The Tao & Social Action

• April 22, 2012 • Comments (2)

Whether you believe movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ or ‘We are the 99%,’ represent valid social concerns, what is clear is that they are representative of a growing global class struggle.  Though you might believe that assessment is boastful, or even wishful thinking on the part of the protesters, it is, none-the-less, the position held by Progressives as well Conservatives.

Its not often that we see Progressive critics such as Henry Giroux of ‘Truthout’ agreeing with Conservative pollsters like Frank Luntz, who openly states these movements are “getting dangerously big.”  With both sides making the same claim, we might just have to bite the bullet here, and agree, we are indeed living in a time of ‘Global Class Warfare.’

At the onset of the Occupy Movement, as the protesters began tweeting news from the streets, I wondered if internal arts such as Tai Chi or Qigong could offer some benefit to the world as it erupts into these desperate times.

Focusing on the Taoist roots of Tai Chi and Qigong, many practitioners I questioned invoke the concept of ‘wu–wei’ (non-doing or non-action) as a justification for not getting involved in social issues.  One of the highest Taoist virtues, the enigmatic ‘wu–wei’ is often the Taoist rationale for retreating, all together, from society.

Like Buddhism, Taoism is an ontological discourse aimed at individual cultivation, and inner transformation.  And, it faces many of the same concerns as Buddhism when considering how it should engage a society whose constraints it is trying to dissolve.

Socially engaged Buddhism finds its momentum in the Bodhisattva’s vow, commonly associated with the Mahayana tradition.  Vowing to “save all sentient beings,” has become the fuel behind Buddhism’s various social movements.

Lacking such an overt moral code, Taoists have to dig a bit to find support for engaging in social action. However, it can be found:

The sage does not accumulate for himself.
The more he uses for others, the more he has himself.
The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.
The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.
The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.

~Tao Te Ching (81)

In this excerpt from Lao Tzu’s classic, we see a clear imposition toward ‘selflessness.’  The benefits of which only come to fruition by directly engaging others.  ‘Selflessness’ is the bridge that allows Taoists to become socially engaged, even while pursuing goals of individual cultivation.

By keeping our intention, our ‘yi,’ focused on others, we explore the interconnectedness of things.  Social action, whether it is joining the ‘Occupy’ movement, working with disadvantaged communities, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, can become an opportunity for practice.  Putting aside what I view as a parochial interpretation ‘Wu–Wei,’ allows us to focus in on the deep fabric of the Tao, while both cultivating and expressing our ‘yi.’

Unfortunately, I do not think this is what is holding practitioners back from engaging in social issues.  Many whom I spoke with seemed to be either misinformed or just caught up in the general malaise of our culture.  Myself included.  Beyond the few issues I work with directly, I found myself at a loss to understand, let alone explain, what we are witnessing happen to our world.

To get a global understanding on this issue, I spoke with indie-filmmaker Velcrow Ripper.  Producer of the award winning films ‘Scared Sacred,’ ‘Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,’ and the forthcoming ‘Occupy Love’ which chronicles the ‘Occupy’ movement, Ripper has traveled the Earth documenting those engaged in spiritually based social action.

Like many progressive thinkers, Ripper describes these times in terms of a coming paradigm shift.  “We’re in the midst of a transition, a societal transition from an industrial growth society, to a life sustaining civilization.  We’re experiencing the maturation of our species.  The challenge is to survive our stormy adolescence and grow up in time.”

© Velcrow Ripper

In support of this, Ripper argues for a “shift toward a deeper set of values:” a deeper sense of community, a deeper connection to the world, cultivating a deeper sense of ‘meaning’ in our lives.  These “values need to rise to the surface and become  . . . more intrinsic.”  The looming fear is that if we continue the way we are headed, the world could suffer “full on systems collapse.”

“What is called for is a return to balance ––this is where arts like Tai Chi and Qigong can help.”  “Balance is the most important skill to master . . .When we are in balance we become less re-active and more responsive.”  Being more aware, more responsive, and more focused on our communities and the world is the core of the coming paradigm shift.

In my conversation with Ripper, he referred to Robert Jay Lifton’s idea of the ‘protean self’ to explain our current need for balance.  In his book with the same title, Lifton discusses the emergence of a “fluid and many-sided personality” in society as a juxtaposition to the failing, highly rigid, personalities that have brought the world into its current crisis.  The implication here is that the ‘protean self’ responds to the world with a greater capacity for flexible imagination and action.  Lifton tells us, “the protean path is a path of hope. It embraces an act of imagination and is, as such, a profound beginning.”  Ripper believes that mind/body arts can help us balance the intricacies of this new fluid identity.

Ripper, like many others, sees mind/body integration & world change as intrinsically connected: “We cannot create sustainable change without a corresponding internal change. . . We must change from the worldview of René Descartes to that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, (the visionary French Jesuit, enthralled with the possibilities for humankind) . . . We must integrate models of being and doing that address the inner self as well as the outer self.  Healing our modern pathology will require deep mind/body work ––this will be deeply connected to any global change.”

The previous generations called for us to “Be Here Now.”  Ripper challenges the current generation to “Do Here Now.”  “This is not a time for 20 years in a cave.  Its time to bring our training with us out into the streets and learn these concepts in motion.”  To face the world that is emerging “we need to be fierce ––fiercely harmonious ––we need to be warriors!”

To borrow a phrase from another of Lifton’s books, what Velcrow Ripper outlined as the major problem facing our world is the tension arising from a bifurcation of a “species awareness” from the old, “individual awareness” epitomized by consumer culture.  A movement away the mindset that romanticizes the suffering and trauma of others as a necessary function of the world, to one that acts from a feeling of empathy for the suffering of others.

In Chapter 77 of ‘Tao Te Ching,’ Lao Tzu anticipates our current situation and gives practitioners of internal arts a prescription:

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.

(trans. S. Mitchel)

“Give” without bound . . . “act without expectation” . . . “succeed without taking credit.”  Though my reading maybe biased, it seems that through “selfless” social action we achieve an awareness of the Tao, and become an agent of it.   Though we often romanticize Taoists as wandering ascetics, monks cloistered in monasteries like Wu Dang, or court alchemists, truth is there is enough in the Tao Te Ching, and the other classics, to support the idea of Taoist Social Action.

There are a few lines by American poet Walt Whitman that truly capture the spirit of this global movement toward social justice: “My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth.  I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands.”

Across the whole of the globe, ordinary people, moved by spirit and justice, are standing up to tackle “dragon-size” issues.  No matter how much we argue about what Lao Tzu, or Chuang Tzu, believed about social action, the final statement on the issue will be a matter of choice.  Do you choose to help guide the world toward balance or not?  Do you choose to follow “The Way of Heaven”?

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Anthony Guilbert

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Among the new generation of mind/body thought leaders, Anthony Guilbert stands out as one of the most ambitious pundits of Qigong & Taiji culture. He is a master educator, writer, Qigong & Taiji teacher, and the publisher of ‘Into Mountains, Over Streams: an International Journal of Qigong & Taiji Culture online.

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  1. Peter says:

    Wise article. Internal transformation- the last frontied for man is inward. The other frontier is either too far or has a Wal Mart waiting.

    In one of my recent visions I saw what the lion spirit contemplates…. the self propelled . motorized vehicle that uses the burining of the Earth to make and to go. One can think this invention has had a horrific impact.

    Has this road made human’s happier and the Earth healthier? Can we ever go back to “never leaving our village”?

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