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 reminds me of 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 also feels somewhat counter intuitive, and in the ideal world we imagine, may come off as dishonest. 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. Contemplating that rattles my brain, which 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 began to realize how one must actually have an intuitive sense of an issue before they can truly understand it (see You Know, p.203). Naturally, this only applies to us thinking animals. You could say we typically understand what to do long before we know how or why we’re doing it. Deeper understanding founded on intuitive knowing occurs gradually and continually over a lifetime. See Duke Huan and the wheelwright, p.71.
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 a whole brain awareness that includes 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 large brain social animals.
Viewed even more closely, guilt and shame appear to be 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, p.587) First, one feels a social need to connect to the group, do the right thing socially for the group… do the fair thing. Second, one feels the self-centered need to be happy, fulfilled, and to prevail in 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.
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 increased 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? An impartial view is the only way to examine the full nature of anything actually. We solve this enigma by employing our higher brain functions, reason and analysis, which operate easily without requiring us to undergo the actual experience (1).
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 (2). 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 feel… guilt, shame, and love have so much in common. To say it is simply biology helps me untangle the issue, yet leaves me deeply in awe of the profound workings of biology.
Forever, a Work in Progress
Another example of the disease that 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, theoretical, or mythical) that provides evidence for that 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 more inclusive picture and with that, a more peaceful state of mind.
Alas, this happens only so long as I remain actively aware of the bio-hoodwink acting upon me. (See How the Hoodwink Hooks p.100) I say alas, because emotion constantly arises to steer my mind back to support its irrational “truth”, i.e., my current emotional stance. Buddha had it right (p.604). Namely, Right Resolution helps me remember what Right Comprehension sees. Right Effort keeps Right Thought reviewing Right Comprehension, and so on. All this helps increase Right State of Peaceful Mind. Naturally, my current emotional state hinges on my degree of Right State of Peaceful Mind. So, you see, this is really a virtuous circle playing out over my lifetime.
Chapter 71 ends with, The sacred person is not ill, taking his disease as illness. I see our tendency to not know yet think that we know as simply due to our brain having a mind of its own, so to speak. Having our story — gossip, ideals, expectations, and such — lead our thoughts around as a bull with a ring through its nose makes life difficult. Worse yet, this drowns out the mystery of the yet to be known. Chapter 41 offers a way to manage this, The superior student hearing the way, diligently travels it.
(1) 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 was skeptical. Honestly, I have experienced tinges of shame and guilt, but not enough to stick. As far back as I can remember, I have marched to the beat of my own drum. To be sure, it is genetic! Not surprisingly, this trait confers a good deal of social impartiality.
(2) Science does a lot more for advancing human sanity than is often appreciated. 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 and of life!