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.