Saying and Learning

I write a lot about religion, because it’s relevant, because of my interests, and for defense in a world of religious abuse and manipulation. I am in no way against religion – in fact I am actually for it. There’s a human instinct to mix art, ritual, socialization, and connection with the world that I think is actually a good thing – or at least unavoidable so we best put it to use.

It’s just we humans kind of screw it up. I wish we didn’t, so I make my own small contribution to the world analyzing things. OK, sometimes just complaining then analyzing.

In light of not complaining as much, I want to share an interesting view of what makes religion useful, especially among people with different practices. There’s what religion says, and then what you learn.

I’m not exactly interested in what your religion says all the time, except when my theological interests arise. Anyone can say anything, write anything, have a vision (due to real things or a series of plant-based ingestions). People are saying things all the time and it can be bullshit. I know I bullshit enough – just look at the way I go on.

Besides, as we all know what a religion say and what people do can be pretty disconnected. For examples, just turn on the news and pour yourself a stiff drink – or get some plant-based ingestibles ready.

What interests me is what did you learn in your practice. Give me something that you learned, how you applied it, and how it worked for you.

It’s sort of science and engineering. You try something, you learn something, you use it, and then when it works you have a valuable lesson. Show me an applicable lesson and you have my attention because you got something out of it. You’re also being vulnerable by pointing to actual results you got from your religious practice, and giving me an opportunity to question them!

In fact, a person who has a religiously-derived lesson that really works is sort of having a secular experience. If the lesson has actual cause-and effect then it’s something they can share outside of their religion. It also makes me take their religion – or at least them – a little more seriously.

I might even take the “say” part of your religion more seriously.

It’s a practical view, of course, and one I think is quite helpful. I’m not going to write off religious and mystical experiences, I’m going to look at results. I might not agree with the metaphysics, but I am curious as to what happens. We can backtrack later on the structure of things.

This all comes from an odd series of youthful experiences where I careened from fundamentalism to mysticism to atheism and back to experimental mysticism. There were probably plenty of other detours as well, but it eventually went around a simple thing – did I get some useful results.

It’s a pretty good measure. I look forward to hearing your learnings.

– Xenofact

The Tao of Health and Neuroses

Let me cut to the chase – I’m a hypochondriac in that kind of “annoying worrying way.” You can guess COVID wasn’t a picnic for me, but let’s just say I also felt ahead of the curve. However I’ve also been working to address this as worrying about health too much really isn’t, well, healthy.

As of late, I’ve done a lot of “health maintenance” as assorted regular activities piled up in recent months. I had to catch up on my vaccines. I had a colonoscopy every five years as I’m an older gentleman and it’s good just in case. I’ve had some regular tests everyone goes through and just-in-case stuff.

The test part always gets on my nerves. You go in and give blood or get wired up or whatever and then after whatever indignities you go through you then wait for results. The waiting can be nerve wracking – I’m sure you’ve been there.

So as I waited for the last of my various accumulated tests, and of course worried, I speculated how I could handle this better. Something struck me from my studies of Taoism, meditation, and mysticism.

Good health does not come from just “being healthy.” It’s exercise and good attitude, appropriate food and activities, and of course checking relevant things like blood pressure or getting enough sleep. Good health is a kind of navigation.

The tests I take regularly (my doctor prefers to test early and often to prevent things) may be stressful but they’re ways to navigate to health. There’s no difference between sending blood to the lab and observing ideal conditions for good sleep – one just involves getting jabbed with needles by a very well-mannered medical professional.

Good health lies not just on practices, but checking on yourself. By acknowledging the possibility of ill health or less-than-ideal health, you then can practice good health. It’s very – and I hate to sound this tropey – Yin and Yang.

This further made me think about various Taoist energetic practices, how one cycles and balances energies. From the simple ones to the ones I would call “questionably elaborate” they treat the body as a system not a solid thing, aligning and guiding this process of being alive.

This re-envisioning made me feel at least somewhat better. Good health is based on the chance of bad health. It’s all a system, a kind of dialogue or navigation. These tests I was worried about were just part of the overall “Tao of Health.” Seeing how all these habits worked reminded me of the insights I’d have when meditating, seeing the “parts of myself.”

Everything turned out OK as the last of the data came in. Maybe next time I’m getting jabbed or whatever, I’ll remember these lessons.

(Note, if you do investigate Taoist health and energetic practice, get ready for a ride and to be skeptical. There’s some truly amazing stuff from over the centuries, some of which seems quite modern, and there’s also bizarre and dangerous bullshit. If you want to go beyond metaphors, do be careful.)

Checkbox Minds and Deep Souls

I was discussing life with a friend of a similar age, and they brought up the desire to cultivate virtue – deep, innate character. This led to a discussion about how some people’s morality is just checkboxes, while others is a deep sense of right and wrong inseparable from their personality. Between that conversation and speculation later, I wanted to share some thoughts.

(And yes, this is carrying on a conversation by other means.)

The idea of virtue is something I’ve thought of because of its depth, the idea of having some inherent deep goodness and quality. In my Taoist interests it stands out, a quality (“Te”) one obtains through contemplation and meditation, a kind of mystical-moral gravity. My recent readings on Neoplatonic and Stoic philosophy and mysticism led me to similar ideas as well, of one cultivating some kind of depth of character. There’s something that happens when we cultivate or find an inherent force of character, being “good” so we act “good.”

The “checkbox” idea of morality is the opposite. You are good because you can check off these things, like a car maintenance list or an order form. Things are done because they’re on the list not because of ones character or any depth of contemplation.

After this discussion I realized that “checkbox morality” is no kind of morality at all. It’s doing some signifiers, not even a minimal effort. It invites cheating the checkboxes with games of language, like some kind of tax code of morality. It has nothing to do with the actor, why they do things, and what led them to their actions.

And of course, checkbox morality invites people to say “I did all these checkboxes” then still go on being a colossal asshole. I’m sure a quick look at the world will allow you to name several public figures that fit this . . . then several more . . . then several more . . .

Checkbox morality is shallow, not really moral – and is empty. Also honestly sort of boring and pretentious.

This helped me understand my desire better, and that of other thinkers whose writings inspire me. I wasn’t interested in checklists, I was interested in evolving, like some kind of moral Pokemon (steal this idea, Nintendo). The drive to virtue is a drive to grow, sometimes driven be a delightful unsettling sense that one can be better.

The quest for virtue is something real, it has depth, it’s even a bit dangerous. It’s not a list, it’s both being and an adventure.

This also helps me understand some of legends of past sages and holy men and artists I saw in the Taoist cannon and elsewhere. Groups of informal mystics and philosophers and outright weirdos gathering to discuss virtue and morality and life, and of course sometimes get completely shitfaced while hanging out. There’s a delight in exploring one’s depths with friends – like this friend and I did.

I hope this column inspires you – and I’d like to hear your own thoughts on virtue.