“The fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves”. That bit of Shakespeare speaks to our modern paradigm. By modern, I mean the epoch beginning with the Renaissance (14th century) that followed the fall of Rome, i.e., the so-called Dark Ages. Notice how these labels bias the view of cultural progress right away in favor of the modern.
I see progress as a two-steps forward, one-step backward affair. It’s not that the stars actually determine our fate as the ancients thought. The ancients simply lacked a deeper biological understanding of what makes life tick, and so mistakenly attributed destiny to the stars.
Similarly, karma offers a simple, albeit inaccurate, way of accounting for the transference of genetic information from one generation to the next. The Bible also hints at this, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).
The life sciences help us understand life better now, and that’s the two steps forward part. The modern era also embodies the self-centric and even arrogant view that “I” controls fate. This one-step back part is undoubtedly aided by our increasing ability to control the physical world through science and technology. Iron enabled guns, mighty ships, railroads, followed by all that the harnessing electricity enables, e.g., autos, airplanes, refrigerators, computers, atomic bombs, space travel, modern medicine… the list is very long indeed. (See And then there was fire, p.296)
Imagination: To our benefit and detriment
Many of humankind’s great inventions occur from a person dreaming up an improved way to deal with nature. On the other hand, these innovative leaps often include numerous misunderstandings that result in unintended downsides. We understand now that people born blind, crippled, or schizophrenic are naturally handicapped. We know the cause is genetic and not a malevolent spirit, thanks to scientific breakthroughs. Yet, we still fail to understand that we are all naturally crippled, cognitively speaking, despite the fact that Taoist teachings spoke to this handicap millennia ago, e.g., chapter 71, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Ironically, imagination is both vitally useful and utterly unreliable. Unreliable because imagination usually looks forward, when what we really need is more ability to see the present deeply and honestly.
Knower not think, thinker not know
Chapter 71 speaks to our over-reliance on “truth”. The security of our certainty blinds us like a disease, as that chapter puts it. The narratives that arise from thinking prevent knowing. Thinking requires the tangible detail provided by words and names. This myopia makes seeing the bigger picture difficult. The best that thinking can do is report to us some elements of what we intuitively know. However, that reporting always ends up skewed because it can’t convey full intuitive knowing. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then intuitive knowing is worth a thousand pictures.
Clearly, intuitive knowing is a mystery. Thinking merely skims the surface of what we know. All the rest remains in the shadow of profound sameness, as chapter 56 describes. Thinking is like smoke that arises from emotion’s fire… or embers, as is often the case.
Treating the disease.
How do we know when our thinking is not diseased? Diseased thinking is nothing more than the cognitive biases we bring into our perceptions. Chapter 71 tells us there is this disease and that to recognize that fact helps mitigate it. Fine, but this is only a first step. Impartiality is the only way to experience thinking that is minimally diseased. Any thoughts of preference, of taking sides, of attraction or aversion, are indications of biased thinking. It couldn’t be more straightforward. It only requires some courage to accept! Chapter 16 puts it well,
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
Why does this require courage? Our survival instinct is my guess. Once we emotionally feel the problem, we instinctively feel pressed to do something to fix it. If we feel powerless to fix the problem, we turn away and hypocritically meddle in other people’s problems instead. As Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. This sounds like “the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves”. Well it does, although here it is our immutable natural instinct at fault. We are both at fault and yet innately innocent. The way through this conundrum is to realize the perfection of imperfection. Realizing this helps one accept the problem as a non-fixable aspect of nature. In truth, the problem is reality; the solution is an illusion (i.e., transient, impermanent). This is dreadfully hard to accept. This closely parallels chapter 3’s wéi wú wéi (为无为), Doing without doing. It can help to substitute “doing” for other words. For example: ‘helping without helping’, ‘knowing without knowing’, ‘being without being’, ‘working without working’, ‘fixing without fixing’, etc. Chapter 29, 57 and 63, among others, also put it well:
With desire choosing anything, of doing I see no satisfied end.
All under heaven is divine capacity, nothing can be done to it either.
Doing decays, grasping loses.
In the external world of man, someone leads, someone follows.
Someone sighs, someone blows.
Someone strives, someone wins.
Someone subdues, someone ruins.
Because of this, the wise man leaves the extremes, the luxurious, and the safe behind. 
I do nothing and the people change themselves.
I love stillness and the people straighten themselves.
I am without responsibility and the people thrive themselves.
I am without desire and the people simplify themselves.
Do without doing,
Be involved without being involved.
Taste without tasting.
Carl Abbott says
Oh yes! Genesis and core Taoist views of ‘knowledge’ share profound sameness, to use chapter 56’s language. And they do so bluntly. Granted, Genesis 2:17 is a lot more fervent: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die“.
Although, Chapter 2 and 71 certainly don’t mince words: Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease, and again in chapter 2 with, All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already. All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already..
These previous posts expand on this somewhat:
Religion… an Opiate?
Are you out of touch with nature?
The differences we see and get fired up over, are driven by innate tribal instinct. It strikes me odd that we don’t generally realize this. Alas, whatever ‘truths’ we learn from childhood onward blind us, plain and simple. It is an insidious disease.
Erwin Colón says
Carl. Knowing and not knowing always brings me back to the creation story in the Old Testament. As a youngster, I was taught the story in parochial school. The older I got, the more I passed it off it as an event that happened many years ago, if it happened at all… My linear (alpha-omega) thinking failed to see the eternal Truth.
One way I proved knowing and not knowing to myself, I asked myself the following question: “What is my earliest recollection?” The earliest I remember was pre-Kintergarden. I can’t say a how old I was, but then I was a child still learning how to count. I remember sitting on the living room sofa with the early morning sun shining in on me as I watched our black and white TV. That’s was the moment I started to become acutely self-conscious and conscious of the world around me. Before that, nothing. But I was here… before I knew it. 🙂