Going with the flow

The lamp of the body is the eye: if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Some contemplatives look outward and see the underlying flow, the pattern, the mystery governing all that is.

Some contemplatives look inward and find the divine being-itself within.

Whether inside or outside, they approach a unity of vision. Perhaps it’s just a case of where they first notice it, or where they are most at home returning to it.


I’m different from the contemplatives, mystics, and sages whose words I’ve read, because I’ve read all their words and put them alongside one another in my own mind.

Reading into different traditions from outside those traditions and looking for the underlying commonalities and themes, my perspective remains an individual one, not belonging to any single set of teachings.

I’ve tried to see “the way” described in Daoist and East Asian Buddhist literature, the mysterious unity dynamically at play behind all phenomena.

I’ve also tried to see the divine essence in my innermost being, either there, or near there, a presence of love and light and transcendent joy that is our true identity, whether it is described as a union with God that occurs through grace when we turn toward Him, or as a pre-existing unity with the divine that has been obscured by ignorance and illusion.

Finding God within themselves, they look out and see God in everything, just as the sages who saw everything following “the way” then knew to look within for their own intimate connection with it.

Reconciling the external and the internal

When I looked outward I could see the mysterious patterns of “the way” but it did nothing to change me.

When I looked within I felt the love and joy of the divine in my innermost being, but “the world” remained impassive and impervious.

I had a strong sense of the divide between myself and “the world”.

But through slowly improving my mood, recognising the legitimacy of desire and how my experience reflects my beliefs and expectations, I’ve found that I can bridge that divide.

By both turning toward the divine in my innermost being and then looking for the mysterious pattern in the external world, I’ve found that they are one and the same thing, mutually reinforcing, and unifying my whole experience.

I have to actively do both. Actively turn toward the spark of love and joy that resides deep within us, and, when secure in that, look to the sense of pattern and connection and flow in the outside world.

Go with the flow

The flow is difficult to describe. I get it by paying attention to my field of experience as a whole. For example, when driving we can pay attention to any number of things but we ought to be aware of the other users of the road around us.

If we were sitting by the side of the road at a busy intersection we might be able to look at the many vehicles as taking part in the greater flow of traffic. We could get a feel for the flow that transcends but is present in the multitude of vehicles and drivers and passengers and their individual actions and behaviours.

Can you do that while you yourself are part of the traffic?

The Zen monk Takuan Soho described this aspect of the way like so:

“When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

Creation unfolds moment by moment, and there’s a correlation across all things in the one moment, just as much as there is continuity of one thing across many moments.

Attending to this correlation or flow points us intuitively towards the invisible “way” that governs the flow.

This “way” is the proper object of attention externally, just as the divine spark within us is the proper object of attention internally.

In other traditions this flow or way might be described as God’s will, or the sense of God’s presence in all things. Perhaps it takes different forms for different people.

It still takes practice. I find that fears and worries and grasping for certain outcomes obscures my sense of the flow. At the same time, there’s an inner reluctance to turn toward the love and joy within me, which is puzzling but points to the various traditions’ interpretation of torpor or sloth or an unwillingness to embrace the joy that is available to us right now.

Yet there is also immense consolation in the direct experience of union as the sounds of traffic, my baby daughter wriggling in her bouncer, the tweeting of birds, and the pulsing of my own heart-beat converge with the deep and mysterious sense of love and joy within me.


Easter vigil notes

Another reading that caught my attention over the Triduum was the Easter vigil Epistle from Romans I:

If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in the his resurrection. We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.

But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him; Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more.  When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has never made a great deal of sense to me, and it was not until recently that I learned he is not supposed to ‘make sense’ in terms of proposing a fully developed, explicit theological system. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of “union with Christ”, and in what sense we have “imitated his death”. How have we died with Christ? A friend explained it in the Catholic context of sacramental theology, which led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion. Coming from a more naive realist perspective, the key phrase would seem to be “you must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus”, with consideration and imitation the operative factors.

In this light, what struck me was another point of comparison from my reading in Daoism, specifically the work of Edward Slingerland – Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China – which includes an intriguing analysis of dyadic metaphors of higher and lower terms in the Laozi:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.


The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

In practice this spiritual ideal of embracing the lower half of the dyad and thus emulating the Way extends into some very familiar territory:

The Way does not discriminate between injury or kindness and choose its response accordingly, but nourishes equally all of the myriad things. It thus gives things life without demanding “justice” in the Confucian sense—that is, demanding to be honored and showered with ritual gratitude:

The Way gives [the myriad things] life, raises them;
Causes them to grow, nourishes them;
Perfects and matures them;
Cultivates and protects them.
Giving birth to them and yet laying no claim;
Acting, but not dwelling upon the action;
Leading without being domineering—
This is called mysterious Virtue [xuande]. (chapter 51)

So rather than discriminating—imposing human distinctions upon the world— one should emulate the Way and stick to the “lower” path: that is, to the element of dyadic distinctions (such as kindness in the dyad “sternness/kindness”) that is closest to the Way. Thus we read in chapter 79 that the sage “takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people,” The left-hand tally is the half of a contract held by the creditor, and “uprightness” in the Confucian sense would demand that this contract be fulfilled—that the debt incurred by the creditor be paid. The Laozian sage, however, is undemanding in the same manner that the Way is undemanding, understood in terms of the social metaphor of the mother: he gives to the people and yet asks for nothing in return, holding fast to kindness and discarding the sort of sternness that would demand a quid pro quo.

So much of this is reminiscent of aspects of Christ’s teaching, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, or the passage: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Finally, the promise of salvation in its various expressions, whether it be the remedial passages of the beatitudes (“the meek shall inherit the earth”), or Christ’s own reference to the book of psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes” likewise brings to completion this dyadic paradox in which “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”:

This method of sticking to the conventionally lower, more encompassing term—and thereby attaining in reality the higher term—is referred to by Laozi in chapter 22 as “holding to oneness” (zhiyi):

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not
idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness [quan guizhi]



The Dao of Parenting

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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.