Being whole in power: feeling good in Chinese philosophy

Feeling good consistently reminds me of the image of water depicted in the Yi Jing:

Water sets the example for the right conduct…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. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed.

Water reaches its goal by flowing continually. It fills up every depression before it flows on. The superior man follows its example; he is concerned that goodness should be an established attribute of character rather than an accidental and isolated occurrence.

We tend to think of “goodness” in a modern moralistic sense, but the Chinese idea of virtue – like the premodern Western idea – is much more holistic than that.

To be a good person is to be more fully human. Virtue in Chinese thought is equated with the “power” that flows to all things from the Dao.

Daoist and Confucian depictions of virtue therefore tend to the more mysterious and metaphysical than the legalistic or judicial contexts found in the Abrahamic religions.

Here’s an example from the Zhuangzi, where Confucius is depicted describing mysterious power:

What do you mean when you say his powers are whole?” asked Duke Ai.

Confucius said, “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate. Day and night they change place before us and wisdom cannot spy out their source. Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the Spirit Storehouse.

If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy, if you can do this day and night without break and make it be spring with everything, mingling with all and creating the moment within your own mind – this is what I call being whole in power.”

I used to interpret this text as a statement of detachment and dispassion. But now I see in it the clear references to happiness, joy, harmony and delight.

This is not a cold and empty sage who feels nothing. It is a person who dwells in joy and happiness independent of external circumstances and thus masters them all.

Creating the moment within your own mind means actively choosing to focus on what feels good rather than letting circumstances dictate how you feel.

It is our worry and concern about external circumstances that disturb our spirit, harm our virtue, and interfere in the harmony and guidance of the Dao.

When can I start enjoying life?

I was taught as a child that if I just endured, shared in the burden, and patiently helped out, then we could all relax together when the struggles and the chores were complete.

I was taught that it was selfish to be happy and feel good and enjoy life when other people are suffering and burdened, especially when they are burdened for your sake.

I accepted and internalised these themes, and I even believed they were virtuous.

Messed up virtues

The first theme sounds a bit like delayed gratification, except that delayed gratification is still all about the enjoyment that awaits in the future, whereas I was taught to focus firmly on the burdens that exist in the present.

Not so much that it’s more satisfying to relax in a nice clean house; more that you should not relax when there are things that need to be done…and aren’t there always more things that need to be done?

The second theme sounds virtuous because it almost resembles compassion – sharing in the suffering and burden of others.

But it wasn’t compassion.

It wasn’t a happy person reaching out to alleviate another’s burden, it was the other way around: a suffering person resenting the happiness and ease of others, and enraged at the seeming injustice of it.

Learning to say no

So as I child I learned that a good person puts his own suffering ahead of his own enjoyment, and also puts others’ suffering ahead of his own enjoyment.

On my own I deduced intuitively that living this out to its logical conclusion would kill me. I would be utterly depleted by anyone and everyone who came to me with a burden or need because I couldn’t justify saying “no”.

Even when I finally learned to say no, it was still an act of self-preservation in defiance of these false virtues I’d accepted as true.

I felt guilty for saying no to people, because in my mind they were right to ask me to share their burdens, and I was wrong to refuse them.

Saying no was therefore an admission of fault and a moral failing.

Nothing is more important than happiness

I thought I was being virtuous by embracing suffering, and ignoble for shielding myself from others’ demands.

I thought it was selfish to put my happiness ahead of the happiness of others, and I had vague notions of hedonism and moral corruption looming as the only alternative to an austere self-denial.

So when I now say that nothing is more important than my happiness, I do so again and again against my own fading sense of messed-up virtue.

It is not wise to put suffering and burdens ahead of enjoyment, because even work and chores and daily routines can be joyful. But the only way to make them so is to put happiness first.

It is not compassionate to try to match other people’s negative feelings of struggle and burden, or to let others drag you down to their emotional level. True compassion understands that our own clarity, peace, and joy is the best antidote to others’ suffering.

Nothing is more important than my happiness.

So to answer the question posed in the title: the only time to start enjoying life is right now, immediately. If we aren’t learning to enjoy life right now, then we are not learning to enjoy it at all.

There is no excuse or obstacle to justify putting it off, and there is no future goal or attainment to make the learning of it easier.

That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from the Abraham-Hicks material: no matter what your condition or circumstances, you can always find relief somewhere, even if it’s by going to sleep. The path of relief, the path of least resistance to relief, is the same path that leads to happiness.

It might take a while to get all the way from wherever you are in the midst of severe anxiety or depression or despair, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that feeling better bit-by-bit is the best thing, the only thing, you can do.

Pride and humility for melancholics

It’s telling that in Conrad Hock’s spiritual advice for the four temperaments, he extols melancholics to cultivate faith in providence, whereas humility he prescribes for cholerics:

The choleric must combat his pride and anger con­tinually. Pride is the misfortune of the choleric, humility his only salvation. Therefore he should make it a point of his particular examination of conscience for years.

The choleric must humiliate himself voluntarily in confession, before his superiors, and even before others.

Ask God for humiliations and accept them, when inflicted, magnanimously. For a choleric it is better to permit others to humiliate him, than to humiliate himself.

Given how dominant cholerics are, perhaps this explains why pride and humility are such central themes of religious teaching and cultivation?

Ever since Cain slew Abel, people have been muttering “f***ing cholerics!” under their breath. There’s a reason why choleric issues get so much attention.

Rethinking spiritual priorities

I’ve devoted a lot of time to unpacking the spiritual theme of pride, because it holds such significance in religious traditions.

In theory we all suffer from pride. Augustine identified it as the root of all sin, and Cassian poetically captured the devil’s fall from heaven as the fault of pride, mistaking his own glory for something self-created rather than the gift of his creator.

But there’s something very melancholic about fixating on the wrong spiritual diagnosis and running with it.

And while everyone is susceptible to pride in theory, and while pride itself can legitimately be defined in very broad terms, still it doesn’t mean that humility is the correct spiritual antidote for a melancholic.

Humility or pessimism?

I think I was drawn to the idea of humility, because in its theological context it means “seeing one’s true dependence on God”. For a melancholic, this can appear very attractive because we are prone to pessimism and despair anyway.

When your ideals have been systematically crushed, it’s tempting to embrace “humility” as a form of consolation, making a virtue out of giving up.

But puncturing pride just isn’t the same priority for melancholics as it is for cholerics.

We melancholics are supposed to instead have faith in providence, telling ourselves “things are not as bad as they seem”. And the underlying logic of providence is, to a melancholic, almost distressingly positive:

God loves you, and God is in control of everything. The creative power behind all existence wants you to be happy. Your entire experience is a work of love aimed specifically at you.

So as the beatitudes remind us: chill the **** out!

Mistaking happiness for pride

If you were to take seriously God’s love and providence, it might bring you dangerously close to feeling good about life.

You might even feel a strange inner glow that could, if you’re not careful, be mistaken for pride.

We think of pride as being “full of oneself”, and “self-satisfied”. So as not to take any chances, we therefore err on the side of being empty of any and all positive feeling about ourselves.

But to avoid confusion, I suggest we instead ignore the issue of pride completely. Keep it simple: Providence + Love => Happiness

If God cares about our happiness, isn’t it okay for us to care about our happiness too?

If God loves us, isn’t it okay to love ourselves as well?

This is the point where all the pride talk would normally strike us down.

Love yourself? Ha! What an ego! Full of God’s love? I can tell you’re full of something. You think you’re special? Such arrogance…you’re supposed to hate your life in this world, remember?

But assuming we’re all melancholics here, we need to accept we are not the intended audience for that.

Pride talk aimed at cholerics is like trying to protect your home from a raging bushfire.

Pride talk aimed at melancholics is like tipping a bucket of cold water on the warm embers that might have stopped you freezing to death in your sleep.

Isn’t it okay to be happy?

We’re told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and I’ve always interpreted it one way only: that we should all put ourselves last, and if we are sincere then our sincere humility will be rewarded in the next life.

But in the context of pride and temperament I think it should be taken both ways: if you are first, you should put yourself last. If you are last you should put yourself first.

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”

Don’t just topple the mountains, but raise the valleys too. If you are proud you should learn humility, but if you are a miserable unhappy melancholic you should at least consider that feeling good and putting yourself first is not a sin after all.

The proof of this is that real humility will bring greater happiness to a choleric. Their pride does not bring them happiness, it brings them frustration and vexation and anger.

We might look at egregiously arrogant cholerics who project success and happiness, but we know that their arrogance is hungry and grasping.

What more proof do we need that the genuine feelings of love, self-acceptance, and self-respect in us are not pride at all, but the fulfillment and grace of our own melancholic journey?

Addiction and pornography: rediscovering virtue in the internet age

It’s been a while folks. Inspiration is a mysterious and fickle thing.

My latest article at MercatorNet examines the underlying nature of addiction, and how it inhibits our greater happiness and enjoyment of life:

This disproportion between the object of addiction and the pleasure or enjoyment we derive from it is characteristic of all addictions. When the pleasure and pain we feel at the presence or absence of the object far outweighs its objective value or significance, something is clearly awry.

Becoming sexually excited by images and videos may be the quintessential addiction of the internet age, but it is also deeply absurd because images and videos per se are not sexually exciting.

Taking a drug to experience “ecstasy” might be popular too, but it is absurd because there is nothing intrinsically ecstatic about ingesting a tablet.

On this level, addictions are always absurd. In the first instance they break the relationship between reality and pleasure, leading us to seek pleasure in unreal and absurd stimuli.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/addiction-and-pornography-rediscovering-virtue-in-the-internet-age

 

Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

Have yourself an avaricious Christmas

My friend Tom has had an article published on Mercatornet, examining how the sin of avarice became a virtue in the context of our modern consumer economy:

Cavanaugh notes that consumerism is thus a “spiritual disposition”. Its error is not in that it seeks the spiritual in the material, for this is a tenet of traditional theology. And nor is its error that people are choosing material goods over spiritual values. Cavanaugh’s insight is to see consumerism as a type of spirituality, “a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”

This spiritual dimension to consumerism is reflected in the nature of advertising which has come to say little about the advertised product but much about the identity attached to buying such a product. Buying a product becomes a means to attaining a particular identity or experience. In this process, the actual product is only instrumental and so we become detached from it.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/have-yourself-an-avaricious-christmas

Is Bruce Jenner now a woman?

Most of my regular audience at MercatorNet would have no difficulty answering such a question, so instead of writing something about essentialism and the possible philosophical intricacies of gender, I wrote the following:

If Augustine was objective enough to acknowledge the positive side of pagan Rome, perhaps we should do the same with the transgender movement and indeed to the associated identity issues of the wider LGBT movement. It is important for those of us with profound philosophical, ethical, and religious reservations to recognise that the LGBT narrative nonetheless instantiates or at least mirrors certain virtues, in particular a quality often referred to as “authenticity” in contemporary language and which could perhaps be interpreted as a variation on the virtue of honesty.  The alternative is to fail to understand why these narratives hold such sway among the general public.

Life without indulgent eating

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com confides the inner workings of my gluttonous hedonism:

That the pleasure of eating serves as a surprisingly rich and enticing escape from the dreariness and banality of everyday life proved to me that self-indulgence was not merely a physical dysfunction but a spiritual one. For someone who spends nearly every waking moment thinking about things, the uncomplicated enjoyment of some moreish snack or delectable home-made dish offers a kind of peaceful respite from the interminable whirring of cognition.  Or as the 4th Century ascetic monk John Cassian wrote in rather less affirming terms:

“nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts… but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation.”

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/life-without-indulgent-eating

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.