We “know” humans are animals, biologically speaking. Yet do we really feel we are? In reality, there is a wide gap between our knowledge and our experience. Catching the flu for the “first” time in my life recently offers an example of how thought can distort and pigeonhole reality.
Assuming that I caught the flu for the first time must be incorrect, but up until now, I never knew the difference between a cold and the flu. Sure, I’ve heard of flu shots and the risks for old people catching the flu. However, whenever I came down with flu-ish symptoms, I just felt I had a cold.
My “first” time with depression offers another example. Up until about 30 years ago, I’d never been depressed. I’d heard about people having depression; I just never felt I experience it myself. After my intense six-month long day and night work on the Correlations (Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations, p.565), I experienced depression for the first time in my life. However, was that really the first time? Like never having caught the flu, never feeling depression until then was most improbable.
“Thick like the uncarved block”
I had felt bad at various times throughout my life up until these two first time examples. I just never “knew” exactly what was wrong. A bad time would eventually revolve back to a good one until the next bad one came around again. Chapter 58 describes this natural ebb and flow poetically as, It is on disaster that good fortune perches; It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.
Of course, no animal, other than human, would label this ebb and flow experience as either good or bad. Not attaching the more specific labels, flu and depression, to my earlier experiences was more animal-like, and actually closer to reality. Chapter 15 hints at this simplicity… Thick like the uncarved block; Vacant like a valley; Murky like muddy water.
These two experiences exemplify chapter 32, As soon as there are names, one ought to know that it is time to stop. Naming experience has unintended and undesirable consequences. Sure, there are useful reasons for naming experience, but there are costs that we don’t realize. Naming experience, ‘carves the block’, ‘occupies the valley’, and ‘clears the muddy water’. What’s more, to rephrase chapter 56, naming experience [releases] the openings; [opens] the doors; [hones] the sharpness; [tangles] the knots; [brightens] the glare.
We fear the emptiness and stillness that embracing the uncarved block evokes. Chapter 20 hints why… Between yea and nay, How much difference is there? Between good and evil, How great is the distance? We obviously feel the need to exaggerate experience and make more of less. Doing so supports our “illusion of self” and that things truly exist and matter! Perhaps chapter 19’s, Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block, Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible, feels virtuous because it is the last thing we are emotionally able to do. It promises balance to our reality, and so we imagine ourselves doing it… not today, but perhaps ‘tomorrow’.
It appears that we can’t feel peace of mind until we name our experiences. Then we feel we “know”. To be honest, that’s why I contemplate my observations. Writing about all this is just another way of naming. On the other hand, I’m always looking for that mysterious sameness in order to blur distinctions, and make less out of more. What I’m doing sounds a lot like chapter 36. To paraphrase: If you would have a thing [blurred], you must first [clarify] it. Indeed, isn’t this what we all do through life? Simply fill in the blank: If you would have _”x”_ laid aside, you must first set _”x”_ up.
To summarize: We humans obviously need to fill our mind’s space. After all, Nature abhors a vacuum. As a result, we name, think, and speak about our experience to fill that space. Okay, so far so good. The difficulties really arise when we seriously believe what we think! As chapter 71 cautions,
Naming experience bestows a sense of control
Chapter 32 notes, The way constant is without name. I’ve previously offered the observation that helping others is a subtle form of control over them. This cold hard fact applies even more to our act of naming things, whether they are physical, emotional or mental. Names impart a sense of control, and that supports our sense of free will. We can feel that we direct our fate. This truth of naming applies across the board, including every word I use. The zoologist names the species he observes; the hairdresser names the style she uses; the historian names dates; the astronomer names the stars…
Our connection with naming the content of our perception, our mind, is total and virtually impossible to rise above. That’s why chapter 16 says, nearly rising beyond oneself. That is why Taoist say, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Sincerely recognizing your disease is the only treatment. As chapter 71 goes on to say, Man alone faults this disease; this so as not to be ill. The sacred person is not ill, taking his disease as illness.