Taoist Ethical Problems: Where Have We Been if not Home?

I have been struggling a bit recently with my chosen philosophical paths. There are some lines of thought pulling at me insistently from the edges and it is beginning to be very clear to me that I can no longer ignore them. This is mostly as a fair warning to my current followers that I will probably be diverting further from photography within the next few posts, and possibly longer, as I struggle to figure out just what this line of thinking will lead me to.

Before I get into the specifics of my current mental turbulence, I think it might be helpful for me to dig around a bit and try to pin down what I think both Taoism and Stoicism have to say about the larger question of Ethics, and what it takes to be a good person in the world. What might a higher good look like as a goal to strive for? What does a person need to do or think in order to live a good life? How relative is all of this judgement and how much of it may lie outside of ourselves?

At the core of Taoist thinking is that every unique individual has his or her own path to walk in this life. The work that we all must do if we want to live an engaged, full, aware life, is to get to know ourselves and to find that path, while also learning about the paths of the world around us, and acting in accordance with the natural flow of all things. An interesting twist that takes place here is that our “attuning” ourselves to our own nature isn’t a journey of action, a rerouting of the choices we have made up until now. It is a changing our our perceptions about the world around us and our place in it. It is largely gaining perspective about the true relationships that people, objects and creatures have with one another so that we can align our expectations with the way things really are and will continue to be, whether we go quietly or kicking and screaming.

Humans, and all objects of creation, are naturally disposed to being within their own flow at all times, and the act of us getting back to that isn’t an action of learning more facts, or doing “virtue calisthenics”, it is actually an action that has to do with getting rid of the unbalancing social constructs that we have built around ourselves within society. Dr. Carl Totton, head of the Taoist temple in L.A. has compiled a wonderful summary of key Taoist concepts with some of his colleages in which he describes this processs:

For Lao Tzu the method of happiness lies in attuning and aligning oneself to the eternal principle of the Tao as it manifests through you and all other manifestation. In order to do this we must eliminate desire and attachment, and practice “daily diminishing.”

Dr. Carl Totton, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

This journey of “daily diminishing” is aided by practices of observation of the natural world, maintaining curiosity and generosity with others, as well as self-reflection and meditation practices to help us to get in touch with deep aspects of ourselves. None of these activities can be taken for us. A deeper understanding of ourselves and our connection to the world around us is always a personal journey and can only be undertaken individually. We may look to others for inspiration, guidance and support, but they can only ever point us in a direction and offer perspective from their own work. One cannot pass enlightenment or being one with the Tao on to another human being. This is a significant piece of Taoist ethics in my understanding: that one must primarily focus on his or her own journey, and not be too quick (if ever) to pass judgment on the position of others.

This places Taoists in an interesting relationship to society around them. Even though terrible things may be happening around them, a Taoist is likely to remain distanced and somewhat neutral. After all, who are we to judge what is positive and negative. Taoists teach that these energies are really only different aspects of the same energy, and that there is always the seed of one within the other, as depicted within the yin yang symbol. Where we see difficulties in the world there may be other opportunities springing up, or following close on the heels. Where we see pain and suffering there may also be growth and development occurring. Likewise, how often do we pass judgment that things are going well when in fact disaster is looming just on the horizon as a consequence?

Amidst all of these judgments a Taoist is likely to say that we must keep perspective on what we can change, and to understand that our perceptions are limited. We must first focus on ourselves, especially because thinking that we can make better choices is often foolish. Please do misunderstand. Taoists are also very compassionate and kind, and would be quick to offer relief to those who are suffering, and support where they can, but they would not presume to try and “fix” a situation or tell others how it should be handled. At least that is where I am coming up against my reading of the philosophy.

Taoism isn’t a philosophy or religion that proselytizes, due to this ingrained belief that to try and influences other’s on their individual paths is both unhelpful and foolish. How then, could a Taoist be an activist for political or social change? How could a Taoist feel comfortable pushing their ideas of what is better onto other who must come to that understanding for themselves?

I think the particular piece of this equation that is most problematic is something that underpins this idea quoted earlier about “daily diminishing”. Ted Kardesh, another Taoist priest, explains in a later passage from the previous quoted introduction how this works to bring us back to a natural state by returning us to the way we were always meant to be.

Taoism states that all life forces tend to move toward harmony and balance because it is in their nature to do so. From the Taoist viewpoint we, as humans, have the choice of consciously aligning ourselves with the Way, or remaining in ignorance and resisting the natural order of the Tao. To choose the latter means to remain disconnected from our own personal processes, our own Tao, as well as life’s grand flow.

Ted Kardesh PhD, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

The implication, as I read it, is that humans should naturally be in this state of awareness as part of the larger flow of existence. Indeed, there are many other writers within the tradition who talk about a time prior to now when presumably Taoism wasn’t needed because everyone was simply at one with the world from the beginning.

In a sense, what we are looking at here, is a sort of original sin, in which we are born into a world unbalanced and given the choice to spend our time digging ourselves back to a place where we can reconnect to the source of all things, or to remain in ignorance and suffering. We are born elsewhere and, if we are able, must try and return to a home that we never knew.

Can the ethical base truly be so narrow as to focus on only one person at a time? True, the belief is there that we are all connected to each other and every other aspect of the world. The work that we do to return ourselves to nature is work that is done to everyone and everything, and the benefits resonate. However, there are millions of Taoists in the world including venerated religious leaders, teachers and sages. Presumably they are exhorting a strong influence on the course of the world, and yet we are still in a position where we must begin at ground zero. We are still in a place that must be significantly out of balance if we need to get back to a place that other creatures are simply born into.

I have some thoughts about how I can turn some other key concepts in Taoism into a larger ethical structure, and I will expand on them in an upcoming post. I am skeptical, however, that moving beyond this self-focused perspective would be embraced by other Taoists.

I am sure I am not the only one struggling with questions about what I can do to make positive change in the world during times like these, and I would be curious to hear from anyone who would like to share how they answer this question for themselves.

The Tao of Glass: The Stoic Machine

Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.

Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.

We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.

The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.

The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12

It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.

Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.

We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.

Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.

Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 7, 14

The Tao of Glass: Critique and Portfolio

The most useful thing I learned during my time at RISD pursuing a continuing education degree in print design, was the art of the critique. In photography the critique comes into play once you have returned home after a nice day hiking around snapping photos. There are some pictures you are pretty sure turned out just the way you want them, and there are often many, many, more that you took because something in them looked interesting at the time, but you’re not sure whether the shot was going to be worth keeping.

The art of critique is the art of knowing what your goal is, reviewing the work in context to the goal, and deciding clearly and definitively whether or not the piece has successfully achieved what you were intending.

Most people do not like this phase because it often seems like a process of focusing in areas where things were not successful, and thus the idea of “being a critic” or “being critical” have come to take on less than positive connotations.

Every time I come back from a shoot there is a wonderful mix of excitement, tinged with just a bit of dread. I can’t wait to see what I got, but secretly I am worried that I didn’t get anything, that all of my shots will turn out to have been unsuccessful.

When looking through images with fresh eyes it is easy to see the winners. When a shot works it usually grabs me, thrills me, and stands out clearly from the rest. These are the shots where I can’t always explain what is going on, but I know it when I see it. Likewise, there are shots that clearly don’t work. These might be out of focus, poorly framed or underexposed. I don’t need to spend much energy looking at these either. Disappointing to be sure, but clearly not worth hanging on to. The art of the critique isn’t to identify the shots I know are winners. The art of the critique is there most often there for me to help weed out the shots that are worth my time and effort, or can teach me something.

I find it is also helpful to think about putting together a portfolio of work. Everything worth keeping should be something that you would be proud to put in your portfolio. Is the image something you feel represents the best of what you have to offer? Would you be proud showing it to strangers? Would you want to hang it on your own wall and look at it daily? Does it represent what you find interesting? If, after asking myself these questions, I say “no”, then what is it that I am doing hanging on to the piece? If I am not happy with it enough to share it with others, or to stand beside it on the wall, then why keep it?

There are many images we take which spark something, but are not that thing in and of themselves. I have taken, and will continue to take, photos of interesting trees, but more often than not they fail to capture what I find interesting in the tree as I see it in person. I can learn from these images, learn from what was not successful, learn from the pieces that were. I can continue to try new ways to frame the shot the next time.

What I cannot do, is hang on to images that I am not planning to use later on. I don’t to post-processing or photo-collage. I can’t see any use for maintaining a generic library of images for reference, and I wouldn’t have the time to maintain it either. For me, either an image is worth keeping, or not, and that is a matter of staying true to what I value and not letting myself feel sentimental about hanging on “just in case”.

It isn’t much of a stretch to see this playing out in other areas of my life as well. One of the most important things we do is make choices about where we spend our time and what we end up doing with that time. Obviously we have work and family commitments to take care of, but within that we have so many choices about how to go about them.

I have been editing the portfolio of my life as consciously as I can during the last few years. Choosing to spend my time outside as much as possible, reading more, eating clean, travelling when I can, spending time with my children and wife, and pursuing a hobby are all core values that drive me and need to be prioritized in my time. I have had to decide to get rid of some things, though I haven’t missed any of them. When taking a moment of reflection I take stock of my time just like I am reviewing new pictures on the computer. How have I been spending my time? Have those choices proved to be positive and beneficial, or have I been frustrated? Are there activities I need to spend more time doing, or activities that I need no longer partake in?

Setting my life up more like a portfolio has had many benefits. I am proud to stand by my activities as my works of art and the time I spend doing them allows me to be more of myself, which allows me to be there for others as well.