Tasting Vinegar

I wrote here recently about Benjamin Hoff‘s two books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff writes about “The Vinegar Tasters” which is a traditional subject for Chinese painting and religious and philosophical allegories. You may be interested in learning about that short lesson. I wrote about it on another blog at https://ronkowitz.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-vinegar-tasters.html

Still Wandering the Hundred Acre Wood

Hundred Acre Wood

E. H. Shepard’s 1926 map of the Hundred Acre Wood, based on the Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne.

The Pooh books of A.A. Milne had their influence on me when I was slipping into being a teenager. They were not books of my childhood. A girl friend who I wanted to be a girlfriend was a big fan of Pooh and so I started reading them. My relationship with Milne has lasted a lot longer than my relationship with that girl.

I always thought there was something wise in the words of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and their friends. The Tao of Pooh was published after I had stopped being a student in classrooms, but it would have been on my bookshelf in those days. When it was published (1982), I was married, teaching and a few years from having my own children. I had rediscovered Pooh because the books were also a favorite of my wife-to-be. It was also a time that I was rediscovering Buddhism which I had started to study in college. This book about Pooh’s “philosophy” by Benjamin Hoff is an introduction to the Eastern belief system of Taoism intended for Westerners.

The book does use the Milne characters’ words but more so it allegorically uses the characters to illustrate the basic principles of Taoism.

Tao (or Dao) is a Chinese word meaning the “way” or “path” and sometimes more loosely “doctrine.”

I like the story (hopefully true) that Hoff wrote the book at night and on weekends while working as a tree pruner in the Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Pruning and weeding my garden are two of my favorite practical meditations.

Hoff later wrote The Te of Piglet, a companion book – both are available in one volume.

But Hoff’s relationship with publishers was far less pleasant than a day in the Hundred Acre Wood.

In 2006, he denounced the publishing industry and announced his resignation from book-writing.  He has published five books including The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow which won the American Book Award in 1988.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne

The character of Winnie-the-Pooh is a good personification of wu wei.  Don’t confuse this Taoist concept of “effortless doing” with laziness.  Imagine if you could do your work “effortlessly.”

Pooh also illustrates for us pu.  This Chinese word means “unworked wood” or “simple” and was an early Taoist (or Daoist) metaphor for the natural state of humanity. Pooh is an exemplar of this concept of being open to, but unburdened by, experience.

Owl and Rabbit are characters that are quite the opposite. They over-complicate and over-think situations and problems.

Eeyore (who I fully identified with for a long time) is a pessimist. always complaining and fully burdened.

Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”
Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh”
― A.A. Milne

The Te of Piglet is the 1992 companion book to The Tao of Pooh. It was also a bestseller. In this book, Piglet acts as our model of living Te.

The Chinese concept of Te, which means “power” though often interpreted as  “virtue,” is particularly suited to Piglet in the Taoist concept of “virtue of the small.”  This second volume is really an elaboration on the first book’s introduction to Taoism, so they should be read together.

Piglet has power, though small, because he has a great heart or, in Taoist terms, Tz’u.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”  – A.A. Milne

The Hundred Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories is based on the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Milne’s country home was just north of Ashdown Forest. That Wood is one that young Christopher Robin Milne would explore.

I am still wandering in my own One Hundred and Fifty-Seven Acre Wood on a regular basis. I can be found there practicing (rather badly) Qigong and Tai Chi and trying to identify plants, playing Pooh Sticks in a creek and picking up plastic bottles and trash so that I leave the Wood cleaner than when I entered.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  –  A.A. Milne

I have learned that Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is “not a name for a thing” but the underlying natural order of the Universe. That order is perhaps impossible to describe as it is peskily non-conceptual. But it must exist.

Laozi also said that the Tao is “eternally nameless” in a world filled with named things that are manifestations of the Tao. The universe is a confusing place to wander.

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”  –  A.A. Milne

Tea As Philosophy

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful
among the sordid facts of everyday existence.
It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity,
the romanticism of the social order.
It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect,
as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible
in this impossible thing we know as life.”
― Kakuzō Okakura, The Book of Tea

I enjoy tea. I’m not alone, as it is the most popular beverage in the world after water.

It can be a simple thing to make and enjoy. But it can also be complex.

From a simple cup of the very common orange pekoe to a more unusual pu-erh tea, the choice of teas even in tea bags has become an almost overwhelming series of grocery store shelves. The way it is made and enjoyed can also be complex and even ceremonial.

I came under the spell of The Book of Tea (which is really a long essay) when I was a college student. It was originally written in English and was meant for Westerners.

In the book, I learned that tea began as a medicine and later became a beverage. But in fifteenth century Japan, it was elevated to a religion of aestheticism known as Teaism.

Teaism is not merely the appreciation of te but an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid in everyday existence. It worships the imperfect.

This “philosophy of tea” is far more complicated than this short post can summarize. It involves ethics and religion, our relationship with nature, even cleanliness and economics.

I saw it described as “moral geometry” in that it tries to define or refine our sense of proportion to the universe.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis

But that cup of tea, if you go deeper, is more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have imagined. Perhaps you simply drop a tea bag into a mug of hot water or put it into the microwave, but tea is still hand-crafted and treated like a bottle of wine, in some places and by some people.

Can tea have a positive effect on your brain, mood and attitude? Perhaps.

Can reading the tea leaves predict the future. Probably not.

Can you follow the way of tea? Absolutely.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves –
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

green tea incup on rocks

Reality Isn’t Real

I still remember my freshman year Philosophy 101 professor asking the class to define reality. There were frosh in the class but also upper class students fulfilling some missed requirement. Some of those juniors and seniors chuckled quietly. I looked around and thought “Don’t call on me.”

It is still a difficult or silly question for most people. How would you answer? “It is everything out there,” you might say as you gesture in front of you. “It’s the things you can see and touch and hear.”

I had a lot of problems accepting the theory of solipsism presented in the class that says that I am the only person that exists. Knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain and I can’t know the external world or other minds, so nothing might exist outside my mind.

I think I might have told the professor that I didn’t believe that to be true, and he said that it’s irrefutable, and that as a solipsist I would believe that I was the only true authority, I can only know my own reality. I can’t step inside another person and experience their reality.

I didn’t want to be a lonely solipsist.

Most of those views haven’t changed over the years and I read online that in considering the nature of reality some people will say that reality is all in your mind. What does that mean? This is not easy to conceive, but perhaps there are no actual things, colors, sounds or smells outside of your brain. It’s not philosophy; it’s science.

Consider that we do know that color consists of electromagnetic waves. Those colors we see depends on the length of those waves.

And sound? Sound is compressed airwaves.

Those smells are just pungent air molecules.

It is our brain that interprets these things as color, sound and smell. And we don’t all even interpret them exactly the same way. And I am not even getting into how dogs or bats or other creatures perceive their reality which certainly is not our reality. Bats use sound to navigate and dogs have a much keener sense of smell but poorer eyesight than us.

Reality is billions of neurons firing in your brain.

I know that the surface in front of my home that is green and keeps growing in warm weather is grass. I know this from repeated experiences. These experiences allow me to categorise and catalogue things.

This is what is known as our “internal model of reality” and we all need that model to navigate through the world and our lives.  But can our senses deceive us? Not only do animals have a different reality, but different people perceive reality differently.

That philosophy professor gave us readings about reality, and he told us that there were also scientists that believe that what we call reality is an illusion.

The article I read reminded me of the “thought experiment” (so far thankfully not duplicated except in films) where a brain is removed from a person and somehow kept alive and operating and is connected to a powerful computer that can act as its senses. Would the brain know the difference in its reality?

That is the premise in stories and films like The Matrix where Neo discovers that he is living in a computer-simulated reality.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” said Albert Einstein. Quantum physics (which Einstein had some issues with accepting) suggests that particles do not exist until they are observed. Without perception, we cannot exist. If we fall in a forest and no one is there to perceive it, did we fall?

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearances.” Erwin Schrodinger

Well, I think that I exist, so that must constitute some kind of reality.

Stealing Ecstasis

Prometheus
L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?

 

Taking Spinoza Off a Dusty Shelf

I was sorting through old, college books in preparation for yet another book donation as I thin out my shelves of the books I read and will likely never reread – or bought and never did or will read. A philosophy class book on Benedict de (AKA Baruch) Spinoza fits into the former category.

I flipped through the pages and saw some of my of notes and marginalia. It is hard to believe I read this and perhaps even understood it at one time.

“everything in the universe is made of a single substance”
“the universe is subject to natural laws”
“soul and body are not separate – 2 parts of same thing”

In a section that I apparently found very interesting and heavily annotated, I noted:

“God does not stand outside the universe”
“the universe IS God”

This was heavy stuff for a college freshman. Now, I don’t recall enough about Spinoza’s philosophy to even fake a decent book report, but that last margin note about God is where I seem to have arrived philosophically at this late stage of my life.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The family took refuge in Amsterdam, where there was a vibrant community of Jewish merchants and intellectuals. Spinoza fit in but was excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the existence of miracles.

He supported himself making lenses, and in his spare time studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology.

He wrote and published three books in his lifetime, but only his first book, Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes, actually carried his name because he was afraid that if he published his ideas, he would be branded a heretic by both Jews and Christians.

spinoza
“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” -B. Spinoza