Blog move and revival

For anyone who might still follow this blog or come across it in Google search results, this blog has moved to http://www.michaeltoddlewis.com. The weekly Tao Te Ching posts have resumed (on Tuesdays now), and I intend to ramp up writing about music and books, self-improvement and motivation, and my programming efforts. Eventually I will migrate the best content from this blog over to archive at the new spot.

Edit: And, of course, as soon as I post this, my hosting service appears to be down. But, it will presumably be back up later.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 13

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”

What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.

Most philosophies on life that I have encountered share one major tenet: lose the self to gain what is sought. For religions based in the search for salvation, losing the self is a means of securing a place in heaven. In Matthew 10:39, for example, Jesus says, “He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”* In other words, if a believer lives his life for himself, he forsakes eternal life, but he gains salvation by living for Jesus. The word Islam itself actually means self-surrender to the Will of God. Looking past the self to live for God is the ultimate form of devotion in these ways of life.

But what does it mean for an atheist Taoist to surrender oneself humbly? I seek no salvation, no forgiveness for the ineffable sin of simply being, but I do seek something through the Way: effortless living. That is, in a nutshell, the ultimate goal of taking the lessons of the Tao Te Ching to heart. Some might call it enlightenment, but it is really just living in perfect rhythm and harmony with the life that moves around you. It is working with the current, even if it takes you to unexpected places, rather than exhausting yourself fighting against it and risk drowning.

Consider again the Pale Blue Dot. In relative terms, we are infinitesimal specks, fleeting notions of substance. We are essentially nothing. Accepting that, embracing it, can completely change the way you look at the world and at yourself. For if we are nothing, then what is a bit of misfortune in our lives? What is fortune, for that matter? What is embarrassment or disgrace? When you take the long view, all things become equal, and subjectivity disappears. No longer do you fight against that tumultuous current, for what does it matter if it brings you fortune or ruin? They’re both part of life, and rather than gnash your teeth in despair or preen in self-congratulation it is more useful to simply say, “This is what is happening now, but it may not be what happens in the future. I’ll be fine either way.”

* If you’re going to read the Christian Bible, go with the King James version. It is pure poetry, even to an atheist like myself.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence"

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence"

It’s easy to think that over-stimulation is a side-effect of modern life, but it was obviously a concern some 2600 years ago, too, when Lao Tzu (or whoever was truly responsible) wrote this verse. But I think that today overstimulation is actually changing the way we think, remember and solve problems. We are moving away from a tradition of learning a small number of subjects very deeply to being shallow experts on any number of topics. The instant and universal availability of information (at least in the first world) is changing how we relate to that information. Instead of keeping in our minds a deep and thorough understanding of a topic, we are becoming masters at quick retrieval of answers from external sources. Where we once learned how to do something, now we learn how to find out how to do something. Once the information is retrieved and used, it is often tossed aside.

This is not entirely a bad thing, as the spread of access to knowledge democratizes and liberalizes the world, but there are very bad aspects to it. Often, the best solutions to problems come from having a fundamental understanding of a subject and through that understanding finding novel synergies with other subjects. Being able to quickly locate and assimilate a piece of knowledge does not provide the same problem solving tools.

Likewise, problem solving and creative think require a bored mind. Consider again the balance of potential and benefit. If there is no emptiness in the mind, no new creative thought can be cultivated. And many of us, myself included, have a real problem with overstimulating the brain. We fill every moment of our lives with entertainment or information or obligation to the point where we can no longer focus. Racing and hunting madden the mind.

Even now, as I collect my thoughts and write this, I have four other tabs open in my web browser. One is my e-mail. One bounces back and forth between a couple of social sites each time my mind wanders from this writing for a moment. The other two have pages loaded up that I’m using while writing this (like this translation of the Tao Te Ching). Likewise, I have iTunes open with Phase Selector Sound’s “Disassemble Dub” pumping in my ears. In the periphery of my vision I see my dog and my wife to my right, a pile of books and papers I need to clean up to my left. All of this competes for my attention even as I am typing this sentence (though, to be fair, the music actually helps by drowning out other distractions in the room).

My current line of work certainly doesn’t help. Being presented with all of the news in America as soon as it happens, getting all of the spin from every side, every fact and error all at once has made me hyper-informed but also almost completely desensitized to human suffering. By the time that regular people are starting to get a handle on a story, it’s already old news to me, replaced by countless other stories. Perspective gets lost in the process, sometimes.

Over-sharpen a blade, and it quickly dulls. Over-stimulate the senses, and they lose their sensitivity. You lose the beauty of a particular color when all of them are competing for your attention. You lose the emotional impact of an album when you’re listening to a thousand different albums on shuffle.

So take a moment to stop, to savor moments of quiet or even boredom. Take time to do nothing. Give your mind and senses the contrast needed to fully appreciate and process the information with which you present them. That will make the information that much more meaningful and useful.

Is my difficulty concentrating on one task the result of developing an over-stimulated mind? Am I on a constant endorphin withdrawal, always in need of another small spike? The wise person chooses to recognize and let go of that need for over-stimulation. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

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Revenge of the Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11

It’s taken pretty much three months to decompress from school and build motivation for posting again, which I did not anticipate, but I am finally ready to get back to it. Next week I will get back on track with weekly Thursday posts discussing specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching, but I wanted to go ahead and jump back in today with chapter eleven.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Taoism is a philosophy of balance and rhythm. Taoist thought seeks to give form in simple terms to the duality of all things in the natural world, giving us a perspective from which to view the world that will, hopefully, allow us to live our lives more content and free of stress. The most fundamental of these dualities is that of emptiness and substance, the two states that govern our lives in ways we don’t often consider.

Emptiness is usefulness. It is potential. But potential is there to be used, to be defined by and balanced out by substance. I had a friend several years ago that once told me he would almost rather sit at home and think about all the things he could go out and do than to actually go out and do any of them. In his mind, once he committed to one activity, he had eliminated all of his other options. That may be true, but what benefit was realized from sitting on the potential use of time? None that I can see. He could have realized so much benefit from that time, but he chose to live out of balance.

Conversely, substance, filling up that emptiness, realizes benefit. But in order for that to be the case, there must be some emptiness to be filled. Another friend is quite the opposite of the one mentioned previously. This friend has all of his time filled. He is always rushing about, spreading himself thin across a thousand obligations. If an opportunity arises for some activity that he would enjoy or benefit from, he cannot take it, for he has no empty space to fill. I think again on an earlier chapter of the Tao Te Ching that said it’s better to stop short than to fill to the brim. Overfilling leads to spilling, to waste and unhappiness.

Using potential in a beneficial way is the real challenge, at least for me. I, like so many others, often waste a lot of time with meaningless distractions that do not add much benefit to my life. Take Facebook, for example: it is a useful tool for keeping up with many of the people I care about, but if I opted to take much of the time I spend on there and actually go and spend time with those people, the interaction would be much more rewarding, the relationships much stronger and more fulfilling. In a sense, tools like Facebook allow us to maintain the potential – in this case potentially strong relationships – at the expense of the actual benefit. Would I not find it more enjoyable to have a smaller number of strong relationships than a large number of potential relationships?

But that’s just one example. I could harp on video games, television and a myriad of other things that I often spend too much time on. That’s not to say that I should eliminate those things from my life; I am a firm believer in the benefit of leisure activities and passive entertainment. But it is important to find balance and to make sure that I am using my time in the way that makes the best use of that potential in terms of what give me that more fulfilling, stress-free life that I seek.

That is ultimately what I get from this chapter of the Tao Te Ching: balance potential and benefit and you can be happier. Use potential, but use it wisely and always with an eye on returning to that state of potential to keep the cycle moving.

(Side note: While writing this, I was listening to first Charlie Byrd and then to Christoph Heeman and Andreas Martin. These are great things to listen to while writing.)

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This Song Rips: Killing Tree “The Bronze”

Most people know of Tim McIlrath from his current and relatively successful band, Rise Against, but before he found fame with that group, he fronted The Killing Tree, a much better band, even if I do like Rise Against. Whereas Rise Against is catchy, fast, singalong pop punk, The Killing Tree was a much darker and heavier band, pulling more from metal and hardcore with thick, chugging riffs and a focus on rhythm more than melody. Their songs were long for hardcore songs, often topping out over six minutes like this one, and they often come in waves, building and crashing against the listener over and over again. Those who can’t find the rhythm may find themselves disoriented and worn out, but if you let yourself ride the waves it becomes an intense and enjoyable experience. This song, “The Bronze,” is from their first EP, Bury Me at Make-out Creek. I don’t think that one’s available anymore, but click the Killing Tree link above to get their second EP (with a bitchin Soundgarden cover) at Amazon.

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Short hiatus

This blog will be back to regular posting in about 8 weeks or so. School and work have me too busy right now. When it comes back, I’ll pick back up with the Tao Te Ching posts and will begin posting about other stuff (mostly music) on the regular.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 10

Carrying 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.

When I read this chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I think again on water, detachment and emptiness. I discussed before my thoughts on what it means to live like water, but there is yet another way not described there in which water is like the Tao: the tighter one tries to grasp it, the less one finds oneself holding in the end. Likewise, the harder one strives to cling to the Tao in concept, the further one finds oneself from it. Like water, we should find equilibrium naturally, rather than trying to force it.

When we try to make ourselves balanced, we ultimately run the risk of unbalancing ourselves by putting rules and codes into place for our lives. Rather, we should look instead to what gives us the deepest, most sustainable happiness and call that our balance. When trying to make ourselves malleable, we ultimately lose site of the fact that it is the newborn’s lack of experience that makes it so supple. When we focus on trying to bring structure to the ineffable Tao, we ultimately cloud our vision, distract our thoughts.

Instead, we should let go of our preconceived notions, let go of our limited perspective. The goal is effortless action, doing without doing. Rather than forcing our balance, we should let it coalesce naturally by seeking contentment. Rather than try to define the Tao, we should experience it by virtue of our simply being. We should lead not through cunning and deceit by through example of action. We must embrace the emptiness to be filled, embrace the valley spirit to give birth to and nourish good works in our lives.

This goes back to the concept of detachment, of removing oneself from one’s things, both physical and mental. This also extends to our works. The most successful work is done not in search of credit, and removing ourselves from the work allows it to be done completely and correctly. It lets the work stand on its own. In the end, it is enough that something is done without having to say “I did this.” Likewise, the most successful leadership is virtually invisible and ends with the team saying to one another, “Look what we’ve accomplished” without thought of being lead to the goal.

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Thursday Tao: Catch-up Continued / Chapter 9

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.

Balance and moderation are key concepts in Taoism. Overindulgence in anything — physical or mental — leads to disaster, whereas taking all things in moderation leads to satisfaction and flexibility. Fill to the brim, and you have no more room. The slightest jostle will cause a spill. Sharpen a blade too much and the keen edge will be so thin that it cannot endure use. Sharpening just enough gives you a longer-lasting tool. Hoard wealth or power, and your enemies multiply. Sure, having more of a good thing can feel like a good deal in the short term, but it often means having a shorter time to enjoy it. Having enough and knowing it is a wonderful feeling, and it leads to longer satisfaction and enjoyment.

I struggle with balance in my own life. I overindulge in foods that are bad for me and do not get enough exercise. This causes me to be less healthy and less happy. I am trying to change that, though. I also find that I struggle to live by balanced beliefs, to not let certain belief systems monopolize my life. For many years I was straightedge, abstaining from drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or doing drugs. These were not choices about moderating my intake, but eliminating it altogether. For the many reasons I had at the time, I thought that total abstinence was the best route to take. In truth, though, I was living my life out of balance. Despite my efforts to make these things personal choices, they affected my relationships and at times even caused unnecessary disharmony. In trying to stick to rigid codes of behavior that were not at the base right for me, I sometimes externalized my negative feelings toward others who did not live by those same rules.

Eventually I decided to live a more balanced life. I wanted to stop depriving myself of some of life’s simple pleasures — the complex taste of rich stout for one — for the sake of adhering to some arbitrary code of conduct. Now, I might drink a beer or two once every couple of weeks, but I never get buzzed, much less drunk. I have yet to smoke a pipe or a cigar, but I would like to try it, at least. If I like it, it will be a rare indulgence. I still choose to avoid drugs, because I am not interested in dulling my senses in that way, but I understand it when certain friends decide to get tight. I reserve the judgments I may have cast in previous years. I’ve tried to get more in line with the idea of life being for living. When I am on my deathbed, I will not think back and be happy about all of the things that I deprived myself of in life. It’s much more likely that I will think about the things I did or did not yet get to do.

Still, I have much to work on when it comes to balance and moderation. I am trying to get to know and cherish that feeling of enough. It is hard, especially for an American. Here, even in midst of a grinding recession, the idea of over-consumption is still king. Here, too, the idea of moral absolutes and inflexible rules of living are encountered every day. It can be difficult, but simplicity, balance, and moderation are the virtues to which I aspire.

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Thursday Tao: Update / Chapter 8

School and life have conspired to make me miss not one but two weeks worth of my weekly Tao Te Ching project.  This disappoints me, but I have to prioritize my work. Unfortunately, that means that my blog gets pushed aside when school gets to be more demanding. That said, I am going to try to catch up this week, picking up where I left off: Chapter 8.

The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.

Like many young people, I went out and got a tattoo almost as soon as I could legally, and like many people in the late nineties and early aughts I chose to get kanji in place of English words. I thought it looked more artistic, and I was getting a tattoo that reflected a Chinese concept anyway. People often ask me what they mean, and literally the one on my right arm means “to live,” while the one on my left means “water.” This was my approximation of the phrase “to live as water.” Of course, like many kanji tattoos, the translation is clunky at best, but I at least am satisfied to know that my characters mean exactly what I thought they meant.

But what does that mean, to live as water? As chapter eight describes, water exhibits the qualities we should most desire to emulate. Without striving, water fulfills its role, even if that role is to flow in the lowest of places. Likewise, we seek to achieve contentment, even if fortunes bring us to poverty and low status. Without striving: that is a hard concept for many Americans, because it is so easy to confuse it with having a lack of action or direction. But that is not the case. Water flows where it will flow, but it when it meets obstacles, it does not push and work to force those obstacles out of the way. Instead it parts and flows around them, wearing them away over time. But when water meets an obstacle with which it cannot contend — a dam, for example — it does not struggle and rage against the obstacle. Instead, it simply stays where it is. That is a contentment we could seek for ourselves: the contentment of knowing when something is beyond our control and accepting it and accepting our position in light of it. Effortless being is to live like water.

There are differing translations of the rest of this chapter. In the translation above, we get simple, straightforward maxims: live simply, think deeply, be kind, true and just, act accordingly to your moment. And if we follow these maxims, and if we strive to be like water, we do not fight against the nature of life but live in accordance with it, and thus we live a life less problematic.

Simple enough, right? Perhaps in thought, but putting these ideas to daily use is more difficult than it should be. Our whole American lifestyle is built around complicating our lives with activities and things, about filling every waking moment with a flood of information and entertainment. Trying to live simply — in the mental or physical sense — goes against the grain of our society. Trying to take a moment to think deeply, rather than know the surface of everything at all times, goes against the momentum of our always-on information channels. Succeeding in American business often means not being gentle and kind, not being honest and not being just.

And what of competence? In our culture, we’re told to strive for perfection, but perfection is the enemy of good. We often sacrifice being good at something while waiting for an unattainable perfection. I do this all the time: I hesitate to write, because I don’t want to put something out that isn’t perfect. But my hesitation means less practice writing, which means less chance of being good at it, perfection be damned. Perfection is the unattainable. Perfection is the phantasm quality we envy in others — the skill, the wealth, the charisma — that we want for ourselves. It is a phantasm quality because the reality never matches the vision we have in our heads. As long as we hold ourselves up to unrealistic expectations, we will find fault in ourselves. When we stop, however, we find contentment and happiness with ourselves. No fight, no blame.

It can be difficult to have these qualities in American society, but we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to immediately be the wise sage. The first step to finding our contentment is letting go of our dreams of perfection and instead looking for happiness within the lives we have. We can nurture that happiness by being the goodness we want to see, by being kind and just and true, being thoughtful and modest and appreciating the good in our lives.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 7

Heaven and Earth last forever.
Why do heaven and Earth last forever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

Last week I visited the subject of emptiness as it pertains to the Taoist lifestyle (or at least my interpretation of it), and this week extends that idea somewhat to the concept of detachment. Consider the non-intelligent machine of the universe. It is not a mind. It has no emotions or thoughts or desires. It simply is, and because it simply is, it is eternal, without beginning or end. Constantly changing, but constant nonetheless. It wants nothing, so all needs are fulfilled.

What lesson can we take from this aspect of the universe? Should we be mindless automatons? Is ignorance bliss? Well, sort of, but perhaps the more important idea is that we should recognize that our attachments bring with them both positive and negative aspects. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. For everything that we desire, for every attachment we create or maintain, there is a cost, be it physical, mental, or emotional. So we must consider the cost versus the result. Is the newfound anxiety and stress worth the fulfillment of this desire? Or will I be happier if I forget about it and move on? And we must weigh the end benefits of our various desires against one another. Will the cost I pay to fulfill this desire bring me more happiness applied to a different desire? Is either desire worth the cost at all, really?

This does not necessarily mean depriving ourselves. It is more about learning to let go and choosing to maximize happiness and contentment. It is about finding balance. Becoming overly attached to some idea or some desire leads to losing other things that we care for. It can be dangerous, when it comes to things like drugs or alcohol, or it can lead to financial ruin when our attachment and desire outstrips our sense. Over devotion to an activity or idea can cost us our relationships, our careers, life experiences, or more. If we pull back, if we stop putting our immediate desires first, we can then choose to focus our energy on those aspects of our lives that give us real fulfillment. Often we will find that the cost associated with an attachment simply isn’t worth it.

In real world terms, what does this mean? For me, it means looking critically at my life and choices and desires, big and small. For example, I have an attachment to saving money. I am pessimistic when it comes to monetary matters, and if I let myself get too wrapped up with the idea, I wouldn’t enjoy the money that I work for each week. Just this week, for my wife’s birthday we went out to celebrate with a nice meal. Having a good time was going to bring me more fulfillment than being stubborn with my money. We splurged and had one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Could we do this every week? No. Getting too attached to that desire would lead to financial ruin. Getting too attached to my desire to save money leads to a loss of life experiences. Striking a balance is the key to more happiness for me. The more balance we can find, the more we can meet our various desires.

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