Sunday, June 18, 2006

On the Anti-Intellectualism of the Tao

In the past few months I have undertaken a serious study in the Taoist canon via firstly, the Tao Te Ching, and then a collection of Thomas Cleary translations broken down into volumes called, appropriately enough, The Taoist Classics. While I am only part of the way through the second of four volumes in this particular series, I can tell you that one common theme comes through in the pursuit of the Tao – a conscious effort to avoid conscious or, contrived, thought.

It is, for those who pursue the study of Taoist thought, readily apparent that Taoism is incredibly hard to understand, often seemingly contradicting its own logic, or complete lack thereof. The further one goes into this study, the more complicated and esoteric the Tao becomes and it is incredibly easy to get lost in the rhetoric, much of which is delivered via metaphorical prose that is in and of itself a task to decipher. However, it seems that getting lost in the rhetoric defeats the purpose of studying the Tao, as it is often stated in the literature that the words are not as important as the end result.

I am no exception to the confusion. I am currently in the middle of exploring Taoist alchemy, which is maddeningly complex and have found that my “western sensibilities” are proving of very little use in coming to understand the meaning behind these texts.

For those who don’t know, I will briefly and simply, relate what I believe to be the main purpose of the Tao: to return to the state at which one is “clear and responsive” – an almost infantile state of empty-minded, yet fully-aware consciousness. Reacting instead of acting. It doesn’t mean zoning out, or closing up, or taking a vow of silence. It simply means observing, considering and reacting appropriately according to the tenets of modern ethics, etc.

One thing I love about Taoism is the stated purpose of conforming the rhetoric to fit the current social conditions instead of ascetic adherence to an archaic pantheon of moral code. Taoism acknowledges the ever-changing state of society and encourages one to consider how his thoughts and behavior are appropriate for the time, while still incorporating the methodology and overall basic thesis of the Tao. This concept is similar to taking ‘the middle path’ – a Buddhist concept that preaches right mindfulness.

It is interesting to me, though, how the study and application of the Tao in my life has carried over to my interactions with others and my thought process in its entirety. I find this both a blessing and a curse. For example, a blessing is I have spent less time intellectualizing and over-analyzing my relationships, actions and general overall function in any given environment, which is something – for better or worse – that I am often prone to do. In fact, one might say that I have historically spent much of my time in critical self-analysis. Obviously, this affects nearly everything that I think, do or say, and so consequently, I have found it difficult to find new things to write about in this new state of mind, which is a curse, albeit a tolerable one.

I cannot say how long this foray into Eastern thought will last. I have become more and more interested in philosophy in the last few years and have pursued my interest in various media. But there is a difference between Eastern and Western thought, most notably, the degree to which a topic is intellectualized. In my brief dalliance with Eastern thought, I have found that critical analysis is forsaken in favor of simplistic face-value assessment. In fact, Eastern thought isn’t generally categorized in the Philosophy section or the religious section of a book store, but into a grey area somewhere in-between, often called, (surprisingly enough) “Eastern Thought.”

My pursuit of Taoism has inspired me to expand (once I finish with the current canon, of course) into Buddhism, which has much in common the certain schools of Taoism.

It’s strange to actively try and not think about things that are so commonly over-analyzed in one’s daily life – to let situations that are usually associated with internal or external strife enter your mind and dissolve, leaving no trace of existence whatever. I wouldn’t claim to have mastered any of the Taoist techniques, but I have experimented with it to some success and I find that much of my experience, when it lacks the taint of my personal judgment, is far more rewarding now than it once was. It’s sort of like the old saying that goes something like “love like you won’t get hurt,” etc. The pure simplicity of interaction itself is worth the effort.

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