binds and screw up.

Secondly, no matter what job postings may say, it is important to realize that hiring practices are not about getting the best person possible for the position, but rather about getting a "known quantity".  People often bitterly complain about "quotas" for people like police officers.  They say that the best man didn't get the job because there was a push to get women or "ethnics" onto the force.  What this complaint misses, however, is that hiring is never about getting the "best man", but rather about getting someone who is "good enough".  Frankly, the pool of people who can adequately fill any particular position usually dramatically exceeds the number of openings.  So it isn't that hard to get someone who is "good enough".

Once the people who are good enough are identified, then other issues come into play.  In the case of police, it is important to try and get the force to look like the people that they are policing.  It is also important to have a pool of officers with useful secondary skills---such as having officers who speak languages and come from other cultures to help with issues in the immigrant community.  If someone speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, he is worth hiring even if he is a bit short and out of shape, and didn't score at the absolute top of his entrance exam.

The same issues come into play with regard to management.  For example, one thing that I have found that is strongly selected for in hiring is "attitude".  People have to obviously believe in the core project of the workplace.  If someone seems to believe that the institution's success is really, really, really important, then they will have a better chance of being hired.  Cynics like myself, who don't really think that most workplaces are all that important, just don't come across as being "with the program".   So someone who is the absolute smartest might not actually be hired because the institution would rather have someone who is gungho about putting into practice the latest idiotic idea of the higher-ups.

They don't really want excellence in management.  Instead, they want competency in following orders. There is a significant distinction. So why should someone get all bent out of shape when managers do dumb things?  Their job isn't to do a really good job, it's to follow the higher ups around like puppy dogs, do what they are told, and, not do anything that is truly amazingly dumb.

Finally, the other thing to remember about working for institutions is that we only feel upset if we self-identify with the institution in one way or another. If we feel abused and angry being ordered around doing stupid stuff, we only get upset if we think we can and should do something better. But if instead one simply sees work as a means of making money, none of this stuff matters.  If you want to pay me a living wage to do something that is pretty much pointless, then go right ahead.  With that mindset, the only things that matter are whether or not the job is dangerous, exhausting---and how much I am getting paid.  Everything else is irrelevant.

There are other issues, of course. I might get annoyed at work if I am asked to do something that is objectively evil and causes misery around the world.  I might also be asked to do something that is illegal. But to my way of thinking these both come down to the question of safety. An illegal activity might lead to imprisonment or worse, so I will avoid that. Something that is objectively damaging to the environment or human society has to be weighed as being more so than the rest of our stupidly destructive civilization.  If it is, I'd suggest that it too is dangerous.  If not personally, certainly to the world around us---which, as a Daoist, I strongly self-identify with. People have every right to struggle against and avoid danger.  If there is a chance to influence things for the better, by all means struggle.  It, in your opinion, there isn't, just walk away and don't give it another thought.

And, of course, not giving "it another thought", is not easily done.  I dare say that the Chinese immigrant I mentioned above didn't find it easy to simply "not give another thought" to the business that a bunch criminals took away from him!  But his cultural background told him that the best way to deal with the situation was to strive for that ideal.  In fact, I suspect he busted his ass striving for that ideal!  But it was worth doing, because eventually his social worker believed he achieved a level of equanimity about the situation.  This is the difference between what I would call real Daoism and
"Hippie Daoism".  Real Daoism is based on hard work, Kung Fu, and it involves helping yourself deal with tough, nasty problems.  Hippy Daoism will disappoint because it is not equipped to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life.  Walking through a forest with a smile on your face is a nice thing---but sometimes a panther will jump out of a tree and you'd better have something to deal with that situation too!

The "Hippie Daoists" often make a big distinction between Buddhism and Daoism because they don't like all the meditation that goes into formal Buddhist study. I have some issues about this too, more because I think Western Buddhists have taken a very complex, integrated practical philosophy and reduced it to one key component:  meditation.  Daoism isn't well known, so people tend to read the Dao De Jing, and project their assumptions onto it. And as a result, they don't associate it with formal meditation. I would assert that this is somewhat accurate. But there is still a lot of hard work involved, even if there is less time spent on the mats. One very tough practice is to be like that Chinese immigrant and try to be like water when something very nasty happens to you. It can also be hard to do when the boss is acting like a jerk!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Walking on Two Legs: Spirituality and Religion---Activism and Consciousness

I recently read a comment on a FaceBook group that crystallized something that's been bubbling in my mind for a very long time.

The fellow was responding to a panel discussion that occurred at the recent New York climate protests and included luminaries like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Sen. Bernie Sanders, etc.

It continues to confirm what I have seen most of the time. These "Leaders" in the shift in the presence of humanity on the planet know nothing about consciousness. ---- All their suggestions are just trying to do more, better, or different from the same level of consciousness that created the problem. 

Years ago, a much different version of myself was sitting in a student coffee shop.  I was drinking coffee with a philosophy professor and the issue of religion versus spirituality came up.  I was a very serious meditator at that time, yet I had nothing but contempt for organized religion.  Jay said he couldn't understand that point of view.

I've mentioned these two incidents because they are examples of a problem that I routinely see when communicating with people about various issues.  That is, many people seem to automatically separate human activities into two spheres, decide that they are partisans of that particular view, and deny any sort of relationship between the two.  The dividing line that I am referring to isn't ideological but rather the weight that the person assigns to individual autonomy versus cultural conditioning.

For example, I routinely meet folks in "progressive" politics who have absolutely no use for the "great ideas" of philosophy, who adamantly refuse to consider things from the "big picture", and seem to be totally incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of people who might support conservative causes.  At the same way, I also meet people who are interested in "consciousness" and dismiss all practical activism as being totally besides the point unless people first have a "revolution in their minds".  For these folks, anyone who hasn't gone through such a process is invariably doomed to find that all their work has done nothing more than entrench the status quo.

 In much the same way, many people who meditate, study sacred texts and so forth absolutely refuse to darken the door of a church. Other folks who go to church regularly, feel enormously loyal to the ecclesiastic hierarchy, and so on, have never spent any time at all investigating the sacred texts, history, or, spiritual practices of the faith that they feel so loyal towards.

I can understand the former attitude.  Hordes of people who are intensely interested in spiritual matters are disgusted by religious organizations whose practical teaching seems to come down to "shut up and do what you are told". Especially since a large part of what they are being told to do seems to be to hate gays, mistreat women and ignore what evidence and logic teaches you.  With regard to the latter, I suspect that in many cases orthodox religious people feel that spiritually-orientated people are annoying because they seem to think that they can pick and choose which teachings of the church to follow according to their own personal preference.  The phrase "cafeteria Catholic" for example, has been coined to describe the church member who refuses to eat the "no birth control" liver that the Pope plunked down in front of him, and instead wants to try the "liberation theology" casserole instead. For these people, real freedom to follow where the spirit leads us would create a totally chaotic situation where the institution would no longer have the resources to do any charitable work at all and local congregations would split apart into cult-like factions. If you want to have the help for the poor and beautiful churches, then you have swallow the opposition to birth control.

In politics much the same split occurs. People interested in the theory of social transformation despair of the endless compromises that practical politicians impose on their high ideals. But practical folks also feel that the "ideologues" are so enamoured with being "correct" that they don't care if they actually ever accomplish anything.  Instead of actually connecting with ordinary people, political organizations compete with each other on which is the most ideologically pure, which results in the cliche of the Leftist circular firing squad.

This divide is unfortunate, because I've come to the conclusion that the division between our self-aware personality, and, our social persona is artificial.  We are not exclusively thinking beings that choose to "do things" when we act in the world around us, we are also social beings that are "molded" by the experiences we have when interacting with other people.

I've read intimations of this fact from "church people" who talk about how important their experiences have been in learning how to get along with the various types of folks they have met in their congregations. How they learned patience and humility from dealing with the angry conservatives who constantly tried to dominate the congregation, for example.  In my brief experience in a Unitarian congregation I felt a great deal of connection with older congregants as they wrestled with various issues---such as surviving a daughter who died of cancer leaving two small children; dealing with a long, terminal illness; or realizing that they were succumbing to dementia after a long, socially engaged life.  No matter how much time I spent meditating, I don't think I would ever have learned what I did from observing people deal with these problems.

I've never really been a person who sticks with institutions, which is why I've identified myself as a hermit, and, why I couldn't even stick with a radical group like the Green Party. In addition, I've always had jobs where I was pretty much on my own instead of working with other people. But I have had a little experience working with other people and I can see how the experience has shaped my consciousness. How do you respond to a neurotic boss who keeps after you to pursue ridiculous work that serves no obvious purpose? You could rebel, but the fact is that the tasks aren't that onerous and the fellow has absolute control over your work life, and, you really want to keep the job with its relative high pay and good benefits. I've decided to ask myself "is it really that important?", and come to the conclusion it isn't. So I do what I am told and instead of getting angry wonder about what sort of life experience has created this man's fixations.

In the same way, political activism also teaches us things about the human condition that we cannot learn from simply trying to "reform our consciousness". It is possible to build the most elaborate "castles in the air", but unless you figure out some way to actually get enough people to support your ideas to actually put them into place, not much is going to happen.  And the way to get people to actually change their behaviour is by doing what people call "retail politics".  That is, knocking on doors, holding meetings, fundraising, building databases of supporters, getting out the vote, and so on. A big part of this is actually listening to what people say and honestly responding to it.

I learned this when I first started running for the Green Party. In some ways, I was probably an inspirational politician.  I was able to get a lot of people involved in the Riding Association and became a bit of a leading light in the party. But I am a disaster when it comes to the general public. I was literally knocking on doors saying things like "we need to give more money to people on welfare" and "we need to end economic growth or else we will cause an environmental catastrophe".  I still believe those things, but I now know that the average citizen is conditioned to believe that those two statements are absolutely loony tunes.  If you try to start a relationship with someone by saying something that they will dismiss out of hand, most will never, ever listen to another word you say.

I heard something today that reinforces this point. An Arab author was talking about the "Arab Spring" movements and why so many had foundered.  He said with regard to Egypt that the reason why the liberal protests had failed was because the protesters never followed up with retail politics.  This left a political vacuum that Fundamentalist parties took advantage of. They knocked on doors, helped people with their personal concerns, had offices in ever local mosque. They were the "civil society" for the overwhelming majority of Egyptian voters. This connection resulted in the election of a Fundamentalist Arab government that so alienated the educated elite that it supported a military coup d'etat. The end result was the return of all the same characters that surrounded Mubarak.  

The important point I am trying to make, however, isn't that there needs to be some sort of institutional organization to accomplish change.  That is true, and in its own way it is very important and not obvious to everyone---certainly not to the people in Egypt who thought protests on the streets would be enough to change society.  But it is also that the way people think about things are changed by the process of getting involved in retail politics. If someone immerses themselves in the political process they start learning a lot of important things about the world around them.

For example, I often hear people make snide remarks about all politicians being "crooks", who are "in it for the money".  Well, outside of a few very rare examples, that is total baloney.  The reason why raising money is so important to politicians is not because they want to line their pockets, it is because they need to raise mountains of money to fund their election campaign.  In Guelph, for example, to run federally you to have to raise about $20,000 per campaign to have a fighting chance to win.  And the party head office has to raise a lot more money than that to fund national advertising, hire staff, pay for tour buses, run the office between elections, etc. And, I might add, that Canada has public financing and spending limits that look absolutely draconian compared to the American system.

Another thing I often hear is the idea that all politicians are "liars".  Again, that's baloney. People who run for public office and actually want to have a chance of getting elected are trapped by voters who expect them to be all things to all people and who have totally unrealistic expectations about what a candidate should be able to do once elected. This traps the candidate, because if she ever told voters what her limitations would be if elected to office, the voters would never vote for her. But the only way to get people to understand this fact is to get them engaged in politics on a level that the overwhelming majority of voters will never attempt to do.

One of the more infuriating types I used to come across in my political work was the odd person who thought that the only problem with the political system was political parties. Just get rid of them and everything would be just fine. They came to this conclusion by reading about the abuses of existing political parties and assumed that if you could get rid of the party, the abuses would disappear too. Unfortunately, what these people invariably didn't think about was how exactly they proposed to actually get rid of the party. They usually suggested that Elections Canada simply remove all reference to political parties from their regulations. But in doing so, they wouldn't be getting rid of parties but rather getting rid of any way of controlling their behaviour.  People would still get together to work together to create slates of candidates---which is all a political party really is.  But without any official standing there would be no way of knowing, for example, where their funding came from.

I no longer get angry with these folks. Instead, I understand them for what they are. They are just people who have absolutely no practical experience in retail politics. Unfortunately, I meet people like this more and more. Perhaps they always were out there, but in the past folks were more deferential to the elites and willing to follow their direction. Now people who really "don't know what they are talking about" are unfortunately far more belligerent and becoming more and more influential in society. My response is to suggest that more people should get involved in the practical political process so they can gain more "political literacy" and stop holding such incredibly naive beliefs. Don't ask me how I propose doing this, because I simply don't know.

A similar sort of issue can be said about religion. I'm pretty much like many other people. I've spent a great deal of time wrestling with spiritual issues and come to some conclusions. But in the process I've isolated myself from any sort of ecclesiastic institution. This means that I am even more profoundly naive about how to get along with them than I am with regular politicians.

I understand that the Chinese say something to the effect that people walk with two legs, which is a comment about the necessity of understanding that both men and women have different, yet essential roles to play in society. Well, I'm suggesting that both religion and politics are the same.  Two somewhat different impulses are at play, but both are essential. In my own personal case, I have to admit that I walk with a pretty pronounced limp. But at least I am walking. Some folks are trying to get around by hopping on only one leg---.