Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mencius, the "Qi Flood", and, Activism

I'm not moving very fast through Mencius, but I am attempting to try and keep working at it.  So here's a little more about his ideas.

(Please bear with my attempts to keep up with the issues involved in transliterating Chinese words.  Hinton uses what I think is the old version "ch'i" whereas I am using what I believe is the more modern "Qi".  Also, some will note the word "taijiquan", which the Canadian Taijiquan Federation considers correct.  These may look odd, but lots of people with far better credentials than I have been confused about these things.)

My second to last post introduced Mencius' discussion of how different people have cultivated fearlessness using different methods. The point he was trying to make is by way of an analogy.  Different people are able to become fearless through long-term, disciplined effort (ie:  kung fu.)  But they did so by using different types of methods. In a similar way, people are able to "still the mind" through using disciplined effort following different methods.  He doesn't say that each way of developing fearlessness is equal, because some are better than others.  Without being explicit stated, I can only surmise that a similar suggestion is being made about stilling the mind.

Now Mencius goes on to discuss his preferred method of stilling the mind and qi in particular.

"The will guides ch'i, and ch'i fills the body.  So for us the will comes first, and ch'i second.  That's why I say:  Keep a firm grasp on your will, but never tyrannize your ch'i."  
At this, Kung-sun Ch'ou siad:  "If you say For us the will comes first, and the ch'i second, how can you also say Keep a firm grasp on your will, but never tyrannize your ch'i?
"When the will is whole, it moves ch'i, and when ch'i is whole, it moves the will.  When we stumble and hurry, ch'i is affected, but that in turn moves the mind." (Hinton pp. 47-48)

In reading the above, I think that it is possible to get confused over a possible "chicken and egg" problem.  That is, the will moves Qi, but the Qi also moves the will.  What comes first?

Now, in the same section of Mencius, the author goes on to talk specifically about "Qi".  As I mentioned before, Mencius has what would be considered nowadays a very unconventional understanding of the term.  He doesn't talk about it in psycho-physical terms using the idea of "energy".  Instead, he roots it in the language of morality and behaviour. Moreover, he doesn't talk about it as a force that one can manifest occasionally in specific displays (like a squirt), but rather as something massive and overwhelming---the "qi flood".

"May I understand what you mean by ch'i-flood?"
"That's hard to explain," replied Mencius.  "It's ch'i at its limits:  vast and relentless.  Nourish it with fidelity and allow it no injury---then it fills the space between Heaven and earth.  It is the ch'i that unifies Duty and the Way.  Without it we starve.  And it's born from a lifetime of Duty;  a few token acts aren't enough.  When the things we do don't satisfy the mind, we starve."  (Hinton, p 48)
This is something that most people I know who are interested in Daoism would find totally incomprehensible.  Qi can be developed through acts of duty towards society!  In contrast, most of the people I've met would argue that the only way to nurture Qi is through avoiding any sense of commitment towards others and by isolating yourself from society in order to engage in psycho-physical personal cultivation.

He contrasts his point of view with another's, Master Kao.

"That's why I say:  Master Kao still doesn't understand Duty.  He thinks it's something outside of us.  You must devote yourself to this ch'i-flood without forcing it.  Don't let it out of your mind, but don't try to help it grown and flourish either."  (Hinton p 48)

I haven't come across anything yet that would tell me what Mencius might think about psycho-physical cultivation of Qi, but it is clear that he isn't suggesting that one should try to force it's cultivation through actively pursuing "good works" just for the sake of nurturing the Qi flood.

"---Don't let it out of your mind, but don't try to help it grow and flourish either." "If you do, you'll be acting like that man from Sung who worried that his rice shoots weren't growing fast enough, and so went around pulling at them.  At the end of the day, he returned home exhausted and said to his family:  I'm worn out.  I've been helping the rice grow.  His son ran out to look and found the fields all withered and dying."
"In all beneath Heaven, there are few who can resist helping the rice shoots grow.  Some think nothing they do will help, so they ignore them.  They are the ones who don't even bother to weed.  Some try to help them grow:  they are the ones who pull at them.  It isn't just that they aren't making things better---they're actually making them worse!"  (Hinton, pp 48-49)

My take of this idea is to see it as evidence of "Wei Wu Wei", or "action without action".  Mencius says that Qi is what connects Duty with the Way.  Trying to be dutiful without the Way is like the man who tried to force his rice to grow and only ended up killing it. So what does Mencius mean us to do?  My read is to say that we do not want to turn our backs on society and become recluses who are only interested in meditation and or esoteric yoga of one sort or another.  (These are some of the people who refuse to "weed the rice".)  But neither does he suggest that we become humourless drudges who devote our lives to one cause after another.  Instead, he suggests that we need to find the Way of Duty.  And developing the "Qi flood" is how we link the two.


What exactly does any of this have to do with the modern world?

In my life as an activist I think I have seen a lot of people who have exhausted themselves trying to "force the rice to grow".  For example, one thing I have tried to get people to understand time and time again (without much luck, unfortunately) is that no matter how hard someone works on a political campaign, most of the success comes down to luck.  There is an amount of effort that is necessary for a candidate to have a chance of winning, but no amount of it is sufficient to do the job.  As a result, I have found time and time again that people burned themselves out trying to do the impossible and as a result found that they no longer have the energy to get involved in much of anything.  This is unfortunate, because politics is much more than winning elections, to a very large extent it serves a very important educational function in society.

The same truth holds for just about any form of activism.  Delaying something is often a significant victory.  I appears now, for example, that the Keystone pipeline through the USA is a dead duck because of the low cost of oil if not for anything else.  But if the project had been passed years ago it would now be "locked into place" and almost impossible to stop.

Just educating the public can have a huge impact. I ran hopeless election campaign after hopeless campaign for decades trying to raise the issue of ending economic growth.  Now this is no longer a fringe issue but rather something that mainstream economists often discuss in the popular media.  Similarly, the idea of resilience in the face of climate change started out as wacko, fringe idea but now is part of my city's official long term strategy.

The important point, however, is not to try and force things.  My activist career involved "tossing stuff at the wall" and seeing if stuff stuck.

Some projects took off like rockets, others didn't.  The first thing I ever did was organize a rent strike for a building where I taught taijiquan.  I just photocopied a little notice and stuffed it in people's mailboxes.  I got a packed room of very angry, militant people and we quickly got real change.  That is "going with the Qi flood".

I also worked for years trying to convince the membership of the Green Party of Canada that they needed to develop a genuinely democratic, grass roots structure instead of just trying to get some media star to join and tell them what to do.  That was "helping the rice grow" and it ended with me burnt out and frustrated.

Another time I sued Walmart and lost a preliminary court case and had $4,000 in costs levied against me.  Next week we raised $60,000 in a legal defence fund.  That was going with the Qi flood.

I organized a non-credit lecture series called "The Activist Toolbox" at the local university and got filled rooms and one of the Vice Presidents actually took the course.  That was also a Qi flood.  I tried to take the same thing off campus and no one showed up.  That was "helping the rice grow".

The problem with knowing the difference between the two extremes is being able to "quiet the mind".  We become obsessed with our preconceived notions about what should or will work, and what shouldn't or won't.  This blinds us to the world that is right in front of our eyes.  We also become blinded by other issues that cloud our objectivity.  I've found, for example, that far too many activists become more focused on ways of making a living through their activism than about how to make the world a better place.   It is relatively easy to find things that need doing in the world. It is damned difficult to find a way to make a living while doing it.  Stilling the mind allows people to see the difference.

It also allows you to separate out people's desire for fame and gratitude too.  Activists who do real work to make the world a better place rarely get any respect for doing so.  When a large organization is forced to make some concession, their public relations machine usually roars into over drive to make sure that this looks to the general public about at worst an oversight, or at best, something that they were going to do all along.  Politicians are also very good at swooping in at the last minute to take credit for something that they would never have done without someone else's unpaid, unrecognised, hard work.

Stilling the mind helps you realize that fame, gratitude, and, money are secondary.  What matters is your Duty, or, as Spike Lee would say "doing the right thing".  If you can still the mind, and "surf the Qi flood" you can sometimes be amazingly successful.  If you try to "force the rice to grow", the odds are that you will just become angry and burnt out.

Interesting stuff from an ancient Chinese philosopher, eh?