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.

A Case For Philosophical Moonlighting

Light has often been used a metaphor for truth, knowledge and enlightenment. To take it to extreme, we can envision our sun as a representation of “the” Truth, the ultimate conceptualization of reality as we know it.

As humans with a limited perspective on the world around us we continue to search for scraps and clues about the sort of existence we are living. Developing or adopting a philosophy brings with it a road-map to help us make our way at night. When the light of truth isn’t apparent, then our philosophy is like the moon, reflecting the truth to us in the darkness.

Leveraging the wisdom of others we are able to see a path forward as well as some of the obstacles in the way. Philosophy, like the moon, comes to us from a fixed perspective. In order to utilize the knowledge and experience that are contained within, it must necessarily be grounded within a context and history. From this context we can extrapolate about our own lives, but will always come up against areas that our philosophy cannot illuminate.

If we could move the light around at will, we would be able to eventually see all that there is to see, but that just isn’t the way it works. True, with time, the experience of our lives acts as the turning of the earth, and our relationship with our chosen philosophy will naturally change. Over the course of our time in this world we will experience times when our philosophy is bright and clear, and times when it is obscured by clouds. Times when it is waxing and on the ascendance and times when it is waning and about to abandon us to the dark.

Unlike the moon we are not tied to the reflective properties of only one philosophy. We are free to sample from the broad range of human experience and perspective. A key point to keep in mind about life philosophy is that it is meant to be a lived an experienced tradition. The writing and thinking itself cannot provide the same perspective as will come when one takes the time to explore and experience some of the practices in daily life.

Much Western thinking has a problem with identity politics and the need to belong to a specified label in order to fit in. Many people may find it uncomfortable to read works from the thinkers who have come out of other traditions and to adopt practices that don’t easily fit in with how they see their current philosophical or religious identity. Ideas do not come with true labels, however, and the beauty of our situation now, with many people sheltering in place and maintaining their social distance, is that it is a perfect time to indulge in explorations that may not fit comfortably in with what others think of you. Just like the taking on of an extra job outside of your listed career, I encourage anyone to use this time for some philosophical moonlighting.

I, for one, have been thinking quite a lot about my own two poles of philosophy: stoicism and Taoism, chosen because of their strong resonances but also as a conscious split of the “West” and “East”. This, of course, if a false dichotomy. I am very interested in exploring philosophical traditions that have arisen in other cultures which do not have the developed social awareness here in the West, especially African thought. I will hopefully have some more experiences and resources to share as I dig in and see what new perspectives I can find.

Humans will continue to keep asking questions in order to understand the sort of life we are living. The questioning may be very different, but the answer will be the same for everyone. No matter how many moons you have hanging in your sky, then will all be reflecting the same light, and illuminating your path, and showing just a bit more of the landscape we are all wandering within.

I hope that you and yours are well and safe. If you are interested in learning some more about Stoicism or Taoism I can recommend a couple of good introductions for each. If you have a good introductory book for any other school of thought I would love to hear about it and add it to my list, and my collection of moons for this strange dim time.

Taoism Resources:

  • “Tao The Watercourse Way” by Alan Watts, Book.
  • “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, Book.
  • What’s This Tao All About“, Podcast.

Stoicism Resources:

Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

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.

Cognitive Dissonance as Foundation for Taoist and Stoic Practices

Before digging into this piece I wanted to call attention to the person who helped spark the discussion. Alex MacLellan is the creator and host of the Stoic Psychologist podcast. He is a student of psychology himself and uses his show to highlight the intersections between psychology, especially cognitive behavioral psychology, and Stoicism. He has presented at Stoic Week and has recorded some wonderful interviews with leaders in the modern Stoic movement. I highly encourage anyone interested in this suite of ideas to give his shows a listen.

After hearing an episode he did digging into some questions about Cognitive Dissonance Theory, I was inspired to dig deeper into how this concept might relate to something that I see going on as a foundation within both Taoism and Stoicism. One final note is that my personal focus is on these two philosophical traditions, I think that much of what I discuss here applies to any tradition that shares the same focus, such as Buddhism, contemplative Christianity, etc, but I will only be referring to my chosen philosophies here for simplicity.

Cognitive Dissonance

Before I get any further I would like to lay out a basic idea of what I am talking about when I am talking about cognitive dissonance. There is a quite good Wikipedia article that lays out the history and scope of this psychological theory, along with several refutations that have been proposed over the years. It also includes links to several of the key scientific findings that have helped to develop and challenge aspects of this theory. I am not a psychologist or a scientist, and I will be approaching this from a broader perspective of key mechanics at play that I think most people will be able to recognize from moments of their own experience as humans.

Cognitive dissonance is essentially the situation of believing something, while acting in a way that seemingly goes against that belief. Common and striking examples might be: the person on a diet who ends up eating a donut for breakfast, the person who champions sustainability causes while not taking their reusable shopping bags to the market with them and bringing home a plastic one, or the person who complains of feeling stuck in a situation but then refuses to take advice in order to remove themselves from that situation.

Of course not every example of cognitive dissonance is negative is the same way as the above situations might convey. There are countless micro decisions that we make each day about our lives, and inevitably we find ourselves making choices which might seem at odds with the larger set of values that we say we ascribe to.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t passive however. It occurs reflexively within our brains as we are making the decisions and immediately afterward. Our minds seem to automatically correct for this dissonance as it occurs. Some of the scientists theorize that this is necessary for us to do in order to preserve the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about who we are. If we were to absorb every inconsistency it would destroy the narrative, and would harm our ability to hold driving beliefs about ourselves. This narrative shapes the trajectory of our lives and allow us to maintain relationships with others.

This is because our internal values are based upon the limited scope of experience we have in the world. Each of us builds our own scaffolding within which we are able to have a personality and identity based on the life we have lived. Exposure to new people and new situations will always have the potential to challenge our currently held beliefs, which will automatically trigger dissonance.

There are several ways in which a person will account for and adjust to the dissonance as it occurs. They may accept the new information by adjusting their internal values and expectations. They may reject the new information outright and essentially pretend that they never heard it. They may also justify the new information in a way that allows them to hold the two opposing sets of information at the same time, or create a temporary set of beliefs so that current information can be treated as an anomaly.

In the majority of cases the level of dissonance barely registers. It might be the decision about which type of cereal to buy (low sugar or low cost?) that will resolve itself without a significant awareness of discomfort. There has been some study to outline a basic framework for how strongly any given instance of cognitive dissonance will appear to the individual. Stronger instances of discomfort will arise when the beliefs being challenged are deep-seated and tightly held, or closely tied to a sense of identify. The stronger the dissonance spike the more drastic the likely adjustment. These strong reactions may drive real change in core beliefs or changes in habitual actions, but they can also trigger equally strong retreats into current beliefs and strong rejection of new information.

Another interesting finding is that cognitive dissonance cannot be thought of as a single instance at all, with each individual discrepancy registering separately. No, it seems that each instance builds upon the rest, creating what could be thought of a cognitive dissonance “load” on the person over time. The greater the number of beliefs being challenged throughout the day and the greater the number of adjustments that are being made even if they are micro adjustments, creates a baseline level of psychological stress within the individual.

Consequences of Cognitive Dissonance

Carrying around a heavy load day in and day out requires real energy and mental bandwidth. When challenged with new information and given the opportunity to experience new things, the person who is already burdened will likely opt for a familiar place where they are unlikely to be challenged. It becomes harder to take in new information, and while juggling the ongoing subconscious battle it becomes nearly impossible to appropriately weigh challenging arguments in a light of true impartiallity.

I think that this is easily seen in many corners of western society at present, perhaps most significantly within the political realm. We cannot be an expert on all areas of knowledge required to judge many of the situations happening in our world on a daily basis, but our unprecedented access to 24/7 news and research exposes us to an unending stream of information that must be processed subconsciously even if we don’t take the time to critically think about it consciously. The load builds up in each of us one drip at a time.

No wonder, then, that people must find safe spaces in which their own core values are reflected back at them. Perhaps this is part of the recent talk about tribes, and the importance of finding other like minded people. It can be seen as an escape, as burying one’s head in the sand, but I think it bears acknowledging that we are all guilty, and without the protected space in which we can relieve some of this load, we will not be able to put in the work on actually addressing moments of dissonance that will have more influential consequences for our future actions.

Like all things, the nature of the phenomenon itself can be neither good nor bad, only our reaction to it, the way in which we handle it, can be judged beneficial or harmful to ourselves. If we retreat into our tribes and help to build walls against those who think differently, then we are only making it more difficult to get ourselves out of that box once more. What I am interested in exploring from here on out is how cognitive dissonance can be the foundation for self-improvement.

Cognitive Dissonance as Conscience

What we are talking about here is really the natural self-correcting process by which we notice where our thoughts and actions might not be in alignment. By another name we might call this conscience in action, the green cricket that sits on our shoulder and points out that maybe we ought to rethink the way we are going about our lives. One of the first skills often talked about in relationship to mediation is the ability to be aware of one’s own thoughts. If we do not pay attention to our own thoughts how can we be expected to begin changing them? If we do not realize that our actions and values are not in alignment, how do we go about evaluating them?

In order for this system to work in our favor, it must be able to give us a clear signal that will spur us into positive change. From what we have talked about earlier, the clearest signals come when the values in play are strongly held and core to our sense of self. Both Taoism and Stoicism use techniques to help us get in touch with our own individual nature. The core goal for each of them is to help us live in alignment with our own selves and the nature of the world around us. By increasing awareness of ourselves through meditation, daily journalling practices and qigong we more consciously review and assess our values.

A common Taoist meditation focuses on the idea that we can “turn the light around” and try to look at the source of where our thoughts and beliefs are coming from. Meditation not only guides us to more thoughtfully consider our values in an active way, but it also seems to help in reducing our overall mental load, helping to open up more bandwidth that then allows us the space to hold these beliefs and examine them in a more comfortable way, rather than letting the automatic activities of cognitive dissonance file them away for us.

By examining our values in this way they become more crystallized and more clear, which strengthens the cognitive dissonance as it occurs. For me it is similar to what has occurred during my adoption of a basic stretching routine. As I slowly work my muscles and build up more familiarity with the way that my body feels, it has also become much more clear for me to notice when I am feeling stiff, or when something is out of alignment in my posture. This sets off the foundation of a virtuous cycle within my body. I am more sensitive to bad posture, which then triggers me to adjust my posture so that I no longer feel the discomfort, which aids long term in the maintenance of good posture overall.

By using the tools of Taoism and Stoicism to examine and strengthen our values, we also strengthen the internal mechanism which helps us to notice and self-correct these values as well as our actions.

This system isn’t just a system of guardrails, it is actually the system by which we integrate new information and adapt to it. We cannot adjust our perspective with new information without challenging it against our current beliefs. Taken another way, we cannot grow and evolve our values unless we expose them to information not already known to us.

Taoism has a lot to say about curiosity, and I think this is a place where it comes uniquely into focus. It is good to have a clear set of values and to live by them, but can we really know how clear or steadfast those values are if we do not expose ourselves to new information? Curiosity is a virtue in an of itself because the more we learn about the world and people around us, the more information we have about ourselves. When we expand ourselves beyond our “comfort zone”, is this not just another way to describe putting ourselves into the path of cognitive dissonance intentionally?

One final aspect of cognitive dissonance that I want to highlight in a positive way is that most often our values are challenged and adjusted automatically. There will be times during which we will be able to sit consciously with our values, but more often then not they are being adjusted subconsciously in the background of our everyday lives. Building a strong value foundation through Taoist or Stoic practices not only strengthens the ability of our conscience to alert of potential issues, but it also helps our subconscious system to better self-correct. The deeper and more clear our values are, the simpler it will be for our minds to sort them and course-correct in an appropriate way. Rather than rejecting information and building walls, we will be able to absorb and adjust while having the humility to learn and grow, knowing where our core values begin and end.

Another positive outcome of all this is that I believe it provides for a reduction in cognitive load. When we can clearly articulate our values and core beliefs we will have less cause to spend time spinning our mental wheels and enduring the psychological stress caused by carrying these discrepancies around in our minds. Perhaps one piece of enlightenment is simply the expansive mental resources we have at our disposal when they aren’t being constantly used to try and figure out who we think we ought to be in any given moment.

Key Concept, or The Concept?

Taoism and Stoicism both value having clear perceptions of the world around us and our relationship to it. In order to do this and to live a skillful or virtuous life, we must constantly work to learn who we are, what we value, and how to live in accordance with our own nature. I think it is clear that the mechanism of cognitive dissonance is tailored for exactly this process. We seem to be naturally built to do this for ourselves. It is hardwired into our minds and has been documented and studied for decades, with much more left to describe.

If this is the underlaying psychological mechanism that allows us to take in new information and reform our sense of who we are, isn’t that more than just a helpful way to describe the process?

If we are to think about the scope of where things fit in, should we be thinking about cognitive dissonance as an aspect within these philosophies? Would it not be more appropriate to say that Taoism and Stoicism are the initial steps we use in order to build our cognitive dissonance muscles?

This is certainly a discussion I would like to explore further in another post, because I think it may have some interesting implications for how we think about the position of philosophy within our lives and.

Curiosity and Kindness

If nothing else I wanted to use this post as a way to point out that Taoism and Stoicism seem to be pointing the way we are built to go naturally. By following the helpful guidance of these philosophies we can strengthen an internal system that, like a muscle, will become even stronger with use, and will make the work of self discovery easier along the way.

In order to take advantage of it we need only look to some core beliefs while treating ourselves with kindness. Like any workout regimin it might be awkward and painful at first. We may not look quite as good in the mirror as we imagine ourselves standing next to other sages in the gym mirror, but if we don’t take those first steps we will never discover the further benefits.

Once we are on the track, all that is required is that we continue to approach the world with curiosity, open to new experiences, and seeking out things that we do not already know.

Of all the values that I would like to be known by, I think that kindness and curiosity are pretty good ones. Thanks for reading, and please, let us make this a conversation. I would love to hear if this resonates with you or inspires follow-up thoughts.

Aligning as Opposed to Simplifying

The art of simplifying one’s life has taken on life in many arenas as of late. From de-cluttering to tiny home living, there is a huge push against the traditional western lifestyle of “more, more, more” at the moment. To be sure the tidal wave of “stuff” continues unabated for the most part, but it is becoming equally attractive in some circles to be someone who can do without, especially if one can do without some of the key tokens of American life, like a television. There is a certain mystique and sense of cultured self-control that one assumes about someone else who is able to do without the handy contraptions of modern living.

There is a potential issue, I think, with simplifying that translates beyond the realm of personal behavior. For the most part, the act of simplifying seems to be an act of taking stock of one’s life, and consciously removing things that are not necessary. It is “cleaning up one’s desktop” to open up bandwidth for other activities and to spend less time managing and rooting through stuff. I don’t disagree that there are many things that one does not need. We as a family regularly go through the things that end up coming home and weeding out items that we just don’t want to have around. Having children in the midwest, it seems, comes with a slow incessant trickle of small cheap plastic doo-dads that come home from school prize boxes, dentist’s offices, other children’s birthday parties and who-knows-where-else. To simply get rid of stuff that one doesn’t use regularly, however, isn’t simplifying, it is just de-cluttering. Nothing wrong with it but it is merely a cosmetic solution.

The act of truly simplifying requires some kind of sacrifice, some kind of conscious alteration of the the status quo of daily routine. This might be giving up drinking sodas to save money and the to-go cups from the landfill, or it might mean downsizing your wardrobe so that there are fewer items to choose from and keep track of. Usually this sort of simplifying comes with positive aspects, such as saving money over the long run, saving time choosing outfits and saving money on clothing, and reducing waste. All of these are perfectly admirable and can be great lifestyle choices. What I see as a potential issue for many people, however, is that this is a reductionist practice. The message that most people hear about simplifying is that one must give things up. The wording itself, along with a cousin called minimalism, brings to mind ideas of asceticism and a life of sacrifice.

For people who are looking to find some footing in life there is only so much help that can be provided by simply clearing the field of debris. Thinking about the objects as a starting point, even if one is truly trying to consider whether every object sparks joy in a thoughtful way, is still tackling the problem form the wrong end, in my opinion.

How we live, and what we find meaningful, has everything to do with our core values. Asking someone to clean up their lives and strip down to essentials requires that someone has a strong sense of what those essentials are to begin with. For many people, this is the question that is not being asked, the search that must first be undertaken.

Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism have a lot to say about the nature of our reality and our relationship to the world around us. Our perceptions of the world are our reality, and the only* control we have in this life is the choices we make about how to react to the world around us.

*Considering that we are reality, and that our perceptions influence everything, this is no small thing.

Both Taoism and Stoicism speak clearly and often about the unique nature of every person, and every manifestation in this world. Each person follows his or her own unique nature, has his or her own unique perspective to bring to the world, and will express his or her own values in a way that no one else will. In order to do this effectively, however, requires that we spend our time constantly working to get to know ourselves.

If we work from the bottom up, examining where our values lay and the activities that we feel strongly about engaging ourselves in, it will be a simple task to see which aspects of our life are helpful to this program, and which are distracting, or at best, unnecessary. Trimming things from our life that are excess from this perspective isn’t exactly simplifying, because we will do it naturally, and to lose those things will not feel like a loss at all.

The way I think about it, bringing the various interests and perspectives that we have together in a way that is more focused and efficient, isn’t one of simplifying so much as it is one of alignment.

Here is an example from my own recent personal journey. My wife and I have shared a love for running, hiking and being outdoors since we first met. I have to admit that my own interest in spending time outside was in need of much more development than hers at the time, but I quickly came to realize that it had more to do with my own sense of confidence and preparedness as opposed to my desire. Running, however, wasn’t nature, and nature wasn’t running for the longest time. We ran on pavement in the urban environment that was convenient. When possible we would enjoy the semi-trail running down the middle of the boulevard, or take the paved bike trail out of the city, surrounded by nature, but still not what I would consider wild. When we had the chance we would go hiking, and later camping, and even later we would go backpacking. It was only in the last few years that my running has begun to shift from pavement to trail whenever possible. This combination of two things I love has expanded my appreciation of both of them. I am engaged more in the running and will be more willing to put in extra miles if I can do it on the trail. I am also able to be out in nature more often and to go further on the trails than when I was doing these activities separately.

Aligning aspects of one’s life is an additive process. energizing and invigorating time spent in these activities. Simplifying, the way I understand it, is a subtractive process, albeit with the intention of opening up bandwidth for other things. If we can build a sense of core values within ourselves, and within our social structures, then we will be able to find unique combinations that give us more time in the way that we want, while also bringing more meaning to the time we already spend.

My foray into photography was another conscious choice of alignment. I have been a visual artist for a couple of years, though with the luxury of not having to rely on it for a paycheck. I was previously spending time running and taking pictures more casually so that I could then go back to my hotel room or home studio and squeeze in a few hours to try and turn those photo inspirations into paintings or illustrations. Until recently I was into stippling or pointillism, which is the projects of building an image only out of tiny dots of color, building form and color out of density and placement rather than line work and fill colors. This sort of art certainly creates wonderful textures and some nice visual depth, but also take a very long time to accomplish. It was when I found myself spending upwards of 20 hours on an illustration rather than having the time to simply be outdoors, that I realized something was out of alignment. Photography as a more serious art is my attempt to bring these aspects together. Now my time spent behind a lens requires that I am also spending time in nature. On top of that, I have found that working through these concepts in concert has brought up many thoughts about the nature of my philosophy and my craft. As I write I realize that this blog is a side-effect of my recent photography alignment. Expanding my experience of being outdoors to bring more awareness, along with revitalizing my artistic focus, along with creating more actual time in the day for myself, has led to time and interest in getting my thoughts out of my head and into the world in a more concrete way.

Alignment is magical for an individual, but I strongly feel that this needs to be put into practice in social groups as well. Many times when challenges arise the only solutions that we are presented with are to go in another direction, or to give something up. We are currently facing a global existential crisis, a species-wide opportunity that requires cooperation and insight at levels we are not seeing consistently. Most of the solutions being presented are subtractive solutions, and I do not dispute that we have more than we need, more than we should have, and that significant sacrifice is required in order to maintain some semblance of what we think of as normal. What we are missing out on are the core values that drive us. Core values that would help inform this sort of decision making. Where can we align our energies to create solutions that provide progress, but also provide opportunity? Surely green energy can be an economic driver, as can waste reclamation and re-use.

The only things we can affect in this world are the way we react to things, but that affects everything else. Change needs to start with the individual. If everyone were to develop his or her own core values in a more focused way through Stoic practices, meditation or thoughtful exposure to the other, we would all begin naturally to make better decisions as groups and governments. Philosophies like these are road-maps to help us figure out who we are and what we care about, but they don’t do the work for us. Here’s hoping that we can all find some alignment individually so that we can begin to align globally as well.

Introduction

Welcome to my blog. I am creating this site for myself and others who are interested in spending time thinking about their relationship to the world and their path through life. I am using this blog to document my own daily adventures in seeking meaning through photography. I will be posting about philosophy, books that I have read and thoughts that I have been working over on my own. I will be writing about the intersection of various pieces of my life and sharing experiences that I have had in an effort to better see the larger path that I am on. While this content is largely a way for me to stay in touch myself, I do hope that others who are on similar paths will be interested as well. We are all taking the same journey together, but apart, and sharing with one another is a wonderful way to build connections and help point each other towards helpful practices. I encourage anyone who is interested to follow along through email updates, and to send me questions and comments if they arise. I welcome the dialogue and the connection to others who resonate with the project.

Before getting into discussion on any particular topic I would like to offer a few pieces of information about myself. I have always been a seeker and drawn to questions about my own life and the world around me. My own journey continues through my interactions with nature, my photography, my travel, my family relationships and the books I am reading. I have my BA in Philosophy and have read several of the classics, but I do not consider myself to be an expert on any of this. I have spent time learning about a variety of Philosophy-Religions such as Taoism and Buddhism and have built up my own practices, but I have not practiced with teachers and do not consider myself to be an expert on the doctrine. I have picked up a camera and am learning how to take pictures the way that I see them, but I have a long way to go. I am happy to share the knowledge that I have, but do not take anything as doctrine. Where possible I will be linking to resources that I have found helpful.

Thank you for reading and for joining me on this part of my path. I look forward to finding out where it takes me.