Tag Archives: taoism

Tao as Universal Unconscious Mind

Leafing through this great Havens book on Milton Erickson I was struck by this:

[W]hile on the Research Service of the Worcester State Hospital he interviewed a catatonic schizophrenic who manifested a variety of bizarre behaviours and beliefs which struck Erickson as familiar. Eventually he was able to relate them to those of several primitive tribes, a discovery which puzzled him greatly because the patient obviously was unfamiliar with the beliefs and rituals of any of these tribes. These and other observations of the spontaneous development of identical patterns of thought and behaviour among separate individuals throughout the world and throughout history led him to conclude that basic human thinking and emotion are very much the same from person to person in spite of individual and regional idiosyncrasies. In other words, he observed that the human mind has an incredibly wide but finite range of potential patterns available to it and that everyone has the capacity to function within any one of those patterns.

The particular patterns that any given individual adopts or manifests, he realized, are a result of limitations imposed upon this original pool of potentials by culture and by the individual’s unique experiential history.

This is just so it. Humanity is bounded but infinite — but cultural humanity is far more bounded. The schizophrenic was tapping into the underlying pool — who knows exactly how. But (as with Jung) the behaviour tipped Erickson off to the unlimited nature of human cognition free of the social. The need to have the social be “everything” is quite strong, but partly thanks to a weird childhood in which recovery from polio played a major role, and partly to his great natural oddness, Erickson never had that need and brought a very objective eye to human beings.

That eye is the eye of the unconscious itself. Havens:

Erickson’s fundamental orientation towards life, perhaps the central theme of his work, was that people must learn to recognize, to accept, and to utilize, what actually is in order to meet their needs, accomplish their goals, and satisfy their purposes. Rather than lamenting, distorting, or denying the unpleasant facts of life or fantasizing about an easier, more ideal reality, Erickson proposed that people must experience and acknowledge the realities of their situation and apply whatever capacities they have in order to cope as effectively or purposefully as possible with those realities.

That may seem obvious — it’s the classic wisdom and never outdated — but the point is that “we” are not merely what “we” think ourselves to be. Your consciousness begins your physical life far less local to your body. Much of the most interesting stuff in your mind is stuff you never really look at after you become localised. Hooking into the body you start to leave the non-bodily behind — and then you hook into a cultured body, and get caught in language. But just reach behind and unhook those, and you have things you had no “conscious” idea about, mental aspects that already understand life in a less biased way than you do, so you can lean on them. As Havens says:

His most general observation was that people have both a conscious mode of functioning and an unconscious mode of functioning. The conscious mind represents a prejudiced and limited perspective on reality which can result in various distortions and behavioral anomalies. The unconscious mind, on the other hand, is a flexible system of thought and awareness which perceives and responds to the literal or objective qualities of reality. It is relatively unprejudiced, is very intelligent, and contains a vast reservoir of previously acquired, experientially based knowledge and memories.

The relation of this to “spirituality” is for example: just think of everything as having an unconscious mind. You can learn to tap into it by these and all sorts of methods. In an STE you become conscious of it, including as a whole — hence “cosmic consciousness”.


Holotropic Spontaneity and Carl Rogers XVIII

Taoist Byways — 2 of 2

Harmony in Taoism is found within, but when it is found within, it is found in external events too. Hence for example Huainanzi 7.1:

those who seek for it externally lose it internally;
those who preserve it internally attain it externally as well.

Since it is lost if grasped externally, it thus does not appear in the world in the manner of “goodness” as normally conceived and held-to. The good is beyond rational judgment. Awakening reveals a deeper substrate one had missed or lost, by removing the judgmental categorisations of Self, at the same time as it reveals the secret unity between all things that goes right through one’s own heart. The regathering of the scattered, which in Hinduism is associated with the transcendence of Maya, is also a strong motif throughout Taoist alchemy, as mistaken notions of separateness fall away before the revelation of cosmic consciousness, which appears as a perfect harmony proceeding from and returning to Ultimate Mystery.

In Taoism harmony is thus seen as a treasure to be achieved, looked after, carefully protected and refined; it resonates with the world and can actually transform it, especially the human world, by the effects of its accumulated Te or virtue in human beings.

The Taoists plainly did have meditation procedures attached to their approach from the earliest times and always worked with chi. Moderation and simplicity in living, refusing excess, constantly turning again to the simple, and awareness of truth from multiple perspectives, are initial accents in Taoism. The Taoist classics will point the way to a deeper understanding of these concepts, and many others. I recently enjoyed getting to know Steve Coutinho’s entry for Zhuangzi in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Zhuangzi

… and wrote these posts partly thinking of that one. It’s a nice place to begin if you don’t mind more exoteric academic approaches, and will teach even experts a thing or two. As well as more obvious sources I particularly recommend studying the lesser-known Neiye, available in an excellent book by Harold Roth that discusses its mystical significance. The Neiye’s emphasis on quiet harmonious cultivation of the deeply potent Tao has inspired me a lot and is basic to Taoism. Reading the Huainanzi has also been fascinating recently.

As mentioned, it’s very nice that we have our own Western Taoist in Heraclitus. The resemblance of Zhuangzi and his sages to people like Milton Erickson or Walt Whitman, or indeed Glenn Morris, is very noteworthy as well. Particularly interesting to me is their ability to “be good people” in a surprising and unconventional way, that evades categorisation by being permanently harmonised with creativity, to be entirely themselves and in that capacity to extend “self” into deeper universality, which becomes Absolute whilst still flowing. An interesting approach to life, and one rather different from the norm whether in China or in the West.


Holotropic Spontaneity and Carl Rogers XVII

Taoist Byways — 1 of 2

There’s an interplay of all this psychology with ancient Taoist thinking which some will have noticed already. The Humanistic psychologies deliberately played off Laozi, whom Rogers mentions in A Way of Being (1980). Taoism forms a direct bridge of these ideas with mysticism, but you can get in early and think Taoistically from the start if interested.

Acceptance of what arises spontaneously within is the key in both traditions. This allows one to become who one really is and removes aggravating artifice designed to ameliorate something “unacceptable”. The accent is on naturalness. At the time Taoism came into being, the very formal Ruist way of correct behaviour (that eventually became mostly mainstream in China) was also first being proposed, as a response to a general cultural crisis which deeply ruptured the realm. Taoism by contrast represented a rejection of formalised societal relations, considering them to be a way of surface harmony only, without sincerity, and suggesting a totally different solution favouring authenticity over acting a role.

In Taoism the sage, the shengren or achieved person, is thus very emphatically (and often eccentrically) him- or herself. I haven’t seen in other wisdom traditions this strong emphasis on the spontaneous individuality of sages or “saint”-figures as key to their attainment of the Ultimate. Of course this “self” is not like what conventional psychology thinks of as “self-image”. Last post we saw how even an initial accomplishment removes any straightforward self image in favour of an identification with self-process. In Taoist mysticism this is then taken much further, and joined to the great Ultimate process that moves through all things, called the Tao.

This can have a paradoxical cast, as one realises that static judging can create conflict even if it is “correct”, and learns instead to flow with the entire pattern, accept winter with summer, accept the difficulty of distinguishing good and bad, and so forth. This is about a complete change in the manner of human perception of the world, one that definitely distinguishes a person from the normal human way.

In the West, Heraclitus taught very much the same doctrine — I really should write about him one of these days — but his Way didn’t come down to us as a cultural wave like Taoism, didn’t become associated with a school. Breath practices were never known in the West either. Early practices in Taoist systems can be intensive, because human beings seem to begin so far from their natural state. In practice, being natural involves a lot of work rather than the laissez-faire many Westerners chose to mistake it for initially…


The Way That Finds Itself

The Breakout Principle

If you are going to do it, it is actually not “you” who will do it — “it” will do itself. A big part of the skill taught by successful lineages is learning to watch neutrally as the process does the process.

This relates, on the level of ordinary psychology, to the Breakout Principle of Herbert Benson, in which you first put a lot of energy into the process of solving any problem — performance anxieties or creative blocks, life rearrangement or stress reduction, deep questions of purpose — then having struggled you let go of the process, stop, do something different, something repetitive usually, something in which “you” are not involved in the same way. It could be meditation, it could be needlework… he gives pages of things people have used including reading, shaving, drumming or folding laundry. Thanks to a mechanism we all possess, this causes you to be struck by a solution “breaking out” of previous thought patterns, a solution “from nowhere”.

Benson’s book in my opinion frankly is a little naff, but still very good to know. :) LATE EDIT: Just speed-re-read it and added more to the end of this post; if that inspires anyone to get the book it’s currently going for absolutely peanuts, especially on UK Amazon. (Maybe the rest of his stuff is worth a look too — Glenn cued off him in a lot of ways. He’s even got some of the biology which is such a big key. I’ve read Relaxation Response and it’s a good basic book with a pleasing attitude.)

I think this “Breakout” just may be the central human psychological mechanism. Yet there is so little on it in psychology — even transpersonal psychology, whose very name implies it. I think many people experience these signs as little peak experiences, which is how Benson analyses them. That connects to Maslow, but Maslow didn’t produce any method, where Benson does. I described one of my early Breakouts here on the ‘Box back in January, but didn’t even realise I was talking about a Breakout myself! I see now the description is exact, as bolded here:

I remember the moment I got my first blast of the actual Earth, from opening the base chakra plus doing a bunch of work with sexual energy. It was after I’d stopped meditating for the night and was engaged in something unconnected. Suddenly I felt it. The first words into my mind were ‘old and strong’. That was how I observed-experienced it unfolding…, bristling and deep, full of silence, strong, massively present and aware…

The Sequence of States in a Breakout

I think that moment of life in which something breaks through is a fundamental aspect of psychology which really goes places when you get deeper. At the stronger STE (Spiritually Transformative Experience) end of the scale, it leads to removing “oneself” from the equation altogether. Hence, “death”, hence “egoless” and so forth. That thing whose fortunes one has to keep track of amidst the baboon horde no longer binds. Although this is radical, I must mention that it is incredibly subtle too.

And it just happens. I like to remember what Glenn says:

Most of the religious writings with the exception of Patanjali strike me as poppycock. They describe the life, but not the practice that resulted in the life.

Path Notes of an American Ninja Master (1993), p. 41

Exactly — nor the process that this practice set in train. Preaching at people that they “should” remove their egos is probably fairly pointless — the word “should” is an ego word. My most beloved process is the Kundalini process, which long-term enables this neutrality exactly. In just the same way as we have “peak experiences” and “plateau experiences”, so we have peak STEs and plateau STEs. Kundalini sometimes announces itself with a big peak, but the plateau element is inevitable once awakened and comes from living with it for years. These changes are profound and are really what ‘ego death’ means.

There may be many true ways to do this and we know many involve Kundalini — possibly others don’t. (What is valuable is any way that works.) But I could never imagine a way which didn’t involve letting go to “it”. It does it; “it” is always doing everything.

An eloquent writer on the result is Philip St Romain, who is both Kundalini experiencer and Roman Catholic. Right away that tells us something about universality. I don’t know if he has taught Kundalini but he has certainly described it pretty well, and joins the group of those, like Gopi Krishna and Glenn, who were practicing something and then suddenly found ”it” happening. They didn’t know what “it” was at first and that is not an easy situation. In St Romain’s case the practice was prayer which perhaps says something about how sincerely most people pray by comparison :) and resulted in interesting stuff like the throat opening first. He writes:

One of the first things that happened to me, when in 1986 my prayer deepened, was a sense of having lost myself. The union between self-awareness and self-concept was dissolved, and without a self-concept mirror to gaze into, I no longer knew myself. I still had a self-concept; my beliefs and convictions about myself were still there… But the emotional bond with self-concept was severed…

Who was I? I realized that I was not my thoughts, not my memory, not my body… I sensed a response coming from my intuitive higher self. “Philip St Romain is dead!” came the word. “Quit trying to find him”…

Since then, the Egoic pole of consciousness has returned, only not as before. For although there is, with me, a very definite sense of “I”, this “I” is not the old mental-conceptual Ego. Now, the “I” is just an “I”… I have become increasingly aware of my attending self, or “I”, as pure attention itself. It often feels like the Ground Itself sees out of my senses, and when this happens, attention is realized at its Root. There is just the seeing…

Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality (1991)

This is an excellent description of death and rebirth into a different form of consciousness, the idea embodied in those myths I’ve mentioned before — Zagreus and Osiris, etc. The “Ground” mentioned is the “Dynamic Ground” of transpersonal psychologist Michael Washburn. The new “I” doesn’t get in the way so much, and doesn’t need to be got out of the way for “it” to happen through the person. This is the key. Note how the “ego death” just happened, naturally, which is why it can be so central in so many places. This is natural human functioning, of a certain kind.

Spontaneity is central to Kundalini — the bodily movements, the feelings, the perceptions, the natural results of wiring into the bigger version of oneself previously excluded by habitual attention only to what comes through the physical channels. All of this occurs.

I don’t see enough on spontaneity. Psychology doesn’t often understand its relevance and stamping it out of people is one of school’s first tasks. All moments of creativity and inspiration are spontaneities. This to me is what transpersonal psychology should be about, this psychology which goes “beyond the person”. Not so much with the maps based on comparing thinkings. I suppose that may be natural at the transcendent level — but how do you get there? I want more with the getting sleeves rolled up and finding these links. Spontaneity works on the ordinary level and then on non-ordinary levels. That makes it a principle with universal application.

Another master of generating Breakouts, Milton Erickson, shines when it comes to how rigidity grows in the natural frame of reference:

Eventually the entire conscious awareness of the individual may become restrictively governed or dictated by the very structure that originally developed to allow an increased freedom of response.

– Ronald Havens, The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson (1985)

… which is why one needs to let go of that structure. But Erickson didn’t do what Benson did and give a range of formulae for one’s own breakouts, since his interest was purely clinical. He was a master at getting others out of their own ways, but didn’t see it as his job to give them a new map about what had happened. For Erickson all conscious maps are wayward, bizarre, rigid and complex, but the unconscious is simple, universal, and brilliant if allowed to work.

Of the world traditions, Taoism is the one that most values spontaneity — it has a term for it, ziran, which is fundamental since Laozi. Isabelle Robinet points out that ziran is the Te, the power, of the Tao itself, and represents “being natural in its highest sense”:

… ziran defines the way the world goes on by itself without anyone “doing” it… In human beings, ziran means being free from dependence on some other thing or substance [equivalent to self-actualised]… being natural… and being creative… To respect ziran one should not interfere (wuwei)… To act spontaneously is to have no intention of one’s own, to let the natural force that is within everything work freely…

Routledge Encyclopedia of Taoism, entry “ziran

It’s quite nice to see such an exact match. Whatever one says about religious tracts, once one has taken on board some of the functions of “it” in us, along with the process of transformation into “it”, a lot of Tao Te Ching turns out to be precisely about that process. Differences in translation can be interesting, here are two good ones…

Act without action, (wuwei)
And nothing is without order.

(ch. 3, Wing)

Act without contrivance
And nothing will be beyond control

(ch. 3, Lin)

The idea itself is everywhere you look in that book. “It” orders, “it” controls, “you” act without acting, without it being “you” acting.

Knowing what beauty is makes ugliness, do not take hold of the world and act on it (that is, let go), do not employ forceful strategies, what you seize you lose. Teach the practice of no words, the usefulness comes when you don’t make an effort, act without expecting, make use of what is not there, abandon strategy, allow yourself to become obscure, know the male but hold to the female and become the world’s stream, become the pattern itself, enter the substantial and do not be occupied with the veneer…

… just finished a dash through Benson’s book again. A good story I’ll give briefly: An ambitious attorney has a huge case that could make his career, gets incredibly stressed, and ignores all advice from Benson on how to reduce stress. As he rises for his summation he thinks he will “never get a word out”, yet delivers an excellent address with incredible crowd rapport by having a spontaneous breakout based on one simple thought: none of this really matters.

As Benson notes (p. 77) at that moment he abandoned control over his situation — a perfect reflection of the Laozi ideas.

“None of this really matters”. When you have been struggling, struggling for ever, is that statement not in itself a kind of death? The push and the stress have engaged the nervous system, telling it in effect that this struggle is all about staying alive — the sympathetic fight/flight response is entrained. When you let go of that, you realise that your attempt to control is not keeping you alive, that life itself is what is giving you life.

Deep spiritual experience is stronger than this and leads to permanent changes, as St Romain was describing. As Paul says, “Die every day,” and Soko Morinaga ups it to every moment. There’s a whole chapter on this in the rebuttal (now being digested by its first advance readers BTW, many thanks to them) because Webster carps on it.

“Stress” or arousal is good up to a point — then let go. Have this take place within a realm of quiet attention… etc.

For those interested, here are Benson’s basic ideas on triggering mechanisms (for use after you have gone as far as you can with the conscious struggle upcurve remember) — all these can lead to a Breakout:

1. Repetitive physical or mental activity breaking previous thought patterns.

2. Becoming immersed in some expression of your personal belief system.

3. Surrendering, “total abandon” (as with the attorney above).

4. Participating in an absorbing personal encounter.

5. Becoming deeply engaged in an altruistic activity.

6. Filling your mind with a dominant sensory impression — sound or sight.

These are fine places to start. You can combine them. Obviously qigong works real well. The full list of individual Breakout trigger activities is 3 whole pages of the book — pp. 40-3. As I say, copies are going for 11p on Amazon so if you want this, go for it.

Sometime I’m going to talk a little about that second item, the “belief system”, and various radical ways to think about that… a combination of philosophy and the ability to reprogram the nervous system can produce very interesting results. In the end I have always tried to avoid being a “true believer” because once independent you can get results from your own sets of symbols, provided you know where the bottom line is.

Advanced processual meditation goes further than Benson knows about which is where Glenn comes in, but the priming and the letting go can both be done in meditative states. That’s where the aforementioned observing/witnessing states come in, which allow “it” to happen because “you” are just the process of watching the process. The “preliminary stress” just means concentrated attention and qi.

As a final word, I know nothing about Eckhart Tolle but I just remembered something I’d seen once:

One night shortly after his 29th birthday, Tolle says he was in a state of suicidal despair [as he had been all his life BTW]. “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And this question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void. I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.”

He pauses and reflects. “The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness”, just observing and watching.” He laughs lightly. “I had no explanation for this.”

Classic breakout from lifelong struggle on the “who am I?” level, resulting in ego death seemingly. His way doesn’t seem Kundalini-orientated and he doesn’t understand there’s more to enlightenment than this “egoless state”, but his description precisely parallels St Romain’s. And his process is slap in the middle of the theory we have here. Which is what I mean about a universal principle!


Naturalizing the Breath

The beginning of transcendent wisdom at soul/energy level, in quite a few traditions, is a kind of balance, contained and managed, which allows the motion of life without getting swept up in it. (The East-West difference in conceptualisation of that balance is fascinating, and I’ll get to that next week.) It’s in this context that Epicureanism, or indeed any of the other philosophies in which desire is managed down, are so useful. Not desiring more than one has means being satisfied, content, and peaceful. This is pleasure. That calculus of desire, where what arises is easily satisfied, allows life not to disturb — ataraxia.

It is easy and profitable, like I said before, to retrofit or graft the Chinese sexual techniques, the fangzhong shu, to the Epicurean ethic. Compatibility is the key, as much as or more than similarity. You’ll never find sexual techniques in Epicureanism since Epicurus, along with every one of his successors, was too pessimistic about sex to concoct any. So they never discovered what the Chinese did, which is that sex (with discipline and care) can be all about balance, pleasure, health and ataraxia — exactly the Epicurean aims.

It’s the same with a whole bunch of stuff — the Smile techniques of last week for example. There is nothing similar in Epicureanism but it’s bang on with their goals. Similarly, a big part of what you learn in qigong or kundalini practices is about breathing exercises. These are absolutely essential to what I do, and they are entirely absent from Western ancient records, even though their philosophy is totally compatible with so much Western stuff. The pneuma doctrines the Stoics settled into, especially, are really identical to the doctrines of qi/prana. Aer was important from the beginning with Anaximenes. The doctors of India, China and Greece worked with the energy to heal. But Greece did not develop breathing.

So historically, very few people in the West know what breathing makes possible. You need to experience it. We don’t have any cultural way of describing the change of mind involved in changing breath — nor resulting changes in the matter and energy of the body. Pierre Hadot was very big on ancient philosophy as spiritual exercises which aimed at a way — his contribution is very valuable — but what he meant by “spiritual exercises” was the questioning of assumptions and intentions, along with some asceticism. Good stuff, but the training of breath and mind together is not understood.

(Via the cross-fertilisation of Stoicism with Vipassana now in progress, that may change — although Vipassana is not qigong nor yogic breathing and should not be mistaken for it.)

One person who does get some of this is Thomas McEvilley, whose massive, fascinating The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002) is a beautiful comparative study of Ancient Indian and Greek philosophy. Epicurus and the Pāli Buddha never had a more fruitful and civilised conversation — nor did Pyrrho and Nagarjuna, nor Democritus and Jain atomism, for that matter. Fun at last to see these guys hobnobbing! Academic specialisation tends to maintain a big Berlin Wall between them.

The trap, though, is signalled in the title. It’s a book about thought. It doesn’t touch practice, except at odd moments. And it’s enthusiastic, and the impressionable may see things that aren’t there, like one Amazon reviewer, who said that “Plato’s Academy was a Yoga ashram, in effect”. Perhaps one could get that entirely mistaken impression from statements in the book like: “Every mystical element in Indian thought can be found in Greek thought too.” It’s that word again — “thought”. Thought is not practice. There’s a footnote: “This overlap, however, does not include the practice of yoga, which seems a distinctively Indian accomplishment…” That reviewer didn’t look in the footnotes. Gah! I’ve been there.

Plato was no yogi. Whatever his ‘unwritten doctrines’, which featured plenty of mathematics as I understand, the basics of the academy seem to have been dialectic and geometry, with the new academy meandering to scepticism very soon after his death. There were no real exercises of breath and qi in Platonism, none in Epicureanism, and none in Stoicism, although McEvilley claims not to be sure:

Whether Stoics, like Hindus, attempted to establish the right inner vibration through direct control of the breath is not known; more probably they worked directly on the hẽgemonikon [intent] rather than on the bodily breath … most importantly, the Stoics seem no more than other Greek schools to have taught meditation and bodily discipline in anything like the Indian yogic manner.

And yet — the similarity he mentions between the thought processes of these conversations allows us to retrofit. We don’t need to be naively universalist because there is actual similarity of thought and theory, just as much with China as with India. Along with the theory of breath and qi/pneuma, there are all sorts of compatibilities of thought which allow graftings of practice. (I’m far from the first to notice that Heraclitus is often a Taoist.)

I don’t know why the West never developed breath regimen. It just didn’t. I see more or less nothing major on breath until the 20th century, when Bardon’s system appeared, which does heavily feature breath, but I have no idea where it came from. The system is very different from Eastern methods (more next week), alienatingly so for me, enough that there may be some sort of occult oral transmission I know nothing about. Agrippa hardly mentions breath, although when he does it’s Bardonish I suppose.

Stephen Chang includes information on various forms of Crane Breathing, Reverse Breathing, and Bone Breathing

On the less heathen angle, there’s a page of breathing in Loyola’s Exercises (which would be 16th c.), more or less equivalent to an impassioned Christian version of Herbert Benson (20th) which in a more Humanist mould is where Glenn began too. But of the breathings available on my reading lists — the belly breaths, the reverse breaths and so forth — there is no hint in any Western document of any period, that I have seen yet. I’d love to be shown some.

I’m told the following inscription may well date from 500 BCE, right in the floreat of Heraclitus (or Pythagoras or Xenophanes). Just then, the path we know as Taoism was coming to exist. The Neiye, that masterpiece of early China which advocates the joy and health of quiet practice in a way that would gladden any Epicurean, was still a century off. Laozi and Zhuangzi weren’t born nor thought of. But already there was breath in this inscription whose history remains obscure:

When transforming the breath, the inhalation must be full to gather the magic. To gather the magic, fullness must be extended. When it is extended it can penetrate downward. When it can penetrate downward, it is magic. When it descends it becomes calm, solidifies, and is both strong and firm. When it is strong and firm, it will germinate. If it germinates it will grow and retreat upward. If it is attracted back, then a man can reach both heaven and earth in the same breath. When it retreats upward, it reaches the top of the head. When it falls forward, it can caress the feet and still press down. The secret powers of Providence move above. The secret powers of the Earth move below. He who follows this will live; he who acts against this will die.

CLICK TO ENLARGE
Chinese Breath Inscription, ?500 BCE

That’s Glenn’s preferred translation of it (Martial Arts Madness, 1999). I reproduce the original at right. I have four other translations, found in the 2 Glenn-approved vols. of Jane Huang’s Primordial Breath (2 vols., 1987 and 1990), which translate some intriguing texts on this stuff from the Taoist Canon. The theory there was, we don’t know what a lot of these symbols mean for sure these days so safety lies in numbers. The calm, the solidity and firmness, all relate to the balance and ataraxia with which I began this post. Anyone who thinks ‘magic’ is a poor word doesn’t know breathwork (and didn’t know Glenn!)

It’s by such cultural productions that you know China is going to develop breathwork, but Greece produced nothing of the kind. Maybe Peter Kingsley would tell me there’s the odd word in Empedocles. But it’s thin. What there is, though, is compatibility. Personally, I feel like this stuff fulfills a promise that simply never fruited in the Western past.

Anyone interested in breath will find useful stuff in Glenn’s books — see Reading List. From the Qigong Reading List, I indicate particularly Bi Yongsheng, with Stephen Chang and Takahashi/Brown also relevant.

Since not everyone has caught up with the excellence of the Bi Yongsheng book yet, I’ll end by transcribing a passage I’ve found very helpful. Of course, as recent events on this blog show, I certainly am not always quite as peaceful as I’d like to be! :) But then, I have major experiences going on at the moment which maybe one day I’ll write about. Meanwhile, the following on what you might call the ataraxia of breathing has helped me a great deal:

The ancients laid much stress on the manner of breathing in their practice of regulation of respiration, stating four phases (xiang) of respiration: wind phase (feng xiang), gasp phase (chuan xiang), air phase (qi xiang) and rest phase (xi xiang). With the wind phase, one can hear the rough sound of his own breath; with the gasp phase, though he may hear no sound of his breath, he may feel stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air; with air phase, he may neither hear the rough sound of breath nor feel the stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air yet his breath is not even; and with the rest phase, which is a state of extreme quietness, he may achieve deep, long and even respiration. It was believed in ancient times that “concentrating on the wind phase may derange the mentality, on the gasp phase may cause knotted mentality, on the air phase may strain the mentality, and only on the rest phase can the mentality be set peaceful”.

– Bi Yongsheng, Chinese Qigong Outgoing-Qi Therapy (1997), p. 167


Ceci n’est pas une religion

I’d like to thank one of my readers, kamatakki, for turning me onto this guy, S. N. Balagangadhara, putting patterns in place that solve problems I’ve had a long while but basically ignored. He’s rather irascible and sometimes wrong (Balagangadhara I mean, not kamatakki ^_^), but that doesn’t matter, because his most important points are evidential — and anyone can check him. This will not be a long post; follow up as desired.

I’ve always been worried about this week’s question, although never enough to actually do anything about it. Once, in China, I was talking to a local about the temples in Beijing and she said that one in particular was not Buddhist, but Taoist. But then she looked at me in a way that I could not parse. It seemed to be a glance of uncertainty, but what could that mean? She was not quite sure of what she was saying. But even more strangely, it seemed she wanted confirmation from me. How could that be? I was the stranger, she was the local, wouldn’t she know to which religion a particular temple belonged?

An easy assumption to make, but since then I’ve learned what is now quite common knowledge in academia although almost completely unknown outside it: much of what Westerners have been calling ‘religion’ in non-Abrahamic contexts really is their own invention. The Western model of “religions” based on texts and doctrines doesn’t travel.

To attempt to understand religion in China as several systems of doctrine is to read Western experience into a quite different set of circumstances.

– Thompson, Chinese Religion (1995)

The post-Christian Western idea is that doctrines drive everything, so at the base of spiritual traditions must be some belief system holding a relationship of equivalence to their creed — you don’t believe Christianity, so what do you believe? But this is false; it might not matter what you believe. And in China it most often doesn’t.

Thus the hesitation of my Chinese acquaintance was perfectly natural. I think she referred to the Dongyue temple, which is indeed “Taoist”, in the sense of having been built by followers of the Celestial Masters tradition of Daojiao (“Way-Teaching”, a term only extant from the 5th c. CE), but its presiding deity, Dongyue, “Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak”, has been thoroughly integrated into Confucian and Buddhist traditions too. Like earlier examples I gave, this deity has been quite a few things to quite a few people over time.

My Chinese interlocutor knew that calling a temple ‘Taoist’ labelled it with a creed which we Westerners expect, somewhat equivalent to the imported exclusivist Communism under which she lives. The supposedly underlying explicatory doctrine did not matter to her the way it did to Christian scholars. The deity concerned is associated with Taoism in this case (as often), but the temple in Beijing does not represent a model which is followed throughout China in association with Dongyue, or with Taoism. It doesn’t follow what we might call the ‘spiritual franchise model’ of Christian churches. You don’t have to ‘be a Taoist’ to enter.

I'd be careful who you call a religion...

(As for the incredible menagerie of other deities in that temple, check it out. You will love this!)

So the left-brain categorisings of reflexive Western understanding are not used by Chinese people — unless they are Chinese scholars aping Westernism of course, but as the economics continue to seesaw, the power to set agendas will slip away East.

There is no exact word corresponding to English ‘religion’, in China. Our modern assumptions see religion everywhere but initial European observations were quite different. The outflowings of this fact are ridden to exciting destinations by Balagangadhara, who is Indian, but whose ideas link with China (and pagan Europe.) One simply has to observe that:

A standard Chinese response to being queried on “religion” in China is to say that the Chinese do not have one.

– Paper, The Spirits are Drunk (1995)

(Paper’s book is recommended to spiritual explorers wanting academic info on Chinese religion, since he has transpersonal experience and knows how that fits in to his subject — most scholars are still flat-footed on this, including Balagangadhara.)

The Chinese then, even once some word has been found to translate the concept of “religion”, do not recognise it. And interestingly, early Christian encounters often also say, “the Chinese have no religion”, on the record, which may be checked. This is Balagangadhara’s evidential point since the same thing happened in India — the first European arrivals there were clear that no religion was to be found, and in fact it was much the same story with the rest of the world as they encountered it.

Balagangadhara (“Balu” to friends and admirers) simply suggests: if the locals thought they had no religion, and the visitors too, why disagree with them? They were right.

And I think that’s a very good way to look at it. By the time more imperialising assumptions that “everyone has religion since it is a natural instinct” have been unpicked, not so much remains in the Western concept that is mirrored in the non-Western ones. Traditions all over the world do a whole lot of different things, often connected, but those things may in toto certainly be neither equivalent to, nor felt similarly to, what Abrahamic religion does. So it may not be appropriate to call them all “religions”, a Western word which since Christianity bludgeoned Roman pagan religio into submission really has meant ‘something like scripture-based doctrinal Abrahamism’.

So much clicks, then. We as Westerners used to make a distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ ritual in China, for example — conveniently ignoring the fact that the Chinese never made such a distinction. which is valid only for our culture. Chinese rites are more accurately seen as ‘agnostic’ (Paper p. 27), with the emphasis on the actions themselves, not on any object they have in view. The interesting Michael Saso, a Westerner ordained as a priest in a Taoist sect, agrees (1990) that “Chinese religion is not a belief system.”

Other implications… “Interfaith dialogue” for one is probably an Abrahamic model — having participated once I can testify to the falseness of the equivalences it assumes between traditions, although I had no clue why at the time; but if most “religions”, to the extent they even exist as such, can’t really be called ‘faiths’, much is explained. The famous “Belief-O-Matic” quiz over at Beliefnet which claims to be able to stream you into the correct religion on account of “what you believe” is operating on false and falsified assumptions too. The name hints at the link between those false assumptions and the mechanised universe it is still heresy to believe we don’t live in.

Many neopagans have likewise known for a long while that they were after “orthopraxy not orthodoxy”, and I hope many will be proud to say that what they do is neither equivalent to nor necessarily competition for Abrahamism. The initial category equivalence between ‘pagan beliefs’ and ‘Christian beliefs’ was drawn by Christians and was a major plank of the either/or conversion process.

Often, left to themselves, non-Christians would historically be happy to include Christ alongside other deities in a multiplicity. One saw this desire in India as Balu points out — in China too — and one sees the actual living result in the Greece of a century ago according to Lawson, whose book is absolutely invaluable although often overlooked. If pagan traditions were belief systems/worldview-faiths this natural instinct to include Jesus of Nazareth alongside other gods could not arise.

I also mention again my previous review of Versluis’ wonderful and unique book on the nature of inquisitions, with its concept of ‘ideocracy’, rule by correct ideas, acting as driver of a belief-based absolutism and happy to torture those who dare to think differently. Reading him alongside Balu, it becomes far clearer why inquisitions flourished under a “religious” system (and why totalitarianisms are indeed well seen as religions in Balu’s sense and could take over the inquisitions). It’s simply that ideocratic systems claim to own and describe the world for our and its good. One may extrapolate reasons why over-dogmatic dualistic absolutisms are at the root of a lot of the mental difficulties of the modern de-religioning West, which mental health professionals have to deal with. It all fits.

(One may often hear a person speaking of ‘religion’ who is unable to make these distinctions; under questioning they may not only have trouble defining their subject, but also realise they had not even realised they had trouble.)

Meanwhile I will interpret a writer like Patanjali much as Glenn did — psychologically and philosophically. That is my real interest, not “religion”, hence this may well be my last post on the subject of “religion” itself, which I’m sure will please many. :) I may read a little further on the question of “heresy” to see if it bears out the above (there is something similar in Confucian traditions I’m told), but I honestly think that’s a minor point best understood in light of the psychological necessity of individuation.

... mais il existe des alternatives au combat! Thanks to Cryhavok

My life as predicted has been speeding up and I also have a lot of new transpersonal insights to digest, so some posts upcoming may be shorter in the sense of fewer words, but actually will cover more ideas more tersely. As ever thanks for reading, and I appreciate your thoughts if you want to share them, whether here on the ‘Box or in private.

Best wishes,

Jason


Tales from the Tao

When I was young, I knew something about underlying worldness which I afterwards forgot, or let lie. I knew things had aliveness, including trees and rocks, somehow bound up with their meaning and the meaning of everything. Communication happened with a spellbinding quality in a togetherspace that seemed to evade regular human communication.

What was this? Where did it go? Why did meditation and energy bring it back again, and then some? People like Ken Wilber have been misled by Jean Piaget into believing animism is a charmingly mistaken childhood phase of anthropomorphic projection. This is the worst answer since a schoolboy who was asked “What is ananke?” replied it was for wiping your nose. (Actually quite close to Tao in obscure Greek myths is the answer.)

It seemed impossible to pursue these feelings as adolescence went forward — but difficult to be myself without them. Felicitas Goodman has written beautifully of a similar predicament:

Felicitas Goodman -- she's got over her alienation

On the eve of my twelfth birthday I had a severe headache… The next morning I bled for the first time. I went to my mother… “This means,” she said, “that we now have an adult daughter in our house.”… Very soon I discovered all on my own what being an adult apparently meant, and confided it to my diary: “The magic time is over”… I noticed the impediment first with the fresh, crunchy snow which fell right after my birthday. It was nice, but I could not make it glow…

I believe today that a large part of initiation in wiser societies… has to do with helping the adolescent to reconstitute the waning capacity for ecstasy. The harsh stimulation[s] of the nervous system… are designed, I think, to substitute a different, an adult, form for the spontaneous ability to call up that very special trance…

Obviously I was living at the wrong place. How gladly I would have submitted to whatever trial if only someone could have told me what it was I was losing… Actually, I was coming up for confirmation, which was modelled after ancient initiation rituals, but it was cruelly vacuous… nothing, absolutely nothing happened. I did not even know what I had expected, but it was very clear to me that I had not received it.

Where The Spirits Ride the Wind (1990)

That’s the only sad part of her book as she describes her very clever and intuitive rediscovery of ways to vivify that are still being used. Glenn’s ideas perfectly chime with all this. Note the sexual energy redirected at menarche which corresponds with id and ultimately with kundalini. Also important are those methods of ‘harsh stimulation of the nervous system’ in traditional cultures which engage the same energy and are used in many quarters historically and today — see for example Shadow Strategies p. 286 or Martial Arts Madness p. 18, although, as the latter points out, “meditation seems a clear winner over torture”.

Like Goodman I didn’t know there were ways forward that actually worked. Of course, my culture didn’t always want me to. I’d love to blame materialism and Christianity alone for the deadness of the material world as presented to me, and I wouldn’t necessarily be far wrong, but there are no nature worshippers amongst the Platonists either. Even the Stoics, who valued harmony with Nature above all and knew about ch’i, didn’t write on aliveness. The reason we tend to “grow out of animism” in the “Civilised West” is simply that there has never been a widespread mature version of it to grow into. Being raised on Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, and seeing how important the idea of an alive nature was to many people, I wondered why.

After Kundalini these things were radically revivified and I began to get answers. The social mind programmes the natural one — right down to the energetic system. It went a lot deeper than I thought.

Big civilisations rarely have strong animist elements; polytheism may help maintain them since perversely monotheism tends to dualism (more on a subject related to that next week.) Some cultures keep more for longer in their learned phases, some less. China in some ways exemplifies the former, Europe the latter. Taoism of course is not mainstream in China since it rejects the Confucian emphasis on the sincerity of ritual in favour of Naturalness, but natural Tao itself in China is usually the basis. Ming era Confucians thus found Jesuit missionaries puzzling since Chinese sages said following Nature was the Tao, but the missionaries said that overcoming nature was the Tao. One may draw conclusions at that point.

Without some way to reconnect the energy, there’s often nothing an individual can do. Society impacts our minds because we need to survive; society is our way of doing so, and we are its. Glenn points out somewhere that the social mind experiences only the reality allowed for it and that includes strong influence on your biology. If a culture likes to manipulate nature as a mechanism it probably can’t conceive of natural aliveness and harmony, at least not without wincing, so it will have a job to perceive it. Individuals must thus know how to accept the Shadow, which includes the socially unacceptable, to experience the deeper truth.

Different civilisations, different rules. André-Georges Haudricourt had a wonderful little theory, interesting and at least somewhat true. He thought that in the Mediterranean and Middle East, herding became archetypal, more than agriculture. Herding involves shouting and prodding and enforcing your will on a bunch of often silly, stubbornly recalcitrant animals, so it made a monotheistic god who shouted and enforced his will on silly recalcitrant humans. The animal, hence nature, became the problematic half of a dualist value system. Shepherd images in Christianity are legion. The symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet, which is pictographic like the Chinese, includes not only an ox, but an ox-goad as well.

Just happens

China developed the more agricultural archetype. You don’t yell at plants. Anyone who has done any gardening knows the magic is that it just happens, slowly, mysteriously, and often completely out of sight. At a certain time, given certain conditions, things know what to do. The principle behind that knowing is part of what the Chinese called ‘Tao’, which is mysterious, invisible, feeds all, and has the respect of everything, fulfilling itself in all natural actions. But without having to yell and try to be ‘in charge’– indeed its silence and mystery in accomplishing everything is a measure of its greatness to both Taoists and Confucians. It remains animism-friendly, since the natural order is its sphere, and it forms the connection between all natural things, including us:

The Great Tao extends everywhere.
It is on the left and the right.

All Things depend on it for growth,
And it does not deny them.
It achieves its purpose,
And it does not have a name.
It clothes and cultivates All Things,
And it does not act as master.

Tao Te Ching 34

The Tao produces;
Its Power supports;
Its Natural Law forms;
Its influence completes.

Thus All Things without exception
Respect the Tao and value its Power.
To respect the Tao and value its Power –
No one demands this, and it comes naturally.

– 51 (R. L. Wing tr.)

Since the Tao ‘does not act as master’, one could not imagine a ‘jealous Tao’ as there is a ‘jealous God’. Tao has the respect of all things whether they know it or not, like any natural law. (Gravity and evolution don’t exactly need to hector you into obedience.)

Spiritual actualisation is a question of optimising and harmonising the natural processes within a human being. People who do have a way to do that will find themselves perfectly capable of sensing similar processes in the wider world. There is aliveness, consciousness, and a motion which communicates in feelings and images. It’s significant that Glenn associated the spirit of kundalini with the id, the creative power running through the human system, a concept which can widen to include “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Poets like him have to work hard to maintain aliveness and often write in image-feeling-metaphors of the kind one finds transferred with ch’i.

The language they write in may also be relevant since the western pictographs have long since vanished. All human lettering systems start out as image-metaphors, poetry in themselves. In the Chinese system these of course remain. Morrissey recently embarassed himself by spitefully calling the Chinese a ‘subspecies’ which is the act of a rather snide and bitchy poet alienated by a thoroughly different linguistic and philosophy. The Chinese are the only massive civilisation with very highly developed thinking in a non-Indo-European, uninflected language. They show little preoccupation with the static ideal beingness that Western philosophy has argued about since Greece, because unlike ours their language doesn’t naturally refer to it. But science’s new numerical language gets flow better and as a result the systems-science view has far more in common with the Chinese one than with the Platonist.

Saturating oneself with ch’i increases the vitality and with that comes awareness. It is natural to be so saturated when young, but requires more skill when older. Qigong is a far calmer way than romantic poetry, which is rarely content since it is always trying to leap for unattainable heavens which could only be actually attained in a state of peace. The feeling I have is often much more like the simple Navajo chant:

The mountains, I become part of it.
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters, I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen, I become part of it.

Navajo Chant calligraphy and collage by Tina Fields -- click to see the originals on her excellent blog

Pure materialism will many times not survive long-term quiet. Folklorist Barre Toelken spent time with the Navajo and noticed things happening, writing some of the more extraordinary ones down in a paper for Barbara Walker’s Out of the Ordinary — Folklore and the Supernatural (1995) which is full of good things and includes tales like this:

On many occasions when I was living with my adopted Navajo family in the 1950s, people would begin acting as if they had received some information from afar… after a month or so of herding sheep and carrying water to our corn plants day after day, some family members would suddenly prepare for a trip… I would hear offhand comments like, “Perhaps there’s a sing [curing ceremony] down by Red Mesa”… On our way toward the Red Mesa area… we would encounter other Navajos heading in our direction… A day later we would pull our wagon over the crest of a hill and find a gathering of perhaps a hundred people near someone’s hogan… No phone calls, no maps, no addresses, no written invitations, no messengers… the reservation itself is the size of Belgium, and families often live miles from the next… There is no doubt in my mind that these events… actually “happen”, for they are witnessed by everyone who is involved.

Toelken calls this the ‘moccasin telegraph’. ‘Becoming part of it’ would be an equally good term. Jung’s name for it was synchronicity and it was really working for him since his theories are in the enviable position these days of having some interesting science supporting what he did instinctively. He liked the leaf-cutter ants which are too short-lived to observe mating behaviour in the previous generation but know exactly what to do; it just happens when the time is right. Human males will know that when the time is right to mate (when isn’t it), the anima will provide the appropriate picture to guide that all-important nervous system energy; whatever an ant uses for an anima does the same thing. The ant may have less irony about it and less neurosis. Such flows and timings appear everywhere in nature. There are signs of it in the Middle Eastern religions we’ve inherited — Proverbs 30 for example, with its ‘wisdom of the ants’.

Tree + Ch'i

Exchanging ch’i with a tree on a regular basis will do plenty for you — Liang and Wu do some nice qigong in that line, including clever protection ideas I may try this summer. I know an oak in Regent’s Park who is strong stuff indeed. No two qigongs work with trees the same way. Lam has a different approach as does Chia in this nice video.

The Tao achieves its purpose, spontaneous natural action in consonance with rhythms flowing in an immemorial patterned system… the geese fly West, the ants mate, the sing happens near the Mesa… a girl reaches menarche and begins her longing for spiritual contact. Humans are sometimes overcome by aspects of their delicately complex systems and can deviate from this livingness or from their own voice and identity in a way that causes them considerable pain. That’s the dark side of free will and quiet is often a part of the answer. Accepting one’s own nature, spontaneity, and living in the territory rather than the map, are all pointed up in the of actualised people.

The feeling of being connected back up with kundalini was for me such a relief, like being alive again, and synchronicity goes through the roof as heaven and earth find each other and new relationships open up. Accepting the Shadow matters here partly because you are receiving info with source and intent different from normal, that shapes the system in a different way. Info humans consider important is normally social, verbal, screen-based and other ‘intellectual maps of desired results’ which is useless for this. The ability to accept neutrally rather than to seek to repattern reality is what opens one up to these feelings, images and energies.

Since some may not believe that ants have mythopoeic subconscious minds, I give this next story for them, or anyone who believes animism is for kiddies. Lineage successor Rob Williams told it about Glenn:

Doc liked to go hiking… We drove out to New Iberia, right along the coast of the swamp… I happened upon a large gator… I got as close as I could… took a picture and backed away. Glenn had walked across a narrow foot bridge that was about 40 feet long. He was already on the other side looking out into the water. I noticed a brownish cloud coming up from the river on my left. As it approached I realized it was a swarm of wasps.

Glenn had told me about the Louisiana wasps that were huge yellow jackets. They had a powerful sting. I felt uneasy as they collected into a sphere shaped swarm between Doc and me, over the bridge. I thought back to when I first walked fire. I assumed the go for it attitude and, with no fear and great confidence, walked across the bridge through this swarm of wasps. They were bouncing off my face and body as I walked through them to the other side of the bridge. I didn’t get stung. I walked over to Doc with adrenaline pumping through me. I turned and looked back to see the swarm circle, break formation and fly on down the river. I asked Doc if he had seen the swarm and he didn’t answer… He was such a wizard. He was testing me using familiars in nature.

Hoshinjutsu, pp. 94-5

Says hi to Glenn from me... :)

Animism says we are interacting with Persons. Glenn was in tune with the Tao enough to do that in a major way since he knew Persons don’t all look like your auntie marge. We met talking swords months back. The Tao is a mass of intertwining morphic fields, a way of knowing and communicating, ch’i moving through the world. Each thing has its own identity, its own Tao within the mix, its own lifestream, all accomplishing itself in cycles and flows small and large.

The Tao has no fixed position;
It abides within the excellent mind.
When the mind is tranquil and the ch’i is regular,
The Tao can thereby be halted.
That Tao is not distant from us;
When people attain it they are sustained.
That Tao is not separated from us;
When people accord with it they are harmonious.

Therefore: Concentrated! as though you could be roped together with it.
Indiscernible! as though beyond all locations.
The true state of that Tao:
How could it be conceived of and pronounced upon?
Cultivate your mind, make your thoughts tranquil,
And the Tao can thereby be attained.

Neiye ch. 5 (Harold Roth tr.)


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