Self-will gets in the Way

“People often say, “We have goodwill.” Theirs is not God’s will, though; they want to have their own way and dictate to God to do so and so. That is not goodwill. We must find out from God what his will is. Broadly speaking, what God wills is that we should give up willing…

There is no making of a proper man without surrender of the will. In fact, unless we give up our will without reserve, we cannot work with God at all. But suppose it came about that we did give up our own will altogether and had the heart to rid ourselves of every single thing inside and out for God, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.  Of such people few are to be found. Knowingly or unknowingly they want something definite, some experience of higher things. They are set on this condition or that boon. It is nothing whatever but self-will. Abandon to God altogether your self and all things without any qualms as to what he will do with his own…

There is no true and perfect will until, entering wholly into God’s will, a man has no will of his own.”

Meister Eckhart

It’s been a long time since I read any of Eckhart, but I opened him today to this section and it reminded me immediately of my recent reading of Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing or Laozi:

An attitude [corresponding to] the capacity of the hollow is the only means to follow the Way.
Hollow means empty. Only having taken being empty as [one’s] capacity will one then be able to act in accordance with the Way.

That’s just one line, but if I quote more of it I’ll never get to bed tonight.  The Way is “empty” yet it guides and nourishes things according to their nature. For humans to return to the Way, we should likewise empty ourselves and be without contrived action; then we will act in accordance with our nature.

The difficulty of this is hard to overstate, but is most evident when, as Eckhart notes, we set ourselves on particular conditions, paying lip-service to the Way or the divine Will, whilst clinging nonetheless to our own will.

There needs to be an element of trust that in abandoning self-will and the outcomes or ideals we covet, we are in fact abandoning obstacles to the fulfillment of our nature.  Sometimes the goals we have in mind are simply wrong for us – they will not bring the satisfaction they seem to promise. But even when the goals are good, noble, and true, we still miss out on the higher goal of surrender.

I suspect this might be the meaning of “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Likewise “the man of highest virtue never acts, yet nothing is left undone.”

But that can mean embracing the reality of circumstances that seem to deny your deepest hopes and dreams; worse – it means dragging your deepest hopes and dreams into the light of a faith that will feel too cold and too harsh for the delicate fantasies of your self-will.

There are undoubtedly consolations to be had after the fact, but this is beside the point; the point is that no matter how good and alluring our dreams and desires may be, if we cannot abandon them for the sake of the divine will, the Way, then we are merely clinging to burdens of our own creation.

 

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Good Friday notes

One of the aspects of Chinese philosophy that appeals to me is the apparent intuitive grasp of theological themes made explicit centuries later in the events that form the heart of the Christian faith.  The Good Friday reading from Isaiah is likewise presented as a presaging of the messiah’s death and resurrection. This aspect of Chinese philosophy has not been well explored, though it appears in at least one book: Christ the Eternal Tao, written by a Russian Orthodox monk who was into Buddhism and Daoism before his conversion.

Personally, I appreciate being able to read these early Chinese texts as an intuitive attempt to depict the way of heaven, the Logos, without the more human, biographical aspects of biblical narrative and anthropomorphic interpretations of the divine.  Perhaps as an apophatic (negative) expression of theology, emphasising the darkness and mystery of God:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

– Yi Jing 15

The Yi Jing is an ancient book of wisdom and divination, dating anywhere from the 10th to the 4th centuries BC with commentaries added within the following few centuries.

The same theme emerges prominently in various passages of the Dao De Jing, a Daoist text dating to at least the 4th century BC:

Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it.

That the yielding conquers the resistant and the soft conquers the hard is a fact known by all men, yet utilized by none.

Yet it is in reference to this that the Sage said “Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.” Straight words seem crooked.

– Dao De Jing 78

 

Finally, the first reading on Good Friday came from the Book of Isaiah, the 8th century BC Hebrew Prophet:

See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.

As the crowd were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human – so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before…

Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him), no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him…

…we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed…

The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.

– Isaiah 52-53

 

 

 

The true men of old

For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.

[…]

4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

Give me the spurious ephedrine

When it comes to sickness I am a coward. I find the suffering associated with illness intolerable, not because of the discomfort and pain alone, but because the discomfort and pain have no meaning.

How do you find meaning in suffering? By alleviating it. Suffering is the bad guy. That’s why, when I caught the flu a few months back and discovered, Ye Gods, I must have never had the flu before, I turned in my hour of need to that angel of blissful sleep and sinus relief: pseudoephedrine.

So when I found myself succumbing this week to the familiar feeling of a dry, itchy nose and a tiny point of increasing pressure behind my eyes I knew exactly what I needed and went straight to the nearest pharmacy, where it turned out they won’t sell pseudoephedrine without a doctor’s script.

I wanted to say “well this will really set production back” but the pharmacist seemed a little on edge already, so I gave them my most understanding, flu-addled smile and left.

At the next nearest pharmacy I waited for 10 minutes while they checked my ID against the registry of pseudoephedrine offenders, and tried not to look suspicious. Pretty sure I failed, but they gave me the precious, precious medicine, and here I am today: conscious, competent, and relatively coherent having escaped the worst of whatever that bout of illness was.

I’ve got no problem with the pharmacies doing what they have to in order to control the flow of key ingredients to illegal drug manufacturers. I just slightly resent having to ask for this awesome, wonderful drug under the veil of suspicion. There’s no way to reassure a complete stranger that you aren’t sourcing ingredients for a meth lab. It probably helps if you’re clean-shaven, well dressed, and not completely over-thinking the whole situation.

Anyway, the beauty of pseudoephedrine is that it almost totally removes the pain and discomfort of flu-like symptoms – symptoms that otherwise might drive a person to try to scrub the insides of his upper sinuses with a bottle-brush, or stab himself in the Canthus with a chopstick.

But with a couple of pills the pain is gone and I just lie in bed waiting the rest of the illness out. So what’s the point? If I can avoid the pain and misery what’s the point of being sick in the first place? Avoiding the pain means ignoring the problem, but there’s still a problem there, and it’s one that people have faced in the past: trying to make sense of illnesses, both the deadly and the merely unpleasant.

I used to put some stock in the idea that illnesses had their origin in psychological states; that the long-term damage wrought by physically manifested negative mental states made us susceptible to various diseases and dysfunctions. But I never found a convincing systematic approach to it, and demonstrating it scientifically would be almost impossible. Nonetheless, there are studies showing, for example, that people who endure adverse events in childhood are significantly more likely to suffer chronic illness as adults.

I have no doubt that a great number of human beings are wracked with deeply-buried psychological distress and emotional turmoil, nor do I have trouble believing that there are clear biological mechanisms linking these subconscious psychosomatic states with increased risk of various illnesses. We are, after all, embodied beings with a rich and delicate interplay between psyche and soma.

In moments of clarity I can see the connection between my own chronic ailments and key stress events or problematic psychological states. It’s a link that many sufferers find meaningful even though the orthodox medical line is drawn at absence of evidence.

Hypervigilance and habitual physical tension go together hand in overly-tight-and-uncomfortably-stiff glove. And while I can’t afford a barrage of salivary cortisol tests, I’m willing to bet that the levels of stress hormone would be highly responsive to a tendency to catastrophise, within an overbearing sense of culpability for any and all future difficulties and challenges.

A serious illness has meaning – whether it be real or merely suspected, we can take it as symptomatic of a deeper need for change, a cue to examine our life more broadly. But a humble cold or flu? The ubiquitous runny nose and sore throat I get every winter when the room gets too cold and dry overnight? The miserable experience so easily moderated by controlled medications; what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?

Pretty much every traditional religious or spiritual discipline says we are living incorrectly in some way; that our original nature or harmony or grace or whatever has been thrown severely out of order, with both spiritual and physical sickness and misery ensuing. The common cold may not be a profound sickness, but it is still a reminder that things are not as they ought to be – or more to the point, that we are not as we ought to be.

As the Dao De Jing states: “The holy man is not sick. Because he is sick of sickness, therefore he is not sick.”

What do you live for?

mountain view

View from a mountain in Fuzhou, South East China.

I was thinking this would be my 101st blog post, but apparently that was the previous one…

Nevertheless, I’d like to take the opportunity presented by this 102nd blog post to thank everyone who has read, followed, or commented in the past three months.  Having a blog has changed my approach to writing, and it’s been gratifying to have such a positive response from readers internationally.

Like everything in my life at present the blog remains in a state of development with its ultimate end still unclear.  Like parenting, writing, studying, kung fu, music, and no doubt every long-term human endeavour, there are always new levels of challenge, refinement, and skill.  Sometimes it seems like we’re going in circles, or back to the start, and I’m pretty sure at times I’m just repeating mistakes I was too stupid to learn from the first few dozen times.

At other times I think the mistakes are there to keep us humble, to remind us how good it is to be able to enjoy a night’s sleep without your child waking up screaming and crying, or how nice it is to be able to speak without the pain from a sore throat you got after leaving the fan on all night when it wasn’t really that hot.  Or how refreshing it can be to just sit quietly in your living room without obsessively checking your email or compulsively refreshing your favourite websites; listen instead to the traffic go by and readjust to the subtler pace of non-virtual reality.

I think I might be a Quietist at heart; not the Christian heresy, but the philosophical approach:

Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to man’s confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.

In chapter 48 of the Dao De Jing (Legge translation):

He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Dao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing). He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.

The way I see it, we are all either adding to our troubles or subtracting from them.  Everything I’ve done since losing my job has aimed at letting that loss be a real benefit, the final step towards a freedom that I could not have justified under the financial imperative that drove me at that time.  Yet there is a risk of letting these new activities – especially blogging and writing – become a new form of enslavement, a mere continuation of the dysfunctional dynamic of employment albeit with no one to blame but myself.

Being free from a ‘bullshit job’ is a worthy goal when you are in the job.  But once you are free you need a new goal, one even more inspiring and worthwhile now that you have the freedom to pursue it.  As much as I’ve enjoyed writing about my freedom from employment, it’s not enough to keep me motivated.  And as a philosophically-minded person, a superficial goal will not suffice.  I may wish to one day buy a piece of land in the hills and build a house on it one day, but that’s not really a desire, that’s an eventuality.

You know that old line: do you live to work or work to live? I think the answer to that question is obvious. The next question is: what do you live for?  Taking my Quietist impulses seriously suggests that the answer to this question is, paradoxically, not an answer, but the state of quiet we arrive at only when we are utterly diminished; a freedom from disturbance or conflict, a stillness, a calm that is beyond our understanding.

The greatness of a goal is reflected in how insignificant all other worries and cares seem in comparison, just as the view from a mountain top makes everything else look small. In this state of quiet everything else does indeed seem small, and the question of ‘what to live for’ is put into perspective.  Whatever this quiet is, it has the feel of being ‘right’ and ‘real’ in a way that the ordinary messiness of daily life does not.  It transcends the more limited perspective of struggle and strive.  From it, we can enjoy a higher view of life.

 

The modesty of water

 

The Yi Jing or Classic of Change is an ancient Chinese divination manual that developed into a cosmological and philosophical classic.  In his book of collected essays ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘, the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans referred to it as “the most ancient, most holy (and most obscure), of all the Chinese classics”.

The text and it’s neo-Confucian commentary was translated into German by Richard Wilhelm in 1924, and from German into English by Cary Baynes in 1967.  The text is arranged in a series of hexagrams or sets of six lines, representing various permutations of Yin and Yang, the passive and active cosmological forces or metaphysical principles which are a common element in Chinese philosophy.

In simple terms, each hexagram is an image or symbol of an underlying pattern in reality.  Any situation or circumstance can be depicted or explained in terms of a hexagram.  While it might sound mysterious, it is in principle no different from the normal human behaviour of trying to read the ‘signs of the times’. For example, my present situation of being unemployed yet financially independent is very new to me.  There is a great deal of opportunity and potential, but it isn’t clear how best to proceed.
According to the Yi Jing, my present circumstances are like the hexagram Kan – the Abysmal.Kan is a pit or abyss, a dangerous situation, but it also denotes water, in particular the behaviour of water as it fills and then overflows and escapes an abyss.

Through repetition of danger we grow accustomed to it. Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances. It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions. Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation.

To me this suggests that because my circumstances are still ambiguous and unclear, the way head is simply to remain ‘true to myself’ and not shirk the dangers and difficulties that lie ahead. As the text continues, its relevance to my current circumstances becomes even clearer:

The abyss is dangerous.
One should strive to attain small things only.

When we are in danger we ought not to attempt to get out of it immediately, regardless of circumstances; at first we must content ourselves with not being overcome by it. We must calmly weigh the conditions of the time and be satisfied with small gains, because for the time being a great success cannot be attained. A spring flows only sparingly at first, and tarries for some time before it makes its way into the open.

This is excellent advice.  What bothers me most at this point is the thought that I ought to be striving to achieve something significant, to quickly move forward and develop my prospects easily and seamlessly.  Yet this would be to underestimate and overlook the dangers and difficulties I face. I should instead be content with gradual progress as I adjust to this new situation.

Forward and backward, abyss on abyss.
In danger like this, pause at first and wait,
Otherwise you will fall into a pit in the abyss.
Do not act this way.

Here every step, forward or backward, leads into danger. Escape is out of the question. Therefore we must not be misled into action, as a result of which we should only bog down deeper in the danger; disagreeable as it may be to remain in such a situation, we must wait until a way out shows itself.

This section reinforces the danger of any impertinent action and the need to wait for a way out to appear.

The abyss is not filled to overflowing,
It is filled only to the rim.
No blame.

Danger comes because one is too ambitious. In order to flow out of a ravine, water does not rise higher than the lowest point of the rim. So likewise a man when in danger has only to proceed along the line of least resistance; thus he reaches the goal. Great labors cannot be accomplished in such times; it is enough to get out of the danger.

As much as I would like to undertake ‘great labors’ in terms of building my writing career, furthering my PhD, and building our natural wealth, I am being too ambitious.  I should instead be satisfied that I am no longer in danger either from a soul-destroying employment, or from financial hardship.

Finally, the Hexagram Kan changes into the Hexagram Qian – modesty.  Such a change can indicate future developments, or deeper issues, but in this case it shows what follows naturally from behaving like water:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

The destinies of men are subject to immutable laws that must fulfill themselves. But man has it in his power to shape his fate, according as his behavior exposes him to the influence of benevolent or of destructive forces. When a man holds a high position and is nevertheless modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.

Modesty in practice and modesty in presentation are therefore the key to future prosperity.  Modesty is opposed to the ambition and striving warned against in the Kan hexagram.  While Kan is represented by the image of water, Qian is represented by the image of a mountain within the earth – something great and powerful yet nonetheless buried and hidden.

Together these results indicate that the correct response to my current circumstances is to put aside ambition and embrace modesty, remaining sincere throughout whatever difficulties and dangers we might face. In practical terms this modesty will emerge not only in the daily challenges of our household frugality, but also personally in resisting thoughts of ambition and striving which are out of place with our current circumstances.

After all, to strive for success at this point in time would have no natural connection to the genuine opportunities and advantages of our new circumstances.  How could success come from such an ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction?

The Dao of Parenting

A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.

The end of employment and a new path

Lately I’ve been considering the prospect of never being employed again. I don’t mean never working – I’m working more than I ever did as an employee.  But there’s a reasonable likelihood that I will never again need to don the clothes, the attitude, the soul-crushing alienation and the corresponding facade of a white-collar employee who sacrifices his freedom for the sake of a steady income.

The term ‘wage-slave’ is dramatic but fitting.  We live in an era where the average wage is far more than enough to meet one’s daily needs in terms of food and clothing, but nowhere near enough to afford the equally basic need of shelter – a piece of land and a roof over one’s head, a place to raise a family and explore the many and varied means of enriching one’s life.

In my city the median house price reportedly reached $400,000 this year, with the median household income (2011) at $57,356.  $57,000 can buy a hell of a lot of food, clothing, electricity, water, and transport.  But even if you spend the first few years of working life at home, sponging off your parents, at best you’ll only come out of it with a healthy deposit for your imminent mortgage.

The idea of going to live far from the city in some kind of self-sufficient paradise is equal parts dream and nightmare depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment.  But in principle we shouldn’t have to flee the city, or rather, flee the boundaries of costly real estate, in order to meet the basic need of shelter.

More importantly, self-sufficient isolation would undermine other basic needs: friendship, family, and society (in the broadest sense).  I could much more easily achieve self-sufficiency by abandoning my wife and child and learning to eat tree bark, but most people understand that making those kinds of sacrifices defeats the purpose of trying to meet our basic needs in the first place.

My wife and I currently live with our child in a small 1 bedroom apartment, close to family and friends.  As much as we would love to own a small acreage in the hills, it has become abundantly clear that achieving such a goal requires the sacrifice of too much personal integrity – effectively embracing the ‘wage-slave’ existence for however many years it takes to pay off a mortgage debt.  It would mean harming life in the present for the sake of an untested future goal, a goal that might never be what we hope, or might come too late, or might be rejected for some yet unforeseen circumstance.

Instead, we’ve decided to take the path that arises out of enjoyment of our present circumstances which are, after all, pretty good in a global context.  Since we can’t predict the future but have enough at present, we should focus on what we do have rather than what we hope to one day achieve or possess.

Abandoning employment – meaningless work according to the small-minded conventions of our present era – I’m intent on following instead the ideals that have always made greater sense to me, even if those ideals mean temporary sacrifices or more diligent choices.  Diligence and the sacrifice of unnecessary things never hurt anyone, and most of it we won’t even notice.  What we get in return is a life that is open and responsive to the development of a new path and new directions; a life that is increasingly free from the limitations of dry convention.

It’s exciting to think that I may never again need to lock myself into a compromised career path, never again pretend to be interested in the banalities of ‘making a living’ within the increasingly narrow band of jobs for which my experience and qualifications happen to be not so much suitable as least unsuitable.

The true significance hasn’t yet sunk in; I find it hard to fully appreciate what I’m doing, perhaps because our society doesn’t yet recognise or have the right terms for what I’m doing, which suggests to me that I really am on the right path.

More to life

Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.

More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life.  For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on.  I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.

I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.

These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality;  something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.

The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.

Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality.  At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.

But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it.  It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need.  In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.

It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to.  We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us.  In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky.  That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.

Thinking beyond gender equality etiquette

My latest article has been published on Eureka Street, wherein I bring a bit of Chinese philosophy to bear on the ideal approach to gender equality:

Our family performed well in regard to key gender equality concepts described in the report, such as: power-sharing and decision-making within relationships, whilst avoiding stereotypical ideas of gender roles, ‘benevolent sexism’, hostility towards women and gender equality, and narrow ideals of masculinity and femininity, including objectification of women. Yet the concept of gender or of gender equality was never explicitly invoked. Instead it was simply common sense that we ought to treat people as individuals and have concern for their individual well-being.

http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42043#.VCPEyRZhUtp