Saturday, April 22, 2017

What is a Hermit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sculpting Our Own Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dao, Dharma, Li, Culture, and, Eusociality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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