‘I am foolish of human mind also?’ is one of my favorite lines in chapter 20. The more literal the translation, the more peculiar it can read. If it helps, D.C. Lau interprets this line more poetically as, My mind is that of a fool – how blank.
I do feel the literal phrasing of the Tao Te Ching’s ‘nonsense’ helps rattle my thoughts a little more effectively than when it’s translated into proper poetic English. The literal adds a bit more discomfort. As they say, “No pain, no gain”.
This is not that different from chapter 65 that says, ‘of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, they will use it in order to fool them’. This feels somewhat counter intuitive I suppose, and in our ideal-centric world may even come off as immoral. That brings me to the deeper question, “How can we ever know what we feel or think is true?” I can answer that easily for feeling. If I stub my toe, I feel what I feel. The ‘truth’ is the feeling. This is not so when it comes to what I think. The best advice I’ve found is chapter 71’s Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Again, phrasing that rattles my thoughts helps me re-realize I don’t know. Anyway, I’ll get on with today’s bit of foolishness…
One way to look at this problem is to think of understanding as being a two-part process. A few years ago I more clearly began to realize how one must know before one can understand, as I have discussed in past posts such as, You Know. Naturally, this only applies to us thinking animals. You could say we typically understand what to do long before we know what we’re doing. Deeper understanding founded on visceral ‘gut’ knowing occurs gradually and continually over a lifetime.
Think of it this way. You can understand words and follow procedures by way of the cortex — that gray matter outer layer of the brain where much of our rational thought, intelligence, and language takes place. This is more a matter of imitation than knowing. The knowing I’m referring to is more a whole brain awareness, especially mid and lower brain regions from where primal emotion arises.
Guilt and Shame
A discussion with my son about the sense of guilt and shame may help illustrate knowing vs. understanding. The other day my son referred to some rather heady psychological ways of examining the nature of guilt. His idea being that through analyzing guilt thoroughly, one could find a way to manage it. I countered with my simpler zoology based view of seeing guilt as being merely an innate social instinct, with the practical purpose of pushing and pulling members of a group to interact. Additionally, guilt, along with competition, also serves to set up the hierarchical relationships between people and other larger brain social animals.
Viewed even more closely, guilt and shame look like the result of two opposing needs with undercurrents of what I call the fairness gene. (See, Unfair Trade and Ape Aid: Chimps share altruistic capacity with people,) First, one feels a social need to connect to the group, do the ‘right thing’ socially for the group, and do the ‘fair’ thing. Second, one feels the self-centered need to be ‘happy’, ‘fulfilled’, and ‘win’ at life. Thoughts of self and thoughts of the group vie for our attention, and an inner emotional war of opposing ideals ensues, i.e., these thoughts originate in their emotional roots. I suppose the sense of guilt and shame increases in proportion to how much self-interest wins out over one’s ideals and expectations for fairness (1).
Feeling Guilt Precludes Understanding Guilt
One possible difference between my son’s complex psychological reasoning and my simpler reasoning is that his doesn’t require knowing guilt impartially. An analytical approach like his permits us to play around with something in our mind without the great difficulty of experiencing it with detachment. Yet, we can still end up thinking that we know. Put another way, if you feel guilt, how can you know its nature without bias? If you can’t see it impartially, how can you know its full nature? We solve this enigma by employing our higher brain functions, reason and analysis, which operate easily without requiring us to undergo the actual experience (2).
This is where we get into difficulty: Again, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.. At some point, science with its commitment to impartiality, will lay out the biological basis of guilt. This should help somewhat (3). I couldn’t wait that long, so I put a drawing at the top of this post that depicts a biological basis of love. That’s close enough I reckon; guilt, shame, and love have much in common. To say it is simply biology helps me untangle the issue, yet leaves the profound workings of biology to leave me endlessly in awe me.
Forever, a Work in Progress
Another example of the difficult disease thinking causes occurs when we experience a sense of loss (real or imagined). When reality doesn’t conform to our expectations, we feel a sense of failure and loss. This emotion pushes the mind to single out data (empirical, ideal, or otherwise) that provides evidence for that non-rational emotion. I find that knowing my mind instinctively does this helps motivate me to seek out evidence that points in the other direction. This self-honesty eventually ends in a balanced ‘big picture’ and with that, a peaceful state of mind.
Alas, this happens only so long as I remain actively aware of the bio-hoodwink acting upon me. I say alas, because emotion constantly bubbles up to steer the mind back to support emotion’s non-rational ‘truth’, i.e., my emotional standpoint at the moment. Buddha had it right. Namely, Right Resolution keeps me remembering what Right Comprehension sees. Right Effort and Right Thought keep Right Resolution aimed in the Right direction. When it all comes together, Right State of Peaceful Mind ensues. The memory of that helps motivate my Right Resolution. It is a virtuous circle, even as I Am Foolish Of Human Mind Also?
Chapter 71 ends with, The sacred person is not ill, taking his disease as illness. Clearly, our tendency to not know yet think that we know is part and parcel of having a brain that has a mind of its own. Allowing the story — ‘gossip’, ideals, expectations, and such — to lead our thoughts around like a bull with a ring through its nose, makes life difficult. This allows our story to drown-out our journey into the mystery of the yet to be known. Thus, as chapter 41 says, The superior student hearing the way, diligently travels it.
(1) Thoughts of self, desires, and ideals of fairness exacerbate the social instincts that cause guilt and shame. Given the social bonding purpose of these instincts, it is reasonable to assume that feeling guilt and shame increase in proportion to any increase in self-interest. Mother Nature ‘wants’ social animals to bond rather than be off doing their own thing. Consequently, an increasing desire to do your own thing would naturally induce painful conflict: self-interest vs. group-interest. We call that conflict guilt. On the other hand, the group member feeling a deep need for group bonding would experience anger toward any member’s inclination to do their own thing. This explains why whistle blowers are ostracized by their group even though their actions are virtuous. As you can see, considering humans from a zoological standpoint helps illuminate with little to no drama.
(2) I am able to consider guilt and shame rather objectively because I have never felt much of either. When I told my son that, he felt that incredulous. Now, I assume I’ve experienced some shame and guilt, but not enough to ‘stick’, so to speak. As far back as I can remember, I have marched to the beat of my own drum. It must be genetic! This trait confers a good deal of social impartiality.
(3) Science does a lot more for advancing human sanity than is often realized. For example, the Aztecs killed thousands under the belief that such sacrifice would insure the Sun’s daily ‘rebirth’ in the sky. Knowing the science behind the Sun now makes that impossible, at least culture wide. Of course, there are always cul-de-sacs of folks who reject science and end up believing in god knows what. Even so, science will continue to pull humanity toward facing its biological reality and in the process, bring us closer to appreciating the true mystery of biology — of life!