First Response: ‘Tao Te Ching’

I first became interested in Taoism after reading Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. This book, first published in 1982, brings together A. A Milne’s classic children’s book character Winnie the Pooh with the ancient philosophy of Taoism. It explores the ways in which these texts talk to and illuminate one another despite being produced in different veins, centuries apart. It is an excellent, funny and poignant introduction to Taoism (and Winnie the Pooh for that matter) which I highly recommend. It led me to pick up the original text that informs Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is the world’s second-most widely translated book after the Bible and which accompanied me around New Zealand in April of this year.

The ‘Tao’ is often translated into English as ‘The Way’ and ‘Tao Te Ching’ translates roughly as ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’.[1] The book is a Derridean dream: the combination of contradictions and paradoxes within the text’s ‘teachings’ combined with the aphoristic structure of its 81 chapters points to the instability and consequent inability of language to successfully explain what the Tao is and how it manifests. For example, we are woven into a big knot with aphorisms like number 71:

‘Knowing ignorance is strength,

Ignoring knowledge is sickness

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick

The wise are not sick, because they are sick of sickness

Therefore they are not sick’.[2]

Sick is repeated so many times here that it’s easy to lose track of what we originally interpreted as sickness. Indeed, the aphorism is a befuddlement of sickness that does not present much in the way of resolution: does being sick of sickness refer to another kind of sickness or not? But what does this matter anyway when this state of being (being sick of sickness) results in the wise not being sick. In this vein, we can see that the book is humorous, frustrating and whilst conveying wisdom, knowingly withholds comprehensive understanding all the way throughout, reminding us that ‘the truth often sounds paradoxical’ (aphorism 78). It playfully reminds us of language’s limitation as an arbitrary system of signs that constantly constructs and deconstructs. It also introduces us to the concepts of ‘wu wei’ (‘non action’), ‘pu’ (‘the uncarved block’: a metaphor for the natural spontaneity and state of being), yin and yang, and makes political observations about war, weapons and leadership. I would argue that there is definitely room here to draw in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for comparison, but that might have to be another post for another time.

Some of the concepts raised are initially quite jarring from our Western ideological standpoint, for example ‘non action’. This idea is brought up throughout the text:

‘Open your mouth,

Always be busy,

And life is beyond hope’ (aphorism 55).[3]

 

‘Practice non-action.

Work without doing’ (aphorism 63).[4]

 

‘Those who act defeat their own purpose;

Those who grasp lose.

The wise do not act and so are not defeated.

They do not grasp and therefore do not lose’ (aphorism 64).[5]

In a world where injustice abounds, it is difficult to accept that non-action is the right course of action. Whether it’s those currently suffering at the hands of tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, the election of men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power when they have been widely accused of sexual assault, the massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the world’s poorest losing their homes and farms to rising sea levels when they have contributed the least to levels of carbon in the atmosphere etc. is non-action the best way of protecting and helping those in need? To fight tyranny, care for our environment and spread love and understanding, we must act, we must ‘do’.

The Tao Te Ching, however, deals in paradox and not absolutes. In aphorism 37, we are told:

‘Tao abides in non-action,

Yet nothing is left undone.

If those in power observed this,

The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

If they still desired to act,

They would simply return to the simplicity of formless substance,

Without form there is no desire.

Without desire there is tranquility.

And in this way all things would be at peace’.[6]

Here we can see that non-action does not necessarily equate to a sense of inertia or apathy; rather non-action begets action. The ‘ten thousand things’ refers here to the cosmic power of the Universe, the source from which life on Earth manifests and what we attempt to return to through meditation and inner work beyond the thrashings of ego in life. Non-action, therefore, is so much more than not doing; it is about finding harmony in the bigger, more mysterious picture of the unfolding universe, by which we find a sense of belonging, purpose and direction. As Jacob Needleman observes in the introduction to the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English text, conscious receiving and acceptance of the universe is an opening, rather than a doing.[7] Through non-action, we transcend the moralistic trappings of Earth-bound ego and return to something more powerful, connected and spiritual. More specifically, the idea laid bare in aphorism 37 is that if leaders attempted to cultivate and acceptance of flexibility, changeability and uncertainty, all the things that effectively characterise the Universe, this would permeate all of society and we would live in a more accepting and serene world. Unfortunately, we see too much ‘action’ in the form of exclusionary politics, rampant capitalism, war, environmental destruction; all of which distract us and prohibit us from collectively finding peace and oneness.

The Tao Te Ching is a mind and spirit-expanding text that comes to us in the guise of a short, digestible read. It is a disorientating text that offers with obscurity, humility and wit, a significant challenge to a great many of our Western orthodoxies. I get the impression that the more often this text is read, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from it. For many, spirituality and connection with the universe may seem like something fantastical, cheesy, ‘unscientific’ and something dreamed up by hippies; however, I am coming to believe that with the world in such a shit state as it is, it is perhaps only by understanding ourselves and the deep connection we have to the world and the other people within it that we have a hope in hell of finding peace. We cannot underestimate the impact we have on others in every moment of every day. The Tao Te Ching, as with any other text that deals with a form of mysticism, is effectively a guide, an inscription of ancient wisdom and knowledge. It offers us something more than the cynical two dimensional social structures, hierarchies and politics that we are accustomed to and largely disillusioned with today: a perspective on the perennial questions of who we are, where we are and how we can understand the world around us.

 

[1] As with all works in translation, we have to be careful of the numerous potential discrepancies in the translators’ interpretation of the text and how this may impact our own reading of it. I opted for the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English revised translation (first published in 1972, revised in 2011) because they collaborated to honour the simplicity and clarity of the Classical Chinese whilst making the text accessible for Western readers.

[2]Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu trans. Gia-Fu Fung and Jane English with Toinette Lippe (Vintage Books: New York, 2011), p.74.

[3] Ibid., p.58.

[4] Ibid., p.66.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Ibid., p.xxi.

New Zealand: podcasts we listened to

I have come to the podcast game very late indeed. Friends have been recommending podcasts for years and years but I just never got involved. Whenever a cultural phenomenon or ‘thing’ has been hyped up and managed to pass you by, which for me also includes watching Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Breaking Bad and listening to any albums by The Arctic Monkeys, it’s hard to motivate yourself to get on the band wagon. Feminist friends and film buffs have linked me all sorts, yet I have remained a stick in the mud and never got round to listening to any of them. Apparently, however, it took the prospect of four 11 hour flights and six weeks of driving around New Zealand in a campervan to get me out of the gate. Armed with my recommendations and CastBox newly downloaded onto my phone, I sunk my teeth into the following shows:

My Dad Wrote a Porno

My Dad Wrote a Porno

I did not know what I was getting myself into with this podcast, except that it had caused the friend who recommended it to keel over with laughter whilst out on a run. It is potentially the weirdest concept ever: Jamie Morton reads out the erotic novel Belinda Blinked, written by his dad under the pseudonym ‘Rocky Flintstone’. Alice Levine and James Cooper critique, comment and cringe along as we are dragged through the absurdly lascivious world of Belinda Blumenthal, the sales director and sexual maven of Steele’s Pots and Pans. Any lingering Freudian weirdness- that of a son reading his dad’s erotic constructions- is soon eclipsed by the novel’s monumental and unintentional hilarity: it is unpredictable, graphic and glorious. Part erotic novel, part business manual, part prolonged plotless and syntactically challenged sexual insanity and part fake news in its explorations of the female anatomy (Peter Rouse did not grab Belinda by the cervix to pleasure her), Belinda Blinked had us hooked from the beginning. Even when vivid images of men in black thongs, breasts hanging like pomegranates and the most perverse tombola ever conceived left us feeling, quite frankly, nauseous, no journey across the South Island of New Zealand felt complete without finding out what madness was going to happen next. Driving, cooking and breathing were all compromised whilst listening to My Dad Wrote A Porno but it is certainly one of the most entertaining, if questionable, cultural productions I have decided to commit to.

Serial logo

Serial

About four episodes into Serial, we made the executive decision to stop listening to it. I have finished the podcast since returning to the UK, so I feel equipped to talk about it, but whilst in New Zealand, it had to be put aside. Listening to Serial was unsettling and jarring. On a surface level, hearing the gruesome details of the murder of Hae Min Lee was practically guaranteed to freak us out when we were camping alone in some secluded woods outside Rotorua. However, what unnerved me about Serial was not just the story that was being offered, but how it was being offered and why it was being offered at all.

Serial has been hailed as a cultural achievement for marrying investigative journalism with podcasting, bringing both to an enraptured mainstream audience. It has also been met with heavy criticism for its ethical ambivalence, using the murder of a young woman as entertainment and instigating listeners to turn into would-be detectives to pick holes in the court case against Adnan Syed. It is worth remembering that Hae Min Lee’s family have been extremely critical of the podcast in this regard, saying that ‘unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials – so many witnesses, so much evidence’, and for whom the whole experience of the case being resurrected through Serial has evidently been traumatising.[1] I think what is important about this quote, in addition to the enormous emotional distress that Lee’s family continues to experience, is the reference to all the witnesses and evidence that the family came into contact with. The problem with Serial is that so much of the information that viewers receive is secondary, so we are relying entirely on the honesty and integrity of Sarah Koenig to tell the story.

This becomes problematic when we know that Serial’s main intention is to entertain, not inform: Ira Glass, one of the producers of the show, described the aim of the podcast as: ‘We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving’.[2] The aim of the show was to create a compulsive listening experience, in the same vein as House of Cards, Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black and any of the other shows that are uploaded to be binged on. This means, therefore, that it has been constructed in a certain way to keep us involved and on edge: important details and evidence can potentially be withheld or strung out to help build tension; Koenig’s own doubts become our doubts because she is leading us through evidence that we have no access to; and with its cliff hangers and teasers, it certainly does leave you perversely wanting more. It was so unnerving to listen to because I didn’t trust the facts because Koenig didn’t trust them, but also because I didn’t trust Koenig. I kept asking myself why she was doing this, what was the whole point? We receive the story as secondary information, yet Koenig acknowledges herself in an episode called ‘Rumors’ that some of the calls she gets from the public after the podcast’s broadcast were secondary information, and so inherently untrustworthy. It begs the question: how much of the entire podcast is actually reliable?

The main argument in favour of Serial would be that it has helped advance Adnan Syed’s journey to overturn his conviction; giving a man who has always professed his innocence impetus and evidence to appeal, thanks to public exposure and interest in the inadequacies of his defence and the case made by the prosecution. The shortcomings of the American legal system are laid out for us and it’s only right that an innocent man shouldn’t be condemned to live his life behind bars. It’s hard to argue with this; however, my problem with Serial is, again, to do with its process. In my opinion, one of the most revealing moments was when right at the end, we learn that Syed writes a letter to Koenig from prison, outlining how the whole experience of talking to her has disrupted the emotional equilibrium he has established living his life in prison. He writes that he has become anxious and afraid of judgment, and he’s looking forward to the whole experience being over. If the argument is made that Serial has helped Syed in any way, close attention has to be paid to this letter. The podcast has been emotionally damaging for Hae Min Lee’s family to live with, but this moment suggests that it has been emotionally damaging for Adnan Syed too.

Serial is an interesting listening experience and I’m glad I returned to it once we were back in the UK. However, I think we have to be very careful with real life stories, in particular those involving murder, that we don’t just consume them for entertainment. In the aforementioned quote, Ira Glass describes the people involved as ‘characters’, even though they are not imaginative abstractions. They are real people who live with the reality of what happened in 1999 and with the reality of wannabe detectives attempting to work out their lives for them on the internet. We might think we know everything about this case as a result of listening to the podcast, but I think it is ultimately untrustworthy, and needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism.

The Guilty Feminist

The Guilty Feminist

There are many aspects of this podcast that I love. Not least, it has introduced me to absolutely hilarious female comics that I had somehow spent my whole life not knowing about, for example Dana Alexander, Bisha K Ali, Desiree Burch and Sindhu Vee. In addition, any show that invites Gemma Arterton as a guest to talk about sexism within the film industry is on the right track: that woman is a much underappreciated theatrical and feminist icon whom I have loved unwaveringly since her seminal performance as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Guilty Feminist is really great at making feminists feel better about our inconsistencies. In particular, the podcast provides a space for women to acknowledge that, against our better judgement, we can and do align ourselves with various sexist and patriarchal standards that we have been conditioned our entire lives to adhere to. In particular, this can revolve around the way we look, our expectations of men and how we perceive and judge other women. It is non-judgemental about this, making a point to laugh and make light of our ridiculous double standards. In doing so, the podcast encourages women to show the same empathy and compassion we hold for other women and their struggles, with our own internal contradictions and patriarchal anxieties. It is fun, funny and I’m not going to stop listening to it any time soon.

Perhaps my only criticism would be that at times, the podcast doesn’t want to be radical enough. I very much enjoy the focus it brings to women’s charities, youth campaigns, the burden of emotional labour etc. However, the outlook isn’t, at times, the transformational approach to feminism that I subscribe to. This manifests at times in the economic discussions that take place, which predominantly revolve around the pay gap. In one episode, entitled ‘It’s a Man’s World’, the argument was made that to help companies understand the value of women, feminists needs to adopt the language of economics to make our case of being ‘economically viable’ more convincing. I take issue with this because the language of economics is ultimately patriarchal. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be in a situation where women are generally paid less, are told that tampons are luxuries or suffer the most at the hands of austerity thanks to cuts to local services, childcare and crisis centres. Furthermore, whilst many women raise awareness of these issues through writing, speaking or on their political platforms, women seem to be consistently absent from the actual conversations and decision-making. If we were to use the language of economics to make ourselves more palatable to men, we would be using the language of patriarchy to get onto a better footing within the patriarchy. If we want to remove patriarchal structures, which extends to racial structures too, we need to change the language that props the entire system up.

Ultimately, however, the podcast is a great comforting and affirming endeavour. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect (and I definitely include myself in that) and this podcast strips these unachievable and unrealistic expectations away. I think both women and men will be all the better for listening and engaging with it.

I would like to thank Char Bender, Mark Beer and Jess Action for their excellent recommendations. I’m finally catching up with you guys.

[1] ‘Serial case: victim’s family offers rare statement before hearing resumes’ [accessed 12:59, 12th June 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/feb/07/serial-case-hae-min-lee-statement-adnan-syed-hearing-baltimore

[2]This American Life channels True Detective in popular new podcast’ [accessed 18:49, 14th June 2018] https://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/09/ira-glass-sarah-koenig-julie-snyder-serial-podcast-this-american-life/