Lao Tzu’s Six-Foot Pole: Fighting Addiction & Commodification

November 3, 2015 | Writings

The current dilemma of alienation, sense of isolation and of being cut off from others and the natural world which is exponentially subjugated to utilitarian means globally “becomes a projection of the modern mind’s own loneliness in an infinitely receding universe.” A substantial existential void is desperately attempted to be filled by drugs, sex, exaggerated identification with party, state, race, capital; with a turn to work, buying, consuming, communication technology, nonstop news and entertainment and many other means of escaping the “ego-self imprisoned by its own consciousness.” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite,1968, p. 28)

Still, the individual and community remains “cut off from the ground of [its] own being while pursuing substitutes of a self-aware consciousness trying to extend its awareness while seemingly getting out of itself, in what Merton in the 1960s wondered might be replacements for metaphysical and mystical transcendence and perhaps love.

The proliferation of the ever present internet and other high tech gadgets serves to encourage a certain brand of narcissism, promotes a continuance of a subject-object split and co-opts a fertile connection with the earth and other human beings in a more intimate, bodily, face-to-face relationship. Emphasis on speed, seamless efficiency, and nimble prompting, virtual communities accommodate anonymity of self, detached enjoyment of others without real self disclosure or the price of commitment.

In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Merton records words of Lao Tzu:

“A moment ago
I looked into your eyes.
I saw you were hemmed in
By contradictions. Your words
Confirm this.
You are scared to death,
Like a child who has lost
Father and mother.
You are trying to sound
The middle of the ocean
With a six-foot pole.
You have got lost, and are trying
To find your way back
To your own true self.
You find nothing
But illegible signposts
Pointing in all directions.
I pity you. (1968, p. 130)

These words were originally spoken to a distraught student. For us, this is the tragedy: we run after “illegible signposts pointing in all directions.” What we seek, however, rests deep within us; deeper than we could ever fathom “with a six-foot pole.” Seeing nature, sex, religion and even spirituality, and people everywhere radically commodified, Merton will interject the gentle voice of Sophia, “At once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me.” (1963, Emblems of a Season of Fury, p. 63)

In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Merton repeats the ironic theme of the Western spiritual predicament in which believers and unbelievers alike, while secretly congratulating themselves on their liberation from institutional religion and an alienating God-object, nevertheless find themselves seeking “a deeper dimension of consciousness than that of a horizontal movement across the surface of life.

This yearning for the “deeper dimension,” impels many Westerners to Eastern spirituality; it also suggests why so many people today describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are “attracted by the mystical consciousness,” as Merton observes, “but repelled by the triumphalist institution of the Church and by the activist and aggressive noisiness of some progressives.” How does Christian mysticism reply?

Merton’s entire corpus may be seen as a response correlating to this question. In “The New Consciousness,” Merton frames his reply in largely metaphysical terms that he believed had strong parallels in Zen practice, using words like “Being” and “Presence.” In Disputed Questions, he gives his account of mystical intuition in “The New Consciousness.”

[see blog: A New Consciousness: The Intuition of Being]

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