Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.

Let it go: Amish and Taoist Peace and Forgiveness

Simple spirituality can teach us to say ‘let it go’

BY ANDREW FIALA

FresnoBee October 17, 2014 

I recently attended a conference in Lancaster, Pa., focused on forgiveness and peace. Amish farms dot the countryside and Amish farmers in horse-drawn buggies roam the hills under turning leaves. What a great place to discuss forgiveness and peace.611zcLF19TL._SX425_

A guiding idea for the Amish is the concept of Gelassenheit. This German word means “letting things be” or “letting go.” This idea guides the simple and modest life of the Amish, who avoid vanity, pride and the temptations of the modern world.

A recent book on Amish spirituality by Donald Kraybill explains that Amish Gelassenheit is the opposite of the “bold, assertive individualism of mainstream American culture.” The Amish encourage submission, humility and simplicity as well as forgiveness, peace, love and community.

Our bold and assertive individualism may be the root of many of our problems: crime, war, ecological disaster and social dislocation. Mainstream culture does not encourage us to be yielding or to be humble. Nor are we content to go easy in the world. Would you exchange your car for a horse and buggy, your cell phone for a simpler life?

We fill our lives with gadgetry and we charge down the freeway at breakneck speed. We celebrate heroes who impose their will upon the world. We are rarely encouraged to give way, to yield, or to simply let things be. We are too busy asserting ourselves, defending our rights and expressing our outrage.

But a yielding and gentle spirit is the heart of peaceful human relations. Consider forgiveness. To forgive is to give up on resentment, revenge and the right to retaliate. If I forgive you, I let you get away with what you’ve done. I forgo the right to punishment or compensation. Forgiveness leaves the injury behind, lets go of the past and allows the future to unfold anew.

Love is also connected to letting go. Loving human beings relinquish their egos in communion with others. We want those we love to flourish and grow, to become fully themselves. Loving parents guide their children gently, encouraging development with an accepting spirit.

Some may worry that peaceful yielding and loving forgiveness undermine discipline and order. Some still believe that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But peaceful and harmonious communities do not need coercive force. Obedience based upon cruelty is superficial. True moral communities develop when people are patiently persuaded to discover natural affinities and common good.

My contribution at the Lancaster conference was a talk on Taoism. The Chinese philosophers also celebrate the spirit of letting go and letting be. Taoist wisdom encourages us to let things be the way they are. The Taoists emphasize living naturally, spontaneously, without conniving or contriving.

There are huge differences between Amish Christianity and Chinese Taoism. The Amish emulate Jesus and submission to God by saying, “Thy will be done.” The Taoists emphasize finding balance and harmony in nature. They are inspired by natural metaphors, encouraging us, for example, to emulate water, which flows, yields and conforms to the world.

Despite this essential difference, the Taoists and the Amish are similar in advocating retreat from the aggressive world of competitive culture. The Taoists retreated to the mountains of China. The Amish retreated to the hills of Pennsylvania.

Our fast-paced competitive world does not have much room for Gelassenheit. We tamper and tinker, judge and manipulate. We celebrate innovators, entrepreneurs and explorers. The bold individualism of our world is quite different from the quiet agrarian life of the Amish. It is also quite different from the life of the Taoist wanderer, who prefers nothing better than to peacefully fish in a mountain pond.

There is profound wisdom in the slow corners of the world, where letting things go is a way of life. Some of that wisdom should be allowed to influence the contemporary world. Gelassenheit is a concept that ought to enter into our moral vocabulary.

We ought to learn to say, “Thy will be done.” We ought to learn to flow like water. We ought to learn the wisdom of leaving things alone. When people complain about stress — when they are angry, resentful or aggressive — we ought to say to them, Gelassenheit — let it go, leave it be.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/10/17/4184601_simple-spirituality-can-teach.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 7, 2014

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God’s will. It’s about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California’s long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold’s famous “land ethic” aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don’t insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what’s unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you’re bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We’re in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don’t listen, and we don’t blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, “A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we’ll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live.” When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we’ve been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/07/3756489/we-must-learn-to-live-in-harmony.html#storylink=cpy

Soul, Heaven, and Butterfly Dream

Easter is a good time to ponder what happens to the soul

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Mar. 22, 2013 | 04:16 PM

What happens when the brain and body die? A popular book, “Proof of Heaven,” by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander offers an answer based upon an out of body experience he had while in a coma. He claims that his experience proves that death is not the end of consciousness.Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream

“Human experience continues beyond the grave,” Alexander writes. “More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.”

Skeptics have argued that Alexander has not really offered proof of the sort we expect from science. Are we sure, for example, that Alexander’s comatose brain really was entirely “off-line”? A further interesting question is the cultural presuppositions we see in Alexander’s account of his experience.

Our interpretations of experience, including near-death experiences, are infused with meaning that we acquire from culture. Alexander speaks of heaven and of a loving God. If he were a Buddhist or a Hindu, would he interpret the experience differently?

From the Christian perspective, when the body dies, the soul moves on to another spiritual realm. But in other traditions, when the soul separates from the body, it transmigrates, moving on to another life. How can we know which interpretation of the afterlife is the correct one?

If we left our bodies and brains behind, wouldn’t we also leave behind our experiences, memories, and cultural standpoints, including the language, images and ideas we use to interpret our own experiences? Would we recognize or understand anything without the cultural experience that the brain has worked so hard to accumulate in this life?

The deeper puzzle is the connection between soul and body. If the mind is distinct from the brain, how are mind and body able to interact? This problem has puzzled philosophers for centuries.

The philosopher Descartes proposed the pineal gland as the focal point for the interaction between the body and the soul — an appropriate choice given the location of the pineal gland in the center of the brain. But we know better now: the pineal gland is a part of the endocrine system, not the seat of the soul.

The idea of soul points toward a substantial mystery. The soul is not supposed to be a material thing. It has no size or shape or density. So how does it interact with the matter of the body? And where exactly does it go, when it leaves the body?

To explain where the soul goes, we must postulate another sphere of reality — the spiritual realm. But that spiritual realm would not be extended in space, since it is outside of material reality. The spiritual realm is not a place located in space.

Nor is it clear that the soul is a “thing” in any ordinary sense of that term. Existing things are defined in terms of space. They have location and size and mass. But the soul is not a thing with weight and shape. Nor is it clear where it is located in relation to the body, let alone in the afterlife.

And yet, the religious viewpoint maintains that the soul and the spiritual realm are more real than the material world. Alexander asserts that his experience was “real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison.”

Alexander described one part of his experience as flying on the wings of butterflies. Butterflies have symbolic meaning. It is amazing that the lowly caterpillar is reborn as a beautiful flying insect. One wonders whether Alexander’s butterflies are a metaphor or supposed to be real. Would there really be flying butterflies in the spirit realm outside of space and time?

The butterfly dream is reminiscent of a Taoist story about Chuang-Tzu, a sage who had a dream in which he felt he was a butterfly. When he woke up, Chuang-Tzu wondered if instead of being a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, was he really a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.

Easter is a good time to ponder those sorts of questions. Can the soul really fly off to another life? Or are we merely caterpillars who dream every spring of becoming butterflies?