Your Own Personal Nietzsche (1/25/12)

In the ancient Chinese Book of Balance and Harmony, we read:

Thus the scriptures and alchemical writings use various different terms to lead students from the crude to the subtle, so that they may gradually enter a state of beatitude and then see essence and realize openness. The actuality is not on paper; writings are like a boat to ferry people across a river—once the people are on the other shore, the boat has no more use (p. 60-61)

Nietzsche, as anyone who has a long acquaintance with his marvelous writings will attest, approaches philosophical and psychological questions of the first order—but often from a pungently personal standpoint. He was well aware of Emerson’s laudatory remark about Montaigne: Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. Nietzsche would have described his own words in such vascular terms, with the suggestion that they were consubstantial with his very being.

How profound is the difference between these two attitudes towards writings and words as aids to spiritual enlightenment. The Taoist attitude is pointedly impersonal and the Taoist writings encourage the reader’s mental liberation from the narrow horizons of the ‘personal’—to break him or her out of the cramped confines of the personal standpoint. With Nietzsche, on the other hand, his own knowledge and insights are always incontrovertibly personal, always pulsing (and occasionally hemorrhaging) with intense personal feelings, pyrotechnical passions, barely disguised suffering, exultation, rapture, and struggle. Who will dispute the fact that Nietzsche’s works possess a ‘heroic’ quality that is very attractive to his readers (especially younger ones) precisely because of this display of personal struggle and individual ‘truths’ stolen from the jaws of monsters of the deep?

But behind these ostensibly ‘spiritual’ heroics one suspects an immodest claim to personal proprietorship over ‘truths’ that are, at bottom, transpersonal. In the very process of attempting to claim personal ownership of such truths, Nietzsche rather heedlessly deforms, violates, and cheapens them, both in subtle and in conspicuous ways. Rather than to bravely and trustingly allow these larger, transpersonal truths to ‘break’ the stubborn personal standpoint open, after the Taoist example—and juxtapose his limited consciousness with the larger sphere of the transpersonal—Nietzsche insists, again and again, upon forcing the impersonal into the more cramped ‘space’ of his ego-consciousness, infusing everything he can hunt down with his own ‘blood,’ his own distinctive scent, his personal imprimatur. Nietzsche is Hercules in Hades…or Othello and Iago locked into one body and brain, continually at odds with itself. Again, I’m not disputing the stupendousness of his personal heroism in attempting to single-handedly hunt down (and slay and eventually stuff into an aphorism or an essay) enormous specimens of ‘wild game’ with his deadly bow and arrow. But I must question the wisdom of following his ill-fated example.

Like Prometheus—no matter how prejudiced one might be in his favor—Nietzsche perilously steals fire from divine sources without quite paying due respect to the established order of things. He seems to have violated an ‘order of rank’—a scheme within which even the most exemplary human beings occupy only a modest status and not the titanic stature that Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch is inflated with. It is one thing to argue that Nietzsche overstepped the limits within which humans, as such, seem naturally fit to inhabit. But he did this, in large part, by categorically denying that any such hierarchy or ‘chain of being’ exists at all, and that humans—or at least humans of his stature—are perched at the very summit of what is essentially a material universe animated, through and through, by the will to power. Nietzsche begins with the assumption that there are no inherently fixed, eternal, and divinely authorized levels of being either within or beyond the human level, as all the major spiritual and esoteric traditions of the world have taught for millennia. Unhinged ‘creativity’ and boundless, self-authorized inventiveness replace the former methods of graded, initiatory spiritual development.

In the past (and still in those remote places which have managed somehow to elude the far-reaching tentacles of Western nihilism/relativism/anthropocentrism) these methods were founded upon the understanding that there are higher laws and levels of being than mere human inventiveness backed up by the will to power, and that the initiate’s task was to try and make these laws and levels conscious so that he/she could live in accordance with them. This sacrifice of the personal (human, all too human) will and vision to the deeper, subtler, and thoroughly impersonal ‘Tao’ or ‘Brahman’ or ‘inner Christ’ constituted a radical transformation of consciousness. In each of these spiritual traditions this transfiguration (symbolized in Christianity by the Crucifixion and Resurrection) entailed the death of the personal ego and the subsequent realization of the (deep, transcendent) Self as the true center and source of consciousness.

Nietzsche has little or nothing of substance to say to us about any of this because he seems to have lacked a natural feel or appreciation for these matters. Like so many of the leading figures (of the 19th century) who internalized the ubiquitous materialist, physiological, and historicist assumptions, Nietzsche appears to have suffered from a kind of spiritual blindness—an evident incapacity to respectfully acknowledge a spiritual (or metaphysical) dimension that transcended the material-physiological-sociological standpoint. When this transcendent standpoint (as a crucial component or reference point within one’s philosophizing) is categorically denied, a thinker inevitably falls prey to some form of reductionism or another—at least if he or she aims at some kind of internal cogency or consistency. But for Nietzsche to speak—as he often does—about ‘spirit’ is like a (color blind) person talking about ‘red’ or ‘violet.’ He sees something but it is not at all the same thing as the ‘spirit’ known directly by someone who has a developed capacity for such experience. ‘Spirit,’ or esprit, for Nietzsche is often equivalent to animal or intellectual liveliness—or a subtle form of what the ancient Greeks called thumos and what Vedanta philosophy calls rajas. It is always closely allied to passion for him—if not synonymous with it. At any event, it should be quite obvious to anyone who is acquainted with the notion (or the actual experience) of spirit, as it is treated within esoteric or ‘quietist’ traditions, Nietzsche, in using the word ‘spirit,’ is dealing with a very different kettle of fish.

On Self-canceling Opposites (6/5/15)

The complementary-conflicted, self-balancing pairs of opposites that we observe in manifestation are merely the external reflection or projection of the essentially polaristic psyche, or mind. (Even the ‘inner-outer dualism’ is yet another instance of this fundamentally polaristic scheme.) Once this profound truth about the ‘way of things’ penetrates deep into the will of the initiate, his will to remain a hamster in a treadmill—running nowhere as fast or as slowly as he cares to—is gradually undermined. This is the transmutation of desire into the serene contentment of the sage who, as the Tao Te Ching tells us, ‘makes no plans.’ Once it is thoroughly digested that all lines lead to the same vanishing point, the circle assumes its rightful place as symbol of the whole—and of eternity, which is not the same thing as a long, long, long time. Time pertains to lines, not to the point or to the completed circle. Nietzsche, who seems never to have truly grasped this crucial distinction, ever remained heroic, and sages, as it would happen, have little to do with moral or intellectual heroism, even if it may be granted that they are ‘monsters of courage.’ Nietzsche, let us remember, effectively endorses the Sisyphean futility of endlessly repeating the self-canceling game of pursuing a good that, from our standpoint, is neither real nor enduring nor possessable—so that the ceaseless quest assumes a higher value for Nietzsche than the peace and the genuine liberation that can only come from soberly outgrowing that quest. This is the very different courage of the sages who ‘unheroically’ let go of the world fought over by Caesars, Alexanders, Napoleons, and multinational corporations. Their kingdom is not of this world.

On the Mind and Freedom (9/16/15)

Those familiar with my writings on the subject know that when it comes to mind and/or the ego—like Jung, Hillman, Buddhists, Sufis, and Taoists before me—I follow a middle way. Whether because of incapacity, incomprehension, or temperamental incompatibility I eschew those two extremes: Nietzschean-Randian (of the ‘Ayn’ sort) heroic-Promethean egotism and Eastern-style, yogic campaigns to exterminate the mind/ego. So, assuming a kind of enlightened or properly negotiated truce with the mind is a necessary precondition for the radical transformation of consciousness that culminates in mental liberation, what is the role played by the ego-will (which, we are told, is but the reflection of the light of pure, impersonal awareness in the mercurial mirror of the mental body)?

I sometimes see those ‘spiritual seekers’ who would do away with the mind as dwarfish, low voltage Ahabs, who famously said, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab’s daimonic energy and unsettling eloquence lend a kind of sublimity and gravitas (to his revenge against the white whale) that is conspicuously absent from the souls of these harmless, puny revengers against their own shrunken little ‘Moby Dicks’—which, having been malnourished and unexercised for years, are but minnows and small fry next to Melville’s. And they still can’t seem to flush them down the commode!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not wholeheartedly endorsing Ahab’s Promethean-heroic egoism, but it is certainly of a higher order and nobler pedigree than Starbuck’s Hobbesian-Lockean, mercantile-conventional prudence—the clearly reigning outlook (and in-look, for that matter) in 21st, as well as 19th, century, pragmatic America. Whether he was justified or not, Dante assigned Ulysses to one of the lowest circles in hell for a similar sort of ‘titanic’ egoism as we see in Ahab’s ‘mad flight’—but of this we may be certain: Dante, with his own sublimely expansive and self-authorizing spirit, could not help but admire precisely where he condemns—in Ulysses’ case. But my point should be plain: the greatest ‘sinners’ always stand a far better chance of finding genuine salvation than petty and harmless little nebbishes who ‘cannot be bothered’ to confront either black or white whales swimming just below the placid, artificial surface of their scrupulously controlled conscious standpoints. They will tell you that they are ‘busy’ silencing the mind, but some of us know what they’re really up to instead. They are running away from truly disturbing questions and supremely inconvenient ordeals that they would be obliged to recognize and submit to if they weren’t so dreadfully busy trying to distance themselves from that pesky, uncooperative ‘desire-mind’ (kama-manas)—strangling one Hydra head at a time. Well, good luck with that!

Ahab, as we know, goes down with the whale, along with the Pequod and its crew—except for the mercurial Ishmael who, alone, lives to tell the tale. Dante’s Ulysses’ ship and crew are similarly swallowed up by the sea—just offshore from Mt. Purgatory. Ulysses—though close enough almost to touch it—was not permitted to land his vessel upon the shore of Mt. Purgatory. While Dante finds much to admire in Ulysses’ spiritedness, his proud indifference to personal security and emotional attachments, he is troubled by the hero’s brazen refusal to humbly defer to anything whatsoever that might exceed or transcend his cognitive and experiential ambitions. Could this, wonder of wonders, be the fatal flaw that bars his access to the shores of Purgatory? To return to our initial theme: is this what, on a far less sublime level, prevents petty revengers (against the demonized mind) from being able to negotiate a truce with the ‘enemy’?

Understanding the nature of kama-manas, or the desire-mind, is the key to freeing our spirits from its lower, cruder, and heavier (in terms of psychic gravity) power. But as with the ‘external’ natural world, in order to understand the inner nature of the desire-mind, we must to a certain extent obey it. I suspect that alarms and red flags are exploding in the minds of some over-reactive readers, but ‘hold your horses.’ We obey, or submit, chiefly to establish equitable terms between both parties—and not merely to get the better of one another. By ‘obey’ I do not mean ‘indulge in’ or ‘utterly surrender to.’ By ‘obey’ I more precisely mean ‘carefully attend to,’ ‘to alertly observe and take note of’ the mind—the various ways in which it works; how it influences or affects that which it touches, treats, entertains or gives birth to; what happens—or doesn’t happen—when it is quiet and still.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the mind is always with us—‘hanging around,’ much as our bodies are always with us, just hanging around, whether busy with something or not. In fact, it is probably useful to think of the mind as a body—a subtle body—that seems to hang upon us, or even enfold us, rather as our fleshly bodies do. But the great difference between the physical and mental bodies lies in the fact that the physical body deals with solid, concrete objects, persons, and events while the mental body deals with ideas, concepts, emotions, moods, attitudes, and other intangible but nonetheless experienceable forms and phenomena.

The Sanskrit word ‘kama’ means desire, so ‘kama-manas’ refers to a mind that is stamped or infused with more or less stable, distinct desire-habits. These generally stable and established desire-habits operate upon ‘mental matter’ in much the same way that a magnetic field operates upon tiny iron shavings. Understanding the extremely intimate relationship between desire-habits and mental forms (concepts, memories, plans, recurring thoughts, etc.) that are directly shaped by those affective patterns is absolutely crucial to attaining mastery over, and liberation from, these often cramped and confining desires. It is also crucial for overcoming our suspicion/hatred for mind (misology), which is founded upon a deep misunderstanding.

When New-agers (and Shirley Maclaine, back in the 80s) tell us that we create our own ‘worlds’—our own ‘reality’—they are actually speaking the truth, or at least giving voice to a sound spiritual-psychological principle, whether they actually understand what they are saying, or not. Persons with a semi-sensitive or half-awakened intuition are occasionally able to glimpse profound spiritual insights, but that’s about all they can do since they lack the training and the conceptual understanding (of what they’ve glimpsed in ‘flashes’ of insight) that are needed to articulate and to ground these insights in a reasonably intelligible form—to place them in a comprehensive, meaningful context. Only then would such intuitive souls be in a position to make significant contributions to the intellectual, artistic, or spiritual welfare of our ailing culture. Such training and education require time and much discipline—even when we have a passion for learning these things and developing these skills. As it happens, most persons who are drawn to such matters wind up getting side-tracked and absorbed by mundane affairs, so that little real development of these potentials ever occurs. Such persons, alas, are a dime a dozen, but in saying this I am certainly not condemning such half-hearted, well-meaning persons. We all eventually ‘find our level,’ whether we like it or not. As it turns out, it is the specific gravity of our desire-habits that is primarily responsible for assigning us to our particular, all-too-familiar ‘level.’ I am not referring here to some deplorable and oppressive caste system or even to some kind of karmic destiny from which there is no reprieve or escape. Our ‘level assignment’ is not written in stone. We can move ‘up’ or we can move ‘down.’ We see it all the time in persons around us—or in our own lives. What I am trying to argue is that unless and until we figure out how to alter the specific gravity of our desire-habits or affective patterns, we are pretty much obliged to stay put on more or less the same rung of a ladder that stretches from heaven to hell, figuratively (but as the same time, existentially) speaking.

So, in an attempt to tighten up these meandering musings about the mind, let us review some of the polarities or contrasts that were touched upon earlier, and see if this provides any clarification. We spoke of the contrast between negotiating a truce with the mind versus dismissing or disparaging the mind; between daimonic, sublime overreaching egos (like Ahab’s and Ulysses’—and possibly Dante’s) and the puny, run-of-the-milquetoast variety that prefers to ‘stay home,’ preferably under the covers with the TV set on; between a kind of reverent openness to the transcendent and a titanic drive to conquer or dispense with it. Then, with the idea of kama-manas, we began to explore the hidden marriage between two things that are commonly contrasted, or even isolated, from one another: thoughts and desires, or knowledge and affects.

What can we do with these disparate pieces of a puzzle? Can they, indeed, be fitted together naturally—perhaps even seamlessly—into a vivid and clear picture of our general problem: how to regard the mind and how to make the best of our relationship with it? To repeat what has been said elsewhere: no relationship is possible where there is an unconscious merger or identification with the ‘other’—and this goes for the mind, as well. And if the relationship is dysfunctional (because of hatred or neglect or rejection of the other), not much of value can come out of this arrangement either. Therefore, unless and until we have dis-identified with and/or come to workable terms with the mind we can pretty much kiss the prospect of genuine mental liberation goodbye.

In speaking about kama-manas, the desire-mind, I used the analogy of a magnetic field moving and organizing iron filings into distinctive patterns. A powerful magnetic field—generated, say, by an Ahab or a Ulysses—can hold (almost) an entire crew under its enchanting spell—while many persons have trouble holding a single thought or question in their mental grasp for more than a few seconds. Thus, those with potent spirits are capable of either great good or great mischief, while the majority of low-voltage souls will leave the world pretty much as they found it when they depart. But for all of us—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the world-historical ‘dynamos’ to the backwater bozos—one principle applies to all: thought is but the shadow or lackey of the governing desire or will. It is the will—weak or strong, noble or base, selfish or selfless—that occultly or invisibly formulates and steers the thoughts that populate (and sometimes overpopulate) our minds.

Going after the thoughts, then, is a bit like chasing after shadows or holographic images so long as the inner will or ruling desires remain unconscious and unattended to.

In my own case, which may or may not be universalizable or repeatable by everyone simply on the basis of shared humanity, there are complicating factors which, in all fairness, ought to be addressed here. Something happened to me—inside my soul—that does not happen to everyone, perhaps not even to most persons, so far as I can tell from consulting many others. Without really understanding what it was at the time, I went through a kind of conversion experience. This experience, which I have described as a major shift in my psychic center of gravity, was not—I repeat, not—linked to any confession of faith in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other established religion, although after the dust began to settle I recognized unmistakable parallels between my conversion experience and those we can read about in religious histories of all persuasions. Suffice it to say that I am living proof—at least to myself—that one needn’t profess orthodox faith in Christ (as a historical figure, or Allah, or any deity whatsoever) in order to undergo a bona fide spiritual awakening or rebirth experience. On the other hand, I would venture to say that the symbolic value of Christ’s life, teachings, and final ordeal—as with those of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Mani, Socrates, Valentinus, Augustine, and others—begin, inwardly, to be revealed only after this conversion experience occurs.

Why do I bring this up within the context of this essay, it will be asked? Is it because I realized at one point, while I was writing, that all of the crucial observations that I’ve made are predicated upon that ‘conversion’ ordeal? How does this fact impinge upon the content of the essay? Well, I am not sure I would go so far as to say that the content is worthless and unintelligible to anyone who has yet to undergo an analogously radical ‘pivoting’ or shift in his/her psychic center of gravity—but such readers will not be likely to experience an immediate recognition of the crucial points shared here.

On Dialectic and Rhetoric (10/18/15)

I realize how important it is to overcome the mind’s natural tendency to be charmed into obedience or assent by eloquence, by flattery directed towards our wishes and prejudices, and by rhetoric. Rigorous dialectic has something very un-charming and dis-illusioning about it. It cuts through the beautiful flesh of eloquence in order to reveal the musculature and skeletal structure (or lack thereof) hiding below the fetching, distracting, and often misleading surface. As such, dialectical thinking is perhaps intrinsically ruthless, painful, and disturbing. And yet it is essential to the quest for the truth precisely because its task is to flay the thick layers of skin and flab that normally conceal more than they reveal of the truth that lies at a deeper, subtler level of experience. With such gruesome images in mind, it should come as no surprise that Socrates was feared and detested by those in his midst who deeply resented having their piss-poor innards and frothy pretentions unveiled and publicly displayed by that peerless old vivisectionist of souls. Only the toughest and most sincere lovers of truth would have welcomed—or willingly withstood—such a torturous unmasking. Apollodorus—who is presented in the Symposium as semi-misanthropic despiser of himself and of everyone else but Socrates—may have been just such a toughened and dis-illusioned candidate for philosophical self-enquiry, if not an altogether flattering portrait of one.

We might wonder: Was not Plato, in attempting to beautify philosophy, behaving as an even more audacious ironist than Socrates? Does he not, in fact, ‘meta-ironically’ employ Socrates’ irony as a lightning rod to absorb and deflect far more serious charges from himself? Wasn’t Nietzsche justifiably suspicious—if not flatly dismissive—of Plato’s equation of ‘truth, beauty, and goodness’?


If, from the standpoint of ordinary human expectations, preferences, and desires, the unvarnished truth concerning the fundamental questions of human life is ugly, then doesn’t it follow that beauty and truth can only coincide or converge for the philosopher who has dialectically ascended the ladder of understanding to a vantage point high above the normal (‘interested’ or desire-infused) human perspective? Such a person would necessarily have transcended those run-of-the-mill expectations, preferences, and desires before truth could be purged of the ugliness it necessarily possesses for the resistant non-philosopher. Is it possible that seductive beauty and off-putting ugliness cancel each other out in the neutral but vital contentment of the philosopher whose perspective has transcended this familiar pair of opposites?

If we allow ‘eros’ to stand (or substitute) for philosophy—or even philosophical insight—we see (at 201e in the Symposium) that Diotima clears up the ‘dichotomy’ in Socrates’ mind by asking him, “Do you believe that whatever is not beautiful must necessarily be ugly?” Eros, like philosophy, turns out to be something neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, but something ‘in between.’


The final chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:


True words are not beautiful;

Beautiful words are not true.

A good man does not argue;

He who argues is not a good man.

A wise man has no extensive knowledge;

He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.

The Sage does not accumulate for himself.

The more he uses for others, the more he has for himself.

The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.

The way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.

The way of the Sage is to act but not to compete.

Lao Tzu’s words (which, after all these centuries, still startle) echo the observation concerning Plato’s ‘beautification’ of philosophy—and Nietzsche’s astute rejection of Plato’s equation of truth-beauty-goodness. Plato could purge his Republic of the poets, but it took all the disappointments of a long, uncannily circumspect and irreproachably honest life to silence the beautifying poet in himself, as we see in the later dialogues, which are models of logical-lexical rigor. (And, despite himself, Nietzsche doesn’t seem to have had any more luck along these same lines than Plato did…although if he had lived longer, who knows? Perhaps he, too, would have eventually seen through and tamed the Circe of intoxicating eloquence.)

Perhaps beauty—like pleasure—pertains to the inherently preferential individual ego, but—like ugliness and displeasure—are matters of indifference and irrelevance to the truly liberated spirit. In becoming liberated from the ‘ego and its own,’ doesn’t the spirit transcend all those preferences, desires, fears, and concept-convictions that define, bind, and drive individual ego-consciousness?

The Rarest Marriage (1/11/16)

What if, after the metanoia—the experience of having the world turned inside-out—we don’t simply become more potently and decisively spiritualized, but simultaneously more materialized—in an archetypal sense? What if the expansion or enlargement we undergo doesn’t point exclusively in the direction of spirit—and away from matter—but in both directions at once, so that we become larger, subtler, and more consciously attentive at both ends of the continuum that spans these poles, spirit and matter? If this—or something approximating this—is indeed what happens (in an actual coniunctio), then those ‘spiritual’ disciplines that emphasize and encourage a kind of detachment from (and implicit disparagement of) matter and the body may be (divinely?) misguided. Once again we encounter this strange, elusive rivalry between the aims of wholeness and integration, on the one hand, and spiritual purity and detachment, on the other.

Certainly, some Gnostic sects assumed this rather radical stance towards material and bodily forms, attractions, and tendencies—just as certain ascetic paths in India and other Eastern teachings do. Perhaps Taoism—with its reticence to ascribe priority or preeminence to either yin or yang—comes closest to endorsing this internal process of balancing and harmonizing the various pairs of complementary-contending opposites.

Here again I think Jung was a marvelous visionary and trailblazer—even if he was following clues left behind by the alchemists. Part of the appeal of this line of exploration is that it points to a possible marriage or reconciliation of the ‘male and female’ elements within the psyche. My hunch is that if I am able to make this inner marriage of the male and female my priority, I will be better able to avoid the time-and-energy-consuming detour of unconsciously ‘acting out’ or ‘externalizing’ this inner drama. In the past, that path has given me only so much experience for my pains—and, as Nietzsche said: ‘People need to speak from experience (and experience always seems to mean bad experience, doesn’t it?)’ (BGE, 204)

Lao-Tzu’s Timeless Little Relativizer (11/10)

I just quickly reread the Tao Te Ching—yesterday and this morning, upon waking—pleasantly surprised to find that it still reliably succeeds in quieting my restless mind and significantly reducing my care and concern for any foolish or non-essential activities, relationships, goals, and hopes. In effect, its laconically and powerfully rendered perspective penetrates deep into my intuition and releases me momentarily from my typical ensnarement in the ego-perspective. From its vantage point the ego is noticeably relativized—not pummeled or thwacked with a cane, not abused unnecessarily or shamed into a hang-dog, abject state, but gently and poignantly objectified. The effect of this is to free up and then activate healing psychic energies that otherwise tend to be ignored, disparaged, and mistrusted by the self-absorbed personal ego. Along with Chuang-Tzu’s short parables, Lao-Tzu’s little book is truly a timeless repository of spiritual wisdom—two seminal, psycho-active texts which, for me, come closer perhaps than any such writings from other spiritual traditions—with the qualified exception of some Zen Buddhist stories and practices—to providing a glimpse of ‘the whole’ in its unbroken state.

This great virtue stems, I suspect, from the absence in Taoism of any sort of metaphysical-moral dualism, such as we find in Plato and in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic schemes—at least in all of their exoteric or orthodox presentations. Buddhism, Hinduism, and the various yoga disciplines from India also seem, at least in the forms I am acquainted with, to stress the importance of breaking the binding ‘spell’ of Samsara (in order to liberate the detached, ascetic meditator) to such an extent that a psychologically precarious one-sidedness in favor of spirit and the disengaged observer generally ensues. What has always appealed most to me about Taoism is its careful (and carefully tempered) embrace of the world as it is, in its quest for balance and harmony—which is not quite the same thing as mere transcendence into a state of spiritual abstraction, but may be better described as poised playfulness with ‘the ten thousand things.’ This fairness, or respectful sense of justice, towards the world (the ‘ten thousand things’) that is central to Taoism has always appealed to my philosophical conscience, which has never been content with any religion’s systematic campaign to categorically devalue and reject the world and the body, or—through some kind of spiritual transcendence—to psychologically escape from them. While such lofty and ‘superior’ spiritual ambitions can certainly entail enormous effort and sacrifice on the part of willful world-renouncers who aspire to such lonely heights, it seems to me that no less effort and self-sacrifice are required to take ‘the middle way’ between ‘heaven and earth.’ The middle path of the ancient Taoists works with the ‘way (the Tao) of things’ and not for one side against the other. The short tenth chapter captures this quite well:


Carrying the body and soul and embracing the one,

Can you avoid separation?

Attending fully and becoming supple,

Can you be as a newborn babe?

Washing and cleansing the primal vision,

Can you be without stain?

Loving all men and ruling the country,

Can you be without cleverness?

Opening and closing the gates of heaven,

Can you play the role of woman?

Understanding and being open to all things,

Are you able to do nothing?

Giving birth and nourishing,

Bearing yet not possessing,

Working yet not taking credit,

Leading yet not dominating,

This is the Primal Virtue.