Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 48

Poem 48

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things,

until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can't be gained by interfering.


Pair of swans, Bull Island, January 2016
Once again, this current poem rehearses all the old themes.  However, that need not distract us, as such is the way all religious writings work, and indeed all great literature works. Themes will be repeated, but almost always in different ways, in different contexts and with different words.  T.S. Eliot underlined that same point with respect to the themes he returned to often in his own oeuvre. 

The Taoist oppositional tension is returned to in Poem 48 above, but this time the opposition is that between addition and subtraction.  Indeed, as a teacher of basic mathematics at secondary school level here in Ireland, I am aware that philosophically these are two inextricably related operations and that subtraction can be looked upon as adding a negative number.  This, in my opinion,  is a good example of how inextricable opposites are in actuality, and that to vere to either extreme is to do some damage to the actual reality of the healthy tension or balance of opposition.  Those of you who have some knowledge of mathematics will know that another example of oppositional operations are those of multiplication and division where division can be seen as the operation of multiplication by a fraction.  Now, to return to poem 48 above, our author is talking about adding to knowledge bit by inexhaustible bit and so on ad infinitum, and yet, he or she sees that, in a way, a lot of unnecessary and weighty information will have to be dropped or subtracted. Indeed, there is much to be learnt here by twenty first century humankind who perdure in a world in which we are literally awash with information.  Indeed, we might quite plausibly push our metaphor further by saying that we are constantly being hit by a tsunami of information on a daily basis in that same world.  One only has to google a topic or a question on that topic to know that one can get literally hundreds and thousands, or more even, of possible answers. Scholars tell us that we are in an era of information overload, and that what is needed is interpretation or analysis skills of that data.  We may be awash with information but we are literally bereft of secure ground on which to anchor our ship of interpretation, and we are often equipped with poor critical and analytical skills to engage profitably and critically with the data.

Unity, Bull Island, January, 2016
A parent remarked to me recently that her second son "carries the weight of the world on his shoulders" while her eldest does not "sweat the small stuff" at all.  Undoubtedly, what the younger lad needs to do is to "let go" or to "subtract" or "take away" or to "get rid of" the small stuff.  This is what our Taoist poem is about above, that is, the subtraction of all that weight from our shoulders, all that heavy unnecessary knowledge.  Knowledge must lead us to the truth, that is, in any deep and reasonable understanding of epistemology, knowledge must not drown us in a sea of confusion, but rather philosophically enlighten our paths to the truth.  This is what we are about in counselling and in psychotherapy.  As a part-time counsellor in my own school, this is one way in which I see my role.  In fact, I will be working with the second boy I have adverted to in the opening sentence of this present paragraph.  That is to say, one of the things I will try to elucidate for the young man is his path to self-discovery by enabling his to throw off some of that weight - how to enable him to subtract or take away some of the load he is carrying.  Admittedly, these weights may not be burdens of knowledge, but they most certainly will be burdens of negative thoughts which are themselves negative information. My task will be to enable the young man to get a handle on what is brdening him, to equip him with the tools to let go of the load he is carrying.  Indeed, in that task, I am a mere channel through which the client is enabled to unburden himself of his load.

Avoiding Passivity

Most people who engage with spirituality, or who involve themselves in meditation practices, or what is more popularly called practices of mindfulness these days, are aware of the criticism levelled at such practitioners that they are passive actors in a world that requires a greater active involvement.  Again, paradoxically, stillness of soul and centeredness of being lead to a more directed and profitable engagement with the world. Such so-called passivity is exactly what was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as the heresy of quietism which elevated contemplation over actual mental engagement or meditation on scriptural or other spiritual texts or even oral prayer.  When I studied the history of mystical theology and spirituality many decades ago we learnt that this practice of quietism was condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1687. This quietist heresy (or that heresy which led the mind into sheer passivity, according to officialdom) was seen to consist of wrongly elevating "contemplation" over "meditation," intellectual stillness over vocal prayer, and interior passivity over pious action.  Once again, such concerns are merely fuelled by considerations of control and power (closely linked to the ego, no doubt) rather than with, on the one hand, the paradoxical powerfulness of silence, meditation and contemplation and, on the other, the directedness of still-pointedness and focus in meditation or mindfulness.

Once again, by way of concluding these few words, I should like to invite the reader to peruse the above poem again and to let whatever word or phrase offer itself to you as a mantra for a five minute period of still-pointed or focussed meditation or mindfulness.

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