Wednesday, March 13, 2013

(bullet points)

(from richard degen's tao te ching intro)

this book might best be viewed as an overhaul manual for troubled minds:

* minds that are in an unrelenting battle with either nature, their culture, their surroundings or the people they must deal with each day;

* minds that cannot understand why aggressive, take-no-prisoners behavior has not yielded better results;

* minds that have not comprehended how our daily, repeated acts of selfishness deny us the ability to enjoy our lives;

* minds that cannot trace the link between meaningless activity and lack of serenity;

* minds that search for values but only find rules dispensed by spiritual leaders who profess to know the means of attaining happiness in the next life but leave their adherents bewildered as to how to face the realities of this life;

* minds disturbed by philosophers and moralists who have made a shambles of their disciplines by drawing finer and finer distinctions over issues of less and less relevancy.


before examing taoism in detail, consider first what it has to offer:

* living easily and comfortably in the world is still possible in spite of your daily commute, creditors, the need to make a living, corruption on all fronts and the worries that loved ones invariably cause;

* there is an ancient system that advises how to flow with events rather than fight them;

* this system has proven itself to the extent that billions of people over the course of more than two millennia have practiced it, because it accords with the way humans want to be treated and the way they want to feel about themselves;

* it is free of all ritual;

* there are no requirements for repetitive mental or physical exercises;

* it is based on the lessons of everyday experience rather than theory;

* it does not require the possession of unusual intelligence or an advanced education;

* it is capable of comprehension even though it originated in a foreign culture, and there is no need to learn a second language;

* it is most effective when you most need it.

but where there are benefits, there are also costs:

* without access to the proper text, literature on the subject can take years to decipher (thus the reason for this book);

* the system is not as well known in the west as it should be, consequently there are few people who can assist you or who will be available for the sharing of ideas;

* it requires the exercise of certain virtues (not necessarily the ones you encountered in elementary school), and hence the application of self-discipline;

* one of the virtues is the abandonment of attempts to control and dominate things, and loss of control is something people instinctively fear and avoid;

* it will not let you blame others for your problems, and thus puts itself at odds with many mental health systems and programs;

* inappropriate behavior is not excused or ignored just because it is deemed routine or necessary within your family, organization, or career field;

* it can be difficult to practice until you are willing to trust it, and trust comes slowly;

* because of the foregoing, it is not going to usher in a new age, and society will not be reformed.


attributes of taoism

it is most helpful, when encountering a new wisdom tradition, to have access to a summary of its most important principles or characteristics.  for taoism the list includes:

* possession of a sense of wonder;

* an appreciation of the way nature operates;

* humility as to what can be known and transmitted;

* acknowledgements of the limits of language;

* yielding;

* patience, non-interference, and restraint;

* detachment;

* caring;

* avoidance of the need for recognition;

* action without action;

* elimination of cravings;

* dwelling in the present moment.


east vs. west

while characteristics I assign to the east or west are certainly not unknown to the other, and speaking in generalities is an invitation to criticism, differences in kind or degree do exist in spite of much that is shared.  in studying the tao te ching, you will immediately notice thought patterns that are not a common part of the western approach to life:

* eastern wisdom traditions tend to view a thing as part of a cycle, thus the study of cycles and the placement of each phenomenon within the correct cycle are considered fundamental to understanding.  western cultures tend to see processes as heading in a generally linear path toward a final resolution.


finding opportunity in every moment

you will recall that one of the listed attributes of taoism was "dwelling in the present moment."  that practice makes possible what can be called "finding opportunity every moment."  the yin/yang-conscious chinese of the tao te ching would have attributed the finding of opportunity every moment to the power inherent in those who follow the way.  more specifically, however, they would have attributed the finding of opportunity every moment to the ability of a fit person to flow with the movement and unveiling of the way through the positive/negative, good/bad, no action/action, being/nonbeing continuous interchange to which the things of the world are subject.  for instance, the chinese image for "crisis" combines the characters that represent danger and opportunity.  we are to understand from this that when an unwelcome event occurs you will be presented with the choice of taking one of two paths: the first will bring protracted harm or injury; the second will lead to an unexpected benefit or a new advantage.

in modern western terms we might rephrase the yin/yang concept as follows: nature is astonishingly complex- much more complex than previous generations could have imagined.  hence, no circumstance is presented as either wholly beneficial or wholly detrimental, but rather as a melding of the two.  the result is that, with the correct attitude, it is possible to consciously extract from each moment that which is beneficial, and then carom, or daisy-chain that opportunity to the next, moment-by-moment.

you can witness to your own satisfaction the finding of opportunity every moment.  simply note everything that bothers you in a given time frame.  as each incident arises, stop and ask yourself: what is the upside?  what would have been the result if this issue had not arisen and I had not learned from it?  what would have been the result if this problem had not allowed me to see the benefit that lay hidden within it?

of course, constant changing of direction means there will be no predictability, but change is going to occur whether welcomed or not.  science has shown that not a single complex system permits long-term predictability, no matter what efforts are undertaken to monitor such a system.

the reason for this phenomenon is that, in such a non-linear system, an indeterminate number of inconceivably small effects may produce an indeterminate number of greater effects, and this cycle may be repeated an indeterminate number of times, making it impossible to forecast a likely result.  to further compound matters, we live in not one, but a web of complex systems, each impacting the rest.  thus, the flapping of a butterfly's wings in south america can be insignificant, or the trigger that causes a tornado in oklahoma.

your own experience confirms this lack of predictability: an inappropriate word, a chance meeting, a glance, a momentary lapse of concentration can all spell a different future for you and possibly many others.

since unpredictability is a fact of life, the challenge that taoism so successfully meets is to tell us how to deal with it to our advantage so as to make unpredictability an opportunity and not a liability.  in short, it raises the concepts of flexibility and spontaneity to a new level.