“Before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is-not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
A theme that runs through the Daodejing—and Zen Buddhism—is that the path to the knowledge of the self and the knowledge of reality is one and the same. But it is not confined to these traditions. Even St. Augustine’s formula can be cast as “going within takes me beyond,” or as one of his interpreters put it, to move “from the exterior to the interior, and from the interior to the superior.”
To our modern ears, this sounds odd. Why? Because we live in a secular age, which philosopher Charles Taylor suggests is bound by an “immanent frame.” The immanent frame is the idea that there is no transcendent spiritual reality, no unseen order, nothing really mysterious or spooky going on in the universe. The vision was perfectly encapsulated by Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of “scientific materialism”: “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endless and meaningless.”
In this frame, the self is what Taylor calls “the buffered self,” or what Alan Watts famously called a “skin-encapsulated ego.”
In this kind of a universe, if I withdraw into myself, I am eventually going to just hit a wall somewhere in the dark crannies of my unconscious or, worse, I’ll get lost and descend into madness. Also, I’m going to realize that wow, I’m really kind of crazy and weird. Maybe better to not make the trip?
In Taylor’s story, the “buffered self” came to replace the “porous self.” The porous self is that of the Biblical world, where God speaks to his people in dreams, of the Greek world, where gods and goddesses possess mortals, of the medieval world, where spirits and devils circle and penetrate the soul. Arguably, the internet has reactivated this “porous self,” but now our minds are vulnerable to hijack by spectral forces from the cloud—algorithms, influencers, bots, trolls, software engineers.
None of this is to say that that old enchanted world of magic and myth is true. But it does suggest that we ought to push the immanent frame and test the boundaries of the buffered self, not based on faith in some invisible order, but by being good skeptics in the original sense of the term:
To look for ourselves.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”