spirituality


This week I was interviewed for the second time by Michael Carroll on his quirky, funny, and intelligent alternative radio show, The Mikie Show. Mikie constructs the whole show himself and it sounds wonderful. I think I get to say some good stuff, too. Give it a listen. I hope you enjoy. The Mikie Show Episode 20 featuring Glenn Berger

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In the culminating vision of the Sage, Mencius, heart, the Heavenly Mandate, and flood-like ch’i are combined with the Tao, or the Way. One accomplishes an alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, by manifesting the heart, the faculty of goodness, resulting in flood-like ch’i or fully embodied vitality and courage. The method for living in such alignment is called the Tao, or Way. To quote from “On the Practice of the Mean,” one of the four canonized books of Chinese wisdom, “by ‘the ‘Way’ we mean that path which is in conformance with the intrinsic nature of man and things.”  By following the Tao, or Way, we achieve the moral life by living in accordance with natural principles and we become the profound person. We achieve jen, or authentic human-ness.

It is in the natural order of the universe to have manifested a compassionate heart in humankind. We are also given the faculty of cultivating ourselves. What this means is that we can advance our own evolution. By developing ourselves, we participate in the perfecting of nature. The purpose, telos, or entelechy of the universe is love, where love is the ultimate realization of compassion and harmonic relationship. We are each given a capacity for goodness through our inherent compassion and it is our task to develop this capacity optimally in order to play our part in the realization of the universe. Cultivating the compassionate heart is fulfilling the mandate of heaven. This is what it means to live according to the Tao. As the furthest extension of universal development, humankind finds its optimal harmony with the purpose of the universe when we self-cultivate toward the realization of heart.

We come to an alignment with heart through living according to the Tao. The Tao is the heart in time. The heart is the Tao in us. The heart is the faculty that can comprehend and practice living according to the Way.

When we live according to universal principle, our inner conflict ends: what we should do finds harmony with what we want to do. As Mencius put it,

“The profound person steeps himself in the Way because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. That is why a profound person wishes to find the Way in himself.”

In this sense, to develop morally is not to learn moral rules, though these provide a framework for the real learning. Instead, we want to cultivate our hearts, the capacity for knowing right from wrong within. In this way we do not obediently follow some rule imposed from without, but intrinsically do the right thing in any circumstance, as the circumstance dictates.  As Confucius put it, “The profound person, in the world, does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he will follow.”

Self-cultivation, or the process of developing our human potentials, is accomplished by living according to the Tao. It is through the realization of our human potentials that we embody the Heavenly Mandate, or universal principle. This embodiment of universal principle is our purpose, what we are meant to be, or our entelechy. The full realization of our potentials is to fulfill our human nature and is the way we come to know the universal law. The full manifestation of our human nature, which is an embodiment of universal principle, is compassion. Compassion is the purpose of the universe. To realize loving compassion is to manifest the entelechy of the universe. When we manifest the potential of the universe, we are at one with the energy of the universe.

For the Confucians, we get “close enough” to the Tao by having optimal relationships in each domain of being. We cultivate these relationships by developing our empathy through practicing the virtues of benevolence, respect, and compassion and we do this by accessing the heart.

The Confucian conception of the personal heart and its interconnection to all other hearts, the heart of the universe and the transcendent spiritual heart, is best explicated in the monumental work, “The Highest Order of Cultivation.” Here is my interpretation of the core of this text.

•    Only once one has an embodied experience of the interconnectedness of all, can one integrate all aspects of the psyche, leading to integration and wholeness; where the parts of the self exist in cooperative relation.

•    Only when we are whole can the potentials of the heart be realized. Only when we are whole can we realize our potentials for perceiving, thinking, feeling, imagining, acting and connecting.

•    Only when we have realized our potentials do we manifest virtuous moral being. Only when we have manifested virtuous moral centeredness can we put our relationships right, having harmonious relationships, meeting the needs of our partners and growing optimally.

•    Only when we can put our relationships right can we have happy, good children and flourishing families.

•    Only when we have balanced families can society be at peace and harmony.

•    Only when society is in order are we living according to the Heavenly Mandate, or the laws of the universe.

•    By cultivating ourselves, we fulfill the purpose of the universe.

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The next quality that is central to the Mencian conception of heart is ch’i. (For those of you who are just joining this conversation, Mencius was a great Chinese Sage who lived and wrote 2300 years ago. Central to his philosophy was the notion of “heart.” See other posts.) Ch’i is the prime energy of the universe. This can be correlated to “the sacred fire” of the Upanishads. The Indians, too, located this energetic source in the heart.

“I know . . . that sacred fire which leads to heaven. Listen. That fire which is the means of attaining the infinite worlds, and is also their foundation, is hidden in the sacred place of the heart.”

Buddhists located their equivalent, prana, a concept they borrowed from the Sanskrit, in the heart, and also saw the unity of heart, energy, and the cosmic reality.  Ch’i has also been named tejas, mana, or by Jung, libido.  It is found in Norse mythology as the mead from the world tree of Ygdrasil.

The Chinese posited two kinds of ch’i, the gross and the subtle. The body was the home of the grosser ch’i and the heart was the home of the subtle ch’i. To cultivate the heart means to cultivate our subtle ch’i. This would not only bear on our moral health, but our physical well being as well.  Mencius unified his concepts in a moral vision, where right living, as determined by heart, resulted in maximum ch’i. Health, wellbeing and courage were related to living in harmony with the dictates of heart, which emerged from its connection to universal nature.

Mencius believed that this general energetic principle of the universe was something that “ran through” humans.  When we achieve an optimal alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, we have the greatest access to this primal energy of the universe. We then possess what Mencius called flood-like ch’i, which is the ultimate energetic capacity.

Mencius himself admitted that explaining flood-like ch’i was difficult. A disciple asked, “May I ask what this flood-like ch’i is?”And he replied,

“It is difficult to explain. This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree vast and unyielding. Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way. Deprive it of these and it will starve. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness. Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one’s heart, it will starve.”

This means that our energy, mood and motivation, is dependent on our integrity, of acting from our highest moral understanding, which is in our hearts. This places us in alignment with universal forces, which gives us courage. Depression and failure can be likened to a lack of moral attunement. This does not only mean not doing the right thing toward others, but also toward the self. The condition of shame, or treating ourselves from self-hatred instead of self-love, will lead to a diminishment of ch’i.

Through the manifestation of flood-like ch’i we develop the virtue of imperturbability. This means being true to oneself even without external validation.  As Mencius stated it, “Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a lack of constant means of support.”

When we have imperturbability, our motivation for action must be on rightness, and not dependent on outcome. (more…)

“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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Contemporary religious author, Karen Armstrong, writer of the recent best-selling book for Knopf Publishing, “A Case for God,” and 2009 TEDPrize winner, tells us that authentic spirituality is an embrace of the unknowable. I take this a step further, and say that living an authentic life is to strive to live up to our highest ethical potentials despite the knowledge that we will fail in this quest. I found the words to express this sentiment while watching an absolutely wonderful film, the Alexander Korda 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad.” You will recognize its unique color quality if you are familiar with the work of English directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose classic films include “The Red Shoes,” and “Black Narcissus.” Powell is one of the directors of “The Thief.” This is a great movie to watch with the kids. Though the effects are primitive, the emotional impact makes “Avatar” seem cheap. I found the words to express the sentiment I was looking for in this great scene. To truly live is to embrace of the beauty of the impossible.

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For the great Chinese phil0sopher Mencius, disciple of Confucius, the unique aspect of the human being was his heart. What did Mencius mean by heart?

As human thought had its greatest advance in the few hundred years following the 5th century BCE, this time, too, saw the revelation of the meaning of hsin in Chinese philosophy, most accurately translated as heart/mind. Previous to this time, including in the writings of Confucius himself, though the heart is named, its meanings were not explored in depth.

As our inspiring quote has it, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” When Mencius writes about the heart, and tells us about a process of self-development based on a rediscovery of original nature, he is describing his own life process. As Mencius relates his experience of actualization in his discussion of heart, he serves as an inspiration for other questers in search of their own essential being. As we understand from our exploration of hermeneutics, the purpose of reading the Mencius in depth is not some intellectual exercise of understanding, but a central method of self-cultivation. The goal of reading Mencius is not to understand the heart, but to find it. This heroic journey of self-realization which is made possible by travelling with Mencius into the symbol of the heart is what makes his writings on the subject so valuable.

Essence, Entelechy and Heart

In their search for the good of all, the Confucians looked for the ‘single thread,’ or universal law. They found these principles through an examination of nature, as exemplified in agriculture.  “The principle in the course and operation of nature . . . obeys only its immutable law . . .”

Agriculture operates from the understanding that when we cultivate plants according to the laws of the processes of nature, we can dramatically increase and control our yield. If our plant withers, it must mean we are not honoring nature’s law. This power of understanding also poses a danger, because as much as we can improve on nature, if our understanding is one-sided we can disturb nature’s ecological balance. We can create a short-term gain and create a long-term problem. The workings of nature are more subtle than simply increasing an immediate yield. We see how even today we continue to struggle with accomplishing sustainable fecundity.

Through a process of inference, the Confucians believed that in the same way that nature has hidden laws that can be discovered, humans, too, have these subtle, profound principles. This is human nature, which is embedded in nature as a whole. Through an observation of living things in nature, the Confucians recognized that each living thing grows and develops. It has an inherent pattern that exists originally in potential. When it is optimally cultivated, it realizes this potential. This was the Chinese discovery of what Aristotle would call a telos, a purpose, or that to which a thing aims.

The Chinese view is that the principles of development and realization found through agriculture are a microcosm of universal patterns.  If we can understand these universal principles, and live in harmony with them, then we, too, will grow maximally, and fulfill our potentials.

As the universe, through the example of life, is about growth and change, so too, the universe must have its telos, purpose, or developmental realization. Archeologist/theologian Teillard de Chardin recognized that there are two basic movements in the universe. One is toward a loss of differentiation. Much of the universe is moving toward entropia, a breakdown of complex, systemic organization into ‘noise.’ Rather than the universe developing, this indicates that the universe is falling apart. However, a smaller, but far more important segment of the universe continues to move toward greater differentiation and complexification. As this segment has complexified it has become alive and has increased in consciousness and freedom. It is this universal complexification axis that the Confucians intuited through coming to observe relationships and processes of growth and development. By observing this process, we can infer where the universe is heading. This motion is what the Chinese would call the Tao, or Way.
This corresponds to Aristotle’s entelechy. Human nature is a process of becoming. That is, we all have the potential to continuously grow. Individually, this process leads toward each of us becoming an absolutely unique being. When we realize ourselves in this way, we are living in harmony with our own nature, and so in harmony with universal nature. This is what nature wants from us.

Our life is meant to be an expression, a manifestation, of what one essentially is, both in its universal aspect of a fulfillment of our human nature, and in its most individual, unique and particular aspects. Both together make up our entelechy, the purpose for which we exist, and the realization of our inherent potentials that exist ab origine, nascently, in our beginning.

Observing the workings of nature, Mencius understood the Aristotelian cause of form. One cause of a thing’s individual existence is its organization. The greater the complexity of a thing, that is, the greater the harmony of its parts, the greater the thing’s health, capacity for development, and power. The laws of nature can be perceived in this growth through a harmony of parts, which is one way of defining a complex structure. This would lead to the conclusion that in order to achieve fulfillment, we need to not only have internal order, but to be in harmonic relation to a greater whole. We need to find our proper place in the cosmos. This is good both for the individual and the cosmos in its totality. As sentient beings, we get to participate in the process of optimizing our use of natural law through its understanding and so advance the natural movement of nature’s development. Our job then, is to comprehend the laws of nature and live according to these principles. In this way, we find individual fulfillment and the fulfillment of the greater universal organism.

That which is taken to its summit point of development, beginning with the simple and moving to the complex, leads to infinite realization. As Mencius said,

“Or consider the high mountains: they consist of nothing more than a multiplicity of single handfuls of stones. But when these are taken to their fullest extent of breadth or vastness, then trees and grasses grow upon them in untold profusion, all manner of birds and beasts dwell within them and hidden treasures emerge from their midst.”

As every realm is ecologically intertwined, our inherent potentials are not only designed for the good and growth of the individual, but for culture, group, society, species, world, and universe. We are inextricably interwoven in a web of relationships and relatedness. These, too, make up organism, and system. These developmental and relational laws are the Heavenly Mandate.

That which we are meant to be, our purpose or telos, is one way of defining our essential nature. Mencius asserted that what makes a person’s essence is that which makes them unique. He called this unique feature of humanity, that is, our entelechal purpose, the heart. For Mencius, the home of human nature within the individual is the heart.

We can know the heavenly mandate—universal nature—if we understand human nature. Therefore, the home of the heavenly mandate within the person is the heart. As such, Mencius’s humanism is a transcendental one. As he said, “Following our inner knowledge, we shall know our heart, thereby know our nature, and thus come to know our heaven.”

If we find our hearts we can know these universal laws of nature, and by living in accord with them, we can achieve our life’s purpose.  Our task in life, the Confucians believed, is to find what they called the Central Harmony. When we make manifest the Heavenly Mandate by living according to the principles of nature, we achieve the Central Harmony. By finding our hearts and living according to the Tao we achieve the Central Harmony. The heart is the part of us that “possesses the nature to grow” toward the realization of our true humanity.

This contribution of Mencius, of defining the heart as the place of our realization, is the core of the Chinese humanistic philosophy.   The source of fulfillment is within. Mencius tells us that a phenomenological process of self-exploration, a journey to this inner source, will lead us to rediscover the heart, and to be in harmony with essential human nature.

Furthermore, through coming to comprehend microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, this dynamic, inspiring symbol leads us to the ultimate realization of the self, humanity and the universe in its totality.

If this subject of entelechy is of interest to you, you might want to explore Dr. Art Rosengarten’s blog.

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Listen to this inspiring story of bad turning to good, that I heard on NPR from the StoryCorps project.

Going From Ex-Con To Lifesaver.

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