Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Non-Resolution

I've been spending the last two and a half weeks with my dear wife, who resides in another city and country from me because she cares for her invalid mother.  Not having to work during this time, I've been catching up on reading as well as doing things with her.  One thing we did was head off to a thrift store where we loaded up on some old books (they are 15 cents a pound at her favourite one.)

Janwillem van de Wetering
We came across a motherlode of taijiquan, kungfu and Zen books, amongst others.  Included in this embarrassment of riches were the first two books in Janwillen Van De Wittering's trilogy about Zen:  The Empty Mirror, and, A Glimpse of Nothingness. These books have aged well and have created a wealth of thoughts about life, the universe and everything.

Van de Wetering was a fascinating character in that he was a pretty much total generalist.  He was a beatnick who studied Zen under real masters.  He was also a successful businessman.  He had a successful career in the police force (in the reserves) where he quickly rose through the ranks.  (He joined as a means of dealing with problems he had with his national service requirements----Holland allows someone to do other things besides military service.) And he wrote amazingly good detective novels.  I aspire to be as much of a well-rounded guy as him.

If there is an important point that Wetering emphasized in his books on Zen, it was that of what us Daoists would call "the Void".  That is, that we live in a world of complete potentiality, or, as the Laozi would say "Being comes from Nothing".  With regard to our lived experience, the point is to not hem ourselves in with our own personal descriptions of who we are.   We are not fixed in time, prisoners of our past, but rather bubbles of potential that each every moment have the opportunity to engage with the world around us in new and unexpected ways.

Moy Lin Shin
One of the very few times I ever recall hearing Moy Lin Shin (the fellow who initiated me into Daoism) talk about anything was about the importance of getting rid of the ego.  For him (remember, that everything I ever heard him say was strained through absolutely abysmal translators), the "ego" is that little voice that tells you "oh, I couldn't do that!".

That's a pretty important lesson.

In van de Wetering's book his experience with his Japanese teacher was that the trappings of Zen were ruthlessly excised if they were not immediately valuable to his training.  This extend to the point where he was strongly discouraged from formally becoming a Buddhist (what's the point?)  The only thing that mattered to the teacher was for van de Wetering to "wake up".

I feel pretty much the same way.

I recently had a short conversation in the discussion section of a past post with someone who seemed somewhat disappointed that I haven't been putting a lot of effort into writing about Daoism and being a hermit.  I suppose I haven't.  Part of that probably involves changes in my interests, but I think that mostly it comes from my increasing comfort with the essence of Daoism to the exclusion of the trappings.  I don't offer incense to the land god anymore, but I still keep the altar outside my door.  I packed up my internal altars.

I still do taijiquan, and have been teaching myself the Yang spear form to add to my other sets.  I don't do any formal meditation practice either.  But I do find myself spending a lot of time in self-observation and "holding onto the One" in my day-to-day life.

I suspect that a lof of these changes have come about from my being married.  My dear and beloved significant other has become a mirror that reflects back to me many things.  She has precious little time for pretense and "flummery", which is probably why I've packed up a lot of the play-acting with funny robes and incense.  But she is adamant that I write and do taiji.  She also stretches me in very interesting ways.

Yesterday after breakfast she got quite adamant with me about how I was using what she called "white male privilege".  What she was referring to was the way a lot of women will defer (actually shut up and not try to argue) to me when I get emotional about an issue.  We had a long talk about it, and then our day moved on.

A Keisaku being applied very mildly
Van de Wetering talks a bit about being "encouraged" by a Keisaku while formally meditating in Temple.  I've heard a lot of folks say that it is just a gentle "tap", but the way he describes it, he used to get real whacks with it in order to wake up while nodding off.  He talks about it leaving bruises and the monks wearing extra clothes under their robes in order to protect from it.  Like most things, I suspect that the severity varies mightily from Temple to Temple.

I was really upset when Misha (my wife) called me to task on "white male privilege", but in retrospect, she is trying to help me see something that I am oblivious to.  She was administering a much more accurate and effective Keisaku!  The hope is that I will wake up and learn to be more aware of my freedom of action and less trapped by my culture and past personal history.  

The problem is, however, that learning to experience "the Void" isn't just a question of being told something. It involves the emotional upset that I felt when she called me to task. It is hard, hard, hard to fight erase the ego and embrace the Void.

Zen Master with Fly Whisk
One last point I should make, because it might be raised.  I have mentioned Zen Buddhism in this post.  For those readers who might be interested in a bit of history, Zen is a school of Buddhism, but it is one that was profoundly influenced by Daoism.  The trappings of a Zen Master are the same as a Daoist sage---the fly whisk that they carry as a badge of authority was stolen from the iconography.

Daoist Immortal with Fly Whisk
In addition, the famous Ox-Herding Pictures of Zen were adapted from a Daoist source.  And, if you read books like Journey to the West and Seven Daoist Masters, you will see reference after reference to the mutual reverence between Daoists and Zen Buddhists.

But still, why write about Zen Buddhism in a Daoist blog?  Well, the fact of the matter is that until very recently there were no books available about Daoism outside of the Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Even basics like the Liezi were hard to find and the Nei-Yeh was only recently translated into English.

The same situation existed with regard to Zen when van de Wetering first went to Japan, but his book was part of an explosion of publishing that took place in the last decades of the 20th century.  A similar explosion is currently taking place now with regards to Daoism, this blog being part of the phenomenon.  But if I am going to write about Daoist issues, I have to be part of a cultural context in order to make any sense.  If I refuse to make use of available cultural artifacts---like Zen---to explain myself I will be lessening my ability to explain myself.

The point is that what is important is the Void itself, not the shape of the finger that is used to point in its direction.  

Monday, December 8, 2014


I've been really upset lately thinking about incidents where police have been literally getting away over and over again with, if not murder, at least manslaughter.  This in turn has got me thinking about why it is that I am so emotional about this sort of thing, and whether or not I should be concerned about these intense emotions.

What crystallized this for me was an interaction between myself and a professor of law from a St. Louis area university.  In a on-line magazine, he was just trying to point out the legal framework that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson Missouri police shooting came out of.  I raised the issue that the assistant District Attorney had given the jurors a piece of paper that had a law on it that listed as a legitimate reason for shooting and killing someone the simple fact that they were running away.  This was the law of Missouri until 1984, I understand, until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The important point was that there was nothing on the piece of paper that pointed out that this law was no longer valid.  At the end of the trial---i.e. after the jury had pretty much already made up their minds---the same assistant DA handed out another piece of paper that did say that this provision of the law had been declared unconstitutional, but she didn't verbally draw the jury's attention to this issue or explain the implications.

The professor did acknowledge this point when I raised it, but I left the interaction (in the comments section of an on-line magazine) really upset.  I've been trying to understand my feelings since then.

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that emotions are not bad things.  Indeed, it seems that they are essential to the thinking process.  Emotions are the "drivers" of human behaviour.  A person without emotions is not some sort of logical super being, but rather someone who has no ability to initiate action because there is ultimately no logical reason to do much of anything.  This seems to be an acknowledged fact of neuroscience, so much so that people working on artificial intelligence have developed a consensus that any thinking machine worthy of the name will have to have something like emotions programmed into it.

But why was I so angry about this professor's comments?

Thinking about them, I've come to the conclusion it was because he was trying so darn hard to be emotionally neutral in his discourse.  He didn't call the DA "evil scumbags", but rather just pointed out the law.  Of course, that wouldn't be professional.  But it would have been human.  I think that a huge part of the problems with the modern world is the way we selectively diminish the entirety of a situation in order to convey it in simplified manner.  In the process, we end up cutting out the ethical element and in the process destroy our humanity.

In this case, explaining just the law and what the DA was doing in that Grand Jury, removes the moral culpability of the individuals involved.  It lets them "off the hook" of having to acknowledge that they were consciously manipulating the jurors in order to ensure that the police officer who killed that man on the street in Ferguson would not have to be put on trial.

Think about what this really is, it is an absolutely essential part of any professional career---but it is also pretty much the most evil, vile thing a human being can do.  It happens when a career air force officer forgets that every time he organizes an air strike, there is a very good chance he is going to be killing and maiming children.  It happens when an accountant works out "the bottom line" of a business deal and refuses to admit that the decisions he supports are going to end up pushing families into poverty, destroying parts of the environment and so on.  It also happens when a politician panders to the prejudices of his constituents in order to get elected, and refuses to consider the fact that in doing so he will be perpetuating violence against minorities.

I don't know if it is a virtue or a failing in me, but I have never been able to control my sense of moral outrage in these situations.  I know that this is the case, so I have tried through most of my life to avoid jobs that got me into contact with other people because my anger rarely ends does me any good.

To cite one example, I once was involved in a neighbourhood dispute over a taxi cab company that had opened up across the street from my house and which was attracting dozens of drunken university students at three o'clock am.  These folks would literally be screaming and yelling for taxis right in front of our house----waking up the neighbourhood.  The taxi company refused to do anything substantive to stop this state of affairs.  It was regulated by the city and could very easily have been ordered to stop accepting fares at this site, but the solicitor for the police department was dead set against any sort of proactive effort and the police board deferred to his judgement.

The problem was, as I saw it, he simply refused to tell me why he was so opposed to using regulation.  If I asked him to his face about it, he simply acted as if I hadn't said anything at all.  What was particularly galling was his wife was a friend of my then significant other, and I'd actually been in his home having Christmas dinner with him.  I asked "do you think I'm an asshole that doesn't deserve to have his questions answered?", and all he would say was "no, I don't think you are an asshole."  That was it.

I mentioned this interaction to a friend who laughed and said "he was just being a good professional civil servant".  The idea is that good bureaucrats never share any information with the public that might potentially help them do anything.  It is called "gatekeeping".  If I knew what his thinking was about why he refused to use the powers of the taxi by-laws to force compliance, it would have given me some leverage to get my way in the dispute.  By keeping me in the dark, it gave him more power to manipulate me.

Of course, the thing I was upset about was that I knew people who were having their sleep disrupted and who were feeling miserable having to go to work without enough sleep.  This lawyer, in contrast, was able to have a nice sleep and simply thought he was doing his job, which consisted of allowing minimal hassle for the police department.

A sad post-script to this event came years later, long after the problem with the taxi company had been resolved.  I heard that shortly after my interactions with this lawyer, he had been diagnosed with progressive aphasia.  (This is a disease that destroys a person's ability to communicate with other people.)  This made me rethink my anger about the way I had been treated.  Perhaps he was manifesting early, subtle symptoms of his illness instead of just acting like a jerk to protect his job.

But no matter what the reason, the upshot from this lawyer's behaviour was to totally ignore the human cost of his behaviour in defence of the police department.  This is exactly the same thing that has happened with district attorney's when they subvert the Grand Jury system in order to avoid having to discipline police officers who lose control and kill people for no good reason.

My personal feeling is that every human being is always confronted with moral choices and their hands are almost never tied.  Like the Spike Lee movie says, people always have a chance to "do the right thing".  In law, this principle is enshrined in the concept of "Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum", or "Let justice be done though the heaven's fall".  In the case of DA moves to let police off the hook, the DAs know that police unions are powerful and that if they really do start enforcing the law against them with force, they will have real problems doing their jobs and getting re-elected.  Moreover, many of them actually like the police and don't want to anger people that they consider their friends.  They have the choice to "do the right thing" and instead do the easy thing.


One other thing I try to remember, is the injunction by the Heavenly Teacher in the Taipingjing. (This is a book that came from the religious Daoist rebellion---the "yellow scarves"---that was in the opening pages of Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)  The Teacher warns his followers to not blame people who act badly too much because we are all products of conditions outside of our control---our childhood and perhaps clinical issues like progressive aphasia. Nor should we think too highly of ourselves when we do well, for much the same reason.  I often think about this with regard to my own behaviour.  I work at a menial job even though all my life I have been told that I could accomplish a great deal more if I just applied myself. But I know that because of my mercurial nature, I could never "bite my tongue" in the ways that are necessary to be a successful professional.  What this means is that I never will be able to gain the power necessary to do much good in the world, simply because I can never amass and hold onto it long enough to be able to wield it for the public interest.

Am I suggesting that there is no sense feeling moral outrage?  No, but I am suggesting that proper behaviour emerges from the community, not the individual.  I am outraged against the way our professionals manipulate the truth in order to further their careers.  But the only way we can try to stop that from happening is through collective action.  The protests against police departments are necessary, and I am very glad to see them breaking out spontaneously all over the US.  Perhaps this will result in some badly needed change.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Be Like Water and Let Your Ego Drown!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book promotion!

Howdy guys, I know that I've been breaking a cardinal rule in blogging in that I've only been posting very infrequently lately, but I do still see a lot of visits to the site.  So I'm going to keep it up.

I'm currently putting a lot of my energy into writing books, which, unfortunately, seems to include a fair amount of marketing.   So, I'm doing a promotion for my first offering.

I'm doing a promotion for my book, it is free to download from SmashWords until the end of October. You have to register with SmashWords and use this coupon code: SD66Z . The book is at this link: . All I ask is that if you enjoy reading it that you write a review and share the word with others. Feel free to share this link to your friends, FaceBook connections, twitter, your own blog, or anything and anyone else you think might be interested.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Daoist Take on the Race Riots in Ferguson Missouri

I've been following the events at Ferguson Missouri with especial interest as the events are taking place close to my dear and beloved wife, who lives in metropolitan St. Louis.  There seems to be a consensus emerging that something really wrong is going on in that part of the US, but what exactly seems to be somewhat vague.

Much of the concern seems to be directed at police brutality and the militarization of the police.  But as an outsider who has developed a cursory familiarity with the area, I think that people should understand that the St. Louis area suffers deeply from racial segregation.  It is absolutely gob smacking to an outsider.  For example, there are literally streets you can drive down where one side is filled with beautiful, nice old homes---inhabited by white people;  and the other is filled with dilapidated houses where black folks live.   

Here's a twelve minute YouTube documentary that pretty much explains the situation and explains how it happens.  Pay particular attention to the quick segment that happens at about 7:05 point.  It shows egg cartons with black and white eggs and shows how simply not wanting to live in an area where you are out-numbered 2-to-1 in your neighbourhood by people of another race inevitably leads to total segregation.  

Another thing to pay attention to is the bit about how real estate agents "steer" prospective home buyers towards neighbourhoods that are majority white or black, and away from one where they don't "belong".  

At the end of the documentary, the professor suggests that it is important to take action to end the Institutional sources of segregation instead of seeing it primarily as an issue of personal morality.  This is tremendously important, as things like this routinely get seen as individual morality plays.  

I suppose that this has something to do with the way evolution has formed our minds.  After all, the basis of racism seems to be a genetic disposition to not see anyone who is not related to us as being "Other".  This makes sense as it is clear that someone who looks so different probably doesn't share DNA with us, so there is no evolutionary advantage in helping them.  But this type of socio-biological analysis misses the point that we have also evolved as societies and relationships of reciprocity between non-related people are the only thing that allows us to function as cities and nations.  

I would suggest that a large part of the reason why we see things like the events in Ferguson as morality plays is because of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The Abrahamic religions put a huge emphasis on the idea that we have free will and are able to choose to accept the grace of God or reject it.  In contrast, Eastern religions take into account the social context that someone comes from and understands that this greatly influences the decisions that people make.  There is a line in the Daoist Taiping Jing where the Celestial Master suggests that people should not condemn someone who does wrong too harshly because they are the product of their childhood and background.  Similarly, they shouldn't think too highly of themselves if they do good, for the same reason.  

Following the Celestial Master's suggestion, the thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotional reaction one may be feeling about the news.  This involves centring the body, taking an inventory of both our physical and mental state, and reminding ourselves that we are self-aware, self-conscious individuals who have at least some control over our emotions and behaviour.  This is known as "holding onto the One", and is the core teaching of both the Nei-Yeh and the Taiping Jing.  

Once we have "the One" in hand, then the thing to do is to try and understand the Dao of the situation.  This involves calmly trying to look for the subtle issues at hand, issues that perhaps the overwhelming majority of people are missing because they are so caught up in their strong emotions.  I would suggest that if you do so, you can find something that the overwhelming majority of the media has missed.  That is, there is a study that a group of people have done that exposes the real reason why Ferguson Missouri has exploded into violence.  

A group that calls themselves the "Arch City Defenders" has prepared and published a report on the entities known as Municipal Courts and their baleful influence on the black community in the Greater St. Louis area.  You can read it as a PDF here.  It is fairly long, but is easy to read and is worth it.  It explains that there are great many little municipalities outside of St. Louis that have independent town ordinances, police forces and municipal court systems.  As well, a disproportionately large amount of the city revenue that is raised in these communities comes from fines levied against people in these communities.  Ferguson, for example, uses this as its second largest source of income.  Moreover, these fines are levied disproportionately against people of colour.  And the system is progressively rigged to extract money from poor people who are so close to destitution that even a minor fine of a few hundred dollars or a short stay in jail of less than a week, can be catastrophic.  

It is very obvious to anyone who reads through this report that the "system" of places like Ferguson Missouri is designed to keep a boot placed on the neck of black people.  This is what racism looks like.  It isn't a bunch of boozed-up Klansmen who decide to pull someone from jail and lynch him.  (As in the movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird".)  But rather a set of laws and regulations that make it extremely difficult for anyone to dig themselves out of debt or poverty.  Subtlety is the essence of long-term oppression.  And subtlety is how to identify and escape from it.  Moral outrage is irrelevant.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

That Elusive Feeling of "Oneness"

I've been walking around in a vague sense of funk lately.  I have had a hard time identifying why, but several very different things have made me depressed.

First of all, I am somewhat upset about the huge amount of effort that I am having to put into marketing my book.  Everything I've read says that it is more work selling a book than writing it, and it is certainly the case that I've had to go through a big learning curve as I figured out how to format it, register it so I could get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), register a copy with the National Archives, get an tax exemption so I don't have to pay tax double on any hypothetical royalties I might earn, and, find out how to merchandise it using social media.

Secondly, I've been really upset about work lately.  Not that much affected me directly, but there's been a lot of renovation going on in the Library and I'm just annoyed at the ridiculous amount of change that constantly seems to be happening around me.  The image that immediately comes to mind is that of a hamster running in a wheel.  This place just seems to be constantly involved in change for change's sake.

Also there have been changes in co-workers that have been dragging on, literally for years.  One co-worker was forced to leave because of what appears to have been chronic alcoholism and the university has literally taken years to fill the vacant position.  In the interim, a young fellow has been working on a contractual basis and the consensus seemed to be that he was going to get the permanent job.  Instead, a woman from a department that was declared redundant but who has 28 years of seniority, is going to get the position.  This seems to a lot of people to be somewhat unfair.

None of this stuff is new, but I had a bit of a revelation recently.  As part of my job I am supposed to check offices on the weekend to look for things like water leaks.  I went through a couple offices and noticed various manager's meager work-related book collections.   One person has a collection of books about how to use blogs to influence others and market various products and services.  The other had a book on his desk about how to use meetings to accelerate the rate of change within an organization.  Finally, I was in an office being used by a contractor to manage one of three projects in the building and he had a copy of the contract for his particular project open on his desk.  It was in a three-ring binder and appeared to be about two inches thick!

It suddenly dawned on me that my problem is the crazy complexity of modern life and how much of what we do from day-to-day is dominated by complex abstract ways of doing things.

I have tried in my personal life to simplify things and to lessen my impact on the world around me.  These things that I see on the desks of other people are all things that complicate the world around them and are attempts by individuals to increase their influence.  The second last chapter of the DDJ encapsulates my gut instinct:
A small state with few people.
Let the implements (ch'ih) for ten and hundred men be unused,
Let the people fear death such that they do not move far away.
Although there are boats and carriages,
There are no places to ride them to.
Although there are weapons and armours,
There are no occasions to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes and use them (as memory aids).
Let them enjoy their food,
Consider their clothing beautiful,
Be contented with their dwellings,
And happy with their customs.
The neighbouring states overlooking one another,
The dogs' barkings and cocks' crowings are heard from other states,
Yet till they are old and dying the people do not visit one another 
Chapter 80, Ellen Chen trans.
Oh that we could go back to that past world of simplicity!  Where people interacted with honesty and based upon their real feelings instead of calculation. Of course, the worm in that particular apple is the fact that my theoretical "Eden" never actually existed. Even in the time of Laozi it was probably not much more than a pastoral fantasy.

Modern psychology has some very interesting things to say about this instinct I have for "the good old days".

First of all, our brains are constructed for instant, instinctual decisions.  This had significant evolutionary pay-off in that there are lots of situations where it doesn't pay to waste time deliberating.  If that rustling in the bushes is a leopard, you are dinner before you know it if you try to reason things out.  But this instant decision-making comes at a price.  Our unconscious uses short cuts.  We jump to dumb conclusions if we don't take the time to think things through.  And because our brains are designed to maximize speed over accuracy, when we do try to think things through it takes a lot of effort and it isn't easy.  

Secondly, our minds seem to be designed to maximize the ability to get along in small, family-based hunting bands.  This makes sense if you consider the "selfish gene" theory.  In strict evolutionary terms, the only reason why any animal exists is to replicate their genes. It doesn't really matter if the genes are in me or in an identical twin.  Moreover, the genes in a brother or sister will be half the same as mine, so there is utility in my helping replicate those too.  The same even applies to a lesser extent for cousins. If I do something selfless that results in the survival of the rest of my family---even though it results in my death---it is still helping the genes that are the same as mine to replicate. But this doesn't apply to a total stranger.  If I come across someone from a totally different tribe, who isn't even remotely related to me, there is no value in helping him to survive at all.  (A woman might be a different case, as I could have sex with her and maybe create a child with half of my DNA.)

The result of this is that people very quickly develop a sense of "us" and "them" based on familiarity.  This means that, for example, the small number of us who work together in the library have an exaggerated sense of "togetherness" that means we get very resentful when an office somewhere else on campus decides who does or doesn't get hired to work with us.  If some young person who's worked with us for a couple years on contracts gets passed over for the permanent job by someone else from another place on campus, it seems an outrage because she is an "outsider".  But the fact of the matter is that she has 28 years seniority and the University has signed contractual obligations with the union to ensure that people don't get dumped onto the side walk like garbage when they are too old to expect to find employment anywhere else.  People might think that it is unfair to see the young guy not get the job, but that is just our quick-deciding part of the brain working.  Think things through, and you can see that human resources has a point too.

It's the same way with a lot of other things too.

I might be all munged out about the extra work that I need to put into selling my book.  But the fact of the matter is that in the past I probably would never have been able to get the book into print in the first place.  Non-fiction books are usually published not on the quality of the writing or ideas, but rather on the credentials of the author. Not being a professor, I would never have even gotten my manuscript read by a publishing house, let alone printed.

I learned this a long time ago when I quickly dashed off a letter to the editor of an economic journal.  I never thought much about it, but I put it in an envelope that happened to have a letter head from the university.  To my surprise, the editor phoned the university (from England!) to get a hold of me. I connected and he said that he was very impressed by what I had to say and wanted me to make it into an article for the journal.  I said "OK", then he asked me what department I taught in.  When I said that I was a security guard in the library there was a very pregnant pause and then he said "Well, maybe we can print it as a letter to the editor".

I also had a friend who was a professional editor for a big publisher.  She said that she routinely got manuscripts from big names that were so badly written that she, in effect, ghost wrote the books.  (Without any credit, of course.)

The price I have to pay for this increased opportunity is that I have to bust my ass in order to market the book because no one else is going to do it for me.  But the pay off in the end is that if I do manage to sell a fair number of copies, I get to keep a lot more of the money for myself.  In the past even very successful authors tended to make a pittance out of sales because the middlemen pocketed almost everything.

I'm not the sort of person who believes that "all that is, is right" and comes up with explanations to justify everything.  I still am righteously annoyed with the endless renovations that take place on campus when much-needed maintenance is delayed long past the point of its necessity.  I am also annoyed that so much of the wealth of both the nation and nature is being squandered for precious little return.  But I do have a great deal of sympathy with Germaine de StaĆ«l's idea that "to know all is to forgive all".  So I try to remind myself to think about the big picture and avoid jumping to conclusions.  When I succeed, I often find that things that annoy me are the unavoidable results of other things that I do find useful.

The result is that through this rational analysis I can develop a sense of equanimity that while different from the sense of pastoral "Oneness" that seems to be upshot of Daoism, may actually be a much better way of developing peace of mind.