This is the fourth meditation on this work offered by a friend. (Click to enlarge.)
This couple belongs together. They in fact give rise to each other. Despite being opposites, they seem to merge together. Hope is there for Despair; Despair is there for Hope. They are co-dependent. Why is he in despair? Because he requires a hope that Hope cannot provide. Why does Hope offer hope? Because there is despair in Despair, and it lurks in her own heart.
We are pulled into this union of Hope and Despair. They are a couple. They are one. They are humanity solely in the context of a human perspective. They are one, even as opposites, but there is no resolution between them.
But here are two tiny birds looking in opposing directions, out and away. We might have missed or dismissed them but for the title, “The Indifference of Birds”. This is somehow about them. Yet they care nothing for the main event, the drama unfolding beside them. They do not watch the couple, but out to nothing in particular. Nor do they together look up to a higher Reality, a solution, a resolution. That would involve them in the drama. Rather, they look out to indefinite and indifferent mystery.
This is a third meditation on the art of a friend. (Click to enlarge.)
The couple is our first and primary focus. This is the human experience without external reference. He is in abject despair. She (or he—the figure seems a bit androgynous) comforts him. Which is the stronger figure? Despair. Despair is the fuller figure—starkly self-contained, unreachable. Hope is, as the artist tells us, “bubble-headed”, and not even fully formed. Hope, for all her genuine and affirmable caring, is ultimately empty. What can she say? It will be alright. Will it? And if things turn for the better, won’t they necessarily turn for the worse once again? All she can really provide are empty platitudes in the face of Unamuno’s “tragic sense of life”, namely that it has no sure purpose and must necessarily come to an ignoble end. “The god that shits” (Ernest Becker) loosens its bowls and takes its last.
I am reminded of Zhuangzi’s assessment of the human condition: “When someone dies people say, ‘He still lives in our hearts.’ But in truth his body decayed and his mind went with it. This is our greatest sorrow. Isn’t human experience completely bewildering” (2:11)? Hope, in the end, is but wishful thinking.
We are remarkable for our admirable resilience. It’s amazing, really. This speaks to the power, the élan, of life itself. Hope dawns eternal, we say, even while knowing in our heart of hearts that it sets just as frequently and will eventually set forever. Every human hope is at root a false hope. Could there be a hope that is also a non-hope, one free of expectations and prescribed outcomes? Zhuangzi suggests there can.
As previously stated, I think this picture (click to enlarge) so wonderfully illustrates the possibility of a hope of no-hope that it is worth spending time meditating on. I have already posted it twice in the hope (of no-hope, I hope) that some of you might have taken the time to do so before I weigh in.
I made the following observations to the artist:
I’m thinking of it as: Hope, Despair and the Indifference of Birds. Or: Hope comforts Despair while the birds don’t care (or enjoy a day in the park).
I like the way Hope leans into and almost merges with Despair (our first focus) and then the birds turn us out and away.
The form of the drawing is a triangle; the trinitarian nature of this doodlegadget is inescapable. A very pleasing riff, variation, and furthering—this is what it is to play where the object of the game is to keep the ball in motion, not to arrive at some final conclusion that would murder all the fun. The bubble-headed nature of dumb hopefulness, the uglification of a soul in despair, the grounded simplicity of gelassenheit*, all bound together in a three-cornered hat, a party hat not for saturday-night abandon but perfect for a stroll in the park wandering carefree.
*A Heideggarian neologism meaning “the spirit of disponibilité [availability] before What-Is which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery.” (Scott, Nathan A. (1969). Negative Capability. Studies in the New Literature and the Religious Situation. Quoted in Wikipedia). Sounds incredibly Zhuangzian!
THE HOPE OF NO-HOPE
Among the most important psychological outcomes of the Daoist experience is the unification of the mutually generating opposites hope and despair as the realization of a hope that requires no hope. Hope is typically experienced as an expectation; the fulfillment of a hope relies on specific outcomes. The failure of an expectation leads to disappointment and despair. However, where every possible outcome is understood as acceptable, hope is realized as a non-dependent and open affirmation that is contingent on no specific outcome. This is a hope that is a kind of no-hope that enables a sustainable hopefulness in what might otherwise seem a hopeless world. All is well in the Great Mess. This is one of the most important contributions philosophical Daoism can make to the philosophical underpinnings of the environmental movement. This is especially so for those of us who have failed of hope in the ability of humanity to arrest its own relentless march toward self-destruction. We are free to care and to engage, not because we hope for success, but because it is who we are.
THE UNIFICATION AND TRANSCENDENCE OF OPPOSITES
A central cognitive exercise for philosophical Daoism is the unification of opposites. Opposites give rise to each other and therefore exist only by virtue of their relation to each other. Self gives rise to other. Other gives rise to self. Without self there is no other. Without the other there is no self. To experientially appreciate the fundamentally dualistic nature of human consciousness is to transcend and unite the opposites it creates without negating them. This too is walking two roads; the necessarily dualistic character of self-conscious experience is affirmed even while informed by an experience of oneness. Among other transcended dyads are: right and wrong, life and death, dependence and independence, freedom and necessity, knowledge and ignorance, belief and doubt, joy and sorrow, success and failure, hope and despair.
WALKING TWO ROADS
Because every perspective is understood to be relative to one’s particular circumstances, and thus non-normative and non-prescriptive, no perspective, including the broadest possible imaginable, can be said o be “best”. We are thus able to legitimately entertain many perspectives simultaneously, even those that may appear to be mutually exclusive. The equal worth of all things does not therefore trump the self-affirmation and self-interest of things, just as their unity does not obviate their diversity; indeed, their unity (sameness) resides in the very exercise of their diversity. We are able, therefore, to allow our experience of the unity and equal worth of all things to inform our species determinate desire and need for self-flourishing without negation. Zhuangzi calls this “walking two roads”.
EXPERIENCE BEYOND LANGUAGE
What this mysticism shares with all forms of mysticism is an understanding that most if not all human experience is rooted in the pre-cognitive. But though this is self-evident, the rational mind has become so dominate as to largely dismiss this reality. What does not yield to the objectification of words is largely ignored as untrustworthy. Philosophical Daoism makes a case for a greater appreciation of pre-cognitive experience.
THE UNITY OF ALL THINGS
Among the transformative experiences consequent to our meditative recontextualization is a sense of the fundamental unity of all things. Yet, this sense of Oneness does not negate the diversity of things, their not-oneness, but is rather predicated on an appreciation of the irreducibility of their differences. It is a unity in diversity and only by virtue of that diversity. Things are an expression of Oneness in the expression of their uniqueness.
THE VALUATIVE EQUALITY OF ALL THINGS
This unity in diversity implies the inviolable worth and value of all things. In the broadest possible context, all things are self-right and have an equal right to be by virtue of their being at all.
All is Mystery. We use the term “Mystery” in reference to the root of every thing and every experience. We can find no First Cause, Creator, Ground of Being, Source, Universal Self or any other imagined reason why things exist or exist as they are. No purpose for the existence of anything can be established. Every discreet thing is itself Mystery. Every human life is complete Mystery. Nothing can truly be “known”. Our most immediate experience of Mystery is the experience of our own individuated existence. No substantive identity, a “soul”, is in evidence. All things are a happening; this is the most we can say.
Mysticism concerns our relationship with this omnipresent Mystery. It is not intended to suggest a magical experience of the extramundane; the mundane is Mystery. An appreciation of and release into this everyday Mystery is mysticism and its consequence is outwardly an organic sense of connectedness with all things and inwardly a renewal of primal spontaneity and joy.
These broadening perspectives can help free us from our default, more narrow points of view, and this can in turn transform our interface with ourselves and the world. To describe this experience we have borrowed the phrase “transformative recontextualization” from Brook Ziporyn (Being and Ambiguity: 2004) who uses it in a different, though to our thinking parallel, context.
MYSTICISM WITHOUT METAPHYSICS
This recontextualization is transformative in more than simply a cognitive sense. It involves a new experience of our being in the world that goes beyond intellection. This we define as mysticism, though we are careful to distinguish this from traditional definitions of mysticism that seem obliged to make reference to substantive metaphysical realities, whether it be God, Dao, qi, or any other number of supposed entities. Zhuangzian mysticism is innocent of all metaphysical belief. Indeed, its very point of departure begins and ends in an appreciation of our fundamental not-knowing.