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

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

Trail Running At Night: Moving Without Seeing

Trail running is possibly when I am at my happiest. It combines a natural physical exercise with being strongly connected to nature, and it engages my mind strategically in a way that road running does not. Navigating the technical difficulties of the trail clicks into something deep inside that feels instinctual, gives my brain a low-level workout and creates a meditative space to decompress. There are many great metaphors tying trail running to life, especially when thinking about how one always has to look ahead, assess the near term obstacles and formulate a plan on how to manage them. That may seem great on paper, but even that much ability to plan ahead is generous in comparison to what life is really like.

Life is much more like trail running at night.

Most of the forward motion I have had in my life seems to have been unplanned. I ended up taking classes in areas other than my chosen major, I followed my wife to another city for her graduate education and found my employment out of necessity. It became an actual career path through the encouragement of others pushing me along and supporting me. When my wife graduated I followed her again for her career and was incredibly lucky to find a place for myself in our new city with my old employer.

Looking forward to predict what might happen next has always been a bit dubious in my case given this history, but 2020 is shaping up to offer even more challenges. I have just learned that many more changes are coming for both my wife and myself. Her job was upended a few months ago and mine just informed me that I would be transferring roles and duties, losing my beloved colleagues and probably travelling more.

All of that is of course layered in and around the changes happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife is a university professor and chair of her department, which has decided to close campus and finish off the semester online only, creating a whole slew of questions without answers. My current travel for work has been suspended and the pressure on our day to day operations has caused many of our usual systems to be placed at the wayside while we figure out what the new normal looks like.

Of course, way beyond myself, it feels like this is a time of unprecedented upheaval around the world, and most of the people I talk with are feeling quite a bit of uncertainty about more than one area of their lives.

For me it feels very much like I am standing in a dense fog, trying to look down the path, and finding myself completely unable to see more than a few feet ahead. I was lucky enough to have a day like this recently and the time to get out with a camera to capture it for a few fleeting moments before the sun burned it off.

Trail running at night (or in dense fog) is an exercise in moving through obstacles without the luxury of foresight, and as such, has some great lessons that I am trying to internalize for other parts of my life right now in a moment where I just can’t see what the way forward looks like.

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation Book 4, 43

Core strength and flexibility are the things one can and must rely on.

In the daylight it is possible to run at the extremities, to plan your steps carefully and to use the obstacles to your advantage. One might intentionally step on roots or rocks in the path to gain more traction or to maintain momentum. Strong ankles and knee control can help take the force of these moves but only if the steps go according to plan.

When running at night it is better to run at the core. Since it is not possible to assess an obstacle ahead of time it is necessary to control the stride starting at the hip. Leave the knee and ankle as flexible as possible, so that when the foot comes down it can roll with the terrain. Keep the feet below the body and the center of gravity low. Focus on planting one foot, gaining balance and then pulling the next up. Get the knee ahead of you and bring down the ankle loose and flexible.

In this way one finds oneself focused inward, maintaining balance and regularity of stride, thinking much more about what the hip is doing than what the ankle is up to. Trying to hold a foot too rigid when you don’t know how it is going to land is a great way to sprain an ankle or worse.

Human beings are soft and supple when alive, stiff and straight when dead. The myriad creatures, the grasses and trees are soft and fragile when alive, dry and withered when dead. Therefore, it is said: the rigid person is a disciple of death; the soft, supple, and delicate are lovers of life. An army that is inflexible will not conquer; a tree that is inflexible will snap. The unyielding and mighty shall be brought low; the soft, supple, and delicate will be set above.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 76, Victor Mair translation

The core strength we rely on in our broader lives can serve the same function as we move into uncertainty. Having strong values and social networks will allow us to handle obstacles, not by lining ourselves up ahead of time, but by giving us a framework of support that will catch us, and a blueprint to know where we should made adjustments rather than stand fast against an obstacle.

A core strength of our family is the way we prioritize one on one time, time spent in nature and time for each parent to spend recharging individually. If any of those aspects start to slip or happen less frequently we know that an adjustment needs to be made. Trying to maintain the external specifics for plans we have made, appointments on the calendar, isn’t going to matter as much as being able to spend quality time together and maintain the balance.

Core values don’t just give us guardrails to know when things are out of balance, they also point us in the right direction to correct those imbalances. Knowing what matters means that you have a beacon to help keep orientation. Sensing when one partner in the couple is spending too much time taking point and might be getting burned out, the solution is easy: get them some time on their own, even if that means adjusting plans that have already been made.

When running at night, pace must also be adjusted. It would simply be foolish, even if one has run the course before, to try and run in the dark at the same speed one might run during the day. There is no harm in slowing down a bit when things are less clear, and only speeding up again when there is some open ground.

When circumstances force you into some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must: you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 6, 11

As a family travel is also very important to us. We have a rough draft schedule of travel and family milestones planned out for the next five years, but now seems like a good time to slow down and not worry much about what is going to be happening next year, much less next month. There will be time when we can revisit those plans and probably keep most of them in some form, but now is simply not it, and that is okay.

Running in the dark means focusing on yourself and having faith in the work you have put in building up your strength. In reality, running in the day shouldn’t be any different. Just because we think we can see down the path doesn’t mean we really know what is going to happen. The part of the path that looks dry may turn out to be slippery, and the branch we want to step on may not hold our weight at the critical moment. Even if we plan the moves correctly it doesn’t mean that we will be able to pull it off. Sometimes one just takes a bad step even with all the right training and strategy.

Both Taoism and Stoicism have been very helpful in preparing me for uncertainty in my life. These philosophies encourage self reflection, which is the only way we can come to know where our core values lay. Only once we begin to observe and prioritize the things that truly matter to us can we properly exercise those values, clarify their contours, and use them to guide our decisions.

Running at night isn’t a practice of sadistic self-punishment. It isn’t something that one should do just because it seems like a crazy idea. our of bravery. Running at night, because it cultivates this necessity of trusting one’s own body, is an exercise in faith. Letting go, trusting in one’s training and capabilities, not worrying about the path ahead, only the stars above and the surreal experience of gliding through the dark, is magical. My experience of this was an experience of faith, and I don’t mean to strip that word of any spiritual meaning. Knowing that I did have faith in myself, that I know some unshakable truths from my core, gave me a sense of contentment and freedom from worry that I haven’t had since.

I write this to remind myself of the feeling, and to try and give myself the perspective that I can be like this all the time. The things we think are stable in life may not be, and even on a clear day we will not be able to predict our future paths. Is it not best to run on faith in our core values, suspending judgement of the path ahead and reacting in the moment as much as possible? I hope that everyone is able to use these difficult times as an opportunity to reflect and redefine, and find some solid footing on the path ahead.

Unlike my trail running experience alone in the dark, we are not running this race of life alone. Now is a time to rely on ourselves, but also a time to rely on one another. Even as we make adjustments to our own lives it is helpful to know that we are all in this together. I hope that all of you and yours are safe, healthy and adapting in this challenging time.

Intended Consequences

I just listened to an interview with acclaimed street photographer Valérie Jardin that was conducted on the podcast “Photography Radio”. Valérie is passionate about teaching and was recounting experiences she has had doing instruction with students on location in Paris. One of the things she focused on was the idea of taking photographs with intention, and it sparked a connection I have seen over and over again within the Stoic tradition.

“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 2

Valérie was specifically talking about photographers who shoot everything that moves (or doesn’t) and end up with 10,000 photos hoping that there will be a few gems in the mix, rather than the photographers who are more critical of a scene and shoot selectively, looking for specific images before they are willing to click the shutter.

The seed of her thought centered on the idea that her students should make sure that they were taking pictures with an goal in mind. Every time the shutter goes off it will make a picture, but the meaning and success of that picture depend entirely on what the photographer was trying to capture.

What I find fascinating when hearing other photographers talk about their work, is what they were thinking when they attempted the shot. Shooting without a plan may result in some shots that seem great, but could the photographer describe why they took the shot, or replicate it later on with a different subject? On the other hand, a photo that might not immediately seem interesting could take on extra layers of meaning when someone hears the story behind it. It may be true that a good photo speaks for itself, but different images speak to different people, and there is no one set of standards for success. In fact, how can we even judge success if we don’t know what the goal was in the first place?

“Do not take any action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 3, 5

We spent a lot of time during critique session while I was studying graphic design talking about whether or not an image was successful. It was forbidden to us words like “nice” or “like” as in, “its nice” or “I like it, good work”. None of those comments are helpful when trying to decipher what worked and what didn’t work when creating an image. If you are trying to highlight the mood of the piece, or the shapes that the shadows create, or bring out the contrast of textures, then we can talk about success, because those things are pretty easy to see. In fact there is no such thing as success in a piece that was created without a motive, because the idea of success depends entirely on having a target to shoot at.

Beyond talking about the single image, framing the conversation in success and intention will often lead us to future iterations and solutions. If the textures weren’t clear enough it will be easy to try a different mixture of settings and try again. If the shape of the shadows doesn’t balance well in the frame then we can shift position and look for a new composition. If the images are successful it will likely trigger thoughts about what other subjects might benefit from the same technique, which will lead to further photos and more exploration.

This translates well beyond photography. For me I have recently begun questioning the intention behind my use of Instagram. I’m not quite sure why I have been posting there, and now that it is in my mind I will likely decide to give it up unless I can figure out the value it is generating. In this case it is a question of time being used up that I could be putting somewhere else.

More critically I find myself struggling to be intentional with my parenting. The feeling that I have been in the same room with my kids and not truly present with them stings very badly when I notice it happening.

I find that being intentional doesn’t only serve me when it is trained on the most important aspects of my life, or the creative pursuits. The act of being in the moment and being thoughtful in one’s actions starts a virtuous cycle. When I am the best version of myself and take this to the mind-numbing task of responding to work emails it becomes clear. If I am able to take an extra moment and read between the lines of the email to formulate a more thoughtful answer that addresses something the sender meant to ask but didn’t quite know how to word, then I have a deeper sense of pride in my work. Feeling good about how I handled that particular task usually means I am less anxious about the next task on my list, and I find myself more able to be in the present.

In comparison, if I am blowing through the inbox just shooting for inbox 0, then I usually approach the next task of my life in the same mindset, not focusing, just trying to get through it so that I can get to the end of the day. At which point I often look around and wonder why I thought that was the goal.

“Concentrate on the subject or the act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you are going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 8, 22

This isn’t to say that each moment need be one of extreme revelation and insight. Better to be awake and thoughtful about the choices we are making, however, then to find ourselves awake later down the road not knowing how we got there.

Links:

Photography Radio Podcast: Interview with Valérie Jardin, December 15, 2019.

ValerieJardinPhotography.com

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.

The Source and the Ten Thousand Things

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.