Dao Du Jour II, Day 60: Matter Spirited Away

Chapter 59: Staying on the Way

“In looking after your life and following the way,

Gather spirit.

Gather spirit early,

And so redouble power,

And so become invulnerable.


Live long by looking long.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

When it comes to religion, “spirit” is the word that is most important and least defined. 

The irony is that our intuitions about spirit are primarily inherited from the Christian tradition, and yet this understanding of spirit is contrary to the crux of Christian theology: the incarnation. Properly understood, the incarnation is a word for the idea that spirit and matter are one. In Alan Watts’ sharp turn of phrase, “matter is spirit named.” The incarnation is usually (mis)understood in dualistic terms because people bring to it fuzzy ideas about spirit as some immaterial, ghostlike essence and matter as some clump of dead stuff, and they bang them together in their minds like a child trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. But the problem is not how to fit them together, but how they are imagined to be in the first place. 

Our ideas about matter come from perception and high school science class; matter is physical objects in space or, at the micro level, tiny particles bumping into each other. But we now know that at the micro-micro level, all that is solid matter melts into air. The more you drill down, atoms become subatoms become muons and gluons and superstrings and quantum foam and on and on; matter becomes “dark,” and even the dark matter isn’t the bottommost thing, there’s dark energy; and none of it’s staying still, and it’s exhibiting “entanglement” (action at a distance), and one moment it’s a wave, another a particle, but also both and neither at the same time. And the deeper physics goes, the more “metaphysical” it becomes; the more, that is, it starts to resemble a spiritual realm of Platonic forms and spooky forces than the heaps of earth and rock you see before your eyes. Modern physics spirits matter away.

But even this woo-way that physics takes you down misses the point. The Dao of Physics is not the true Dao. Plato called physics a “probable myth” or “likely story”; despite its empirical and mathematical foundations, it is still an interpretation of ultimate reality. The incarnation is not the idea that spirit became matter, or God became human; it’s that all matter is spiritual, and all spirit is material. They are the same reality looked at from different sides. This unitive or “nondual” interpretation of Christian theology is, of course, heresy from the perspective of orthodoxy. And yet it is supremely fitting, since Christ himself was a heretic to the orthodoxy of his time.

But this new idea fails if it remains simply an idea, and clarifies into a new theology—or, worse, a pseudo-scientific spirituality, e.g., “quantum physics proves Eastern religions are true.” When Jesus says “repent, and you will be saved,” he is not asking you to say you’re sorry for your sins. The word repent is a lame translation of the Greek word “metanoia,” which means to “go beyond mind.” Conversion doesn’t mean suddenly assenting to a set of theological propositions. It refers to a transformation in consciousness, a temporary transcendence of what Cynthia Borgeault calls the “egoic operating system.” Jesus isn’t trying to make you feel guilty for your sins, or to persuade you to become a Christian; he’s trying to shake you into having what Zen Buddhism calls “kensho.”

Of course we are taught none of this in Sunday school. Nor are we taught how to breathe. The two oversights are related. Our teachers were not taught to breathe when they were children, and usually we have to go through some kind of spiritual breakdown to rediscover the lost art of breathing; the art we lose as we grow into the constrictions of the ego, and that our civilization has lost as it has hardened into the iron cage of modernity. 

If we were taught to “gather spirit early,” who knows what we’d be capable of?

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”