They who know do not speak.
I adapted those lines above from the fifty-sixth chapter of Tao Te Ching. Written by Lao-tzu in the late fifth century B.C.E., just before he went up into the fog of an unknown where-about, he had left his post as historian with responsibility for official records in Loyang, a Chinese imperial capital.
Legend describes Lao-tzu's unhappiness with the political intrigue of the Chinese Chou (Zhou) regime. Abandoning the political turmoil, Lao-tzu was passing through the Hanku pass of Loyang and stopped for the night at an inn. He obviously impressed the innkeeper, perhaps with tales of adventures in the capital, as well as commentaries drawing from his down-to-earth philosophy of life. Somehow in their exchange, the innkeeper persuaded Lao-tzu to write down his observations of life. The result was a book of sayings that came to be called the Tao Te Ching, "The Book of the Way and its Virtue." And it is from the events around this legend that the Chinese school of Taoism came into being.
Now I return to my opening lines,
They who speak do not know;
They who know do not speak.
In Lao-tzu's case, he no doubt was pointing to the bizarre political developments in China that led to what historians call "the Warring States period" (475-221 B.C.E.). The cacophony of voices formed a backdrop of military confrontations, bureaucratic wrangling, ever-changing power plays, and a decline in civility and meaning in which "bad" people speak in bellicose voices while the "good" people say nothing.
That brief introduction serves as a backdrop to our present moment. Have you noticed how the most outlandish actions and words increasingly seem to pass by us as if unobserved? Where is the outrage when mothers and children are gassed on our southern border? When there will be more and more caravans of displaced people arriving at our borders as more and more homes are destroyed by the catastrophes of fires, hurricanes, floods, destruction of fertile lands, and unspeakable disruption to the natural habitat of our wildlife? When the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" continues to widen while the advertising machinery of our merchandising industry floods us with images of the "beautiful things" many people can never hope to obtain? When our infrastructure crumbles while profits of our conglomerates escalate? When wars in foreign neighborhoods continue on as a kind of accepted business-as-usual news blurb while we busy ourselves with the mundane affairs of the markets? When one of our political parties remains basically silent in the face of monstrous acts of inhumanity, separating children from mothers and embedding those children in prison-like barracks for indefinite periods of time, making impossible the psychological reunion of parent and child even should they be physically reunited? And again, I call attention to our absence of outrage, the shrugging off of what I believe in times past would have been recognized as moral failures and criminal offenses in many cases.
Yes, people who do not know speak, while the people who do know say nothing. But events may have arrived at what could be a tipping point. For example, consider some stories in the news of our past two weeks.
First is the report that life expectancy in the United States declined again in 2017, a statistic not seen in the U.S. since 1915 through 1918, (see The Washington Post, November 29). In this annual report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we learn that "life expectancy is improving in many places in the world and wonder why it should be declining in the United States."
Then, in another report we learn the ongoing growth of deaths from suicide has "climbed steadily since 1999 and grown worse since 2006." Most disturbing to me regarding the increase in suicides is the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people between ages ten and twenty-four. Consider that number and add the 5.7% increase of self-inflicted, near-fatal injuries among young adults and children, some as young as age five, and we see a deeper concern emerging as to the health of our society.
The deeper concern is for our soul. I understand "soul" to mean the "spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal," having to do with a human being's moral or emotional nature and sense of identity (Oxford Dictionary of English). What happens to us when we lose a basic sense of safety, when sanity and civility are drowned out by words and events of violence and/or deadening triviality? And what happens when education is underfunded, when public spaces are filled with commercial developments, when religious institutions preoccupy themselves with their own growth and marketing of self-serving dogmatism, and governing is seen as a never-ending game of charades with preening politicians?
Largely, these are questions people bring to my consulting room. Anxious about our drift toward authoritarianism, depressed about the seeming inability of good people to bring about change, the absence of moral leadership to speak in behalf of our children and our planet, our society's fascination with technology's parade of new gadgets, and the deceptive experience of a pseudo-connectivity with one another made possible by the wide web of social media, we appear to be immersed in a fog of soul-less unconsciousness.
How do we escape this numbing unconsciousness? As powerful as these forces of death-dealing unconsciousness may be, a much greater power is the striving of the human soul. And the human soul wants to be free. Entangled in the bind of collective forces, whether the binds be those of family, work, government, or social group, the soul yearns for a felt sense of safety to be free.
So... how do we arrive at a state of mind in which the soul experiences a felt sense of freedom? I am not talking here about a social program to bring about such a state of mind. Nor am I speaking of turning our backs on the injustices I have described and the disturbing silence of those who might be able to make a difference. Apparently we have arrived at a moment in time when we have to establish an internal base of safety to be free, sane, and clear.
And that is the promise of what I am calling "Zen." Arriving in Japan from China in the twelfth century, Zen had been formed in a cradle of Lao-tzu's Taoism. Zen is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment made possible through meditation, a form of meditation that draws upon each human being's innate intuitive sense. But Zen is also a state of mind, a state of calm attention in which one's focus is guided toward a deeper consciousness by which we find our true self, our deep being not conditioned by the world, making possible a life of service to others while living from an "oasis" within ourselves.
Zen reminds us of Christianity's Kingdom of Heaven which, Jesus says, is within each of us. It also reminds us of Carl Jung's description of individuation, a term he applies to the experience of "becoming whole." Psychologically, this happens when our minds become clear of our complexes, where we attend to the messages of our dreams, when with art, music, journaling, and creative play, we integrate conscious and unconscious, when we come home to ourselves.
We may call this "home-coming" by many names. It is a return to the deep nature of our soul, where it experiences safety to become oneself. However we name it, soul is recovered. And at this moment, I call it Zen, a call to step beyond the commonplace into a world where the moon rests peacefully upon the calm water.