Sunday, 28 March 2010

Touchy-Feely Man and Beast

So I'm lying in bed with my reading lamp at my shoulder, and I'm distracted from my reading by seeing silhouetted on the wall a frankly ridiculous profusion of my chest hairs, thinking, I'm totally a man these days.

But I don't feel much like one. I lay awake at night - every night - with the oppressive feeling that the day is over and I have not been a part of it. The past two years or so have found me, for various reasons, mostly in a state of general indolence, but when I was occupied with work or study, this feeling got far far worse, which doesn't really seem to make sense, but probably because I, like most people, am looking at it the wrong way round.

As much as cleaning the house and selling fast food and wrestling with bureaucracy are important, and as much as I don't do these things enough and would like to, they are not traditionally the things that fill you with self-determined, grown-up manly (or womanly) pride. They are, actually, the minor humiliations you have to and can go through, for the sake of the actual benefits adulthood brings with it.

Most instances of my feeling like an adult, like my own man, like a part of the world, have had to do with writing entries much like this one. Which isn't what immediately springs to mind when you think of responsible, involved and productive community-aware grown-upness. How people are actually affected by my behaviour has little to do with this feeling - that's a moral consideration - all my drive for adultness is about is having my voice heard.

Specifically, feeling like something should be done and therefore doing it. Motivated by the emotion. Writing entries, saving dolphins, jumping off buildings, killing nuns, getting an earring, learning belly-dancing, eating ice cream - anything so long as you're doing it less because it's sensible than because you're into it. Done in spite and by virtue of your being a responsible adult in charge of his own destiny. There's no point in being a functioning member of society if you don't get to do stupid shit just because you want to. Eventually philosophers will realise this is the apex civilisation has always been striving towards. I have a vague idea that Nietzsche already did.

Stupid shit is only a part of this, of course. While the world does need to hear your stupid statements about things, it also needs to hear your intelligent ones. If I think - no, feel - that Israel should open up its gates to asylum seekers and take care of them, I don't need to have figured out how to deal with the ensuing economic burden or stop the migration from becoming a massive influx before I express my opinion - sorry; feelings - on the matter. They need to hear I'm against it even before they hear why they should be too. In this case it's not even so much for the sake of the refugees as it is for my own basic dignity and sense of existence.

If my emotions have no clout with my behaviour, I have no clout with anything.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Memories of Canada

I cannot be expected to accept the fact that I am not Neil Young. There is a gross and continuous injustice involved in this state of affairs.

Neil Young makes me cry. Not the songs of Neil Young, mind you; not the story of Neil Young - his existence.

His disposition, I suppose. Neil Young evokes for me, and I know it's a somewhat incongruous image, a sense of religious devotion, of the kind I haven't been able to properly relate to and embrace in an organised religious setting for years. It's not piousness, or enthusiasm, or even kindness, but, I think, a kind of naked vulnerability. An "I am coming to you because I need you."

Apart from functioning as a sloppy paean to the man and the legend, this is an attempt to discover what it is about him or the impression I have of him through his songs and fragments of interviews that reduces me to a blob of goo.

My sneaking suspicion is that, besides his mastery of the guitar and ability to write beautiful songs and mountains of cash in the basement, we are not at all so very different.

I know nothing of the biography of the man, so bear in mind I'm only talking about my mental construct here, but he seems to second-guess himself much less than me. And ultimately respect himself more than me. And, above all, to play-act far far less than me, despite being an international superstar under the vicious scrutiny of the blood-sucking music and celebrity press. He shies away, so I'm told, but he doesn't put up a front.

I put up a front. I pretend I don't feel things, especially the need for people. For attention, for respect, for love, for sympathy. Neil Young doesn't have trouble saying, never mind implying, "I need you", pretty much regardless of circumstances. The chorus to one of my favourite songs of his goes:

"But if crying and holding on
And flying on the ground is wrong
Then I'm sorry
To let you down
But you're from
My side of town
And I'll miss you."

I can't even say that out loud, but he sings it, and then distributes it to millions.

What I think we have in common is that intensity of feeling. I am devoted religiously - to people, to God, to myself - but I'm so terrified of betraying this it rarely ventures beyond sentiment into the realm of activity, never mind conversation.

Sing it out from the rooftops. This is the challenge of near future. I need you.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Short Summary of the Tao Te Ching Part I: Nature of the Tao

It didn't actually take me this long to write this, but it took a while to get back around to it. I suppose I'll forgive you if you don't read it all at once. I've conveniently divided it through pictures into three separate chunks. Have fun.


"Tao Te Ching" can (apparently) be very loosely translated as "Book of the Way and Virtue". Ching is fairly straightforward, though the more pretentious sometimes prefer "tome" or "classic" to book. Tao does actually mean "way", both in the meaning of "fashion" or "method" and in that of "road".

Te is already a little more complicated. It's some kind of amalgamation of "virtue", "power" and "excellence". Apparently it's quite similar to the ancient Greek concept of "arete", for which I've linked a wikipedia article I haven't myself read, and it can also be likened to the concept of "Quality" which a certain Robert M. Pirsig spent a whole Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance trying to demonstrate.

The Tao Te Ching is about harnessing the power of the Tao for, among other things, the purposes of Te. Te appears to be the active and insistent aspect of a generally passive and indulgent philosophy.

So what is this so-called Tao anyway? It's the name given to the supposed spiritual force behind everything that's alive in the world, also sometimes known non-specifically as God or Buddha-nature, but appealingly absent any attaching dogmatism.

The Tao is the organic fuel that moves everything. It's not that things can't be moved without it, but the idea is that they're then not moved nearly as well. Possibly the major notion in Taoism is the attempt to keep the Tao unpolluted. You observe how it works, and you try to emulate it. It is "The Way" - the more you try to follow it, the more you'll get to where you need and ultimately want to be.

The Tao Te Ching is basically a collection of musings about the Tao. I have tried to identify the major recurring themes and have separated them into three different categories, which will take three separate posts. Today we talk about the nature of the Tao - what it's like in relation to itself, even before it actually affects and interacts with anything else. This is about its composition, and the things important to know about it before we go into its actual significance, which in effect makes this a second introduction. Whaddayagonnado.

Obliqueness and Paradoxes - "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao / The name that can be named is not the eternal name"

So opens the Tao Te Ching, generally causing a reaction either of adulation and self-important consecration of this impenetrable mystery as institution, or of disdain and irritation at this book effectively proclaiming that it has nothing to say and that reading it will be a waste of time.

As you may have guessed, I agree with neither approach. It seems to me, based on several passages from the book, that the abstruse nature and sometimes paradoxical aspects of the Tao are unfortunate and serious difficulties that are mentioned so that they may be overcome, rather than to rub in our faces how little we can know about the truly important and how small and useless we are.

It seems to me less about an innate mysteriousness and ambiguity than about the fact that the Tao of people is different from the Tao of the world, and the Tao of people sucks. We've been raised speaking the wrong language, as it were, and we need to learn a new one in order to harness the Tao.

The first issue in dealing with the Tao is that of dealing with any spiritual concept - it is difficult to fully internalise its lack of corporeality. It's more than not being able to physically grasp it - Taoism, like the Indian religions, suggests that it is impossible to even mentally grasp it. You have to make do with a spiritual grasp of it.

This is one of the most problematic points though for generally discerning people with Taoism, and largely where Eastern and Western philosophy part ways, so I'll forgive you if you don't accept it just yet. It smells of religious charlatanism, but Taoism's obvious and complete benignity as well as its complete lack of dogma managed to put at least my mind at rest on this point.

The second issue with the Tao is how inconspicuous and even underwhelming it is, on an emotional level, when it does show up. It demonstrates a complete failure in calling attention to itself. It will make things better, but it will not make them bigger and brighter and louder.

The third issue, as extending the first two, is to do with the general behaviours that Taoism considers conducive. It is a good thing to follow the Tao even to places that seem to contradict your understanding or your emotional reactions. You'd sometimes - not always - find yourself doing the opposite of what you'd have thought you should do.

The fourth issue, which I only remember mentioned twice but seems to me significant enough to warrant a mention, is that this paradoxical relationship with the world and society also takes its toll. Only in the striking 20th chapter (or for a better translation scroll to 20 here) does the author seem to let go and talks of loneliness, alienation and weariness before concluding that the Taoist lifestyle is worth it anyway, which I find noteworthy mainly because it seems you very rarely find these kinds of admissions of difficulty with the lifestyle in religious texts. The actual effort itself is painful. It is important to recognise this. More after this monkey:

Oneness/Holism and Dynamism - "Do not wish to be shiny like Jade / Be dull like rocks"

Western life is all about distinguishing yourself. Excellence is measured by and synonymous with "distinction". It is very very important to be different. I'm not sure Taoism would outright oppose this inclination, but it would emphasise that, however different you try to make yourself from other people, you will remain essentially the same, because we all have the same Tao flowing through us.

More than that, though - the artificial severance and division of what is essentially one contradicts the Taoist mission and lays obstacles in its path. Whether it's trying to make yourself distinct, or veneration of the extraordinary in others or in nature or whatnot, it amounts to a delusory preoccupation with shiny things, under the assumption that anything that doesn't call attention to itself - anything that's "dull" - is not worth considering.

It is exactly this "dullness" (by which, I must clarify emphatically, I do not mean "bore" or "lack") that Taoism promotes and supports - in which the Tao itself germinates and flourishes. The moment you cleanse yourself from egocentrism and dichotomism, you open yourself to the cosmic harmony and its accompanying dynamism, because you are connecting to the Tao at its source.

It is this "dynamism" then, when harnessed, that Taoism claims outdoes any "shininess" in terms of utility and eventual satisfaction. Through the cosmic harmony and the Tao (which are the same thing), you can do and thereby become more than you ever could by personal distinction. A kind of transcendent practicality, if you like. The practicality is crucial, as we'll see when we go on.

Yin and Yang - "Know the masculine, hold to the feminine"

The masculine being yang and the feminine being yin. This is probably the most famous Taoist concept and the one I feel I understand the ramifications of the least. What we are definitely talking about, though, is two complementary opposites - interconnected and interdependent essential parts of the same whole. This touches again on the paradoxicality I spoke of earlier. Despite and against intuition, the disparities merge into a coherent whole, as popularly represented by this the "taijitu" (white representing yang and black yin, if it matters):

The Tao appears to be a result of the dialectic between these two forces, the masculine pushing for power, utility, and complexity, while the feminine pushes for softness, connectedness, and simplicity. The guidance appears to be to know the yang/masculine/white as a supportive construct and means of damage control, but to hold to the yin/feminine/black as the thing itself - the means to spiritual exaltation. It's somewhat analogous to the concept of body and soul. Not much use having one without the other.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Catching Children in the Rye

I'm writing a few hours after the ordeal that is (the amazing) Grave of the Fireflies - involving a young teenager and his impotent effort to look after his little sister in WWII Japan - and about a month after the termination of my National Service job in a special needs kindergarten - involving the abrupt desertion of 8 children who'd gotten very attached to me after barely two months with them.

These two things are doubtless incomparable in terms of the circumstances and the actual trauma suffered, but they share a common theme, and both seem to have similarly hit me rather harder than the substantial forcefulness with which they usually do or would have done most people. It messes me up from the inside out.

I'd make a pretty shitty dad at the moment, and that's upsetting, as is the less hypothetical letting down of kids who did and still do need me, but it's not that upsetting. I can recognise and accept my extenuating circumstances even if nobody else does, and the fact is people do, so it's not really, or at least not overwhelmingly, guilt for this situation.

It touches on something. It strikes some super-sensitive chord somewhere. Something to do with protecting children, or being childish, and maybe that's the same thing, but something to do with children anyway.

Protecting childishness, I think, in yourself as well as in others. Protecting childness, if you like. The quality of not feeling like you're supposed to appease others, or feeling it but not attributing much significance to it, not internalising the repression.

People talk about and idolise childhood as this innocent and carefree time, but as anybody who's ever actually met a child can testify, this is blatantly untrue. They are conniving bastards and highly strung prima donnas. We look after them and envy them not because they're sweet and serene, but because they're vibrantly, violently alive, with an aliveness that renders them even more vulnerable than they'd already be with their inability to fend for themselves, to organise their world.

Vulnerability provokes empathy, or at least it does with decent people. The more vulnerable the person or situation, the more compassionate the empathiser.

I had a thought the other day. I noticed that when I'm speaking to people, mainly when it's strangers I'm exchanging more than businesslike formalities with, a benevolent, maternal smile and expression transform their face and body language, even if they're men. At the time I was insulted - it made me feel like a puppy - but suddenly I'm thinking that maybe this is part and parcel of being alive. Just like some will look at you contemptuously, others will look at you with a king of sweet condescension. It ought to be worth it still.

Where am I going with this? I think I do empathise and respect and promote vulnerability in others. I will maintain, despite knowing at least one person disagrees with me, that I am excellent at receiving balloons. I think what I'm trying to tell myself right now is that I'm atrocious at receiving my own, even before they're offered for anybody else's consideration. I have no indulgence for my vulnerabilities at all. I'm ruthless with them. If anybody acknowledges them I feel like a puppy.

I show no compassion to myself. There's lots of love, and goodwill, and patience, but there's no acceptance. No indication that it's okay to either run in the rye or fantasise about catching children in it - just a cold, judicious, paternal guidance. I focus all my time on being an adult and almost none of it on being a child, an eventuality I remember warning myself against early on in this blog.

Many will say that is natural for a man beginning his 20s, but I do genuinely see both "grown-up" and "child" as institutions rather than stages of development, and I'm going to keep trying for both. The fact is I encourage both in others - I just need to be consistent and include myself.

Sometimes something is good and worthwhile just because it's important to somebody. That somebody's allowed to be me.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I Ought to Tell You Something

I sure wish I knew what it was. This refrainment from doing so is seriously messing me up.

It actually probably won't be you specifically who's the answer to all my troubles, but, as you're here as the elected representative of the Society of People Who Are Not Me, I shall practice communing incoherently with the universe through you. Consider it a sacrifice in the name of science.

Metaphysics. It's definitely got something to do with metaphysics. More specifically with the connotations that the word "metaphysics" has for me, surprisingly jaded considering I spent all my life as a devout Jew and only stopped once I became a devout Taoist. I feel like I ought to explain myself if I say something unscientific. I can kind of see where it came from but not really where it got so intense. I am more than willing to hear this kind of talk but I am terrified of creating it.

I very rarely talk with anybody about anything. Ever since 13 or so, I've moved from being pointedly quiet through being inconspicuously quiet through reciting sentences calculated to get me through conversations with the impression of being friendly all the way to this strange place I'm at now of talking with people truly unfettered, but with a draconian self-censorship so extreme it renders all conversations virtually meaningless.

I am excited about Taoism. The previous sentence is simply not something I can picture myself saying in any context outside this blog and my family. This is an impossible situation. You cannot be timid in your religion, and it is a religion - I'm not even close to kidding.

I've tried to build my confidence in it through a "scientific" examination of its core text that is being delayed for annoying, prosaic reasons, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but my adoption of Taoism shouldn't be contingent on my completion of a scientific project - or, more precisely, as the fact is it isn't, regardless of whether this is "wise" or not, I shouldn't pretend that it is, I shouldn't be afraid of saying out loud "I am excited about Taoism". Even "I think you too should become a Taoist". It's not a political statement; nobody's going to get harmed if I'm wrong - the only problem with it is the risk some people will respond in a way I do not consider respectful.

Now, when people show disrespect towards something that is backed up scientifically, it is easy to show to yourself and often to them and anybody else who's watching, what idiots they are. Because stupidity, presumably, invalidates a judgement. We live in a (appropriately, I think) science-worshipping time and culture, so this is comprehensively accepted and so if I prove a person's irrationality I win.

But what's the big deal about winning? I would maintain that maliciousness and narrow-mindedness and arrogance do far more to invalidate an opinion than deviations from scientific standards, even if this view is far less widely held. We all reject what is disrespectful of the scientific method, but what I'm talking about here is disrespect for people. If mocked, I may not be able to conclusively demonstrate that this mockery is the result of misinformation and faulty reasoning and general incompetence, but I can tell the person, or even just myself, that he's being a sack of shit and hasn't got a leg to stand on, because mockery by definition hasn't got a leg to stand on. It's a technique resorted to by infants of all ages when they want to criticise something for whatever reasons and have no actual arguments with which to back themselves up. It's actually a battle you can't lose at, no matter how feeble your metaphysical speculation or remark. It will never be wrong for you to say it, so long as you don't attribute any non-existent scientific value to it.

My eyes are drooping so I'll finish up. I ought to tell you how much and in what ways I am excited about Taoism. I haven't really gotten into it yet, but Taoism is really far less about itself than about people and the world and essentially respect for what exists. I ought to not be held back by scientific assessments of what I want to say. I ought to share with you specific examples and general riffs on life and the universe, instead of examining and explaining why I don't, or at least in addition. I ought to do this all the time and with all people I see of my own volition. Specific examples maybe not, but riffs? We talk about what interests us. If something interests me then it is at least possible it will interest someone else.

I've just gone through a few of my previous posts and it seems I keep revisiting this concept of science-reliance, under different guises. I don't want to be boring, incoherent, pretentious, ridiculous, smug, offensive, unfamiliar, impractical, or generally "wrong". The solution to all of these things is a strict reasonableness, but none of these things is actually a problem. "Smug" and "offensive" come closest, but if I'm expressing excitement about something then these characterisations are simply imagined, mostly by me and possibly also by other owners of overactive imaginations. We'll all have to get over it.

Sorry about this post, but writing these really is good for me.