Beyond Language: A Taoist Perspective

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As I watch my niece slowly learn her first few words, I am reminded of the importance of language. After all, there is only so much you can communicate to a person with ‘mamma’, ‘pappa’ and ‘ball’. Although other species have their own unique ways of interacting with each other, the sophistication of human language has enabled us to share ideas, thoughts and emotions leading to the development of complex societies and cultures.

Nonetheless, we must also keep in mind that no language is perfect in fully representing our internal subjective experience or the continual dynamic flux of the external world. Although it is extremely useful, language is always limited in portraying reality which is constantly changing and evolving. This is what Lao Tsu is alluding to in the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Limits of Language

To understand his point, let’s look at an example. Two men are in love with a woman. The first is very articulate with a strong command over the English language. He is able to craft exquisite love letters and court her with his beautifully spoken prose. The second, although his love for the women is no less sincere, struggles to find the right words to express his emotions.

It would be wrong to say that the first man’s affection is any greater or is more genuine. Rather, he is just more skilled in the nuances and intricacies of this given language.

We are always restricted by the language(s) that we speak. Take for instance the commonly used word ‘love’ in English. The term is used to describe a myriad of different things. One could use it to describe their desire for a piece of chocolate cake, while another individual can use can use it to express their deep affection for their spouse.

On the contrary, the ancient Greeks had used different words to more precisely describe the unique meanings and connotations of the idea of love.  For instance, ‘philia’ represents friendship and companionship, ‘eros’ signifies passion or intimate love, while ‘agape’ means unconditional love alluding to the warmth and care a mother has for her child. Having a wider array of terminology available allows you to speak with more accuracy and precision.

The key point is that language and concepts slice up reality into fragments, ultimately affecting how we see and make sense of things.  While useful, the concepts we use and rely on during our day to day lives to make sense of things can never fully characterize the complexity of our experience.

It can point towards meaning, but can never capture the complete essence of what is being said. The issue arises when we make the mistake of confusing abstractions and thoughts with reality itself.

 As the philosopher Alan Watts describes in Tao: The Watercourse Way,

There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag. Verbal description and definition may be compared to the latitudinal and longitudinal nets which we visualize upon the earth and heavens to define and enclose the positions of mountains and lakes, planets and stars…. For the game of Western philosophy and science is to trap the universe in the networks of words and numbers so that there is always the temptation to confuse the rules, or laws of grammar and mathematics with the actual operation of nature.

Defining the Sacred  

As I mentioned in my last article, the Tao can be thought of as the ‘way’, source or principle which drives the universe.  

Although there are important differences between the Tao and the Judeo-Christian God[1], there is a similar logic in resisting classification of the divine. As the sociologist Erich Fromm writes in To Have or to Be ?,

The God of the Old Testament, is first of all a negation of idols, of gods one can have…God must not have a name; no image must be made of God.

Every time we put labels and classify things into discrete categories, we turn the infinite into the finite making something into an object that we can possess. The beauty and mystery is lost as the divine turns into an idol or abstraction.

Rather than imposing our will and social conventions on the world, Taoism invites us to be receptive to the ultimate mystery of life – to welcome the spontaneous flow of existence and live-in harmony with nature. To accept things as they are as opposed to the way they ought to be.

Thus, in the Tao Te Ching Lao Tsu continually reminds to be open and receptive to the energy, forces and current of the universe; to embrace stillness and let life flow through you.

Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind become still

Tao Te Ching

Experiential Knowledge

If we can’t fully understand the nature of things through language, models or concepts, what are we to turn to?

Taoism emphasizes intuition or tacit knowledge. That is, knowing through direct experience, by getting the ‘feel of it’ and directly participating in the activity. Tacit or experiential knowledge is that which is difficult to express verbally or in written form.

You can’t learn to ride a bike just by reading an instruction manual just as one can’t adequately learn a language by studying its grammar.

You have to actively and routinely engage in and participate in these activities to be able to get a firm grasp over them.

Conclusion

The illusive and esoteric ideas of Taoism remind us that the world is a far more mysterious place than we may imagine.

I can not be certain if this article has explained the concept of the Tao accurately, but then again words can only get you so far. It is the role of the poet, author or artist to go beyond the confines of words – to make you understand at a deeper level what is attempting to be said.

Perhaps next time you find yourself in a state of awe or wonder, or become immersed in an activity and lose yourself in a state of flow, you will have a better idea of what I mean.  


[1] Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, the Tao is not something that has direct authority/control over the universe nor something to be worshipped.

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The Machine : A Sign of the Times

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Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts

The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin
The prophecies of George Orwell have been realized 

Cameras, gadgets and sensors colonize every part of our bodies 


The Machine slowly creeps in, gradually but deliberately 

It watches you, tracks you, measures your every move 

We surrender privacy and freedom for the sake of efficiency, progress and 'human optimization' 


Everyone thinks the same, acts the same, is the same - copies of copies of copies 


What is beauty? What is justice? What is wisdom? 

My questions go unanswered as the crowd remain mesmerized by the shiny black gadgets in their hands


The preachers of Silicon Valley promise salvation, heaven on earth - immortality 

Technology is their saving grace

Everything they say can be bought 

Everything they say is just a click away


Dissent is swallowed by the Machine, repurposed and sold to the masses on glowing billboards  

Consume more

Buy more 

Be more


There remain a few, however 

Who love their humanity, who cherish nature and the beauty of existence 

They find wealth in simplicity and strive for virtue


The Machine searches, but cannot find them

It longs for these people, but cannot conquer or control them 

They reject the false promises, hopes and dreams it offers


Their fortress , their strong impenetrable fortress, is found within


These last humans provide me with a north star, an ideal to aspire to 

A life to long for 
 

I  walk towards them for solace, for hope

Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

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This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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