All posts tagged as taoism

18 Feb

The Angel and the Uncarved Block

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / February 18, 2010 / 2 Comments

 

Michelangelo's angel

 

As February speeds by, I’m a few weeks into teaching my first full-length class: Spirituality, Science, and the Creative Process at Otis College of Art and Design. I’m blessed with a tight group of intelligent, engaged students, so I’m having a great time. And interweaving art and creativity into my poetic interconnections between spirituality and science is revealing itself to be an inspiring exercise.

Researching material for our first session, I found a famous quote by Michelangelo that, somehow, I’d never heard before. Explaining one of his most famous sculptures, the artist said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

My mind fairly quickly derailed. I thought immediately about p’u—the Taoist ideal of the uncarved block.

In Chinese philosophy, our most natural state of being is simple and undefined. Before experiences and judgments introduce distinctions such as good/bad, right/wrong, and even me/you into our thinking, we all enter the world as blank canvases. We have no fixed mental forms and thus infinite potential for becoming. This state of being is highly desirable, as it mimics the tao—the sacred Way of the universe. So in Taoism, p’u is the goal of life.

About.com describes this ideal beautifully as "perception without prejudice".

Physics describes a similar condition, calling it symmetry. An oft-cited example of this is a pencil balanced on its tip. For the briefest of instants, the pencil has no preferred direction for falling. Its possibilities are equal, therefore symmetrical. But as soon as the pencil tips one way or the other its symmetry is broken. Infinite potential yields one actualized outcome. It’s both a triumph and a tragedy.

Physicists believe that right after the Big Bang our earliest universe was highly symmetrical: matter, light, and the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.) were indistinguishable. Only with time did differentiation enter our universe, as the energy from its explosive birth calmed and cooled and light clarified from dust, matter decoupled from force.

Our universe, too, began as a blank canvas.

Michelangelo made a miracle: he actualized the potential in the marble, breaking its symmetry in an act of loving creation. A Western mystic might say he imitated God. I believe creative artists channel divinity every time they sit to work. I’m teaching this idea in class. In doing so, though, I realize I’m betraying some of my source material. Eastern spiritual traditions believe differentiated creation is illusory and a source of suffering, advocating a return to a state of unrealized potential so pure it precludes rebirth into the world.

And so an interesting question presents itself: Is God the slab of marble or the angel Michelangelo revealed inside? Is divinity the Taoist uncarved block or the forms we recognize as ourselves? Is our ideal condition perfectly symmetrical or the broken symmetry necessary for creation?

Comments welcome.

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02 Jan

A Superfluid New Year, Reprise

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / January 2, 2010 / 4 Comments

Last New Year’s Day I wrote a heartfelt blog post exploring a poetic interconnection among Taoism, physics, and the turning of the year. Today I feel inspired to reprise that essay, slightly revised, for those of you who’ve joined me in 2009… This one’s for you!

I love Chinese philosophy—its naturalness, its easy wisdom.

I’m in good company: Taoism may be the most popularized religious mysticism in the world. Books about any variety of topics have the phrase “The Tao of…” in their titles. A quick search at Amazon yields The Tao of Healing, The Tao of Eating, The Tao of Photography, and even The Tao of Network Security Monitoring! And in contemporary America, the Chinese words yin and yang have become cultural fall-back terms for the idea of interdependent opposites. They’re part of the pop lexicon.

A key Taoist concept that’s less widely known is wu wei. This Chinese term is perhaps best translated as “effortless doing”. The paradoxical phrase describes an orientation of self-surrender to the tao—the all-encompassing Way of the natural universe. Essentially, wu wei is pure acceptance of the process of life and the sacred rightness of every moment. It’s about moving in the world by flowing with it.

Religious scholar Huston Smith, in his seminal book The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, summarizes the idea this way:

Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature—is reduced to a minimum.

In physics, a superfluid is a phase of matter in which viscosity is zero. Viscosity is a term that describes a liquid’s resistance to flow, or disturbance by other substances. A thin liquid like water has low viscosity: it flows quick and easy and other substances move through it without much bother, their speed only slightly effected. A thick liquid like honey has high viscosity: it flows slow and sluggish and other substances struggle to move through it, becoming seriously held up as they try.

Viscosity, then, is a measure of a liquid’s friction.

In a superfluid, there’s basically no friction at all. This means a superfluid flows infinitely smooth, and things move within it resistance-free. So anything in motion inside a superfluid stays in motion, theoretically, forever. With no friction to slow or stop it, a process inside a superfluid unfolds unendingly!

A superfluid strikes me as an interesting analogy for the tao. And the quality of superfluidity is such a cool metaphor for wu wei.

So… Today commences a new calendar year: it’s 2010! This blog post is a benediction: May we all have a superfluid new year, characterized by the utmost wu wei—with friction within and among us reduced to a minimum, our lives flowing infinitely smooth, and our happinesses unending.

Thank you for your readership! Love and blessings to you.

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29 Jun

Religion, Science, and Education

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / June 29, 2009 / 8 Comments

Yesterday I graduated the Master of Arts in Education program at Antioch University Los Angeles! This personal milestone has put me in an excited and reflective state of mind. And so today, rather than detailing a specific poetic interconnection between spirituality and science, I’m feeling inspired to renew the overall mission statement of this blog, and my ongoing research in religion, science, and education.

This post is a credo!

The world’s religions have been at odds for centuries, with violent and tragic results. And since the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, religion and science have also been unable to stop fighting. The reason for these conflicts is that our religious sects, and religion and science, have traditionally offered very different answers to the deepest questions people face: Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we here?

These questions are philosophical, but should not be dismissed as abstract. Guiding philosophies lead directly to actions. Our metaphysics informs our ethics.

In his wonderful book Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, groundbreaking religion/science scholar Ian Barbour defines metaphysics as “philosophical analysis of the most general characteristics and components of reality…” At this point in human history, we undertake such analysis of our foundations using religion and science as our main tools. Sadly, in my opinion, both have become misused and misinterpreted in-and-of themselves. Traditional religious dogma convinces us our deepest questions all have answers, promoting absolutism over inquiry, hubris over humility. Worst case result: we kill in the name of our chosen deity. The scientific materialism of classical physics reduced us to assemblages of mindless particles moving in empty space—purposeless, lacking agency and soul. Emphasizing technology over wisdom, we penetrated the atom and used what we learned to build nuclear bombs.

But inside these tragic problems lies their solution: there are less traditional forms of religion and new developments in science that answer our most vital metaphysical questions in ways that sound similar, finally allowing for the possibility of an integrative and constructive worldview in which we can all share, peacefully. These untraditional forms of religion are the mysticisms this blog continually describes and celebrates: Vedanta Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. The new developments in science are Einstein’s relativity theories, quantum theory, chaos theory, systems theory, and evolutionary biology.

The perennial philosophy of mystical spirituality and the worldview emerging from discoveries in modern science both describe a reality characterized by holism, interdependent relationship, and emergent creativity. This sort of reality should inspire awe and humility, compassion and charity, and playfulness and artistry.

As a thinker, writer and educator, I encourage all these orientations! I find them all to be expansive. Thus expanded, we all tend to kindness.

I also prioritize synthesis: both/and, higher level thinking. Other academics have championed religious tolerance, and tolerance between religion and science. While admirable, these efforts haven’t eased the perception that these two worldviews are fundamentally dissimilar—thesis and antithesis. My mission is actual resolution of the dialectic: I want to lead my readers and students in identifying principles common to religion and science, and interweaving them into a new unified and useful philosophical tapestry.

To repeat an analogy previously used in this blog: Only from the mountaintop can we clearly see how all paths upward actually converge on the same peak.

My goal is to illumine that summit—and to share the beauty, joy, and enchantment I experience seeing it all lit up!

Thank you, as always, for joining me along the way.

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19 May

Yin Yang Jung

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / May 19, 2009 / 4 Comments

Today’s poetic interconnection between spirituality and science is inspired by the Chinese Tai Chi symbol:

 

Tai Chi

 

This classic Taoist emblem illustrates the dynamic relationship between yin and yang. Fundamental metaphysical compliments, these archetypes of passivity and activity, rest and energy, constantly flow into and back out of one another. And even when either one is dominating, a spot of the other remains—right in the middle.

Together, yin and yang characterize the fundamental tao: the full circle, ever in fluid motion.

Carl Jung was a pioneering psychologist who believed that the human personality was characterized by two similar elements: anima and animus. Anima is the feminine, connective and passive element of the psyche, and animus is the masculine, discriminative and active element. Jung taught that men’s psyches are balanced and “compensated” by their anima, and women’s by their animus. He further theorized that neither anima nor animus are directly perceivable on their own—only in interaction with a member of the opposite sex does a person’s corresponding gender archetype activate, coming clearly into view.

Jung thought anima and animus to be timeless expressions of the collective unconscious—the part of the psyche that transcends personal identity. He believed dream symbols, myths and other common human characteristics and patterns come from this shared field of consciousness.

Anima and animus seem to me to be smoothly analogous with yin and yang. And Jung’s collective unconscious can be likened to the fundamental tao.

Let’s re-imagine the Tai Chi symbol, then, as an emblem depicting the human psyche—anima and animus swirling and interpenetrating, the full circle symbolizing the complete self in dynamic balance!

Neils Bohr, a primary architect of quantum theory, similarly re-imagined the Tai Chi in his Danish coat-of-arms, using it to represent another totality characterized by interdependent opposites: the quantum. Bohr’s principle of complementarity asserts that all quantum phenomena require two simultaneous types of description—one appropriate to waves, and one appropriate to particles. He developed this principle after experiments revealed that quanta display characteristics of both, which is an ongoing mystery, as waves and particles were previously thought to be mutually exclusive modes of matter.

Waves passively intermix when they encounter one another, making them analogous to yin and anima. Particles actively bounce off one another when they meet, or they break up into smaller particles. Either way, they remain discrete, like yang and animus.

Contemporary physicists theorize that all quanta spring from and share in a foundational field of physical energy known as the Zero Point Field. This field can be visualized either as a dense tapestry of interweaving waves, or a boiling body of water from which particles bubble up.

The quantum ZPF is thus another wholeness with dual characteristics—like the tao, like Jung’s collective unconscious.

And so I’m led to ask these questions: Is science only recently discovering a fundamental reality that mystics and philosophers have intuited and experienced for millennia? Is physics confirming metaphysics?! And if so, should that strengthen our trust in less empirical ways of interpreting the world?

Comments welcome.

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01 Jan

A Superfluid New Year

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / January 1, 2009 / 7 Comments

I love Chinese philosophy—its naturalness, its easy wisdom.

I’m in good company: Taoism may be the most popularized religious mysticism in the world. Books about any variety of topics have the phrase “The Tao of…” in their titles. A quick search at Amazon yields The Tao of Healing, The Tao of Eating, The Tao of Photography and even The Tao of Network Security Monitoring! And in contemporary America, the Chinese words yin and yang have become cultural fall-back terms for the idea of experienced, simultaneous opposites. They’re part of the pop lexicon.

A key Taoist concept that’s less widely known is wu wei. This Chinese term is perhaps best translated as “effortless doing”. The paradoxical phrase describes an orientation of self-surrender to the tao—the all-encompassing Way of the natural universe. Essentially, wu wei is pure acceptance of the process of life, and the sacred rightness of every moment. It’s about moving in the world by flowing with it.

Religious scholar Huston Smith, in his seminal book The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, summarizes the idea this way:

Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature—is reduced to a minimum.

In physics, a superfluid is a phase of matter in which viscosity is zero. Viscosity is a term that describes a liquid’s resistance to flow, or disturbance by other substances. A thin liquid like water has low viscosity: It flows quick and easy, and other substances move through it without much bother, their speed only slightly effected. A thick liquid like honey has high viscosity: It flows slow and sluggish, and other substances struggle to move through it, becoming seriously held up as they try.

Viscosity, then, is a measure of a liquid’s friction.

In a superfluid, there’s basically no friction at all. This means a superfluid flows infinitely smooth, and things move within it resistance-free. So anything in motion inside a superfluid stays in motion, theoretically, forever. With no friction to slow or stop it, a process inside a superfluid unfolds unendingly!

A superfluid strikes me as an interesting analogy for the tao. And the quality of superfluidity is such a cool metaphor for wu wei.

So… Today commences a new calendar year for all of us living in the modern world. It’s 2009! This blog post is a benediction: May we all have a superfluid new year, characterized by the utmost wu wei—with friction within and among us reduced to a minimum, our lives flowing infinitely smooth and our happinesses unending.

Thank you for your readership! Love and blessings to you.

Add a comment »

10 Dec

The Gospel of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / December 10, 2008 / 3 Comments

My latest poetic interconnection between spirituality and science involves a branch of science with a long, scary name: nonequilibrium thermodynamics.

Nonequilibrium thermodynamics (abbreviated ‘NET’) combines physics and biology, studying the energy processes of open systems. All living things, including you and I, are open systems. Put simply, this means that while we are individual selves, we are also interwoven with our environment, exchanging energy and information with it in constant cycle. Exploring how this occurs can help us understand life. So NET is meaningful.

I’ve been learning about NET from a wonderful book called Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life. It emphasizes that the guiding principle of NET is that “nature abhors a gradient”. A gradient is any difference across a distance: When somewhere is hotter than somewhere else, or when something is more highly pressurized than something else, a gradient exists between the two. Gradients, then, are always relative dualities: colder/hotter, more pressurized/less pressurized, etc. Nature moves to resolve these dualities into equilibriums—states where differences are reconciled, and energy and activity are minimized.

Gradients are tensions, like all differences. Nature moves to resolve its tensions into quietude.

In Judeo-Christian language, nature seeks Sabbath.

But without gradients, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. NET proposes that when gradients appear, life evolves to reduce them. Perhaps life on Earth evolved to reduce the temperature gradient between the hot sun and cold space: We feed on sunlight and dissipate heat into space, bringing the temperatures of both closer together.

We assist a reconciliation—it’s a romantic notion.

Perennial romantics, mystics understand NET intuitively. All the world’s mysticisms teach that the purpose of human life is to resolve the fundamental duality of self and non-self, realigning our essence with the sacred, undifferentiated unity of God. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas contains this passage:

Yeshua said to them,
When you make the two into one,
and when you make the inner like the outer
and the outer like the inner
and the upper like the lower,
and when you make male and female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male nor the female be female…
then you will enter the kingdom.

The Chinese Tao Te Ching contains this passage:

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down,
The low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from,
The deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient.

I read these passages and wonder: Are the Christian ‘kingdom’ and the Taoist ‘way of heaven’ analogous to equilibrium? Did the world’s mystics prefigure nonequilibrium thermodynamics?

Comments welcome.

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10 Nov

On Duality

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / November 10, 2008 / 5 Comments

Our greatest spiritual systems testify about interdependent opposites. Taoism has yin and yang; Hinduism has Shiva and Shakti; Kabbalah has its “Pillar of Mercy” (kav yamin) and “Pillar of Severity” (kav smol). Sufis worship God as both transcendent (as-Zahir—’Manifest’) and immanent (al-Batin—’Hidden’).

Everything we know, we know both in-and-of-itself and conditioned by its essential opposite. Duality is built into our bodies: our inhale and exhale, the systole and diastole of our heartbeats, the hemispheres of our brains. It’s built into our psyches: We love and hate, rejoice and grieve simultaneously—often confusing ourselves. Our most fundamental physics is characterized by a phenomenon called wave/particle duality—turns out, everything we’re made of behaves both ways! It’s a puzzle.

Einstein’s E=mc2 says everything is energy, and what is energy? The dynamic interaction of positive and negative charges—duality.

The cliche that ‘there are two sides to every story’ holds: Our world is dual.

But our minds analyze and fragment our experience—it becomes ‘either/or’. Valuable for basic survival, for distinguishing threats from benefits to escape death and enhance life, this orientation comes with a high price. It causes restriction and suffering, because we are ‘both/and’. The universe in which we live is ‘both/and’—at least! Fragmentation keeps us safe, but it also lessens us: We miss ourselves and each other. Embracing holism can align us with our full, sacred nature; we can strive to transcend polarities and grasp Truth. But then even that truth can become polar—a broad thesis to which we can propose an antithesis, throwing everything we know into humble question. And we can try to answer that question by reconciling our thesis and antithesis, creating a synthesis—a new, even higher-level truth. And then we can do the dialectic again, and again, embarking on a journey not of infinite regression, but infinite ascension—a seeking of ever higher and deeper truths.

Am I describing the scientific method, or a striving towards God?! Comments welcome.

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