Archive for the ‘Tao Te Ching’ Tag
[This post begins a series of explorations of nine themes that can serve as sources of ritual and common ground for Druids and Christians. I’m setting forth on such a series for two reasons. First, reader interest spiked, with visitors from over a dozen countries in the 24 hours after “Jesus and Druidry, Part 3” was posted. Second, I include myself among the interested.
The great majority of us have Christian friends, relatives or co-workers. Also, many of us know Biblical stories and images, and count them as part of our “wisdom-store”. Some of us have also experienced the more toxic forms of institutional religion but nonetheless have managed to hold on to a love for the Light in its Christian garb.]
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“Image is more transformational than doctrine”.
As I started to draft a list of Druid-Christian themes, that message came through sharply. How to make generous use of imagery in helping to energize the transformations Druidry — and Christianity — can provide? John Muir writes, “The power of imagination makes us infinite”. I’d amend that: the potential in the wise use of imagination can reveal our limitlessness. Not as snappy, but more accurate, for me.
First on my list of image-themes is “trees”. As a primary Druid focus, trees also link to Christianity. One obvious example appears in the book of Genesis with its two trees in Eden, the tree of knowledge* and the tree of life. If Druids are tree-knowers and seekers of tree-wisdom, these two trees have something to teach.
arbor scientiae — tree of knowledge
One year as I read Genesis with my high school students in freshman English, a student quipped that the real problem was one of sequence. Adam and Eve simply ate from the wrong tree first. “What are we supposed to take away from this? Go for immortality, then knowledge!” (The other order may leave you wise but dead.)
Wit can take you surprisingly far at times. Perhaps the serpent as well was mistaken in the advice he gave. Why no mention of the other tree? Was immortality in fact already an option at that point? After all, God never banned that second tree. Or did we need it, even then? Was that an early mystery? Isn’t life inherent in all we are and experience? We’ve all sensed the undying in us, even as the physical body faces all the many challenges that will one day wear it out, even as our beloved Druid trees must eventually fall.
We can also see in the two trees a kind of psychic split, perhaps — a split in us, in our consciousness. But together the two name a wholeness that Druidry and other traditions point us towards. The cycle of birth and death reveals an underlying energy or vitality — the thing that makes worlds possible, that greens (and reddens) them with life, with chlorophyll and hemoglobin. “From the One come Two; from the Two, Three; from the Three, the Ten Thousand Things”, says the Tao Te Ching.
A persistent Christian legend has it that the wood for the cross of the Crucifixion originates from the Tree of Knowledge, or in some variants of the story, from a tree that grew from seed that Adam’s third son Seth planted in his father’s corpse. A full circle of ritual story here, or better, a spiral: it’s a tree that stands at the center of the Christian drama. Literally, wood serving as the stage for the unfolding of the human experience of the loss of innocence that comes with maturation, and the return, for those willing to make the effort to learn and grow and change.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge is, after all, desirable, because it holds the power “to make one wise”, as the serpent tells Eve. Life (the Hebrew meaning of Eve) tells us as much.
Why not then a Druidic-Christian “Mass of the Holy Trees”?
“Tree and leaf, breath and fruit, wisdom and life — all these come from you …”
Bring branches and leaves, images of both cross and spiral, Brighid’s cross serving well for a combination of these. A cross — the quartered world of directions and physical energies, the elements, the cycle of death and life. Spiral — an image of eternity, of rebirth and continuity, the cycle continuing.
But wait … there’s more.
The book of Revelation gives us the image of heaven or eternity in the holy city, foursquare (four again!) and whole. And through it runs
… a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, producing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2).
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”: the tree of knowledge has merged with the tree of life — or rather there is no difference between them. All the healing we have sought in knowledge now issues from a double(d) tree — one on “both sides” of the river. And it is fruitful in every month, a cornucopia, a message that each month has its life and healing energy, freely given, whatever the apparent season. In the middle of a city, a human and humanly-shaped place, grows life in its most potent imaginal form as Tree, the world-tree, a worldwide image and cluster of stories.
Here are powerful images to unite Christian and Druid observance and practice. A second Druid-Christian theme is up next.
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Images: tree of life; Brighid’s cross tattoo; tree of knowledge.
*Tree of Knowledge: the illustration comes from Ramon Llull’s Arbre de Ciencia or Tree of Knowledge. Llull, aka Raymond Lully (1232-1315), was a renowned medieval writer and thinker, who studied both Latin and Arabic science and mathematics.
Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.
Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.
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A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.
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“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.
To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:
The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.
It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?
And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:
…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.
If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”
First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.
Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.
Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.
And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.
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So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.
Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.
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Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.
I take as my divination today an odd dream early this morning: I’m a member of a wolf pack, and my fellows have drawn me aside, possibly to be disciplined, after I am tested for truth-telling. The issue at stake, apart from truth, I don’t know. (There isn’t one?) But I feel the just authority and deserved power of my pack leader, I readily make my submission, lying flat on the ground, waiting patiently as I can, licking my chops, panting a little. At length I’m freed, though I lose the final threads of the dream and the actual issue in contention as I wake.
Who determines truth? Is it our pack? Often among social animals it’s indeed the group, for better and worse, like the words of the marriage vow, recognizing a truth about life. For submitting to a consensus is a form of contract. But such a formulation of truth results not just from others’ perceptions — a consensus averages them, bundles them together to even out the extremes, and not only may be no more accurate than my perception or yours, but may well be less.
Mere majority is no guarantor of value. “We all say so,” exclaim the Monkey People in Kipling’s Jungle Book, “and so it must be true.” Democracy, indeed, is the worst form of government — except for all the others. It’s a first approximation to that inner wisdom. Mix in other adulterating motives like the obscuring force of anger, envy, fear and so on, and the spinning moral compass still comes to rest to show that no group deserves more authority than the individual. A group may indeed have usurped such authority, snapped it up if we have ceded it, or claimed it in the absence of the rightful possessor, but that’s a different matter. The point persists behind Iolo Morgannwg’s Welsh aphorism Y gwir yn erbyn y byd — “the truth against the world” — regardless of whether we claim that inner sovereignty as our birthright, or heedlessly opt to forfeit it to whoever is the latest big noise to arrive on the scene.
A part of that sovereignty, true, urges us to seek wise counsel when our own vision falters (as it will from time to time), or does not offer sufficient guidance. But the choice to seek, follow, modify or ignore that counsel remains ours alone. It seems nowadays we’ve only a loose grip at best on the good meaning of discrimination: the ability to make vital distinctions that matter. For the opposite of discrimination is not indiscriminate approval or contempt. Rather it’s an abdication. Someone else, take up my crown and sceptre! It’s too hard! But as we come to know at cost, the only thing more difficult than struggling to uphold our sovereignty is the obscene suffering and atrocious despair we face when we let it slip through our fingers. Holocaust survivor and philosopher Elie Wiesel has said it well (adjust the pronouns to fit): “It is by his freedom that a man knows himself, by his sovereignty over his own life that he measures himself.” Without sovereignty, then, how can we know or measure accurately?
I offer as exhibits 1 and 2 most major headlines today and the lived experience of anyone over 10 years old. Among other wisdom paths, Druidry rightly asserts that it’s our inner sovereignty that comes first. All else follows from the state of our inner kingdom. It’s long work, this upholding of our sovereignty. And if like me you feel the evidence points towards reincarnation, well, we keep coming back till we get it right.Some things we know are true, against whatever the world throws down to snuff it out. Otherwise, what’s the cosmos doing, if not manifesting gloriously, excessively, magnificently, every single possibility along with a consciousness, feathered, finned, furred, to engage it, turn it back onto itself, plumb its depths, endlessly forming and re-forming.
There’s a wooden chair in the Parliament House in Machynlleth, Wales, that bears those challenging words across the headpiece. For it too is a Siege Perilous, like that “perilous chair” at Arthur’s Round Table, that stands empty awaiting the one who wins through to the Grail, the seat that proves fatal, mortal, to the mortal who sits down unworthy. This life is perilous indeed — mortal — the Ancestors weren’t wrong about that in all their stories. We’re winning through, though by all appearances none of us have quite yet “won.” But we’ve come far enough, through both hardship and joy, to recognize the seat for what it is, to puzzle out the significance of the inscription there, to feel it in our bones. We’ve caught more than one glimpse of Grail in a human face, a landscape, plumbed it in the heart’s cry, caught echoes of the Grail Song, every one of us, against all the odds the world sets for us. We can even imagine sitting down eventually.
I suspect, too, that any endpoint is part of the model and not the reality it attempts to represent. It’s an asymptote, to get mathematical for a moment, if you recall that intriguing figure from school: undrawable, really — endlessly closing in on but never reaching a final point, a terminus, some ultimate destination. It’s the horizon infinitely receding. It’s the Mystery that lies behind and inside everything, the charge that impels all things. Taoists say it’s “like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God” (chapter 4).
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Images: wolves; chair in Parliament House, Machynlleth, Wales.
With a dramatic title like that, this post really has to deliver! But all I mean by it are the usually small ways we destroy, unmake, sabotage, undermine and discourage … ourselves.
Successful psychic attacks by others are remarkably rare. Those we work against ourselves are all too common. I can’t. I shouldn’t. I don’t. I won’t. And of course, let’s not discount the low-level psychic garbage of much contemporary media, with its insistence that it knows better than we do what the truth is about the world, its prospects, our futures in it, the roots of our safety and happiness, and so on. You can almost feel “know, dare, will, be silent” seeping out of you and spinning down the drain. “If it bleeds, it leads” may sell advertising space and draw viewers and readers, but it’s less than optimal energy to nourish ourselves with, to try to live on.
One of Best Buy’s holiday logos
The solution isn’t merely to surround ourselves with a silver shield, though that’s often a good starting visualization. Whatever comes at you that you don’t want or need reflects off and away. Such a technique works well in traffic, in public places with a stew of emotions, like airports, bus stations — and any Black Friday shopping you’re daredevil enough to attempt. You can read the mindset already in place with advertising from sources like Best Buy and AARP that proclaim “Win the Holidays.” Can we make this season any more stressful?! Yes, but we don’t have to. This too is a choice we make.
And the desire I’ve witnessed in myself and many others from time to time, to retreat, withdraw, barricade the gates, is all too hobbit-like in its naivete. “The wide world is all about you,” Gandalf reminds Frodo. “You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” The Survivalist mentality is understandable, but wrong-headed. What to do?
elemental laundry magic — water, earth, air, fire
Sometimes the best magic there is to practice a simple shift of attention. Instead of someone else controlling what I will think and image and focus on, I can choose, if I wish. We all surrender this power of choice much too often, and daily. Does any advertizer, for instance, really have my best interests at heart?! But love purifies the market of the heart.
One of the most soothing of day-to-day tasks for me is laundry, especially when I can hang it outdoors and it comes in later, dry and sun-spiced — for free.
Laundry?, you say, more than a little outraged, perhaps. Consider the sly admonition of the Tao Te Ching, chap. 8:
The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. In dwelling, be close to the land. In meditation, go deep in the heart. In dealing with others, be gentle and kind. In speech, be true. In ruling, be just. In business, be competent. In action, watch the timing. No fight: No blame.
We reject what can be most helpful, because it is simple. It doesn’t appeal to our vanity, to our sense that our problems must be large and important, because we are, so we may dismiss it.
Some of these recent sunny November days have seen our backyard with laundry magic at work, bowing in a cool breeze. But even the drying racks near the woodstove work their own charm. Elemental powers, I have summoned you, and you have served me well. I thank you for your gifts of earth, water, air and fire. Both the laundry basket and my heart come away lighter, cleaner. Hail, and farewell.
Such daily magic has more power than we suspect. I smile even as I write about this, and you may too, scoffing at my innocence or simple-mindedness. But in fact simplicity can be another most potent magic. The clear, simple task, with its attainable objective, is one key to using energy well. Breaking down more complex challenges into simpler tasks is good practice, as any successful efficiency expert, organizational consultant, psychologist, trainer, businessperson, housekeeper — and magician — knows.
When we reclaim such small spaces for ourselves, we witness small successes. Of such small successes and satisfactions is a good day built, and then a week, a month, a life. I don’t need to “win” any holiday. The spaces for love and celebration are always open for us, gifts we can then give to ourselves and each other, possibilities to reclaim in the small but cumulative and thereby powerful ways that magic usually works. To end on a final Tolkienian note and paraphrase Gildor Inglorion’s words to Frodo, “Joy (like courage) is found in unlikely places.”
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IMAGES: Best Buy “Win the Holiday“; stones in garden.
Imagine a path you create as you go. We don’t need to call it “shamanism” or “Druidry” or “earth spirituality” or anything else in particular. If anyone asks, it’s “nothing special.” It’s just “what you do every day.” I call it my life.
You respond, or you don’t, to the guidance of hints, nudges, dreams, gut instinct, chance encounters, coincidence. You seek, or you don’t, for something that begins to answer the call inside you, the tickle or itch that won’t go away. Oh, you can dull it for days or decades with a wider variety of distractions now than at almost any other time in the last ten millennia.
Sometimes, perversely, it seems the call or itch or tickle is ITSELF the distraction. Can’t do it all. Just gonna live my life. Keep my head down. Leave me alone, will ya? Not gonna get suckered into a wild goose chase, a will o’ the wisp, a fool’s errand. (How many names we have for them …) YOLO. You only live once. Just do it. Live like nobody’s watching.
And the silence, which never quite goes away, which nothing ever completely fills, which opens ever more deeply inward.
Until the day it doesn’t. A barrier, a wall, a blockage. Maybe a guardian who challenges you there. Inside, perhaps, or outside. That restless partner, impossible boss, difficult co-worker, awkward relative, rebellious child. Just for you. Old story. New each time it happens to me, though. OK, so what is it this time? What’s the point, the life lesson? Sometimes a pain in the ass can just be a pain in the ass and nothing else, right? Please? Can’t the growth thing give me a break?
Then, oddly, it does. A month, a year. Smooth sailing. What’s new? Nothing much. Your holiday notes are short because, blissfully, things are going well. If you’re the suspicious type, you wonder why. If you’re just grateful, you go with it.
Soon enough the sane plainness of it all threatens to run you stark raving mad. Something, anything different. The uneventful routine you longed for has sucked you dry as last month’s bread. You’d prefer a little drama, maybe — you hear yourself actually say it — a minor, manageable disaster. Just, you know, for some color. Something different.
The universe, remarkably compliant, gives us what we ask for (or what we fear, which is asking by negation; or what we’re least prepared for, which is a gift for our carelessness; what we never saw coming, which is “a little something” for our blind indifference), whether we want it or not. The universe: compliant, and monstrous. Monster under the bed, enormous, hairy and fanged. Or snake-slick and implacable. Or less distinct, and thus scarier: dark tunnel over there, on the other side of the light, which the whirlpool of this dream drags you toward, closer, closer …
If you know all this, have done all this, seen it all, heard it all before, know it inside and out, welcome. You’ve just finished the introductory material. Now for the actual beginning.
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In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo sings of the path, his path as he leaves the Shire. (That’s old wisdom, not taught much anymore. When in doubt about something, make a song of it. It helps.)
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
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Walking two paths and contemplating the Ovate grade feels something like this to me right now. The real climb is about to commence. (Already has.) I’m standing where I’ve always been, which is on the way to somewhere I can’t quite make out. Glimpses, sometimes. A voice I know, then a good conversation one afternoon. Or a curve in the path opens onto a familiar vista. The waterfall, or lake, or mist over the valley. The call of a bird. A memory, piercing in clarity. A discovery, one that time brings you, or one that has nothing to do with time. Rest point. Then back out into it.
The start of Ovate is both the vehicle that has brought me here, and simply a step with a label off the shelf that I grab for convenience and plaster on my experience because it’s there (both experience AND label), because it caught my eye. “Oh-vate.” A little inspired, a little crazy. Vatic power, and all that. Indo-European *watis “inspired, mad, possessed, crazy.” Ancient word sent through its changes, re-surfacing in Old Irish fáith “seer, prophet” and then as Woden or Odin, god who hangs on the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days for the gift of wisdom, for insight. God who sacrifices one good eye for the same reason. Your life comes asking “What’s it worth to you?”
Warrior, traveler, initiator, self. Homeless person you meet on a street corner, and turn from, because he reeks of sweat and urine, because he’s mumbling (or screaming) to himself. So not the Druid I was looking for.
And yet this, too, is useful, or not. We reach for images to see the invisible, to name the nameless. The Way that can be walked isn’t the real (lasting, eternal) Way, says the Tao Te Ching. Six words in Chinese: dao ke dao fei chang dao. “Way can way not lasting way.” A mantra for the possible, for the (in)sane, for the despairing. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Same woods where Little Red Riding Hood meets a man-eating wolf on her path.
Carl Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolf at your elbow?
But we walk it anyway, because there isn’t any other way. No way! people say when they don’t believe something. No path to understanding. I’m stuck in surprise and disbelief. Not a problem. You can “way” it anyway. “What’s love got to do with it?” asks Tina Turner in her signature song. What’s belief — or a clear path — got to do with it? Some people stop at the first line. But the Tao Te Ching does actually offer some useful advice mixed in with the maddening inscrutability of its lines:
True, the way you can walk ain’t no lasting way. The name you give it (or yourself) ain’t no lasting name. Give one thing a name and you find a whole world of (other) things. Long for anything and you may run up against its shape (or its opposite) everywhere. Give up longing, though, and it opens into a mystery. Both of these come from the same source. If I had to name it, it’s darkness. Darkness IN darkness, a door to understanding. Really? Uh-huh.
Understanding. Great word. When you stand-under it, and don’t grab at it, it comes to you of itself, like dawn, arriving every morning without any tugging on your part. Like a bird at the feeder which grows accustomed to your presence as you patiently fill and refill the seed each day. Feed your mystery until you feel its wings beat and hear its chirping.
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The last chapter of The Lord of the Rings (which is never the last chapter, another piece of old wisdom now fallen into sad disrepute) gives us additional words to Bilbo’s walking song:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
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path; monster; Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood; Georg Von Rosen’s Woden/Odin.
In early June my wife noticed a particularly vigorous shoot rising from an old compost pile beside our woodshed. The squash plant it eventually revealed itself to be has flourished joyfully, spreading in two directions, while the pitiful growths in one of our new raised beds refuse to be coaxed into thriving.
If life gives you lemons, you could make cleaning supplies, ant repellent, pickles, sore throat medicine, laundry whitener, stain remover, fruit preservative, copper cookware restorative, disinfectant — and if you insist, lemonade, too. The dead (cliche) comes to life when our attention lies elsewhere. Practice resurrection, and get used to it.
We hear a lot about growing where you’re planted, but what about everywhere else? The surprise that is our universe so often arrives with the unexpected, the new pattern, the shift, the change. Life does a one-off. It does what it is. (Isn’t that what you are, too — individual, unique, nothing else quite like you? The trouble comes when I or somebody else insists you should be like the rest of us. The universe never “conforms.” It’s simply itself. That’s our pattern too. We are where we come from.) We stand amazed at the burgeoning of vitality in places we doubted it could exist. If we have different plans, life may upset them. A young Christian couple I know, just married, decided they would leave conceiving a child “up to God.” A friend from their congregation remarked, with considerable glee, “They gave it to the Lord, and he gave it right back to them.” She got pregnant six weeks after the wedding.
In the mass of asphalt and concrete that is Route 91, like any superhighway, a few weeds have taken root on the meter-high divider between northbound and southbound lanes, a little way north of Hartford, Connecticut. They’re particularly visible because they happen to be growing just about at eye level as you drive by, and the highway department hasn’t yet set upon them with weedkiller. I give a silent cheer each time I pass, though I know my tax dollars support their eventual extinction. Still … Give them a few years and their roots will begin to split and break down the rigidity of man-made material into the beginnings of something more closely resembling soil. If there’s an “agenda” at work here, it isn’t always a “human” one, though humans are born into such a world, have grown and evolved within and through its shaping patterns, and have lived in it for millenia before they thought to try permanence on a scale the universe doesn’t really support.
Instead of worrying about “what the financial situation will support,” or what our many and often distinctly weird human institutions “demand,” why not ask what moves in harmony with the patterns of the universe? The main reason is we wouldn’t always like the answer. Sometimes we would. But we might find more balanced and sustainable ways of living that would approach “permanence,” which is just a weak version of natural equilibrium. Could we devise a “financial permaculture” that might not jolt us from crisis to crisis? Sure. Will we?
The Dao De Jing winks at us when it makes its observations:
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents
confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts
and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions
And strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever
people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
(Gia-Fu Fen translation)
“Doing nothing” isn’t exactly what Daoism teaches; it’s more along the lines of “unforced action,” or “going with the flow”: wu-wei in Chinese. And can we expect people to succeed by weakening their ambitions? I don’t know; have we ever tried it? In all this there’s a wink and a smile, too. As if that wise voice is saying, “I don’t always mean this literally, of course, but you get the idea …” And who knows?! “Emptying hearts (in a good way) and stuffing bellies” might just pay off. Fill our stomachs, not our heads …
Or take this advice, surely perfect for our U.S. political season:
To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.
I’ll let Ursula Le Guin’s version of Chap. 27 have the final say here, a kind of diagnosis of how we’ve “gone astray,” that peculiar human thing we can do that the rest of the natural world doesn’t:
Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door is unlocked and unopened.
The best knot is not in a rope and can’t be untied.
So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.
Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s deep mystery here.
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There are many free versions of the Dao De Jing online; the site from which I drew these few excerpts provides several reasonably reputable versions to sample. Sustained meditation on the text (get a couple of versions and let them talk across to each other) can ease stress and open up many doorways and paths. It’s one of my most beloved Druid written resources. Wikipedia’s entry for Tao Te Ching captures some of its qualities: “The written style is laconic … and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.” If you recall, resolution of supposed contradictions, or finding the tertiary that resolves the binary of “either-or,” is a technique and strategy of wisdom taught in several Druid paths.
One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking. It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves. You’re with us or you’re against us. It’s good or it’s bad. You’re young or you’re old. Hot or cold. 1% or 99%. And so on. Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”
We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products. WordPress asks for tags and categories. If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses. Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.
Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries. Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines: one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life. Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them, deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.
Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics. As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind. Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind. When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles. Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*
We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness. “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end; the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless. What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three. As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world. The key is not to stop at two if we want to create. Move on to three.
Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog. He notes that
… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.
That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.
Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises. But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.
Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.” This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.
This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.
Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it. It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for
… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.
Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking. As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity. The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”
But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom. To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon. “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought. “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain. Binary alert! I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.
One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.” Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole. So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation. The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them. (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)
“Both-and” works like this. “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true. Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more. This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to! (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)
Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it. “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well. And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways. Come walk with me, and with them.
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*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.
Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.