Dao du Jour: Day Zero

Welcome to the launch of the Daodujour!

This project has been incubating for almost exactly one year. For one of my new year’s resolutions last year, I decided to start each day reading a chapter on the Daodejing. My reasons were both personal and professional: I was looking for a source of inspiration to start my mornings off, and I was scheduled to teach Daoism for the first time in the Fall for a course called “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” The text seemed like the perfect blend of poetry, spirituality, and philosophy to help me being the day with a clear, calm mind primed to create. And I figured it was a feasible goal, since the chapters are essentially poems, no longer than a page and often just a few lines. It ended up being one of the few resolutions I kept.

I was already familiar with Daoist philosophy, had practiced Tai Chi, a martial art it inspired, for an extended period of time, and felt confident I could do justice to it in the classroom. But I wanted more. As a saying from the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea puts it, “knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” In their commentary on the Daodejing, Roger Ames and David Hall put it more prosaically: “For it is affective feeling itself rather than simply cognitive ‘knowledge’ that is the site of knowing…. The Daodejing recommends cultivating those habits of awareness that allow us to appreciate the magic of the ordinary and everyday” (Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation (188). I wanted to soak up the elusive essence of the text, to steep in it—if I wanted to really learn how Daoism can infuse our so-called everyday lives, I reasoned, I need to make it a part of my life—every day.

The next question was what translation to use. The Daodejing is one of the most translated texts in world literature, and classical Chinese is notoriously difficult to translate. Beyond this, in Daoism, as you’ll see, obscurity is a feature, not a bug. At some level, the very idea of a “correct” translation is a misunderstanding of the tradition, a product of the very mindset from which it tries to release us. The Western mind, so preoccupied with clarity, precision, logical consistency, and analytical acumen, is at a disadvantage approaching the Daoist tradition, rather like a man trying to eat soup with a fork.  

The text has 81 chapters, which meant I could move through it in a little less than three months, which meant I could digest around four translations by the time I had to teach it. I dared not delude myself into thinking I would by then have anywhere near a comprehensive, or even well-rounded, understanding and appreciation for the variety of interpretations and nuances of meaning they draw out of the text. But I figured that if I looked at translations coming from discernibly different perspectives, I would be moving in the right direction—or at least a good one.

I decided to, as it were, triangulate between the philosophical, the Sinological (the study of ancient Chinese language, culture, and history), and the spiritual. One way of thinking about these three perspectives is, respectively, an emphasis on the true, the correct, and the useful. Another, overlapping schema is :

  • moral (how does the text suggest we ought to behave?)
  • metaphysical (what picture of the world does it paint?), and
  • mystical (how does it aim to, in Aldous Huxley’s phrase, cleanse “the doors of perception,” and dilate our awareness to open to a deeper dimension of ourselves and the world?).

And, of course, there is the classical big three of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True from the Platonic tradition, or what Ken Wilber distills into Art, Morals, and Science. It is a mistake—especially with a text like the Daodejing—to cling too tightly to any scheme of categories, and better to approach it with what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.” But I figured cognitive flexibility and porousness of perspectives is the right way to circle around and sidle up to its inner sanctum. I wager that the reason certain texts stand the test of time is that they address all of these basic domains of our existence.

I decided to start where I was and with what I already had—a beat up old copy of the text I had gotten at a used bookstore in college—and got to work. Over time, as I entrained the habit and moved from one translation to the other, I found myself folding my reading into my morning walk and journaling routine, and the three actions began to constellate into one. I found the morning ritual grounding and therapeutic, and began to see just how practical and powerful such a gnomic little text could be. And being thus filled to the brim with daily doses of Daoist wisdom, I felt the urge to return the favor, and empty out the results of the reaction it catalyzed in me. I decided that my daily reading should be paired with daily writing.

For 2021, I would write about the Daodejing, share it with people, and see what happened.

The one thing most people know about Daoism is the yin-yang symbol. Indeed, it’s likely one of the things that draws people to Daoism in the first place. The symbol is directed at the subconscious—or, better, the superconscious (about which more later…). Like the Cross, or the Star of David, the symbol is arresting and archetypal, hinting at a simplicity beyond complexity. Like a Rorschach blot, it seductively lures you to pour and project, spill and splatter the contents of your psyche onto its façade.

The problem—as with all religious symbols—is that people often get stuck to the façade, turning an icon into an idol. Scholar Edward Slingerland explains:

“The yin-yang symbol is looked upon nowadays as a positive image of mystical wisdom, happily slapped on surfboards and tattooed on twenty-year-old butts. In fact, it actually symbolizes a dark and pessimistic vision, akin to the Buddhist teaching of dukkha or impermanence: all striving leads to disappointment in the end because there is no permanence in the world. The cycle of yin-yang is not to be celebrated but escaped.”

~ Trying Not to Try: Ancinent China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity (94)

How, then, do we escape? We’ll get to that.

I’ll be exploring the many meanings of yin and yang as we go, but I realized that it had a keen bearing on my little experiment. One of the most obvious features of the symbol is that dualities are interconnected and mutually interpenetrate each other; there is black in all white and white in all black. Reading is predominantly passive (yin-ish), writing mainly active (yang-ish). When you read, you’re reading something someone wrote, and when you write, you’re writing something someone else will (hopefully) read. Nevertheless, reading only works if the reader is bringing something to the table, and writing only sings if it’s open to the inspiration of the moment and mindful of the reader to whom it’s addressed. To read, you have to grapple with the writer, and to write, you have to listen, not just to the muse, but to the reader. You have to do something like dance.

How right and proper it seemed, given my subject, that my daily reading of the text be paired with daily writing. But I realized this was just a microcosm of a larger problem I had struggled with for years: creative constipation. I’ve identified as a writer ever since my ego congealed around 15, and while I’ve kept a serious journal since college and did lots of academic writing in and after graduate school to break into academia, over the last few years I kind of lost the habit. If a writer is a person who feels like a waste of planetary space on days when they don’t write, then by this point part of my psyche must resemble the garbage planet in Wall-E.

The flipside of this is that, as a reader, another part of my psyche resembles the rapacious consumer that produced all that garbage. Of course, I tell myself that it’s all “research,” fodder for future writing projects—books, blogposts, op-eds, long essays. As an Enneagram 5—the “observer”—I’m driven by the need to feel resourced. At best, this manifests as being well-informed about a topic; at worst, an obsessive-completism that snuffs out the creative spirit.

On top of this was another disordered desire: perfection. Despite knowing all too well, at an intellectual level, the paralyzing follies of perfectionism, I was nevertheless caught a state of perpetual conception, conjuring book outlines, chapter and essay titles, topics, but rarely converting any of it into finished products. I would return from a run burdened with insights and hastily record them in my journal before they stole away, the sweat smearing my chicken scrawl. And then the next day I would go on another run, and repeat the process. Over time, what felt like an albatross of debt—as though I owed the muse for her investment in me—began to accrue and, like a millennial cowed by an unscaleable mountain of student loans, I felt the urge to give up. The form this took was Netflix, video games and, of course, more reading. Reading, intended as either an end in itself (pleasure) or as a means to procure raw material for writing (research), tumbled into its opposite: drudgerous duty and procrastination from writing.

A marriage of obsessive-completism about reading and perfectionism about writing, needless to say, does not spirit children bear.

While I am unusually bookish, in some ways it’s a modern pathology: the desire—if not the perceived duty—to be well-informed about the world and in the know and have opinions about everything, cultivated by a 24-hour news cycle, a historically unprecedented abundance of information, and ready access to all of it in the palm of our hand almost every moment of every day.

Already in the 19th century, Nietzsche warned that modern man had begun to be weighed down by “knowledge stones” that blocked access to our creative, meaning-making power, that trap us in the cave of the present and suffocate the will to the future. Emerson, writing across an ocean at around the same time, began his great essay, “Nature,” with a similar thought: “Our age is retrospective.” Today, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has diagnosed ours as a decadent age—exhausted, complacent, fat, full, feeding on the cultural products of generations past.

All of which is to say: I have long found it instructive to consider the ways in which my own karmic knots are caught in and caused by a wider web of social pathologies. As Nietzsche also said, “Madness is something rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” To find your bearings in the labyrinth of your own psyche, you need to discover the ways in which your culture is mad. To find your Ariadne’s thread, you need a lifeline from a culture not your own. And after spending a good year with the Daodejing, I’m convinced that the Dao is strong, needed medicine for our culture—precisely because we lack one—and our souls—precisely because we doubt they exist. It’s not the answer—as with the meaning of life, there’s no such thing, and to think so is folly—but it’s a damn good one.

So each day, I’ll select a quote from a chapter of the text, and offer you a short response to it. It may be only a sentence or a question; it may be a personal reflection along the lines of a journal entry; it may take the form of metaphysical musing, or maybe even mild moralizing; it may come off as clichéd, banal self-help or cultural appropriation; it may be social or political commentary; it may even, heaven forfend, get a little “woo-woo.” My hope is that it will give you a tiny dose of Dao to start your day off right—or at least better than it would be doom-scrolling Twitter.

If I ask myself about what I make of Daoism, or whether I “believe” in it, after my extended experiment, I smile and recall what one of my Zen teachers, Robert Kennedy (no, not that one), said upon first meeting the man who would become his Zen master. I paraphrase from memory: “I had no idea what Zen stuff was, but I knew right away…whatever it is, this is it!”

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