Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 56

Poem 56

Those who know don't talk.
Those who talk don't know.

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.

Be like the Tao.
It can't be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.


Picture of myself some years back
The line that jumps out at this commentator as he reflectively reads the above poem is the one which runs: "This is the primal identity."  What a wonderfully loaded line.  Using the literal meaning of the word "primal" we could substitute into one meaning of the word the following synonyms for it in this statement, namely "original," "first," "initial" or "early."  A second meaning given for "primal" renders the following synonyms: "basic," "fundamental," "essential," "vital" and "central." Therefore, other meaningful ways of stating our Taoist assertion would be: "This is the real identity," or "This is the true identity" or "This is the essence of identity" or "This is the vital identity."  From the moment of first consciousness we are meaning seekers and meaning makers, and certainly the older we get the more strongly we pursue our rather elusive identity.  It would seem that for us moderns that the search for meaning and the search indeed for ultimate meaning is what often keeps us going in life. The question of personal identity looms large for all of us.  "Who am I?" is a question to which we all seek an answer and one to which we do give an answer insofar as we manage to live any kind of meaningful lives. 

My shadow on Donabate Beach
In the philosophy and practice of psychotherapy, and indeed in that of psychiatry, the question of personal identity is essentially very central.  Listening to the client is an empathetic and affirming way is one sure way of helping him or her to greater self-awareness and greater self-acceptance.  And yet, it is surely a huge question as to what the nature of personal identity is in the first place.  One of the founders of humanistic school of psychotherapy, namely Carl Ransom Rogers stated that the goal of all therapy was the actualization of the Real Self, and this is a very good modern equivalent of what our Taoist poet is getting at in the above poem when he mentions "primal identity."  The task of all meditation practices, and indeed what more secular psychologists and psychotherapists refer to as the practice of mindfulness is in a strong sense one and the same.  They both seek to establish a strong sense of the Real Self or of a real sense of living in the Now of existence. Therefore, the turn to the East - and by this I mean both the actual journeys made by many psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, creative writers and musicians and many religious scholars to India and Tibet, as well as the written accounts of their experiences and newly gained knowledge and so on - in the middle of the twentieth century should not surprise us at all.  So many Westerners of note began living in ashrams and studying and meditating under various gurus and masters.  From this there emerged a wonderful blossoming of esoteric scholarship that flowed into the New Age Movement that in turn spawned an almost universal interest in Self-Development, Pop Psychology and Self-Help.  Therefore, mindfulness is merely a secularized account of the meditation practices used in the various religious denominations of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The author as a young lad aged 7.  Is this actually the me I am now?
The second phrase that jumps off the page at this commentator is "settle your dust."  How many times have we heard the old wise saying that we must let the dust settle on this, that or the other problem?  We have other similar phrases like: "Let's let sleeping dogs lie for a while" or "Let's sleep on this problem for a while" or "Don't make important decisions when you are upset in any way!" or "Choose your battles carefully!"  These phrases or sayings are all getting at the same wise advice, namely not to be reactor to this or that situation.  The easiest thing for anyone to do is to "shoot from the hip" as another phrase puts it.  Still another saying offers this piece of wisdom: "Act in haste, repent at leisure!" Meditation is all about slowing down and taking our time, of getting centered in the "Now" of being, of achieving a point of equanimity we may call the Still Point of life, of stilling the body, of becoming aware of what it's really like to inhabit or to live in this body, or even more correctly still, what it's like to be this body here in the now of existence.  I have always loved the statement, also a very wise one, that our minds tend to either live in the past (regrets and remorse and sad memories and so on) or in the future (expectations, ambitions, anxieties and/or fears and so on) while our bodies most definitely live in the present.  That, indeed, is why all meditation or mindfulness practices begin with stilling the body, of becoming aware of the body at first, then becoming aware of our feelings and just letting them go, then becoming aware of our thoughts and letting them so and so on and on, and deeper and deeper into the stillness of the "Real Self" or what our Taoist poet calls the "Primal Self."

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