Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 45

Poem 45

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.


Howth Harbour, 2003
Once again, we are in the misty realms of the mystical where nothing appears clear - at least clear in the conceptual or cortical or logical sense Once again, to continue by way of a refrain, we are in the country of poetry which nicely parallels the world of the mystical. Another related, and indeed cognate word to mystical is undoubtedly that of "mystery." Both derive from the Greek root "musterion" and the Latin word "misterium" through "mistere" of Old French to mean something akin to hidden meaning or truth, or a deeper religious feeling or some sort of esoteric experience of union with that meaning or truth behind whatever reality is. Maybe, indeed, it is that reality in se? Moreover, it suggests a strong, though hidden, presence of the source of all truth, namely God or some other such esoteric principle, with the person doing the experiencing. 

Further, let me point out here, at the risk of repeating myself somewhat ad nauseam, that there is more to human intelligence than the logical, the cortical or the narrowly mathematical.  There are many other aspects to the human intelligence as the great contemporary psychologist Howard Gardner so powerfully pointed out to us in his book Frames of Mind (1983) namely Musical, Visual, Verbal, Logical, Bodily, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal,  Naturalistic and Existential.  There are other scholars who would add some others to this list. Be that as it may, these nine intelligences are essentially highly useful and intuitively obvious models of Intelligence, and obviously they do overlap and mutually co-operate in the workings of our human brains/minds.  In the main, as a schema or suggested structure for the complexity that is the human intelligence, they are useful in many fields of endeavour, especially in education and mental health areas to name but two.  What I am about here, to state my argument as vividly and as clearly as possible, is to emphasise that argumental clarity is a trait of logical and mathematical intelligence pre-eminently, and that it is not necessarily a strong trait in other aspects of intelligence as in Art or Music or Bodily or indeed Existential Intelligence.  In short, it is only at our peril that we look for a logical clarity in spiritual or mystical or indeed in existential writing.

"Of the writing of books there is no end!" Own library
Once again, to sustain my old refrain, poetry lends itself well to the expression of mystical theology, mystical experience, religious or siritual writing in a most important way. Poetry places all its powers at the disposal of the spiritual or mystical writer: simile, metaphor, paradox, imagery of all types, symbolism and so on, along with much subtlety of connotation.  Yet again, setting up pairs of polar oposites is to the fore in the above poem: perfection vs imperfection, fullness vs emptiness, presence vs absence, straightness vs crookedness, wisdom vs foolishness, expression vs concealment, openness vs closedness or closure, masculine vs feminine and so on.    

Perfection is essentially a hard word really, a relentlessly condemnatory and judgemental one at that, I believe. Somehow, unrealistic and obsessional teachers and professors have used it over the years as a cruel weapon in education to beat their pupils and students relentlessly with and in so doing massage their own egos. To my mind, they were simply that, that is to say, simply unrealistic, obsessional, cruel and egotistical.  A friend of mine, whose father was a professor and scholar of note at one of our foremost colleges described him as a "grammar fascist" in his ruthless pursuit of perfection in his chsosen language of study.  It is educationally sound to strive for a certain perfection as a goal but never to be obsessional in its pursuit as it can be so dismissive of seemingly lesser achievements, achievements which may require greater effort on the part of strugglers than the effort expended by the experts in the discipline in question. After all, does not life teach us that imperfection is often the order of the day?  Things fail and structures crumble as indeed do the creators and makers of those things.  As a young boy, I was often quite upset when this or that toy broke.  And then, I learned to live with the inevitable breaking down of things.  A deeper and more bitter lesson yet had to be learnt by me as a young boy, and that was that people as well as things broke, faded and died.  This is life, I learned to my then consternation. Perfection is always ahead of us, often never, if ever, here in the now. Living in the now often requires that we be satisfied at times with accepting what we cannot improve or change despite our greatest efforts, and that some individual things and some situations in which we find ourselves in life may just well be such as the old saying has it, that is, that they represent life's being simply "as good as it gets!" 

And yet perfection may include within it an element of the imperfect.  After all, how can one describe light without shade, black without white, good without bad, kindness without cruelty and so on?  Those polar opposites may just well be in that healthy tension suggested by many philosophers and creative writers?

As one of our great Irish writers, Oscar Wilde, once so pithily put it "the truth is never pure and rarely simple."  Indeed, Wilde did not write his words flippantly (as we often infer from his more humorous works) as he had suffered much in his quite short life and much of his thoughts and indeed his great humour were tempered with the most bitter of experiences of a life that had as many lows and well as it had highs. 

In a sense, existentially we are called upon, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre to shape our own destinies by modelling the best self (or our best identity project) we can from the talents at our disposal within the orbit of our own little lives.  In that same sense, we are condemned to be free within the limits and constraints of our own private and public worlds.  However, we are but mere dots on a bigger blob of earth that is in turn a mere dot within a bigger blob that is a mere dot within another bigger blob and so on ad infinitum.  In that sense, the Tao or the Wisdom behind the universe or God or the Great Spirit or even what some call the Indifferent Energy behind the universe, or whatever is at the base of reality, shapes much that is beyond our puny control.  We are definitely mere "flies to wanton boys," as Shakespeare once so timelessly put it, in this particular context outlined. And yet, our task is at least to make the best stab we can at making even a little splash in our tiny pond of life.  To this end, all cultures call us, and all religions, too, which are, of course, mere aspects of those same cultures.  Maybe, indeed, the cultural must, of necessity, always and ever be greater than mere individuality, that most wonderful and elusive myth of all.

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