Category Archives: Philosophy

Do without Doing

The idea that you do without doing and all shall be done comes from the Tao Te Ching. This concept fascinates me, and I’ve been exploring it for some time, trying to understand it. I’ve read various translations of the Tao Te Ching now, and the impression I have is that the person who has entered into the Taoist way isn’t just sitting around meditating, they are present in the world and the things that need doing, are done, but effortlessly.

I am currently experiencing what may be the illusion of understanding something here. So, I’m sharing it.

We can be really invested in looking busy, looking like we’re working hard, really sweating for our results. This is because there is a myth that hard work is a virtue, and another myth that hard work is what brings success. Your background, and your parent’s wealth remain the best indicators of your likely worldly success, not how hard you work, but it is a comforting lie to think we can make it to the top. Put that lie down, and appearing to work hard may seem less attractive.

There is wisdom in knowing what actually needs doing, what matters, what is truly essential. Doing the things that need doing rather than the things we think we should be seen to be doing saves a lot of time and effort. Not worrying what people will think if we aren’t working hard all the time, really opens things up.

I have noticed in my own work that if I am stressed, panicking and flailing then a job takes more time and effort than it does if I come to it calmly. Panic takes energy. If I can avoid situations that panic me – tight deadlines, uncooperative colleagues, being asked to do jobs and not given the resources to do them… it’s easy. If I spend my time doing the things I can do, for people who don’t make life harder for me, the work is simple and almost seems to do itself. If I am happy in my work, and inspired by the work, then the work seems to do itself.

Currently, I think that’s what ‘do without doing’ means. It means doing things in a relaxed and natural way because these are the things that make sense and need doing. No extra arm waving, no stress, no work for the sake of appearing to be working. The more I move in this direction, the happier I am and the easier my work is. Not being time pressured turns out to be especially important for me. I suspect we will each turn out to have things that particularly trip us up and things that are less of an issue and that there’s not a one size fits all solution here.

I’m increasingly interested in my quality of life. It is something I have to seek on my own terms, and worrying what other people will think of me, and what I’ll look like from the outside is clearly something to let go of.

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You Animal!

Another blog about habits of speech and why they might need some scrutiny. When a human does something especially vile, it is common to refer to them as an animal. There are a number of problems with this.

For a start, it reinforces the idea that humans are fundamentally better than other animals but that we can fall, through our actions, to being at the same lower level as animals. This in turn backs up all the ways in which we otherwise mistreat and exploit other life forms.

Secondly, it gives the rest of us some rather unreasonable insulation. If we give truly offensive humans animal status, we tell ourselves that they are not us. They are not like us. We are not part of the problem. If the perpetrator in an animal, we don’t need to talk about rape culture, or how fascism is permeating our culture, we don’t need to talk about reasons for radicalisation, or gun control or anything else. Refusing to identify a terrible human being as a terrible human being, we let ourselves off the hook for perhaps helping provide the context in which they have acted.

Thirdly – and this generally applies to men – it suggests there was no scope for them to do better. We often apply animal language to men who sexually offend. They are sharks who can hardly be expected to avoid a piece of meat. Which is shitty logic, because it perpetrates the idea that men can’t control themselves, can’t make rational decisions and so forth. It also suggests that rape is a natural/animal thing and it isn’t. Most species have all kinds of complex things going on around sexual selection. Most often it is the female of the species who chooses the male. Mallard ducks aside, most creatures have reproductive strategies that are either cooperative, or about showing off to attract a female.

At the same time, we deny our fundamental animal natures. We are animals. We are mammals the same as all the other mammals. We are different in some ways but there are plenty of differences between other mammals, too. If we reserve ‘animal’ as a term for those we don’t want to recognise as human, we make it that bit harder to identify ourselves as animals, because it becomes a term of insult. We need to recognise our animal selves, and that all humans are animals of the same sort, stop pretending we are separate from nature, stop denigrating nature and stop creating ways to ignore unacceptable human behaviour.

Changing the words we use won’t change everything overnight, but it is an easy place to start. Change the words we use and we can change how we think about things, and that in turn changes behaviours, and ultimately, cultures.


Reflections on transgender and feminist conflict

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months reading the thoughts of good people who are very supportive of trans rights, good people who are themselves trans, and good people who are very wary about some things around transgender politics, and people on all sides who are downright shitty. I’ve taken my time over piling in, because I’m not trans, and I don’t identify with anti-trans feminists. I find I feel significant sympathies for people on both sides, and significant unease with people on both sides. Usually not the same people.

My starting point is that everyone involved, regardless of their position and opinion, is entitled to have their basic human rights upheld. This means being free from violence and the threat of violence. I am dismayed and disorientated by the violence, and threat of violence coming from all sides. I don’t think it’s ok to punch 60 year old women, however abhorrent you find their opinion. I am also aware that the anti-trans feelings out there can only add to the considerable violence trans folk already experience.

I see online that lesbians who are not comfortable with women who have penises, are being labelled as transphobic. This troubles me greatly. The freedom to love who we love is vital. The freedom to express that as we choose is vital. The right to say no, to any person, for any reason, is vital. I can’t see how not being attracted to someone’s body is phobic. We do not label straight people phobic for not being attracted to same sex people. Every time I go outside I encounter lots of people to whom I feel no attraction. We all of us, as a basic human right, need to be allowed not to have to fake being attracted to people. Being pressured into having sex with someone you do not want to have sex with, is rape.

So, here’s a theory. There are women who have started out with bodies that do not represent them. They identify with, sympathise with, empathise with other women. They want to be recognised as women too. I don’t see any reason to have a problem with this. I know a number of transwomen who I feel very comfortable with and who I have no difficulty identifying as women. Some of them are more feminine than I am, as a cis woman with some gender fluid stuff living in my head.

However, there are also men who want to move into female spaces, bringing all their male privilege with them. Men who want to make women do things for them, and who want women to put them first, and treat them as special, and let them be in charge. Men who feel entitled to tell women who and what they should be attracted to. If a man enters a female space acting from a place of male privilege, I don’t care what he looks like or how he has, or has not modified his body, I’m going to treat him as an entitled man forcing himself into female space. I’ve encountered a bit of this in person, too. It was not a good experience. Anyone who wants to be recognised as a woman cannot at the same time expect to keep their male privilege.

Equally, feminists raising issues about how some men may use trans inclusion to enable predation and violence against women is a thing I take seriously. Female safety is something I take seriously. But, a line is crossed if in the name of feminism, you start trying to deny human rights to someone who is transgender. That’s not what feminism is for. We need to be clear about the differences between human rights, and issues of entitlement if we’re going to figure this stuff out.


Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.


Zen stories

Mindfulness as a practice mostly turns up these days stripped of its context. While it is possible to make something work out of context, I can’t help but feel uneasy about this. I’ve long had a gut feeling that mindfulness, and the Zen Buddhist tradition it comes from are not for me. Some of that is underpinned by how I understand Buddhism in relation to the world. For me it’s always seems like a path of transcendence, where the idea is to overcome the world, move beyond and above to free yourself. As a Pagan, I consider myself of this world, and I have no desire to transcend it.

This summer I read The Spirit of Zen, by Solala Towler, and reviewed it for Spiral Nature. You can read the review here – http://www.spiralnature.com/reviews/spirit-of-zen-towler/

I learned more about the history of Zen in the introduction to this book that I’ve ever picked up from the casual New Age mindfulness material out there. It did not change my opinion that Zen would not be a good addition to my Pagan world view.

The Spirit of Zen is for the greater part a collection of Zen stories, or koans. These are fascinating. I think in the west we’re used to the idea that teaching stories come with their message writ large and easy to spot. Christian parables do not make you work to figure out what you should learn from the story. Koans, by contrast, are not easy to understand. The meanings are obscure, not self announcing. What they say loud and clear to the casual reader is that you need to spend years working with these tales to come to your own understanding. As many of the tales feature teacher/student scenarios, the casual reader can see that right understandings exist, and that the whole point is to work for them.

Mindfulness is part of the Zen process. So are the koans. I expect there are other things too that as a casual observer, I’ve not picked up on. This is a path towards enlightenment, one that must be worked hard for and yet at the same time cannot be attained by working hard at it. Here there are clear overlaps with Taoism, and at the points of overlap I almost felt I knew what was going on. However, there was a violence in these stories that I found unsettling, and did not understand, and do not know how to respond to. As this is not my path, I’m ok with that, but it makes me wonder about how we bandy Zen about in western thinking and whether we’d still do that if we’d all read the story about the monk who kills a cat to make a point to his students which as far as I can make out, the students don’t actually get.

The question is, what happens when you take part of a process and use it in a way it was not intended for? Clearly it isn’t going to work in the same way that being part of the true process would. How much power does an activity lose if taken out of context? How much meaning does it have? How much is the breadth and history of a tradition important to following it, in whole or in part? How much can you ignore and still say you are doing the things? Modern Christians cherry-pick all the time from their traditions and their sacred text. To some degree this is both necessary and normal, but to what degree?

I don’t have any answers here, but I think the questions are important.


Working with the system

Most of the systems that countries depend on rely on our engaging with them. The police are a good case in point here. There are generally not enough police in most countries to apply law by force, and if people don’t consent to be policed, they stop being effective. People who consider the police to be fair and reasonable will consent to being policed. When people think their police are corrupt, unjust and unreasonable, they won’t cooperate.

The same can be said of tax systems, border control, customs and excise duties, benefits systems and so forth. Give people a fair system and the vast majority of people will deal fairly with it, will self-report fairly, and so forth. Give people a corrupt or unfair system, and many more people will be inclined, or obliged to try and cheat it.

If the system appears to be unfair, cheating it can feel like justice. If you can’t trust the system to treat you fairly, there’s no incentive to cooperate with it and every reason to try and fudge things so that you get what you need. Why should I pay my tiny amount of taxes (this is a rhetorical question) when big companies who owe millions, don’t?

However, it’s noticeable at the moment than many systems in the UK are skewed towards trying to catch out what had been a tiny minority of cheats, and do so at the expense of fairness to the majority. By this means, many more people are moved towards not co-operating, and as a consequence the whole thing becomes ever more corrupt. Our benefits system pushes people to the edge and over it all the time. Survival depends on playing the system, taking cash in hand work, and for some people, theft. Given the beliefs and attitudes of our current government, a punishment-orientated, ever less fair system is likely to result from this.

Treat people as though they are good, decent and likely to do the right thing, and the vast majority of us will. Treat people as though they are suspect, make it hard for them to sort out what they need, and you give them little choice but to cheat you in order to get by.


Being Female

For months now I’ve been seeing a lot of posts online that express the simple thought ‘Trans Women are women’ and a smaller number of more complex posts that take issue with the idea. It’s not a conversation I’ve waded into, because my own position has me feeling that I am in no way able to speak for anyone else in this, and my own body/gender identity issues leave me short of language.

From a certain perspective I’m a cis-gendered woman in that I live presenting as a woman with a body that has bled, made a baby, and made milk. I don’t feel any sense of femininity on the inside, but I don’t feel anything else clearly enough to justify trying to make my body look like some other gender either.

It strikes me as an irony that for the feminists who consider being born with obvious female genitals the only way to be female, I count. My body counts for me.

There are plenty of people who appear female who were born with ambiguous genitals. There are women who, for a whole host of reasons, cannot carry children, do not even have wombs or ovaries, cannot produce milk, do not develop breasts or hips to any great degree. There’s a lot of variety in the apparently female form and its ability to conform to gender stereotypes. So at what point does one woman get to say to another ‘you are not biologically female enough for me to feel comfortable with you identifying as a woman’? Can we talk about the erasure of women who are not a neat match for biologically narrow perceptions of what women are ‘supposed’ to be? Ironically, by focusing on penises, there’s a strand of feminism that is treating as non-existent a whole array of female experience.

When you get down to it, who is allowed to say that someone is or is not something, is a big and loaded political issue. Now, this to my mind is where it gets interesting, because part of the issue here is the idea that people who are born men and have male bodies are able to then use their privilege to dictate what does and does not count as female. That’s a real issue, isn’t it? Having someone else tell you who is allowed to be female and what it means to be female. But, this is with us all the time in so many forms.

Because of the way I’m wired, I can’t help but suspect that a big part of gender is a social construct. Let’s pause to consider how ideas of femininity are constructed by the media, the film industry, the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the porn industry, and so forth. Last time I checked, these were all fields with significant male influence, if not male domination, constructing femininity for the male gaze. Massive pressures to look and dress in certain ways come down to us from these large, powerful forces that really haven’t woken up to gender equality at all. The female body is something they can exploit for cash, simply.

Imagine a world where women were not under constant pressure to conform to ‘beauty’ norms. Imagine a world where most of the women you see on the screen were not speaking the words put into their mouths by men to conform to outmoded ideas about what women are. Imagine pornography made by women for women if you want to go really radical.

Of course trans women don’t always ‘pass’ they don’t always fit easily into the female gender stereotype as constructed (I think) by historical male preference. Too tall, too hairy, too muscular. I’m tall, hairy and muscular. I can’t help but think that the gender stereotype might be what’s wrong here. I also want to ask who a person is being feminine for, whose permission and acceptance they need to present as they want to. How much do we need our gender identities affirmed by those around us, how much power do we give them? How much is gender identity just a question of what you’ve got in your pants, and if you were in a car accident and what was in your pants no longer looked the same, would your gender identity change?

I wonder sometimes if the main reason I can’t identify with my body identity is that femininity is too narrow a social construct. So for entirely selfish reasons, I’m interested in broadening the definition of what female is, on the off-chance it turns out there is space for me after all.


The Tao of Earthsea

I started reading about Taoism somewhere in my early teens. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the powerful sense of familiarity. I hit it again when reading my first version of the Tao Te Ching: I knew this stuff already, on a deep level, and could not explain it.

Recently I’ve re-read the first four of Ursula Le Guinn’s five Earthsea books. I first read them when much younger – I was in single figures when I started with The Tombs of Atuan, which isn’t the first book in the series. I’d never read anything like it.

On this read, it struck me how much the wizard Ged talks about doing and being, doing nothing, and the duties of the king in regards to his people. I recognised whole speeches as being reflections of the Tao Te Ching. Of course there is an Ursula Le Guinn Tao Te Ching, which I’ve got, and in it she talks about having read, re-read and lived with the core Taoist text for many years.

It was a potent reminder for me of the way in which fiction, things we delve into only to amuse ourselves, can have profound impact. Whether you wonder about the underlying philosophy of a book or not, you still let it in. We are shaped by our environments, and there’s nothing in us that is designed to respond to our psychological and emotional experience of arts and entertainments any differently from lived experience. When we pick what to watch, or read, or play, we pick our environments and those environments have the power to turn our genes on and off.

I stay away from torture porn films. I do my best not to look for too long at images of real life horror offered by the media. I’ve got room in my life for erotica, but not for pornography. I’ve never read any of the Game of Thrones books, nor watched any of it. Often I’m going by age rating and other people’s reviews, and a gut feeling about what I don’t want to have inside my head informing my body about what it needs to deal with the environment I live in.


Reblog – floating

Not so long ago I suggested people could flag up posts to re-blog, and I’ve had this lovely suggestion to share a post on – Evie Patterson’s  Floating from A Light In The Mist. As it’s a blogspot site, I can only emulate the reblog function, so I’ll give you the first couple of paragraphs as sample, and then the link across. Enjoy!

Floating

It’s amazing what a release of strain it can be to move with the undercurrent of life. Not being swept away by it, not being tossed in opposition to it, but genuinely moving with it.

This is not to say the undercurrent holds only hues of negativity. Strain can follow in the wake of the positive just as well, but often people can become so caught up in the sense of difference from the more easily recognizable negative that they cling to it. Though a relief, this mental and emotional intoxication can also blind and numb the perception of reality that may be necessary for the placement of the next sure step.

The positive and the negative should be able to move in and out of life with the same ease as inhaling and then exhaling. Like breath, these moments are necessary to move forward, to think, to feel, to live. However, if you held onto any of these beyond their necessary purpose, like holding a breath, it can become toxic.

Who needs strong and stable?

‘Strong’ is one of those words that can have many meanings. It can of course be a good thing, especially when we’re talking about physical capabilities. The strength to endure, to survive, to continue – that can be good too. Although in some circumstances, if strength isn’t tempered with wisdom, it can become pigheaded stupidity. All too often I’m seeing the media use ‘strong’ to mean uncompromising, unwilling to negotiate, dictatorial, domineering. These are not the qualities of a great leader, these are the qualities of a tyrant.

Strong can mean strong enough to hear the counterargument and to take onboard the flaws in your plan. When we’re talking about strength, we need to consider the difference between brittle, hard strength and a softer, more flexible strength. That which can bend a bit does not break so easily, and not breaking is certainly a form of strength.

Strong can become a way of saying unmoveable. It can be a cover for stasis, for a lack of ideas and an absence of innovation. If strong just stands there being big and solid, it may not be able to grow, adapt and change in ways that are necessary for the circumstances. Flexible and adapting can turn out to be a lot more enduring than merely ‘strong’.

Like strength, stability can also imply immobility and lack of the means to bend and transform when necessary. Balanced can be a good thing, but balance isn’t always what’s needed. Stability can all too easily stay still when all around it is moving in chaos, but it may miss the sudden leap of progress, becoming stuck and irrelevant.

I’ve seen others point out on social media that there are connotations in ‘strong and stable’ that have a lot to say about how we value the weak, the vulnerable, the unstable. The Tory government so keen on the strong and stable line, has been increasing the risk of death for those among us who are not strong, and not so stable. To pinpoint these two ways of being as the best virtues is a bit sinister when viewed that way. It’s also a very narrow way of being. Soundbites are not good models for existence. Strength needs to know when to yield, when to allow humbleness and vulnerability into the mix. Stability needs to know when to get out of its rut and make serious changes.

We live in changing, uncertain times. I for one am not looking for strong and stable leaders. I’m looking for wise, flexible, innovative leaders who won’t be afraid to change direction in face of new evidence or circumstance. I’m looking for people with more than hollow soundbites to offer, and people who are willing to dig deep and think hard about what might be needed from them.