Our Search for a Method
Our emerging method comes from the meeting of ancient practices such as shamanic ecstasy and the Chinese dao - with the modern disciplines of cybernetics, neuro-lingistic programming and cultural theory.
The Chinese philosophy of the Dao de Jing is often treated as obscure and strangely spiritual - but I have always seen it as being foremost a practical guide to living. This fits in with the Chinese character for "Dao"
- which means all at once a way
, a vision,
or a method
The revolutionary step I have taken, is to place the Dao in the context of modern systems thinking. The Dao is eloquent about the mysterious guidance which comes to us from the deeper, hidden realms. From the point of view of systems theory there is no great mystery - even though it feels no less wonderful or mysterious in the actual experience of it.
We need to bear in mind: we are a richly complex organism attuned through millions of lifetimes of co-evolution in a richly complex environment. And so it is, that the subtle workings of the Dao are actually inherent in our location in the here and now. The accumulated experience of our entire evolutionary tree is continuously available and resonates within our cellular organisation, and also in the spaces between us. (NOTE: these aspects are explored in more detail in the section of this web-site entitled: biology, culture, evolution)
The co- presence of living creatures, which means you and me whenever we meet, brings a complex - in some respects ancient, and bordering on the eternal - web of forces into play. And so, without denying the astonishing mystery of ourselves actually being here in the first place, we can understand the Dao quite prosaically as a method for seeking a better attunement to the force field we find ourselves in: to learn to ride more skilfully the eddies and currents that regularly arise within us, around us and between us.
So it is, that one key aspect of our developing practice, is that we willingly surrender to the "blooming,
" in which we live, move and have our being. We shall explore in detail, in other sections, what this
means in practice - but we can recognize straightaway that there are two almost contradictory aspects to the surrender of
which I speak. On the one hand, we inherit at each moment the traces, patterns
and pressures of the past - which throng about us, hungrily seeking to embody
themselves in this newly crystallising moment. And on the other hand each
moment is a re-birth, an opening on to what is new. In this respect it carries for us the possibility of a new direction, a new point of departure(2)
exist in the cross-current of these twin forces: of repetition, and of renewal(3)
This is what it is like (in words), to be a species that is suffering the labour-pains
of our own evolutionary process
. Our quest, embodied in this present study, is the cultivation of a new way to
dwell within that cross-current.
The method for doing this, depends upon the interaction of a small number of basic principles which - quite surprisingly - give rise to a radical new orientation to the flow of life.
This phenomenon: that a combination of ingredients can bring about a radically different whole, applies in many different locations, and in many different ways, within the fabric of our lives. We are so used to this that - as with other things very familiar to us - it easily escape our conscious notice entirely. Consider any of our everyday practices,
for instance: baking a cake, flying a kite, making a cup of tea, manufacturing
and letting off a firework, or playing a Beethoven symphony. In every case
there are multiple elements that have to be brought together and combined in
very precise order, so as to bring about the desired result. Any one of these
activities would actually appear bizarre or nonsensical, if we did not already know
the purpose of the whole thing and have a general idea of how it works.
Let us take another example: imagine the components of a jet engine, displayed
before you for the first time in your life: here is an air inlet, here a turbo-compressor, a combustion chamber, a fuel inlet, a turbine and a propulser unit.
But what are they doing here? What are they for? None of the ingredients
makes sense on its own; the whole thing will have to be assembled and
organised, first on the level of understanding and then on the level of action.
(Actually there are some additional ingredients without which the jet engine
remains a heap of non-functional metallic sculpture. For instance: a
mathematical theory of propulsion - expressed in precise and complex
equations; and a mechanical theory which includes exhaustive knowledge of
the properties of the various different materials used in manufacture and
operation. In addition to all of this we have to presuppose the design of the
actual aeroplane, which will have the capacity to convert the propulsive power
of the engine into actual flight through the air.)
In this respect, the Dao of Beginning Again conforms to the same pattern as any
of the examples given: we have a set of components, (definite ingredients that
need to be gathered together and prepared within certain limits of accuracy).
And there is also a kind of choreography in how it all gets put together, so that
each ingredient can perform its proper function within the whole. Thus our
practical method will emerge as something that anyone can learn how to do,
given a skilful and empathic teacher.
There are two major points of difference, however, which we need to take into
account. One is the extremely flexible and broad-based application of this new
method, which make it appear vague and undefined, in comparison with baking
a cake or playing a piece of music. We are lacking a tangible product that will
bring the process to a tidy completion. The Dao of Beginning Again can be
relevant to all sorts of different situations - and in fact we shall need to learn
how to deal with a whole array of situations at the same time, if we want to
make any effective impact on the state of our world). At this point we shall find
our multiple commitments shading off, one into another, and it will be easy to
lose the sense of completion and of clear-cut boundaries.
There is an additional factor, which makes this more problematic than the other
practical tasks I mentioned: that we are inaugurating a new kind of practice
(though foreshadowed by the Daoist culture-heros(5)
of old). So we do
not have generations of cake-makers, kite-fliers or classical musicians to assure
us that this can be done
, and to show us how to do it. Without an available
body of teachers and role models, our next step has to be delicate and a little
Now we can proceed with an initial survey of the ingredients of this prototype
mystery-cake we are going to bake together. After that, an effective recipe will
be needed - but I have to own up that this is still very much work in progress.
The method is waiting to emerge, as we proceed to combine the components
into a functioning whole - regretfully I am unable to give a well-ordered account
in advance of the actual practice of it. In the forthcoming chapters we are going
to explore various aspects of this new world-view and this will certainly give
strong pointers to the practice which flows out of it. The actual development,
however, will depend significantly upon yourself. And for now, we have the
modest aim of simply surveying the main ingredients.
NOTES TO THIS SECTION
1. The phrase is William James's (Principles of Psychology, 1890, p.462) and was intended by him to characterise the noisy, raw experience that impinges on a baby's sensibilities. I have commandeered his phrase to symbolise the busy-ness of nature at large. I
think it is significant that William James - though he regarded
himself primarily as a psychologist - belongs to the one
philosophical tradition which tried to integrate the new biological
theories of evolution into the search for an integrated understanding
about what we are, and what we are doing here. The best overview of
this tradition which I have found, is TEJERA, V.(1966) American Modern: The Path Not Taken
2. It is well worth noticing that the "repetition" may be re-vitalising, or deeply oppressive, and may be felt in either of these modes, too. Likewise, the "new direction" may be experienced as joyful liberation, as subtly disturbing, or as horribly disruptive. What is more, the felt experience may not correspond to the actual consequences - which themselves may be genuinely liberating, disturbing or disruptive, or a combination of all three.
3. In this foregoing section I have tried to
crystallise the deep insights of A.N.Whitehead (Process and Reality,
Adventures of Ideas) which have the virtue of melding a sensibility
in tune with mathematical physics and relativity theory, a deep
sympathy with the entire sweep of Western philosophy and powerful
resonances of Jewish mysticism and the Dao. I am not claiming that I
have succeeded, but the same undercurrent hopefully pervades this
4. Lao-ze and Juang-ze probably stand for a
whole cohort of cultural revolutionaries cum problem resolvers who
helped to make ancient China a place that was bearable for human
habitation. Examples from within our own culture might be the
Shakespearian Fool and his mediaeval predecessors; perhaps also
Shakespeare himself. And in other cultures than our own, there are
folk characters such as the Sufi "Nasrudin" and the
Hassidik zadek - who may have performed the same role, of cultural
revolutionary cum problem resolver within their respective cultures.
The ancient Hebrew prophets might also serve, except our tradition
has transmuted these into towering authority figures. In their own
time they would have appeared as misfits, inspired revolutionaries or
madmen. In any case, none of these are on the scene today to guide or
instruct us, and those of our own times who claim to be mystical and
revolutionary teachers offer us little or no clues as to who is, or
is not, the genuine article.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004