Zero or Negative One?

Algebra was never my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that Taoist math might offer some unique perspectives on how we talk and think about the ways we are trying to live mindfully or with intention.

Taoism states that our greatest misconceptions about the world are caused by our need to categorize things with language and judgement. These judgement give rise to not one, but two ideas simultaneously. For example, when we look at something and judge it to be beautiful, that also creates and equal and opposite awareness that other things are ugly in comparison. If we judge something to be tall, then we are also aware of what it means to be short. We cannot have judgement of something along with a neutral middle, because labeling anything with one label necessitates the existence of its opposite quality elsewhere in the world.

The way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42, Victor Mair translation

I recently started reading the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi. He starts out wisely by focusing on defining his terminology. His thesis (at this early stage of my reading) is that we have fundamentally misunderstood the binary nature of the language around racism.

He works to point out the fallacy of a neutral middle ground between two opposing points. His broad argument (I would highly reccommend reading the book for a deeper perspective) is that the opposite of Racist isn’t a neutral “not racist”, it is an equally active “antiracist”. In this case, removing one from one doesn’t land us on a zero state, rather it is an equal but opposite negative number.

Writing my recent blog post “Intended Consequences” got me thinking about what the world looks like without a neutral middle ground. After talking about how being mindful and intentional in life is a great benefit to us, I got to thinking that we think of mindfulness as a bonus, an add-on to our “neutral” lives. We are exhorted to add mindfulness to our lives like a hack, an extra app on the homepage or an accessory to go along with the outfit we were already planning to wear.

Being and non-being give birth to each other, difficult and easy complete each other, long and short form each other, high and low fulfill each other, tone and voice harmonize with each other, front and back follow each other – it is ever thus.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2, Victor Mair translation

Holding the Taoist concept of equal and opposite judgments, we are faced with an interesting realization. Namely, that one is either acting towards one end or towards its opposite. Changing the language for how we talk about something like mindfulness might shed some light on what I mean. In my previous post I talked about living mindfully and intentionally, but what would the opposite be?

Living unintentionally, or unmindfully, sounds too much like a passive neutral to me. What if we change the wording to something similar: rather than intentional we can say “with care”, and rather than mindful we can say “thoughtfully”? The opposites to these don’t sound so passive any more: living carelessly and living thoughtlessly seem like dangerous ways to be, and that is exactly what Marcus Auralius is trying to highlight for us when he exhorts us to live with intention in every aspect of our lives, no matter how small.

First, nothing aimless or without ulterior reference. Second, no reference to any end other than the common good.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation, Book 12, 20

It is one thing to think of living with intention, and to infuse our craft with a conscious awareness of what we are trying to achieve each step of the way, but it is not enough to only think of it when it is going well. When we are not being intentional we are necessarily living without intent, blindly, not only losing opportunities to grow and develop, but actively denying ourselves these opportunities. Every time we do something with an intention other than towards our personal growth and development we are missing out on an opportunity to grow and develop, and choosing not to in that moment.

Taoism teaches that the world we exist in is a world of contradictions and opposites. There is no such thing as passive neutral, a zero state. Choosing not to do something allows its opposite to exist, and vice versa. The goal of Taoism is to build a personal awareness with the zero state, the unity that exists when we are able to move beyond the opposites, and see that each splitting of our perception is making it more difficult to see how we are all connected.

Thirty spokes converge in a single hub, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies. Clay is molded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies. Cut out doors and windows to make a room, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, Victor Mair translation

So maybe there is a zero state in Taoism, but the catch is that we can’t arrive there by chasing after one or another of the individual directions that appear before us. What I think is most important is to realize that being passive isn’t a way out of making judgements. When we are opting out of moving in one direction, it means that the other side of the coin gets a turn. Being aware of this helps us to make our choices thoughtfully, living intentionally, so that we can avoid the pitfalls of walking blindly through life. Living intentionally also gives us the tools to become better acquainted with ourselves. When are able to spend time looking inside we might finally be able to start moving away from the ones and negative ones, allowing them to cancel each other out, and arrive at the zero sum goal.

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