A few people I've shown this to have cast their nets wide in attempting to capture the underlying message. In truth, I mean for it to be taken at face value...but I suppose it is somewhat paradoxical.
I've been rereading the Tao Te Ching (translated by Ursula K. LeGuin), cuz I realized I've been adrift and somewhat directionless these past couple years. I was in a similar spot back in 2002 when I first read it, and I quickly saw my life and passion turn around and focus, and I began to accomplish some of my best works in the following five or six years, not to mention achieving a kind of clear-eyed equilibrium in many facets of my life. It delivered me from a bad obsession with the wrong kind of love interest, and into the love that has sustained me these many years since 2005.
I admit I want to blame my retrograde on something else, but if I'm honest, it boils down to this: there are passages of the tao I remember well, but many, many more I let slip, with the faith that since reading it instills a feeling of "oh yeah, that's what I already thought" I must be naturally following it already. The result is shallow thinking and a loss of direction. Many are the times I think to myself, "What did the tao say? Crap, I should really pick it up again...nah." And sure enough, the philosophy features repeated refrains about how the way of things is debility, destruction, detachment...but the purpose of the philosophy is in locating the power one can derive from this awareness. So when I shut down that access, through forgetting the exact wording, and then refusing to revise my understanding, I lose what natural powers I have. (There's also a danger in celebrating debility, if that's how you interpret the tao.)
The worst thing this leads to is arrogance. And as one who feels taught to feel toward their intelligence what I think women often feel toward their beauty (without it you're nothing), the bear-trap of arrogance is one I have to wrench my legs from sometimes daily.
But therein lies the paradox.
One of the repeated images throughout the poems is that of the "uncut wood." A similar image is "raw silk." Lao Tzu is saying this is the way to be. Be the uncut wood, be the raw silk. Be unaffected, basically. Be who you were when you were born (a modern celebrity who's often called unaffected is Jennifer Lawrence). A person you don't suspect of being someone they aren't (especially impressive in an actor, and perhaps the best proof of acting as a skill worthy of acclaim). Winnie the Pooh is often cited as a great example of a taoist. That's what Lao Tzu is advocating, even if he acknowledges the world is not made up of people who would make great taoists.
I've written a fair deal about this past year, and how difficult it's been for Simone and I. To be unchanged by it feels unthinkable, yet research shows that people who undergo great life changes (winning the lottery, losing a loved one), often only take a year before returning to their previous routines and feelings. Right now feels like the best proof, even as our struggles continue, of the truth of that. We're almost back to where we were, emotionally, even if my mind feels worn to exhaustion (and ready for a six month vacation; in order to work up the funds to get us back home, I've taken several jobs, and haven't had a day off in months--Vancouver is just as expensive as lore suggests).
But I think the biggest barrier to coping with everything has been the story element (just look at all these asides and ramblings...I've lost my focus big time). How do I tell myself, and others, the story of where I am in life? Where I'm going? Where I've been? I've been in such a sorry state this year I often feel compelled to tell anyone I meet everything about my struggle so that they don't just think I've always been a depressed, hateful zombie person. And working at the Dollarama and Cineplex by East Hastings--witnessing some of the most shelled-out human beings in Canada--is hardly the cure, believe me.
So Internal 360 is me sorting out the problem of the "story of my life." Another possible title for it might've been The Problem of Doubt and Trust. Doubt is obviously an indispensable strut in the construct of society. Indeed, it's notable for powering some of the happiest countries on earth. But it's also, if unchecked, a vortex. A mental loop, or worse, sinkhole, that can lead to the oblivion beyond depression.
So, what can keep doubt in check is trust, or, to a lesser extent, certainty. Another, frequently Judeo-Christian, pitfall of thinking that the best way to be is like uncut wood or raw silk is to get into the notion of innate goodness, or innate badness. If you've ever thought that A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) was an attack on western religion, I would agree, in this way most of all. Sometimes heroes damn you, and villains save you. There is no real certainty but what you keep as certain in your mind. If you trust the universe to be good to you, you're just as likely to be swept away by a tsunami, crushed in an earthquake, or slowly diminished by some horrible disease. Nevertheless, trust sustains.
I think, "Man, my life sucks so bad, and part of that is because of me. I must suck. I must've been better before all this horrible shit happened to me. I must've been a better person before. What components made me a better person? How do I get those back?"
But if I go far enough back, I think how that always seems true. The younger me always seems the better person. I mean, if I'm hyper-analytical, there do seem to be hills and valleys. But the further back I go, the higher the hills, the lesser the valleys. So it's easy to see there's an inclination to assume goodness in youth, an innate goodness. It's entirely possible that even now, at what feels like one of the worst years of my life, I'm making great strides, building strong friendships, and improving my self...in ways that will only become clear in time. Of course, that feels like an egotistical, narcissistic response, so I want to dispense with it.
And that, after some other machinations I won't bother describing, leads me to the conclusion that the debate is moot. Innate goodness and innate badness are relative at best and meaningless at worst. A waste of time.
Does that mean we should never scrutinize our actions, to see if we're having a harmful effect on others, our friends, our family? Of course not. But that's where trust and doubt come in. The most significant part of this poem to me is the second stanza. "That I reached, with a thought for the end that I reached." The reach is the result of doubt. I'm reaching to see if I can find anything to justify my doubt. That involves turning away from my course of action: 360ing. But the end that I reach (perhaps more often than not) is the 360 point. I trust my first instinct. First thought, best thought, as Chogyam Trungpa put it. So, the stanza seems to show a bias toward trust, and I think that's important. It might seem bullheaded or close-minded to stay on whatever course you're on, but isn't that what we worship every day, in almost every way?
Consider the song Same Love, by Macklemore. I go in and out of hating that song because its central premise seems like an idiotic paradox. "I can't change/ Even if I tried/ Even if I wanted to/ My love, my love, my love/ She keeps me warm" a woman sings. The idea is that a lesbian will always be a lesbian and no social convention or dogmatic terrorist will change that. In scientific reality, fluid sexuality research finds that the only group of people who are not at all aroused by a certain type of pornography is gay men by pornography involving women. So, yes, perhaps unfortunately, you can change, even if you don't try, and even if you didn't want to. But what bothers me most of all is that a song about one's inability to change is meant to change the hearts and minds of bigots. However you look at it, it's both ironic and paradoxical. Which wouldn't bother me, if the song wasn't the unofficial pride anthem of the year, and if the album wasn't the album of the year.
But, you know, we're the smartest species we've ever known, and we've had to get where we are with no comparison, no big brother species (though computers may change that). It's impressive enough that we've invented the idea of more advanced species (angels, elves, aliens, the matrix), but we've really had nothing better to go on beyond what we've collectively dreamt, and at the end of the day, it's up to us to get better.
I suppose the question is, does it matter if we don't?