Monday, July 3, 2017

How Realistic is Your Taiji Sword Form?

I've done the Government of China official short Yang form of taiji sword for quite a few years, but I've recently become somewhat frustrated with it. I learned from a pretty good source, a woman who was on a provincial wushu team from the People's Republic, so I cannot find fault with her expertise. It's just that I've spent a bit of time learning about swords from people on-line who discuss the European tradition, and I simply cannot believe that wushu sword techniques are realistic. Let me explain why.

How could I possibly suggest that wushu sword forms aren't realistic?
photo by "Wushu One Family", c/o Wiki Commons

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Using a sword is a complex issue because it involves a lot of different physics problems. Consider, for example, the issue of "cutting". This is not as simple as you might think, because it involves applies two directions of force at the same time. To illustrate this point consider the following YouTube video.

This is what my the fellow who initiated me into Daoism used to call a "circus trick". It looks impressive, but it's really based on simple physics. The point is that the sword hammers down onto the fellow's abdomen without importing any sliding movement. This means that when the sword goes through the watermelon and meets the towel, it just bounces off instead of cutting.

A water melon has very different qualities than human skin and cloth. It is rigid and has almost no tensile strength. This means it splits very easily. In contrast, skin and cloth have much greater tensile strength, so they are very difficult to split. Moreover, there is an added complication: skin slices very easily---cloth not so much. If the guy with the sword had tried to slice or saw through the watermelon, it would have taken some effort and the sword might very well have gotten stuck. So what the sword hit what is in effect a laminate consisting of watermelon, a towel, and, the karate teacher's abdomen---all three of which react to cutting in very different ways.

So the key to the trick is the sword splits the watermelon, then bounces off the towel. If the towel wasn't there, then there might have been a little bit of residual sideways, slicing motion from the cut, which might have cut the sensei's abdomen (note that the fellow wielding the sword cut his hand while cleaning the blade.)


The sword splits the watermelon only because it is rigid. If it wasn't, the sword would bend around after it hit the watermelon, which would probably cause it to bind and stick. To understand this point. Let's look at another circus trick, this one done by people who perform as Buddhist martial monks. (They may actually be Shaolin Temple monks---but I'm told that a lot of the guys who perform for tourists are just acrobats and not real monks.)

The secret to this trick is that penetration---like from the tip of a spear---can only happen if the force is directed at right angles to the body. If there is even a slight bend in the "spear"---and the "spear" has enough flexibility---the harder you push on it, the more the spear bends, and the more it bends, the more the force comes from the side of the spear blade and the less it comes from the point. If you look carefully, those "wax wood" spears don't act anything like a real one. First, they have a pre-set bend in them, which the two helpers aim towards the floor. Secondly, after the demonstration is over, they hold a very definite, much greater bend after the fact. This shows that the spear shafts are not made of a really strong, mostly rigid, and, only slightly springy material (like real wax wood.) Instead, I suspect that what they really are are thin, easily bent, mild steel rods with something over top that makes them look like wax wood. 

This is an issue not only with spears, but also with swords. If the fellow slicing the watermelon had been using one of those floppy wushu jians, the blade would have deformed when it hit the fruit and bounced around inside the fruit---not neatly splitting it, but probably getting stuck. 

This isn't the most floppy wushu/taiji jian I've ever seen, either.
Photo from the "Wudang Store"

There's a third issue at play here. That's the shape of the sword. A straight sword acts very differently from a curved one. A curved blade imparts slicing motion with just about every move it makes, simply because of its shape. This makes it much more effective in cutting. In fact, the shape and movement of the blade is so important to the way a sword cuts that the edge can sometimes almost seem irrelevant. I found this out once when I was "fooling around" in my taiji club with a blunt, aluminum "willow leaf sabre".

A willow leaf sabre,
original art by Nazanian, c/o Wiki Commons
I saw a small poster tacked up on the bulletin board that was supporting a group that I knew was a bit of a religious cult. So I stabbed the poster with the tip of the sabre, pulled it off the board, tossed it up in the air, and, did a draw cut (from my taiji sabre form) on it in mid-air---which neatly cut it into two pieces, which then lazily fell to the floor.

(I'm not trying blow my own horn here. There is no way I could do this on command, but it was an amazing example of Zhuangzi's idea that there is tremendous power in spontaneous action.)

A more prosaic way of understanding this point involves thinking about what happens when you suffer a paper cut. No one could ever use a piece of paper to cut anything, but we all have experience of quite painful cuts from drawing the edge of a sheet across our skin "in just the right way". Exactly the same issues are at play when it comes to swords.
If you look at the above drawing of the willow leaf sabre, you will see that between the curve of the blade and the handle, there is a complex "S" curve to the whole sword. This means that when you thrust the blade forward, draw it back back, or, chop from top to down, you are always going to be imparting some sort of slicing motion to the edge. That's the whole point of the shape. It would be a bad idea to try to do the watermelon trick using a willow leaf sabre. It might still work OK, but it's best to no take any risks.

If you look at the sword used to cut the watermelon, it is a straight "ninja" type sword. This is the absolute best type of sword to use in for this trick, as the straighter the sword, the easier it is to us it in a straight chopping motion with minimal slicing action.
A "ninja-type" sword,
From a commercial website


What this means is that for a sword to "work" it simply cannot be floppy. And it is more work for a straight blade to cut than it is for a curved one. And cutting is more difficult than people think, because of the issue of armor and clothing. This again has something to do with the watermelon trick---that little towel on the skin actually acted like a piece of armor.

Most people don't understand this, but for millennia the most basic type of armor wasn't plate, chain mail, or, even leather---it was quilted cloth. Here are three types, from three different times and cultures. 

The Ancient Greek Linothorax

A Medieval European Gambeson
Photo from  Centraal Museum Utrecht, c/o Wiki Commons

Aztec quilted cotton armor, the Ichcahuipilli
From Mexicolore
This issue goes beyond just quilted armor and circus tricks involving watermelons. That's because it turns out that it was often quite difficult for a person wielding a sword to cut through just the clothing that an opponent was wearing. To explain this point, here's a video by the excellent Matt Easton explaining the issues.

With this thought in mind, consider the clothing that the Mandarin in the picture below is wearing. He has a fur lined robe plus layers of clothing below that (cold climate plus no central heating!) Think about how hard these layers of cloth would be to either cut or penetrate in a sword fight. No floppy modern wushu blade would be able to do it.

This guy might as well be wearing armor!


There are other issues beyond the ability to cut. For example, a sword has to have a certain "heft" or mass to be able to parry blows from another weapon. A really light, floppy blade won't be able to force another weapon out of the way. If the blade doesn't just bend around the other sword, staff, spear, or, whatever, the lack of weight will simply overwhelm the arm and push it out of the way.


In addition, we also need to understand how jians were actually made in pre-modern times. Most people are aware of how Japanese swords are made from layers of folded metal---with a soft, resilient core holding a hard, yet somewhat brittle edge. What this means is that compared to modern, European swords Japanese swords are actually really heavy. That's because the folded metal, lamination technique requires a significant cross section. Jians were traditionally made the same way. (Unfortunately, the best illustrations of this were all labelled in either Russian or Japanese, but hopefully the casual reader can get the point. The different coloured sections have different degrees of hardness and resilience.) The consensus among scholars is that the Japanese sword making techniques used to make katanas were copied off Chinese techniques used to make jians. This means that a historically accurate jian would have to have a similarly quite large cross-section. This would add dramatically to the weight of the sword.

Illustration by Tosaka, c/o Wiki Commons

Years ago, I went to a workshop led by a leading light on the Canadian taiji sword team and in the intermission I asked about whether she ever trained with a "real sword". She gave the standard "I'm far too evolved to do such a thing. Are you planning to go out and kill people?" response. I thought that that was kinda lame, but she was the teacher, so I just accepted it as her point of view and finished the workshop.

I kept thinking about the subject, and did a little research on the Internet. Eventually, I found a source in China that said they sold real jians---ones that were modern copies of old ones that were actually used in combat. It cost a few bucks (but of course it would) but it has a real high-carbon steel blade, etc. When it arrived, I was really surprised. First of all, it weighs three pounds. This causes all sorts of problems in the Yang taiji jian set. I'm a big strong guy, but the first part of the set where the sword is held in the left hand is a total killer. It takes a lot of strength to hold that three pound sword balanced by the force of one or two fingers as you hold it backwards in the left hand.

After that, the exquisite, slow motion control that this woman exhibits is simply impossible with that monstrous, three pound chunk of high-carbon steel that I own. 

This raises the question, was I "ripped off" by that company in China? Actually, I don't think so. To understand this point, consider the hand grip on the sword. Almost every modern taiji jian you can buy has the hilt of the sword pointing forwards---just like on a Western sword.  

Here's your standard type of "guard", on a oak practice Jian
Photo from the Sei Do Kai Supplies website

But this "traditional" jian has them pointing backwards. Why?

Here's the "backwards" sword guard.
(I added the cord wrapping onto the wooden handle.)
I came across a book by a martial arts teacher who said that modern jians all have their guard facing the wrong way because there was a period in modern China where the government confiscated and destroyed all the real swords. When martial arts were brought back into favour, anyone setting out to make new swords was stuck copying weapons from opera companies, which were not much more than toys. Probably they were influenced by Western swords, which have a solid hilt whose purpose is to catch a sword blade and protect the hands. The guy who wrote the book then went on to say that the backwards hilt is no good because if you trap a sword blade in it, you can easily have your sword ripped from your hands.

This last bit of the argument seemed bogus at the time, and I could never figure out exactly what he was talking about. I have an alternative hypothesis, one that seems to make a lot more sense to me. In Western martial arts, there were always schools that taught a person to hold their sword with a finger on the hilt. In fact, this became so popular that there are a great many surviving Western swords that have a special "finger ring" on the hilt to protect that digit.

Here's a reproduction of a late medieval Milan sword with a finger ring.
Photo from the Deepeeka Wiki
When I learned about this totally practical European adaptation to heavy swords, I tried to do the same thing with my heavy jian and found out that the "reversed hilt" on it was absolutely ideal for this.
My improved grip on the heavy jian.
Author's photo
IMHO, what this means to me is that what we see as a "hilt" to protect the hand of the person holding the sword was really more about giving the hand more purchase to hold and control a very heavy blade that was designed to chop through and penetrate layers of armor and/or heavy clothing.


I think that this has profound implications about how we should do the taiji jian form. First of all, some of the moves are simply impossible to do safely with a heavy, long sword. Moves that involve flamboyant over-the-top moves with maximum wrist flexibility are just asking to damage the tendons in the arm. As well, moves that are effective and useful when done at speed become dangerous if not impossible when done very slow. That's because the "heft" or mass of the sword works with the taiji player at speed whereas it works against them when done very slowly. It seems clear to me that the modern taiji jian forms were heavily influenced by the use of totally impractical, floppy wushu swords. That means that when people are doing them they are not actually practicing a martial art, but rather a type of dance or gymnastics. 


Many people have no problem with this. They are just jocks or jockettes---like that woman on the Canadian taiji team---but if you want to do taiji as a spiritual practice you have to work within the limitations of the art. And the most important limitation is that it has to actually work. I'm not saying this because I intend to go out and get into sword fights, but because I want to avoid fooling myself about what I am doing. Our biggest problem as human beings is our almost infinite capacity for delusion. Most of us bumble and stumble through life with all sorts of goofy ideas about ourselves and the world around us that create lots and lots of unnecessary problems. 

Modern militaries understand this point, and a lot of boot camp is designed to deal with a small set of delusions that make modern people into terrible soldiers.

One of the delusions is that people cannot do very much. By early adulthood most people have been
The "Inverse Tower", an
Outward Bound Singapore training obstacle.
Photo by Chen Siyuan, c/o Wiki Commons
conditioned to avoid unnecessary risks---to the point where they won't try anything that pushes their envelope a bit. Boot camps force people to do some things that are fundamentally worthless from a military perspective, but which look spectacular and teach people to trust the orders of their superiors and their own ability to do the difficult. Modern training seminars for managers do exactly the same thing, which they often put people through zip lines or fire walking. "Outward bound" style schools do the same thing for young people.

There are other delusions too. The idea that each person is an individual and we don't need each other is a big one. So is the idea that we don't have to really pay attention to what we are doing. My wife, who was in the National Guard during the First Gulf War, told me a story from her training. They were finally issued rifles, but a "sad sack" in her unit simply couldn't remember the stern admonition that no one should ever point a gun at anyone unless they wanted to kill him. (Something that my family pounded into my head when I was allowed access to a "22" as a child.) That woman "disappeared" and was never seen again. She was discharged and served as an example to everyone else in my wife's unit. The lesson was "guns, grenades, etc, are totally unforgiving and require a totally different mindset to handle safely---civilian-style thinking will not be tolerated".

Martial arts, like taiji jian, are only worthwhile---IMHO---if we use them to cut through delusions. And I don't see how we can use them for that purpose if we labour under delusions in their practice. The weight of your sword has a profound effect on the form. And if you train with a flyweight, floppy sword you are going to be practicing moves that would be are either worthless in a fight and/or damaging to your body if you ever attempted to practice them with a real sword. My concern isn't with what this would do for you if you ever had to fight against the Mongol hordes---it's about what the effect of this sort of training will have on your mind as you navigate the world outside of the studio. Can you afford to allow any easily avoided delusions into your consciousness?


So what're the lessons learned?

The first one is that I'm going to force myself to totally rethink my taiji jian set and change it so it will "work" with a real jian. That probably means doing it at a proper speed so the weight of the blade ceases to be a liability and instead becomes an asset. At the same time, I'm going to have think about various moves where I will incorporate a double-hand grip. The set obviously already has some of these, but with a flyweight sword it is really easy to "fudge" them. Finally, some moves are simply going to have to be dropped or modified as they aren't viable with a full weight weapon.

The second one is to remember to "hold onto the One". Being a Daoist means looking deeply and objectively at every aspect of my life so I can understand the subtle laws that are what the Dao is all about. At the same time, I have to remind myself that it is only through engagement with the Dao that life ultimately has meaning. We only get out of life what we put into it. "Holding onto the One" means that by putting our full attention, effort, and, creativity into everything we do we can be renewed and inspired by the amazing universe that we are all a part of.


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Friday, May 26, 2017

Mencius: Advice for the Emperor Trump and His Mandarins

In Hinton's translation of the Mencius I've gotten to chapter VII, or, Book One of Li Lou. I think it's especially apropos to what is currently happening in Washington.

Mencius starts off by emphasizing the importance of tradition to a good ruler. It isn't enough to just set out with good intentions, a ruler has to follow the "Way"---or traditions---that has been set by previous leaders. He quotes an unattributed saying:
Virtue alone isn't enough for government,
and law cannot alone put itself into action.
The point is emphasized by an analogy with skilled craftsmen. Even the best of them rely upon tools like a compass or square to draw their circles and right angles. In the same way, a leader needs to rely upon the traditions of his predecessors in order to get things done.

This can sound odd to modern people, but I'd ask readers to try to understand how a government bureaucracy works. Ultimately, it is a huge collection of people who have been hired to make sure that certain policies will be acted upon. And the problem is that getting something done is always a lot more difficult than people think. This requires expertise and myriads of individual choices being made by individual bureaucrats. And to do this, every government requires high officials who have a great deal of authority delegated to them by the sovereign. In effect, every complex society requires a class of Mandarins.
A Mandarin official, Late Qing China, by John Thomson, 1869.
c/o the Wiki Commons

"Mandarin" is the Portuguese/English word that we use to describe the scholar/officials that governed ancient China for centuries. It is also the word that Canadians routinely use to describe the higher officials in our government bureaucracy, though I've never heard an American call any of their officials "Mandarins". Donald Trump ran for office and pledged to "drain the swamp" in order to "get things done". Many people thought that the swamp he was going to drain was the influence of big money in politics, whereas it appears that what he really meant was to destroy the influence of high officials.  

A key principle of modern governance is the idea that the sovereign is not above the law. This is part of the "Way" of American society. It is the square or compass that the president is supposed to use when he is governing the nation. It is also a key principle that allows American mandarins---like FBI Director James Comey---to guide the way they do their job. That is why the President's attempt to get Comey to swear personal loyalty to him, and, his decision to fire him when he refused to take direction on the Russia file, is viewed by the law as "obstruction of justice". No one---even the President---is supposed to be able to stop an independent official from doing his job. This is especially true when the mandarin in question is a law enforcement official who is investigating claims of wrong-doing aimed specifically at the President himself.

A Modern US Mandarin, James Comey
Federal Govt Photo, c/o Wiki Commons
This principle, that the sovereign is not above the law, came about because it is the only way to stop officials from using their power to make themselves rich at the expense of the general public.

It is tremendously important for an efficiently functioning society to create institutional "firewalls" between the politicians and the bureaucracy (eg the Mandarins.) If you do not, you will have government officials "pulling strings" in order to get special favours for wealthy "friends". This is not only unfair, it damages the economic life of a society. Business people need consistency to be able to make long-term plans. And if they have no idea how to tell if something is going to be accepted by a planning commission, for example, because the issue is settled not by legal precedent but by bribing the local official---it becomes very expensive to do many types of business.

Mencius understands the importance of following the "Way" of society to the point where he suggests that it is not only necessary, it can actually be sufficient to sustain it.
If city walls are unfinished and weapons scarce, it doesn't spell disaster for the nation. If people aren't plowing new fields or piling up wealth, it doesn't spell ruin for the nation. But if a leader ignores Ritual and officials ignore learning, the people turn to banditry and rebellion, and the nation crumbles in less than a day. 
This is an important point. What is at stake in the Trump Presidency isn't the economic or military might of the United States. It isn't even it's influence on the world stage. These are ephemeral. What makes America "America" are the such esoteric principles as the rule of law instead of the sovereign. And because these only exist insofar as the bureaucracy keeps them in existence, something that keeps America being America are the Mandarins like James Comey---who refused to put loyalty to the President ahead of loyalty to the law.


One of the memes that has been bandied about a lot recently is the existence of the "Deep State". This term was originally coined with reference to the way the military in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the Security Apparatus in Russia control the organs of government without any significant influence by elected officials. It has also been suggested that this is also happening in the USA through the machinations of what Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex". Supporters of Donald Trump are arguing that the work of the FBI, the CIA, and, the Judiciary, to investigate his administration for ties to Russia and also to block his orders banning Muslims from entering the country is evidence of the Deep State's opposition to a democratically-elected president.

This is a profound misuse of the term "Deep State". What is happening in the US is that the bureaucracy is doing its job of defining and limiting the ability of elected officials to trample over the rights of its citizens. The constitution and the traditions of the USA mean nothing if they are just words on pieces of paper. A society also has to have effective leaders who devote their lives to making sure that the spirit of the law remains enforced. Mencius said:
When all beneath Heaven abides in the Way, small Integrity serves great Integrity, and small wisdom serves great wisdom. When all beneath Heaven ignores the Way, small serves large, and weak serves strong. Either way, Heaven issues it forth---and those who abide by Heaven endure, while those who defy Heaven perish.
What he is talking about is the rule of law versus the rule of the powerful. The only defense that any society can have is the existence of honourable people who put their allegiance to what they believe is right ahead of their own personal careers. That is to say, in a large society like ours, an essential element of its defense against the abuse of power is the existence of Mandarins like Jame Comey.


This isn't to say that the man is a saint. His behaviour during the election with regard to Hillary Clinton's emails was ridiculous. I don't know the man, so he could be totally and utterly wrong about any number of things from civil rights, the environment, to, Black Lives Matter. In fact, I suspect that he's the sort of patrician Republican that I would consider an ignorant boob if I ever met him. But within his understanding of right and wrong, he was unwilling to put his own career ahead of the constitution. As such, he did his job as a Mandarin. That is all anyone can ask of him. Being a Mandarin doesn't require any great insight into the great issues of the day, it just requires a personal commitment to the principles that sustain the nation---even at the cost of your own career. I may not particularly like the USA as it presently exists, but I have no illusions that it could not get significantly worse. I believe in the importance of change, but I want the change to be for the better.  


One last point. Once the United States loses its ability to find and appoint Mandarins to high office, it will be totally destroyed as a nation. Mencius said:
---only after a person has demeaned himself will others demean him. Only after a great family has destroyed itself will others destroy it. And only after a country has torn itself down will others tear it down. The "T"ai Chia" says:  
Ruin from Heaven
we can weather.
Ruin from ourselves
we never survive. 

If the USA cannot continue to find Mandarins of integrity (however they define it) and place them in positions of responsibility, the nation will be destroyed. It is that simple. We have to see who will win in this battle between demagoguery and integrity.


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Walk lightly on this beautiful earth!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What is a Hermit?

KMO from C-Realm Podcast
I've been thinking a lot about politics and society lately. I did an interview with a Vermont radio station as part of my feeble attempts to promote my recent book, and in the conversation the idea of success came up. In terms of radio shows and podcasts, as well as blogging and book publishing, the important issue is how many "subscribers" or "readers" you have. By that metric, both my interviewer (KMO fromthe C-Realm Podcast) and myself are abject failures. He has spent long periods of his life interviewing people for his podcasts and only has a relatively small number of subscribers (including myself.)  And I have spent many years writing---first for newspapers, then blogs, and, now books and have a very small number of followers too.

Bodhidharma, by Yoshitoshi, 1887.
c/o Wiki Commons
I answered this question by suggesting that this obscurity is why I call myself a "hermit". People often get hung up on the idea that I am a hermit by pointing out that I have a job, friends, a wife, live in the city, etc. To their way of thinking, to be a hermit exclusively means living in a cave on some remote mountain top. Well, most people only see the surface of things and not the core, so I generally ignore this opinion when it gets raised.

What a word, phrase, or, idea "means" is a very slippery thing---especially if it has any sort of depth to it. The famous book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones gets it's title from a story told about Bodhidharma (the supposed first "patriarch" who "brought" Zen from India to China.) According to the story, after nine years of teaching, he wanted to go home. So he tested his disciples to find out about their understanding of the "Void".

Dofuku said :  "In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves."
Bodhidharma replied:  "You have my skin."
The nun Soji said:  "In my view, it is like Ananda's sight of the Buddha-land---seen once and for ever."
Bodhidharma answered:  "You have my flesh."
Doiku said:  "The four elements of light, airiness, fluidity, and solidity are empty [i.e. inclusive] and the five skandhas are no-things. In my opinion, no-thing [i.e., spirit] is reality."
Bodhidharma commented:  "You have my bones."
Finally, Eka bowed before the master---and remained silent.
Bodhidharma said:  "You have my marrow". 
I'm not directly interested in what the "Void" is in this post. Instead, I'm concerned about what it society makes of someone who is interested in it in the first place. This is important to Daoists, because the things that make Zen Buddhism "Zen" are elements that it has borrowed from Daoism.

The "skin" of the Void is the idea that there are truths that step outside of conventional dichotomies such as "Left" and "Right", or, "Moral" and "Immoral". The "flesh" of the Void is the idea that once you get a glimpse of this different way of looking at the world, it changes how you see everything. The "bones" is the idea that once you understand that the unconventional truths exist, and, having seen them use them to reassess how you view everything, your evaluation of what is or is not important changes. And the "marrow" suggests that when this re-evaluation takes place, your behaviour changes profoundly---especially how you interact with the rest of society.

Understanding this point, a hermit isn't just someone who lives in remote physical locations. It can also mean someone who lives in a remote ethical, spiritual, or, metaphysical space. If someone lives in the middle of a bustling city, there is still the question of how much she is engaged with the world that surrounds her. Doe she see it as being inherently valueless? Irrelevant to her life project? Does she think that there is any future to it? If not, then I would say that she is a hermit.

Confucius has a saying that has a one-dimensional take on this issue. But since that one dimension was crucial to him, I think it is apropos of the same point that Bodhidharma and I are making.
In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.
Confucius, Anonymous, 1770,
c/o Wiki Commons
So I would suggest that being "not successful" is not something to be ashamed about. It may be caused by many things, but in some cases it is simply the result of having a deeper insight into how our society---if not the very universe---operates. In those cases I would suggest that it means that someone has a "hermit's soul".


Having said the above. I still have bills to pay and a family to support. I've added a Patreon button and a tip jar. Both of which remain very empty. OK. If that is too much to ask, there is another thing that would help. Turn off your "ad-blocker" for my site and click on the adverts---even if you instantly close the window. This has a significant impact on how much money I make from my "Ad Sense" account, which helps me support my family---even while it costs you nothing at all.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sculpting Our Own Consciousness

The other day I was teaching a neighbour how to make her own wine. A year ago, I got her into making wine at one of the "you brew" places, which made her realize that wine can be incredibly cheap if you go about it the right way. It was now time to show her how it can be even cheaper still if you do it in your kitchen. (We are trying a kit right now that cuts the cost of white wine to about $1.65/bottle.)

While the primary fermenter and fermentation lock were sanitizing, I made her some green tea and we had a visit. I mentioned an acquaintance from my youth who was recently hospitalized for malnutrition after decades of reclusive behaviour, which culminated in being found starving in an apartment so dirty it was declared a hazard. My friend commented that someone had once told her that he thought that people could "think themselves into mental illness", if they weren't careful.

This is a complex issue. First of all "mental illness" is a very broad range of things. It's like the word "cancer", which is more like a symptom (unregulated cell reproduction) than a specific disease. Lung cancer, which is usually created by inhaling a pollutant---like cigarette smoke---is different from cervical cancer which is usually caused by infection with a virus. In the same way, depression is different from PTSD, which is different from Schizophrenia, and so on. I seems obvious to me that these different types of problems arise from different causes---just like in the case of cancer.

Having said that, I suspect that there is some truth, in some cases, in what my neighbour said. One widely-used psychiatric treatment known as "cognitive behaviour therapy" (CBT) is based on the idea that one aspect of several forms of mental illness come down to people having faulty thinking
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,
Urstadt, From Wiki Commons
processes that shape their way of experiencing the world around them. The therapy is to have people examine the key elements of their thinking, and get them into the habit of changing them to another, more functional way of doing so.

When I was trying to give up smoking I found that I would often relapse and begin again. This was frustrating, but after a while I noticed something. When I felt optimistic about the future it was easy to stop smoking. But when I was pessimistic, I would inevitably say to myself "oh, screw it---what's the point?" and relapse. My addictive behaviour was related to my mood. And I was "blue" or slightly depressed a lot of the time. When I figured this out, I tried to remind myself when "blue" that this was a time when I would be tempted to start smoking again, but which I would regret later on. This helped me avoid restarting.

A related issue came from a period of time when I went to a Roman Catholic hermit for spiritual direction. One of the things he did to support himself was teach the Ignation spiritual exercises at a local retreat centre. One the practical suggestions that come from this system is the idea that people often oscillate between periods of "desolation" and "consolation". Desolation is what modern people would recognize as "depression", and the exercises teach that this is a natural part of human self-transformation. When things are working well in our lives, we come out of this desolation and enter into consolation, which is a greater understanding and insight into how our psyche and the world around us operates.
Ignatius Loyola, From the Jesuit Institute, via Google Images

This was a tremendously important insight for me, as it changed the way I viewed my periods of feeling "blue". I stopped feeling that they were this horrible, totally worthless state of mind and instead saw them as part of a process who's end result was a growth in wisdom. This isn't to say that they were any better (knowing that the doctor is breaking your legs to straighten them out doesn't mean that it hurts any less), but the pain is bearable now because I often remind myself that I will probably come out of this experience with a better understanding of life.


I've pretty much built my life around this process of paying attention to my awareness and how what I do impacts it. For example, if I don't write a little bit every day I start getting progressively more and more "scattered" in my consciousness. This, in turn, stops me from being even-keeled in my emotions, which leads me to doing and saying things that I don't want to---and being more fearful of potential reactions from others. (To be perfectly honest, this is why I am writing this blog post. I've been doing a lot of research lately, which means that I haven't been writing and it has been catching up with me.)

This activity of "paying attention" to how your mind operates, and what it is in your life that affects it is actually part of the very earliest Daoist spiritual practice: "Holding onto the One". This is a practice referred to in the Taiping Jing and the Nei-Yeh, which involves paying attention to the world around you---both outside and inside of ourselves---and looking for the subtle rules (or "Daos") that govern it. In a way, this is very similar to cognitive behaviour therapy---which is hardly surprising, as I read somewhere that the people who developed this school were inspired by reading from ancient schools of Greek practical philosophy such as Stoicism and Cyncism.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dao, Dharma, Li, Culture, and, Eusociality

Over the past thirty or so years I've slowly developed a personal philosophy of life. A key part of it come from work of biologist E. O. Wilson. 
E. O. Wilson, by Ragesoss, from Wiki Commons
Wilson is famous for suggesting that human beings are what he calls "eusocial" animals. That is, animals whose evolutionary advantage comes from working together in large communities of individuals. The most obvious examples of eusociality  are insects like ants, termites, and, bees. But it does exist in other species---even mammals, like naked mole rats.

As I understand it, eusocial insects manage their relatively simple societies through the use of biological clues, such as the scent trails that ants use to mark paths to food sources. Human beings use something far more complex: culture. We have language, teaching, literature, and so on to create and transmit complex ideas from generation to generation, and this allows us to create increasingly complex societies.

Indeed, as I look at my life, I see it increasingly as simply a fragment of a eusocial whole that's only real "purpose" is the creation and transmission of that culture. In a way, I see human beings as being individual parts of a giant thinking machine---or organism---that is the consciousness of the planet (or universe.)

A question suddenly occurred to me yesterday: "If this is so, where do the religious traditions fit into this worldview?"  Obviously, they are important parts of culture. But the more I think about them, it occurs to me that with only minimal violence to the way they view themselves, they fit quite nicely into my understanding of eusociality. Consider the three religions of China:  Confucianism, Daoism, and, Buddhism. Each has some sort of key concept that I believe fits neatly into this idea of culture being central to the human experience.

Confucianism has "li", which is often translated as "ritual", this governs the relationship between people within society.  As the Wikipedia describes it,
The rites of li are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, li embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cites "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation...rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes...unspacious rooms and very nonsecluded halls, hard mats, seats and flooring"[2] as vital parts of the fabric of li.

Daoism has "Dao", which is something like a "natural law", but which applies to both human society as well as nature.
The word "Tao" (道) has a variety of meanings in both ancient and modern Chinese language. Aside from its purely prosaic use to mean road, channel, path, principle, or similar,[1] the word has acquired a variety of differing and often confusing metaphorical, philosophical and religious uses. In most belief systems, the word is used symbolically in its sense of 'way' as the 'right' or 'proper' way of existence, or in the context of ongoing practices of attainment or of the full coming into being, or the state of enlightenment or spiritual perfection that is the outcome of such practices. (Wikipedia)

And Buddhism (as well as other Indian religions) has "dharma", which has resonances of both religious teaching and natural law at the same time.
In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible,[10][note 1] and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘‘right way of living’’.[7] In Buddhism dharma means "cosmic law and order",[10] but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.[10] In Buddhist philosophy, dhamma/dharma is also the term for "phenomena".[11][note 2] Dharma in Jainism refers to the teachings of tirthankara (Jina)[10] and the body of doctrine pertaining to the purification and moral transformation of human beings. For Sikhs, the word dharm means the path of righteousness and proper religious practice. (Wikipedia)

Buddhism goes a little further than these other religions, though, by suggesting the doctrine of "turning the wheel of dharma". That is the idea that dharma isn't eternal or immutable, but rather that it progresses and changes as humanity becomes more complex and increasingly capable of comprehending more subtle understanding. To my feeble understanding, this would explain the changes as Buddhism started with Theravada, moved on to Mahayana, and, from that to Vajrayana systems.

Daoism doesn't go into such detail, it just suggests that it is impossible to "pin down" what the Dao is, and suggests that it is constantly changing and can't be exhaustively expressed. This lacks the suggestion of gradual progress that is implied in the Buddhist idea of "turning the wheel of dharma", but this distinction need not be evidence of an irreconcilable difference. Progress can be part of humanity without being an inevitable law of nature. Setbacks can occur in each system, as could an unforeseen "slate wiper"---like an asteroid hit that would exterminate the human race. But all religions were created before the concept of extinction became part of the human vernacular, so they can be excused for missing this point.


I find all of this personally quite satisfying. I've pretty much absorbed the idea of anatta, or that the human ego has no real existence and is instead a fiction created by misunderstandings about the nature of consciousness. If I really never have existed as a continuous entity except as a product of the imagination---my past being a fiction and the future anticipation---then why should I be concerned about personal extinction? And yet, I get up in the morning and find purpose in life, as a creator and bearer of culture. I write this blog and another besides.  I write books that almost no one wants to purchase or read. I am an avid participant in discussions between like-minded people on social media. I talk to friends and, when I can find the time, try to participate in politics. I don't know why I care about the future of the human race or what it thinks---it is just as much a product of the imagination as my own personal ego---but I do. I suspect that that is a biological drive or instinct, much like the scent trail that the ants follow on my kitchen counter top towards some spilled sugar.