Category: Tao

NOT WHAT SHOULD BE, BUT WHAT IS!

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WU WEI

At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world.

To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system.

People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness.

But, as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT, penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone, by law, to be superficially “good and healthy” are creating more problems than they solve.

We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away – from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself.

Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves- that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated. Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.”

This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.

In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang-tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of “going with the grain.” The point is therefore that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.

Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.

In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland.

Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other.

When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes. The male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male. Thus Lao-tzu says:

Knowing the male but keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.

The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male and the affectedly flimsy female. The key to the relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:

When everyone knows beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness,
there is already evil.

“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited;
Before and after are in mutual sequence.

They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet, or pulse and interval in any vibration. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting.

It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the permanent universe. We do not easily grasp the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from non-being as sound from silence and light from space.

Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

This space is not “just nothing” as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch Hui-neng, writing eleven centuries after Lao-tzu:

The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this.

Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary.

Alan Watts.

DREAMS OF FLYING

I have recently been reading a most enjoyable novel called The Dream Illuminati by Wayne Saalman (Falcon Press, Santa Monica, 1988). Mr. Saalman has found an epic theme – dreams of flight, and the achievement of flight.

Historically, dreams of flying appeared in the collective unconscious before the reality of flight existed in technology, and it seems plausible that if we understood our dreams better we would use our technology more wisely. Our machines manifest our dreams in matter crafted to coherence, and a psychoanalysis of our culture could easily derive from an examination of how we use science to materialize our fantasies and nightmares.

Mr. Saalman’s science-fantasy made me wonder: Why have we always dreamed of flying, and why have we built flying machines? This question seems “eminently” worth pondering in a world where 200,000,000 people pass through Kennedy International Airport every year, flying the Atlantic in one direction or the other.

To understand the profound, it often appears helpful to begin with clues that seem trivial. I suggest that we contemplate what our children look at every Saturday morning on TV. One of the most popular jokes in animated cartoons shows the protagonist walking off a cliff, without noticing what he has done. Sublimely ignorant, he continues to walk-on air-until he notices that he has been doing the impossible,” and then he falls. I doubt very much that there will be any reader of Magical Blend who has not seen that routine at least onec; most of us have seen it a few hundred times.

It might seem pretentious to see a Jungian archetype adumbrated in crude form in this Hollywood cliché, but follow me for a moment.

When Hollywood wishes to offer us the overtly mythic, it presents Superman, who can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound,” and a more recent hero named Luke Skywalker. Continue reading

VISION AND REFLECTION

There have always been two predominant and rival views of man and his position or predicament. Tough and tender-minded come to mind, as do cyclic and linear, hawk and dove. Blake saw our ambivalence in terms of biblical vision and Greek reflection. Reflection, relying on material things, ends in the dead inertia of the rock as the only real, the mind as the unreal. Vision is creative imagination using the eyes as windows to see with actively and not through passively.

Vision sees life as an “eternal existence in one divine man.” Reflection sees life as a series of cycles in nature. Northrop Frye says we vacillate our life away between the two notions, never fully conscious of either. Reflection is Blake’s Diabolos, the nihilistic impulse of self-doubt reminding us of our helpless frailty and increasing our dependence on the current priesthoods. If the fire-walker listened to this side of his nature, he would never walk fire. As Blake said, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would immediately go out.”

The victory of the cyclic theory becomes the view of a fallen, deadlocked world, a mechanical horror. In Eastern terms this world is a cosmic error to be overcome, from which to escape back into an undifferentiated continuum. In Western terms the universe is a monstrous necessity, grinding itself out in a great entropic road to folly and nothingness. Frye points out that we are incapable of accepting this view as objective fact. The moral and emotional implications of it become mental cancers breeding cynical indifference, short-range vision, selfish pursuit of expediency, and “all the other diseases of selfhood.”

Reflection inverts the “eternal mental life of God and Man, the Wheel of Life,” into a dead cycle. Wonder, joy, imagination, ecstasy, even love, are smugly diagnosed by these cyclic destroyers, who test the blood count, analyze the temperature, the oxygen content, the background of the subjects, and learnedly dismiss as aberrations the highest capacities life has yet produced. All free actions are held in ridicule, only reactions are left. The belly and groin are made supreme, the only point of realness, and the strings by which the vulture-priests think to make the Naked Ape dance to their grindings. But the ape is not controlled thereby, he merely goes mad and dies or destroys.

Saturation with images of violence creates violence, and saturation with ideologies of reflective thinking creates suicidal despair. We need an image, a mythos, representing a way upward and outward where creative longing can be released and not denied. But reflective thinking seizes the insight given by vision and turns it into a dogma that makes for reliably ineffective, lifeless supporters of the world, in that world and hopelessly of it.

The cyclic religious view loves to speak of “God’s plan” for mankind. We are a theatrical group, they say, our roles preordained according to some shadowy script. As free actors we do not follow the prescribed actions, as interpreted by the ruling hierarchy of those who know. Or there is “God’s great symphony” spread out for all to play, if we would just follow the notes properly and watch the beat of that great-baton-up-yonder, a pulse which synchronizes strangely with the heartbeat of the current powers that feast on fools.

Science has only a small shift to turn this preordaining god into an inflexible and other-to-us Nature, with all the universe laid out on a grand economy of laws. To discover these laws is the Promethean goal, the religious duty in new vestments. And cultures are crushed, the young gods are condemned to years of a madness-producing attempt at metanoia called education, and whole civilizations are whipped into line to serve the new god.

We are not involved with a preset script on a preset stage. We are a magnificent and terrible improvisation in which we must be spontaneous playwrights, actors, critics, and audiences. There is no orchestral score up there with every note assigned and waiting. We are, at best, an aleatoric performance. Cacophony and discord are inevitable, yet infinite combinations await us. We err and are bound to err in this open system, yet we are never bound to our errors, as an infinite ability to correct these errors is built in.

We long for an ultimate and our longing is itself the ultimate. Our need is the universal, that with which we satisfy is the particular and never sacrosanct. There is no absolute “out there” of logic, reason, love, goodness, or perfection. Nature is amoral, indifferent, operating by profusion. Needing these things we can only become them by boldly beholding them as our rightful due. Life creates myth and then strives to fill it by imitation.

Susanne Langer warned that our losses to science should not be taken lightly. And what we have lost is our psyche, our very soul. Mass psychosis, sickness of soul, is the price we are paying for letting a product become our absolute, letting a tool become master. The young rebel lashes out blindly at this living death to which he is condemned and which he must support, for which he must fight. The tragedy is that by the time he senses a deadly trap he has become, by the very process of reality formation, that against which he instinctively rebels. The only logical tools with which he can fight create the very situation he hates. As don Juan said, “When you find the path you are on has no heart, and try to leave that path, it is ready to kill you.” Very few men, he observed, can stop to deliberate at that point, and leave the path.

Any path we choose is arbitrary, but in our choice we shape the world as it is for us. Cohen felt that whatever reality is, we will never know it. I have claimed that reality is what we do know, that the world as it is for us is one we represent to ourselves for our own response. So it is with nature, God, “ultimate matter,” and so on. We can never get at these as such. Everything we say about them, our sciences, dogmas and creeds, are only representations we seem fated to make and to which we are fated to respond. God, as surely as “Nature,” is a concept shot through and through with the mind of man.

And yet, who for a minute believes that nature is only a projection of man’s mind? Nature is something of which I am a part, and which I must represent to myself. But it is also something which I am not. My thinking and that nature thought about create an event, but they are not identical. Man is not God or nature because he projects gods and natures for his life. Projection is not the whole mechanism even though it shapes the ground on which we stand. There is always more than this.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.

WHAT A WAY TO GO: LIFE AT THE END OF EMPIRE

CIRCLES & LINES

Reality is not a fixed entity. It is a contingent interlocking of moving events. And events do not just happen to us. We are an integral part of every event. We enter into the shape of events, even as we long for an absolute in which to rest. It may be just this longing for an absolute in which our concepts might not have to be responsible for our percepts, and so indirectly our reality, that explains the hostility of our ordinary intellect to these shadowy modes of mind.

Our inherited representation, our world view, is a language-made affair. It varies from culture to culture. Edward Sapir, the linguist, called this idea of ours that we adjust to reality without the use of language an illusion. He claimed that the “real world” is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group.

None of us exercises our logical, social thinking as a blank slate, or as a photographic plate, seeing what is “actually there.” We focus on the world through an esthetic prism from which we can never be free except by exchanging prisms. There is no pure looking with a naked, innocent eye. Even our most critical, analytical, scientific, or “detached” looking is a verification search, sifting through possibilities for a synthesis that will strengthen the hypotheses that generate the search.

Our world view is a cultural pattern that shapes our mind from birth. It happens to us as fate. We speak of a child becoming “reality-adjusted” as he responds and becomes a cooperating strand in the social web. We are shaped by this web; it determines the way we think, the way we see what we see. It is our pattern of representation and our response sustains the pattern.

Yet any world view is arbitrary to an indeterminable extent. This arbitrariness is difficult to recognize since our world to view is determined by our world view. To consider our world view arbitrary and flexible automatically places our world of reality in the same questionable position. And yet we are always changing this world view. We represent such changes as discoveries of absolutes in order to protect outselves from our arbitrary status, and to avoid the implication that human thinking is a creative process. We deny that disciplines of mind synthetically create; we insist we are but discovering “nature’s truths.” We possess an open-ended potential at considerable variance with contemporary nihilisms, but we must recognize and accept the dynamic interplay of representation-response if we are not to be acted on rather than fully acting.

It has been claimed that our minds screen out far more than we accept, else we would live in a world of chaos. Our screening process may be essential, but it is also arbitrary and changeable. We pick and choose, ignore or magnify, illuminate or dampen, expand upon or obscure, affirm or deny, as our inheritance, adopted discipline, or passionate pursuit dictate. At root is an esthetic response, and we invest our esthetic responses with sacred overtones.

Most people respond automatically to their given circle of representation, and strengthen it by their unconscious allegiance. Since their cultural circle is made of many conflicting drives for their allegiance, their lives are fragmented and ambiguous.

This centering of mind fills a person with power and conviction. It creates mathematicians, saints, or Nazis with equal and impartial ease.

We look on archetypal world views, those held by “primitive” tribes, and consider them archaic “survival” mechanisms. We have been taught that the real “out there” has been seen only dimly before, but with a progressively more realistic, aware, civilized eye, culminating in our viewpoint. (Alien world views can thus be exploited or even removed as threats to our true one, lending a religious sanctification to our culture destructions.)

Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, challenges our smug chauvinisms. He claims that archaic thought patterns were highly disciplined, intellectual structures, designed to give the world coherence, shape, and meaning. This is, in fact, just what all world views do. Primitive man “sacralized” his intellectual structure no more than we do ours. Neither system is any more true than the other. Ours is more esthetic-ally desirable to us, but is bought at the same price all selective systems are, the price of those possibilities sacrificed to keep a limited structure intact. The difference between Einstein’s relative universe and the Dream-Time cosmology of the Australian aborigine is not a matter of truth or falsehood, realism or illusion, progression or regression, intelligence or stupidity, as the naive realists have claimed. It is a matter of esthetic choice. Each system produces results unobtainable to the other; each is closed and exclusive.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.

STORIES OF YR LIFE AND OTHER

Tower of Babylon

“It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely. Did men truly choose the correct path when they opted to live their lives away from the soil from which they were shaped? Never has Yahweh said that the choice was proper.”

And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear at opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder. All the world was as such a cylinder. Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.

It was clear now why Yahweh had not struck down the tower, had not punished men for wishing to reach beyond the bounds set for them: for the longest journey would merely return them to the place whence they’d come. Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh’s work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed.  By this construction, Yahweh’s work was indicated, and Yahweh’s work was concealed.

Understand

No matter what I study, I can see patterns. I see the gestalt, the melody within the notes, in everything: mathematics and science, art and music, psychology and sociology. As I read the texts, I can think only that the authors are plodding along from one point to the next, groping for connections that they can’t see. They’re like a crowd of people unable to read music, peering at the score for a Bach sonata, trying to explain how one note leads to another.

As glorious as these patterns are, they also whet my appetite for more. There are other patterns waiting to be discovered, gestalts of another scale entirely. With respect to those, I’m blind myself; all my sonatas are just isolated data points by comparison. I have no idea what form such gestalts might assume, but that’ll come in time. I want to find them, and comprehend them. I want this more than anything I’ve ever wanted before.

I’ve gone into the outside world to reobserve society. The sign language of emotion I once knew has been replaced by a matrix of interrelated equations. Lines of force twist and elongate between people, objects, institutions, ideas. The individuals are tragically like marionettes, independently animate but bound by a web they choose not to see; they could resist if they wished, but so few of them do.

Story of Your Life

That day when Gary first explained Fermat’s principle to me, he had mentioned that almost every physical law could be stated as a variational principle. Yet when humans thought about physical laws, they preferred to work with them in their causal formulation. I could understand that: the physical attributes that humans found intuitive, like kinetic energy or acceleration, were all properties of an object at a given moment in time. And these were conducive to a chronological, causal interpretation of events: one moment growing out of another, causes and effects creating a chain reaction that grew from past to future.

In contrast, the physical attributes that the heptapods found intuitive, like “action” or those other things defined by integrals, were meaningful only over a period of time. And these were conducive to a teleological interpretation of events: by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied, a goal of minimizing or maximizing. And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated.

Ted Chiang, selected passages from Stories of Your Life and Others.