Category Archives: Non-fiction

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 56” by Lao Tzu

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He who knows does not speak.
He who speaks does not know.

Block all the passages!
Shut all the doors!
Blunt all edges!
Untie all tangles!
Harmonize all lights!
Unite the world into one whole!
This is called the Mystical Whole,
Which you cannot court after nor shun,
Benefit nor harm, honour nor humble.

Therefore, it is the Highest of the world.

In Buddhist thought, there is a concept called maya, which roughly means illusion, that basically what we perceive is a construct of our mind. If one accepts this tenet, it stands to reason that reality is something that exists beyond the limited grasp of our senses. It appears that Lao Tzu is expressing a similar idea in regard to the Tao, that it is the “Mystical Whole” that lies beyond the scope of our normal consciousness.

In the opening couplet, Lao Tzu warns against those who profess to know the Tao. To speak of the Tao is to attempt to use words to convey the ineffable. It does not work. All that one can do is provide guidance as to how one may glimpse the unseen reality of existence, and this is what Lao Tzu does in the second stanza.

By blocking passages and shutting doors, we are essentially turning off the stories that our minds tell us about what is real. Our brains are a tangled knot of information that dictates how we perceive everything. But as we begin to silence the noise of our minds, our focus shifts and we can glimpse the harmony and connection of the world around us, as well as our connections to this world.

As we all grapple with our rapidly changing world, it would serve us well to pause and reflect. By silencing our overwhelmed minds, we may be able to get a clearer perspective on what is really happening in these times of uncertainty.

Pause, and breathe.

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Thoughts on “The Impact of Awakening” by Adyashanti

I have been meditating on a daily basis for about three years now, and as part of my practice, I’ve been reading more books and listening to podcasts that are supportive of my practice. I had heard the name Adyashanti mentioned in some podcasts and when I was unpacking all our books, noticed this one. I asked my wife about it, since I had not bought it, and she said that she read it and that I would enjoy reading it too.

The short book teaches some profound Zen Buddhist concepts through dialogue, where the student is asking questions of Adyashanti, and the teacher conveys his wisdom through the responses. The format works really well, and it does not seem contrived, as is often the case with this style of writing.

While there is a lot of wisdom in these pages, and I encourage you to explore on your own if you have an interest, I figured I would share a couple passages that resonated particularly deeply for me.

If you choose Freedom, life will become magical. The life you’ll step into is one in which the Self is in hidden agreement with your humanness. The Self begins to harmonize with your life, and it may proceed in a way that you could never have predicted. The magical part is that the more you let go, the better it feels. The more you step into insecurity, the more you notice how secure and safe it is. Where you stepped out of was unsafe. Everyone is so miserable because they seek security in things that are always moving and changing unpredictably.

(p. 21)

We all want to feel secure, because we are conditioned to believe that this will increase our happiness. The problem is, as Adyashanti points out, is that we seek security in things that are ever changing. Relationships, jobs, money, etc. Like everything else in the universe, these are changing all the time. If we can loosen our grip on these things, and not rely on them for our happiness, then we are sparing ourselves from a world of anxiety and stress. It is freeing to embrace the uncertainty which is life.

The other passage I want to share is somewhat long, but I feel is incredibly important for anyone practicing meditation.

True meditation has no direction, goals, or method. All methods aim at achieving a certain state of mind. All states are limited, impermanent, and conditioned. Fascination with states leads only to bondage and dependency. True meditation is abidance as primordial consciousness.

True meditation appears in consciousness spontaneously when awareness is not fixated on objects of perception. When you first start to meditate you notice that awareness is always focused on objects: on thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, memories, sounds, etc. This is because the mind is conditioned to focus and contract upon objects. Then the mind compulsively interprets what it is aware of (the object) in a mechanical and distorted way. It begins to draw conclusions and make assumptions according to past conditioning.

In true meditation, all objects are left to their natural functioning. This means that no effort should be made to manipulate or suppress any object of awareness. In true meditation, the emphasis in on being awareness; not on being aware of objects, but on resting as primordial awareness itself. Primordial awareness, consciousness, is the source in which all objects arise and subside.

(p. 25)

This reminds me of the famous quote by William Blake: If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. Our minds construct our realities, based upon our trained conditioning. It is only by letting go, not allowing the endless internal dialogue to dictate how we perceive the world around us, that we begin to see the true essence of all that is.

I believe we all read what we need to read at certain stages in our lives. I opened this book at exactly the right time.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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“Negotiating in a Multiethnic Society” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Eco’s book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Early in the essay, Eco writes:

If, as some say, there are no facts in the world but only interpretations, negotiation would be impossible, because there would be no criterion that would enable us to decide whether my interpretation is better than yours or not. We can compare and discuss interpretations precisely because we can weigh them against the facts they are intended to interpret.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 248)

This gets to the heart of a deep issue we face in our world. People do not share the same sense of what is true and factual. All information, data, and facts are subject to suspicion at best, and often flat out denial, if for no other reason than the source tends to lean to one polarity or another in the sociopolitical sphere. This is why factions are unable to negotiate anymore, making compromise and progress virtually impossible.

Let’s take an example. Let us assume that “climate change is affected by human activity” is a fact. If we can all agree on this fact, then policy makers from both sides of the political spectrum could negotiate how best to address the issue, weighing considerations from each side to ensure the best possible outcome. But when one extreme denies that humans have any influence on climate change, and the other extreme asserts that humans are the sole cause of climate change, then the fact is nullified and constructive negotiation becomes unattainable.

In this age of information, we must be prudent and use critical thinking to avoid the trappings of misinformation. The internet provides support for any idea, regardless of whether that idea has any validity whatsoever. As we enter into the year 2020, let’s try to have a little more clarity in our collective vision, because only through negotiation will we be able to deal with the challenges that face us on a global scale.

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Thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

It is very rare for me to start reading a book and not finish it. I can forge on through thick, dense texts, as evidenced by the fact that I actually read Infinite Jest. But after getting through about a third of this book, I decided it was not worth my time and energy to continue. I estimate I can probably read two or three other more interesting texts in the time it would take me to finish this.

I was very enthusiastic at the onset of this book, since the topic sounded interesting to me, basically an historical analysis of how and why specific cultures became technologically advanced more rapidly than others, leading to subjugation and in too many cases annihilation of the less technologically advanced cultures.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.

(p. 13)

So while the topic sparked my interest, the problem for me with this text is one that I’ve encountered in other historical works: way too much data so that the pertinent information gets lost in a sea of superfluous facts.

Let me say that while I was an English Lit major in college, I did my minor in History, so I read my share of history books, and some told fascinating stories about how history unfolded, and how events and ideas shaped the direction of cultures and the world. But then there are those books which don’t tell a story but instead inundate you with pages and pages of data which no one could remember and really serves no purpose except as footnotes to other more engaging works. In all fairness, I believe Jared Diamond was working to tell a story through data, but there is a point of overkill for me, and he crossed that threshold.

I’m a technical writer and editor by trade, so I am painfully aware that it is important to strike a balance between facts and data, contextual information, and getting to the heart of the matter. If I’m writing a guide explaining how to generate a report, and I bury the central information within pages of supporting information which the user does not need, then the reader will disregard my text and seek information elsewhere. There is a fine art to providing key ideas with just the right amount of context.

As I was reading this book, my daughter told me that she had watched a film based upon this book in one of her history classes. Since the topic is interesting for me, as I said, I think I will see if I can stream the film, and get the two-hour abridged version.

Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 53” by Lao Tzu

If only I had the tiniest grain of wisdom,
I should walk in the Great Way,
And my only fear would be to stray from it.

The Great Way is very smooth and straight;
And yet the people prefer devious paths.

The court is very clean and well garnished,
But the fields are very weedy and wild,
And the granaries are very empty!
They wear gorgeous clothes,
They carry sharp swords,
They surfeit themselves with food and drink,
They possess more riches than they can use!
They are the heralds of brigandage!
As for Tao, what do they know about it?

The first stanza of this passage is a beautiful expression of humility. One does not need to seek lofty goals of some grandiose idea of enlightenment; all that is needed is one tiny grain of wisdom to keep you on the spiritual path.

The idea of simplicity is put forth in the second stanza. Lao Tzu asserts that while many people seek the paths of dogma and structured religious practice, the simpler way is preferred. All one needs to do is sit alone quietly, or gaze upon a stream, or walk along a forest path, and one can discover the Great Way.

The third stanza is more of an admonishment to those who strive after riches and material overabundance. These become such all-encompassing obsessions that those who follow the path of material gain become blind to the Way of the Tao. Basically, in common terms, dying with the most toys does not make one the winner.

I hope you found this post inspiring. Have a blessed day, and keep reading and thinking.

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Thoughts on “Holy Wars, Passion, and Religion” by Umberto Eco

In this essay, Eco explores fundamentalism and the need for critical and objective analysis when thinking about this complicated phenomenon. He basically argues that the problem with our approach to understanding fundamentalism is that we look at it from our own cultural perspective and not from the perspective of the society that spawned the fundamentalist movement. He also argues that understanding fundamentalism in other cultures helps us better understand fundamental movements within our own cultures.

Imagine is Muslim fundamentalists were invited to carry out research on Christian fundamentalism (I’m thinking of certain American Protestants, more fanatical than any ayatollah, who would expunge all reference to Darwin from the schoolbooks). Studying the fundamentalism of others helps us understand our own fundamentalism better. Let them come and study our concept of holy war (I could suggest a very interesting reading list, with some recent works), and perhaps they will view the concept in their own countries with a more critical eye. We Westerners have reflected on the limitations of our own way of thinking by describing la pensée sauvage.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 244)

Our world has become very complicated, and as such, people have a general sense of being lost, as the speed of change continues to increase exponentially. This is the reason, Eco states, that we need to apply critical thinking in all areas of our lives.

But maybe it’s only a sign that in times of great disorientation (and we are living through such a time) no one knows where he stands anymore.

It is precisely in such moments of disorientation that we need to apply the tools of analysis and criticism—analysis of our own superstitions as well as those of others. I hope that these things will be discussed in the schools and not only at press conferences.

(ibid: p. 246)

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