Dao Du Jour II, Day 47: Ghostbusting

Chapter 46: Wanting Less

“The greatest evil: wanting more

The worst luck: discontent.

Greed’s the curse of life.

To know enough’s enough

is enough to know.

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


In Wall Street 2, investment banker #1 (Shia Lebouf) asks investment banker #2 (Josh Brolin), “What’s your number?” How much money, in other words, would it take for you to walk away from the game of high finance dollar bill fuckery.

One word issues from Brolin’s granite rictus: “More.”

The investment banker is the stock image our minds summon when we hear the word “greed.” This makes it easy to assure ourselves that we ourselves are not greedy.

Buddhism warns us of the three root poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. Why these three? Because they correspond to our three centers—head, heart, and hara (the gut)—and how they get mixed up. Suffering is produced when one center thinks it’s running the whole show, and fails to recognize the intelligence in each. 

We can become greedy, not just for food, but for recognition and knowledge. 

We can come to hate not just other people, but our own bodies and the truth.

We can be ignorant not just of the way things are, but of our own feelings and bodily needs.

The Tibetan tradition offers a powerful image of greed: the “hungry ghosts” that occupy the lowest level of existence, cursed with tiny mouths and distended bellies, floating about forever empty. We all have a little hungry ghost—and a little investment banker—within. The question is not whether we are greedy, but into which form of greed we most tend to fall. That is the place to begin.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 46: Unconscious Upaya

Chapter 45: Real Power

“True straightness looks crooked.

Great skill looks clumsy.

Real eloquence seems to stammer.”

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


Several years back I attended a weekend Zen retreat. I arrived on the late side, and the only open cushion was on the left end of the outer horseshoe. I had been on retreats with this teacher before, and had the utmost respect and admiration for him. He was a natural, a “Buddha to the fingertips,” as they say: someone who in their movements, gestures, and voice radiates grace, self-possession, equanimity, lightness, and both humor and intensity all at once. After making a few introductory remarks, the roshi took his seat, which happened to be directly in front of me.

In zazen, you sit with your eyes open in soft focus gazing down a few feet in front of you, and given how still the room is, you notice the slightest motion in your field of vision. Halfway through our first twenty minute session, I noticed the roshi listing forward, then jerking back to an upright position…and a few moments later, doing it again, and a few moments after that, doing it again. The monitor—a senior student who keeps the time and rings the bell at the start and end of the session—was sitting across the horseshoe from him. I saw her see him and smile.

The Zen master was falling asleep.

Projection is an essential element of any kind of pedagogical dynamic. The student projects magical powers onto the teacher. His perception is a mixture of these projections, which are illusions, and correct apprehensions of superior skills, knowledge and qualities acquired after years of practice. The learning process involves the student mastering both his projections and acquiring those skills himself. A gifted teacher will not only model the technical competence to pass on the skills, but will use what in Buddhism is called upaya, “skillful means”: creative ways of imparting things that cannot be written down in a rule book or distilled into a neat verbal formula. Upaya are meant to disrupt the linear, logical mind, to disappoint expectations. The most powerful projection in Zen, and the hardest one to disable, is the student’s belief that the teacher possesses some kind of secret, special knowledge that he lacks.

Roshi Kennedy nodding off in the middle of zazen, I later realized, was an unconscious upaya: even Zen masters get tired.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 45: Almost Micro-Famous

Chapter 44: Fame and Fortune

“Which is nearer,

Name or self?

Which is dearer,

Self or wealth?

All you grasp will be thrown away.

All you hoard will be utterly lost.

Contentment keeps disgrace away.

Restraint keeps you out of danger

So you can go on for a long, long time.”

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


“I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” ~ Jim Carrey

One of the many odd affordances of our new information ecology is that it presents everyone with the plausible chance of becoming micro-famous. Social media is, of course, diabolical in its ability to tap into the most ancient and powerful drives in the psyche, and with fame it is no different. The desire for fame is the sick form of the natural desire for belonging; in Darwinian terms, the desire and the ability to “fit in” was arguably the most important form of “adaptive fit” in our species’ early history. Not just the natural selection of the environment, but the cultural selection of the tribe, was essential for survival.

As with calories, we evolved in conditions of relative scarcity when it comes to recognition. There were only so many people you had to appeal to, gain respect from, and burnish your reputation before; doing so was a requirement for attaining a sense of coherence, feeling yourself integrated with the social and natural world. But now, just as our propensity to feast on sweet and fatty foods is a liability, our propensity to get people to like us—normal, natural, and necessary for both survival and sanity—gets us into trouble. The evolutionary imperative—“more is better”—began smart but has become dumb. Eating, like making a name for oneself, is a means, not an end in itself.

We know this, of course. So why do we fall for the lure?

Cardinal John Henry Newman offers us an incisive distinction for cutting through this conundrum: “real assent” vs. “notional assent.” The difference can be seen by an example Michael Pollan gives in his book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. Smoking addicts who successfully quit after taking a clinically administered dose of psylocibin were asked, months after the treatment, why they didn’t smoke anymore. Their answers were were complicated. Why would I do that to my body? Smoking kills you. And so on. In other words, they didn’t go through any kind of intellectual conversion or gain new insight; every smoker knows full well smoking is bad for you. What had changed was their relationship to their beliefs; they had moved from notional assent—an abstract understanding—to real assent—embodied, lived understanding. It’s a fantastic explanation for, e.g., why you find yourself complaining about social media one minute while doom scrolling the next.

The problem with wisdom is not that we lack knowledge, but that we forget it. The most important kind is the category Donald Rumsfeld left out: “unknown knowns.”


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 44: The Sandcastle Sutra

Chapter 43: Water and Stone

“What’s softest in the world rushes and runs

over what’s hardest in the world.

The immaterial

enters

the impenetrable.

So I know the good in not doing.”

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


Carl Jung—the Swiss psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud whose ideas are enjoying a resurgence of late—inspired a novel form of therapy: “sand play.” Jung speculated that playing in the sand freed up repressed emotions and fostered a kind of circulation between the different and often dissociated parts of the psyche.

This raised a question: what is so attractive about playing in the sand and, in particular, building sand castles? Answer: sandcastles reflect the incarnation, in Christian categories, and the polarity of yin and yang, in Daoist terms. They are the diamond hard distillation of what draws us to the beach.

Sand stands in the bardo between water and stone. Sand is like water shot with a tranquilizer. Slow, dumb, and dead, it moves and flows, but unmusically. Wet, though, sand gives water shape, and plays at being stone. Like the rock of a cliff face, a sandcastle can resist water, but only for a time.

Water stands in for life and spirit, stone for death and matter. Inland, in the adult world, we forget that all castles are made of sand. However impenetrable we try to make our fortresses—our houses, our bank accounts, our psyches, our stories, our ideologies, our religions, our polities—the immaterial always finds the hidden entrance. We forget, in other words, that all castles are made, that time is a circle, that the tides—or the storm—will come.

This is a powerful spiritual teaching. The sandcastle is a sutra. The term, which is attached to Buddhist scriptures—the heart sutra, the lotus sutra, and so on—is related to our terms “thread,” or “string,” and “suture.” No doubt this has to do with the physical binding of the texts. But it also connotes the message of healing, weaving, and mending the texts aim to foster. “Not doing” is building in a spirit of serious play.

The Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says, is “at hand,” and it is built of sandcastles.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 43: Pocket Astrology

Chapter 42: Children of the Way

“The ten thousand things

carry the yin on their shoulders

and hold in their arms the yang,

whose interplay of energy

makes harmony.

People despise

Orphans, widows, outcasts.

Yet that’s what kings and rulers call themselves.

Whatever you lose, youv’e won.

Whatever you win, you’ve lost.”

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


Why is astrology so popular?

It is too easy to dismiss it as magical thinking, a constellation to hang onto in the face of cold black space. If you wade through the woo, you’ll find a there there. The word “horoscope” derives from Greek terms for “time” and “observation.” Think of it as a cosmic positioning system.

In his seminal work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot identifies three marks of wisdom in ancient Greek thought: peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkia), and cosmic consciousness. The latter, he writes, is “the consciousness that we are part of the cosmos, and the consequent dilation of our self through the infinity of nature.” In this sense, the existential thrust of astrology is not that everything happens for a reason, as though our fate were fixed by the stars, but that we are, as Carl Sagan put it, “made of star stuff,” and the meaning we make of the world must take the world as its guide.

Modernity is marked off from this cosmocentric mentality by what Bruno Latour calls the “partitioning” of culture and nature; we separate the two and attempt to purify the former from the mess of the latter. Similarly, Charles Taylor explain how the ancient and medieval blueprint—the individual is ordered by society and society is ordered by the cosmos—came to be abandoned: the “Great Disembedding” of the modern project turns us from “porous” selves–in touch with and attuned to the cosmic energies suffusing and surrounding us–into “buffered” selves standing apart from nature and manipulating it at will. Modernity, in short, yangs.

Today’s chapter is not merely offering us a version of Biblical moralism—to care for the marginalized—but a metaphysics, and not an academic metaphysics, but a practical one. Our natural tendency to partition and purify—the sacred and the profane, the noble and the base, the clean and the dirty—is at odds with the Way. Rather than “carry the yin on our shoulders”—embracing weakness, darkness, and loss—we resist the current of the cosmos.

What we really turn our back on, however, is the orphaned and outcast parts of ourselves. To be a king or queen—to attain “inner freedom” and self-rule—is precisely to carry your yin. For Carl Jung, this meant embracing the “shadow” self, the disowned and unconscious parts of the psyche. Guided by the alchemical adage—“In filth it will be found”—we must tarry with the negative, and in doing so come to realize that the “interplay of energies” working itself out in us is the same drama playing out in the ten thousand things.

The only way to the Way is through the woo.


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

Episode #23: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 2): From Notre Dame to Corporate America


Tom Morris was doing public philosophy before it was a thing.

At the peak of academic success–a full professor at Notre Dame for 15 years, an accomplished scholar and acclaimed teacher–Morris found another calling: bringing philosophy into the business world. After discovering he had a knack for making philosophy practical for audiences outside the academy, he started appearing on TV and eventually found himself on the Today Show and Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee. From his website:

Imagine the wisdom of Yoda, Gandalf, and Dumbledore, rolled together and linked to the spirit and energy of the world’s most winning athletic coaches. Stir in the unexpected humor of a Seinfeld or Fallon, and you have an idea of what Tom’s audiences experience.

After this conversation, I definitely felt like I had had “the Tom Morris experience.” Listening to it, I think you will, too.

Continue reading “Episode #23: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 2): From Notre Dame to Corporate America”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 42: The Daoist Comedy

Chapter 41: On and Off

“Thoughtful people hear about the Way

and try hard to follow it.

Ordinary people hear about the Way

and wander onto it and off it.

Thoughtless people hear about the Way

and make jokes about it.

It wouldn’t be the Way

if there weren’t jokes about it.”

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


The reader is tempted here to pick the “correct” method of approach—to be thoughtful, ordinary, or thoughtless—as though the text were testing her. But what unites all three is that they only “hear about the Way.” They are all false paths to the Way, because all paths to the Way are false; they assume the Way is something out there, over there, to be found. But to paraphrase Ken Wilber, the Way is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid.

By offering three paths, the chapter disrupts our binary mode of thinking. Thoughtful and thoughtless are mutually exclusive opposites that would seem to exclude a third option. But ordinarily, we are always a little thoughtful and a little thoughtless, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a spectrum across which we are constantly wandering.

Perhaps then the chapter is itself a joke about the Way. Spirituality is much too serious a business, and the more it becomes like a business, the more serious it gets. If, as Anne Lamotte likes to say, “laughter is carbonated holiness,” that would make the standup comedian a kind of high priest.  


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 41: The Unbearable Lightness of Nothing

Chapter 40: By No Means

“Return is how the Way moves.

Weakness is how the Way works.

Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things

are born of being.

Being is born of nothing.”

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


The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is often taken as the most fundamental. It has the whiff of the beginning of many an undergraduate philosophy paper: “Down through the ages, the greatest philosophical minds have asked….” Raised by F.W.J. Schelling in the early 19th century, resuscitated to wonder-killingly loquacious lengths by Martin Heidegger in the early 20th, and re-engaged by physicists in the early 21st, the question is pesky. Despite Stephen Hawking’s protestations, reports of the demise of philosophy are greatly exaggerated. Try as they might, Richards Dawkins, Hawking, and the smug set of scientistic thinkers have not advanced the conversation one step beyond Aquinas’ reply to the objection that the world can explain itself when he considers the question of whether God exists in the Summa Theologica. But that is a topic for another day.

But the scientists afflicted with philosophy-envy have a point. Nietzsche smelled something fishy in Western philosophy. “Being,” he remarked, “is a vapor and a fallacy.” Being, in other words, is a meaningless word.

Buddhism and Daoism have a direct and disarming answer to the question in question:

“There isn’t.”

In Western metaphysics (in general), being is taken for granted: the world is made of substances. In Eastern metaphysics (in general), nothing is taken for granted: the world is made of processes. In Buddhism in particular, our language and concepts that divide the world up—being and nothing, self and other, etc.—are regarded as conventions. Wisdom is seeing beyond these conventions, and realizing that the mind’s incessant demand that reality submit to rational justification is the fundamental fallacy. Acknowledging the weakness of the logos allows the Way to work.

Nietzsche thought that it is only as “an aesthetic phenomenon” that the world can be justified, which is to say that it cannot be justified. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote of the “rose that blooms without why.” The Way ways without why, and letting it take you will take away your existential questions. If you surf it, you will look back to shore and laugh at your former self, realizing that asking why there is something rather than nothing is like standing on the beach and asking why people surf.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 39: Hierarchies Sacred and Profane

Chapter 39: Integrity

“The root of the noble is in the common,

the high stands on what’s below.

Princes and kings call themselves

‘orphans, widowers, beggars,’

to get themselves rooted in the dirt.

A multiplicity of riches

Is poverty.

Jade is praised as precious,

But its strength is being stone.”

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


When you hear the word “hierarchy,” what arises?

The first thing to notice is that something is arising. That is to say that beneath or behind or within your conscious mind, there is a storehouse of memories, beliefs, associations that can be summoned to the surface and sorted through by something else. There are, in other words, levels, parts, structures that constitute what you call your mind. In pondering the word “hierarchy,” a hierarchy is doing the pondering.

Among the chattering classes on the left, hierarchy has been a dirty word for decades, but over the last few years, it has attained the lowest status possible; it is to discourse as sulphurous coal is to energy. You will have noticed, again, that the very act of assigning a value to the concept depends on the concept.

The word literally means “sacred order.” Hence the stakes: if you’re trying to overthrow a hierarchy, you’re either defying God’s will by tearing it down, or doing God’s work by replacing it with a truly sacred order. Hence the meaning assigned to the tearing down of Confederate monuments and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or to the BLM protests and the associated riots, looting, and vandalism.

Our cultural confusion over hierarchy is a kind of decoder ring for understanding the culture wars. Hierarchies are not simply good or bad; their value is context dependent. The contexts that matter are the form they take and the content they contain.

The content has to do with ideology, which tells us that it means to be “noble and base,” higher and lower, on the top and on the bottom. In our culture, there are four ideologies.

The first is that of the Warrior, which cuts the world into predators and prey. This is the alt-right.

The second is that of the Traditionalist, which divides the world into saints and sinners. This is the social conservative right, which George Packer calls “Real America.”

The third is that of the Modernist, which sorts the world into winners and losers. This is the center-right and the center-left, which Packer dubs “Free America” and “Smart America.”

The fourth is that of the Postmodernist, which sorts the world into oppressors and oppressed. This the progressive left, which Packers calls “Just America.”

The form has to do with how each dyad is related. Ken Wilber draws a useful distinction between “growth hierarchies” and “dominator hierarchies.”

In the former, the higher enfolds the lower, includes it in a broader embrace, opens up new possibilities for it, nurtures it; the lower, in turn, supports and suffuses the higher. The higher is open to an even higher higher, and the lower is allowed the freedom to be a higher for an even lower lower. Its logic is nonzero sum and its lines of force are both top down and bottom up. It communicates with itself and what’s outside of it, constantly adjusting, correcting, adapting. A growth hierarchy, in other words, is alive, and life just is a growing hierarchy.

In a dominator hierarchy, the higher controls and represses the lower, sees it as a resource to be exploited and used up. It’s logic is zero sum and its line of force is one directional: top down. Its communication lines are down, and it doesn’t adapt to change, it just runs the same program ad infinitum. A dominator hierarchy, in other words, is either dying or dead.

The amount of resources—the “multiplicity or riches”—matters less than how those resources are deployed—whether the system has integrity. The system could be a polity, and economy, a company, a family, a psyche, or a cell.

Integrity is more than just a character trait. It is an organizing principle of the universe. This is the sense of the Stoic injunction to live in conformity with nature, and the Daoist idea of embodying the Way.

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” stop, notice what comes up, filter your intuitions through that 8-fold framework, and then respond accordingly.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 39: The Double Business

Chapter 38 (II)

“So: when we lose the Way we find power;

losing power we find goodness;

losing goodness we find righteousness;

losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.

Obedience to law is the dry husk

of loyalty and good faith.”

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


If you’re like me, the first thing you think of reading this selection is Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate…leads to suffering.”

You wouldn’t be wrong.

One of the few things the most recent Star Wars trilogy got right was the metaphysics and morality of the Force. In the second film, The Last Jedi, while Luke is training Rey on the remote island of Ach-To, there is an unmistakable giant yin/yang symbol on the floor of the hall in which they are speaking. He eventually confesses a secret to Rey, the truth about why he repaired to the equivalent of a Jedi monastery years ago. Sensing Ben Solo’s prodigious strength in the Force will lure him to the dark side, one night Luke had a Gethsemane moment, and found himself on the cusp of slaying the young adept. As with Oedipus, his attempt to outrun the prophetic vision fulfills it. Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren, following the path of his grandfather Darth Vader.

Luke’s great realization—the reason he withdrew from the world, the reason he cut himself off from the Force—is that just as he created Kylo Ren, his former apprentice and nephew and the chief villain in the trilogy, the Jedi created Darth Vader.

The desire for complete control—for safety, security, order, and peace—conjures its opposite. In the Star Wars saga, the Jedi’s attempts to bring order to the galaxy, to expunge the dark side of the Force from the cosmos, are futile and counterproductive. They do not see their own shadow: the fear that drives them to cling to order is the small black dot in their proud white yang. It is the spec in their eyes they can’t see as they wrestle to remove the planks in their neighbors.

Nihilism, Nietzsche said, is the “will to the end.” The end of what? The cosmic play of light and dark, good and evil, form and emptiness.

The rift grows out of a basic distrust in the nature of things. Life is loss, loss, loss. This is not the final word, but the first. Today’s selection ends with the word “faith.” When this word used in the Bible, it typically means trust. When Jesus heals people, he repeatedly says “Your faith has healed you.” Jesus is not a magician zapping people’s leprosy away. He is awakening and restoring their original relationship to existence. The true power does not traffic in domination, the stuff of law and order and obedience and brute force, the domain of Leviathan; it is submission to the full Force, light and dark. We are, in Rene Girard’s words, “to double business bound.” True power is laying down on the floor of Hell—which, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, is wintry ice, not fire and brimstone—making snow angels, looking down, and realizing it’s Heaven.

As Joseph Campbell says, “If you’re falling, dive.” You’re going to fall, so you may as well fall upward.


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

Episode #22: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 1)


Tom Morris was doing public philosophy before it was a thing.

At the peak of academic success–a full professor at Notre Dame for 15 years, an accomplished scholar and acclaimed teacher–Morris found another calling: bringing philosophy into the business world. After discovering he had a knack for making philosophy practical for audiences outside the academy, he started appearing on TV and eventually found himself on the Today Show and Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee. From his website:

Imagine the wisdom of Yoda, Gandalf, and Dumbledore, rolled together and linked to the spirit and energy of the world’s most winning athletic coaches. Stir in the unexpected humor of a Seinfeld or Fallon, and you have an idea of what Tom’s audiences experience.

After this conversation, I definitely felt like I had had “the Tom Morris experience.” Listening to it, I think you will, too.

Continue reading “Episode #22: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 1)”

Daodujour II, Day 38: Whither Liberalism?

Chapter 38: Talking About Power

“The good the truly good do,

has no end in view.

The right the very righteous do,

has an end in view.

And those who act in true obedience to law

roll up their sleeves

And make the disobedient obey.”

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


The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W. B. Yeats

A central premise of classical liberalism is that when it comes to politics, we should be neutral about the Good. You are free to define and pursue the good as you see fit in your personal life. This is one reason the word “virtue” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The omission was deliberate. Where virtue was central to the politics of the ancients—the purpose of law, Aristotle intoned, was to make men good—the Founders, chastened by centuries of Wars of Religion—or, more precisely, wars stemming from the conflation of politics and religion—hypothesized that the Good and the Right must be separated. The purpose of the state must be to protect the rights of individuals, not prescribe how they ought to live: what kind of people they ought to be, what goods they ought to pursue, what gods they ought to worship. The state should protect people, not promote virtue. Another way of putting this is that the modern liberal state “has no end in view.”

But today, we see the modern liberal order under siege. The movement is disparate but not diffuse. It goes by many names—Trumpism, the alt-right, Christian nationalism, national conservatism, post-liberalism and, for all intents and purposes, the Republican Party—but it is united by a conviction held with passionate intensity: classical liberalism, the political philosophy undergirding the Enlightenment and the modern state, is a failed experiment, and it must be replaced by a philosophy and practice of governance that embraces a “substantive” conception of the good. The state, in other words, should “have an end in view.”

Like all movements, this one has an intellectual wing—the think tanks like American Compass, the scholars like Notre Dame’s Patrick Dineen, the public intellectuals like Rod Dreher, the budding celebrity-cum-pols like J.D. Vance. They tack left on economics and right on culture. The foot soldiers of the movement need no introduction. They are the stuff of Trump rallies, anti-vax campaigns, and Capitol riots, the real Americans defending law and order, willing to “roll up their sleeves” and “make the disobedient obey.”

Shortly after Trump’s election, one of Mitt Romney’s policy wonks, conservative pundit Avik Roy, had a revelation: that the conservative intellectual elites had deluded themselves, inflating their own importance and misunderstanding their voters. Republican voters, he realized, never really cared about principles like limited government, states’ rights, and low taxes. All of that, he now understood, was a smokescreen, an ideology stretching a bland, unthreatening mask over the true soul and power of the GOP: what Hamilton called the “great unwashed,” the incoherent blend of white identity politics and Christian nationalism that wants power, and specifically the power to punish and purge Them. Beginning with Goldwater and Buckley, modern conservatism was a tiny group of point-headed elites believing they were standing athwart history, when in reality they were riding shotgun in a monster truck.

And they are poised to make the same mistake again. They will think they can ride the tiger of Trumpism to bring about a conservative policy revolution, patiently and prudently poking and stoking the culture war as needed. Today’s chapter also reads: “Lesser power, clinging to power, lacks true power.” To ride a tiger, you have to cling, and if you have to cling, you are not riding; you are holding on for dear life. If you fall off, the tiger will eat you. Many will try to mount the tiger of Trumpism in the troubles to come. All will be thrown off and fail. “There is only one lord of the ring. Only one. And he does not share power.” The power of the ring is the reflex to cling.

There is, however, a piece of the truth that this disturbance in the force of conservatism grasps. Classical liberalism has not so much failed as it has been revealed to be constitutionally incapable of supporting a just and sustainable society. Climate change, COVID-19, and the carnage that globalization has wrought on the American heartland have made plain that the political atomism of liberalism, which reached its apex in the last 40 years under the Reagan-Thatcher consensus and the economic mythology of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, is metaphysically false. It is not so much liberalism that has failed, but its late stage mutation, neoliberalism. Another way of putting this is that Aristotle was right: we are social animals by nature, and we only flourish in communities ordered around a shared conception of the good. By denying this, liberalism attempts to plug round pegs in a square holes. It pretends not to “have an end in view,” but it turns out that this pretense to neutrality is just that: a story, a myth, a noble lie crafted in order to preserve law and order. While it may be a better story than what came before, it has reached the end of its life cycle as an adequate form of governance. This is why it is losing its legitimacy. It must be transcended and included by something new. The NatCons are right to want to transcend it, but wrong in wanting to replace it tout court.

The good news is that, unbeknownst to the post-liberals on the Right, that something is ready and waiting to be woven into a new story. Call it progressive liberalism, social democracy, post-progressivism. The post-libs are throwing out the baby of liberalism out with the bathwater of classical liberalism. They fail to see that progressive liberalism was precisely a response to the deficiencies of classical liberalism: whether it is the concern for historically marginalized groups, the dangers of economic inequality, or environmental degradation, at it best, progressive liberalism embraced a substantive conception of the good intended to redress the excesses of hyper-individualism; but one that, unlike conservatism, is world-centric rather than ethno-centric. This is why Joe Biden rightly cast the 2020 election as a “battle over the soul of America.” With the notion of a neutral public space unmasked as a story we told ourselves over and over and over again until we forgot that it was a lie, what ensues is a contest between two rival conceptions of the good.

The great task, however—the great power that is needed—is to weave the three stories into one. To paraphrase Plato, until our leaders become conservative liberal socialists, or conservative liberal socialists become our leaders, there will be no end to troubles for American society. Just as he who does not want to rule is the one who should rule, only he who acts with all ends in view can truly do good.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 37: The Understory

Chapter 37: Over All

“In the unnamed, in the unshapen,

is not wanting.

In not wanting is stillness.

In stillness all under heaven rests.”

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


These verses recall the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. The end to suffering is the Eightfold Path.

And key steps in the Eightfold Path—Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration—involve contemplative practices aimed at cultivating the cessation of desire, at sowing the seeds of stillness.

Many people chafe at what they perceive to be a pessimism pervading the Buddhist prescription. To snuff out desire would be to get rid of what makes life worth living in the first place: action in pursuit of what we want. Beyond this, it sounds like trying to fight gravity, to resist millions of years of evolutionary inertia. Finally, many of the things we desire are things we think are good to be, things that ought to be done, things that are needed for society to function. In short, the Buddhist path sounds neither desirable, possible, nor moral.

The paradox is that once we perceive that wanting is the problem, we want to stop wanting. That is where the real struggle begins.

The struggle is not really to eliminate desire, but to excavate the psyche, explore its root system, and begin to understand your “understory.” There are desires, and then there are desires. Some are like weeds: they multiply mindlessly, bear no fruit, are parasitic, have shallow roots, are easily pulled, and a waste of time.

Weeds represent a psychic economy of scarcity: I am incomplete and empty, and I need something else to fill me up. This is the first phase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: survival, safety, belonging, self-esteem. These are marked by what he called “deficiency needs.”

But some desires are like big old trees. They do not seize us with intensity in the moment. They tug on us with lunar gravity, gently, persistently. Their roots reach deep beneath the surface. They grow slowly. They reach high. They send forth an architecture that turns an empty space into a living place. Their roots plug into an underground network. Not to mention they sequester carbon, preserve soils, and provide habitats for living things.

Trees represent an economy of abundance: I am already full, and I need to empty myself to share my bounty. This is the second phrase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: self-actualization and, what is less widely appreciated, self-transcendence. They are marked by what he called “being needs.”

There is a reason the Buddha found his enlightenment seated at the foot of a tree. The Buddhist goal of eliminating desires is really about identifying and pulling out the weeds in order that we can find our true roots. The stillness we find there is not a withdrawal from life or an end to desire. It is the space that gives us the clarity to see which desires matter most.

And tells us where we need to weed.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 36: Dao of Diogenes

Chapter 36: The Small Dark Light

“What seeks to shrink

must first have grown;

what seeks weakness

surely was strong.

What seeks ruin

must first have risen;

What seeks to take

has surely given.

This is called the small dark light:

The soft, the weak prevail

over the hard, the strong.”

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


Sometimes it is better to sit with a chapter of the Daodejing as though it were a Zen koan: a paradox designed to disrupt the rational mind. More learned scholars may have already explored or established this connection but, given that Zen is almost certainly Buddhism filtered through Chinese Daoism, I wonder whether the method of the koan was inspired by the gnomic verses of Lao Tzu.

LeGuin offers us a lifeline in her commentary: “small dark light” is her gloss on wei ming, which other translators have variously rendered “subtle light” (Henricks), “wonderfully minute and obscure, yet brilliant” (Gibbs-Cheng), “dimming one’s light” (Waley). The latter, she notes, “explains that wei means obscure because very small, and also obscure because dark.”

Ah! Of course! Diogenes.

Diogenes the Cynic was sort of Socrates without the social graces; Plato allegedly described him as “Socrates gone mad.” Like Socrates, he challenged his fellow citizens to scrutinize the way they lived their lives; unlike Socrates, he was neither subtle nor solicitous. Where Socrates used a scalpel, Diogenes used a hatchet. Socrates made arguments in public; Diogenes took shits.

When venturing out from the rain barrel that was his dwelling, he would carry a lantern around the agora in the daytime, claiming that he was looking, in vain, for an honest man; intending, likely, to suggest to his compatriots that they were lost in bright darkness. When Alexander the Great came to visit Athens and requested to see Diogenes, he came upon the man sunning himself. Diogenes, squinting up at the most powerful man in the world, regarded by some as a living god and a latter day Achilles, kindly asked him to move to the side and stop blocking the sunlight. Every star, no matter how bright, is wrapped in darkness. A lantern and the sun shed the same stuff. An Alexander and a Diogenes both shit.

In his Confessions, Augustine tells a story about when he was a social climber in Milan. On account of his social connections and gifted tongue, he had been given the honor of delivering a panegyric, a public speech heaping false praise on the Emperor. Think speakers at the GOP’s National Convention—or just 99% of the public excretions of the mouths of Republican pols—minus the eloquence. But on the morning of the speech, on his way there, he noticed a beggar by the side of the road. Drunk, laughing, singing, and panhandling, the beggar seemed joyful. Augustine was pulled up short.

About to reap the rewards of his disciplined social climbing, he was a hot mess inside. Wracked by anxiety and insecurity over his public performance, the beggar thrust Diogenes’ lantern in his face, stopped him in his tracks, made it impossible for him to push down the pangs of conscience. Though the beggar enjoyed only a temporary, worldly happiness, he was more content than Augustine. The beggar, the kind of man Augustine looked down upon, may not have been living in the truth, but at least he wasn’t peddling lies. Suspended between the apex and the asshole of society, Augustine, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “began to go under.” He had seen the small dark light, and unsee it he could not.

It is always there. “Out of the dimness,” Whitman wrote, “opposite equals advance.”


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 35: Small Magic

Chapter 35: Humane Power

“Hold fast to the great thought

and all the world will come to you,

harmless, peaceable, serene.

Walking around, we stop

For music, for food.

But if you taste the Way

It’s flat, insipid.

It looks like nothing much,

It sounds like nothing much.

And yet you can’t get enough of it.”

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


The first line in today’s chapter sounds suspiciously like the formula of The Secret, perhaps the saddest brand of snake oil: “the law of attraction,” according to which your thoughts can change the world. “Setting intentions,” “manifesting,” “energy”—that sort of thing. Published in 2006 by Rhonda Byrne and translated into 50 languages, the book has sold 30 million copies and was made into a film in 2020 (the occurrence of which definitively disproves its hypothesis).

The Secret was a New Age retread of the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale, whose church, incidentally, Donald Trump attended with his family as a child. Childish is precisely what such thinking is: magical thinking is the infantile belief that you can think things into being, a cognitive vestigial organ we inherit on account of our cries as a baby swiftly summoning mother’s milk. Because our inner child is alive and well, we are forever vulnerable to its charms.

Reaganomics is a similar, secular form of the creed: if you’re poor, it’s your fault because you’re not working hard enough. The Secret is more insidious: if you don’t have what you want, you’re just not wanting it hard enough. It is easy to run an ideology critique: that The Secret is a clever adaptation of late capitalism, assuring the overworked and underpaid that the problem is not economic but psychological or spiritual, that it tries to cover up the true secrets hidden in plain sight: that the rent is too damn high, that child care, health insurance, and college are too expensive, that corporations are undertaxed and have too much power; that tech companies have adapted the psychology of the gambling industry to deploy algorithms that hijack our limbic system to sell ads to get us to buy stuff that won’t make up happy; and so on. The “music” and “food” we walk around trying to fill our ears and mouths with leaves us wanting. The “law of attraction” is a tool for distraction.

There is some truth to that story, and you can tell it all you want, but it is not a “great thought”: it will only bring you burnout, outrage, and despair. And the only defense you’ll have left is irony, a kind of self-righteous knowingness, the consolation that you can see the code of the Matrix. But you will have succumbed to the evil twin of the power of positive thinking: the dark secret of nihilism.

The Secret would not be so popular if it didn’t contain a piece of the truth. “To ‘see through’ all things,” C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “is the same as not to see.” In that text, Lewis uses the word “the Dao” as a catchall for the Logos, Natural Law, the Principles of Practical Reason, the Hindu notion of Rta: “that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.” Because, as Rumi writes, “what you seek is seeking you,” it is easy to lose sight of the whale we are sitting on as we fish for minnows.

When we stop “walking around” and just sit, it is as though the lights have gone out. The way before is dark, “looks like nothing much,” “sounds like nothing much,” “tastes insipid.” But if we are patient, the darkness will begin to secrete shapes. Our eyes will adjust. We will see things anew. The “great thought” is to stop thinking entirely.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 34: Dao, Babel, and the Metaverse

Chapter 34: Perfect Trust

“Doing its work,

it goes unnamed.

Clothing and feeding

The ten thousand things,

it lays no claim on them

and asks nothing of them.

Call it a small matter.

The ten thousand things

return to it,

though it lays no claim on them.

Call it great.

So the wise soul

without great doings

achieves greatness.

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


As we approach the one year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, we can expect much reflection about what it meant, why it happened, and what it forbodes for our democracy. Let me hazard an answer about the why: Babel.

Upon first reading the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the first question many students have is, basically, “Wtf?” These people are building a great city, erecting a tower reaching up to the heavens; why confuse their speech, scatter them, and metaphorically knock the tower down like a cruel older brother smashing his little sibling’s lego set?

The obvious answer is that, like Adam and Eve, the people were trying to play God: reaching for the heavens and resisting God’s imperative to spread across the earth.

That is true enough, but incomplete. The real meaning of the tower of Babel is what stands next to it in the text. In Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to leave the country of his birth and go forth into the unknown, and promised that God will make of him a “great nation.” God even gives him a new name: “Abraham.” The contrast with Babel is clear: in that story, the motivation for building the tower is for the people to “make a name for themselves.” The Babel-onians aim to be a big deal, to be self-made men; the Hebrews are a small matter, destined to be made great by God. In Biblical terms, a “self-made man” is an oxymoron.

When the Metaverse began to emerge into our collective consciousness, I decided to go back and read the novel in which the term was coined, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). As many have pointed out, Zuckerberg’s, ahem, renaming of Facebook as Meta, as well as his creepy video touting the Metaverse as the future of the internet, are ironic given that the novel is a dystopia. The plot of the novel is that the eponymous drug makes people lose their minds when they are exposed to it digitally while plugged into the Metaverse, and join cults and begin speaking in tongues when they take it in what techies call “meatspace.” What results is Babel and “Infocalypse.”

Which brings us back to January 6th. The Metaverse is the tower Zuckerberg wants to build to reach the heavens. He is of course shamelessly, transparently attempting to rebrand his company in the wake of the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen. But Haugen was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, a bookend to the Cambridge Analytica scandal; in between the two, 2016 and 2021, is the gradual degradation of our information ecology that eventuated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. While Trump was the drug, Facebook and social media more broadly were the pipeline. They have thoroughly confused our speech and scattered us—into tribes, filter bubbles, echo chambers, pushed us toward conspiracy theories, chained us in Plato’s cave, plugged us into the Matrix.

But beneath it all is a two-pronged crisis: in trust and belonging. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has identified both; the first in his campaign, the second in his recent book, Trust. As traditional forms of belonging have eroded due to globalization, people have replaced them with artificial substitutes through social media and other drugs. This has led to the mainstreaming of a mentality that formerly flourished only on the fringes of American politics but had been fermenting for decades on the Right: the distrust of what Rush Limbaugh called the “Four Corners of Deceit”: media, academia, government, and science. Social media provided the informational ecology a demagogue like Trump could leverage to push this distrust to the hilt: a breakdown of trust not just in in democratic institutions, but in reality itself, a kind of low-level mass psychosis. Make America Great Again is a fundamentally Babel-onian creed. (It should not surprise that, according to his mother, when Trump was a child he would glue together the building blocks of his little brother. I leave you to ferret out the Biblical significance.)

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that civilization was a fragile, thin veneer keeping at bay a state of nature in which life is “short, nasty, brutish, poor, and solitary.” It is worth considering the last in the context of social media, the pandemic, and Trumpism. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the latter takes root in societies plagued by a high degree of loneliness. People glom on to faux forms of belonging, like shipwrecked sailors clinging to driftwood to just stay afloat. Today, our flotsam is served up by algorithms as we drift through an ocean of noise. We do not even need to swim to the Sirens; they come to us.

But what the Biblical story of Babel—and this chapter of the Daodejing—suggest is that prior to trust in government, or the media, or science, prior to even the trust in your neighbor, is the fundamental trust in reality. When the term “faith” is used in the Bible, it usually doesn’t mean belief in a creed. It means trust. Basic trust in the nature of things is the foundation of trust in ourselves, in our neighbor, in our community, in our country, in humanity.

In this respect, Buttigieg figures as the anti-Zuckerberg. While the latter aims to build vertically, creating a new virtual infrastructure destined to alienate us even further, the former has been charged with building horizontally, creating a new physical infrastructure to reweave the social fabric.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 33: Core Power Yoga

Chapter 33: Kinds of Power

“Knowing other people is intelligence,

knowing yourself is wisdom.

Overcoming others takes strength,

Overcoming yourself takes greatness.

Contentment is wealth.”

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


Power is commonly understood as a base end viciously pursued in a zero-sum game. No philosopher is more associated with it than Friedrich Nietzsche, so much so that his phrase “the will to power” has become part of our vernacular. Nothing could seem more at odd with the Daoist emphasis on “going with the flow” than the desire to fight the river, as Achilles does in the Iliad. But the conventional understanding of Nietzsche’s idea, and of power itself, is misguided. As Aristotle said of being, power is said in many ways.

“In times of peace, the warlike man sets upon himself,” Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil. The first layer of meaning here is the literal: the warrior of the body trains in peace time in order to be more effective when battle calls, in order to dominate the enemy. The second layer of meaning is the ethical: the warrior of the heart improves his character through habituation of good deeds. The third layer of meaning is spiritual: the warrior of the spirit overcomes his ego and aligns himself with the cosmos through contemplative practice.

The paradox of Nietzsche’s notion of “self-overcoming” is the same as in the Daoist notion of wuwei: Trying not to try. Trying too hard is what Nietzsche called the “ascetic ideal.” It stems from discontent with and a refusal to accept the way things are—including ourselves—and involves the futile attempt to change, deny, or escape from them. The opposite pole we might call the “aesthetic ideal,” though this is somewhat of an oxymoron. It is the figure of the “last man” Nietzsche lambasted, the consumer, the person who is given over to hedonism and strives for nothing greater than themselves, what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.” The middle way is not to flee the world or get lost in it, but to joyfully participate in the dance of the 10,000 things.

The chief obstacle to doing so for Nietzsche—and for the Daoist—is the self. Self-overcoming entails not some heroic act of the will, but the realization and acceptance that there is no self. Having let go of the desires for pleasure, profit, power and permanence, one becomes a receptacle and conduit for a higher power. LeGuin translates the Daodejing “A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.”

Contentment doesn’t mean complacency. It means saying yes to life within and without, rather than cutting existence in half—good vs. evil, self vs. others, heaven vs. hell, and so on. And that radical acceptance of what is allows the knots of suffering to relax, to give, to be unraveled by the patient power of the Dao. Contentment is reveling in the revelation of that unraveling.

You already have all you need. The need is to give yourself away.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 32: The Meme-ing Crisis

Chapter 32: Sacred Power

“To order, to govern,

is to begin naming;

when names proliferate

it’s time to stop.

If you know when to stop

You’re in no danger.”

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


We used to “analyze” things. Now we “deconstruct” them. The roots of this shift in our vernacular are worth pondering. They have much to do with the so-called “meaning crisis.”

The term deconstruction entered academia through the philosopher Jacques Derrida around the 1980s, and in the halls of the ivory tower it remained for a generation or so. Derrida’s basic idea was that meaning happens through differentiation—the meaning of “this” consists in how it differs from “that,” and so the meaning of “this” is deferred from the act of saying or writing it.  Put another way, “this” does not have a clear, fixed, self-contained meaning; its meaning depends on the context. This may sound rather obvious, but the important part is that there is no end to the process: we expect this at the beginning and middle of a story, but not at the end. As one of Derrida’s interpreters, Jonathan Culler, put it, the two tenets of Derrida’s neologism differánce are that “meaning is context bound” and “contexts are boundless.” Ambiguity is an original sin stamped on the DNA of language. Though commonly understood as a form of textual interpretation, analysis, and critique—a philosophy of language and semantics—it was much more.

Since nothing really ends, deconstruction spells the end of stories. Derrida came to be associated with the movement of postmodernism. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard identified one of the pillars of the movement as a rejection of “master narratives.” The postmodern project was to deconstruct, debunk, and decolonize texts and traditions, to dismantle systems, to subvert hierarchies. This project has much to recommend it, but it didn’t know “when to stop.” And so began a proliferation of names: master narratives were just myths motored by things like “phallo-phono-logo-Euro-centrism” and the “white-cis-hetero-patriarchy.” The Great Awokening has been nothing is not a “proliferation of names.” Deconstruction contradicts an essential part of our humanity: we are storytelling animals. In this respect, it was just a more French, more pretentious, more pedantic form of Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead.” The basic bind is that we need myths, but we can no longer believe in myths.

And then something strange happened: these ideas started to seep into and structure mainstream culture; more precisely, they began to fuel what Philip Rieff called “anti-culture.” Bill Clinton’s “It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is” may well mark the start of what we now call “post-truth” culture. From Richard Linklater’s Reality Bytes to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Morpheus welcoming us to the “desert of the real” in the Matrix, the structure of feeling of the 1990s was fundamentally ironic. As Ken Wilber explains in Trump in a Post-Truth World, the postmodern condition is one of “aperspectival madness.” The design of our digital infrastructure incarnates and disseminates this idea, strip-mining meaning through the mashup, the personalized feed, the filter bubble, the echo chamber, the splicing and dicing and cutting and pasting of text. We are condemned, not to meaning, but to meme-ing. A thread runs from Clinton’s sophistry to Trump’s demagoguery. Little wonder that a mad world would find itself ruled by a mad king. As David Frum put it in reference to immigration, if liberals do not police their borders, fascists will do it for them. In this context, postmodernists love nothing more than “transgressing borders.”

The problem with differánce is not the first claim—that meaning is context bound—but the second—that contexts are boundless. When we say something is meaningful, we generally mean something like this: it is 1) internally coherent and 2) corresponds to reality. By robbing language and thought of this power, deconstruction consigns us to nihilism. Nihilism means many different things to many different people—indeed, to be logically consistent, we would have to say that it can mean anything to anyone, since the concept itself is, like all concepts, inherently meaningless—but Stanley Rosen’s formulation will serve: nihilism is the position that there is no meaningful difference between silence and speech. And people will choose empty speech over silence any day. When the social cost of false speech is low, and when confusion about what is true abounds, you will get a proliferation of false speech; more precisely, you will get lots of speech that is not so much false, but that isn’t speech in the proper sense of the term. In this kind of information ecology, language takes on a different function. It is not aimed at expressing what is true about reality, but is used to distort reality in order to augment the speaker’s real or perceived power, signal his tribal allegiance, and attack or confuse his enemies.

But this is not the way. As Jordan Peterson puts it, while there are a potentially infinite number of interpretations of the situation—and Web 2.0 creates an information ecology and permission structure that entertains all of them—there is a finite, bounded set of viable interpretations. What constrains meaning, beyond the stubbornness of facts, is the logic of meaning-making itself: how human consciousness and culture develop. And that development happens through a dialectic of transcendence and inclusion, differentiation and integration, yang and yin. These form an indestructible polarity. We are not storytelling animals through some freak accident of evolution. We tell stories because the cosmos itself is a “neverending story,” what Charles S. Peirce called an “infinite semiosis,” what Thomas Berry termed the “universe story.” While none of our narratives can master the universe, some are more true, more good, and more beautiful than others.

If names are not bound by a narrative, they spill over and pool into an ocean of noise. The sacred power of language is lost, and speech becomes cheap. A chief reason our country has become ungovernable and our democracy is in danger, why we have lost the plot, why we are polarized, is that we do not know “when to stop.” When to stop and what?

Listen.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 31: War of the Word

Chapter 31: Against War

“Even the best weapon

is an unhappy tool,

hateful to living things.

So the follower of the Way

Stays away from it.

Weapons are unhappy tools,

Not chosen by thoughtful people,

To be used only when there is no choice,

And with a calm, still mind,

Without enjoyment.”

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


“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The refrain is part of the catechism of childhood and, like most such things, it blends truth and falsehood. As we get older, we learn that not only do words hurt, but that they are the chief weapons in the main arena of conflict in day to day life: our relationships not with our enemies but our intimates: family, friends, colleagues.

Just as Daoism might seem to preach pacifism in the theater of war, it can appear to counsel quietism in the theater of words. But this is not so. As the excerpt reads, weapons should be used only when there is no choice. So with words.

Language is the double-edged sword we are born to wield. It cuts—it separates this from that, separating what God has joined—but it also points—it illuminates this from the background of that. To use words in a “thoughtful” way, with a “calm, still mind,” is to remember what words are—that, as Emerson put it, “Every word was once a poem.”

The Word, then, is not really a word. It refers to the creative fount from which all words and things arise. When we read in John’s Gospel that “In the beginning was the Word,” we could translate that as Logos, as Dao, as Buddhanature. These are all super-cyphers to remind us that all words are poems, a kind of Rosetta Stone to help us decode the matrix of the mundane.

When God creates in Genesis, he does so in two ways that are really one: speaking and separating. Conventional Christian theology separates the Creator and the Creation, the Dao and the 10,000 things. But wisdom is crazy, not conventional: the nondual spirit of the Asian traditions can help Christianity see what it is truly saying: that, as Alan Watts put it, “matter is spirit named.” The message of the incarnation is not so much that spirit became matter or God became human or the Word became flesh at some point in time, as though it were just hanging out in some eternal ether with nothing to do. What we call creation is still happening. The Big Bang is still banging. The Dao is still Daoing.

When God said that each and every thing he created was “good,” he could say that because he created with a calm, still mind. He spoke and separated only with a view to love—and for the fun of it. That is why the Hindus regard the universe as lila, God’s play. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is only when Arjuna has realized this that he can take up his sword, do his duty, and join in the fray.


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Episode #21: Grace Lockrobin on Community Philosophy in a Time of Crisis


Grace is a philosophy teacher, trainer, facilitator, scholar and advocate. Over the last fifteen years – through her many projects in the places people live, learn, work and play – she has enjoyed philosophical conversations with thousands of thinkers of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience. Through her workshops, training, talks and writing, she has shared her thinking and practice nationally and internationally.

Working in the community, she founded Thinking Space in 2008. She is also an accredited trainer with SAPERE and Dialogue Works, a specialist with The Philosophy Foundation, a contributor to P4C.com and a board member of the European network SOPHIA.

Working in academia, she is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds where she runs ‘Philosophy Exchange’ – a project that brings together philosophy students, teachers and children in weekly philosophical enquiry. She also consults with other UK universities, helping to set up similar programmes. Grace is currently finishing a PhD in Philosophy at UCL Institute of Education where she writes on ethics, education and aesthetics, funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) doctoral award.

Continue reading “Episode #21: Grace Lockrobin on Community Philosophy in a Time of Crisis”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 30:

Chapter 30: Not Making War

“Things flourish then perish.

Not the Way.

What’s not the Way

soon ends.”

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


This chapter is doubly confounding. First, it chiefly focuses on war, which makes these four lines seem out of place. Second, it seems to contradict a central tenet of Daoism (and the Buddhism it inspired): the truth of impermanence. Here, the Way is negatively identified with what endures.

But the Dao is in the details.

When discussing the wise ruler, the text traces the root of war to “boasting,” “domineering,” and “arrogance” that turn prosperity into “bad harvests.” To make war is to starve and stampede over the root of peace first and foremost in the soul. Economic prosperity is an expression of spiritual prosperity; or, in the language of the Gospel, true wealth comes from poverty of spirit, from those who can empty themselves of ego to receive the grace of God and humbly tend the bounty of creation. To “end soon” is to refuse to accept the impermanence of things, and to make war on them—to conquer nature is to treat oneself and others as things, not persons.

Heidegger said that while things perish, only human beings die. The distinction is not just about our (apparently—see “elephants, grieving”) special awareness of our mortality, but about our freedom to accept or reject it. He was referring less to biological death, and more to spiritual life. Heidegger’s insight is bracingly captured by the late psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott: “the catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.” The anxiety that lurks around and seeps through the edges of our everyday experience puts us on guard and spurs us on to seize the day and crush this and kill that—to conquest, to war—because it convinces us that if we do not, things will fall apart. But the catastrophe is that things have already fallen apart, including us. Being born, we fall into the world, and prop ourselves up, first physically, then psychologically. And much of our propping and prospering is centered on covering up that primal catastrophe, and pretending that we can outfox fate and prevent perishing.

Death, put another way, is not the end, but the beginning. Aligning with the Way, one is reborn again and again. It is not about living forever, or even for a long time, but about keeping alive the child, the beginner’s mind, that plays without why; these are the rulers, the chapter tells us, that “prosper because they can’t help it.” It is Nietzsche’s third metamorphosis of the spirit: “Innocence the child is and forgetting, a beginning anew, a play, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yea-saying.” As Joseph Campbell liked to say, “if you’re falling, dive.” Build sandcastles with disciplined abandon, knowing they will end soon. And if you dive, you begin to “fall upward,” in Father Richard Rohr’s happy turn of phrase. Gravity is turned into a tailwind, chaos is conducted, catastrophe is not averted, but converted. Tolkien’s Christianity found its way into his philosophy of storytelling through what he called the “eucatastrophe,” the sudden opening to heaven that can only happen in hell.

The Daoist sage agrees with Zarathustra: the path of eternity is bent, and all that is straight lies.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 29: Just Justice

Chapter 29: Not Doing

“Those who think to win the world

by doing something to it,

I see them come to grief.

For the world is a sacred object.

Nothing is to be done to it.

To do anything to it is to damage it.

To seize it is to lose it.”

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


Burnout is the bane of social activists. Their passion for justice is a double-edged sword that fuels and foils them. Yeats’ poem “Second Coming” is commonly invoked to contrast doubting, dithering, and divided progressives with militant, united, on-message conservatives: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But the invocation misses four things.

One, today’s progressives are brimming with passionate intensity.

Two, if you are full of passionate intensity, you have no room for anything else. If you never empty out, you will always be running on empty, fueled by the fumes of grievance and resentment, the “fossil fuels” of fanaticism.

Three, if you are full of passionate intensity, convinced you are “on the right side of history,” you are no longer “the best.”

Four, the passionate intensity on the Right is grounded in something beyond politics: in a word, God. It is worth considering whether this is why they win, and whether we ought to see this as a sort of secret weapon that makes political conflict, like combating terrorism, a kind of asymmetric warfare. To be fair, the Right are neither terrorists nor holy warriors, and the religious bent of their politics is either cynical and craven, or benighted and misguided. But their ethos is rooted in a theology.

In the New York Times this week, Tina Harrison Warren shares her story of burnout as an activist, and how an encounter with a Franciscan priest changed her approach:

Soon after I graduated, passionate about justice and wanting to make a difference in the world, I ran a church-based group that helped support undocumented immigrants and provided tutoring to their kids. I ran into the friar and we caught up.

He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “You do not have the life of prayer and silence necessary to sustain the work you are doing.” I was a little insulted. What the hell did he know? But over the course of the next two years, he was proved right. I simply did not have the spiritual rhythms and practices to cultivate the wisdom, humility, thoughtfulness and rest my work required. I burned out quickly.

If politics is all there is, every conflict is the Final Battle, every election is existential, and every aspect of cultural life is drawn into its orbit. The old concept of identity politics, “the personal is the political” has been inflated beyond measure: since everything is political, and the personal is the political, everything is personal. And for the extremely online set, the political has become a matrix from which they cannot escape, except the machines are now the algorithms monetizing their attention by hijacking their limbic system.

Put another way, if there is only history, it becomes what James Joyce said it was: a nightmare from which I cannot awaken. I will oscillate between outrage and outage, and soothe myself with ironic detachment. The philosophical ancestor of the activist Left is Marx. Whatever the merits of his critique of capitalism, his materialism entailed that there is no ultimate spiritual or moral justification for his alternative. As C.S. Lewis put it in another context, “such men are better than their principles.” Their ethic writes spiritual and moral checks that their metaphysic cannot cash. What results is a spiritual eschatology, in which transcendence is sought not beyond history, through revelation, but within it, through revolution. As Shadi Hamid recently put it in The Atlantic:

No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive. On the left, the “woke” take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends.

The goal of necessity becomes not to understand the world, or celebrate it, but to change it by “doing something to it.” When the world or other people resist such doings, the problem is not you, but them. They are on the wrong side of history and must be awakened and perhaps, in Rousseau’s words, “be forced to be free.”

But there is another, older way. Warren writes:

The literature scholar Alan Jacobs argues that we need to embrace “not a permanent silence, but a refusal to speak at the frantic pace set by social media.” He calls silence “the first option — the preferential option for the poor in spirit, you might say; silence as a form of patience, a form of reflection, a form of prayer.”

….

Contemplative silence and prayer becomes the means by which we learn the limits of words and action, and where we learn to take up the right words and actions. It’s where we learn to slow down and then to work again at the mysterious pace of the Holy Spirit.

There is a deep vein of Christian activism in American history that used to be called “the social gospel” and, of course, the social justice teaching of the Church. The opposition of social justice and Christianity in America is a relatively new phenomenon. The term “social justice” has become so politicized that perhaps we should abandon it and, well, just talk about justice. Martin Luther King, of course, grounded his activism in the gospel, not just theologically, but practically. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he lays out the four principles of non-violent civil disobedience:

  1. Fact-finding to establish that an injustice has occurred
  2. Negotiation with the authorities
  3. Purification
  4. Direct Action

It is the third that is most important and that separates King’s approach from much of today’s activism on the Left.

That purification, of course, need not be carried out in a Christian vein. Eisenhower famously said that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” You can substitute the Dao for the Holy Spirit and not miss a beat.

How ironic that we now discover, in the endgame of late modernity, that we really can’t separate religion and politics? Prayer—understood broadly as the preferential option for silence—is the supremely practical secret to personal and political sanity.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 28: Three Ways to Carve

Chapter 28: Turning Back

“Natural wood is cut up

and made into useful things.

Wise souls are used to make leaders.

Just so, a great carving

is done without cutting.”

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


To comment on the passage seems hopelessly ham fisted. But we are condemned to meaning, to make our cuts with words in order to render things useful, true, and beautiful.

Today’s paradox leads one of three ways, what we might call the kenotic, the ascetic, and the aesthetic.

The kenotic path is that of Christ. Kenosis refers to the act of self-emptying, sacrifice, voluntary liquidation, and pure charity. Thought individually, it is Christ’s death (natural wood is cut up) and resurrection (made into useful things). Thought cosmically, it the Dao that courses through us that we harness, conduct, and channel to others—and the “other others” of nature. Transform the wood.

The ascetic path scorns the useful. Leave the natural wood as is. Let it be. Nature is already a great carving. Behold the wood.

The aesthetic path aims not for utility, but beauty. It does not “cut up” natural wood into commodities. Nature is indeed already a great carving, but she requests our help to display her magnificence. The patient poet can divine the shapes slumbering in the wood, and release them with winged words. The master carver apprentices himself to warp and woof, takes orders from the grain. She does not “cut,” she frees. Reveal the wood.

Which is the right path? Only the wise soul knows.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 26: The Three Skills

Chapter 27: Skill

“Good people teach people who aren’t good yet; 

the less good are the makings of the good.

Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher

or cherish a student

May be clever, but has gone astray.

There’s a deep mystery there.”

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


Early in the Republic, Plato offers a rough definition of philosophy, and it isn’t smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and pontificating in an armchair: it’s “love of learning.”

For Plato, human beings have three basic loves because our souls have three basic parts: pleasure (appetite), honor (thymos or “spirit), and knowledge (reason). Put simply, we want to feel good, we want to be liked, and we want to know things.

But the philosopher is not the person who knows all the things. She is the person who wants to know all the things and loves learning about them. More precisely, she is the person who knows she doesn’t know most of the things, and can only teach others because she is a student of the world. She is drawn above and beyond the lame gravity of pleasure and prestige to find out what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. She wants to see these things unwarped by the forces of fad and convention.

I always wondered: why these three? My colleague Steve McIntosh offers a brilliant way to understand this philosophical trinity. Each corresponds to a basic part of our being that grows through two complementary activities, and if we’re not exercising each, we will go astray. Think of it as the circulatory system of the soul.

Beauty is the dialectic of appreciation and creation. 

Goodness is the dialectic of devotion and service.

Truth is the dialectic of learning and teaching.

The first pole of each is more passive and receptive, while the second pole is more active and generative. In the first, we fill up. In the second, we empty out. Receive, give. Inhale, exhale. Following Aristotle, the goal is to hit the sweet spot, the mean between excess and deficiency. 

If you don’t appreciate the beauty around you, your senses will wither. If you don’t allow grace and gratitude to interrupt your days, you heart will harden. If you don’t follow your curiosity, you’ll become close minded.

Too much appreciation curdles into consumption. Too much service without devotion leads to burnout. Too much learning without teaching makes you a know-it-all.

Emerson wrote that ‘In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.’

In this way, the true teacher understands that the inner student is his primary pupil, and that his students are his true teachers. The more he respects his teachers, the more he will learn, and the more he will teach them to listen to their inner teacher.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 26: The Ark-imedian Point

Chapter 26: Power of the Heavy

“Heavy is the root of light.

Still is the master of moving.

So wise souls make their daily march

with the heavy baggage wagon.

Only when safe 

in a solid, quiet house 

do they lay their cares aside.”

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


The Greek mathematician Archimedes posed the idea of what we today call “the view from nowhere”: a point from which we can see all, objectively, without our own perceptions warping the world. Descartes recast his idea into the form we most commonly encounter it today:

“Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.”

Mathematicians, philosophers, alchemists, and the everyday laborer alike have sought the fabled Archimedian point, the philosopher’s stone, the exit from the Matrix, the secret to offloading the mental and material baggage we lug around.

Today’s chapter might suggest a hardcore training program: pile your wagon with as much baggage as you can carry. Toil away all day so that you can rest at night. Work heavy, play light. But that is not the sense of the thing.

The “solid, quiet house” is not the reward at the end of the road, but what enables you to lift any load. The still point is the mind attuned to the baggage of the moment. Of course, at some point the limits of your physical strength assert themselves, but respect for the load will prevent injury and expand how much you can lift. But mentally, the text suggests that there is no limit to what the heartmind can carry and, indeed, the heavier the load, the lighter we can become. Our baggage is our best teacher. We try to drag it, but it drags us, kicking and screaming, until we realize that the heaviest thing—what Nietzsche called “the spirit of gravity”–is inside ourselves. 

The Archimedian point is an ark, a vehicle, a mobile home that can carry anything. There is a reason that in Exodus, the Hebrews are told to build the ark of the covenant in the desert, and have to lug it around for forty years before they reach the Promised Land. Once you find your inner ark, you can lay your cares aside, and shoulder whatever load is before you.


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

Episode #20: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)


Steve McIntosh is the founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank devoted to solving the problem of political polarization. His recent book, Developmental Politics, draws on integral philosophy to drill down into the causes of the culture wars, and proposes a bold new vision for how America can become a better version of itself.

More recently, Steve has collaborated with thought leaders such as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, and Carter Phipps on the book Conscious Leadership, and started an organization called the Post-Progressive Post.

Steve’s diagnosis of the hyper-polarization plaguing our political culture is the best I have ever come across; better, in my judgment, than those of media luminaries such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt. Join us for a philosophical tour de force of a conversation.

Continue reading “Episode #20: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)”

Senior Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Evolution

I am thrilled to announce that I have been made a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank of “philosopher activists” focused on defusing political polarization, healing the culture wars, and building cultural coalitions to solve our country’s biggest problems.

I will be contributing to their flagship publication, the Post Progressive Post.

You can read my first contribution here: “Why We Will Grow Together or Grow Apart: Cultural Intelligence and Climate Change.”

Episode #19: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)


Steve McIntosh is the founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank devoted to solving the problem of political polarization. His recent book, Developmental Politics, draws on integral philosophy to drill down into the causes of the culture wars, and proposes a bold new vision for how America can become a better version of itself.

More recently, Steve has collaborated with thought leaders such as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, and Carter Phipps on the book Conscious Leadership, and started an organization called the Post-Progressive Post.

Steve’s diagnosis of the hyper-polarization plaguing our political culture is the best I have ever come across; better, in my judgment, than those of media luminaries such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt. Join us for a philosophical tour de force of a conversation!

Continue reading “Episode #19: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 25: The Oddest Thing

Chapter 25: Imagining Mystery

“There is something

that contains everything.

Before heaven and earth

It is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging,

all pervading,

ever-moving.”

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


One of the great and grounding questions of philosophy—great precisely because it is among those most likely to naturally occur to a child—was first explicitly asked by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The Daoist (and Buddhist) answer is as simple as it is off-putting: There isn’t.

Or rather, the problem lies not in the world, but in the mindset that generates the question. The line the mind draws between being and non-being, form and emptiness, something and nothing is a function of our thinking, not a feature of our world. The blatant contradictions the text throws at us—the Way here is said to be both still and ever-moving—are not propositions whose truth or falsity we are meant to assess, but monkey wrenches aimed at wrecking our monkey minds.

“Monkey mind” is a phrase you hear a lot in spirituality circles. It’s an intuitive metaphor everyone can connect with: most of the time a raucous band of thoughts are bouncing around our heads, causing a commotion and trying to disrupt our plans.

But there’s a deeper sense in which it’s apt. Let’s tweak Leibniz’s question: “Why is there something called thinking in the human mind rather than no thinking?” If it’s true that, as is the case for all sentient beings, the primary driver of our cognition was survival, then it means that our basic relation to the world is binary: fight or flight, live or die. What if this same black and white bio-logic were so powerful that it extended into the higher reaches of our cognition, such that “logic” and its basic rules, such as the law of non-contradiction, were rooted in our mortality? This would not mean that logic is arbitrary—only that its scope is limited, its truth conditional, its attempts to grasp the entire order of things in concepts folly.

But you must be careful. You might conclude from the above that we are just freaks of nature, evolutionary accidents, confused animals. You might conclude that there is no Dao, no Logos, no Natural Law, no sacred order of things. That is the position of what has been called the neo-Darwinian view of the world, a thoroughgoing materialistic dogma, any deviation from which is dismissed as “woo.”

In the 1980s, physicist, Manhattan Project member, and inventor of the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” John Wheeler saw things differently. According to his theory, laid out in the paper “Its from Bits,” “every item of the physical world has at bottom…an immamerial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-and-no questions….; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”

Our strange brains are not oddballs in an otherwise even universe. The universe, in this view, is fundamentally odd. Or rather, it is the odd oscillation between even and odd, yes and no, being and non-being, something and nothing. Mind monkeys through the cosmos as much as through our heads. The truly odd thing—and the true confusion—is that we have built our modern civilization on the assumption that existence is even.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 24: Consider the Centaur

Chapter 24: Proportion

“You can’t stand on tiptoe

or walk in leaps and bounds.

You can’t shine by showing off

or get ahead by pushing.

Self-satisfied people do no good,

self-promoters never grow up.

Such stuff is to the Tao

as garbage is to food

or a tumor to the body,

hateful.

The follower of the Way

avoids it.”

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


One of the funniest memes of the Trump era was a series of photos superimposing the back half of a horse on the asses of Trump and his brood. The lampooner spied a curious feature of the Trump family posture: they stand like centaurs. Look it up. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

The mythological creature is both fitting and not.

Fitting, in that Trump’s flashy façade hid a monster. We think of the narcissist as someone who is supremely self-satisfied, but the truth is the opposite. They feel so worthless inside that they need constant validation from others to fill the black hole in their heart.

While Trump’s heart was a black hole so supermassive that it warped the fabric of political spacetime, he reflected the culture as much he directed it. As a colleague of mine recently quipped, “There was a Trump-shaped hole in the culture, and Trump walked right through it.” He did not need to “leap and bound.” He just needed to step onto that escalator and descend the stairway from heaven that we had built for him.

For Americans, showing off, pushing, and self-promotion are theoretical vices but practically practical necessities. From credentialing to virtue-signaling, from Botox to photo-shopping, from the Power of Positive Thinking to the Secret, American culture could be characterized as a “tragedy of the common”: a zero-sum competition over image, income, and influence. The categorical imperative is to hide your back side and project a seamless bust of perfection. The ethos of toxic positivity predictably generates its opposite. The garbage we create, the tumors we accrue (literal and psychological), are simply the cost of doing business. As with Garrett Hardin’s original tragedy of the commons, the sad irony is that each, in pursuing his perceived self-interest, ensures the ruin of all. (The scenario is apt: the overgrazed pastures filled with cattle to produce the hamburgers Americans that fuel obesity, healthcare costs, and climate change). The confused centaurs are worse than the cattle overgrazing the pasture, for they could have chosen differently. As Aristotle noted, “just as man when is perfected is the best of animals, so too separated from law and justice he is worst of all…. Without virtue he is most unholy and savage, and worst in regard to sex and eating.”

The collapse of any kind of ecological commons is both cause and effect of the collapse of any kind of semantic commons. We still cling to the image of a “public square” where something called “debate” about “issues” purportedly happens, but the state of our public life better resembles the cultural topography of the country we are presently withdrawing from: an aggregate of loosely bound and poorly governed tribes who can’t get along. But we do so not with the grip of strong hands but the futile clasp of blunt hooves.

But the centaur is not a good fit for Trump in a different respect. The most important centaur in Greek mythology is wise Chiron, the tutor of the young Achilles. The centaur is the integrated human being: the one who has tamed and harnessed the ancient energies of the beast within, whose body and mind are wedded in a symbiotic dance, who is attuned to nature within and nature without.

The less “centaured” you are, the more you will pretend to be, the more you will trample underfoot.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 23: Practical Poetics

Chapter 23: Nothing and Not

“Nature doesn’t make long speeches.

A whirlwind doesn’t last all morning.

A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.

Who makes the wind and rain?

Heaven and earth do.

If heaven and earth don’t go on and on,

Certainly people don’t need to.

….

People who work with loss

Belong to what’s lost.

….

Give yourself to loss

And when you’re lost you’ll be at home.

To give no trust

is to get no trust.”

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


In a desperate, funny, probing essay, “Against Nature Writing,” Charles Foster confronts the gulf between word and world:

“All names fall short of the shining of things,” wrote Andrew Harvey.3 To talk about mountains—to talk even about a squirt of bird shit—is to parody and misrepresent them sacrilegiously. It is a process of re-creating them in our own image. We don’t hear the wind at the summit ridge; we hear our own voice. We don’t smell the moth wings and digestive juice in the bird shit; we smell our own deodorized armpit.

If we earn money by writing about the natural world (as I do), this is bad news. I’m a fraud.

What’s to be done?

It’s a scary question. The next few paragraphs will decide whether there’s an honest way to pay my mortgage.

Much more is at stake than our dear writer’s mortgage. What is at stake is whether we human beings and our logos—both our strange power of speech and reason and, less vauntedly, the logos we stick onto the 10,000 things—are in any sense at home in the world. What is at stake is the whole ball game.

Lao-Tzu does not say that nature doesn’t speak—just that it doesn’t drone on. It somehow both takes its time and gets right to the point. Nature is all pith and marrow, yet leisurely nurtures both. Like Gandalf, nature is never late. It arrives precisely when it means to. And like Gandalf, it speaks in spells.

But the magic it practices often appears to us as dark; so dark that we cease to deem it magic and call it plain cruelty. If there is a wizard behind the veil of maya, he must be a dark one. This is Job’s suspicion. The whirlwind that takes his family and fortune and health doesn’t last all morning. Nor does the whirlwind from which God speaks to him near the story’s end. At bottom, Job’s case is “This doesn’t make sense. I followed the rules. You’re kind of a fucked up wizard. WTF?”

But when Job relents, everything changes. When he rests his case, he gets everything back twofold. The temptation is to conclude that this means Job was right all along, but that would be mistaken. Job’s case is the human attempt to make sense of the world through rule and line, to justify existence, and our main tool to make our case is language. When Job relents, he confesses to and embraces the weakness of the logos. Not it’s futility, but its weakness. But precisely in this way, the author of the prose-poem of the Book of Job summons language’s great power. Foster points to poetry as the solution to his bind:

Poetry can show the way. By allowing words to stand for themselves, poetry can escape many of the charges I’ve leveled against language by using language against itself: by subverting language. If we let words do that, they never stand for long; they fizz and spark like Roman candles, and set on fire all the words around them until the display looks like nothing the poet could ever have devised.

The ancient words of the Orthodox liturgy, or the Om mani padme hum, or the Upanishads, have an incantatory power—a power of invoking that which they seek to invoke—because they have been repeatedly uttered. But they have been repeatedly uttered because millions have trusted them. To take etymology really seriously is to trust words.

When we return to the root of a word, a sleepy spell is broken. I love telling my students that the root of our word religion is related to the word for “ligament.” All of a sudden, the entire cluttered constellation of ideas and memories and factoids and prejudices evoked by that odd region of human experience is veiled by clouds, and they must look down at the binding in their own bodies to see it anew. When we return to the root of a word, we remember, with Emerson, that “every word was once a poem.” And beyond that, every child’s first word is a poem. Far from being the most high-brow and sophisticated literary form, poetry is, at bottom, the most natural language.

There is no orientation toward life regarded as more impractical than the poetic. Yet there is no orientation that gives us a better chance at not only bearing the burden of being and the loss it entails, but receiving the gift of grace. When loss leaches away what we have come to call home, what calls us back is our original relation to things.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 22: How to Zag

Chapter 22: Growing Downward

“Be broken to be whole,

twist to be straight.

Be empty to be full.

Wear out to be renewed.

Have little and gain much.

Have much and get confused.

….

What they used to say in the old days,

‘Be broken to be whole,’

was that mistaken?

Truly, to be whole

Is to return.”

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


One of the reasons that John Kerry lost the 2004 election—and, perhaps, one of the reasons we are twenty years in Afghanistan and 20 years behind on climat change—is that he broke a cardinal rule of politics: thou shalt not flip flop. He infamously remarked that he was “before the war before I was against it.” Cue the predictably devastating attack ad of Kerry windsurfing to and fro, mixing indecision with out-of-touch New England Brahminism: “John Kerry: he blows with the wind.”

The same rule rules mainstream philosophy: thou shalt not contradict oneself.

In this chapter, Lao-Tzu appears to break this rule, explicitly refuting the first statement with the last. What is going on?

Before sorting that out, let us address the content. The text advances a piece of perennial wisdom. In Biblical language, it acknowledges that we are all “broken cisterns.” The Babel Project is the same as the ego project: brokenness and wholeness, earth and heaven, darkness and light, are opposites, and salvation is crossing from one to the other. Becoming whole is not an operation you perform or a goal you achieve, it is something given to you, a free grace you cannot make or manifest through your own physical and mental powers. It is something you cannot make sense of, for the gospel is that you are whole precisely as broken. You are not whole in isolation, but in relation and as related. Put another way, you are whole as a part of the cosmos, of the body of Christ, of the 9,999 other things.

To learn this, you must learn, as Richard Rohr puts it, to “fall upward.” The Fall in Genesis is commonly understood as a moral lapse and a kind of regression. But before the Fall, Adam and Eve do not know real relationship, either with each other, or with God. They are “whole” only in the sense that a fetus is attached to its mother; they live in the dream world of the amniotic fluid. The serpent, who will only come to confused with the Devil centuries later, is typically seem as a tempter and homewrecker, upsetting the placid natural order of creation.

But to run with the Devil for a moment. The term for the devil, diabolo, originally meant “to scatter.” What is God’s method of creation? Separation and division: light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below, carving out a space for the heavenly bodies and the birds and the beasts and the sea creatures, setting aside a holy day for rest. Indeed, the act of consecration, of making something holy, is precisely to separate it out and set it aside. And his command for humanity? To be fruitful and multiply, and spread out across the earth. As Ken Wilber puts it, we do not so much move out of Eden as up from it.

The Devil’s work, then, is the continuation of creation by other means. By separating humanity from God, man from woman, man from nature, man from man, and man from himself, he paradoxically, in the fullness of time, brings them closer to real relationship. He instigates the break necessary for true wholeness, like a doctor who must re-break a crooked grown bone. The Devil demands a more perfect union. As the serpent, he is the zag to the zig of creation, the trickster that twists the straight; or rather, he reveals to us how the straight is already twisted. Just as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, we cast the serpent from the whole, and we exile our own brokenness.

But the twist in this chapter is the final line. Lao-Tzu seems to take back the nugget of perennial wisdom. What gives? I suspect his concern is not so much the truth of the adage, as our attachment to it. We are mistaken not in embracing suffering as an opportunity for transformation, but in mindlessly repeating slogans from the past to numb us to the suffering in the present. When we fall back on the “wisdom of the ancients,” we insidiously sidestep and emotionally bypass the reality facing us. Lao-Tzu agrees with George Carlin: “Language is by and large a tool for concealing the truth.” No amount of deep-sounding quotes on Instagram, or wise verses from the Daodejing, or magical word-spells can show me how to alchemize the broken into the whole. The only way is return—to silence, to solitude, to the present moment.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 21: Idiocracy and Isolation

Chapter 21: The Empty Heart

“The greatest power is the gift

of following the Way alone.

How the Way does things

Is hard to grasp, elusive.

Elusive, yes, hard to grasp,

Yet there are thoughts in it.

Hard to grasp, yes, elusive,

Yet there are things in it.

Hard to make out, yes, and obscure,

Yet there is spirit in it,

Veritable spirit.

There is certainty in it.”

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


This week, I tested positive for COVID, and was informed that I had to spend 10 days in isolation. The dread specter haunting and hounding the world the year last finally found its way into my body. After some hang wringing and teeth gnashing, after entertaining numbing myself for a week with Netflix and other drugs, I surprised myself. I decided to treat my isolation time as a retreat, to turn my quarantine into a quest, to receive the diagnosis as a gift. For reasons I needn’t share, it came at a most auspicious time in my life, where I found myself, like Dante, “midway through the course of life…alone in a dark wood.”

The Mike Judge film Idiocracy has proved prescient these last five years. The film depicts a dystopian American future in which people have become dumb to the point of barely being able to communicate, civic institutions have collapsed, a tide of garbage threatens to engulf everything, and no one knows how things work anymore, including how to grow crops. The material infrastructure of civilization is collapsing because its mental infrastructure has withered.

The film is aptly titled. When we hear the term “idiot,” we think of aptitude; it denotes a person with a low IQ. But the Greek term from which our word is derived was more about attitude; an idiot was a private person who did not concern himself with public affairs. In this latter sense, one could be a clever idiot. For not only the Greek philosophers but for the civic culture of the time, such a person was both morally and intellectually deficient; he lacked self-knowledge, and did not understand his place in the order of things. He not only failed to fulfill his obligations to the community, but to know that he had any, or that he belonged to one. He did not see that he was a node in a network, not an island unto himself.

The pandemic and the bungled response to it was, among many other things, a true apocalypse in the original sense of the term—an “unveiling”—that revealed the idiocracy behind the curtain of our culture. The isolation into which so many were forced was a function of the failure to see how interconnected we are. In 2016, Rebecca Solnit dubbed it the “ideology of isolation”:

What keeps the ideology of isolation going is going to extremes. If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end in denying the reality of facts, which are after all part of a network of systematic relationships between language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion, or rather you imagine both as products on the free market, which one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.

The ideology of isolation is what unites climate denial, vaccine reticence, and post-truth politics.

But the silver lining is that the pandemic forced us to face isolation itself, in its most carnal, naked form. You are forced to remove yourself from society because of how tightly bound you are to it, because a strange thing that can’t exist apart from human bodies courses through you, because your microbiome is bound to the microbiosphere. If you venture outside, you don’t just see other people, you see the empty space between you and them as a dense reality demanding respect. Like the kingdom of code in which we are virtual citizens, we are, in Sherry Turkle’s formulation, “alone, together.” You are forced to not just know, but feel, that you are part of the conspiracy of life. Plotinus pithily described the spiritual journey as the “flight from the alone to the alone.” From the alone to the all one.

How the Way does things is through storms swirling, pathogens spreading, climates changing, and regimes collapsing. These things are only hard to grasp because we are grasping. If we but follow them, they will ferry us beyond them. A gift cannot be grasped, and a grasp cannot give.

What thoughts and things and spirit and certainty await us in the inner outer darkness?


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 20: Mutually Assured Projection

Chapter 20: Being Different

“Ignorant, ignorant.

Most people are so bright.

I’m the one that’s dull.

Most people are so keen.

I don’t have the answers.

Oh, I’m desolate, at sea,

adrift, without harbor.

Everybody has something to do.

I’m the clumsy one, out of place.

I’m the different one,

for my food

Is the milk of the mother.”

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


Here, LeGuin casts Lao-Tzu less like an ancient, egoless Daoist sage and more like a modern, neurotically self-conscious urban dweller. What gives?

I suspect she aims to help the modern reader see the tortured constellation of her psyche more clearly, embrace it, laugh at it, and thus transfigure it.

The psychic condition toward which this chapter points can perhaps best be described as Imposter Syndrome, a condition so common nowadays that it has become all but existential. Imposter Syndrome is a function of perfectionism and toxic positivity. The social machinery here operates according to a logic of Mutually Assured Projection. We unconsciously project onto others all the qualities we wish to possess, and vice versa, and consciously conspire to project an image of “brightness,” of having “something to do,” of having it all together. We fail to see that everyone is improvising and, as the popular saying goes, everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. What results is an aspirational arms race in which no one can win. As in the film War Games, the only way to win is to quit the game.

Or, perhaps, to realize that it is just a game. If you’re a live player, you live to play, not to win; you treat the game as the real thing, not its end. In this regard, the opponent is not the other players, but yourself. As psychologist Robert Kegan likes to put it, “You either feast on your shadow, or starve on your ego.” The beginning of wisdom, as Socrates would agree, is the recognition of ignorance.  


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 19: The Rule of Beauty

Chapter 19: Raw Silk and Uncut Wood

“What works reliably is to know the raw silk,

hold the uncut wood.

Need little,

want less.

Forget the rules.

Be untroubled.”

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


Chaos gets a bad rap in the West. It’s the messy room. It’s the sink full of dishes. It’s the formless void from which God has to wrest a cosmos in the opening chapter of Genesis.

And in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth on which Genesis was likely modeled, it’s Tiamat: the ticked off dragon goddess of sea and winter on a mission to wipe out her fellow deities. Jordan Peterson never tires of drawing on this myth as the origin and essence of the Western dialectic of order and chaos, good and evil, white and black. And while his follow up to 12 Rules for Life, Beyond Meaning, gestures at the upside of chaos, there is an unmistakable preference for order. Not without reason has he become a guru to the alt-right, Trumpers, preppers, the “law and order” crowd, and in general young men intuiting the need to channel their testosterone toward a higher purpose than porn and video games.

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom.” Pure possibility frightens us, and reasonably so. Raw silk and uncut wood can evoke fear and trembling, so with great dispatch we move to make them in our own image and likeness. We scramble to impose a reassuring form and familiar frame on the raw material rudely jutting into our little window on the world. We make to rule it and, what is hardest, we do so automatically and unconsciously.

But the Daoist understanding of the dance between order and chaos is less black and white. There is no such thing as purely raw material, just as there is no purely raw food. Uncooked meat is not “raw” to a lion. To know raw silk or hold uncut wood is to behold what is before you in such a way that it reveals itself; the subtle forms, the hidden laws, the tiny rules will emerge from the thing like the image in a magic eye painting. You just need dull your focus. This is how to make beauty the rule rather than the exception of your perception.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 18: Beware False Patriots

Chapter 18: Second Bests

“In the degradation of the great way

come benevolence and righteousness.

….

The disordered family

Is full of dutiful children and parents.

The disordered society is full of patriots.”

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


Lao Tzu’s direct target here is Confucius, but he’s really just referring to any society bereft of trust. But who could be against benevolence, righteousness, and doing one’s duty? Aren’t these precisely the virtues that create and sustain “law and order”?

Lao-Tzu is not so much casting these virtues as vices as he is skewering what we today would call “virtue signaling.” While it’s generally (often religious) people on the Right braying about progressives doing this on the Left—e.g., posting support for BLM on social media while continuing about their UMC/PMC bourgeoius lives, or sporting Bernie bumper stickers while opposing zoning changes in their tony, gentrified neighborhoods—virtue signaling is precisely what Jesus faulted the Pharisees for.

Virtue signaling—what Jesus called “hypocrisy,” a term derived from the Greek for “actor”—is a function of a lack of trust. If our bodies and hearts and minds are in sync with each other and with our surroundings, we don’t need to use magic words to know we are on the same wavelength. We don’t need flags and symbols and war cries and scapegoats. We just dance.

But once we lose the beat and drift apart, we get scared, and we start dancing to different rhythms, and the rhythms clash, and this noise frightens us, and we yearn for that original harmony. So we have to make up words and rules, and we have to crow about them, and anyone who doesn’t repeat our words and follow our rules is not one of us. And if we don’t repeat the words often and loudly enough, if we don’t follow the rules faithfully enough, we will be cast into the outer darkness.

But for Lao Tzu, the outer darkness is the place to be; or more precisely, being on what Richard Rohr calls the “edge of the inside”—the position of the prophet who plays by the rules of society but knows that they are just a game. The prophet plays the long game of creatively and cleverly bending the rules and expanding the box of who is included and what is permitted. The hypocrite, the virtue signaler, fears the outer darkness because he has not reckoned with his inner darkness.

Beware false prophets, aye, but beware false patriots ever more.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 17: The Dao of the Deep State

Chapter 17: Acting Simply

“True leaders

are hardly known to their followers.

Next after them are the leaders

The people know and admire;

After them, those they fear;

after them, those they despise.

….

When the work’s done right,

With no fuss or boasting,

Ordinary people say,

Oh, we did it.”

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


The Obama administration’s oft-ridiculed phrase “leading from behind” was meant to describe an approach to foreign policy that departed from neoconservative hardcore unilateralism in favor of a softer touch meant to coax allies into joining our causes and putting skin in the game. But it could just as well have described the army of civil servants who ran the federal government under his watch.

Biologist E.O. Wilson once wrote a famous essay, “The Little Things That Run the World,” where he pointed out that while environmentalists tend to wring their hands over the demise of charismatic megafauna like polar bears and rhinos, it’s actually the billions of itty bitty creatures we barely see—insects and fungi and microbes (and, as we say today, microbiomes)—that form the circulatory system that makes the biosphere (and our bodies) function. In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis profiles the little people that run the world; not the political appointees who head federal agencies, but the dedicated career people who actually run them, from USDA to Energy to Commerce. The people no one ever hears about, but on whose work and expertise everyone depends.

Trump—the leader who was most feared, most despised, and most known—did more than every previous president to disrupt the smooth operation of the federal government, erode confidence in its competence, and cast doubt on its necessity. He did so because we was not a true leader, but a follower in two senses.

First, Trump read the room correctly—the gathering perfect storm of post-2008 economic malaise, anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment, distrust of experts, and racial backlash against a black president for which Palin and the Tea Party had delivered proof of concept as a powerful political resource ripe for exploitation—and acted accordingly. Demagogues are usually referred to as “popular leaders,” but this is an oxymoron based on an ignorance of political psychology. The demagogue follows the people because he encourages them to follow their own base impulses, and because he is simply following his own hunger for power, fame, riches, or some combination thereof. Plato unforgettably profiles the demagogue in the Republic, noting that he carefully studies the sounds and movements of the inchoate beast of public opinion, and then slavishly imitates and exaggerates them to whip them up into an even greater frenzy. He leads them only in the sense of luring them even deeper into their confusion and crudity.

Second, Trump was following the advice of counselors like Steve Bannon, whose primary mission was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” or what came to be called, pejoratively, the “deep state.” While the deep state was one of the less outlandish conspiracy theories of the Trump era–in the sense that unlike, say, QAnon or Stop the Steal, there is a factual state of affairs which it misguidedly attempts to describe–the actions taken to weaken it are arguably the most consequential.

Lewis tells the story of Max Stier’s quest to boost public awareness and appreciation of the unsung heroes of the deep state. Lewis writes that if you were to line up the entire American population “by each citizen’s interest in the federal government, and Donald Trump loitered somewhere near one end of it, Max Stier would occupy the other.” Stier adopted an unglamorous role to highlight umglamorous people and unglamorous work. His greatest challenge, Lewis explains, was “explaining the value of this enterprese at the center of a democratic society to people who either took it for granted or imagined it as a pernicious force in their lives over which they had no control.” The administrative state is deep, and that depth is both the source of its operational strength, and the reason the lack of awareness and respect the public have toward it—it’s largely invisible. Like the bugs and bacteria, it all moves silently under the surface of the soil and the skin, keeping things going. A better term than the deep state is what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.” Stier recently lobbied Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the ratio of political appointees to career positions in the upper ranks of federal agencies, efforts that are tantamount to deforestation: the more you cut down the trees that have been around a long time that have deep roots in the soil, the more likely the surrounding soil will erode, and the less effectively the ecosystem will function and flourish. And, of course, the more carbon you’ll release into the air.

While the deep state is far from perfect, the alternative is the shallow state. When a Trump administration official finally swung by the Commerce Department to be brief about the organization he would soon by running and was told about NOAA, he replied, “What the fuck is NOAA?”

Now that the country has been through an administration and a pandemic that have made painfully plain how necessary a functional federal government is to keeping us safe, perhaps more people will see the deep state for what it is: not a cabal of corrupt bureacrats on the bankroll of George Soros, but ordinary people maintaining the ark of modern civilization and leading us toward calmer seas.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 16: The Tao and the Tabernacle

Chapter 16: Returning to the Root

The ten thousand things arise together;

in their arising is their return.

Now they flower,

and flowering

sink homeward,

returning to the root.

The return to the root

is peace.

Peace: to accept what must be,

To know what endures.

In that knowledge is wisdom.

Without it, ruin, disorder.

….

The body comes to its ending,

But there is nothing to fear.”

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

It’s customary to juxtapose Western philosophy as heady and complex and Eastern philosophy as embodied and simple. Though this cut does touch truth, the Greek philosopher Epicurus is an exception. His recipe for a good life was simple and straightforward. What came to be known as the “Tetrapharmakos,” the “four part cure,” tells you:

  • Don’t fear God
  • Don’t worry about death
  • What is good is easy to get
  • What is terrible is easy to endure

Epicureanism flourished in antiquity but became a minority report in the Western tradition because it was stamped out by the Vatican. A moment’s reflection on the recipe shows why, as Nietzsche quipped, “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink.” Despite the Church’s efforts, the root of Epicureanism proved too resilient, and it re-flowered and effloresced in the Renaissance.

Lao Tzu would have agreed with Epicurus, and this would appear to set him at odds with the Christian tradition. “To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it,” Leguin points out in her commentary, such advice “must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed.” Daoism does not see the need for the cosmos to have a backstop.

But perhaps things are not as they seem. Adam and Eve courted ruin and disorder only when they strayed from their roots—as creatures of the earth—and reached for the heavens, wanting to be like God. Mistakenly convinced that they didn’t already have it good enough and that it was terrible to endure their condition without escaping it, they tried to change things. They feared abiding in the Dao. They did not accept what must be.

Exiled from the garden, deracinated, they long to return to the tree whose plenty they didn’t notice: the Tree of Life. For the Daoist, every tree is the tree of life. When the Hebrews are told to build of the ark of the covenant to hold the tabernacle after they escape from Egypt, they have to wander in the wilderness for forty years lugging it around until they reach the Promised Land. Why?

Because it reminds them that God is always with them—even in the desert, where flowers can’t take root.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 15: Not Your Type

Chapter 15: People of Power

“Once upon a time

people who knew the Way

were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,

unfathomable.

….

“Who can by stillness, little by little

make what is troubled grow clear?

Who can by movement, little by little

Make what is still grow quick?

To follow the way

Is not to need fulfillment.

Unfulfilled, one may live on

Needing no renewal.”

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


There are about three types in people. What separates them is their attitude toward time.

The first kind romanticizes hunter-gatherers.

The second kind romanticizes the Middle Ages.

The third kind dreams about the future.

Each projects the Way outside of the present; they just project along different timelines and tell different stories about how we fell off the beam and how to get back on it.

The first kind—the Progressives—gnash their teeth over capitalism, consumerism, climate change, the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, and pretty much the entirety of Western civilization. You know them: they shop at Whole Foods, feel ambivalent and guilty about shopping at Whole Foods because it’s corporate and bougie and owned by Amazon, buy all their stuff from Amazon and feel said ambivalence and guilt about same, do yoga, virtue signal Wokeness, strive for Wellness, deny the progress that is obvious to everyone else, and document the minutiae of their lives on Instagram as a hedge against existential despair.

The second kind—the Traditionalists—gnash their teeth over abortion, the sexual revolution, the erosion of family values, the collapse of community, what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” Hollywood, porn, and Critical Race Theory. You know them: they take pride in having large families with Tradwives, they champion “religious liberty,” they’re concerned about attacks on free speech, they’re convinced Christianity and Western Civilization is under assault, they’re tickled by the Benedict Option but grudgingly relish the comforts of modern suburban living, and they probably voted for Trump.

The third kind—the Modernists—gnash their teeth over taxes, regulations, government bureaucracy, friction, inefficiency, and the political extremists on “both sides.” They believe that hard work, science, technological innovation, free markets, and economic growth have improved and will continue to improve the material standard of living and that the material standard of living is the standard of living. In the future we will cure disease and death, and the lucky among us will live on a sea-steading libertarian platform paradise, a New Zealand sheep farm, Mars, or plugged into the Matrix.

The careful reader will have noticed, and perhaps thought it a typo, that above I wrote types “in” people, not types “of” people. We are not the stories that ravel our minds. What all three of these types share is the projection of paradise outside the present. They imagine fulfillment was or will be found, or at least easier to find, in Star Wars or Star Trek—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or a distant technological utopia—in a quiet place or outer space. Game the scenarios out, and what you find is that the Progressives want to eliminate self-consciousness and evolutionarily regress to pre-human primates; the Traditionalists want to eliminate the modernity that offers them the freedom to practice their religion unmolested; the Modernists want to escape the human condition and ascend to the Cloud. What they share is the idea that if we move the furniture of the world around thus and so, we will find peace.

The problem is that the “once upon a time” in this chapter is allegorical.

Once upon a time you knew the Way, but at some point you started telling yourself a story, and your type took hold. But you can, by stillness and by movement, wriggle out of your type, and find clarity and foster growth. In Buddhist terms, samsara—the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth—is not a set of historical conditions; it’s a story spinning in your head. Nirvana is not located in a lost golden age or a kingdom to come. As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is “within you” and “at hand.” And as Emerson wrote, “Every age is a good one, if we but know what to do with it.”


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 14: The Face of Gaia

Chapter 14: Celebrating Mystery

“Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated,

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

….

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.”

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


One of the many challenges the phenomenon we refer to as climate change presents is what to call it. “Global warming” masks many of its aspects, and conjures visions of balmy Caribbean beaches in our future. “Climate change” is vague and value-neutral. Even “climate disruption” doesn’t quite do the trick, since among business and tech people—i.e., the most powerful actors in the system—disruption is a good thing that yields wealth and innovation. Beyond this, all of these labels frame the climate problem as an environmental issue: they compartmentalize and cordon it off from politics, economics, and society at large. This language is a function of our modern dissociation of nature and culture. We imagine the climate, and nature is general, as something “out there” or “up there,” rather than something that not only surrounds and supports society, but suffuses it. As Vaclav Smil puts it, there is no such thing as the economy, there are only energy conversions.

But another reason we struggle to name the climate problem is that it is what theorist Tim Morton calls a “hyperobject.” Or to use Whitehead’s category, climate change lacks “simple location” (well, according to Whitehead’s process philosophy, everything lacks simple location, an ontological insight confirmed by quantum mechanics, and one that underwrote Fritjof Capra’s attempt to integrate the new physics with Eastern philosophies in the Tao of Physics). A hyperobject is something so large, so complex, and so distributed throughout time and space that when pressed to explain it, the mind balks. As Augustine confessed in his analysis of time, “If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, plainly I do not know.”

This paradox of knowing and not knowing is eerily similar to the state of anxiety; while fear has reference to a distinct object, anxiety is “about nothing”—it is more a cypher for the maw of the abyss of the future, for the singularity of the black hole, for Kali. And that drives us slightly mad: hence the apt title of Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. If you follow this line of thought, climate change begins to resemble what existentialists like Martin Heidegger referred to as being itself; being as opposed to beings. When we begin to see climate not as merely or mainly as environmental, but as existential—and collectively existential—then our fumbling has laid hold of a genuine thread. And rather than flee that anxiety—crank up the AC, put the pedal to the metal, trust that economic growth and technological innovation will take care of it–we interrogate it, listen to it, and trust that it has something vital to tell us.

Morton—and the kind of environmental pessimist he stands in for—underestimates our abilities to grasp the climate problem. If we rely on thought alone, yes, due to cognitive biases and the propaganda of the fossil-fuel industrial complex, the deck is stacked against us. But in the face of the weakness of the logos, we can turn to the power of the mythos—of myth, story, image, and narrative. Bruno Latour suggests that we already have all we need—not so much a new religion, but an old goddess: Gaia. In Facing Gaia, Latour frames the climate problem not as exclusively environmental or even economic, but as mythopoetic and political. The saving story is sewn into the first fabrics of Western civilization. Coupled with scientist James Locklock’s Gaia hypothesis, which indicates that the thin, globe-spanning sphere that supports all life is a single, interdependent system, Gaia can plausibly serve as the “image of no image.” As the positive-sum, post-World War II, worldcentric, neoliberal order buckles, and a return to the zero-sum, 19th century, ethnocentric, nationalistic order looms, a planet-centric Gaiapolitik may be the way through. We have all the threads we need.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to properly naming the climate problem is seeing it as a problem in the first place. The most popular framing of climate is the aesthetics of apocalypse, but ironically, this doesn’t take the idea of apocalypse seriously enough. The term literally means un “unveiling” or “uncovering.” Seen this way, an apocalypse is not just an end, but a new beginning and, in that way, progress. In the fullness of time, we may come to see climate change not as a problem, but as a solution to arguably the greatest civilizational problem: how to build a global society without destroying ourselves. Nothing unites people like a common threat. For all of human history, that threat has been another person, another tribe, another country, another religion. The peril and promise of climate is that we have seen the enemy, and it is us. Nothing in human history has had the potential to unite all peoples and nations around a common goal, to catalyze planetary awareness at scale. If we frame the goal less in negative terms—avoiding disaster—and more in positive terms—building a new civilization—and see climate less as a burden and more as a blessing, we are more likely to solve it.

The chapter concludes:

“Holding fast to the old Way,

we can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

we hold the thread of the Tao.”


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 13: Stress Test

Chapter 13: Shameless

“To be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.

….

Favor debases:

we fear to lose it,

fear to win it.

So to be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.”

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


Whatever your opinion of Tony Robbins, he made an insightful remark in an interview with Tim Ferriss: stress is what comfortable people call fear.

Fear, we sophisticated moderns tells ourselves, is something that happens to children and people in the Middle Ages. Charles Taylor offers a useful phrase to describe the shift from the Medieval to the Modern mindset: we move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” The porous self is constantly vulnerable to invasion from spirits good and bad (and, of course, plagues and pathogens), at the mercy of the forces of nature. The buffered self stands apart, autonomous, in control, choosing whether and how to engage the allegedly external world.

It’s easy to see why a buffered self would think itself—and think is the operative word here—above and beyond fear. “Stress” is something that happens to the foundations of a building, or the airframe of a plane, or a skeleton; it’s a physical business concerning weight, pressure, volume, density, and the like. Stress happens to bodies, not souls. By conjuring the spirit of stress, we sanitize our suffering.

Suffice it to say that the times have found us. From the internet to social media to the smart phone to climate change to the pandemic, the zeitgeist of the 21st century has unmasked the buffered self for the useful illusion that it always was. The Big Bad Wolf of the world has huffed and puffed and blown the house down. The buffered self failed the stress test of the last couple of decades.

Part of the story of classical liberalism, our modern philosophical anthropology and cultural DNA, is that we are independent individuals pursuing our own happiness. But the reality, as Rousseau understood, is that this just makes us more psychologically dependent on others—or rather, what we imagine others think of us. Favor becomes heaven, disgrace becomes hell. The steeper the scale of social and economic inequality, the more loudly and proudly the gospel of individualism will be proclaimed, and the more fear there will be of tumbling down the ladder into the pit of disgrace—for everyone, not just the bottom dwellers. Economist Richard Wilkinson has shown that counterintuitively, the higher a society’s level of inequality, the worse off the people at the top are in terms of well-being.

But if we drop the pretense that we are separate, that we secure, that we are actually adults, that we are just what Alan Watts called “skin-encapsulated egos”—that we are afraid—then we can rest at base reality. Favor de-bases in that it literally knocks us off base. We take the game too seriously. The irony is that even if you get a hit and round the bases without getting out, you end up in the same place: at home.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 12: String Theory

Chapter 12: Not Wanting

“Racing, chasing, hunting,

drives people crazy.

Trying to get rich

Ties people in knots.

So the wise soul

Watches with the inner

Not the outward eye,

Letting that go,

Keeping this.”

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


The French writer Blaise Pascal would beg to differ: he thought that we prefer the hunt to the capture. It’s not the chase that drives us crazy; we are driven to chase because we are crazy. More precisely, the bookends of the chase are beset by boredom, restlessness, anxiety. As Pascal put it, the sole problem with man is that he cannot sit alone in a room with his thoughts. In recent years we’ve gotten empirical support for his claim: in one study, most people preferred to administer a painful shock to themselves rather than sit quietly alone for 15 minutes. People often don’t like what the inner eye reveals. We prefer the diversions offered up by the outward eye.

Here we touch on a subtle seam that separates the Christian and Daoist perspectives. Like Luther, Pascal regarded humanity as a walking contradiction, both “wretched” and “great”: wretched in that we are sinners and, like every other creature in the universe, fragile bodies easily snuffed out; great in that unlike every other creature, we are spirits aware of our condition. Doing stuff doesn’t tie us up in knots—we are knots. And we cannot untie ourselves.

The Daoist has more confidence in humanity and reality. If we are knotted, then all we need do is gently tug at one of the loose strings, and trust that it will serve as our thread of Ariadne to lead us out of the labyrinth, as the unseverable umbilical cord tethering us to the 10,000 things.

And because they are all part of the same web, any string will do.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 11: The Value-Add of Emptiness

Chapter 11: The Uses of Not

“Hollowed out,

clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t,

There’s room for you.

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.”

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


This inverted idea of emptiness—as useful rather than useless, as value rather than void—is often regarded as a nice lifestyle choice: a little feng shui, a little minimalism, a little simple joy of tidying up. Hardly a principle of macroeconomics. But it may be one of the necessary pillars of the carbon-based economy to come.

The inversion of our economic intuitions is the key to the economy of the future. What we see as full—the vast deposits of coal, oil, and gas underground—we must come to see as empty. What we see as empty—the sky—we must come to see as full.

If the economy is a play, the atmosphere—and the lithosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere—is the stage that makes the play possible. Climate change has broken the fourth wall; from here on out, every play must somehow incorporate the stage into its plot.

Countries that “do nothing”—that do not extract their fossil fuel-based natural resources—must be compensated for leaving it in the ground. Companies that remove carbon dioxide from the air or that make their business operations carbon negative by purchasing carbon credits must be handsomely incentivized to do so. Because we are about to run the industrial revolution in reverse, emptiness is the most valuable commodity.

It’s implied by what the wealthiest men in the world are chasing: space.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 10: Yogic Yoga

Chapter 10: Techniques

“Can you keep your soul in its body,

hold fast to the one,

and so learn to be whole?

Can you center your energy,

Be soft, tender,

And so learn to be a baby?”

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


The genius of Hindu spirituality is its diversity. In the tradition of the four yogas, you pick your path up the mountain: work (karma yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga), study (jnana yoga), or “yoga” as we in the West know it (raja yoga). What’s striking about this model is that there’s a yoga for both our three centers—head (jnana), heart (bhakti), and body (raja)—and our engagement with others and the world (karma).

And of course you don’t need to “choose” exactly…the paths switch back and crisscross in all sorts of ways, merging into each other and back apart as mountain paths do. But one path will call to us the most. The beauty of this model of spirituality is that it balances plasticity with rigor; there’s wiggle room for free play, but structure to foster true growth.

The word yoga means to “yoke,” to unify or integrate. A truly yogic yoga, then, would exercise all four of these dimensions because they’re all part of our being. The trick is find out where we are over- and under-developed, where the kinks in our hose are, where the breaks and dislocations and knots and snarls lie. If we aren’t truly centered, we need to find out what we are centered on, slowly relax our grip, and let the patient undertow of the soul gently guide us back.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 9: Place Race

Chapter 9: Being Quiet

“Brim-fill the bowl,

it’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

you’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect

A house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride,

are their own ruin.”

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


This weekend, Richard Branson will, assuming all goes well, claim bragging rights for winning first place in the billionaire space race (BSR). I remember some years back Branson did a publicity stunt to celebrate an inaugural flight of his airplane company by bungee jumping off the Palms casino in Las Vegas. The winds were stronger than expected that day, and pushed his backside to graze the building during his descent. As he slowed down for his dismount, Branson looked dazed, shaken, and in serious pain. He flashed a smile for the crowd and the cameras, then limped off stage.

When you think about the hype around this space soap opera, it’s odd: we’ve put people in space before. So what’s new? The commercial aspects: companies are funding it, and the purpose is tourism.

The contrast between this and the moon-landing in 1969 illustrates how we have become what Ross Douthat calls “the decadant society”: “a victim of its own success.” No one was unconsciously rooting for the Apollo 11 to blow up. But not a few people I’ve talked to over the last couple of weeks about the BSR have ironically quipped that they wouldn’t be that upset if Bezos and co. don’t make it back. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and intoned that it was “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” it was a world-historical moment, the completion of a national project announced by JFK a decade early, and cause for collective celebration. Where Armstrong was a pilgrim, Branson will be a tourist. When Branson and Bezos go up, it will be one small leap for the 1%. As Jamie Wheal quips, the BSR space-capades are like Atlas Shrugged in space.

Wheal relays the story of when technology writer Douglas Rushkoff was invited by a band of billionaires to give a talk about the future of technology. Rushkoff assumed he’d be giving a lecture to a large audience, but it turned out that his $50,000 speaking fee was for talking with just five men. The question each of these men paid $10,000 to ask him was this: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” The “event,” Rushkoff explained, “was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.”

The idea here is that the Chosen will escape to their sea-steading platforms, their New Zealand bunker fortresses, their space colonies, or upload their consciousness to the Cloud when their bodies give out: that they can protect their “houses made of gold and jade.”

But just as there would be no SpaceX without NASA and no Tesla without the Department of Energy, there would be no market without the rule of law and money would have no value without civilization. The men asking that question of Rushkoff failed to realize that men of their class planning for the apocalypse were hastening its arrival, brim-filling the bowl and over-sharpening the blade. They are, in effect, shorting civilization. Betting on ruin is a symptom of ruin.

Branson’s stunt, and the city where it happened, are revealing. There is no greater symbol of decadence in American culture than the Sin City. And while Branson was moving in the opposite direction he’ll be going in this weekend—with gravity rather than against it—and though the scale was dramatically smaller, the physiological effect will be similar: a rush of blood to the head, a passing euphoria, a sense of self-importance that swiftly fades, and then a restlessness and a need to move on to the next big thing. But what could get you higher than space?

Perhaps the quiet of space will evoke a mystical rapture among the .01%, a cosmic consciousness that shrinks their egos down to size, a literal conversion in the sense of a turning around, shifting their gaze from the heavens and back to earth, to escape the urge to Escape and embrace the need to Return. Perhaps then we will be cheering on the billionaire place race—the race to terraform not Mars, but Earth.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 8: This is Ice

Chapter 8: Easy by Nature

“True goodness

is like water.

Water’s good

for everything.

It doesn’t compete.

It goes right

to the low loathsome places,

and so finds the way.”

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


I have at long last gotten around to reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the high-water (or perhaps low-water?) mark of medieval literature. In part one, Inferno, a central conceit of Dante’s cosmology is the “Harrowing of Hell,” an apocryphal anecdote in which Christ descended to Hell after dying on the cross and granted salvation to the deserving dead. It’s perhaps the most graphic depiction of the Jesus move: to embrace suffering rather than try to escape it.

One of the most surprising things about Dante’s Hell is that its floor is not fire, but ice. There is a “logical” reason for this in Dante’s cosmology: since the sun is the center of the universe and Hell is the center of the Earth, Hell is the farthest from the sun, with the sun, of course, representing God. Satan rests at the bottom of the world imprisoned in a block of ice, incessantly beating his wings and generating a fierce wind that keeps the ice frozen. Satan “competes” by trying to fly up to Heaven.

But ice, of course, is water in disguise. Stuck in the blackest pit of Hell, Satan is so surrounded by true goodness that he can’t see it. As Ken Wilber puts it, spirit is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid.

If you try to compete with water, you’ll always lose, because water is playing a different game than you are. Stop beating your wings.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 7: You, Tube

Chapter 7: Dim Brightness

“So wise souls

leaving self behind

move forward,

and setting self aside

stay centered.

Why let the self go?

To keep what the soul needs.”

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


“Out of the dimness,” Walt Whitman wrote, “opposite equals advance.”

Every organism stays alive by constantly policing the boundary between its self and its environment. There are always scouts tacking about the liminal space, the no man’s land between in and out, self and non-self, life and death. But every organism, so far as we know, is spared the ordeal of this osmotic operation—consciousness. Humans don’t just struggle to survive—we struggle with the struggle. We desire an end to the struggle—not death, but heaven, nirvana, happiness, fulfillment, self-actualization, flourishing, retirement, and on and on. “Cuz people believe…that they’re gonna get away for the summer,” as Oasis sang in “Champagne Supernova.” Nihilism, Nietzsche wrote, is the “will to the end.”

It’s all too easy to get tangled in the thicket of terms that frequent our talk about human nature—persona, ego, self, soul, conscious, unconscious, mind, brain, spirit. But if we let go of the terms, or at least relax our death grip of them, it’s pretty easy to sort out. Carl Jung called the conscious self the ego, the part we show the world the persona, the part we hide from ourselves and others the shadow, and the truest part behind and beneath all of that the Self. In this passage from the Daodejing, what Jung called the ego is called “self,” and what Jung called Self is called “soul.”

Building on Jung’s concept of the shadow—the ugly parts of ourselves we disown, repress, and project onto others—Robert X posited the idea of a “golden shadow,” the gifts we project onto others. We give away our gold because we are afraid of what others will think of us and, most importantly, of our own power. More precisely, we are afraid that our own power is not really our own, that some secret cord ties us to the center of the world, that the energy of the cosmos courses through us.

But we aren’t really giving away our gold, we’re just hoarding it. We hoard it because we have mistaken self for soul (or, in Jung’s terms, ego for Self). This keeps us stuck in place—not centered, but floating. The paradox with hoarding, of course, is that you never feel secure and never think you have enough. If you hoard your breath, you’ll die. If you let it go, you’ll live. If we boil down the psychobabble of our self-talk, what remains is spirit, but spirit is just breath—the most bodily business. The Earth, as philosopher Jason Wirth writes, is simply the “conspiracy of life.”

Alan Watts half-joked—the highest truths always trade in humor—that we are really just “tubes.” We’re organisms after all! What a relief.


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

Dao du Jour II, Day 6: Mackenzie Prime

Chapter 6: What Is Complete

“The valley spirit never dies.

Call it the mystery, the woman.

The mystery,

the Door of the Woman,

is the root of earth and heaven.

Forever this endures, forever.

And all its uses are easy.”

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


“The French novelist André Malreaux professed that the 21st century may or may not be religious. It will, however, be more feminine than the 20th century.” ~ Régis Debray

Western culture is oriented around Sky gods—Yahweh, Zeus, Marduk—and it is no accident that in our modern religion of technology and capitalism, what Neil Postman called “technopoly,” the pantheon of deities—Musk, Bezos, and Kurzweil—are Heaven-bent. Onward and upward to Space, Mars, the Cloud. Planet Starbucks awaits.

The transhumanist fantasies of Silicon Valley have a great deal to do with the denial of death and the typically masculine fear of it. The Great Men of the past were content to seek the immortality of their names in the historical record; those of the present are chasing the real deal.

The spirit of the Daodejing, however, offers up the matrix of a mythology for our time. If history has been dominated by the Escapism of the masculine ideal up through the 20th century, perhaps we are in the middle of a tectonic cultural shift; cultural moments like the #MeToo movement are the tip of an iceberg, a wisp of the emerging zeitgeist of Return. Fukuyama’s prophecy of the “end of history” was not so much wrong and incomplete. If History 1.0 is about differentiating humanity from the biosphere, History 2.0 is about integrating with it. History 1.0 was driven by a zero-sum logic of scarcity, conquest, and competition, of speeding and scaling, of transcending natural limits. History 2.0 will be driven by a logic of abundance, symbiosis, and cooperation, of slowing and rooting, of embracing natural limits. What we call “sustainability” is just a corporatized form of “forever.”

In the Ministry of the Future, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson envisions a new “structure of feeling,” a quasi-religion one character half-jokingly calls “Matriotism: “Gaia citizenship, or what have you. Earth citizen, commons member, world citizen. One Planet. Mother Earth. All these terms used by people who are coming to think of themselves as part of a planetary civilization. Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself.”

This sounds naïve and silly until you realize that what we call “patriotism” is relatively new. The conservative instinct is to regard patriotism as “natural” and be skeptical of its meaningful extension beyond the bounds of the nation-state. The problem with this way of thinking is that the nation-state is a modern construct, not the state of nature. Patriotism is precisely the expansion of an individual’s horizon of care, loyalty, and belonging beyond their immediate kin and local territory to large groups of strangers and large amounts of land. If such an expansion was possible before, why not another? As more and more people are born into a worldwide web and a chaotic climate, it will become more and more natural for them to think in planetary terms.

Contrary to the dystopian bent of so much cli-fi, Robinson’s rollicking fable ends well. After all the geoengineering and carbon pricing and international coordination is done and the Keeling Curve is going down, the heroine, the Prime Ministress of the Future, does a flyover of the planet in an air ship, including a new port city built in the arctic to stabilize the polar ice cap. In a wickedly funny dig at the richest man in the world, Robinson names the city “Mackenzie Prime.”


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 5: The Great Bellows

Chapter 5: Useful Emptiness

“Heaven and earth aren’t humane.

To them the ten thousand things

are straw dogs.

….

Heaven and earth

Act as a bellows:

Empty yet structured,

it moves, inexhaustibly giving.”

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


According to legend, shortly before his death St. Thomas Aquinas, architect of the most systematic intellectual edifice of Catholic tradition, the 3,000 page Summa Theologica, was struck by a mystical experience on the proverbial road to Damascus and proclaimed, “All I have written is so much straw.” A great cathedral leveled by a bolt from the blue.

The paradox of mysticism is that it offers a kind of final consolation—a self-authenticating certainty that, amazingly, all really will be and already is well—yet after the rapture recedes, the world seems empty and pointless. Another way of putting this is that mysticism entails a kind of positive nihilism—from the “standpoint” of ecstasis, the revelation that the world has no meaning is a great relief, the search for “meaning” is shown to be fruitless because the world is its own magic. But when the music stops, the silence can feel unbearable, and the questions creep in: “Was it all in my head? Am I crazy? What’s the point, really?” And so on. A new dualism tries to worm its way into the mind—between mystical and mundane, transcendent and immanent, ecstatic and quotidian experience.

“Straw dogs” here refers to disposable objects, to impermanence. Impermanence only seems like a cruel and unfair feature of the universe from the standpoint of a permanent self—puffed up, holding its breath, trying to stop the flow of air, which is just a more concrete word for spirit. Only he who loses his breath will gain it. And losing your breath—emptying yourself—is the only way to receive the gift from the great bellows.

The emptiness of the great bellows is not the cold vacuum of space, not the eternal silence of infinite spaces that fill poor Pascal with dream, but a great cauldron of possibility that bodies the world forth. Would that Job had read the Daodejing. It would have given him a more satisfying answer by showing him the confusion of his question. Perhaps we are to understand his “reward” at the end as a sign that this insight is more valuable than any “straw dogs,” material possessions.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 4: Generation A

Chapter 4: Sourceless

“The way is empty,

used, but not used up.

Deep, yes! ancestral

to the ten thousand things.

….

Quiet, yes, and likely to endure.

Whose child? born

before the gods.”

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


Reread the passage, but this time substitute “the earth” for “the way.”

We are accustomed to imagining the earth as Gaia, the Great Mother of all life. We are less prone to picture it as a child, but in the scope of cosmic time, the earth is a newborn.

One of the articles of faith of the environmental movement is that humanity is destroying mother earth. The inconvenient truth for such apocalyptic environmentalists, however, is that the earth will be just fine. The earth is not a living thing, not a “super-organism,” and ironically, it is human hubris to think that our actions could cripple or kill it. Decimate animal species, disrupt the climate, and erode the conditions for our own survival? Yes. Destroy the world? No, that’s gods’ territory. But even in the great myths, the gods’ destruction of the world was only ever the destruction of the human world. The cosmos quietly endures, and the earth may be a young child of the universe, but it was around billions of years before us and our gods. Gods are the children of men.

Stewart Brand is correct to conclude that we are as gods, and may as well get good at it. But getting good at playing god means raising our gods well. If it is not a matter of being gods or humans, but of what sort of gods we wish to be, then we have to figure out how to stop being childish gods.

There is no greater mark of modernity than the abstraction of the ancestral. Our ancestors are foreign and strange to us, sealed off and separated by oceans, language, and revolutions political, cultural, and technological, as though they were from another planet. The “ancestor worship” of today’s indigenous holdouts present to us as superstition, perhaps more respectable than YouTube conspiracism but cut from the same spiritual cloth.

But just as the ancestral ethos was the backbone of hunter-gatherer society—i.e., the vast majority of our species’ life—ancestor worship may be the key to surviving our technological adolescence and saving our civilization.

Every ancestor was once a child, and every child is an ancestor in waiting. The presentism of our culture, the short-term mindset of the quarter in our economics and the election in our politics, the on-demand character of our consumer culture, even the retirement planning that governs our careers—these are all powerful temporal headwinds that make it hard for us to see the fullness of time. Children are raised to be achievers in the short game of the economy, not ancestors in the long game of civilization.

There is no shortage of critiques of how today’s “intensive parenting” involves a neurotic over-involvement with children that turns them into little cult objects. But maybe it stems from an unconscious recognition of the great task before us—not to get our children into Harvard, but to raise what philosopher Roman Krznaric calls “good ancestors.” Our words for culture and cult derive from the Latin cultus, which means worship. As David Foster Wallace reminds us, there is no such thing as not worshipping. We worship what we pay attention to. Every family is a kind of cult. The only question is what sort of cult it wishes to be.

The advantage our ancestors had was that life didn’t change all that much from one generation to the next, so by paying attention to the present, you were paying attention to the past and the future. Our problem is that, starting 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, increasingly with the industrial revolution 300 years ago, and dizzyingly with the informational revolution 30 years ago, there’s been too much change too fast for each generation to make sense. The generation gaps grow as time speeds up, and each generation feels abandoned by the one before it, self-absorbed trying to make sense of its own strange seam of time, and lacking the spiritual, mental, and moral resources to hand things off to the next one. As Joseph Campbell put it, in modernity you can’t have a unifying mythology because before anything new can constellate it gets throw off. And as Zak Stein explains, when the conditions for intergenerational transmission of knowledge—in a word, education—break down, civilization cannot continue.

But the future has begun to encroach on our presentism. As the Boomers begin boarding the ships for the Gray Isles, the last three generations—X, Y, and Z—find themselves abandoned together on this little island of time at the end of history. It’s like a temporal Pale Blue Dot. How we respond is up to us: shrugging in nihilism or shouldering the burden of glorious purpose. The more we pretend we are not ancestors, the less likely we are to have descendants, and if we do, the less likely they are to worship us.


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 3: Hushing

Chapter 3: Hushing

“So the wise soul governing people would empty their minds…keep people unknowing, unwanting, keep the ones who do know from doing anything.”

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


Here we see Lao-Tzu seem to embody the very patriarchal ethos he defines himself in opposition to: Confucian conservative command and control. Hardly the hippie libertarian trickster of latter day New Age culture encouraging you to embrace your funk.

But that presumes that the one governing thinks they are in the know, and that is precisely what is denied here. Much like Plato proposed in the Republic that the ones who should rule are the ones who don’t want to rule, Lao-Tzu is saying that the ones who think they know how to rule are the ones who must be kept from power. When you read the Yeats quote today, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” it’s natural to think of the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories today and the demagogues who fan its flames. Ironically, the attack on the “administrative deep state”—that is, the people who actually know what they’re doing—comes only ostensibly from the ignorant and uneducated. For they know a great many things that we don’t.

They know that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya; they know that “Benghazi” [sic]; they know that COVID 19 was leaked from a lab in China; they know that Bill Gates arranged for microchips to be embedded in your skin through the vaccine; they know that the 2020 election was stolen. They know all of these things with passionate intensity, for knowing, in this sense, simply is passionate intensity. What started as the Tea Party, a noisy band of low libertarian, garden-variety anti-government barkers, and metastasized into the Trump Party (there can be no doubt that that is exactly what the GOP now is) actually started a long time ago: as the “Know Nothing Party” of the 1950s: nativist, isolationist, anti-intellectual, rooted in yeoman gnosis. It is what George Packer, in his essential essay in this month’s Atlantic, calls “Real America.”

Those of us in “Smart America” think we know better. But believe it or not—I suspect you may not because you are likely a Smart American—“I believe in Science” and “Science says” are a stone’s throw from “’Cuz Hillary’s emails.” Taylor Dotson has cleverly labeled this kind of politics—the brandishing of facts, fact-checks, and figures, of evidence, empiricism, and expertise, of “studies,” “research,” and so on to demonstrate that your position is clearly, obviously, self-evidently correct—“Fact-ism”:

Who hasn’t given in to the urge to reflexively drop a Snopes link, or to reference a scientific article whose abstract we only skimmed, in order to avoid thinking carefully about why a great-aunt or former college acquaintance doesn’t trust Anthony Fauci?

The basic logical problems with Factism are that it misconstrues the relationship between science and policy and the nature of science itself. Fauci’s knowledge about epidemiology is in a different galaxy than yours or mine. His knowledge about ethics is probably in the same ballpark, or even the same room. Science not only doesn’t give us certainty—especially probabilistic sciences like epidemiology and climatology—but even if it did, that wouldn’t tell us what we ought to do. Moreover, that “reflexively” reflects—you guessed it—passionate intensity.

But the knowledge of Real America is not what they think they know—the conspiracy stuff. It’s what they know we need: belonging. Belonging is what Real America thinks has been stolen from it, what the neoliberalism of Free America destroyed, what the meritocratic knowledge workers of Smart America don’t realize they need, and what Just America call “inclusion” and wants to engineer through social policy.

Dotson calls it connection:

If the underlying problem with scientism and conspiracism is the way each promises certainty, thereby fostering division, then we ought to look toward a politics that is preoccupied less with knowing and more with fostering connection.

Packer calls it patriotism:

“This feeling can’t be wished out of existence. And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify—world citizenship being too abstract to be meaningful—patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.”

Belonging, patriotism, connection—call it what you want. It’s the unspoken category of Donald Rumsfeld’s epistemology: the “unknown known.” If people have it, they’ll “want” and “know” less; they’ll just go about their lives.

Whether you deploy a Scientific worldview or a Biblical worldview, you think you know more than you do. Information without knowledge is empty—meaningless—but knowledge without wisdom is blind—dangerous. Being informed matters, being knowledgeable matters more, but being wise matters most.


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

Dao du Jour II, Day 2

Chapter 2:  Soul Food

“Everybody on earth knowing

that beauty is beautiful makes ugliness.

Everybody knowing that goodness is good

makes wickedness.”

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


To Western ears, this view is disappointing, perhaps even cause for despair. Western culture is based on winning—good triumphs over evil, God prevails over the Devil, humanity conquers nature, freedom overcomes tyranny, capitalism outcompetes communism. It’s an asymmetrical universe. Daoism seems to see a 50/50 universe—a draw.

But this would be mistaken. The most important word in today’s passage is “knowing.” It’s not that life isn’t beautiful and good. It’s when we, as individuals, communities, and nations, fall out of the experience of beauty and goodness and try to capture them with concepts. When we step out of the flow of experience and try to explain and defend it, we begin to turn it into something it’s not—into its opposite.

The holy trinity of the Greek philosophical tradition is “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” The danger Daoism cautions us against is collapsing the three into the True, and claiming to have knowledge of it, whether revealed in Scripture or discovered by Science. When “everyone on earth”—or just a critical mass of people—“knows” what is “right,” watch out. They’re usually in the grip of a theology or a theory. And those who disagree are by default cast as “ugly” and “wicked.”

Everyone on earth knowing that beauty is ugliness makes true beauty.

Everyone on earth knowing that goodness is wicked makes true goodness.


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

Dao du Jour II, Day 1: Taoing

Chapter 1: Taoing

“So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin, but different in name,

Whose identity is mystery.

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.”

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


There is a basic danger surrounding the confrontation with mystery. The danger is thinking that it is actually hidden from us. That someone, or some group, or some institution, or some place is closer to it than we are. That it is a super special secret. That it is exotic, arcane, esoteric. That it sits behind a locked door, and that we lack the key or combination.

But just as the gates of hell are locked from the inside, so with the door to the hidden.

This chapter also tells us that “heaven and earth begin in the unnamed; the named is the mother of the ten thousand things.” Thick layers of cultural accretion warp our vision of heaven: we picture it as a different dimension of existence, a realm of angelic and somehow purely spiritual beings, which of course makes no sense because pictures involve images, and images entail space, and space entails bodies. But in the seminal texts of Western culture from the Greeks and the Hebrews, heaven literally just means the sky.

When we sever heaven and earth, the other world and this world, death and life, we sever ourselves from our source. The soul then becomes “ever-wanting”: wanting to escape the gravity of the earth—of limits and weight and bodies and pain and death—for the frictionless flotation of heaven. This takes both religious and secular forms: believers seeking deliverance from the vale of tears, billionaire tech moguls escaping to space. Earth is a kind of evil from which we want to escape. The unwanting soul already has what it wants.

But of course, the wanting and unwanting soul—in Christian language, the soul in a state of sin and grace—are one and the same. Letting that paradox be is, paradoxically, the way toward wanting well.


Dao Du Jour, Day 81: Limits of the Logos

Chapter 81:

“True words aren’t eloquent.

Eloquent words aren’t true.

Wise men don’t need to prove their point;

men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


On trial before the Athenians, his life hanging in the balance, Socrates begins his apology (defense) by speaking about speech. He urges the judge and jury, his fellow citizens, to judge what he says on the substance, not the style of what he says; the what, not the how. “I’m not going to lawyer you,” he is basically telling them. He distinguishes himself from the Sophists, a group of men the Athenian elite paid handsomely to school their sons in the art of rhetoric to groom them for leadership in politics. Forget the pathos, Socrates urges them; focus on the ethos–my character–and, most importantly, the logos–the content–of my speech.

Socrates was on trial for corrupting the youth and impiety–not believing in the gods of the city. In the speech, he effectively turn the charges on his accusers, unmasking their hypocrisy and showing that they are more guilty of the charges than he is because they claim to know what they don’t know.

The real apology for Socrates is not defending himself against the charges, but acknowledging the limits of the logos–of human knowledge about the gods and the good.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine laments how he abused his God-given powers of speech to climb the social ladder in a confused pursuit of love and belonging. The schools, he complained, trained him in the art of speaking well; the religious sect he joined, a gnostic group called the Manichees, prided themselves on their eloquence and “loquaciousness”; and his position in the elite echelons of the empire was ensured due to his eloquence in public speaking, especially empty encomiums for the emperor. For Augustine, though, the proper use of speech was to praise God; hence his autobiography is studded with Biblical quotations–almost ad nauseam. The implication is that his own attempt to give an account of his life, the word of Man, will always fall short of the true account, the Word of God.

The real confession for Augustine is not owning up to his sins, but acknowledging his nature–as a sinner, yes, but as limited in speech. No matter how clever we become, we are always as babes babbling about ultimate reality.

We are to God, or the Dao, as children are to adults. The more we apologize and confess–the less we pretend–the more playful and fruitful our speech will be.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the first series of the Dao Du Jour. In the next installment, I’ll be using Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Daodejing.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 80: Somewheres and Nowheres

Chapter 80:

“If a country is governed wisely,

it’s people will be content.

….

Since they dearly love their homes,

they aren’t interested in travel.

….

And even though the next country so close

that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,

they are content to die of old age

without ever having gone to see it.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


One of the many ways we are all trying to get back to “normal” as the pandemic recedes is the resumption of travel. After a year in lockdown, many of us find ourselves disagreeing with Dorothy’s mantra in the Wizard of Oz that “there’s no place like home.” Our is the opposite: “there’s no place like anywhere else.” Home doesn’t quite feel like home if we can’t leave it.

Though regular travel, or at least an annual summer vacation, is normal for most Americans and baked into our experience of home, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Before the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the 19th century, most people rarely traveled, and in the Middle Ages, apart from pilgrimage, travel was difficult, dangerous and rare. Beyond travel, the special restlessness of the American soul, an echo of manifest destiny and the fascination with the frontier, shows up in our increasing mobility.

The sociologist Dalton Conley cuts Americans into “Somewheres” and “Nowheres,” a distinction I distill into “people in place” and “people in space.”

Somewheres are people who live in rural and exurban areas, the people who don’t–and whose children don’t–leave for college and the big city, who are neither outwardly nor upwardly mobile, who invest in and grow the local stock of social capital and thicken the social fabric of a place. Somewheres live closer to the ground, led by the weight of necessity.

Nowheres are people who, before they could walk, were being trained to be “shot into space”: like a quantum particle, they exist in a cloud of possibilities, riding the wave function toward the spaces of the best grades, the most elite colleges, the most prestigious internships, the most lucrative and sought after jobs, the Professional Managerial Class, and perhaps the gated community and country club. Nowheres take it for granted that they and their peers will leave their home towns, and that their teens, 20s, and perhaps their 30s are means toward these nebulous ends. Jeff Bezos, whose company is everywhere and nowhere, who fancies himself a real-life Captain Picard shepherding us toward a planetary, space-faring civilization, and who has made it known that he “wants people in space,” is the epitome of the ideal. Nowheres live closer to the Cloud, afloat on the promise of possibilities.

One way of understanding the Trump era–in which the pandemic is both climax and denouement–is the recognition that this division in American life is neither psychologically desirable nor economically sustainable. You don’t have to want the Benedict Option to recognize that there is something wanting, hollow, and unsatisfying about this way of thinking about community life. Ironically, it is on their tour through the universities that students will learn what evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology now tell us: that we are deeply social creatures who evolved to survive and thrive in small groups of extended kin over a relatively limited range of territory; that the view of human nature as a sovereign individual embedded in classical liberalism, the operating system of modernity, is a useful fiction. Of course common sense would tell you the same, but common sense becomes less common when society is programed for destination Nowhere. People raised in such a culture aren’t like to get the memo, and will come to see family, community, and a commitment to the local as a stepping stone, at best, and a hindrance to their self-actualization, at worst. Space beckons.

But in reality, space doesn’t exist. There are only places. We have engineered the social topography of our society in such a way that only a small number of places are regarded as culturally and economically desirable to live, and relegated the rest to “fly over country.” The information economy depends on the cloud, the cloud depends on servers, servers depend on electricity, and electricity, for now at least, depends on oil and gas and infrastructure. Space is not the absence of places, but made possible by places. The primal scream of Trumpism is the return of the repressed of place erupting into space.

The best views from space, ironically, were of the Earth. Whether it was Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” or the “blue marble” photo, our early space travels revealed to us how beautiful and precious our terrestrial home really is. As a friend of mine once said, the purpose of vacation is to help you realize how good you have it. Lao-tzu isn’t so much telling you not to travel as encouraging you to be content with where you are; and realize that you travel every time you leave your front door.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 79: Successful Failure

“Failure is an opportunity.

If you blame someone else,

there is no end to the blame.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


When Marx described the concept of “ideology,” he used a powerful metaphor: a “camera obscura,” in which the image of an object is turned upside down. Ideology presents up as down, black as white, wrong as right. Consider the most engrained metaphor of our modern mythology: “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Orwell said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle” because people are always trying to draw your attention away from the plain truth. A quick look down at your shoes dispels the myth: the action is impossible to perform.

At around the same time that corporate America and its pacing car, Silicon Valley, began embracing meditation in the workplace as a way to goose productivity, thought leaders began to extol the virtues of failure: “Fail early, fail often.”

As is often the case with the conventional wisdom in American self-help and business culture, it is hard to separate the latest corporate cant from the kernel of wisdom it contains. Ideologies only work if they make contact with the truth, however tenuous. It’s easy to run the standard leftist critique of the new gospel of failure: it’s a form of mass gaslighting that makes people fucked over the by the system–that is, most people–think that it’s their fault–they didn’t work hard enough–not a function of the system being rigged against them; serial failure is a privilege for the few predicated on a secure cushion of success provided by family, social capital, education, etc.; it legitimizes the legion disruptions that Big Tech has wrought on our brains, our economy, our politics, and our culture over the last two decades; it is, in short, kind of what capitalism does.

All of that is (partly) true. But we mustn’t let the satisfaction such analysis yields lull us into smug complacency. That would be a failure of imagination and introspection. For the very same mantra used to needle workers into blaming themselves for failure can be turned around to puncture the “bootstrapping” bubble. Failure is an opportunity to examine your vision of success.

Note that Lao-Tzu does not instruct you to blame yourself as opposed to someone else. He implies that blame itself is a kind of failure, and not the good kind. The Stoic Epictetus thought the same: “An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” Taking responsibility and correcting mistakes is not the same as assigning blame. If you blame yourself, “there is no end to the blame,” because you will begin to identify as a failure.

If failure is an opportunity, then success is a danger. And the greatest enemy of success. If you identify with being successful, you will set yourself up for failure. You will be clinging to your past achievements and the reputation they afforded, and as time passes reality will begin to diverge from that image. Your success will become a camera obscura distorting your vision of what is in front of your nose. You may fend off failure for awhile this way, but by failing rarely, you will fail big. If you fail early and often, the failures are likely to be small, and you can make the necessary course corrections to realign with reality. You will, in short, learn. You will learn better how to swim, rather than just treading water.

Real success is to be constantly succeeding yourself. Real failure is to be constantly succeeding.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 78: Natural Poets

Chapter 78:

“The soft overcomes the hard;

the gentle overcomes the rigid.

Everyone knows this is true,

But few can put it into practice.

True words seem paradoxical.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


“Every word,” Emerson wrote, “was once a poem.” Everyone knows this is true, but few—poets, that is—but it into practice.

But not just poets. We are too precious about what poetry should look life and who counts as a poet. Children are natural poets; for them, every word is new. The Greek root of the word, poeisis, can be translated as “bringing forth.” When the child cleaves off a piece of the world and attaches a word to it, she brings forth meaning from sound.

Over time, of course, the novelty wears off, poetry settles into prose, and we forget the creative power not just of language, but consciousness itself.

True words seem paradoxical because no words are “true” or “false.” Every word is an interpretation that reveals and conceals the world. But even this conceals a deeper truth—that there is no “true” world beyond our perception and language.

True words seem paradoxical because reality is paradoxical. Once we cease and desist from treating paradox as a problem to be solved, once we concede that existence is not even but fundamentally odd, the world—and the Word—can once again speak to us and through us.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 77: Chaosmos

Chapter 77

“Those who try to control,

who use force to protect their power,

go against the direction of the Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Contained in this sentence is the essence of a psychology, a politics, an economics, an ecology, and an ethics—a complete cosmology. The Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui has recently advanced what he calls “cosmotechnics,” a holistic way of thinking about technology—holistic in the sense that whenever we think about or talk about or use technology, we are always already assuming and enacting a worldview and a set of values. Technology is always about more than tools.

Hui is offering a contemporary and comparative update of Martin Heidegger’s seminal 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” where Heidegger argued that the essence of technology is not, strictly speaking, technological. It is primarily a way of knowing that he characterized as “enframing.” Enframing reduces the mystery of the world to a reservoir of energy and turns nature into a “gigantic gasoline station.” Nature is there to be controlled, a stock of resources to be used, and used up, in service of our human ends—whatever those happen to be.

Heidegger’s concern was that way of knowing was nihilistic in the sense that it is, literally, endless. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the Abolition of Man, most pre-modern civilizations were premised on something like “the Tao”: an absolute morality anchored not in the desires and whims of human culture and psychology, but in the order of things. Humanity’s ends are somehow set, fixed, limited by the basic architecture of reality, and human lives and societies go well when they more or less adhere to them.

But the enframing mindset decouples humanity from nature, “freeing” us to posit whatever ends we happen to have. That means that there is nothing to stop the logic of regarding nature as a stock of expendable resources from being turned back on humanity itself, e.g., “human capital,” “human resources.” The great irony of this, Heidegger points out, is that just at the moment where we think we have become gods and triumphed over nature, we are mired in a deeply dehumanizing way of being. Or as Lewis put it, man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man: severed from the Tao, man has nothing but his instincts and impulses—supplied by nature—to guide him. He has abandoned not only his rationality, but his home: the very idea of living in a cosmos.

Daoism embraces a less dualistic view of the humanity/nature relationship than the Western tradition that is perhaps best captured by James Joyce’s formulation “chaosmos.” Hui offers us a potential path toward thinking about, designing, and using technology in a way that is more mindful of, and integrated with, our ecology. Perhaps Daoism can offer a way for both the East and the West—effectively, the Yin and Yang on the geopolitical stage of the 21st century—to build a sustainable future—a human world that doesn’t go against the direction of the Dao?


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 76: Ha-do-ken!

Chapter 76

“Men are born soft and supple;

dead, they are stiff and hard.

Plants are born tender and pliant;

Dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible

is a disciple of death.

Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


When I was learning Tai Chi years ago, the teacher demonstrated a deceptively simple move for us. You turn your left foot out, plant it firmly in the ground, turn your body to the left, drop your center of gravity down and lean over that foot, then slowly push against the ground, extend the right foot forward into a lunge, twist your body to face straight, unfurl your left arm forward, and snap your wrist so that your palm faces forward.

The logic of the moves in Tai Chai, the teacher explained, is to reduce the points of tension in your body and the friction in your movements so that you conduct the energy around and within you with minimal effort. And the most powerful energy reservoir around you is the ground. The strength of your movements comes through you, not from you.

The teacher proceeded to demonstrate said move to us. What we observed was impressive, but what we heard was shocking. It was not so much the speed and elegance with which he executed the move, but what I can only call its focused ferocity. When he finished, we heard not only the snap of his wrist, but the shockwave of air his hand had displaced, as though he had broken a kind of micro sound barrier. Those of you of a certain generation will recognize this for precisely what it was: the “ha-do-ken” fireball move from Street Fighter II.

I can still hear that sound. That sound, he told us, was just the ground. By making your body fluid and transparent to the energy around you, you give voice to what cannot speak for itself.

The same principle applies to the mind—and the mind-body connection. Whoever has a stiff and inflexible mind isn’t really thinking. A stiff mind will lead to a stiff body, and a stiff body will lead to a stiff mind. Odds are there is a place in your body right now that’s clenched. Stop reading, find it, listen to it, and let it lead you into your next move.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 75: Alone Together

Chapter 75:

“When taxes are too high,

people go hungry.

When the government is too intrusive,

People lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.

Trust them; leave them alone.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Do not be misled: the Dao is not a supporter of the GOP. For one thing, the cult of individualism that is the bedrock of modern conservatism—and classical liberalism more broadly—is alien to Asian cultures generally. Part of this passage, especially the notion of an intrusive government, is a dig at Confucianism, the original “Big Brother” of antiquity, but Daoism still embraces a relational view of humanity and reality. Lao-Tzu’s point is that that at some point, rules become not only restrictive and oppressive, but insulting to people’s intelligence and disrespectful of their humanity.

But if he were around today, Lau-Tzu would hardly be praising the cult of the entrepreneur, advocating trickle-down economics, or dancing the Republican two-step of cutting taxes and slashing regulations. We often assume that what we call neoliberalism is premised on “free markets” and deregulation, but as Quinn Slobodian documents in his book on the topic, neoliberalism was actually about re-regulation and “encasing” markets in a legal and political architecture that resulted in the dizzying levels of inequality we see today.

What that means is that, paradoxically, in order to “leave the people alone” in today’s age, government is not the problem but the solution. Taxes must be raised on corporations and the wealthy because “taxes are too high”—not marginal tax rates, but the increased cost of living for the average person in terms of education, healthcare, and housing, combined with stagnant wages. For the longest time, we have mistaken “government intrusion” for something called “late capitalism,” forgetting that economic waves, however driven by powerful global currents, are downstream from politics to the extent that the decisions leaders make determine how nations surf them. In perhaps the most contorted ideological pose conceivable, the notion that capitalism is the problem is a kind of ideology that masks the real threat: a misunderstanding of the optimal relationship between politics and economics, between democracy and capitalism, and of the true nature and proper role of values in determining the shape of society. The tectonic shift we are just beginning to undergo away from Reaganism and toward a “New New Deal”—one more racially inclusive and environmentally conscious than the original—is a return to values-based governance, and a rejection of the fantasy of value-neutral public policy, which neuters the people’s will and neutralizes the very idea that there is such a thing as society.

To act for the people’s benefit, remember there is such a thing as the common good.

To trust them, decouple welfare from work.

To leave them alone, pass laws as if they aren’t.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 74: Ministry of the Future

Chapter 74:

“Trying to control the future

is like trying to take the master’s carpenter’s place.

When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,

chances are that you’ll cut yourself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Stoicism and Daoism are often accused of fatalism: the Logos and the Dao are going to do what they’re going to do, and you’d best accept it rather than “push the river.” Go with the flow and like it! This offends our modern Pelagian sensibilities and, indeed, it is puzzling that Stoicism has become so trendy in contemporary self-help culture. If the lion’s share of self-help literature is based on so many versions of “the power of positive thinking” and the “law of attraction,” Stoicism might be cast as “the power of negative thinking,” or as Tim Ferriss puts it, “practical pessimism.” Something like a “law of subtraction” is contained in Lao-Tzu’s prescription for gaining wisdom: “subtract something every day.” For the Stoic, we must try not to control what cannot be controlled; for the Daoist, we must try not to try doing anything.  

But ceasing our attempts to control the future doesn’t mean writing the future off. It means changing how we relate to it. In the spirit of Stoicism, Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, introduced a useful framework for positing ourselves relative to the future. The individual is placed at the center of three concentric circles. The first is the circle of control. The second is the circle of influence. The third is the circle of concern. Obviously, the optimal allocation of your attention involves is to maximize focus on what you can control—e.g., how much sleep you get tonight—and minimize focus on what you’re concerned about—e.g., the prospects for peace in the Middle East—while devoting a decent amount of energy toward influencing those around you—e.g., friends, family, and colleagues. If you focus too much on what you’re concerned about, you’re going to “cut yourself.”

If we layer the circle of Hierocles on top of this one, and set it in a temporal context, interesting things start to happen. In this framework, the circle of the self is nested within progressively larger circles—family, community, nation, etc.—extending to humanity itself, the cosmopolitan perspective that the Stoics introduced into Western culture. Today, we would include an even more encompassing circle—the environment and nonhuman beings. The adage think “globally, act locally” tracks this idea—we should attempt to control and influence ourselves, others, and the world in ways that are aligned with global concerns. But when we add the temporal dimension, it gets more complicated.

In her new book, Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert grapples with precisely this question of how we are to relate to the future. The Baconian ethos of controlling nature to relieve the human estate, so successful in some respects, has generated a surfeit of social and environmental problems that threaten to do our civilization in in the long run. But exactly because of that success, it is tempting to think that by doubling down on control, we can fix these problems. If that modern vision was about gaining knowledge to control nature, the 21st century version of it will be about gaining knowledge to control the future. Kolbert, channeling the world-weary cynicism of many an environmentalist, sighs that all we can hope for is to “control our control of nature.” It is not a matter of whether we will be gods, but what sorts of gods we will be. Yet this position seems tragic: we are destined to death by 1,000 “cuts.”

But the apprentice carpenter is prone to error not just because he doesn’t know how to use the master’s tools, but because he doesn’t’ know wood. A master is a master first of all of his material, not his tools. The tools are a means toward revealing the shapes that slumber in the wood. He does not so much impose a pre-existing form in his mind on the blank canvas of the wood; he draws out the forms suggested by signature of the wood, and the tools are like different moves in the dance he leads it into.

The modern project has in large part been about treating nature—the wood—like a blank canvas that we can pain anything on—that we can turn into any shape we damn well please. It encodes an attitude toward the future that is fundamentally escapist: the earth is something to be not just used, but used up, and the future is regarded as an otherworldly paradise, freed from the laws and limits of this vale of tears. The future is something to which we wish to escape.

But our civilization is undergoing a tectonic shift in our relationship not just to the planet, but the future. Just as we must begin to think more globally, we have to think in longer time horizons. Luckily enough, our species is pretty good at this: indigenous and traditional cultures always played the long game. The difference is that they played the local game, not the global one. Our task, then, is truly new: to play a game both long and global.

The future is not something we can the ability or the right to control. It is something we have the ability and the responsibility to protect. We must trust that the wood—the natural world—will tell us how to redesign our civilization so that we can develop the tools necessary to bring it forth. The endgame is not escaping the earth, but learning how to be earthlings.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 73: Web 3.0

Chapter 73:

The Tao is always at ease.

It overcomes without competing,

answers without speaking a word,

arrives without being summoned,

accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.

And though its meshes are wide,

it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


To see what is in front of one’s nose, George Orwell put it, is a constant struggle, and perhaps the hardest part of that struggle, the hardest thing to see, is technology. Why? Because it is more and more provides glasses through which we see. As Heidegger put it, the essence of technology is nothing technological: instead, it’s a way of understanding reality, a way that we are typically blind to.

If we consider how dramatically the printing press changed the course of world history over a few centuries, and how early we are in the days of what is probably an even more transformative shift in our information ecology, we can slip through the grasp of our current social imaginary, confident that it too shall pass. Where the early days of the world wide web were utopian, the second act of the internet has been characterized as the “techlash,” a bevy of concerns about the harmful psychological, political, cultural, and economic effects of Big Tech. Both stories were apocalpytic: where Web 1.0 was seen as ushering in a kind of libertarian socialist [sic] paradise, Web 2.0 is seen as leading us toward, alternatively, an idiocracy and/or an authoritarian surveillance superstate, or what Jaron Lanier calls “Digital Maoism.” The former story has been reincarnated as the Singularity, aka the Rapture for Geeks, while the latter story has been variously depicted in the series Black Mirror.

What would Web 3.0 look like? As with any technology, over time the internet will become more and more integrated into the lifeworld; indeed, that process is already proceeding apace, as we see in the so-called Internet of Things. Right now, we are still adjusting ourselves psychologically and culturally to the new tech, and are beginning to realize we must adjust the new tech to accommodate the neurobiological limits of our organisms. But when our self-conceptions and social norms and political and legal systems are still running the old software that codes the human being as a separate, solitary, sovereign individual—the anthropology of classical liberalism—the internet will present as, alternatively, deliverance from isolation or a threat to freedom.

Seen properly, the internet encodes the same big idea as ecology: that reality is a fabric of relationships, not a collection of atoms. Nature and technology—and we must not forget that nature produced technological beings—are guiding toward an understanding of our place in the universe captured not just by the Dao, but the image of “Indra’s Net” from Hinduism: a vision of the universe as a web, with each node a jewel that reflects the whole. Each is a part of the whole, but the whole is contained in each part.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 72: On Magma and Dogma

Chapter 72:

“When they lose their sense of awe,

people turn to religion.

When they no longer trust themselves,

they begin to depend upon authority.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Brother David Steindl-Rast offers a pregnant metaphor to help us think about the evolution of religions: a volcano.

The founder of a religion is a volcanic eruption—that one-in-a-billion person blessed with a god-consciousness that blows the minds and hearts of his people, turning over the tables of conventional values, as Jesus does in the temple. The founder breaks the old tablets of good and evil, and creates space for new ones. Like the trickster figure in mythology, the founder disrupts, but it is a creative disruption. It is liberating the lava compressed by the culture.

But after the initial burst of dynamism, as the founder dies and his message gets interpreted and institutionalized first by his followers and then by followers of his followers, the lava flow begins to slow, congealing and crustifying into the kind of rock in which it was previously imprisoned. Magma becomes Dogma.

One of the things that astonished the Jewish authorities about Jesus was that he spoke “as one who has authority.” From the dogmatic point of view, such a person is Satanic; from the magmatic point of view, such a person is enlightened. It’s easy to conflate the Satanic and the magmatic since they both oppose the dogmatic, but they are quite literally worlds apart. The Satanic is what Robert Kegan calls the “imperial self,” imposing its will on the world, while the Magmatic is more like Kegan’s “self-authoring self,” who is liberated from both his selfish impulses and the “conformist self,” the fear of excommunication from his culture.

What separates them is awe—awe at the sheer existence of the world–the Buddha eye, Christ consciousness, the childlike way of being that sees the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. The Buddha eye can see the lava in the land. Lava is fast-moving land, land is slow-moving lava.

The church is perpetually at war with the mystics because it is trying to stuff God into images, words, ideas, beliefs, and rules. But this is like trying to contain a volcanic eruption, to build a box to hold lava. The most important feature of the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, is that it was empty. As nature abhors a vacuum, God abhors a box.

We need boxes, of course. But the boxes that religions offer people should be like presents: not to be stared at and worshipped, but to be opened, to discover the surprise hidden within. The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft designed to help you across the river; only a foolish person would get to the other side and continue to carry the raft around on his back. The present is not the box. After you’ve opened the box, you can throw it away.

Children, of course—and dogs—know better. They can play just fine with the wrapping paper. It’s adults that need to play the game of hide and seek we do with trash and treasure, boxes and presents, dogma and magma.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 71: The Philosopher’s Disease

Chapter 71:

“Not knowing is true knowledge.

Presuming to know is a disease.

First realize that you are sick;

then you can move toward health.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Huston Smith, the late great scholar of world religions, told a story of when he was studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. One day during a private interview with a master, sitting face to face, cushion to cushion, he asked a question about the nature of the self. The master looked at him intently, leaned forward, and said sternly: “You are suffering from the philosopher’s disease.”

One of the great ironies of Western philosophy—which Alfred North Whitehead summed up as a series of footnotes to Plato—is that though its mythic founder, Socrates, wrote nothing and claimed to know nothing, the tradition he initiated came to be associated with the idea that our minds can grasp the truth of things. Philosophy became about building conceptual castles and trying to know it all. It became more about grasping than letting go, more scientific and less spiritual, more head-centered and less heart- and body-centered. Nietzsche pinned the blame on Socrates himself for poo-pooing the poets and throttling the creative spirit with an over-emphasis on the rational side of human nature. But whoever is to blame—and Nietzsche is probably wrong about Socrates, and Plato, and even Christianity—it’s fair to say that in the West, the path of knowing has been much more cleared and cultivated than the path of not-knowing.

We need both. Another way of interpreting the yin/yang symbol is with knowing/non-knowing, or knowledge/wisdom, or knowledge/ignorance. Treating ignorance as something to cultivate rather than eliminate is counterintuitive, akin to a judo move. But it is essential to working with others and the world as they are, rather than as we “know” them to be. The awareness of one’s ignorance awakens the desire to learn.

In Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, the good guys’ only weapon is “ignorance”—only by not knowing the true nature of the threat they face can they hope to defeat it. This forces them to trust each other. The “philosopher’s disease” with which we are all somewhat afflicted living in the West leads us to misconstrue “faith” in intellectual terms—as though it’s about believing certain propositions or ideas. Yet as Alan Watts pithily puts it, where belief clings, faith lets go. Faith actually means a certain disposition of heart, an attitude toward the world that we might best call trust. In Tenet, the fate of the world hinges on the good guys trusting one another.

In America today, as Pete Buttigieg argues in his latest book, Trust, the restoration of trust is the key ingredient to healing our society. If we hope to avoid a descent into Idiocracy, perhaps what we need to steer our information economy in the right direction is a “wisdom economy.” In an information rich society, meaning becomes the scarce resource. Just as we need to decarbonize our energy economy and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps we need to de-clutter our minds, to lay down what Nietzsche called the “knowledge stones” that weigh us down and drag us toward folly. In the future, it may turn out that wisdom, that most “impractical” of things, may be the most valuable resource.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 70:

Chapter 70:

“My teachings are easy to understand

and easy to put into practice.

Yet your intellect will never grasp them,

And if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.

How can you grasp their meaning?

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


At the outset of his legendary interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell remarked: “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit.” The main way we try to talk about spiritual matters in mainstream culture nowadays is through the concept of “meaning.” The hunger for something called meaning is a surely a sign that something is missing in the culture, but it’s also a sign of how inarticulate we are in moral, religious, and spiritual dimensions of life. As David Brooks pithily put it:

“The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

“Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

At this point, meaning is just more happiness. To paraphrase Nietzsche, man does not pursue meaning; only the American does that.

From the Daoist perspective, the main problem with meaning is that it’s a concept—too mental, too abstract, too heady. Western culture has brought us many benefits, but the Greek and especially modern Enlightenments have bequeathed to us a tendency toward abstraction that borders on neurosis. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it’s also true that the unlived life is not worth examining—and that the over-examined life is not really lived. Kierkegaard said that life is lived forward and understood backward; meaning is born in hindsight, midwifed through reflection. The danger with meaning is that if you seek it out, you’ll never find it. It would be like walking forward while looking backward and expecting to get where you want to go.

The meaning-industrial complex rests on a false premise: that the world is not enough. Once we have accepted that the world is a wasteland, that meaning is something we project onto it like a film onto a blank screen, the game is up. Meaning is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid. Like God’s grace, you have to try really hard to escape it, and the hard thing is seeing that you are trying—that the problem is not with the world, but with your vision.

Stop looking for meaning, and you’ll find it everywhere you look.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 69: In Defense of the Ego

Chapter 69:

“There is no greater misfortune

than underestimating your enemy.

Underestimating your enemy

means thinking that he is evil.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


The ego gets a bad rap. One of the articles of faith in progressive spirituality, the background of our wellness and self-help culture, is that the ego is the main villain in the drama of our lives. It’s encapsulated in a book you’ve probably seen at airport bookstores, Ryan Holiday’s best-seller, The Ego is the Enemy. When we remark of someone that he or she “has no ego,” it’s taken as one of the greatest compliments.

But we often forget what the word actually means: it’s Latin for “I.” It may be that our culture is so fixated on transcending the ego that we forget to get to know it well in the first place. As the modern Buddhist saying goes, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.

The inverse of the quote from the Daodejing above is that overestimating your self means thinking that you are good. But the mirror image of this is underestimating yourself and thinking you are evil, and overestimating your enemy and thinking he is good. Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan likes to say that we lean in one of two directions: arrogant or insecure.

Draw a circle on a piece of paper. This first circle is your self. The space outside the first circle is other people and the world. Now draw a slightly smaller circle inside of the first one, and a slightly larger circle outside of it. The small circle is leaning insecure; the ego is too small. The large circle is leaning arrogant; the ego is too big. The smaller the margin between your ego and your self, the more in touch with reality you are. As with many things in life, our guide here is Goldilocks.

When we say that someone has “no ego,” what we are really saying is that they have a healthy one. We really mean that we can’t see their ego because it is so seamlessly integrated with the world around them; their sense of self tracks the actual border between themselves and others. You know where they stand because they know where they stand. I have a colleague who I love to describe as “a place where the universe opens.” Something about people like that attracts us because they seem more awake and aware and in touch with reality–because they are. We are not so much attracted to them as through them. There’s a queer satisfaction from just being in their presence, an intuitive sense of fit that stands out from the default background of brokenness through which most of us usually stumble. They glide through life like a fish through water, free from self-consciousness yet mindful of their effect on those around them. They see something we don’t because their sight is not as refracted through the warped prisms of ego, and they want us to see it too. They draw us into their space because they have properly and precisely drawn the border between themselves and the world around them.

It’s curious that we talk about people having a big ego or no ego, but rarely that they have a small one. Small egos are just as dangerous than big ones because they cast big shadows. If you don’t own up to your self, your shadow is going to own you, and your shadow is going to be precisely proportional to the space between your shrunken ego and your self. If you try to make yourself smaller than you are, cramming your energy into a confined space, you’re eventually going to explode. If Goldilocks sits in the baby chair, it’s going to break. In some ways, big egos are easier to handle since they are more overt–assholes are easy to spot. But the small egos are subtler and harder to detect because they pretend that they don’t shit. If you don’t admit you have an asshole, you’re going to be an asshole; to others, if you have a big ego, or to yourself, if you have a small ego.

In reality, of course, we are all in different degrees of brokenness, trying to triangulate between our egos and the world to find the sweet spot of our authentic self. You have an asshole. You have an ego. The more you come to terms with that, the fewer internal and external enemies you’ll have. The goal is not to be rid of flaws, but to order your broken bits into a unique mosaic to let the light beyond you shine through you and help others order their own.

As Kegan also put it, either you feast on your shadow, or you starve on your ego. The thicker the walls of the ego, the more fuel there is for transformation. It is not by accident that, as the saying goes, the greatest saints are often the greatest sinners.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 68: Everything is Actually Dancing

Chapter 68

“The best athlete wants his opponent at his best.

The best general

enters the mind of his enemy.

The best businessman serves the communal good.

The best leader

follows the will of the people.

All of them embody the virtue of non-competition.

Not that they don’t love to complete,

but they do it in the spirit of play.

In this they are like children

and in harmony with the Tao.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


For some people, competition carries a pejorative connotation, but the word literally means “to strive together.” Usually we understand it in zero-sum terms: there are winners and losers in athletics, war, business, and politics.

But to be an enlightened player in these arenas—to truly play—means to play the game without attachment to the outcome. To win is to play well, to play well is respect and challenge and dance with your opponent.

In dance, there is a “lead” and a “follow.” But anyone who has danced knows that these roles are a gross simplification of actual dancing. The lead can only lead well if he follows his partner, if he is receptive and responsive to the subtle shifts in her body, and the follow can only follow well if she if she guides offers the flexibility to be led. The dance only works, in short, if the lead and the follow are playing lead and follow, not identified with leading and following. “Lead” and “follow” are no more real than you and me. They are words that point to the strange energy that is us and moves us and moves between us all that we call the Dao.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 66: Dao-Engineering

Chapter 66

“All streams flow to the sea

because it is lower than they are.

Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,

you must place yourself below them.

If you want to lead the people,

you must learn how to follow them.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Geoengineering used to be one of the more fringy, sci-fi solutions to climate change, but it is gradually nudging its way into the Overton window and being looked at as a (potentially necessary) part of the solution. At one level, it presents as the endgame of human hubris, of the very way of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place: the modern project of controlling nature sanctioned by Francis Bacon, who deemed knowledge the power to bend nature to “relieve the human estate,” and Rene Descartes, who said we must become the “masters and conquerors of nature.” Taking the controls of “spaceship earth” seems like the logical extension of this ethos.

But at another level, geoengineering may be, bizarrely, congruent with the Dao. Counterculture icon Stewart Brand famously said, “We are as gods. We may as well get good at it.” His point, I think, is that we always have been. Nature issued beings able to consciously manipulate their environment; it is only in the modern age that the effects of that natural power have become planetary in scope and perilous in nature. To demonize human technology, as environmentalists often do, is to not only write off humanity and succumb to fatalism, but to reject the Dao. We, too, are a part of nature—including our ability to alter nature.

The problem is not engineering. People rarely make mention that the automobile, public emissions enemy #1, solved a serious public health problem in urban areas: horse manure. Every technology produces shit, just as every living organism does; and subsequent technologies clean it up and, in turn, produce a new kind of shit. Electric vehicles clean up the shit of carbon emissions. That is the dialectic of progress.

The problem is engineering that does not “place itself below” and “learn how to follow” people and planet. Engineering whose design is guided by the needs of the people who live there and the ecological contours of the place is the solution. Even Bacon recognized that to command nature, you must obey her.

And whether we want to call it geoengineering or not, intelligently and morally designed technology is our only hope. We must overhaul the parking lot we have paved over paradise so that it harmonizes with paradise. Through biomimetic technologies and design philosophies such as William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach, in which “waste equals food” and human production processes are seamlessly integrated into natural systems, we can build sustainable infrastructure.

The first part of history was the Great Escape from nature. The second part of history will be the Great Return to nature. And in a way, coming to our sense, coming back down to earth—which will require great humility on our part, acknowledgement that we are, in the end, human, of the earth—is what we have been doing for the entire life of our species. We began in the trees, and only the discovery of fire allowed us to come down, sleep on the ground, build settlements, and dwell on the earth. Only the reinvention of fire, to use Amory Lovins’ term, will allow us to stay here. If we can get good enough at being gods, we have a chance at becoming fully human—and keeping the sea literally lower than we are.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 65: The Known Unknown

Chapter 65

“The ancient masters didn’t try to educate people,

but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,

People are difficult to guide.

When they know that they don’t know,

People can find their own way.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


One of the most common complaints from the Professional Managerial Class is that they are too busy. They are overscheduled, overcommitted, stretched too thin. They have difficulty saying no to things. That’s what they’ve been trained to do by our education system. They got the first half of Lao-Tzu’s adage—“to gain knowledge, add something everyday”—but not the second half—“to gain wisdom, subtract something everyday.” In the age of Twitter, even the Daodejing becomes TLDR.

The ideology of the meritocracy and the animating spirit of the knowledge economy is governed by the logic of addition: more data, more information, more connections, more growth, more degrees, more certifications—more more. To paraphrase E.F. Schumacher, perhaps a Daoist economics—a wisdom economy—would follow a logic of subtraction. It would be based on a basic faith in the innate wisdom of each person. The education in such a society would be wisdom-centric, not fact- or even skill-centric: toward helping young people cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues needed to know what they don’t know. To have an economy as if people mattered, we need an education system designed as if wisdom matters.

With that foundation, the acquisition of knowledge and the gathering of information would take care of themselves. The process would be focused, selective, and efficient. As it stands, our economic and educational systems generally hold an inverted view of the hierarchy of knowledge. The natural hierarchy is wisdom/knowledge/information. But in the information age, ruled by what Yuval Noah Harari calls the “religion of Dataism”, the Fact has been uprooted from its natural environment, decoupled from its original context, and served up to the gods of the algorithm for reassignment and the individual for consumption. Meaning is thus deregulated, and action in a meaningless world is hard. Without a coherent understanding of the world (knowledge) and the ability to act and live well (wisdom), information is pointless.


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

Dao Du Jour, Day 64: Step Zero

Chapter 64

“The journey of a thousand miles

starts from beneath your feet.

Rushing into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


This first line—one of the most quoted in the text—is often translated differently: not “from beneath your feet,” but “with a single step.” I cannot speak to which translation is more accurate, but I sense the way in which the latter gloss is appropriated, particularly in the start-up culture in which Lao-Tzu is, paradoxically, a patron saint, turns the meaning of the phrase on its head. It centers the goal, rather than the ground. It is too easily grafted onto “move fast and break things.”

While the courage to take the first step is crucial, what matters more is that it’s a step in the right direction. The second line supports this idea. The first step is folly if the final one is in the wrong place. The most important step is not the one you take with your feet, but with your mind. The most important step is not step one, but step zero.

Step zero is being rooted in the ground. Being rooted in the ground means knowing that it’s the precisely the same place you’ll be at the end of any journey, that the grass there is always going to be as green as the grass here. Only then can you walk freely and see your goal clearly, for what it is: a future ground. Only then can you see each place in double/exposure, as both ground and goal, to be able to make the gestalt shift between figure and ground with ease.

If you don’t take step zero, all your movement will be furious haste, and you will never really arrive at where you’re going.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 63

Chapter 63

“Confront the difficult

while it is still easy;

accomplish the great task

by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;

Thus she achieves greatness.

When she runs into difficulty,

She stops and gives herself to it.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


One of our greatest evolutionary advantages is our ability to pretend. Our ability to tell stories helped us create religions and cultures that bound us together, helped us work well together, and not only ensured not just our survival, but enabled us to build complex civilizations.

But this unique cognitive tool is a double-edged sword. The stories a people tell themselves can delude them, or lead them to oppress the “bad guys” in their story. The stories a person tells himself can lead him to deny and repress ugly realities, to Disney-fi things—to pretend.

When we come upon an obstacle, we often deny it is there, distort its nature, or decide to just hit the gas and ram through it. We do not stop and acknowledge it, but keep moving. When we spot a plot hole in our working story, we try to quickly weave over it and restore the psychic fabric it threatens to undo.

But over time, the jagged obstacles over which our narrative is overlaid will begin to tug at and tear it, and we’ll have to go back to make repairs, which increases the complexity of the weave, which leads to tangles, which leads to knots. And our refusal to stop and deal with the obstacles on their own terms creates new obstacles.

The obstacles are not the exception, but the norm and, beyond that, the occasion for a good story. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “the obstacle is the way.”

Somewhere in the middle distance of your vision, there is an obstacle blistering the vista of your ideal future. It’s probably already inducing tension somewhere in your body, a little pinch on the periphery of your awareness.

Stop, drop your story, and roll toward it.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 62

Chapter 62

“Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?

Because, being one with the Tao,

when you seek, you find;

And when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.

That is why everybody loves it.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Our default understanding of the “real world” is not of a game to be played, or an adventure to be had, but more like a test to be passed. Nature is seen as indifferent to our concerns, and unforgiving of our mistakes. Hell is our culture—there is always a “hell” in any culture, no matter how secular—is something as poorly defined as it is inevitable: failure. Success and failure stand in for heaven and hell and, as is fitting for a culture that inherited its achievetron ethos from the Protestant work ethic of Calvinism, since no one can know who is saved and who is damned, status anxiety reigns supreme.

Because the Dao is not something that can be attained, it is not something that can be lost. There is nothing that can get you kicked out of the Garden.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 61

Chapter 61

“When a country obtains great power,

it becomes like the sea:

all streams run downward into it.

….

A great nation is like a great man:

When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.

Having realized it, he admits it.

Having admitted it, he corrects it.

He considers those who point out his faults

as his most benevolent teachers.

He thinks of his enemy

As the shadow that he himself casts.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


After the Cold War, democratic capitalism appeared to be the last man standing at the “end of history,” and the U.S., it’s most powerful example, bestrode the world as the sole superpower. But 9/11, the Great Recession, and the resurgence of nationalism and authoritarianism at the fringes of the West and beyond point to a troubling prospect: history—the perennial struggle between great powers and competing ideologies—is back. History didn’t stop; it was just on holiday.

The narrative emerging now is that the U.S is in or entering into a new cold war with China, a competition between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism destined to fall into what historian Graham Allison “Thucydides’ Trap.” The conflict is real, but we must beware the story we tell about the conflict, since stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. China is a big fish, but the time to focus on fish has passed. We can no longer ignore the sea.

The Big Story of the 21st century is not about a clash of civilizations, but of civilization against itself. Climate change is the transcendent challenge for humanity, the call of history, the summons of the sea. We will rise to meet it—as a country and as a civilization—or it will rise to swallow us whole. For centuries we have been trying to control nature and bend it to our will. But as C.S. Lewis remarks in his classic The Abolition of Man, “man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.” Francis Bacon’s adage that “to conquer nature, you must obey her” must be put to a use he never would have imagined. Nature will be our great teacher in our attempts to save ourselves, as we figure out how to unlock the power of the sun, the wind, the earth, and the atom in order to switch from what energy scientist Amory Lovins calls “fuels from hell” to “fuels from heaven.”

Climate change is the shadow cast by civilization. Humanity is not the enemy, as some environmentalists believe. But if we wish to clean up the mess we have made of the planet, we have to clean up our collective psyche and do some shadow work, quit blaming other nations, stop projecting our faults onto them, and take up arms in the great struggle of our time. Ronald Reagan famously remarked that if only aliens would arrive from outer space, it would help us unite across nations and focus our hostility outward. How funny, then, that the threat with that potential to unite humanity proved to be not extraterrestrial, but terrestrial.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 60

Chapter 60

“Give evil nothing to oppose

and it will disappear by itself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


From the standpoint of the cynicism that passes for wisdom that we call common sense, “loving your enemy” and “turning the other cheek” seem naïve and foolish. What could be more intuitive than opposing evil with good?

But from the Daoist point of view, good and evil are points of view that generate and reinforce one another. Like Buddhism, Daoism tends to see “evil” as a product of delusional states of mind, and the most important form of evil you contend with is in yourself. So long as you deny or repress your dark side, you will project it onto other people, or malevolent forces, outside of yourself, and you will more and more identify as a good soldier fighting the good fight. Paradoxically, you are not possessed by demonic spirits, but by your own perceived “goodness.”

But facing your inner demons, confronting your shadow—running toward the monsters under the bed of consciousness—helps you see its other half—and yours. And then when you look outward, you will not see evil people, or enemies, but split human beings, divine animals like yourself doing the best they can. And then you can work with them, and they will be willing to work with you, because you are no longer projecting your shadow onto them. The “mutually assured projection” that dominates much of our social life is not even a zero-sum game; it’s a tragedy of the commons where we all end up worse by pursuing our perceived self-interest. We pursue it poorly because we are confused about who we are.

If you do not give evil the resistance it expects, it will fall forward onto the ground before you, and you will see its backside. And it will be afraid, because the front it was projecting will be revealed precisely as a front.

But one of you has to go first.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 59

Chapter 59

“For governing a country well

there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man

Is freedom from his own ideas.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


When Hillary Clinton selected Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016, he made his public debut on Meet the Press. One of the first non-questions he was asked by David Gregory was “Some people worry that you’re ‘too boring.’” Kaine replied—with wide-eyed enthusiasm, ironically—“Yes, I’m boring!” Donald Trump was many things. Boring was not one of them.

Ever since JFK, boring has not played well in American politics, but Trump represented the near total fusion of politics and entertainment. Amid the carnage of his presidency compounded by the chaos of the pandemic, many Americans had a moment of clarity: desperate for deliverance from the unbearable volatility of Trump’s America, they pulled a George Costanza, and “did the opposite.” They traded the tantrums of Trump for the boredom of Biden. There is arguably no virtue in which Trump is more lacking—and which Biden has more of in spades—than moderation. He is precisely how Plato described the tyrant: ruled by lawless appetites and utterly lacking in self-control.

An excess of moderation is what his monkish, seven-almond-eating former boss, President Obama, was criticized for. But as Aristotle would point out, you cannot have too much of a virtue, since a virtue is precisely a mean between two extremes. Obama did not have too much moderation, but not enough courage and, despite his formidable intelligence, not enough wisdom. As Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Wilde was likely talking about the need to go on a bender every now and then (or more often than that), but another way to understand his aphorism is that moderation and boldness are not mutually exclusive. Moderation does not mean constant caution or risk-aversion. For Plato, the cardinal virtues work together—the truly moderate person is just, wise, brave, and moderate. That means that in a desperate time, the moderate man is willing to take desperate measures, and because he has “freedom from his own ideas,” he will know when that time has arrived. He will throw caution to the wind when the wind threatens to tear his house apart. He will abandon “bipartisanship” when one party is acting in bad faith. He will know when to distrust his own inclination to play to the middle, seek consensus, and find common ground. He will know when to go big, and how big to go.

Because he is believed to be boring—because he is moderate—he can do big things.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 58

Chapter 58

“When the will to power is in charge,

the higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Try to make people happy,

and you lay the groundwork for misery.

Try to make people moral,

and you lay the groundwork for vice.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


The phrase “will to power” makes our modern minds run immediately to Nietzsche, yet Nietzsche would agree with the second and third assertions Lao-tzu makes here.

“Man does not pursue happiness,” Nietzsche quipped. “Only the Englishman does that.” For Nietzsche, “happiness” was the watchword and the value worshipped by modern materialistic liberal societies. He described modernity as the “religion of comfortableness,” preoccupied with health and the preservation and prolongation of life. The “death of God,” for him, was not just about the waning of Christian belief in a secular society, but of the absence of grounds for heroism and great sacrifice. For the ancients, a transcendent source of meaning was supplied to us; in the modern world, we have to create it. And that’s hard. So most of us settle for “happiness”—a little pleasure in the day, a little pleasure in the evening.

And that pursuit of “happiness,” Nietzsche thought, is what “morality” amounts to. Both were characterized by conformity and mindlessness. To be a moral person in the modern world didn’t require the cultivation of character and the acquisition of the virtues; it meant more being nice to people, tolerating moral and religious differences, following the law, and paying your taxes. To be happy is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

But Nietzsche thought this recipe—the basic formula of classical liberalism—produced thin soup that would not satisfy the human soul. A politics bent merely on physical security and economic prosperity does much for the body, but little for the soul. It would produce “misery” in the form of loneliness and spiritual confusion, and “vice” in form of violent reaction of the animal spirits seeking expression and release from the dull conformity of bourgeois life. The problem is not that these ideals were “too high” but too low.

Indeed, this “Fight Club” interpretation of Nietzsche—if it feels good do it, rage against the machine, punk rock, fuck the system, be an iconoclastic nonconformist Nietzsche—merely reflects our impoverished modern understanding of power. Joe Biden likes to drop the line that we should lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. For Lao-tzu, true power—and for Nietzsche, the most mature form of the will to power—is mastery over yourself, not over others. You lead others by leading yourself, and you lead yourself by following something greater than yourself. The man who dominates others is a slave to his desires; the man who serves others is free from them. The highest form of the will to power is the skillful harnessing and channeling of de—which gets translated, variously, as virtue, power, or virtuosity.

The true Nietzschean is not an “underman” rebelling against social conventions, but an “overman” who has mastered the rules of social grammar but knows how and when to break them.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 57

Chapter 57

“If you want to be a great leader,

you must learn to follow the Tao.

Stop trying to control.

Let go of fixed plans and concepts,

And the world will govern itself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


The gnomic character of the Daodejing makes it a kind of spiritual and philosophical Rohrschach blot. For instance, it’s not terribly hard to read a kind of vague libertarianism into the Daodejing: Lao-tzu as the free spirit on the fringes of society rolling his eyes at all of Confucius’ oppressive rules. But this would be a mistake.

Libertarianism is a schizophrenic ideology. For one, it attacks the institutions that make its liberty possible; it free rides off of a system it wants to dismantle. For another, it presumes a level of control over one’s life of which most people aren’t capable. For another, if implemented it would result in a domestic and global anarchy that would infringe on the liberty it prizes above all. For another, it is a uniquely American ideology produced by a rare set of historical and geographical circumstances. It’s desire to secede from the body politic to form a paradise is like colonialism in reverse, an extension of the voyage to the New World. If the Singularity is the Rapture for geeks, the libertarian island paradise is the New Age for socially liberal capitalists. In the end, the libertarian’s quarrel is not with government, but with reality itself. There is a reason libertarian billionaires are obsessed with New Zealand, psychedelics, and space.

But most importantly, libertarianism doesn’t see itself as an ideology (to be fair, few do). A good rule of thumb: ideology hides best where it is most decried. This is true not just for many Marxists, but many on the Right who see Marxism where there is none.

Ideology is a secular form of idolatry. It is worshipping a set of ideas about the world, elevating the human power to understand and control the world above the world itself. It presumes a lack of faith in other people to determine their destiny, and a lack of trust in the world to right itself.

We see this taking shape in the debate about the American Rescue Plan, which is an assault on the Reaganomic ideology that has dominated for the last 40 years. Reagan didn’t actually govern like this, but the ideological cult that formed in his wake was committed to the following creed in a manner that can only be deemed theological: Taxes must be cut. Regulations must be slashed. Budgets must be balanced. Work must be incentivized. Inflation must be kept at bay. The market must decide. As these things tend to go, the dogma was somehow followed both slavishly and selectively.

But when the winds change, the great leader—of even just a decent one—pays heed and changes course. He embarks, as FDR said, on a process of “bold, persistent experimentation,” not with blind faith in the power of government to fix and control everything, but mindful of his or his predecessor’s errors, and with trust that something will work—that if we “follow the Dao” and fumble through the darkness, we will stumble into light and “the world will govern itself.”


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 56

Chapter 56

“Those who know don’t talk.

Those who talk don’t know.

Close your mouth,

block off your senses,

blunt your sharpness,

untie your knots,

soften your glare,

settle your dust.

This is the primal identity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


We all know the adage that actions speak louder than words, but Daoism goes further: non-action (wuwei) speaks louder than actions. Or, as the American Buddhist saying goes, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” In this chapter, we find the closest thing to explicit meditation instructions there is in the text.

Our attempts to escape the labyrinth of our everyday problems—our words, thoughts, and actions—often tie us up in knots, kick up dust, and create echo chambers, compounding the problems. How much of our speech and movement floats on a cloud of fallacy and fear? Our way out is not to try another string, move in a different direction, or find the magic words to find, approach, and unlock the exit.

The thread of Ariadne is already at our feet. We just need to stop, sit, and let our eyes adjust to the darkness. The flaw was not in the labyrinth itself, but in the the manner and premise of our search. That flaw, that hairline fracture, that crack that emerges into consciousness—that is the thread.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 55

Chapter 55

“He who is in harmony with the Tao

is like a newborn child.

Its bones are soft, its muscles are weak,

but its grip is powerful.

….

The Master’s power is like this.

He lets all things come and go

effortlessly, without desire.

He never expects results;

thus he is never disappointed.

He is never disappointed;

thus his spirit never grows old.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


That powerful grip, evolutionary biologists will tell you, is a vestige of our primate inheritance. When we lived in the trees—and when we were hairy—and needed free hands to move from branch to branch, we would have needed a way to hold onto infants—or they would have needed a way to hold onto us. A baby death-grip on the hair of his mother’s belly is pretty adaptive in such circumstances.

Without that powerful grip, it’s hard to imagine how we would survive, let alone achieve a good grasp of reality itself. As we grow, that physical clinging becomes mental and emotional clinging, and over time, our greatest asset becomes our greatest liability. Once we fall out of the garden of the eternal present—don’t forget that Eve grasps the fatal fruit—and become aware of time and death, we begin trying to get a grip on the future in the form of expectations. To let go of expectations is to come to grips with reality in an entirely different sense.

The first half of life is getting a grip. This is easy, since biology and culture program us for it. The second half is letting it go. This is hard, because you can only do it on your own, and it is not a matter of doing.


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

Dao Du Jour Day 54: Music of the Spheres

Chapter 54

“Let the Tao be present in your life

and you will become genuine.

Let it be present in your family

And your family will flourish.

Let it be present in your country

And your country will be an example

To all countries in the world.

Let it be present in the universe

And the universe will sing.

How do I know this is true?

By looking inside myself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


This is one of the few chapters in the text that suggests in injunction to meditate, and that such meditation is the gateway to realizing—that is, knowing and manifesting—the Dao. It reflects the idea of “interbeing,” the commonplace notion that everything is interconnected, that we are a “single garment of destiny.” But talk about interconnection tends to focus on the external, macro-world. And this obscures something important.

Last week I was teaching Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the Ur-text of modern political philosophy and, arguably, the godfather of classical liberalism. The original cover of the book pictures a Gulliver size king looming over a quaint little city, sword in one hand, scepter in the other. But if you look closely at him, you will notice something funny: his armor. Each link in his chain mail is a person. His armor—what protects him from challenges to his power, what enables him to freely wield the sword that protects the city—is composed of the people. Only through their unity and cooperation is there a leader, a state and, therefore, the possibility of a peaceful life—at all.

Nietzsche took this idea and applied it to the psyche. The individual is not, strictly speaking, an individual, but a chaotic collection of drives. It is a counterintuitive idea that even a little introspection shows to be undeniable. For Nietzsche, the whole game of being human was a creative project of finding out how to best organize, integrate, and channel the energies of our drives—our karmic inheritance—in concert with the forces outside of us. As scholar Graham Parkes puts it, hitting upon the existential essence of music, for Nietzsche the ultimate task was “composing the soul.”

You know when your soul is composed, or when you’re in the presence of someone whose is. You spontaneously attract, or are attracted to, anything or anyone that strays into your orbit. They obey the inverted gravity of your field. Chaos and entropy are gently conducted and incorporated into the ongoing song.

If you let your inner universe sing—if you look hard and long enough inside yourself—the outer universe will take care of itself.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 53

Chapter 53

“Stay centered in the Tao.

When rich speculators prosper

while farmers lose their land;

when government officials spend money

on weapons instead of cures;

when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible

while the poor have nowhere to turn—

all this is robbery and chaos.

It is not in keeping with the Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


As the protests and riots that swept the nation last summer got inevitably got caught and spun about in the current of the culture wars, the journalistic spotlight—or the eye of Sauron, depending on the media conglomerate—briefly settled on a new booked called In Defense of Looting. The Martin Luther King, Jr., quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard” zipped around social media. Activists insisted that liberalism is white supremacy. Looting, vandalism, and outright violence were ignored, downplayed, or excused by much of the mainstream media. Of course, this was prime rib red meat for the Right; you could not conjure superior images or themes to trigger the amygdala of the conservative brain than the chaotic scenes surrounding the BLM protests. The Democrats are lucky the optical fallout only cost them Florida, rather than the White House.

It is tempting to assume that Daoism is a natural ally of the Left, and at some level it is, but it’s complex. King also said “Every time there is a riot, George Wallace wins.” I recently taught his legendary “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he presents what you might call his practical philosophy of protest. He outlines four steps to a successful protest movement: 1) fact-finding to prove the presence of injustice, 2) negotiation with the opposition, 3) purification, and 4) nonviolent direct action.

The most important of these—and the most difficult—is the third step. It involves a kind of ascetic training in order to prepare your soul and body for verbal attacks and physical assaults, to purge yourself of all hatred and resentment of your oppressors, to cultivate compassion for them as human beings possessed by a hateful ideology—all in preparation to put one’s body on the line for the cause of justice. By absorbing the violence into yourself and letting go of the desire for revenge, you put an end to the samsaric cycle of violence and retribution. You have to be willing to let yourself be destroyed so that you do not destroy in kind. You have to, in short, “stay centered in the Dao.”

It may surprise to hear that St. Thomas Aquinas, the moral philosopher in chief of the Catholic church whose Natural Law theory informs much conservative thinking, agreed that poverty in a rich society was “robbery and chaos.” The poor man with a starving family who steals food when there is plenty to go around is not, strictly speaking, stealing; he is taking what he is owed. Private property rights are important but not absolute; they are subordinate to the right to the means to life, what Catholic social teaching calls the “universal destination of goods.” That doesn’t mean looting is legitimate, but it does mean that it is a symptom of a socioeconomic system out of balance.

King, of course, anchored his quest for social justice in the Christian tradition, but any tradition will do. If you don’t have a secure foothold in the “grounded position,” you’ll be in the “floating position,” easily knocked off balance, seized by passion, or swept up in the mob mentality. The more firmly you are rooted in the ground, the less you will need to push, and the more powerful your pushing will be. The less you divide the world into saints and sinners, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed—the more you keep in view that you are part of a “seamless garment of destiny”—the more you will be able to reweave the social fabric, rather than tearing it even more.

“Stay centered in the Dao.” But lean to the left.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 52

Chapter 52

“In the beginning was the Tao.

All things issue from it;

All things return to it.

….

Seeing into darkness is clarity.

Knowing how to yield is strength.

Use your own light

And return to the source of light.

This is called practicing eternity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


The translator is here clearly alluding to beginning of the Gospel of John, which alludes to the beginning of the book of Genesis. But the message of the Dao is subtly different from that of the Bible, or at least its standard interpretation.

When God creates in Genesis, it is out of and in opposition to chaos—we are told that that there is a “formless” void, “darkness,” a “deep,” and “waters.” God then brings intelligence and order into being, separating the waters into those “below”—the sea—and “above”—the sky (think about it—if you’re living 4,000 years ago and water falls from the sky, you’d probably conclude that the ceiling was leaking). This separation clears the space for a cosmos. When human beings violate the cosmic order in the Noah story, the watery chaos rushes back in; the implication is that God is keeping the chaos at bay, that we depend on Him for our survival, and that yielding to the darkness is evil.

In the Tower of Babel story, this human overreach takes the function of humanity trying to build a stairway to heaven; supposing that pooling their intelligence and resources, they can escape their mortal condition and become like God. Whether it is Adam and Eve (the fruit), Cain (his brother’s life), or the builders of Babel (bricks and mortar), humans get into trouble when they, literally, take matter into their own hands, when they play at being God, when they are “practicing eternity.”

But the Dao is the “Word” and the darkness. Seeing into darkness is clarifying because it shows us the limits of what we know and who we are. Using your own light means recognizes its limits, and the blind spots veiled in darkness, and the source, therefore, of future growth and development. Darkness, in fact, is the “source of the light.” Think about what that means: creation is not a dead event that happened in the distant past, but a living process coming toward you out of the future. Yielding to it, leaning into the unknown, gives you strength.

You can dredge the same message out of Genesis, but it takes a lot of work. Perhaps that is perfectly fitting given the structure of creation—six days for labor—practicing time—one day for revelation—practicing eternity.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 51

 

Chapter 51

The Tao gives birth to all beings,

nourishes them, maintains them,

cares for them, comforts them, protects them,

takes them back to itself,

creating without possessing,

acting without expecting,

guiding without interfering.

That is why love of the Tao

is in the very nature of things.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Loving human beings is hard in a loveless world. Ever since the advent of romantic love among the troubadour poets in the Middle Ages, the romantic has been entangled with the tragic. In the Christian context, the fire of romantic love was kept from consuming the soul because the noble lady was—in theory, at least—the occasion for awakening the poet’s love for divine beauty. He was not just attracted to her, but through her. Sexual love, and even human love, pales in comparison to divine love; the erotic, in this register, is not merely a biological category but a cosmic one.

But in a secular age, running the same program crashes the computer. It places on the beloved a burden that she cannot bear. It’s a lot of pressure to be a soul mate in a soulless world. It’s the inverse of the classical Biblical error of trying to be like God: treating your beloved like a Goddess. It’s paradoxically dehumanizing.

What if this delusion that subtly suffuses today’s default approach to romantic love were based on a deeper one—namely, that love is a merely human, all too human thing? What if, instead, Eros is somehow the engine of evolution? What if the universe were really the Dao, Gaia, the Cosmic Mother, in whose Agapic embrace we can rest? What if, trusting in that background, romance could then be what it should—us playing our part in Lila, God’s play, participating in the divine dance?

I don’t know whether any of that is True. But isn’t it pretty to think so?


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 50

Chapter 50

“The Master gives himself up

to whatever the moment brings.

He knows he is going to die,

And he has nothing left to hold on to:

No illusions in his mind,

No resistances in his body.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


When I was learning how to practice zazen, the style of seated meditation in Zen Buddhism, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to aim for a posture in which you can be physically relaxed, but mentally alert. It’s a hard posture to pull off.

When we are physically relaxed, our minds tend to drift, dull, and doze. Many a meditator nods off. When we are mentally alert—say, tearing through our inbox at work—we tend to tense up, clench our jaws, crane our necks, bunch up our shoulders and upper back. Put another way, when we are physically relaxed, our minds flood with illusions, and when we are mentally alter, our bodies tighten with resistance.

Relax the body. Focus the mind. See what the moment shows you.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 49

Chapter 49

“The Master has no mind of her own.

She works with the mind of the people.

The Master’s mind is like space.

People don’t understand her.

They look to her and wait.

She treats them like her own children.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


We Americans are allergic to the paternalism of antiquity. Whether it’s the philosopher-kings of Plato or the junzi of Confucius, we are wont to read the ancient approach to politics as unacceptable because it doesn’t respect the modern values of freedom and equality. Nobody tells us what to do!…especially not high-minded, overeducated bureaucrats who think they are smarter and better than us. But this prejudice against paternalism rests on an immature view of adults and children.

To treat people like your own children is not to condescend to them, but to respect them. It is not to impose your vision of the good on them, but to claim a stake in their own flourishing. It is not to fill their minds with your ideas, but to empty them (“people don’t understand her”) so that they can think for themselves. It is not to coerce them to behave in accord with your rules, but to grow the space between stimulus and response (“wait”) so they can act with inner freedom. It is not to make yourself feel superior, but to encourage them to not feel inferior—or superior—to anyone. To treat people like your own children is not to regard them as childish, but to help them become more childlike.

Paradoxically, without a little paternalism, people won’t be truly free, and won’t treat each other equally.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 48

Chapter 48

“In the pursuit of knowledge,

every day something is added.

In the practice of the Tao,

Every day something is dropped.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the “Christ”—the savior—because he empties himself. The Greek word used to describe this action is kenosis. We would do well to let more of the kenotic spirit into our modern lives.

Increasingly today, the upper middle class preoccupation with lifestyle design, from influencer culture to self-help books, has taken on an ascetic character. From Headspace to the Four-Hour Workweek, from Minimalism to Marie Kondo, the last decade was dominated by the desire to optimize, eliminate, simplify, automate, and reduce “friction.” Andrew Taggart brilliantly profiles the demigods that populate our social imaginary, what he calls “secular monks”:

Secular monks inherit from Calvinism the veiling of the transcendent—in their case, the veiling of the very possibility that the transcendent could ever disclose itself. They inhabit an epistemically uncertain world and suffer existential anxiety and loneliness. Above all, they commit to work—to working on themselves and on the world—as the key to salvation. Practitioners submit themselves to ever more rigorous, monitored forms of ascetic self-control: among them, cold showers, intermittent fasting, data-driven health optimization, and meditation boot camps.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that a knowledge economy is suffused with a gnostic ethos. The cliché that our consumer society is plagued by something called “materialism” is wrong. Consumerism expresses a profound contempt for the body, for physical objects, for the earth, preferring the frictionless realm of cyberspace or the promised land of Martian colonies to the filthy business of life on earth. It chases “less” with the mindset of “more,” driven by an escapist ethos built on an extractive economy. The knowledge economy—or the gnostic economy—rests on a dangerous dualism between spirit and matter. Cyberspace depends on servers, servers depend on electricity, and electricity depends on matter, energy, and earth.

The ascetic only superficially resembles the kenotic, though both are characterized by spiritual ambition.

Where the ascetic is moved by desire, the kenotic is moved by compassion.

Where the ascetic wants to escape reality, the kenotic revels in it.

Where the ascetic ascends, the kenotic descends.

Where the ascetic is all discipline, the kenotic is abandon.

Where the ascetic is Apollonian, the kenotic is Dionysian.

Where the ascetic saves, the kenotic spends.

Where the ascetic clings, the kenotic lets go.

Where the ascetic wants control, the kenotic says yes to chaos.

Where the ascetic sees a logic of scarcity, the kenotic sees one of abundance.

Where the ascetic says let’s move to Mars, the kenotic says earth is enough.

If the ascetic spirit drives the knowledge economy, what would an economy of the kenotic spirit look like?

Perhaps a wisdom economy?


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 47

Chapter 47

“Without opening your door,

you can open your heart to the world.

Without looking out your window,

you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,

the less you understand.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


The pandemic has made amateur monks of us all. We’ve had to close all sorts of doors—our social circles, our schools, our businesses. And in many cases, that’s felt like closing our hearts. Social distancing has made us feel socially distant. Our world have narrowed. And we have lots of time to just stare out the window.

But as with normal retreats, this long strange journey is also an opportunity to withdraw from the world to see it more clearly. In meditation, you do not look out your window, but at your window. We gain knowledge by looking out our window, and wisdom by looking at it. The more you look at your window, the more and better you will see when you look out of it.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 46

Chapter 46

“When a country is in harmony with the Tao,

the factories make trucks and tractors.

When a country goes counter to the Tao,

warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,

no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,

no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear

will always be safe.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


This week I taught Machiavelli’s The Prince, which offers the opposite advice: the ruler should always keep his focus on war and readiness for war, and the key to keeping power is to be afraid of foreign invasions and domestic uprisings. To prevent both, you must make people fear you. Fear is not an illusion to “see through.” It is the truth that stands behind all illusions.

But your main enemy is not people, but Nature. Nature is not the Dao, but “Fortuna,” which Machiavelli casts in feminine terms as a force the ruler must try to master, to, if necessary, “beat and strike her.” Only the prince equipped with virtú—the root of which is Latin for “man”—has a chance of outfoxing and overpowering Fortuna to wrest power and glory from her clutches. But Fortuna is much more Kali or Tiamat than Providence or Gaia. Harmony with her is impossible; the best that can be hoped for is defensive rearguard actions that temporarily fend off her swallowing us whole. Or tearing us to pieces.

Machiavelli would have been fascinated by Trump—someone should write a Machiavellian assessment of his reign—but he arguably never could have predicted what Fortuna would throw at the United States: a cold civil war based on illusions that are both cause and effect of fear. The chief “enemy” is no longer foreign, but domestic. Machiavelli works well for the world of realpolitik, the geopolitics of the world of the 20th century. But our situation is becoming increasingly characterized by what Ross Douthat calls “dreampolitik”: large segments of the population captured by alternative realities split off from the broader body politic, convinced their fellow citizens are their enemies.

In this world, FDR and the Dao are more useful than Machiavelli. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—and the illusions it fosters and is fueled by. Just as we pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression through muscular government action and wartime mobilization—“the factories make trucks and tractors”—we must pull ourselves out of this perilous moment by making America make again, and leading the 30 year project to decarbonize the global economy and avert catastrophic climate change.

If we do that with speed, at scale, and with solidarity—and with a lot of Fortuna on our side—then we just may help humanity attain harmony with the Dao.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 45

Chapter 45

“True perfection seems imperfect,

yet it is perfectly itself.

True fullness seems empty,

Yet it is fully present.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


For the Daoist, the proverbial glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. The conventional binary of “optimism” and “pessimism” is a product of an impoverished way of seeing. Optimism is too fixated on the future, pessimism too preoccupied with the past. Both are caught in what Tai Chi calls the “floating position.” Vaclav Havel agreed:

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

This reflects a deep trust—a kind of faith—not in a set of dogmas, but in the basic order of things. As Alan Watts put it, where belief clings, faith lets go.

For the Daoist, the glass is empty, however “full” it might appear. It may be relatively full or relatively empty, but ultimately it is fully empty. This seems contradictory to the logical mind—“true wisdom seems foolish,” we also read in this chapter—but as Pascal noted, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot fathom.” The heart-mind, according to Chinese philosophy, is that part of us that can intuit things felt but not seen…the hidden logos, the Force, the Dao.

In the modern age, we have lost the faith that, in the final analysis, things hang together, that we are part of a “cosmos”–literally, a well-ordered state of affairs. We don’t have to fall back on belief in the bearded man in the sky; that was never much faith to begin with. We have to fall forward into the world as it is, trusting that the emptiness of space is less an abyss and more an ocean that will buoy us up, the fount of all forms.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 44

Chapter 44

“Success or failure: which is more destructive?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


It was not enough for us to enshrine “success” as the meaningless and therefore unattainable goal of the game of late capitalism. We also had to go ahead and fetishize “failure.” George Carlin quipped that in America, you never have to die; you get to just “pass away.” In the same vein, “failure” just brings you closer to “success,” so we—or rather, the Silicon Valley influencers who were the few lucky winners who despite their brilliance and heroic industry are either monstrously deluded due to their success or cynically gaslighting those less fortunate and whose products and platforms are causing the psychological and political equivalent of climate change—tell young people to fail early and often. Fail up! Fail forward! Marx had a powerful image for how ideology works: a “camera obscura,” in which the true world is turned upside down.

I don’t mean to knock the value of grit, hard work, and risk-taking. These are essential virtues, and we almost always need more of them. I don’t mean to knock capitalism. In its healthiest form, it is both the most moral and the most effective and efficient way to organize our economic lives.

But at some point, cultural scripts about success and failure start to mess with people’s minds. This semester I am teaching a seminar for seniors on work and leisure. They are about to start their adult lives with, theoretically, greater advantages than most people their age in history: coming out of an elite university in the richest country in the history of the world. And they’re terrified. Yes, there’s the pandemic, climate change, the fracturing and fragilizing of democracy, the vertiginous inequalities of late capitalism. But I suspect they’d be feeling this way regardless of these swirling storm systems.

Cleansed of ideological distortions, though, the gospel of failure carries a grain of truth. Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard about success was that true success would be to succeed yourself. If you are not dying and being reborn every five or ten years, you’re probably doing something wrong. This is a more psycho-spiritual view of success. Failure is “not an option,” it is a necessity. Not because complete success is possible, but because everything is built to fail. Rather than embrace this truth, the American mind chases a fantasy of perfect, permanent success, and when reality does not bend to its influential wishes and the soul or body breaks down, it calls that failure success in disguise. It tries to make the whole world yang, and when yin asserts itself, it says white is the new black.

Today’s chapter closes: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” The serpent gets a bad rap in Genesis, but in the ancient near East, the serpent was a sacred animal and a symbol of eternity. The snake regularly sheds its skin. As Joseph Campbell puts it, the serpent represents the power of eternity in time, the force of life continually casting off dead weight, regenerating itself, being reborn. The snake’s skin fails, and it succeeds itself. The snake is not how it appears to others. The snake is not its skin. It is the sinuous line slithering across and around the yin/yang symbol.

Don’t follow the snakes advice and try to be like God. Try to be like the snake.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 43

Chapter 43

“The gentlest thing in the world

overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

Teaching without words,

Performing without actions:

That is the Master’s way.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


What is the hardest thing in the world?

The images this passage summons are the gentle river patiently wearing down the hard mountain, or the martial artist deftly deflecting a rushing attacker. The hard is found in the heavy and the dense, the crude and the brutal. But these are not the hardest thing in the world.

The hardest thing in the world is a human mind that believes it knows the world. Words are futile volleys of arrows glancing off its proud façade. Actions aimed at prying it open only tighten its grip. How to teach without words and perform without actions? Look to the true Master.

The true Master is nature. “The gentlest thing in the world” is a mountain. Precisely by not moving—through its supreme silence and inimitable inaction—it forces the human mind and body to yield to it. In return, it reveals the view from above, helping us let go of the view from below. And as we descend, it makes us let go of that view too.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 42

Chapter 42

“Ordinary men hate solitude.

But the master makes use of it,

embracing his aloneness, realizing

he is one with the whole universe.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


In 2014, a social psychologist conducted an experiment in which people had the choice of either doing nothing for a short period of around 15 minutes, or shocking themselves. The results were, well…you can fill in the blank. The experiment appeared to support Pascal’s famous aphorism, “All of mankind’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” More specifically, perhaps the problems stem from men’s inability to do so; more precisely, the masculine power’s revulsion at solitude sows chaos.

The lines above today’s selection read this way: “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony.”

If the male turns its back on the female, he will only see her shadow. He will, that is, only see Kali. And Kali makes you fight, flee, fawn, or freeze. Kali provokes furious action, frenetic motion, reactive energy, rash behavior—anything but sitting still.

But to turn toward Kali—to “embrace his aloneness”—the male has to fall backward into the black. The little shocks he distracts himself with to feel alive and accomplished are so much pornography filling in for the real thing; if he really wants to give birth to something, he has to turn toward Kali. He has to go, as Plotinus put it, from the alone to the Alone. He has to say yes to solitude.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 41

Chapter 41

“The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long….”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Psychoanalysis, it has been said, is expensive, inconclusive, and interminable. In contrast to modern therapeutic approaches like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that tend to focus more on problem solving—on the future—psychoanalysis presents as a long, leisurely walkabout through the wilds of the psyche, a spelunking sojourn through the vast caverns of one’s past. Who has the time these days?

But however inefficient this continental method may sound to American ears, it had a practical purpose: what Freud called “regression in service of the ego.” The logic is that the unconscious is governed by its own peculiar logic; it “seems dark,” but its threshold is a “path into the light.” The gamble is that by treating with the monsters dwelling in the darkness of the psyche, we will unsnarl the knots in the net that binds us back up top; and that without this descent and return, all our efforts on the surface will only ensnare us more tightly in a matrix of our own making. In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman wrote, “out of the dimness, opposite equals advance.” Or as development psychologist Robert Kegan likes to put it, “Either we feast on our shadows, or starve on our egos.”

Sometimes, the only way forward is downward.


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Dao Du Jour: Day 40

Chapter 40

“Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.

Being is born of non-being.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


It follows from this that “being” is not a thing. What, then, is being?

Existentialism is one of the most perilous parts of our march up the mountain because it’s easy to get stuck there. Hamlet’s indecision is the classic example, the soul circling about on a rocky promontory, unable to see the point in either pressing on to the summit or coming back down the mountain.

Without yoga—some form of mental and physical practice to jolt the soul awake from its stupor of abstraction—the existential engine stalls. The word yoga is related to the word for “yoke,” and its goal is to align the movements of our being with the order of things.

If we are stuck to “being,” we will be cut off from things, because being is not an idea or a concept of a kind of super-being like God floating in some ether. If we yield to non-being, we will see being for what it is: nothing else than what Daoism calls “the 10,000 things.” The 10,000 things just are the play of being and non-being, form and emptiness, time and eternity.

In Biblical terms, creation is not an event in the distant past, but a process taking place right now. To paraphrase Hamlet, there is nothing past or future, but thinking makes it so.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 39

Chapter 39

“When man interferes with the Tao,

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


When The Matrix came out in 1999, no one considered it to be an environmental allegory. Instead, we cast it as Frankenstein for the digital age: the hubris of humanity playing god, our creations turning on us and threatening the survival of our species. Climate change had not yet slid into the Overton window, but now that it has, watching The Matrix in light of it makes sense. What folks in the “existential risk” space refer to as the “control problem” of artificial intelligence is likely to become more and more entangled with the climate problem.

This week, one of the leading science journalists of our time, Elizabeth Kolbert—author of The Sixth Extinction—came out with a new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, reporting on the state of play around the climate problem. Among the many controversial cutting-edge technologies she profiles is geo-engineering, the main form of which involves injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere to deflect solar radiation in order to cool the planet. As one of her sources bluntly remarks, we are at the point where we are seriously talking about “dimming the fucking sun.”

When Morpheus explains to Neo how the machines took over—“some time in the early 21st century”—he says that as a last ditch effort to win the war, humanity darkened the sky in order to cut off the machine’s power source—the sun. Yet this turned out to seal humanity’s fate, since the machines realized they could use human bodies as batteries by growing them in fields, sucking their life force energy away as they sleepwalked through a virtual reality simulation. 

Few paid attention, however, to the deeper meaning of The Matrix sequels—partly because of wooden acting and stilted scripts, partly because they contained a spiritual teaching far too high for popular culture. In the second and third films, we learn that the simple morality play of the first film—“humanity good, machines bad”—is yet another illusion. The machines themselves turn out to be incarnations of spirit. In Hegelian terms, the machines are humanity’s alienated essence, and the war is the “cunning of reason” conspiring to reconcile them to each other. Neo is the Christ-like mediator between the two.

A form of this Manichean morality tale characterizes much of the environmental movement—“ humanity/technology/capitalism bad, nature good”—and colors Western appropriations of Daoism. The rhetoric of balance, harmony, and equilibrium conjures the idea that humanity is, as Agent Smith puts it, a “cancer on this planet.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that nature created a species that interferes with nature. To regard humanity as the problem is, paradoxically, to interfere with the Dao. As Stewart Brand famously put it, “We are as gods. We may as well get good at it.” Our destiny is not what we have tacitly been trying to do for millennia: leave this planet. It is to make it our home for the first time; to restore the balance we began to disrupt with the advent of agriculture; to run the industrial revolution in reverse; and, as energy scientist Amory Lovins puts it, to “reinvent fire,” switching from scarce “fuels from hell” to unlimited “fuels from heaven.” Like the machines, carbon dioxide is our alienated essence, the shadow of our civilization. We must confront it, take responsibility for it, bury it, and refrain from projecting it.

If we interfere with the Dao—if we not grow our consciousness to develop technologies to adapt to the world we have wrought—the sky will become filthy, the earth will be depleted, and creatures will go extinct. Few figures seem more at odds with both Daoism and environmentalism than Francis Bacon. Yet Bacon said that to be commanded, nature must be obeyed. It is earth (geothermal), fire (solar and nuclear), wind, and water power—and the fifth element, the spark of intelligence within us—that will lead us to energy heaven.

Only then will we have true “energy independence.” Only when our civilization is fueled by heaven will we give up trying to get there. Only then will we finally be earthlings.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 38

Chapter 38

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.

When goodness is lost, there is morality.

When morality is lost, there is ritual.

Ritual is the husk of true faith,

The beginning of chaos.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


This chapter is a surgical strike against Confucius, for whom li, ritual propriety, was the key ingredient to a successful society. The Confucian saw the ideal society as a carefully choreographed play aimed at maximizing order. The Taoist saw this as a social straightjacket snuffing out spontaneity, sure to court the very thing it tried to control. Lao-tzu is the trickster in the garden Confucius cultivated, telling you to live a little, bite the apple, and see what happens. 

For the traditionalist, rituals are sacred and separate from the profane. 

For the modernist, rituals are silly because nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is profane. 

For the postmodernist, rituals are sacred but found in the profane–and the mundane. 

Growing up in a modern culture, it’s hard not to encounter a religious ritual like the Catholic mass as pointless, inefficient, hollow. There is no room for individual thought or action, since the participant is purely passive. Of course, in truth, the idea is for the soul to be active in prayer. But since modernity, afflicted by what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” doesn’t quite believe in souls, a mass seems like a big waste of time—and boring as all hell.

Yet after a while, everything on the modern plane seems like a big waste of time, because nothing really matters. Since nothing is sacred, time isn’t really worth saving, so it can’t really be wasted. The distractions designed to fend off the existential ennui evoked by an entropic universe start to lose their luster, and rituals once again become interesting.

For the postmodern “spiritual but not religious” set, there is no ritual more popular than the morning coffee. That caffeine has become the de facto sacrament of the information age, slavishly imbibed before we cross the threshold into the temple of productivity, speaks volumes about our culture’s priorities. Caffeine may be one of the “old gods,” but in the wasteland any god will do. But apart from that, the re-enchantment of the world has, for many of us, taken the form of simply being more present in the most mundane activities. These little sips of quiet we steal away before being sucked into the maelstrom of the marketplace—the coffee, the meditation, the yoga, the gratitude journals—certainly contain notes of Daoism. But this nibbling at the margins will not quite satisfy. It is as though we know we have to hold our breath all day, and inhale as many big gulps of air as we can before plunging into the fray.

Contra conventional wisdom, though, the traditional attitude has much to recommend it. The Sabbath is not the “end” of the week, a kind of bonus-round tacked on to the main event, a chance to get some R and R to be productive the week after; but it is the “end” of the week in the sense of the purpose of the week, the answer to the question of why the work, why the week—why time—matters at all. As Josh Cohen explains in his gem of a book Not Working, “The Sabbath, explicitly sanctifying non-work, encourages us to imitate this divine lassitude; its disappearance from contemporary life may have as much to do with the sacralization of work as it does with the secularization of society.” The truth is that modernity tells a noble lie about religion; as David Foster Wallace put it, there’s no such thing as atheism–everybody worships. And modernity worships the false idol of work.

The only way to recover the “true faith”–to ascend from chaos back to up to the Dao–is with what John Lewis called “good trouble.” A little chaos now is like a vaccine that inoculates us against a lot of chaos later. It’s true that we need order as an “antidote to chaos,” as Jordan Peterson puts it, but after a while order becomes boring and unbearable. The routines that streamline our lives, the habits that William James called the great flywheel of society, over time congeal into ruts that stifle the spirit. Chaos can be an antidote to order. Rituals are great, as long as we aren’t too religious about them. A little chaos in the morning, a little chaos at work, a little chaos on the Sabbath.

A little chaos, not too much.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 37

Chapter 37

“If powerful men and women

could center themselves in [the Dao],

the whole world would be transformed by itself….

People would be content

with their simple, everyday lives,

in harmony, and free of desire.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


Few passages in the Daodejing sound more utopian than this. Yet few ages, arguably, are more cynical than ours. Sure, the elimination of desire and world peace are impossible and, in the case of the former, economically disastrous.

But if we adopt the hermeneutic of Trump apologists and take the passage “seriously, but not literally,” it has something important to tell us.

One of the many lessons of the Trump years was that who is in charge matters. For a long time, many Americans—call them casual centrists—didn’t think or worry much about politics, naively assuming that the system would take care of itself, or cynically believing that they’re all crooks anyway, so why bother?

The very idea that the character of the leader doesn’t matter was foreign to the ancients. For Plato, the ideal leader was the philosopher. The philosopher was not a professor of philosophy, but a person who had attained self-mastery, possessed the virtues, and was driven above all toward the truth and the common good.

The idea that character doesn’t matter in politics flows from the political atomism of our cultural DNA: classical liberalism. As Patrick Dineen has pointed out, the idea that we are first and foremost individuals, islands unto ourselves, isn’t just corrosive to the flourishing of human society; it’s false. You don’t even need to ask Aristotle; just consult your local evolutionary biologist.

People instinctively look to the leader—even if they’re disgusted, even if they can’t look away. And even if they are repulsed and don’t follow his example, it makes them just a little bit more cynical, a little bit more jaded. It’s precisely that fatalism that is fatal to a free society. Without leaders centered in—or at least orbiting—the Dao, it’s harder for people to be center themselves.

But what follows from this is that we are all powerful men and women, caught, as King put it, in a seamless garment of destiny. We are part of the same social fabric that produced Trump. We must then take responsibility for ten thousand tiny ways we “transform the world” every day. We must center ourselves precisely by remembering that we are not the center of things.


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

Dao Du Jour: Day 36

Chapter 36

“If you want to shrink something,

you must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,

You must first allow it to flourish.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan relays one of the key “flight instructions” given by veteran “psychonauts” to people embarking on their first psychedelic trip: if you see a monster, go toward it.

As with all monsters, this requires defying our most powerful guardians—our desires and fears—as well as the conventional wisdom around monsters. At root, the word “monster” means a “showing.” He is always trying to show you something, even if he can’t articulate it—especially if he can’t articulate it. And he will not retreat from the stage until you get the message.

The monster’s medium—raging, roaring, rearing up—is his message. All he really craves is attention. It is hardly surprising that our contemporary culture is so monstrous: we live in an attention economy, where the latest form of manufactured scarcity is consciousness itself.

The art of monster-whispering requires not just courage and patience, but a heroic dose of imagination. Here, Lao-tzu calls it “the subtle perception of the way things are.” The way things are is not how they seem. The monster is not as he appears; or rather, he is precisely as he appears, if we look carefully enough: afraid.

So seen, he disappears.


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Dao Du Jour: Day 35

Chapter 35

“She who is centered in the Tao

can go where she wishes, without danger.

She perceives the universal harmony,

Even amid great pain,

Because she has found peace in her heart.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.


There is little we would like more right now than to “go where we wish, without danger” and little more we desire than to feel centered. You can tell how long we’ve been in the underworld when memories from the before-times seem strange; I was recently recalling my first time meeting a colleague years ago, and it struck me as strange that we weren’t wearing masks. We can’t go anywhere without danger, and if anything, we feel too centered—because we’re always home. You can’t really go home if you’re always there.

What’s incongruous about this chapter is that it decouples danger and great pain. Modern Buddhists like to say that “pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.” Physical, emotional, and mental pain is going to happen—hence the first Noble Truth, “Life is suffering”—but what we control is how we respond to it. Today’s suffering is tomorrow’s pain.

But pain conducted produces harmony. It reminds us that we are caught in a labyrinth, and gives us an Ariadne’s thread to fumble our way out so that we can see its brilliant design. The pandemic has been a tragedy, but the crisis, as the cliché goes, is also an opportunity to appreciate the reality and fragility of the world we have inherited and innovated: politically, culturally, economically, and ecologically entwined. Society is largely a conspiracy to protect its members from the truth, but the truth is just a broader, more concrete, and less nefarious conspiracy—that of life.

Life is the business of human beings and life forms breathing together in the same space, the background against which our religious and political stories appear childish things. The pandemic has laid bare the truth of our 21st century civilization, which is really the truth of civilization itself: our destiny is not to leave this plane or planet for heaven or space, but to learn how to live on it, how to breathe together with all of its inhabitants.

The great danger is that we cocoon ourselves with comforts inside the cave of conventional wisdom, which largely consists of conspiracy theories, some more benign than others. The pandemic must be the “great pain” that breaks this spell, and helps enough of us perceive the “universal harmony” that we can begin to face the music: climate change. Like our democracy, our home is not a given, but a goal.


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