Thursday, December 8, 2016

Using the "Ring of Control" and Bodily Awareness to Control the Mind

If you've read Journey to the West one of the things you should remember is the way Xuanzang (the Monk) controls Sun Wukong (Monkey) is through the use of a golden band that Guanyin gives him. He gets tricked into placing the band over his head, where it shrinks, and, actually binds itself to his skull. Guanyin teaches Xuanzang a mantra that he can recite that makes the band shrink, squeezing Sun Wukong's skull and causing excruciating pain. This is the only way that Xuanzang can control his "chief disciple".

A Japanese painting of Sun Wukong 
Journey to the West is a collection of folk tales that people have been reciting as entertainment for a long time. But most people don't realize that that the most popular version of the text is considered by some to be a Daoist teaching story. It's taken me a lifetime of learning, but reading the W.J.F. Jenner translation for the third or fourth time, I can now see this is obviously true.

People sometimes get hung up on this interpretation because they believe that these sorts of teaching allegories have to be totally universal, or else they aren't real. They point at the characters of the Dragon horse and Sandy and ask what they are supposed to "represent". But the fact is that Journey to the West is primarily an piece of entertaining fiction, not a book of Daoist theory. It needn't be completely allegorical, all the time---it just needs to be so once in a while.

Another complaint is that since Xuanzang is a Buddhist monk and the journey is to the Western Buddhist heaven to get Buddhist scriptures, it "obviously" cannot have anything to do with Daoism. Well, this misses the constant refrain in the book that "all religions are one", the way Daoist teachers are often referenced, and, the many, many allusions to arcane aspects of Daoist teachings---all of which would be missed by the casual reader of a bad translation.

One of the ways to see this is to understand the group travelling to the Western heaven as one entity with each character representing one particular part of the human psyche. Pigsy represents the instinctual drives of the human beings. Xuanzang is the higher intellect that attempts to control the other elements of the human being. And Monkey is the "mind ape" that is the well-spring of mental activity that gives human beings their ability to think their way through the problems of life.

The part of human beings that Monkey represents is that bubbling well-spring of creativity that goes on in our mind and allows us to think of solutions to the endless problems that life throws our way. As such, it is essential to life. That is why Sun Wukong is the protector of Xuanzang in Journey to the West---because our "monkey mind" is what has allowed human beings to survive and prosper. But the problem with this bubbling well is that if we don't exert some control over it, it creates havoc in our lives. The well can create ungrounded fears that eat us alive. Or it can develop weird prejudices that alienate us from the community we need to survive. Or it can create strange obsessions that cause us to waste away our lives pursuing absurd delusions. All these problems are represented in the start of the book by the crazy havoc that Monkey creates in Heaven.

10th century Northern Chinese wooden Guanyin
The Buddha traps Sun Wukong under a mountain for five hundred years until Guanyin releases him to become Xuanzang's protector. But she realizes that without some way for the higher intellect to control the "monkey mind", there is no way that anyone can become realized or enlightened. So she tricks monkey into wearing her band and teaches the monk how to recite a mantra to control it. This is the important point.  The band is a literary device, but a mantra literally is a way of controlling our run-away creative thought process. It is like a "clamp" that blocks up the bubbling, crazily over-flowing ability to create ideas that can overwhelm our minds.

The problem is that most of us live our lives with a constant internal voice burning through out minds that says all sorts of destructive things like "you're too fat", "what's wrong with you?", "what if I run out of money?", "what if I lose my job?", "who the Hell do they think they are to tell me what to do?", etc. This voice can get louder and louder until they take over our life entirely. Repeating some phrase over and over again---which is what saying a mantra really is all about---literally drowns this voice out and allows our intellect to regain control of  our thought processes. Contrary to what some people may tell you, it doesn't really matter what the mantra is. You can repeat "om mani padme hum", "da do run run, da do run run", or, whatever. My first meditation teacher said if I wanted, I could repeat "cocksucker, cocksucker cocksucker" over and over again if it made sense to me. But the point is to be able to "clamp down" on that monkey mind and stop it from becoming so loud that it overwhelms your consciousness.

People often go into great detail about the various and sundry ways there are to meditate. But ultimately, meditation is a very simple process. It is looking at the way your mind operates, deciding what is the ideal way for it to be, and, finding out ways that you can learn to control it. In the case that I've mentioned from Journey to the West, I've identified one of the easiest---using a mantra. But there are other mechanisms too.


The traditional Daoist
map of the body
One that I use a lot lately involves bodily awareness. I suppose that to explain it in Daoist terms I could say that by practicing neidan (qigong---in this case taijiquan), I have learned to move my qi around the body from my lower Dantian up through the mysterious gateway, along my twelve-story pagoda up to the mud pill. At least that's the language that comes from traditional Daoist teaching, and what is used in Journey to the West.

Being a modern Westerner, I would much rather say that through a process of dissecting my body with my consciousness, I've learned to identify different elements of my bodily awareness. This allows me to loosen my lower abdomen and chest region. This has allowed me to dramatically improve my bodily posture. It also allows me to become aware of the subtle ways in which my visual, auditory, and, bodily awareness interact with my consciousness to influence my thought processes. Frankly, I find this sort of language a lot more useful than saying that "my qi moves" from one place to another. But I do think that I am describing the same thing as the old Daoists.

And the upshot is that I can control my "monkey mind" by focusing my consciousness on the subtle feelings in my body. One part of this is feeling my feet come into contact with the floor beneath my feet when I walk. The experience is somewhat like what I expect walking on my hands would feel like. The heel makes contact, I can feel my weight rippling through my (pitifully collapsed) arch, and then each of my individual toes engages with the floor and then rolls off. At the same time, I consciously "drop" my shoulders and chest, counter-acting my genetic predisposition to "hunch" my shoulders into a "scholar's hump". At the same time, I consciously try to look through both of my eyes, giving each equal weight of attention instead of allowing one or the other to dominate. Together with these and other conscious activities, I create a calm and peace of mind that results in a feeling of something coming up my spine and manifesting itself in between my brows and on the top of my head. (At the same time, I am acutely aware of the almost constant throbbing of my chronically infected sinus cavities and ear canals---I get a lot of virus infections at work, plus I am very allergic to dust.)

This "hyper awareness" has the same effect as repeating a mantra constantly. It overwhelms the chattering monkey mind and allows the intellect to assert control over the random creative impulses that the mind spews at us like a fire hose. As a side effect, for me the hyper awareness technique has added benefits lacking from the mantra method. For one thing, it helps improve my physical health. I suffer from many complaints:  arthritis, tendonitis, tennis elbow, chronic sinusitis, etc. (Most are the result of a hard life doing physical labour, inheriting some bad genes---such as very, very flat feet--- and being exposed to thousands of teenagers from all over the world every day at work. Without taijiquan and other neidan practices, I'd be a mess.)


I was asked recently why it is that I write about this stuff and do all the things I do. After all, I walk a very narrow path. Traditional religious Daoists have sometimes attacked me very angrily for being a Western "innovator" who they feel "spits on the tradition". At the same time, I often meet Westerners who can barely hide their contempt for me because they think that I am an apologist for "New Age super-naturalism". But the point is that we all suffer greatly from the delusions that our monkey minds create for us. In fact, I don't think that there could be a greater gift that a man could give another than to help them tame the dumb notions that befog their minds.


Zen Buddhism is the "first cousin" of Daoism and there is a story about a Japanese Zen hermit named Ryōkan.
One evening a thief visited Ryōkan's hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon." (From Wikipedia.)
The point is that Ryōkan had something that was absolutely priceless:  insight into how his mind operated and the ability to unify his consciousness. Ryōkan would have dearly loved to be able to give this insight to everyone, including the thief. Yet the thief not only didn't want it, he didn't even know the value of this gift or that Ryōkan could give it to him. That is the point of Ryōkan wishing he could give the thief the moon. That is the dilemma that anyone who has gained any realisation faces---almost no one knows enough to even want it.  Yet, we have to keep on trying.  That's because once in a while someone actually does want the moon---.

Sculpture of Ryōkan
by Dready at Wiki Commons

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Ebook Version of Digging Your Own Well is Out!

My new book, Digging Your Own Well:  Daoism as a Practical Philosophy, is now open for sale as an ebook. The price is five dollars at Smashwords, but other ebook resellers are offering it too, usually for a bit more. To get a copy, just go here.  Of course, if you want to hard copy, you can get it from Lulu books for fifteen dollars plus deliver.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mind-Fasting and Donald Trump

A lot of people have been freaking out about the election of Donald Trump. As near as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that the sky is falling and we all need to panic immediately. Let me offer an alternative viewpoint.

Heaven and earth are not humane,
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs.
The sage is not humane,
He treats the hundred families as straw dogs.
Between heaven and earth, 
How like a bellows it is!
Empty and yet inexhaustible,
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.
By many words one's reckoning is exhausted.
It is better to abide by the center. 
(Chapter 5, Laozi, Ellen Chen trans.)

Most people who read this blog have probably never taken part in a religious Daoist ritual, so they don't understand the images expressed in this poem. "Straw Dogs" were something that is sacrificed in a ritual to placate or help spirit beings. But the sacrifice was a bit of a sham, dogs were too expensive to really sacrifice, so little dolls made of straw were created to sacrifice instead. This tradition still exists in Chinese culture and to this day, in many Chinese groceries, you will find "Hell money" for sale to use in these events. Just like "straw dogs", this money is fake because people are far to practical to burn real money in ceremonies.
Basic Hell Money---notice the denomination!
I can remember---many years ago---folding up ingots of "Hell gold" and "Hell silver" for burning in rituals. I also remember chanting the Jade Emperor "sutra" outside during the full moon and burning "sutras" for the enlightenment of the dead.

Burning Hell money
The one time I ever tried doing this on my own, I researched a ritual and performed it to send a message to the "Ghost King" asking for his help trying to protect three cemeteries from a big box mall that Walmart was building. In that one I burned a paper horse and sent letters plus "travelling money" to various deities. I was told that it was "great theater" by the non-Daoists who were watching, (which was what I was trying to achieve.) We were very successful in our legal battle, so perhaps the ritual even accomplished something.  (The smoke from the altar set off the smoke alarm in the Jesuit center where I had the ceremony. This is par for the course---I'm told my teacher once set his Temple in Toronto on fire doing one of these ceremonies.)

Now the thing to remember about all these sacrificial offerings is that they are basically worthless things that get destroyed in part of a greater ceremony. The Laozi is saying that we people are like pieces of paper that are worth so little that we can be burnt at ceremonies with little regard. 

The verse goes even further and makes a statement about where every single person exists in the universe. It talks about the gap "between Heaven and Earth" being like a "bellows". Who exists between Heaven and Earth?  People do! And what does a bellows do? It helps in burning things up. Human beings are the fuel in the forge of the Dao! We aren't even the iron that the blacksmith beats into implements, we are simply the fuel that gets burnt in order to get metal hot enough to forge. Human beings are dispensable, we act out our short lives and what gets forged is history and culture. 


To understand and appreciate this point, think about the historical context of the Laozi. China has never been anything but an authoritarian society, Indeed, at the time that the Laozi was being created in an oral tradition by "the old ones", human sacrifice was still being practiced at the funerals of kings. From that time until today authoritarian rule has been pretty much always been the case, and life has still been cheap. And, want to know a secret?  it is just about everywhere else too. Society is cruel to people in prisons, people without jobs, people with psychiatric illnesses, people with drug addictions, people with disabilities, discriminated minorities---even ugly people. When I walk down to the pub in my city, in one of the absolutely grooviest places in the world---I still will see homeless people sleeping "in the rough". I suffer from watching the people I love suffer through life's torment. I know that sickness and death will eventually be my lot. All people's lives end badly.

So what is the Daoist response to all of this?

The Celestial Master and the authors of the Nei-Yeh  both suggest to people that they should "hold onto the One". By this, they mean that people shouldn't just take life as it appears to be, but should be constantly trying to figure out the hidden patterns and processes that reoccur. That is, "the One", is the Dao. And by "holding onto" it, human beings retain the ability to be conscious actors in their own life instead of mere objects that fate moves from square to square. The ability to act may be---and often is---profoundly limited by your environment. But the very least that we can always do is remind ourselves that we are on a chessboard and that we are not always responsible for the problems we face.

This can be a great consolation in hard times. I remember reading one of George Orwell's books, Down and Out in Paris and London, I believe, where he describes life as a tramp in Great Depression Britain. He mentions that the people who suffered the most from poverty were the ex-middle class. They had totally absorbed the idea that the poor were poor because of their own moral deficiencies. This meant that when fate drove them into destitution they blamed themselves for their situation. The people who had been poor all their lives had no such delusions about why they were poor, so at least that was one burden that they were free of.

Another Daoist response is to practice something called "mind fasting". As I was taught this, it is simply the practice of removing distractions from your consciousness in order to learn how your mind operates. We weren't given any theoretical talk about this, we were just told to sit. But the process of "just sitting" for long periods of time on a regular basis forced us to pay attention to how our minds operate. It was, in effect, a process of "holding onto the One" with regard to our internal world as well as the external one.

Learning how your mind operates is a very difficult process. Once you get into it, you find that you have enough work to do until the end of your life. For example, the last two nights I have awoken from sleep due to nightmares. In one I saw a group of women who had been sentenced to death by the state. The were executed by being hurled while still alive into a deep gorge, the floor of which was so filled with rotting corpses of previous victims that they landed soft and smothered in the filth. In the second one, I woke after a disturbing dream where I was with my sister-in-law listening to my wife who was tying up someone who sounded like a scared child who was begging and pleading with her to let him go. When I woke up I realized that the scared child was myself.

The process of mind fasting teaches the person who pursues it valuable insights into who they are by peeling away the "noise" that distracts us from our true nature. In the case of my disturbing dreams, I would suggest that what we call a "human being" is actually a complex mixture of different competing idea complexes that are at war for dominance. Through meditation and contemplation you learn to identify these different bits and pieces, and learn to control them to a certain extent. The women being executed in filth were people I love who are living in poverty because the world around them is indifferent to their medical problems. That scared child blubbering away in my dreams was the part of me that is afraid of taking on obligations towards the other people in my life. Another part of me tried to get me to fall asleep during the formal sitting part of my training. It is also what causes wild emotional freak outs and hallucinations among people who are doing serious meditation. These "beings" exist in all of us, and mind fasting is about learning that they exist and gaining some semblance of control over them so we can live lives of clarity and value.


So what has this got to do with Donald Trump?

The bellows of the Dao has been burning a lot of people lately in order to forge a new world. Not in the sense of there being a huge uptick in the material suffering of people. But the political process has whipped a lot of people into a frenzy of fear about what the new president will bring. They are afraid that Latinos, blacks, gays, Muslims, women, etc, are about to be horribly abused by a Republican party triumphant. To some extent, this may happen. But to a large extent I think that this is just a chimera that was created by the Democrats in order to win their election. (After all, in a lot of ways these people's lives were pretty crappy under the Democrats too.) They lost, but unfortunately the fear that they were counting on to fuel victory lives on after November 8th.

There are lot of Daos, some of which are dark and awful. One of them is the Dao of torture. People who have studied it realize that the worst part of torture is often not the torture itself, but rather people's fear of it. In medieval "jurisprudence" prisoners were usually "shown the implements of torture" before they were tortured, and offered an opportunity to confess first. This was done because the judges knew that if you whipped up people's anticipation, you could get a lot more confessions than if you just started out with the torture from the get go. Similarly, the military and secret services torture their own people in order to prepare them in case of capture by an enemy. This dramatically increases their ability to resist.

Unfortunately, the Clinton election campaign did such an effective job of raising voter's fears of a Trump presidency that a huge fraction of the public is now in a state of tremendous panic. Not only is this damaging to individual people's psyche, it is also tremendously counter-productive from a political point of view. The net result of all this "Chicken Little-ism" is going to be that the bar will have been lowered so far for Trump that people will think he is a success if he doesn't round people up in concentration camps, cancel all future elections, or, totally trash the economy.

The solutions to this problem are the same that the Daoists learned thousands of years ago when they had to deal with supreme autocrats who held ordinary people's lives in the palms of their hands. Hold onto the One---try to understand the subtle processes that govern the world around us. And practice mind fasting---learn how your mind operates so you can exert some control over it. In both cases, use the knowledge you have gained to find a little bit of personal peace---even if it is nothing more than realizing that we are nothing more than leaves floating down a stream.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The New Book is Almost Here

My new book, Digging Your Own Well:  Daoism as a Practical Philosophy, is finished. It is scheduled for publication as an ebook at the beginning of December. And the hard-copy version will be available as soon as I get my proof copy and work through any changes that might need doing.

In the interim, I need to start marketing. To that end, I'm looking for anyone who is interested in receiving a free review copy of the ebook in order to write a review for a blog, magazine, podcast, Goodreads, or whatever---or even just to put up on whatever ebook sales site they use.   If you are interested, just email me at: and I will send you a copy in the format of your choice.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Where have I gone?

I haven't published anything on this blog in quite a while so I thought I owed readers an explanation.

The local daily newspaper folded in my city, leaving a huge hole in local news coverage. I have "stepped into the breach" by starting a local, on-line magazine called "the Guelph Back-Grounder". It's become a fair amount of work, and it certainly deals with different issues and appeals to a totally different set of readers, so it has effectively robbed this blog of all the time and energy I used to devote to it.

This isn't to say that I have given up writing on issues Daoist related, however. I have finished a book on how to live a modern life as a Daoist, which I've titled Digging Your Own Well:  Daoism as a Practical Philosophy. It's already "in the can" and now I just have to go through the work of formatting it for publishing through Smashwords and Lulu Books. I will announce when that happens.

For the future, I've already started another book, on taijiquan, which I have tentatively titled Theoretical Taijiquan.

Looking at the statistics on my blog, I see that I get a lot of folks looking at posts that I have written years ago, so I see no reason to take it down.  It's become a resource for people interested in Daoism and I am still interested in intelligent comments, so I will keep an eye out for those too.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Cutting Through Delusion by Holding onto the One

I had high hopes for my summer vacation this year. I was going to head off to St. Louis to meet up with my dear, sweet, lovely wife;  stay for a while;  and then we were going to drive back to Guelph. She wanted to stay for several months. But when I arrived in St. Lou it was obvious that she was going into a psychotic episode. After a week of seeing her deteriorate, I bought tickets and went back to Guelph. When she gets like this, all I can do is leave her alone and wait the six weeks or so for her to come back to her rational mind.


When I got back to Guelph I still had several weeks of vacation booked. A friend invited me to stay a week with him and his wife in another city. I did and had a pretty good time. At one point, however, we were sitting in wonderful restaurant, eating a delicious meal, and it occurred to me that my dear wife would have loved to be there with me. At that point, I felt a tinge of sadness. A normal event, but I thought I'd share it with readers because several times people have asked me to go into some detail about my meditation practice.

When I felt that sadness, it occurred to me that I should be unhappy---that there was something wrong with me feeling good. In fact, I noticed that part of me was actually trying to feel sad. That I was obligated to feel sad, that if I didn't feel sad I was letting my wife down.

This is a textbook case of delusional thinking.

Looking deeper within, however, I noticed that one part of my mind was fighting with another. It had put forward this delusion and wanted to use it to dominate and control me. But this was a feeble attempt. After years and years of careful introspection from sitting and forgetting, I was able to recognize what was happening. And because of this self-awareness, I was able to recognize how the Dao was operating in my life at that exact moment.


"Sitting and Forgetting" (Zuowang) is something that I was taught by Daoists. It was nothing special at all, and wasn't even called "Sitting and Forgetting", and was actually called just "Sitting". And that's all they taught us how to do, sit. Why would we anyone do that? Well, because it is profoundly boring. And if you get bored enough, you start paying attention to what your mind is doing. And that, is a very useful exercise. Most people wander through their lives with only the barest of self-awareness. Ask them why they pursue some sort of behaviour and they will usually say "I dunno". Most will get angry with you if you try to get them to introspect and think about why it is that they do what they do. This anger isn't really with you, it's a way of changing the conversation. This is because there are different parts of a person's mind, and one part of it actively fights against you becoming self aware.

But if you are one of those "odd ducks" who sticks with sitting, you have a good chance of becoming more and more aware of the complexity of your consciousness. And the more aware you become of how your mind operates, the harder it becomes for that part of the mind that sabotages self-awareness to remain in control. Because I have many years sitting and forgetting, first formally through sitting and then later through every moment of my life (what Buddhists call "mindfulness"), I instinctively started analyzing my thoughts the moment the idea entered my head about the necessity of feeling sad.


And once a person has developed the ability to be increasingly aware of how their mind operates at any given moment, they begin to have the clarity to see processes at work both within themselves and the world around them. This is what Daoists call "holding onto the One". (The "One" is the Dao.) It was because of the sitting that I could see how a part of my mind was trying to create a sense of guilt in order to regain control over my consciousness. And because I had held onto the One for a long time, I recognized a process that has been at work in my mind for a very long time---and which used to almost completely control how my mind operates.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Constricted Viewpoint

In the Liezi there are a couple stories about how people suffer from constricted viewpoints that generate delusional behaviour.
In one a fellow misses his axe and develops the idea that the neighbour boy stole it. He notes that when he looks and talks to the boy, the boy looks guilty. After a while, though, the fellow finds the axe on his property where he had been using it last. Later on, he sees the neighbour's boy and decides that he doesn't look guilty at all.

In the other, a fellow walking through the market sees a display by a jeweler who has an ingot of gold sitting on his table. The fellow impulsively snatches the ingot and runs away. The jeweler yells "thief" and he is quickly caught by the crowd and handed over to the police who take him to the magistrate. The judge asks him why he would try to steal something so brazenly in the middle of crowded market. Didn't he see all the people around him who would grab him if he took the gold? The response by the thief is that all he could see was the gold.

This is a problem that happens to us all the time. We look at a situation and refuse to see what is right in front of us. Instead, we start off with a narrative and selectively seek out information that reinforces that original story and ignore anything that that doesn't fit.  The boy looks guilty, the gold will make my life better---.


Yesterday I watched a press conference by Hillary Clinton and saw a side of her that impressed me. She seemed to me to be a politician who are seriously concerned about how to make America a better place. What I found quite interesting was towards the end of the event. A reporter asked her to relate a specifically formative conversation that she had had with a black person. She fumbled greatly to come up with an anecdote and instead spent her time listing off all the great black friends she has and has had in her life. Eventually, she said that she just couldn't think of any incident that she'd like to share with the press. Another reporter then asked her to reassure people that she just wouldn't take Latino voters for granted. How would she make sure that she actually did some of the things that she promised to do? Hillary fumbled a bit to show the steps she'd take.  This is a difficult question for a presidential candidate to answer, as it is very hard to do much if Congress refuses to help any initiative---but I think she did a good job.

But at the end, she kinda answered the previous question. She mentioned that when she was twelve years old she volunteered in her church to do baby sitting for migrant farm workers. That's an interesting story that answers something that I want to know about a politician. I want to know that someone comes from a background that included doing this sort of "hands on" stuff for the greater good. I don't need Hillary to be a gushing bag of emotions---in fact I'd like her to be a hard-nosed politician who is also a policy wonk. But underneath all of that, I want a genuine human being who genuinely seems to care. And, to be honest, it seems more genuine to me if someone finds it hard to expose that part of themselves in a public setting. Really deep emotions are privately held.

I made a comment on the original news site to the effect that Clinton had totally "nailed" this news conference. I expected some negative comments, but I was saddened to see what really amounted to a "pile on" of Hillary haters. I just don't understand where this is coming from. Of course, she did a bit of prevaricating, that's what politicians do when reporters ask "gotcha questions" and they know that the viewing audience adamantly refuses to understand how hard it is to shepherd real change through the American maze of checks and balances. But all politicians do this sort of dance, and, usually a lot more glibly. I can't help but wonder if she really is being held to a much higher standard than other politicians. Maybe this is because she was the wife of another President, or, maybe it's because she's a woman. I suspect a bit of both mixed together.

She often gets tarred with the brush of having supported her husbands social policies that led to things like the dramatic reduction in welfare support. She's also attacked for supporting "tough on crime" legislation from her husband. She's also attacked for initially supporting the TPP treaty. But the thing to remember about these is that she never actually initiated these programs, instead, she was supporting someone else's ideas. And I know enough couples to realize that just because people are married, or, work as Secretary of State for another, doesn't mean that they hold exactly the same values and world view. Could it be possible that Hillary has different ideas from Bill on things like welfare reform and criminal justice?  Could it be that her understanding of these complex issues has evolved since she was the First Lady? As for the TPP, she is a lawyer and lawyers are trained to not state their own beliefs, but rather to advocate for the worldview of their client. As Secretary of State for Barack Obama---who most certainly does support the TPP---it was her job to promote his policy, not hers.

I have to ask, why are people so angry with her about things like this? What do people think, that every woman has her independent will sucked out of her whenever they get married or take a job? Or do they believe that anyone who makes a compromise in order to make a relationship or job work is some sort of vile "sell out"? If you can believe that, I would suggest that you spend a long time looking at the mirror, because you are far more deluded than the folks in Liezi's stories.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black Lives Matter, Policing, and, Street Level Politics

I'm like an old war horse. When I hear the trumpet calling "charge", I want to rush off into action. This means that with all the demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter a big part of me wants to help out. But I'm old, I have responsibilities, and, I no longer have the time to do that sort of thing. What I can do, however, is write and I have a gift for explaining complex issues in a way that most people can understand. So what follows is my little attempt to explain what is happening between black folks and the police in the USA. I know, I'm not black and don't live in the USA, so if anyone thinks that I am getting things totally wrong, feel free to comment to that affect. I actually do read and think about any constructive criticism I receive. If you just want to call me names, don't bother. I just delete that sort of thing. If you believe that what follows has merit, please send links out on social media to others. I'm trying to cut through the fog that dominates this issue and it doesn't do any good if no one knows about it.


One of the memes that comes out in discussions is that people have to be "compliant" when they are stopped by police. Actually, there is a lot to be said for this point of view.

But having said that, there are also important caveats that need to be pointed out.

First, it is sometimes said that statistics point out that black citizens stopped by police are not killed in any larger percentages than white people. But it needs to be remembered that blacks are stopped in much, much, much greater numbers---in many communities, but not all---than whites. Moreover, studies indicate that when blacks are stopped by police in those areas the odds are much higher that the whites being stopped will have some sort of major criminal problem. This clearly indicates that different criteria---based on race---are being used by officers when they decide to stop cars. (Take a look at this Vox article, it deals with some of these statistical issues.)

Now it would be easy to stop at this point and say that this is evidence that most police officers have an unconscious or conscious bias against black people and stop there. But it's important not to jump to conclusions. It is well known that lots of small jurisdictions in the US run their police departments as revenue generation machines. Travelers from Canada often have stories about "speed traps" in small towns that are obviously designed to fleece people traveling through. As well, it is also well known that if you have a large amount of cash money on hand police will often just take it because of civil forfeiture "laws".

But fewer people know about the way some communities use municipal bylaws to fund their police departments. Just think about this for a moment. My home town spends about half of its total tax revenue on policing. For a police department to actually break even---let alone make a profit---it must be running its department in a radically different way.

They do this by taking something that is supposed to be about changing people's behaviours---fines---and making it into a "gotcha" that allows them to shake down people for doing things that almost everyone does. Recently people have been riveted by the horrific video that Philando Castile's partner took of him being shot and bleeding out in his car. (I'm not going to post that video, as I don't want to watch a woman document her partner bleeding out again.) What many people don't know is that Mr. Castile had been stopped 52 times over the past few years for various minor infractions.  A full 50% of those tickets had been tossed by judges, but still the remainder of fines probably represented a significant fraction of his disposable income. This problem has been very well documented by researchers in St. Louis Missouri.

Now, consider the fact that Castile had been able to "beat" 50% of those tickets. Everything I've read about this man seems to indicate that he was very intelligent, had a pretty good job, and, excellent interpersonal skills. These are very important assets if you are wanting to fight against an unfair ticket. America is far from a meritocracy, but as a general rule, people who are born poor, become poor, and, remain poor, tend to not have these qualities. Obviously, they don't have a good job. Intelligence is basically innate, but it can be damaged by lack of opportunity---such as an education. And in the US, there are HUGE differences in quality of public schools depending on what neighbourhood you live in. Mr. Castile had big advantages over lots of other people, which is why he was able to "beat" so many tickets. What would have the impact of those tickets have been if he lacked the skills necessary to get out of paying half of them? Wouldn't this have been the equivalent of the police putting boot on his neck and forcing his face into the dirt?

It's also very important to understand that interpersonal skills can be very different depending on what milieu you are used to. I read a book titled Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America  about murder in the rough parts of LA. The author made the startling disclosure that in the LA police department being a homicide detective is considered a low-prestige job. Police officers believe that the real job is in "crime prevention", which involves driving around, identifying "bad guys", and, keeping them from doing anything wrong. There are no "beat cops" in South LA, just macho guys riding around in cars who "hassle" people who seem to be "up to no good". As a result, you have this awful situation where most young men have been pushed around for just being "young men" and the rest of the population that have almost no interaction with police officers and know that if something bad happens, the police are not going to put any real resources into finding out who caused the problem.

This means that even though South LA feels like it is under the thumb of an "occupying army" of police, it is actually under-policed. This means that people feel that they have no recourse but to "take matters into their own hands" if they are going to not end up being considered "easy pickings". This is a prescription to teach people to massively retaliate to perceived slights.  This maximizes the number of violent interactions between people. People who have never lived in "under policed" areas have a hard time understanding this, as we know that all you have to do to deal with a problem is dial "911" and within 15 minutes or so, help will be on the way. If you know that that isn't going to happen, you are left to your own devices.

A lot of people won't understand how this operates, so I'm going to spell out with an example that was related from a Justice of the Peace to a friend of mine. People who sell drugs are totally "under policed" because they have no recourse at all to the courts system. A fellow had fronted some drugs to another guy, who failed to bring in money for the drugs at an agreed upon time. Since the first fellow couldn't sue the second one for breach of contract, he had no recourse other than violence to force compliance. Even worse, if word got out that he was an "easy mark", he would probably have other people trying to rip him off. As a result, he felt obligated to do something to harm the fellow who hadn't brought in the money. So he stabbed the guy in the leg in order to "get the message across". He clearly thought that this would just hurt a lot without being life threatening. But instead, he severed a main artery and the guy bled out. So as a result of being in a business that is "under policed" he ended up being charged with murder with the result of losing the next 20 or so odd years of his life to prison.

I'm sure that lots of people will think "so just don't sell drugs", but in many communities this is simply the only way a person can make any money at all. (This is part of the reason why the war on drugs is such a terrible idea.) But even if you totally choose to avoid criminality, in a lot of "sketchy places" it is pretty darn hard to go through life without learning how to push back pretty hard. If you don't, the word gets out that you are weak and that makes you "easy pickings". In those places, you learn that aggression is the only way to protect yourself.

The above is an example of what you have to learn to do if you are going to survive in some areas of the world---including many parts of the USA. Teaching people to "always be compliant" isn't really a smart life strategy in many cases. Unfortunately, "you play the way you train", and if your experience is that you have to protect yourself your instincts are going to react the same way when you are being menaced by a thug with a uniform and a badge. Just by way of a bookend, take a look at what sort of thing happens if people are too passive and refuse to get aggressive.

I kept hoping that someone who wasn't "compliant" would get involved and kick that man's ass. But if you teach everyone to be compliant and non-aggressive all the time, this is what happens. Again, you can't just turn your response to injustice on and off. If you live your life caring about right and wrong, you simply cannot turn it off when the person doing wrong is wearing a badge and a gun.

The above, very funny Chris Rock video recommends that people "shut the fuck up" and "be polite" if they want to avoid a police beating. But people's anger has to be put into a context. If you have repeatedly been "shaken down" by the police, have no ability to defend yourself in a court setting, and, have learned through life experience that "compliance" in most settings makes things escalate, you are going be at risk of "losing it" and mouthing off to the police.

A second point that needs to be considered is that all those municipal fines have consequence. If you cannot pay them because you are very poor, you can end up in jail. And, if you are in jail, you usually lose your job. And, to a large extend---in many places---having a criminal record will ruin your life. Many jurisdictions will not allow people who have served time to vote or access benefits like subsidized housing or even welfare. It is a lot harder to get work too. As a result, many people try to avoid the whole legal process---which means that they get served with a warrant. Remember Chris Rock suggesting you ask all your friends if they have a warrant issued against them? In some neighbourhoods this can be a very large percentage of the population---mostly for very minor municipal offenses. A police stop can totally trash your life---is it really surprising that some people "explode" at a "routine police stop"?

Now let's add a little cherry to the top of this "shit sundae". Do you think that the police are encouraged to go after wealthy, white people for petty revenue generating reasons? Not likely. It can be a "career limiting move" to ticket an "important person". Even if you did, these people hire lawyers and they take issues to court instead of just meekly paying the fine. Court time costs money, and even if you win the case, the revenue from the fine is not going to pay for the cost of bringing in a police officer, paying for the judge, bailiff, prosecutor, etc. What this means is that the police are going to be encouraged to only go after poor people. And for various reasons that usually means black people. So blacks are pretty darn sure that there is a racial component to the way policing is done in large parts of the USA.


Having written all of the above, let's look at things from the point of view of police.

You don't even have to be working for one of those services that are systematically jerking around the citizenry to routinely come across people who have been primed to absolutely loathe police officers. This is because policing in the US is decentralized in a way that no other country in the world would allow. Each tiny little town or municipality has its own police force. This happened, bye and large, because of slavery and Jim Crow. Because of slavery, the racist slave states were absolutely adamant about decentralizing as much power as possible to the lowest level possible. This is generally described as "state's rights". They wanted this to prevent the more powerful North from forcing them to treat black people like human beings. Moreover, after the Second World war large cities began to desegregate, which meant that huge numbers of whites moved from large cities to small municipalities where they would still dominate local government and be able to preserve their "right" to treat black people like shit. Of course, you can't really treat blacks like crap unless you control the police force---which is why policing was never amalgamated, like it has been in Canada. This means that you can drive a couple miles from one area with a fairly progressive police force to one that is little more than an occupying army keeping the "coloureds" under control.

Now let's add some gasoline to this slowly smoldering fire. The gun lobby in the USA has been progressively stripping-away every last vestige of gun control legislation. This means that in many parts of the country it is tremendously easy to legally purchase and carry fire arms. "Conceal carry" permits are literally easier to get in many states than a driver's license. As well, many states have laws that allow anyone to carry around a long gun or pistol as long as it isn't hidden.

So a police officer may or may not be in the process of shaking down a marginalized "under class", but he wears a uniform and people who are oppressed rarely make such fine distinctions. So that means that no matter what, a significant fraction of the public that they have to deal with ABSOLUTELY HATE POLICE. Add to that the fact that there is a very good chance that those people may have a military grade weapon at their disposal.

Now, let's look at the internal dynamics of the police. Most police are just "regular folks" who are trying to get by in one of the few working class jobs that actually pays something like a good wage. That means that they try to keep their heads down and avoid "making waves". As one ex-officer puts it,
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
This shouldn't be all that surprising. Only a small percentage of people in the general population make any effort to think for themselves or show any initiative. Mostly, they just follow other people's lead. This is what causes the phenomenon known as the "unresponsive bystander".

In most occupations, this is no big deal. But the problem with police is that they hold a monopoly of force in society. Moreover, the legal system is set up to give preferential weight to the testimony of police officers. This means that when that 15 percent of bad officers get into trouble---and the other 70 percent back them up---the police can literally get away with murder. This has been going on for a very long time, as various investigations of police have shown over the years. But what has changed now is the proliferation of video evidence in the form of security and cell phone recordings, and, Social Media on the Internet to disseminate it all over the world. This is important because while in the past there were eye witnesses to various crimes, the courts automatically discounted any testimony that contradicted the police. Moreover, the "Lame-Stream Media" routinely refused to publish anything that contradicted the police narrative because crime reporters require access to the police to do their job. Anything that jeopardized that access would be avoided. But now there is an alternative to the crappy newspaper, radio or television news that fed people pablum. Now we have websites like "Democracy Now" and "The Young Turks" that will show you exactly what happened---because their reporters don't get any access to the police anyway and as a result have nothing to lose. As a result, a lot of people are really pissed off with the police now---even people who have never been shaken down by the cops. This is creating a lot of confrontation in society.


This isn't the first time that increased visibility has led to social unrest. I grew up in the 1960s and can remember a time when city after city would routinely explode into race riots all across the USA. I am of the opinion that a lot of this came from television coverage of the civil rights movement.

Society back then was facing an impasse over whether or not black people were going to get the real right to vote. The political parties originally refused to pass legislation that would give them this right for a very good reason---whichever party did so would suffer huge electoral consequences. Eventually, the Democratic Party did so, and its support totally collapsed in the Southern USA. This destroyed the old "New Deal" machine. The Republicans instituted a "Southern Strategy" which allowed them to vacuum-up all the racist voters and elect people like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and so on. Democrats became terrified of pushing too hard for helping out the poor and blacks because they don't want to see support for their party collapse like it did when LBJ brought in the Civil Rights Act.

Bill Clinton only brought the Democrats back to power through pushing left wing politics into what was called the "neo-liberal consensus". This is an idea that the role of government is quite limited and instead the free market---through things like deregulation and free trade agreements---should be allowed to govern most of human interactions. This is what led to NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagal, which in turn led to America losing huge numbers of good-paying manufacturing jobs and the 2008 crash. Clinton was not alone in shifting to the right, as the New Democratic Party in Canada also did so, as did Labour---under Tony Blair---in the United Kingdom. Because of this consensus, "taxes" became a dirty word and everywhere government was starved of funds, and, social and physical infrastructure was left to fall apart. (This is why so many of those municipalities have turned their police departments into revenue generation machines---their rich citizens refuse to pay more taxes, and, their poorer ones simply cannot.)

Clinton didn't sell this shift to the Democratic party as "capitulation" to Republican ideology (even though that's exactly what it was), but rather as "triangulation". That is to say, he was arguing that what he was doing was finding some common ground that would allow him to peel away part of the Republican base in order to get enough votes to win an election. This was based on the unspoken assumption that the Democratic base (blacks, progressives, etc) couldn't possible go towards the Republican party, so they could be totally ignored when it came to developing policy.

The problem with triangulation is that eventually progressive voters realised that they were being played for fools. There was no viable third party in the USA, so the only way they could show their anger with the Democrats adoption of the neo-liberal consensus and triangulation was to simply not bother to vote. This is why so many people argued that "there's no difference between the two, so I'm not bothering to vote". Of course, the problem with not voting is that it plays into the hands of the Republicans and allows them to win election after election. As a result, Republicans have been able to win both Congress and far too many state governments, which has resulted in regressive policies that have accelerated the stratification of wealth in society. Vote in the Republicans and you will get worse poverty than if you vote Democrat---although the difference can sometimes seem slight.

This association of Democrats with neo-liberalism and triangulation hasn't been helped by the rise of Hillary Clinton. While it is very important to remember that she isn't her husband, she still is associated in many people's minds with neo-liberalism. This is why progressives are so often grudging in her support. One hopeful sign seems to be that she is actually much more willing to listen to other people and change her policies as a result. More importantly, the surprisingly strong campaign of Bernie Sanders seems to be an object lesson to the Democratic party that if they stop trying to triangulate towards elements of the Republican voter base, they will be able to get huge numbers of progressive voters to come out to the polls. If the Democrats can increase the voter turnout, they can not only win but probably annihilate the Republican party.


I have focused on the politics of triangulation because the underlying causes that created the battle between blacks and police all come from economic policy. And that means you simply cannot fix the problem without getting progressive politicians elected into office. If you still have wild wealth stratification and penny-ante police forces in tiny little municipalities, you are going to have police forces that are out to extort poor people.  As a result, you are going to have a lot of people who hate the police. If you don't have decent gun laws, you are going to have police officers who are terrified of getting shot. As a result, they are going to continue to be trigger happy. This means that if people really want to stop this mayhem, they are going to have to vote the Republicans out of office and ensure that the Democrats they elect are really progressive, instead of Bill Clinton-style "New Democrats".

I think the Dallas police chief was getting at the need to get beyond the neo-liberal consensus and start instituting a new "New Deal" in American society when he said that America asks too much of the police. One of the saddest things about the sniper attacks on the Dallas police seems to be that it is probably one of the most progressive police departments in the country---probably one that has made the greatest strides towards dealing with the issues that Black Lives Matter has been bringing to people's attention. But, as many people over the years have said, "life ain't fair".

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Request for Some Feed Back: Daoism As A Practical Philosophy

It's been a while since I posted something on this blog. Instead, I've been working on a new book, which I've tentatively titled "Daoism as a Practical Philosophy". It's not a diary about my life, like this blog, but more of an introduction to the key elements of Daoism.

I'm not just writing for my own edification, as I will soon be retiring and I think it would be nice if I could augment my pension through a little extra income. To that end, I won't just be offering it for free like my other writing projects. I'm new to publishing, however, so I thought it might be a good idea to ask my readers what they think. I'm going to give a sample of the book plus a couple questions. I'd like responses, either in the comments on the blog or through direct email to "". 

My first question is "Do you think it would be a better idea to self-publish an ebook through SmashWords and an on-demand publisher like Lulu, or, should I try to find a press that would print and sell it for me?  If anyone reading this is associated with publishing and would like to talk to me about this, I would be open to any inquiries. 

My second question is "If you do think that I should self-publish as an  e-book, what do you think would be an fair price?" I'm not interested in giving it away for free, as I think that the subject is a lot more popular than my earlier book about environmental issues. But I really don't have a clue about what people think is a fair price anymore. 

So here's some of the work I've been doing already. It should give people an idea about what the book is about. 


Practical Philosophy

In modern times “philosophy” has become a purely academic pursuit. Professors at universities write papers for each other where they discuss very abstract concepts. I'm not going to say that this is a totally worthless pursuit, as some of the ideas that they develop end up becoming extremely important for science, literature, politics, and so on. Human society cannot evolve without creating new ways of thinking about the world, and to do this someone has to create new ways of looking at the world.

But philosophy used to also be about how ordinary people learned how to live a life of meaning and purpose. In the late Roman Empire there were schools of philosophy that helped people learn how to live better lives. The most famous were Stoicism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. Each of these were systemic ways of looking at and living in the world. They allowed followers to find meaning and coherence in turbulent times. Unfortunately, they were suppressed by the Christian church once it became the official---and exclusive---religion of the Roman Empire. Philosophy continued in academic settings, but it was never again allowed to escape into the lives of ordinary citizens.

At roughly the same time, philosophy also arose in India and China. India's most famous examples are Yoga and Buddhism. In China, some examples were Confucianism, Moism, Daoism, and Legalism. In India its practical philosophies became overlaid by religious thinking to the point where for most people their original teachings pretty much disappeared. In China this also happened to Daoism. Confucianism did the same as Western philosophy and disappeared into something of an Ivory Tower---but because China lacked universities, this tended to instead be the Imperial bureaucracy. Moism (a socialist/utilitarian/scientific worldview) was effectively exterminated after its followers lost a literal war with Legalism (at totalitarian worldview based on rigid rule of law.) Legalism's success at founding the first Chinese Empire proved a Pyrrhic victory, because it's extremely harsh treatment of ordinary people resulted in rebellions that quickly destroyed that dynasty and it's governing philosophy.

(Of course, this is all a grotesque over-simplification, but people have to start somewhere and this book is not an academic, historical treatise.)

OK. There was this thing in the past. Why should anyone care today?

When I was a child one of my teachers used to write sayings on the blackboard every morning. One that stuck out in my mind was “Be a live wire and you won't get stepped on!”. At the time, I thought that it meant that people shouldn't be afraid of standing up for their rights, asserting their interests, or, showing off their abilities. It struck me as an advertisement in favour of the value of being “pushy”. As a child, I thought that this was a bit odd, as my family had always taught me that that was being rude.

Why did that teacher write it on the black board?

Totally unconsciously, she was promoting a “practical philosophy”. In particular, she was promoting a sort of optimistic, liberal, 20th century view of “individual progress”. Contrast that with this similar piece of folk wisdom:  “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.” That is a Japanese proverb that seems to suggest that it is dangerous to be a “live wire”. Not only will being “live” not keep you from being “stepped on”---it will positively ensure that you will be.

Which one is right?

Well, that's an important question. One that requires the right answer because depending on how you choose, you will live your life in a particular way and suffer the consequences. The practical philosophies that I mentioned above---Greek, Indian, and, Chinese---are all coherent collections of ideas about how you should live your life. They all suggest that it is better to follow a internally consistent series of maxims instead of simply bouncing through life following whatever random ideas your culture (eg my elementary school teacher) chooses to insert into your consciousness. This book is an attempt to expose the reader to one of those schools of practical philosophy:  Daoism. My hope is that some of you will see the great wisdom that I have found that it brought to my life, and how it helps me navigate the day-to-day problems that I face.

And in the case of that woman in the classroom, a Daoist would probably have written “Be like water”. That is, find effective “work arounds” for problems instead of either fighting against them or just doing what everyone else does.


The Different Frames Used to Study Daoism

One of the problems I often see when looking at Daoism is the “frame” that people use to look at it. That is to say, people approach it from a specific viewpoint based on their particular interest or area of expertise. Unfortunately, these folks often have zero appreciatioin of people who come to the subject from a different point of view. The result is often like the parable of the blind men and the elephant:  everyone touches a very different part and comes up with very different ideas about the beast.

For example, people with personal experience as with an individual sect sometimes make very definitive statements about Daoism in general. This is because they don't know anything about other sects (and there are a great many), or, the consensus amongst the scholarly community about its history and literature.

Also, some academics who focus on the culture of Daoism believe that only someone who is fluent in Chinese and who has spent a long time assimilating into traditional Chinese culture can have any affinity to Daoism. Moreover, long study in Daoist Temples under Chinese Daoist masters is essential. Anyone who studies books in translation and follows specific disciplines is merely fooling themselves if they believe that they are really “Daoists”. The problem with this point of view is that it would seem to suggest that there is no objective “trans-cultural” core of Daoist philosophy or value in things like Daoist meditation techniques. It has mere aesthetic interest, but no more ultimate value than an ethnic cuisine or style of dress.

Other folks seem to see Daoism as primarily a mechanism for personal expression. One example of this are the folks who take it upon themselves to write “versions” of the Dao De Jing without educating themselves about the meaning of the original text. Another example are the guys who teach taijiquan as a “artistic dance” without trying to understand it as a martial art and holistic exercise system.

I don't really have much of a problem with any of these approaches as long as they aren't assumed to be the only one that has any legitimacy. Unfortunately, too many folks tend to assume that whoever isn't with them is---by definition---against them. I can see some merit in each of those frames. But in my own case I am approaching Daoism through the frame of philosophy. That is to say, I am looking for the ideas in the entire tradition that have merit and how I can apply them to my everyday life.


Hard Versus Soft, or, Keeping Your Spirit “Whole”

At one point in my taijiquan training I was taught how to take a punch. What I had to do was stand in a particular stance and another student hit me as hard as he could on the chest. If I flinched or tightened up the result was a horrible bruise that would last for weeks. But I learned that if I kept totally relaxed the force of the punch would flow through my rib cage, into my spine, and through my legs and feet into the floor. This isn't a metaphor. I could feel the force flow like an electric current through my body---leaving me totally unharmed.

The soft overcame the hard.

This wasn't the result of some occult power. It was just that the inherent resilience of my bodily structure is enough to avoid injury as long as I don't “freeze” it by tensing my muscles. It's exactly the same principle that a high school chemistry teacher shows when he dips a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen and the shatters it like glass by trying to bounce it off the floor.

Zhuangzi relates that Confucius was once watching a huge cataract:  “No tortoise, alligator, fish or turtle could swim there.” Yet he was surprised to see an old man swimming in the middle of the rapids. Thinking that he had fallen in, Confucius sent his disciples out along the river to try to save him. After a while, this fellow came out of the water on his own, which amazed the sage.
Confucious followed after the man and inquired of him, saying, 

“I thought you were a ghost, but when I looked more closely I saw that you are a man. May I ask if you have a special way for treading the water?
“No, I have no special way. I began with what was innate, grew up with my nature, and completed my destiny. I enter the very centre of the whirlpools and emerge as a companion of the torrent. I follow along with the way of the water and do not impose myself on it. That's how I do my treading.”
“What do you mean by 'began with what was innate, grew up with your nature, and completed your destiny'?” asked Confucious.
“I was born among these hills and feel secure among them---that's what's innate. I grew up in the water and feel secure in it---that's my nature. I do not know why I am like this, yet that's how I am---that's my destiny.”
(Zhuangzi, “Outer Chapters”, “Understanding Life”, Section Eight, Victor Mair trans.)
Instead of fighting against the current, the old man flowed with it. When the current pushed him away from his destination, he let himself go with it. When it pushed him towards it, he added a few strokes. Before long, he arrived where he wanted to go.

Being soft is not the same thing as being weak. Instead, it about being “non-resisting”.

And non-resisting is not about just deciding to be non-resistant. Tensing up before the fist hits you is not a voluntary response---it is instinctive. So being “soft” requires more than just a conscious decision, it requires a revolution in your being. Zhuangzi talks about this at length. He has Liezi (a master of the Dao) ask another sage (Director Yin) about what is required.
“The ultimate man can walk under water without drowning, can tread upon fire without feeling hot, and can soar above the myriad things without fear. May I ask how he achieves this?”
“It's because he guards the purity of his vital breath,” said Director Yin, “it's not a demonstration of his expertise or daring.
He goes on to give a revealing example.
“If a drunk falls from a carriage, even if it is going very fast, he will not die. His bones and joints are the same as those of other people, but the injuries he receives are different. It's because his spirit is whole. He was not aware of getting into the carriage, nor was he aware of falling out of it. Life and death, alarm and fear do not enter his breast. Therefore, he confronts things without apprehension. If someone who has gotten his wholeness from wine is like this, how much more so would one be who gets his wholeness from heaven! The sage hides within his heavenly qualities, thus nothing can harm him...”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Two, Mair trans)

Yet another example comes from a boatman.

Yen Yűan inquired of Confucius,saying,
”When I was crossing the gulf of Goblet Deep, the ferryman handled the boat like a spirit. I asked him about it, saying, 'Can handling a boat be learned?' 'Yes', said he, 'good swimmers can learn quickly. As for divers, they can handle a boat right away without ever having seen one.' I asked him why this was so, but he didn't tell me. I venture to ask what you think he meant.”
“A good swimmer can learn quickly because he forgets about the water,” said Confucius. “As for a diver being able to handle a boat right away without ever having seen one, it's because he regards the watery depths as if they were a mound and the capsizing of a boat as if it were the rolling back of a carriage. Capsizing and rolling back could unfold a myriad times before him without affecting his heart, so he is relaxed wherever he goes.”
Confucius then goes on and gives another example that stresses the importance of keeping your “spirit whole”

“He who competes for a piece of tile displays all of his skill;  he competes for a belt buckle gets nervous;  he who competes for gold gets flustered. His skill is still the same, but there is something that distracts him and causes him to focus on externals. Whoever focuses on externals will be clumsy inside.”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Three, Mair trans)
The archer who is competing for a prize is not afraid of drowning or getting nasty bruises. But his mind is distracted from the act of shooting his bow by considering what he would do with his prize. This is the point of the following apocryphal story:
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

Being “soft” instead of “hard” is a relatively easy concept to understand. But how one becomes truly “soft” is not. “Hardness” involves separating yourself from the universe (or Dao) around you. That punching exercise that I introduced this section was not called “taking a punch” in my school, but rather “exchanging energy”. It was not considered a skill that was to be developed to protect you in a fight, but a way of helping one another to develop a deeper understanding of the Dao.


So I'd like some help here on my book.  Should I try to sell it to a publisher? Or should I self-publish? And if I do self-publish, what do you think would be a fair price for an e-book?  Make a comment on the blog or email me at .  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Putting Yourself in Another's Skin, Empathy, and Art

I've been watching a lot of episodes of the television show "House" lately. I don't watch ordinary tv, just Netflix on my computer. And Netflix Canada just uploaded the entire series. So now I get to see what all the fuss about this very popular program is about. I admit, it is quite mesmerizing. I've been feeling guilty about all the time, but it occurred to me that watching the show isn't a complete waste. 

In the first season there is an on-going subplot involving a wealthy pharmaceutical magnate, Edward Vogler, who "gives" the hospital $100 million (actually, buys control of it) and ends up being chairman of the board of directors. I've sat on charity boards and I have to admit that this portrayal is probably the most dysfunctional depiction of a board chair I've ever seen. He steps in and starts micro-managing decisions by the CEO and bullies the members of the board---including ordering it to fire both individual doctors and any board member that opposes him. (I'm not going to suggest that this can't happen---some truly awful things happen on non-profit boards---but this was a HUGE divergence from how things are supposed to work.) 

One of the things that this monster does is tell Dr. House that at a medical conference he has to flog some new drug that Vogler has recently put on the market. Since House is considered one of the best diagnostic doctors in the world, this is a big deal. The problem is that the drug in question is simply a rehash of an older drug who's patent has expired. A much cheaper---and equally effective---generic is available. If doctors prescribe this new product, they will be seriously harming poor patients without a drug plan and helping artificially jack-up the cost of health care in the USA (already much higher than anywhere else in the world, due to shenanigans like this.) 
House and Vogler
The problem is that Vogler has told House that if he doesn't give this speech he will have to fire one of the young doctors that make up his diagnostic team. This has nothing at all to do with money, as Vogler admits that he is doing this just to punish House and force him to learn how to do as he is told. (This is why a properly run non-profit board creates a fire-wall between the board and the CEO, who is supposed to make these sorts of decisions. This would make for bad drama, however, and, unfortunately isn't always the way things really work.)

House tries, but ultimately gags when he tries to make the speech as ordered, so he simply explains why the drug is a waste of money. Vogler freaks and orders the board to fire House. Since firing a tenured doctor requires a unanimous verdict, House's friend Wilson invokes a effective veto by refusing to vote for this. Vogler responds by ordering the Board to vote to have Wilson kicked off the Board. 

Drama ensues. And, as you might imagine, the character that the series is named after ends up victorious. Vogler leaves the hospital and takes his $100 million with him. 


Why am I making such a fuss about this tv show?

Actually I was so upset by this fictional arc that I found myself having to put the computer on hold and walk around my home until I had cooled off enough to watch the show without exploding.

What the heck is wrong with me? Am I so immature that I can't tell the difference between a story and real life?

I fussed about my behaviour for a while and then I thought, "let's stop being judgmental and look at my mental phenomenon objectively".  After all, I am both a philosopher and a Daoist. Both are supposed to look at the world as it really is and not beat ourselves up because it (including ourselves) aren't the way we think we "should" be.


Let's start by looking at the following YouTube clip from the classic movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird". 

There are two important points here. First Atticus tells Scout about the importance of "considering things from someone else's point of view" or to "climb inside another's skin and walk around in it". (The second, where he talks about the value of compromise which he calls "an agreement reached by mutual consent" but which Scout defines as "bending the law", is also very important---but not relevant to this discussion.)  Like a lot of things in this movie, it appears to be a heartwarming simple father/daughter conversation, but it actually deals with some pretty complex issues. 

What exactly does it mean to "consider things from another's point of view" or "walk in someone else's skin"?

It seems to me that what it is about is using our imagination to try to identify those elements of a person's life that are similar and different to our own, put them together, and create a holistic vision of the motivations behind another person's behaviour. This requires, amongst other things, an attempt to stop thinking about how that person's behaviour affects your life and instead to consider how those actions exclusively affect the other person.  Another way of saying this is to treat other people as "subjects" instead of "objects".


This is not a trivial thing to do, as the show "House" neatly identifies.

One of the people on House's team is a brilliant young immunologist by the name of "Allison Cameron". Her character is motivated by an extreme sense of personal empathy towards others---to the point where she married a man dying of cancer while in med school. House misses no chance to tell her that this is a profoundly dysfunctional attitude for a doctor to have. It not only will create chaos in her personal life, but it will make her a worse doctor because her extreme empathy with patients will prevent her from objectively assessing their maladies. This is obviously true in the series, as whenever she has a patient with a terminal illness her response is to frantically try to find some other---treatable---cause for the symptoms instead of accepting the patient's death.
Allison Cameron from "House"
In the middle of the House/Vogler battle, however, a strange thing happens. Even though she has a very strong crush on House and sees him as some sort of "saviour doctor", she is very hurt by the fact that House refuses to "knuckle under" in order to save her job. (House has to fire one of his doctors and she takes the choice away from him by resigning.) As she resigns she complains that House really doesn't care about anyone else. He only saves his patients as a byproduct of his drive to always be "right".

What is surprising about this is the fact that from an outside perspective House is being extremely altruistic by refusing to "go along" with the insane drug industry system that is causing immense misery to poor people all over the USA. Cameron is very empathetic, but she has a failure in her inability to extend it beyond the person right in front of her to a person she's never met. This is a profound problem in our society because so many people "personalize" issues and cannot get emotionally engaged with issues on a theoretical level. House can, and that is one of the things that sets him apart from other people in the show and makes him seem so bizarre. (More on this specific issue in one of my old blog posts: "The Button Problem".)


OK, what does this have to do with my agitation about watching a mere television show?

Years ago I had a boss at a janitorial job who really liked to hear himself talk. One day he was blathering on about being in India with some friends who are really freaked out by a beggar who had no legs and was going around on a little cart asking for alms. He said he was dumbfounded by his friends who acted like they were afraid of him. He said he couldn't figure out the attitude. At this
This is an actor, I think, but this is what my boss was talking about.
point I offered an opinion that went something to the effect that "Perhaps his existence scared them because he popped the illusion that life is fair or that really, really bad stuff cannot happen to them. He is, after all, a living embodiment of how grotesquely fucked up their lives could potentially become---." My boss's jaw literally dropped. He thought for a while and said "Hey, you might have something there."

The important issue I am talking about is imagination. You cannot "put yourself in another's skin" without have a powerful imagination. And some people have a lot stronger imagination than others. I don't know how much it plays into people's intelligence, but it must have an awful lot to do with it.
Any sort of problem solver needs to be able to consider a lot of different things. Of course they also have to be able to discard most of them and decide which most effectively explains the facts, but there have to be ideas in the first place.

The value of good art---like the television show "House"---is that it allows people to get "into" the heads of other people and imagine what it must be like. This gives them the opportunity to "try out" that other perspective. I'll never be a doctor dealing with life and death issues, but watching how Gregory House and his colleagues work through these issues gives me an opportunity to work through a lot of different complex issues.


Jean Buridan
But why do I have to be so emotionally caught up in this story? Contrary to what a lot of our society tells us, emotions are an integral part of the thinking process. This is explained by the following thought experiment. Consider an intelligent donkey that is placed an absolutely equal distance between two absolutely equal piles of hay. Which one does it go towards? If there is absolutely no difference between the two, then there can be no rational reason for it to go from one to another. Yet it still chooses. How?

This is a teaching story is attributed to the medieval philosopher and physicist Jean Buridan. Actually, more than anything else, it's value resides in reminding people of the common experience of being "on the horns of a dilemma". This is the situation all people find themselves in at one time or another where they see two different options that seem to have equal value and so cannot make up our minds which way to go. Generally, what people have to do is "go with their gut instinct" and accept the consequences.

It could be argued that this decision isn't an "emotion" but some sort of random decision-making feature of the brain (sort of like flipping a coin.) But if so, I would argue that it must be somewhat related---even if only in function. That's because from self-observation my emotions seem to be very tightly connected to what motivates me to perform actions in life. I get very upset about the death of nature, so I've devoted huge swathes of my life to environmental activism. Similarly, when I proposed to my dear, sweet, lovely wife there was no conscious volition on my part. I simply asked her totally without premeditation. I suspect her response was similarly emotionally driven, as without hesitation she said yes.


Once we accept that emotions are part of a decision-making process, then I think I've explained why I had to stop the action and walk around the house for a while before I resumed watching the television show. The exercise of watching a good drama is about becoming engaged with the fictional character, or, as Atticus Finch says, "putting yourself in another's skin". And when I do that, I activate the emotions that come from the situation he finds himself in. The result is nervous energy that threatens to overwhelm my self-control. So instead of "losing it" and throwing something at my computer monitor, I put the show on pause and make a pot of tea.

Why do people do this sort of thing to themselves? Is it pleasurable? Not really. It made me feel so uncomfortable that I am writing a blog post about it. But obviously there is something to it, or else people like me wouldn't give Netflix money to serve this stuff up to us.

I would argue that it is because it serves a useful social purpose in that it allows us a safe, convenient way to exercise empathy towards people we have never met in situations we will probably never experience. This is tremendously important to the human race because it allows us to work through very important problems. In the episodes I referred to, many serious issues were raised.  For example, here are two: "How much power should a boss have over our behaviour?", and, "How do we balance conflicting demands between people we've never met versus those of us we see right in front of us?"

This is exactly the same sort of thing that all creatures indulge in as preparation for life. For example, look at the following YouTube clip of a snow leopard kitten playing with its mother. It's very obvious that it's play is preparation for hunting.

In much the same way, when people watch drama, read novels, etc, we are working through the complexities of social interactions. This is tremendously important to humanity, because our "evolutionary advantage" isn't thick fur or claws, like the snow leopard. Instead, it's our ability to create complex social communities. Humans have a very rare, but enormous useful evolutionary strategy:  Eusociality. That is what scientists call the ability of animals to work together in large colonies. Examples include ants, termites, bees, naked mole rats, people, and very few other animals. And I would argue that the human interest in drama is directly connected to it. That's why I get upset when I watch "House"---I'm learning how to think about some of the complex issues that face the human hive.