Monday, June 29, 2015

What is sanity?

The other day as part of my work I was asked by a patron if I would tell a girl in the library to "move on".  It seems that this woman likes to sit and watch movies in the library and burps and farts a lot. As a result, the air around her smells bad.  I've seen this woman and I suspect she has "issues".  I suggested that the other folks might show some compassion for her diminished social capacities and just move to another computer.

The patron, who is also a friend, was amazed that that the library allows non-students with "issues" to use the library.  I pointed out that the Chief Librarian had been asked this question and he replied that the institution is a tax-payer funded building, and that it would be wrong to deny access to the public as long as users don't cause too many problems for others. I went on to explain the broad range of non-student members of the public who use the library computer pools---including poverty-stricken lecturers who cannot afford a computer or internet access at home, the mentally ill, researchers for private companies, and so on. None of this changed the opinion of my friend, who felt that the best course of action would be to simply deny access to anyone who wasn't an intellectual and member of the university community.

The funny thing about this is that under such regime he might find himself hassled.  He is a Math professor in his native Iran, but he has a daughter in Canada, so he spends a lot of time here so he can be with her.  And even though I think he is relatively well off for an Iranian (he owns a jeep and his family seems to have some property), he lives an immensely frugal life here.  (I would imagine that his Iranian salary wouldn't convert well to dollars.) He rides a bicycle everywhere, wears thrift store clothing, never eats out, etc.  He does have an alumni card, which gives him borrowing privileges, but he certainly looks like one of the homeless people he wants removed from the building.

When we were talking, our conversation moved on to the new university president.  He related a rumor that the new fellow has a very swelled head and that he had caused the university to spend a huge amount of money on trivial stuff like importing fancy paint from overseas to redecorate the president's house (which he decided not to use), and insisting on purchasing a very expensive new car for his use.  (I don't know if any of this is true, but if it is, it wouldn't surprised me.)  I mentioned that many people in high office exhibit very bizarre, childish behavior.  A past university president, for example, was notorious for his explosive, vile temper.

This conversation got me thinking.

Is there such a thing as "sanity"?  The courts and our mental health professionals attempt to define this thing, but as I grow older and gain more insight into the human condition the less I think that there is such a thing at all. I consider myself a very rational person, but then again I have had to go to treatment for a long period of time to deal with a pretty significant "anxiety disorder" (PTSD.) Looking around me, I see that almost all the people I know have a weird collection of strange ideas that don't define them as "ill" in either legal or medical casebooks, but lead them to make profoundly stupid life choices.  And, in my case, I would consider any grown man who acts like these two University Presidents have been described is in some significant sense "unbalanced".

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When I was younger I used to have a very hard time with literature because it seemed to consist of not much more than a collection of characters who were doomed to sit in the corner of a room and routinely smash themselves over the head with two-by-fours.  "For heavens sake, why would MacBeth want to kill the king and usurp his throne?  He already was a high Lord."  "For Pete's sake, can't Heathcliff and Catherine stop being so crazily emotional?  Can't they see how damaging this is for both of their lives?" Of course, this is the reaction of a teen who had the misfortune to not know a lot about how people actually operate because he had to spend all his time working on a farm, and who's family life was dominated by a few individuals who were hyper-emotional to the point of being violent.

As I approach old age I have finally had enough life experience to understand that whether we like it or not, we are emotional creatures that are driven by things like lust, greed, fear, and so on.

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The other day I loaned a bicycle trailer to a friend.  She used it to go to an event where she was volunteering to be at a table and answer questions about a community group.  She had jammed a chair into it and the legs had punched two holes into the sides of the trailer.  She was all panicked because she couldn't get the chair out.  I wasn't happy about the damage, but I didn't lose my temper and I got the chair out for her.  She hadn't needed to bring the chair anyway, as one was provided with the table set-up.  As I think most people would have assumed.

I was annoyed for a while, but it occurred to me that this woman was anxious and at the last minute panicked thinking that she would be stuck standing for hours and hours because there was no chair. She didn't trust the organizers to think about a chair.  And that lack of trust and panic was the result of a childhood where her two parents were a fundamentalist Christian drug addict and a blithering alcoholic. Like me, she has been conditioned at an early age to not trust people in authority and to assume that things can degenerate into total chaos at a moment's notice---leaving us holding the bag. As a result, she has to fight a constant battle to keep her anxiety at bay, which she tends to mask over with a surface "no sweat" attitude, but sometimes the pressure builds up and she explodes into sheer terror.

My problem is that this insight occurred to me after the fact instead of at the time.  So fat lot of good the insight did because I didn't respond the right way at the right time.  At least I didn't lose my temper and I repeatedly told her it wasn't a big deal and to not worry about it.

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The thing to remember is that our behavior is not individual, instead it is culturally mediated. We act in certain ways, to a very large extent, because our culture teaches us to react in those way.  We also get social cues that push us to act in specific ways.  If it is totally left up to me, I don't remember to think of the big picture.  But if I am grounded in an etiquette that says losing your temper is absolutely forbidden, I might be able to remember to not get angry and reinforce the anxiety that drove my neighbor's behavior in the first place.

Yes, a large, silly ego---
In the same way, if big bosses are taught that being greedy for perks is embarrassingly gauche, more of them wouldn't be so self-righteous about demanding them. Unfortunately, our society says instead that we are a "meritocracy" where people get ahead by "working hard".  This means that these perks are described as being "earned" instead of being privileges bestowed by chance.  Hence the large, silly egos we often see in the rich and powerful.

The library patron that spoke to me was upset because a young woman was burping and farting next to him.  Me, I try not to get upset, but I observe that almost everyone I know seems to be ethically challenged in that they are oblivious to the damage that they do to present and future human beings when they drive around in their cars and fly around the world in jet airplanes. He could simply have gotten up and moved to another computer (the pool is large and mostly empty most of the time.)  But people who are seeing their crops dry-up in a drought or their homes submerged from rising sea levels cannot so easily avoid the consequences of climate change created by the use of a jet or a car.

Isn't this worse than a young woman's farts?
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It is a common place for people to say things like "What fools these mortals be", and question the idea that there is such a thing as "sanity". But if we repeat this without really thinking about it deeply "in our bones", we miss the point. The point isn't to say "how true" when we read or hear this point made, but instead to think deeply about the implications for both our own personal life and that of the society that surrounds us.

What does it mean to absolutely question the sanity of everything that surrounds us? It means to me that I have to enter into a form of radical doubt about all the assumptions I bring to look at any given issue.  It also means that I try to remember to hold onto some type of humility when I interact with others.  I have to remember that my own particular way of looking at the world has shaped my perception of whether or not what a particular person is saying or doing makes any sense. But this doesn't let me off the hook, I have to participate in the world and make decisions just like everyone else. But the difference is that I have adopted the viewpoint of a participant, not judge.  This means that my particular "take on reality" is one of many, not a privileged, impartial one. Again, this doesn't mean that I have given up on making distinctions, just that I believe that my particular point of view is open to discussion and must be defensible using the canons of logic.  And, indeed, so must everyone else's "take on reality".    

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Is Permaculture Daoist?

I've been visiting my dear and beloved wife in Saint Louis Missouri this month.  One of the many things that bind us together is our interest in permaculture. To that end, we spend a good part of yesterday cutting off bits of a dead apricot tree in the back yard and piling it up in the garden to create a hugelkultur bed.
Hugelkultur in a Nutshell

The theory behind hugelkultur is that it uses dead wood as a mechanism for creating a structure to build plant communities around.  From the picture, it is obvious that part of this is a physical structure in that builds mounds that people can plant vegetables and fruit on top of.  Less obvious is the way rotting wood provides nutrients for the soil.  Rotten wood also retains water, which allows plants to thrive even through dry periods, even though the system drains during wet ones because of its shape. Hugelkultur even helps with climate change because a portion of the carbon in the wood remains in the soil after the wood is completely rotted away, which not only increases soil fertility, but it also drains carbon out of the ecosystem.

Hugelkultur is one specific type of permaculture amongst several other systems that have been developed during both ancient times and the 1960s.  Another example of permaculture is a food forest, some of which have existed for a very long time.  Take a look at this YouTube video about one in Morocco that purportedly has existed for 2,000 years.  




The thing about permaculture is that it involves seeing a garden as a whole system embedded in the entire natural world instead of as an isolated patch of dirt with discrete plants growing under human supervision and control. This systems analysis is integral to the whole project and cannot be over-emphasized. 

Donella Meadows
At the same time that I've been visiting my Saint Louis home, I've hired a friend to keep an eye on my Guelph property and care for my pussy cat.  Before left, she asked me to get her a book from the library (I get special loan privileges) so she could read up about systems theory. There is a book that she wanted from a woman by the name of Donella H. Meadows titled Thinking in Systems: A Primer.  Ms. Meadows had a pretty interesting resume in that she was the lead author for the very important Limits to Growth report that first raised concerns about the carrying capacity of the earth and what limits it gives to exponential growth in modern industrial, capitalist societies. 

Anyway, as it is being explained to me, Meadows describes systems as "games", and suggests that it is far, far more important to change the rules of a game instead of changing the players.  So in the case of agriculture, it is more important to develop new agricultural systems (such as things like food forests or hugelkulture) than it is to try and educate or regulate the behaviour of individual farmers who are operating within the current paradigm of industrial farming. 

Masanobu Fukuoka
Readers of this blog sometimes accuse me of not really being a "Daoist" but rather a "Green philosopher". I don't agree. Instead, I would argue that what I am trying to do is understand the "marrow" of Daoism instead of the superficial. I would argue that the systems approach that animates things like permaculture is the way of looking at the world as a "Dao" of "Daos".  The way of  living a good life, the way of creating a fruitful garden, are all parts of the Great Way.  I think that the people who accuse me of not really being a Daoist are missing out on the core of the thing and focusing on the superficial.

I will suggest some evidence in support of this point of view.  One of the schools of permaculture is called "Natural Farming".   It was founded by a Japanese fellow by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka and is based on a combination of both a spiritual revelation and also a lifetime of practical research. So, if you will, it is a combination of both "merging with the Dao" and also "kungfu".  He was very explicit about using traditional Daoist/Zen language to describe his personal experiences of developing his permaculture system.  In support of this argument, I would suggest that people look at this YouTube video. It is somewhat long, but I think that most readers would find it worth it.  Pay special attention to the language that he uses to describe his personal journey. I would argue that it could have easily been lifted from an ancient Daoist text.  


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.

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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?  



Thursday, April 30, 2015

What is the I-Ching?

KMO
I follow a series of Podcasts called the "C-Realm" which is put out by a fellow with the "stage name" of KMO.  It's difficult to say exactly what they are "about", because they range a gamut  of many different things from Peak Oil, police theory, gender politics, science fiction, hallucinogenic drugs, and so on.  The unifying element is that KMO attempts to draw psychological insights from the discussion.  I would highly recommend listening to what he and his guests have to say, as many times I have heard some very interesting ideas expressed on his show.

Recently he had a guest in discussing the Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle.  It piqued my interest, so I got my hands on a copy and read it again after many years.  The novel is widely acknowledged as being brilliant.  It
Philip K. Dick
purports to be a description of the lives of several different protagonists who live in an "alternative history" where Germany and Japan won WWII.  The Eastern half of the USA is controlled by the Reich, and the Western by Japan.  In the middle, a neutral buffer state exists that has some degree of autonomy.

The book is written in a very straight-forward, ordinary style.  But the themes of the book intertwine to create a very complex web of ideas that end up bouncing off each other like light in a hall of mirrors.


One of the themes that is explored is about what exactly makes an antique "valuable".  It seems that the Japanese occupiers of the Western sea board are absolutely "gaga" over antique Americana.  And just like Americans in our historical time line went over to Japan and spent large amounts of money to buy antique swords, so the Japanese in Dick's novel spend big on old black powder revolvers.  It turns out that there is such a demand for these antiques that there is a substantial industry devoted to creating fakes.

But, Dick asks, what is the difference between a genuine artifact---which is worth a lot of money---and a copy that is not?  One of the Japanese characters suggests that there is some inherent, spiritual quality, the "historicity" that makes all the difference.

This is interesting, because this theme parallels the whole idea of an alternative history.  The novel is purporting to be a genuine description of history, even though it is not:  the Axis lost the war.  This point jumps out because a major plot device in the book is that publication of a book titled "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", which purports to show yet a third timeline, one in which the British Empire and American end up as winners in the war, but where the Russians have been eliminated.  A cold war ensues between the British and the Americans, one which the British ends up winning.

Where is the "historicity"?  Is it in the world where the Axis wins?  The one where the great survivors and rivals are the Americans and Russians?  Or where the British Empire outlasts them all?

Another complexity of the book comes from the discussion of the I-Ching.  As a matter of fact, I understand that Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle using the Oracle of I-Ching to make all his decisions.  And, in the novel, the author who wrote "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" does the same thing.  Indeed, he makes the statement that the Oracle wrote the novel and he was just a conduit.  Is Dick saying the same thing about the novel he wrote?

The author cements this point home by reference to the art world.  A couple American artisans who have worked for a while creating fake antiques to sell to rich Japanese collectors decide that they want to make original, abstract, art jewelry.  It gets shown to a connoisseur, who initially rejects it.  But he later realizes that this artwork has something different from the "historicity" that he was seeking in Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War belt buckles.  Instead, it has a sort of intrinsic spirit that makes it valuable in and of itself.

Two characters have a revelations about this intrinsic spiritual nature.  A Japanese diplomat does while sitting on a park bench contemplating one of these pieces of jewlry, and walks "out of the novel" for a brief period of time to see the historical world that we live in.  Another goes to greet the author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" and realizes that the Axis lost the war after all.

There are lots of other fine elements to the novel I won't go into.  For example, Dick does a great job of dissecting the various levels of "false consciousness" that manifest themselves in minds of a conquered, colonized people.  But for me, the most interesting question comes down to what is the source of inspiration that allows people to create and appreciate art?  Is art something real, like history?  Or is history itself "real"?  We all know that when the public relations and propagandists get finished with a historical event, precious little that is factually correct is left to tell the tale.

For me, I am left asking "how could one person come up with this incredibly complex and layered story?"  And, actually, did one person?  If Dick used the I-Ching to write the darn book, then we need to ask ourselves what the heck is the I-Ching, really?

I have used the I-Ching myself, although not very often.  I last consulted the Oracle when I was contemplating whether or not I was going to sue Walmart on behalf of a multi-faith group.  At issue was a 600 acre Jesuit retreat centre that was being used by all sorts of different religious groups and which Walmart wanted to build a "super centre" right next to.  I was afraid that if this commercial plaza damaged the experience of the retreats for the Jesuits they would sell out to developers who would build suburban sprawl on this prime parcel of land.

The image that I got was hexagram 48, or "The Well".  The Wilhelm/Baynes book on the I-Ching makes the following judgement about this hexagram.


48, "The Well"
The Well. The town may be changed, but the well cannot be changed.  It neither decreases nor increases.  They come and go and draw from the well.  If one gets down almost to the water and the rope does not go all the way, or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune. 
At the time, I saw this as being a very clear indication that the retreat centre was an important resource for the community.  If it was damaged, it would be a calamity.  So I decided to take the risk of personally suing a huge multinational even though if I lost I could have lost everything I owned.  In the end, it worked out very well.  We settled out of court and in addition to a significant financial payout to the retreat centre, we got a binding, legal agreement that absolutely nothing that happens at the big box mall would be either seen or heard from any part at all on the Jesuit property.

Did I decide to sue Walmart?  Or did the Oracle?  Did Dick write The Man in the High Castle?  Or did the Oracle?  What is artistic creativity, anyway?

Another one of the ideas that KMO has exposed me to is the idea of "the singularity".  This is the idea that computer intelligence will eventually get to the point where it is able to design better and better artificial intelligences, faster and faster, so that machines will in a very short space of time become so much more intelligent than humans that they will be incomprehensible. It appears that for a fraction of the techno elite who live in places like Silicon Valley, the belief in the inevitability of this event parallels the belief in the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ by fundamentalist Christians.

I find this hard to believe because human beings simply do not know enough about what "human intelligence" really is to be able to create any sort of copy of it.  How was Dick able to create such an amazingly complex novel?  And why did he think that the I-Ching was so important in its creation?  Similarly, why did I take such a crazy risk in suing Walmart?  And why did the I-Ching seem to offer me such sage advice in favour of doing so?  Until we can explain what is going on in the heads of human beings when they do such wildly creative and complex things, I don't see how we could even begin to program machines to do anything similar.

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Oh, one final announcement to make.  The Ebook version of my book, Walking the Talk, isn't selling.  So I've decided to offer it as a free download.  Just go to anyone of a dozen sites that carry it, and feel free.  I wrote the thing to be read and never expected to make any money on it.  I put a fee on to help the businesses that distribute it for me.  But they seem to be fine with distributing it for free, so help yourself!   Just click on the button on the upper right corner of the website to find it on SmashWords.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Mencius and "Qi"

Last month I tried to expose readers to Mencius by showing how he introduced the concept of Kung Fu (or diligent effort aimed at self-transformation) through the historical examples of people who had cultivated the trait of fearlessness.  He did as an analogy to introduce his ideas about how someone could similarly "still the mind".

His analogy has two interesting elements that bear thinking about.

First of all, he shows that there are different ways of achieving fearlessness. So, a careful read would suggest that he is implying that there are similarly different ways in which a person can still the mind.

Secondly, he sets up a hierarchy of ways in which one can lose fear.  These range from the "juvenile delinquent" approach of Po-kung Yu, who massively retaliated at any sign of "disrespect";  through Meng Shih-she who based his fearlessness on a type of resignation that he ultimately had no control over success or failure;  to Master Tseng who based his courage on total submission to an ethical system that allowed him to rest in the knowledge that he was "doing the right thing".  The implication from the analogy is that there are similarly better and worse ways to still the mind.

Next Mencius mentions something else that is equally interesting, "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's still nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials".

I find this interesting because most people I meet who talk about qi describe in terms that are analogous to impersonal physical forces.  The common parlance is to call it a "force"---something like electricity---that flows through the body.  Yet here is Mencius suggesting that one can develop qi not through specialized physical activity, like heng-ha exercises, or, involved mental gymnastics, such as sitting and forgetting. Instead, he mentions the important point as being Meng Shih-she's Stoic acceptance of his fate.

This is probably a dividing line between Confucianism and Daoism, at least as manifested in modern sensibilities.  People like Mencius were humanists.  Their
The Eight Daoist Immortals
interests were primarily centred on the lived human experience rather than metaphysical speculation.  Moreover, they were concerned about human society instead of focusing on the Gods and exploits of realized men.

I say "as manifested in modern sensibilities" because the Laozi is, after all, a book that is profoundly interested in the affairs of ordinary people. It has been read as an explicit book of statecraft for rulers, although from the beginning it has also been seen as something with useful general advice for all people.

Mencius goes on to make some other comments.  "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials."  Here's another case where knowing the original Chinese would be useful.  What exactly is the word that Hinton is translating as "essentials"?  And what could we think that Mencius is meaning by it?  I suspect that knowing the original word itself wouldn't offer much help, as the book is very old and words fall out of use or if still common, find their meaning changes over the centuries.  At the very least, it appears that Mencius is suggesting that a sort of Stoic acceptance of fate is inferior to an active engagement with a moral system, what he identifies as Confucian "honour".

The modern psycho-physical understanding of qi also posits other things of value:  jing and shen.  I looked up these three items through Google and found the point I was trying make very well made for me.  In the Wikipedia article, these are identified as the "three treasures" of Chinese Medicine, but it goes on to call them the "sanbao".  It goes on to acknowledge the the term "three treasures" actually comes from the Laozi, and referred---just like in Mencius---to ethical/behaviour norms instead of psycho-physical forces (ie:  benevolence, frugality, and, humility.)  Indeed, during the same Google search I found another definition that dispensed with the distinction between Chinese medicine and Daoism altogether, and instead asserted that the Daoist sanbao are qi, jing and shen.  I am not surprised, I often meet Daoist practitioners who see the spiritual path as nothing more than a collection of New Age practices aimed at becoming some sort of groovy super being.

This is why I'm making the effort to write this blog post.  It is exceptionally easy for people to see spiritual practice simply as a mechanism for pursuing some sort of mental or physical state.  When we do taijiquan, yoga, or any form of meditation it is very similar to indulging in intoxicating drugs---only usually without any sort of obviously nasty side effects.  Do too much taijiquan and you run the risk of feeling really good and having excellent physical health.  Spend too much time meditating and you become peaceful and generally get along well with everyone around you.

What's wrong with that?

Well, the problem is that people who focus just on the good vibes are like the "lotus eaters" from Homer's Odyssey.  For those of you unaware of the story, these were people who lived on a blessed land where all their physical needs were provided by the fruit of a tree, called the "lotus".  It had a mild narcotic effect, however, that rendered everyone who eat the fruit passive and totally lacking in ambition to do anything except lay about eating the fruit.  Odysseus has a couple crewmen who eat some of the fruit and he has to bodily drag them back onto the ship and chained to their benches until the effect wore off.

I would suggest that the physco-physical fixation that many modern Daoists follow in their practice makes them into modern "Lotus Easters".  As a result, they do not engage with the society around them and offer service to the humanity according to the Confucian ideal.  I would suggest that part of this results from, or has resulted in, the subtle change in the meaning of key Daoist terms---such as qi and sanbao.  That is why I would suggest that it can be useful to read the ancient texts---such as the Mencius and Laozi, in order to try to understand the subtleties of our spiritual path.  Daoism is not only not incompatible with trying to make the world a better place, there are lots of examples from Chinese history where Daoists actually worked as social activists trying to help the poor and oppressed.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mencius: What is it to be a Human Being?

I've been very, very sick with the flu for the past four weeks or so.  As a result, I haven't had the energy to do any of the regular things that give my life design and purpose:  taijiquan and writing.  Even reading fell apart, as I was simply too tired to do much more than prop myself in front of the computer and watch cheesy old science fiction shows on YouTube.

Mencius
As my energy has returned, I did have enough to glance through a translation of Mencius that I have been wanting to read for quite a few years. He is usually considered the second most important author in the Confucian canon, and someone that anyone who is interested in ancient Chinese thought should be interested in learning more about.  He is especially of interest because he promoted the ideal of the "mandate of heaven" and also was interested in the role of meditation in the life of scholars and officials.

I just got into the David Hinton translation.  As you can see from the Wikipedia article, Hinton is a translator and a poet, as opposed to a philosopher or Confucianist.  This tells me to be a bit careful about the translation, as it is possible to be a scholar and good translator, and still not have a clue about what you are translating if you haven't studied the actual field as well. 
David Hinton

So take what follows for what it is worth. the words on the page might actually bear no resemblance to what Mencius actually meant. But having said that, I am responding as a philosopher and someone who is trying to live a life in harmony with the Dao, instead of attempting to be a scholar who is trying to expand our collective understanding of a specific human being who lived thousands of years ago.  

The second part of the third book "Kung-Sun Ch'ou", riveted my attention.  Originally, I was interested about the references to the "qi flood" (more about that in another post), but the more I thought about the piece, the more I was struck by the form that it took and what that says about the human condition.  Mencius is asked a series of questions about specific individuals, and he responds to each by discussing the way those people practised self-cultivation through a specific practice.  It is, if you will, a meditation on the concept of kungfu (specifically as "applied great effort", not to mean just martial arts.)  

The words (pardon me, what do I call this sort of writing?  it clearly isn't an essay) start off referring to the ability to still the mind.  When asked how someone goes about doing this thing, Mencius makes an analogy with someone called Po-kung Yu, who cultivated "valour" by cultivating a state of mind where he never ever back off from a quarrel.  He 
never bowed down and never broke off a stare.  He knew that the least intimidation was as bad as being slapped in the marketplace.  An affront was the same to him whether it came from a peasant or a sovereign who commanded a nation of ten thousand war chariots, he'd run his sword through the august lord as easily as the peasant. He knew every insult had to be returned in kind. 
Mencius then goes on to refer to Meng Shih-she, who also cultivated "valour" and described the process as follows:

I consider defeat victory. To gauge an enemy before attacking, to calculate your chances of success before fighting---that is to live in fear of great armies. How can I ever be certain of victory? All I can do is live without fear.   
Mencius maintains that there was a difference between the two, not in the amount of valour that each manifested, but rather in the way they did it. He argues that Meng did it through the use of qi. "It's impossible to say which of the two had the most profound valour, but Meng Shih-she nurtured his qi".

Next Mencius goes on to another example, Master Tseng:
If you look within and find yourself less than honourable, you'll fear even a peasant as an enemy.  But if you look within and find yourself honourable, you'll face even an army of ten million men.
 Tseng's valour is based not on qi, but something else, Mencius says it is based on "nurturing essentials". (This is the place where knowing old Chinese would be nice, as I don't really know what it is that Hinton is translating as "nurturing essentials".)

As you can see, Mencius is contrasting three different people and their personal "kung fu" or strategies for developing a specific human quality, "valour".  Po-kung Yo built his "valour" (what we would call "physical courage") around a macho, aggressive "don't give me any shit" attitude.  He was like an ancient Chinese version of Peter Tosh constantly singing "Steppin' Razor" to himself.





This is different from Meng Shih-she, who put the emphasis on total indifference to outcome and instead cultivated a totally fatalistic attitude towards life.  A good example of this attitude comes from a Zen story I once heard.  When the Mongols were conquering China they occupied a Buddhist Temple.  Everyone fled except the old Zen Master, who was found quietly meditating in one of the buildings.  A Mongol officer came storming into the Hall and confronted the unruffled old man.  Surprised and annoyed at the lack of fear, he yelled out "Don't you understand that I could kill you without batting an eye!"  At that, the Master replied "And don't you understand that you could kill me without me batting an eye?"

There are problems with these two sources of valour, however.  The first one, the "steppin razor" type, leads to stupid, thuggish behavour and generally ends badly for the people who follow it.  The second also ends badly, because mere courage alone can be manipulated to bad ends by authority figures.  Brian Victoria has built a career around explaining how the cult of fearlessness in Japanese Zen ended up being co-opted into supporting the Imperial Japanese war machine.

The last version that Mencius cites as an example comes from Master Tseng.  It is based on morality.  The courage that he manifests comes from believing that he is "doing the right thing".  Another way of looking at these three "daos" of courage is to see it in terms of the ego.  The first one consists of building the ego up to the point where it overwhelms other considerations.  The second consists of cutting it down to the point where it's continued existence becomes an irrelevance.  And the third is that of putting it in the service of some higher good.

What I find interesting in the exercise are two things.  First, that it is possible to parse out these different ways of being a human being.  Second, that each man developed their own specific tactics to manifest a human quality that they felt valuable. Most people I meet in my day-to-day life take it as a given that the personal psychology they have is something that they were born with and/or had imposed upon them at an early age.  The idea that they can choose to nurture or starve a way of responding the world around them is totally alien.

Of course, this raises one of those "chicken or the egg" discussions.  Do people choose to be the sorts of people who want to become valorous?  Or are people simply born that way?  I'm not going to answer that question to my satisfaction in a blog post.  But it is a good place to end this part of the discussion.  In my next one I think I'll try to figure out what Mencius was going on about with his talk about qi.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Interior Life and It's Limits

Yesterday I was riding the bus to work and I noticed a woman get on, who I know suffers from some sort of psychiatric disorder. She is an older woman who once taught at the university and is of that generation of academic women who at the same time appear very prim and proper in a 1950s sort of way, yet who hold quite radical feminist notions.

As we rode down the road, I could see that she was getting slightly more agitated and eventually, she stood up and curtsied.  She sat down again for a few moments, then she eventually got up and curtsied again. Again, a shorter wait, and she curtsied again.  Eventually she could no longer sit down and got off at the next stop---even though I saw her get a transfer and suspect she had intended to remain on the bus until my destination, where other buses also stop and transfers take place.

What struck me at the time, was that I was in the midst of a bit of a "mind storm" myself in that I had some ideas rattling around in my brain that I simply couldn't stop saying over and over again to myself.  At this time, they were "I wish my wife lived with me" and "I wish my wife wasn't sick."  (She is currently in the midst of a psychotic episode, which happens about once a year or so and she lives a thousand miles away to take care of her invalid mother.)

Mystics talk about something called "the interior life", which is a life spent thinking about and contemplating the nature of human consciousness.  Meditation, "Holding onto the One", "Sitting and Forgetting", Internal Alchemy, etc, are all things that someone does who spends her time thinking about herself and the universe.  One of the things that happens when you do this, however, is that you find that within your mind there are voices and thoughts that need to be controlled or else they will eat you alive.

I suspect that the woman on the bus is someone who periodically loses her battles and that is why she stands up and curtsies.  (I wonder if this was something that she had pounded into her head when she was a little girl and it has become the symbol of her upper class background that fights against her radical feminism---making her consciousness a permanent battleground?  Stupid speculation with too little information, but that is the permanent battleground in my mind!)

A large part of my spiritual practice consists of learning how to control my consciousness.  For example, I will become more and more agitated if I do not work at calming it down on a regular basis.  I've learned, for example, that I need to read, write and do taijiquan at least a little most days or else I become progressively more "scattered" and drained of energy.  I don't know if the process was left long enough I might end up like the woman on the bus, but I fear that it might be a possibility.  I do know that if I stop the taijiquan my body starts to fall apart, though.  I get pain in my feet, knees, and shoulders.  And I start to get migraine headaches.

Last Sunday I had some friends together to try to form an organization to create a co-op retirement community.  Most of us are people who have just finished dealing with the deaths of our parents and don't have any children of our own.  This experience has "riveted out attention" to the question of what we are going to do when we are no longer able to live totally independent lives but have no children to help out. The result was a meeting where we all admitted that we should probably do something and agreed to work together to see if there is something that we can do.

The meeting went well, but I couldn't help noticing something about myself that I found annoying.  I am totally useless at small talk.  I ramble.  I fixate on my own personal problems (not everyone wants to hear about my tendonitis or the fact that my wife is sick) and tell "amusing anecdotes" that are in terrible taste.  The problem is that when we indulge in small talk the flow has to come naturally or else it doesn't come at all.  When I was younger, I didn't even try.  In social settings I would just head off to the bar, get hammered and leave early.  Luckily, while small talk is important, if you are someone who actually has other worthwhile features, good people will eventually realize that you are a bit of a "diamond in the rough" and cut you slack---like my friends at this meeting.  But I still gross myself out with my terrible inability to do the "chit chat" thing.

Last Saturday I went to a party that the city held for an old friend of mine, who has been mayor for many years and recently lost an election and is finally back in private life.  It was odd hearing her talked about by "important" people (a Chief of Police mc'd the event), but one thing was kinda funny.  A Liberal Party apparatchik talked about meeting this friend of mine and realizing that she is basically a shy person (or at least was when she started out.)  The speaker said how surprised she was by this, as most politicians aren't shy people.

This is the great thing about her worship.  She has had an interior life of some great value.  She is very smart, and, she really understands a lot of things that I suspect she will never tell most of the "important" folks she met.  That is a form of discipline I can never begin to understand.  But it is something that I can respect.  Luckily, I suspect that she understands the road I have followed in life has taken me in a different, but equally valuable direction.  The solitude that I follow allows me to work out new thoughts to their ultimate direction.  It also allows me to be frank and honest about things in a way that no politician could ever do.  (Writing a blog post like this one would be political suicide.)  It is this mutual respect that has allowed us to be friends over the years, and I treasure it.

The lives we lead have enormous impact on the way our minds work.  So choose wisely!

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One last point, only somewhat related to the above.  In comments to a past post a commentator said that he was surprised that a Blog titled "Diary of a Daoist Hermit" would be written by someone who isn't a "hermit" or even a "Daoist".  I think I have covered these issues in the past, but my wife suggested that I should explain them again.  She didn't understand the terms either until I explained them.

First of all, a "hermit" is not the same thing as a "recluse".  A recluse is someone who has decided to separate themselves from human society.  A hermit, on the other hand, is someone who has isolated himself from an ecclesiastic organization.  Monks are part of a community.  Priests are part of a church.  But a hermit is someone who has to find a way of supporting himself and gets to make his own decisions about his faith.  You will not find this definition in secular dictionaries, but they usually have only the vaguest understanding of spiritual matters.  And religious texts like the Catholic Encyclopedia always twist definitions in a way to exclude anything that might undermine orthodoxy.  But this definition is the way it was explained to me by a Catholic hermit that I met with for years.  Using this specific, technical definition, I am a hermit because I have severed my ties with orthodox religious Daoism.

Secondly, what is or isn't "Daoism" has consumed a great many academic pages, and I am loathe to raise the issue one more time.  But here goes.  The Daoist school of Chinese philosophy arose at roughly the same time as the other schools of "Legalism", "Confucianism", and, "Mozi".  The original authors were as near as I can tell, an oral tradition that resulted in the works of the Dao De Jing, the Nei-Yeh, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  Most scholars believe that these people had absolutely nothing to do with what later became known as religious Daoism.  That is a later development and was created in reaction to Buddhism, and adopted much of its ritual formalism and melded it to native Chinese shamanism, "traditional Chinese religion", and, the teachings of the early Daoists.  I make no bones about not being an orthodox religious Daoist.  But I do try to follow the early philosophy.

Incidentally, I have adopted the religious name of "Cloudwalking Owl" for a very specific reason.  My last name is old Welsh for "member of the Owl Clan".  This is not only something that I read in a book, it is also an old family tradition.  Secondly, in religious Daoism an initiated member of a Daoist Temple sometimes decided to seek wisdom by wandering the countryside and visiting other Temples, hermits and so on, in order to gather wisdom.  Since I have been very ecclectic in my practise and have studied with Buddhist Monks, the Jesuits, studied Philosophy at University, etc, I am very clearly someone who follows the path of "cloudwalking".

Finally, I actually am someone who was initiated into a religious Daoist lineage.  I was invited into the lineage by a recognized priest, offered the three sticks of incense and kowtowed before the altar of the ancestors.  The fact is that there is a very strong argument that I am a "Daoist hermit", who has a legitimate name of "the Cloudwalking Owl".