Yesterday I was able to enjoy an afternoon moment of simple joy. After a couple of difficult days, struggling with home school and work schedule overlaps and uncertainty about both my job and the new normal, I was able to catch a bit of a break.
The weather was amazing, absolutely perfect. Warmer than had been predicted but not hot, clear blue skies, light breeze, perfect.
Two of my three kids were playing in the backyard while I watched. My son slipped on some dry grass that is always the last part of the lawn to turn green, and then grows like crazy all year long. The dry patch had been shedding tiny brown stalks all spring and this gave us all an idea.
Nothing like a bit of natural confetti and moments of down time to experiment with a camera.
It had been a few days since I had really taken any pictures, and longer since I had taken anything that I felt really excited about. Despite the simplicity (or because of it) I found myself enjoying the process, my kids, and the moment all at once. Something I really needed.
Nothing more to be said except that I hope all of you can find a slice of bliss amidst the stress of our shared uncertainty. Shout-out also to Yuri for inspiring in part the idea for throwing things into the air and taking pictures of them with his No Gravity project, though my interpretation wasn’t nearly so daring.
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.”
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.
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.
I feel the rhythms of nature tapping me on the shoulder. They call me back to a perceptive state in which I no longer remember what had been simmering at the edges of my mind only moments before.
Hanging in the air, suspended on thermals, our neighborhood turkey vultures come in a disparate flock home to roost each evening. They transpose across the sky without moving, shifted by the winds. Each bird form moving independently but bonded together through the gestalt of the form, remixing the collective abstract notion of “bird” in relationship to the deep sky and waxing moon.
Observing the flocking birds twinges sympathetic images of bubbles forming on our back patio. The ephemeral time-worm-bodies stretching out and defined by unseen currents before ceasing to exist.
The motion of the unseen around me shows itself only as a reflection of a reflection, translated through an interpreter. I may not be able to decipher the causes or the connections, but I am grateful for the attempt at communication. May I continue to be receptive, to recognize the moment, and to be still within the never ending flow.
Growing up I struggled to pin down a haven for myself, a place that would be unchanging, a situation that would be predictable. I wanted to have a sense of normalcy in the midst of a world that seemed to be ever changing the rules and scenario.
It has continued to be difficult to pin down any time of my life that I could describe as “normal”. Only in retrospect can I point to periods of time in which I felt like I had a sense of what was going on, a sense of stability. When those times were happening, however, I would not have described them as normal. It is also not these periods that I cherish the most.
Talking about change as a constant has become a pretty throw away piece of conversation. I am in a position at work to coach employees and peers through change, but despite the lip service that we give to the idea that “nothing stays the same”, it continues to be an uphill struggle for all of us to embrace this concept that we cannot hold on to what we think of as normal.
Here’s a slightly different take, however, that has helped me to re-frame it for myself. It is one of the core beliefs of Taoist thought that ties me to the philosophy and continues to challenge my thinking.
In Taoist physics it is understood that everything that exists, every particle of matter, every wave of energy, is connected at the root, is fundamentally the same energy, not separate except in the way that we describe it.
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
This quote from the Tao Te Ching suffers in under the limitations of language. It makes the creation of the universe seem linear in time, when in reality the description of giving birth is more like a continuous process. In the way that the sun gives birth to light.
The myriad creatures (all objects and creatures that we experience in the world) exist but are not separate from Unity. If we are able to look close enough, and quantum physics has proposed the same idea, we would be able to tell that everything is simply energy vibrating at different frequencies, resonating with itself in different ways in order to manifest matter in all kinds of forms.
In metaphorical terms, The relationship of all under heaven to the Way is like that of valley streams to the river and sea.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32
This is a beautiful way to think about it. Water cycles, either falling as rain, flowing through streams or collecting in the ocean, perhaps locked in for millennia as ice, or under the earth, but never not water, never not connected to the unity of the water cycle, eventually always flowing back to the source and starting again.
Here, change in the water cycle isn’t a change of adding or subtracting. The water that is here now has been recycled since long before humans, before dinosaurs. Change may alter the course of the water, the specific forms that it takes, but change does not destroy it.
Change in this system is a heart beat, a renewal of the energy so that it does not become stagnant, a bringer of life.
It is the law of conservation of energy, that the grand total of energy and matter in the universe cannot be changed. One may be converted into the other, but the whole unity of existence cannot be diminished, it is always complete.
Tied in with the ever changing forms of matter and energy are our perceptions about these things that make them seem more different than they are. It is our labeling of things are larger and small that make them seem so different, when in reality they share the same energy, are the same source, merely appearing different in the way that we experience them.
There is nothing under the canopy of heaven greater than the tip of a bird’s down in autumn, while the T’ai Mountain is small. Neither is there any longer life than that of a child cut off in infancy, while P’eng Tsu himself died young. The universe and I came into being together; I and everything therein are One.
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, Yutang Lin Translation
Embracing contradictions in our understanding of reality is a core concept and skill within Taoism. Our language makes it very difficult to speak about the true nature of things without getting ourselves into horrible tangles. That is a key reason why Taoists spend so much time trying to observe the world around them, to gain understanding beyond words.
If we can embrace even a piece of this understanding it will be possible to see that two truths exist side by side: nothing that exists can remain the same, nothing that exists will ever be different.
Seeking a sense of normal may be a doomed endeavor if we are looking beyond ourselves. Our surroundings, our friends and family, our work and financial situation and any other outward aspects of our lives cannot be depended upon to remain the same. If we need a set schedule and unchanging social interactions then we are destined for trouble adapting in this world.
On the other hand, it can be possible to see things from a different point of view. No matter how much the outward aspects change, the fundamental reality never does. We are all, and always will be, connected at the deepest possible level.
Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates fullness and decay, and therefore does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not constant.
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 17, Yutang Lin Translation
It is not easy to adapt to new situations, but it is much more difficult when we are struggling to back-pedal, to return to a sense of what is normal. Only by exploring and embracing the situation we find ourselves in right now can we embrace what is good, and begin to adjust what we do not like.
Things will not always be pretty or comfortable, but that is just where we are in the cycle. It will not be long before things look different once more, whether due to our perceptions of them or the way that they change around us. Either way, even though there is no such thing as normal, there is also no such thing as abnormal either.
In my last post I used an image that I found literally laying at my feet, in a place I never would have thought to look.
I had only recently begun exploring photogrophy as a more serious project at the time I took this picture. All I have been using up until recently was the (arguably quite decent) camera on my smartphone, playing with shutter speed and ISO to learn as much as I could about proper exposure and technique.
What was probably more annoying for my family during that time (probably still) is that I was constantly fiddling with my phone and taking pictures everywhere that we went. The upside of this is that I have continued to be even more eager to get outside with the family, dragging everyone to the local parks and woods as much as possible, even though it was middle of winter at the time.
My family is game, however, but not without their own opinions, as is perfectly within their rights. Picking locations that my children will enjoy is usually pretty easy because they are also into exploring nature, the more dirt and mud the better. On this occasion, however, they really wanted to head to the playground very near our house, attached to an elementary school. This playground has some nice equipment and lots of space to run, but everything is either covered in pavement or pea gravel. Not what I expected to be a photogenic location.
Despite this I still spent as much time as possible trying to find interesting shots, even if it was just practicing focus adjustments and composition.
As the play time extended over the one-hour mark and the weather continued to be unseasonably pleasant I felt as if I had exhausted all of my potential photography targets. As I was debating whether or not I needed to convince everyone that we were going home, the golden hour of sunset started, adding some extra contrast to the scene.
There, at my feet, was an interesting sight. Long pine needles, grouped together, lined up in wavy formations, snaking around the gravel. Here was nature at work, using rain water to collect needles and deposit them artistically around the playground to highlight where water pooled and drained. It was an amazing example of the fact that we cannot avoid the influence of natural cycles, even in environments that have been constructed specifically to eliminate needed maintenance of plants and landscaping. In some ways, seeing these flowing needles out of a more natural context highlighted the forces at play. This was a wonderful subversive wu wei at work, effortlessly showing us that no matter what we do nature will not be sidelined or ignored.
I got a few pictures in the angled light, but wasn’t able to capture the energy of these needles. Just having seen it, however, I felt even more sure about my time spent with a camera. Training myself to look helped me to notice something I never would have seen before, which added so much value to my visit to the playground that day. For me it was a friendly gesture, letting me know that no matter where I looked I couldn’t truly be separate, and that if I keep myself open, I will be able to connect myself with something larger, even in the most unlikely of spaces.
The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations. These two come paired from the same origin. But when the essence is manifested, It has a different name.
Excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1
A fundamental principle shared by Taoism and Stoicism is that all beings, all matter, everything that exists, are connected. I am connected to all other humans, all other animals, all other objects that I can observe. Marcus Auralius thought of this as a “community” of existence, all things sharing together in one and the same “soup”. To take it a step further, it isn’t even quite right to say that we are separate things at all. We share a common Source, and if we are able to peel back our layers of perception that guide us to see “things” and “people” and “animals” as distinct, we will come to realize that all of existence is really One, undivided except in perception, sharing all qualities, a universal energy flowing in cycles.
This is not to say that the things we encounter and must deal with in our physical reality do not exist, or are not really there. Things exist, people exist, animals exist, various forms of energy and frequencies exist. More distinct parts of our existence are discovered every day, from the quantum level to new species, to new planets, to new forms of matter.
The duality of nature is not a mistake, not a fallacy of the system. It all depends on where perception is focused. Am I having a profound moment, at one with my desires and the world around me, feeling the common flow of energy, or am I feeling isolated, confronted with things I have not yet encountered that I must learn to deal with?
Taoism describes us, and the objects around us, as manifestations of the universal energy expressing itself. Yin and Yang flow back and forth in cycles, creating new combinations of matter and energy that take on new forms and begin to follow their own unique nature. The variety of manifestations is described often as “the Ten Thousand things”, a placeholder for some very large number which might translate better as the “infinite arrangement”.
There are two lines of thought that I would like to follow while talking about the Ten Thousand Things. First, each individual manifestation is unique, and each has its own nature. Each individual manifestation of our reality could be thought of as the Source searching for new ways to explore its own existence. I think that the work we are doing here in our lives has everything to do with discovering our own unique nature, and how it fits into the larger pattern. No two paths will be alike, no two expressions of reality will have the exact same qualities. We already know that snowflakes do not repeat, and if we believe that, how hard can it be to believe that every other object is likewise unrepeatable in the history of existence?
Figuring out who we are, what makes each of us tick, is a wonderful challenge, but it can be difficult to look inside without a frame of reference. Luckily, there are at least nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine other things sharing existence with us that we can use for comparison.
Taking pictures and travel have both been invaluable to me in allowing me to expand my horizons. Seeing through a camera lens helps me to look at the world differently, and being in the state of observation allows me to see things that I wouldn’t normally have noticed, or see common things with fresh eyes. Travelling has exposed me to some of the variety of human expression and has challenged me to continue changing my ideas about what it means to be a person.
We cannot find ourselves in a vacuum, because without the dark there can be no light, without the cold there can be no heat and without another person how can I truly know where I begin and where I end? How can I know if I value the same thing unless my values are tested? How can I understand what fires my imagination unless I am constantly exposing myself to things I have not yet seen or heard?
If that is the case for me, it must also be the case for the whole of reality. We are all one, the same energy cycling in new formations, but if that energy weren’t manifesting, if it weren’t exploring its own nature, it could never learn what it is.
Our existence as one of the Ten Thousand Things might be thought of a reality’s project of coming to understand itself. Just as our path is to figure out who we are, that echoes the universal project.
The second line of thought about the nature of the Ten Thousand Things that I must not pass over, is this: our value as individuals is inherent to us as a manifestation of the Source. Our existence is our value and our contribution to the project. We can never be separate from reality, and we can never fail in our mission to help explore our collective nature.
There will be many times when I am frustrated, challenged, and exhausted in this life. There have been many times that I did not feel like I was moving in the right direction, or fast enough, or contributing enough, or earning my place in society. Learning who we are is a process, and like all things it will go through cycles. It is the work of our entire lives and will never be completed.
Within that search for ourselves we must remember, that we are already there. Our presence in this world is unique, and vibrant, and necessary! What we bring to the world no one else can express. Being who we are is enough, and more than that, is the best gift that we can give.