Friday, June 12, 2009

When the Shoes Fit

For many years I struggled with internal conflicts.  Perhaps my melancholia has contributed to that constant sense of guilt and the quest for its resolution.  But often I was caught within the moral sense deep in my psyche and finding it difficult to get out, to look beyond, to transcend even meaningless guilts or conflicts.  Perhaps it is also from this very context that Chuang Tzu's nothingness becomes even more meaningful to me because through his paradoxical perspectives of life, I find a glimpse of freedom, a place and space for my soul's rest.  Here's one such an example.

"You forget your feet when the shoes are comfortable.  You forget your wait when the belt is comfortable.  Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable.  There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable.  You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable" (translated by Watson).  

I think often we start with what we ought to be or socialized to think how life is to be lived.  Perhaps it is better that we start from where we are.  What fits for us.  Starting from what fits lead us to do what is best without the constant nagging temptation toward right and wrong dichotomy.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Caught in the Web of Illusion: Chuang Tzu in Hotel California

The more I ponder Chuang Tzu's the more I realize the profound wisdom and such spiritual insights into life and ways of living.  To understand Chuang Tzu is to finally realize what freedom really means, what it is like to live a true authentic life.  It is also coming to a gradual recognition that it is very difficult indeed to realize how caught we are in the web of illusion that he talks about, to laugh along with his analogy of the metaphor "three in the morning" and the monkeys and see that we are these monkeys, the object of our laughter.  The web is so intricate, so intertwined, so complicated that it is hard to see and realize.  It is the matrix that we find difficult to see in ourselves, let alone to disengage.  I am reminded of the song "Hotel California" where, once you are in you can check out but can never leave.  Once you are there, you are caught in the power of materialism be it literal or spiritual.  The wording of the song is so appropriate:

"Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
'Relax,' said the night man,
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!'"

When we have a slight insight into Chuang Tzu's we will finally see traces of the door created from human imagination that isn't really there.  There is no place to run to.  There is no need to leave because the beast we can never kill is the ghost of our own device.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is Driving You will Dictate Your Life

Today in class we had a discussion on love.  Can we really aim at attaining love and acquiring love or love is something that happens to you?  Do we do everything in order to get love and can we? Can love be achieved or is it something that has to happen on its own time within the right environment?  A couple of students stated that love has to happen.  I know a couple of people who is obsessed with gaining love.  Perhaps I'm one of them.  The lesson learned is that perhaps it is being liberated from our obsession with love may be the only way to find and experience that touch of love.  Chuang Tzu shares his wisdom:

"When you're betting for tiles in an archery context, you shoot with skills.  When you're betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim.  And when you're betting for real gold, you're a nervous wreck.  Your skills is the same in all these cases--but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside" (Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, trans. Watson).  

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Bad Review is a Good Review

Today I happened to look into Amazon and found a non-agreeable review of my book "Do Nothing." Although I have numerous positive responses from various sources who have read the book, some how I was feeling uneasy. And then I thought how ironical. When you look at the stars attached to the book, it is but Chuang Tzu's the 'this' and the 'that.' We are caught within a world filled with categories and we do naturally gravitate toward drawing lines and circles and grouping people and naming names. Sometime reflecting on my feeling evoked by these stars is a reminder that I'm still caught within the cycle. The things we do, the task we work toward, the form of ideas we expressed just is. And at times this isness can feel negative or positive. I think this is what it means to be P'eng. You can fly only when you can remain in the deepest and the darkest of life. In sickness and health, in life and death, in success and failure, in connectedness and the disconnect. These stars are reminder that life exists beyond the many circles people gravitate toward drawing. The Way is everywhere. It is in the lowest of the low and the peak of the highest point. Life is that journey toward a place beyond names and perhaps in this place we may be able to find people who forget words so we can have a word with them.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Simplicity, Stupidity, and Spirituality

I have to do a presentation on simplicity  to a group of middle-age professionals.  While it is an opportunity to share, it is also pretty difficult to speak of simplicity.  But here's a thought from Chuang Tzu that I find helpful.

"The sage leans on the sun and moon, tucks the universe under his arm, merges himself with things, leaves the confusion and muddle as it is, and looks on slaves as exalted.  Ordinary men strain and struggle, the sage is stupid and blockish.  He takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness" (translation by Burton Watson).  

Chuang Tzu seems to rely heavily on the view of nature as organic.  Nature lives, and moves, and drives, and orchestrates reality and hence within this existential understanding of that which is, one is able to lean on the sun and the moon.  Leaning on the sun and the moon also suggests the ability of its believers to take life as it comes because the sun is not always kind and the moon may not always shine.  It shrinks and reshapes itself and if life is to be lived, one may have to merge oneself with things and leave the confusion behind because if we try to understand that incomprehensible, we may not get anywhere.  The Way is not known.  Not only do we not know, we do not understand how the Way operates.  It does what it does.  

The way of the world places slaves in the lowest rank within societal hierarchy.  But the Way has rank life differently.  The slaves may be exalted because the Way does not interpret life within the categories that the norm decides.  The wisdom of the slaves may be that which we have to seek and understand in order to find us along the Way.  This goes along really well when Chuang Tzu speaks of the blockish and the stupid.  Who's stupid?  When stupidity is not even a category, one achieves simplicity in oneness.  

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly

"Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly flittering and fluttering around as he pleased. Suddenly he woke up and realized that he was Chuang Tzu. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. This is called transformation."

I love this story and when invited to lecture on the art of doing nothing, I often started with this story. I find it most fascinating but I did not quite understand the implication of the story. So today I sat down to contemplate and to read some interpretations focusing particularly on that of Kuang Ming Wu. I think this story is about how often we like to create division between dream and reality believing that we really understand what is real. And this understanding itself causes a form of rigidity that prevents us from flowing and being flexible. We are often held captive by what we believe to be real. And Chuang Tzu would have argued that these things we called real is nothing but "three in the morning" or the things of our very own imagination and creation. Our fixation prevents us from adapting to the flow of life and thus makes it difficult for us to be at a place where we can just enjoy being, flittering and fluttering around like a butterfly.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bad Economy...May Be...May Be Not

Last weekend I was checking my 401K and was shock to realize how much my wife and I have lost during this market downward spiral. Then a friend said to me that while he was worrying about his retirement, he learned that an astroid almost hit the earth. I looked at him and said, well if not the bad market, then the astroid, or else the earthquake. How finite we are. I mentioned this to my students and we all agreed, there is something about our finiteness that becomes meaningful only in relation to that which is infinite. So I'm reminded of Lao Tzu and the concept of li...while we sit down doing nothing, the sun shines, the plant grows, the water flows. Thinking about the economy in the light of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu's perspective is rather comforting and reminds me of one of my favorite stories.

A farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to comfort over his terrible loss. The farmer replied, "Maybe, may be not." A month later, the horse came home bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors came to congratulate for his good fortune. "Such lovely strong horses!" The farmer replied, "May be. May be not." The farmer's son was thrown from a horse and broke his leg. All the neighbors came to console. Such bad luck! The farmer replied, "May be. May be not." A war broke out and every able-bodied was recruited except the farmer's son because of his broken leg. The neighbors came to congratulate the farmer. "May be. May be not?" replied the farmer.

Friday, February 20, 2009

To Teach by Not Teaching

This is one of my goal in teaching, to teach by not teaching.  It sounds fascinating although I'm not sure what it is about but I think it is a way of learning.  A number of years ago I was asked to teach a course that I was least familiar with because the main instructor was on research leave.  I was not the most competent person but as I stepped in with lots of emptiness and curiosity about the lives of my students and their struggle with grief, that class became one of the most enjoyable courses for me.  I have not had a chance to teach that since because the main professor for the course is back but it is a reminder that emptiness has a way of soliciting ideas, or emptiness has a way of inviting the flow of concepts and perspectives.  It is ironical how I go to class empty and come out with ideas and fresh perspectives.  By emptiness I do not mean going in without any preparation but pretty much learning for myself and preparing to learn from students as a method of instruction.  I wonder if people learn best when they are able to put things together for themselves and perhaps this is the most meaningful way to learn.  With this in mind, my role seems to be to just evoke and permit.  

Monday, February 9, 2009

An Ugly Tree

Here is one of my favorite stories from Chuang Tzu:

Hui Tzu told Chuang Tzu that there was a big tree in his back yard.  It is such an ugly and useless tree that no carpenter in his/her right mind will ever want to cut down this tree.  Then referencing Chuang Tzu's teaching, Hui Tzu commented, "Your teaching is like this tree.  It is totally useless."  

Chuang Tzu replied "why be so disturbed by this ugly tree. Because of its uselessness no one will ever cut it down and so why not place it in no-man's land and lie down under it.  Its life will not be shorted because if it is useless, it can't get hurt."

This reminds me of a quote by Chuang Tzu when he said "we all know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless."  What do I know about the use of the useless?  I think when we are useless we will probably not be used and when we are not used, we are free to use or not to use; to be or not to be.  Perhaps there's more to this statement of Chuang Tzu for us all to ponder.  

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chuang Tzu, Perceived Reality, and Psychology

What we determine as real determines who we.  But who are we really?  Psychology claims to assist us in finding the reality of our internal self.  Psychology helps us cope more efficiently with conflicts in our lives.  “You are being taken advantage of because you are not assertive enough.  Let us help you be more assertive.”  It certainly helps to be one.  But in some ways it introduces another reality.  If you are to be mentally healthy, you must be assertive.  Or we hear psychological theory that believes in good self-esteem.  “You need to feel good about yourself.”  So a person who uses to feel ok for feeling ok now feels bad for feeling ok.  Or a person who uses to function well dependently is now labored co-dependent.  The national bestseller, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, claims cognitive therapy to be substantially superior to the use of antidepressant and traditional psychotherapy.[i]  This is to be applauded.  I love the David Burns’ statement regarding self-esteem. 

“Then how can I develop a sense of self-esteem?”you may ask.  The answer is—you don’t have to!  You don’t have to do anything especially worthy to create or deserve self-esteem; all you have to do is turn off that critical, haranguing, inner voice.  Why?  Because that critical inner voice is wrong![ii]

While cognitive therapy is a wonderful tool research also indicates that approximately 50 percent of those who recovered experience relapse within the first two years.[iii]  It is also interesting to note that even among those who receive treatment, the functioning level is still at one standard deviation lower than norm.[iv]  While cognitive therapy contributes significantly to the treatment of depression it seems to suggest that when you do not think right you feel wrong.  Feeling bad does not belong to the human experience.  In essence cognitive therapy suggests that one feels wrong because one thinks wrong.  There is nothing really wrong except that one feels wrong.  And this feeling wrong is the wrong feeling.  So think right.  While this reframing is enlightening, it also suggests at the very same time that feeling wrong isn’t right.  A potential conflict is introduced at another level. 

Another interesting example of this complexity is introduced by Foucault regarding psychoanalysis.  Freud sees neurosis as a symptom of repressed sexuality.  Foucault takes this a step further and suggests that repression is caused, in the first place, by the construct we create.  It is not so much repression as the construct that results in repression.  So Freud can psychoanalyze and brings everything to consciousness, thereby resolving conflicts.  But other causes remain, a defined sense of self carefully constructed  resulting in other forms of repression.  Reflecting on Foucault’s critique of psychoanalysis Dreyfus writes:

The ultimate form of alienation in our society is not repression and exclusion of the truth but rather the constitution of the individual subject as the locus of pathology.  Given our modern Western understanding of reality in all accounts of ourselves, whether hey be pseudoscientific or existential, “Man has a relation with himself and inaugurates that form of alienation that turns him into Homo psychologicus.”  All forms of psychotherapy can at best provide only isolated and temporary “cures.”  As manifestations of our everyday cultural practices, all psychotherapies solve individual problems without combating our general malaise.[v]   

 Every claim to reality whether, it be theological, philosophical, or psychological, brings with it potential conflicts.  Every reality implies a self one ought to be.  Psychological theories introduce ideas aiming at resolving conflicts.  But one needs to be aware, every idea has an inherent potential for resolving and creating conflicts. 

While we struggle with the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ in mental health, Chuang Tzu introduces us to wu wei, the art of doing nothing.  Psychological theories seek inner reconciliation through cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal interventions.  The difference between current psychotherapies and religion

"lies in the present historical context where psychological theories have heightened awareness of the self.  This context forms the new reality through which one assesses oneself and others.  The self that must be reconciled is the self that must come to define itself through this awareness.  In this awareness, the language has changed.  Instead of sin, we have the libido.  Instead of mutual dependency, we speak of codependency.  This is the reality that the self must be reconciled to…This is also where wu wei differs from these approaches.  While wu wei may employ, to some extent, cognitive and behavioral interventions, it questions the philosophical and theological basis of this definition of the self.  It questions the interpretation of reality upon which our culture arrives at the meaning of 'healthy self.'"[vi]

Chuang Tzu invites us to return to the basic, the undifferentiated reality, to the principle of heaven and earth.  It is a return to the self as is.  It is a return to what is before we become dissatisfied with ‘is’ and obsessed with ‘ought.’  It is a return to the state prior to the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ distinction.  In this message, Chuang Tzu invites us to the sacredness of life. 


[i] This research studied 44 severely depressed patients.  19 of the patients were given cognitive therapy while the rest received antidepressant only.  Results show that 15 out of the 19 showed a substantive reduction of symptoms after twelve weeks of active cognitive treatment.  Two showed some improvement and one dropped off.  On the contrary, only five of the twenty five fully recovered.  Eight dropped off because of side-effects and the rest only showed partial improvement.  A. J. Rush, A. T. Beck, M. Kovacs, and S. Hollon, “Comparative Efficacy of Cognitive Therapy and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatments of Depressed Outpatients,” Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1, no. 1 (1977): 17-38.[ii] David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Avon, 1980), 79.[iii] National Institute of Mental Health/National Institute of Health (NIHM/NIH) Consensus Development Conference Statement, “Mood Disorders: Pharmacologic Prevention of Recurrences,” American Journal of Psychiatry 142 (1985):471.[iv] Leslie A. Robinson, Jeffrey S. Berman, and Robert A. Neimeyer, “Psychotherapy for the treatment of Depression: A Comprehensive Review of Controlled Outcome Research,” Psychological Bulletin 108, no. 1 (1990): 40.[v] Dreyfus, Foreword, Michael Foucault: Mental Illness and Psychology, xxxvii. [vi] Sorajjakool, Wu Wei, Negativity, and Depression, 47.


Chuang Tzu, Foucault, and Deconstruction

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual is filled with pathologies.  Eating disorders.  Sleeping disorders.  Anxiety disorders.  Mood disorders.  The list runs on and on.  This is truly helpful in assessing and observing the phenomena of the intrapsychic functioning.  But an observation is an observation. It observes certain connections.  It observes certain causal relations.  It is a wonderful tool for people seeking to nurture souls.  But is it real? 

I once asked my therapist what he thinks of the DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for psychological assessment). He replied, “A fiction, a necessary fiction.”  Chuang Tzu writes,

Now do you say that you are going to make Right your master and do away with Wrong, or make order your master and do away with Disorder?  If you do, then you have not understood the principle of heaven and earth or the nature of the ten thousand things.[i] 

James Hillman explains, “So long as the statistics of normalizing developmental psychology determine the standards against which the extraordinary complexities of a life are judged, deviations become deviants.  Diagnosis coupled with statistics is the disease.”[ii]  This is where, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have become the Creators.  The story of the fall is pretty clear.  Sin originated from Adam’s awareness of the knowledge of good and evil.  This is perhaps the sin of our society as well.  We create fashion models and make heavy people feel bad. We create social behaviors and make some feel out of place.  We create dependency and call others codependent.  We create civilization and name others uncivilized.  We create truth and see others in untruth.  The more creation, the more division.  The more pathologies, the more disorders.  If slim isn’t right and fat isn’t wrong then a conflict does not exist.  If dependency does not necessary mean emotionally healthy and codependency, unhealthy, then tension is dissolved. The problem is, we do not like what we have and hence we create right and wrong.  Reflecting on webbed toes Chuang Tzu writes:

 That which is ultimately correct does not lose the characteristics of its nature and destiny.  Therefore, joining is accomplished without a web, branching is accomplished without extraneousness, lengthening is accomplished without a surplus, shortening is accomplished without inadequacy.  Thus, although a duck’s legs are short, if we extend them it will come to grief; although a crane’s legs are long, if we cut them short, it will be tragic.  Therefore, if what by nature is long is not cut short, and if what by nature is short is not extended there will be no grief to dispense with.[iii] 

French philosopher Michael Foucault would have agreed with Chuang Tzu that webbed toes becomes marginalized only in relation to the society that pathologizes it.  Pathology, as we understand it today, is rooted in individual psyche.  Madness expresses itself in behavioral aberration that ultimately lands a person in social isolation and alienation.  Alienation, perpetuates madness itself and the cycle continues.  Foucault sees this whole process differently.  It is the reversal of the process, argues Foucault, that leads to mental illness.  Commenting on this argument Herbert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy, writes:

In Foucault’s account, social contradictions cause alienation, alienation causes defenses, defenses cause brain malfunction, and brain malfunction causes abnormal behavior.  In short: “It is not because one is ill that one is alienated, but in sofar as one is alienated that one is ill.”[iv]

To Foucault, social categories and norms create conflicts and conflicts, in turn, result in changes in brain chemistry causing various symptoms.  Social alienation is based on an assumption of truth and its deviation.  According to Foucault, the 19th century has brought along the concept of bio-power that aims at the betterment of human life.  Betterment is possible when one can grasp the true meaning of self through knowledge.  There is a self that one ought to be and through acquisition of knowledge and scientific methodologies, one can show the community what this ideal self ought to be.  In an attempt to move humanity toward its betterment, power seeks to classify, quantify, hierarchize, appraise, and label.[v]  With classification, evaluation, and label, we can now realize where people are and how to correct that.  Now there is the mad and the not-so-mad.  There is a neurotic and a psychotic.  There are subtypes of psychosis with numerical identification.  In his introduction to Mental Illness and Psychology Foucault points out, “The analyses of our psychologists and sociologists, which turn the patient into a deviant and which seek the origin of the morbid in the abnormal, are, therefore, above all a projection of cultural themes.”[vi]

 Hence there is a self that one ought to be and webbed toes do not belong in this category.  Webbed toes have to be unwebbed to belong.  But without the classification or quantification for the webbed or non-webbed, there is no alienation and therefore, no pain.  The problem according to Foucault is that we’ve allowed politics to defined and determined mental health and thus classified people accordingly. 


[i] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 102.  [ii] James Hilllman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York: Warner Books, 1997), 30.  [iii] Victor Mair, trans., Wandering On the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 76. [iv] Hubert Dreyfus, “Foreward to the California Edition,” Michael Foucault: Mental Illness and Psychology (California: University of California Press, 1976), xxvi. [v] Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 142-44. [vi] Michael Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology, 63.


Chaung Tzu and Reality

Whom shall we get to decide what is right?  Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide?   But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?  Shall we get someone who agrees with me?  But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide?  Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us?  But he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide?...Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer.  Shall we wait for still another person?[i]                       Chuang Tzu

 “Whom shall we get to decide?”  This is a very good question.  When my son was little an elderly Chinese lady came to visit.  She looked at him with a smile and said, “You are so ugly.  Ugly…ugly…ugly!”  How could it be right for someone to call others ugly?  Under normal circumstances none of us would appreciate such a comment.  But I remembered listening to her remark with a sense of pride.  In her world, there are demons that like good looking children.  But these demons are so codependent that they depend on human opinions.  The trick is to trick the demons.  So when this elderly Chinese lady said “ugly” I knew better.  She actually meant, “You are so cute!”  How can calling people “ugly” be right?  Who is to decide? 

It was 8:30 in the evening at King’s College, a regular weekly meeting of philosophers and students of philosophy.  The date was October 25, 1946, a day not to be forgotten. 

This was the only time these three great philosophers—Russell, Wittgenstein, and Popper—were together.  Yet, to this day, no one can agree precisely about what took place.  What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy—whether there were indeed philosophical problems (Popper) or merely puzzles (Wittgenstein).[ii]

Many interpretations of this event expressed, many versions written.  There were allegations and arguments over what took place.  The ten-minute exchange between two great philosophers was about what can be known and what cannot be known.  The irony, every one saw what they saw and took with them what they thought was taking place.  What really took place?  What was real?  Who is to decide?  

Reality is tricky.  A Buddhist monk once said to me, “A dream is a temporal reality.  Reality is a very very long dream.”  Perhaps this is the reason when Buddha was asked if he was the enlightened One, he just replied, “I am awake.”  The awaken Buddha was silent when asked about the Ultimate Reality.  Lao Tzu would have agreed.  The real cannot be named.  But our society is extremely proficient in the art of naming reality.  This chapter explores the impact naming of reality has on the human psyche from Chuang Tzu’s perspective.  If Chuang Tzu had read the Velveteen Rabbit he would have agreed with the Skin Horse, “Once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who do not understand.”[iii]      

So we learn from Kant that the real world we are in (noumenon) is not the real world we live (phenomenon).  We all think it is real but it is as real as we think it is.  My wife came home one evening and told me an incident at the psychiatric ward she was visiting.  A schizophrenic patient rushed to the psychiatrist in despair crying “Doctor, doctor…I see people.”  The doctor turned and pointed toward my wife and her colleagues, “You mean, these people?” 


“Don’t worry, they are real people.”               

What is real to one, may not be to the other.  The spirit world of ancestors is real to many Chinese but not to most Caucasians.   There is only one God to Muslims but there are millions to Hindus.  There are angels.  There are no angels.  There are miracles.  There is no miracle.  Good begets good.  Deceitfulness reaps rewards.  Which reality?  Who is to decide?

Kant tells us that there is an organizing principle in each of us.  This organizing principle, which exists a priori, makes possible for our connection with the external world, the phenomenal world.  David Hume takes it a step further.  There is no external causal relation nor continuation.  Everything is the creation of the mind.  Human beings are just a bundle of perception, hence the expression, “no matter, never mind.”  When we sit and observe a mountain, according to Hume, we only see because of our sense perception.  When we close our eyes, the mountain no longer exists for us.  When we look again, it is there.  Every time there is a mountain, there is sense perception.  The continuation of existence is only our rational interpretation.  We question Hume’s common sense.  But the question remains especially through modern psychiatry.  Aren’t we wired to see, hear, sense, and feel a certain way?  We learn the darkness of melancholia in relation to neurotransmitters.  And why do some people hear what is not spoken, see what is not there?  Carol North recounts her struggle with psychosis:

Without even a knock on the door, the nurse burst into my hospital room.  She held out a Dixie cup containing a little green pill and a little white pill.

“Military pellets?” I asked.

“No, this is Haldol.  Dr. Hamingway wants you to take it.”

I swallowed the pills.  The nurse, satisfied with the completion of her mission, turned on her heel and exited.

Next, a man in a long white coat and a tie burst in.

“Is there no privacy?” Hal protested.

“No!” said another voice.  “It’s the day of the eagle.”

“Hi, I’m Dr. Dolby,” said the man in the white coat.  “Can we talk for a little while?

Not filtering out my irrelevant ideas, I asked him, “Are you wearing white because this is the Day of the Eagle?”

He looked at me strangely, then repeated, “No, I’m Dr. Dolby,” in a louder-than-normal voice, as if I were hard-of-hearing.  Positioning his yellow legal ablet squarely on his clipboard, he said, “Can you name the last five presidents?”

It sounded like some kind of trick question to me.  Too bad he didn’t realize I had the power to diffuse my molecules and slip right through the brick wall to the outside.  He could never keep me here.  In the meantime, I decided to answer his question: “Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Hal…”[iv]

“Who is Hal?”  Or to be more accurate, “Who the hell is Hal?”  His voice is real to Carol as the other that talks about the day of the eagle and that of Dr. Dolby.  Did Dr. Dolby realize that she could diffuse her molecules and slip right through the brick wall?  Perhaps not because they both were wired differently.   

We learn through studying brain anatomy that temporal lobes are related to memory, language and learning.  “Clinically,” says Robert Hedaya, “euphoria, auditory hallucinations, and delusions are usually associated with impaired function of the dominant temporal lobes.”[v]  We also learn that vision and visual memory are associated with occipital lobes.[vi]  Referring to the role of the temporal cortex Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb write, “Common symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy include olfactory and gustatory hallucinations, déjà vu, derealization, depersonalization, and repetitive motor acts.”[vii]  Regarding the parietal cortex, “a patient with a right-sided lesion may deny that the left arm exists and may even fail to put clothes on the left side of the body.”[viii]  But does the left arm exist?  If we are wired differently, will we see differently or hear differently?  If so, what has this wiring, this mental circuit, to do with reality?  What is reality?  Who is to decide?


 [i] Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 43-4. [ii] David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 2. [iii] M. Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit and How Toys Become Real (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanich, 1983), 14-16. [iv] Carol S. North, Welcome, Silence: My Triumph over Schizophrenia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 249-50. [v] Robert J. Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry (New York: Norton, 1996), 4.[vi] Hedaya, Understanding Biological Psychiatry, 4. [vii] Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb, Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994), 101. [viii] Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb, Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, 101.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Think Small and Be Ordinary

Perhaps a glimpse of freedom is reflected in an image of a person who finds satisfaction in just being ordinary. It is freeing to be ordinary. When one has to strive to be something more than what one truly is, one moves into the area of the ‘conditional.’ In this circle, life is determined by others. The public face is of ultimate importance. In the conditional, one betrays one very own self. Hence to move toward the unconditional may just be the journey toward the ordinary. To just ‘be’ in the ordinary sense of the word is liberating. It is serene. It frees us to become the very being from which we were called by God. It releases us from the pretentious public obligation. It offers a space for us to breathe deeply and invites our souls to the realm of rhythm and poetry. In the unconditional, one moves and flows, reshuffling and reconfiguring. One just becomes in the transformation of self. I remember vividly as a teenager sitting on a bus one afternoon. Two old Chinese ladies got on, one at the front and the other, the back. They wore funny clothes. They were clumsy but cheery, carrying funny stuff with them. They talked loudly exchanging words all the 45 passengers on the bus could hear. And I thought, how embarrassing. But now I wish I could be like these two old ladies, old self-differentiated ladies. They were free and liberated. They had no need to fit-in. They had no need to strive. They were just two old Chinese ladies happily traveling on the bus having a great conversation and sharing their intimate information about their husbands to all the 45 passengers.

In chapter six of the Inner Chapters, Chuang Tzu reflects on what it means to be a real person.

What is a true man? The true man of old did not oppose the minority, did not strive for heroic accomplishments, and did not scheme over affairs. Such being the case, he did not regret it when he made a mistake nor feel smug when he was right. Such being the case, he could climb high without trembling, enter water without getting soaked, and enter fire without feeling hot. Only one whose knowledge can ascend the heights of the Way can be like this.

In our quest for spirituality, the way is unknown, the path is unnamed. Transformation takes place not by transforming. We live in a noisy society. There are many voices that keep reminding us of what we ought to be, of various standards and multiple criteria. These noises make us want to move in various directions complying to their callings. In the midst of these seductive invitations remains a lost soul. Silence, on the other hand, is how we come to really hear the essence of who we are. Not by judging nor analyzing but just listening. The soul finds its destiny. Be ordinary. Flow in the stream of life and one may be awaken to the real discovery of oneself in the presence of God. Jasmin Cori provides a possible description of such a person.

Running through the village
embracing everyone she meets,
she laughs in ecstasy.
People call her mad.

“New eyes!” she cries.
“I have been given new eyes!”
And it is true.
For the scales which had previously blinded her
are gone now, erased
revealing such utter glory
that her mind took flight,
leaving only a rapturous heart
in an old, weathered body
racing through the streets
on fire with love.