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:

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.

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.

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.