“The Book of Changes” was the translated title of the ancient Chinese book “I Ching” that first attracted me. In my twenties at the time, it seemed like the scale of uncontrollable factors in the churning world around me overwhelmed the strategies for living surrounding me in the culture. Taoism and I clicked instantly around the foundation understanding that movement and change and adapting to shifting circumstances while in motion myself was the only useful image for balance. Being aware of patterns of movement is far more helpful than the names and definitions of things. Labeling and weighing numbers of things, though useful in certain spheres of life, can’t be an image of life itself. Every category and box one is sorted into comes with an attached judgment that, if one is dependent on thinking with labels, takes the place of the actual, in-front-of-your face reality. Naming something is a way of controlling it and creates an illusion of knowing that can be highly destructive to making real contact with the world. One of the benefits of video games is the degree to which it uses sophisticated instinctual visual assessment and banishes verbal thought. And because it depends upon complete attention, all the time, it can be an exhilarating involvement we have lost the art of in the real world. Because we’ve substituted labels and judgments and the spill of theories that grow from them we’ve built walls of ideation that limit our capacity to pay attention to the movements of life. When walking becomes fitness, a treadmill and set of numbers, we miss the relation to outdoors, the fact that every day is different, that we are always responding to the wind and temperatures, a bird or squirrel. The automatic part is there, but the narration of life in our head, the piles of verbal thought all around us keep us from seeing the life in which our body participates. Make a game of the walk, note how many changes you see in the same neighborhood every day. Our bodies are always doing this. We just aren’t paying attention. Our response to the world is a dance, a natural adjustment to the movement around us that makes us part of it. Paying attention is the key to enjoying it.
A book that gives advice about how to handle the different states of change is better than a list of unchanging rules. It helps us see the overall dynamic in which we’re embedded and see realistically what can be done in such a state. Handling the situation well always emphasized cultivating character and virtue. Today’s research shows that the reason it feels so good is because we stimulate endorphins when we are virtuous. It’s good for our survival because it harmonizes us as a collaborator with the moving world.
Looking back on my recent posts I realize to what degree the philosophy in the “I Ching” pervades my thinking. Seeing the world as a dynamic whole, it uses the imagery of nature to express the cosmic intelligence that underlies all phenomena.
A mechanical view of the world leaves out contextual pattern. We don’t learn that much more about life by stripping away all the variables that make it life. A world of multiple variables needs a philosophy based on adjustment, metaphysical homeostasis based in the understanding that the metaphors of striving for balance can apply to any living system. In the midst of so many uncontrollable changes it makes sense to “not be led by hopes and fears”. Like the yang-yin symbol, each contains a bit of the other. Our ideas about them are what make us suffer.
More than thirty years of regular reading in the “I Ching” has created an underlying approach to life that invigorates each moment of being. Names and labels reduce the richness of continuous being to desired points along the way, where we can only enjoy results and not the pleasure of doing. Erich Fromm wrote about the many ways that an attitude toward life based on having- possessions, accomplishments, problems, a body, a life, a goal, was less satisfying than an attitude based on being- living, doing, feeling- participating in an unfolding process. We are what we do. We do it better when we’re paying attention.