Who Am I; Who Are You?

After resting for 45 minutes motionless, with acupuncture needles in my face, arms, abdomen, and legs, my doctor come into my room.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Peaceful,” I replied.

“Good,” my doctor said.

I thought to myself, “How many people that I know could I tell I’m peaceful?  How many situations that I find myself in would the subject of peacefulness be an appropriate conversation topic?”  And, “How many people would think I’m weird to tell them I feel peaceful?  Or not understand?”  Certainly, not at the Blues Club I frequent.  Or in my casual social occasions at the coffee shop or diner.

But my point is not how out-of-place talk of peace is.  My point is how often our conversation is constrained by our environment.  How often who we are is determined by whom we are talking to.

There are people with whom sports seems to be all I can talk about.  And I’m not that into sports.  There are people I talk about work issues with.  There are people with whom I act as a professional counselor.  There are some I seem to be talking about politics with.  Some are academic colleagues and we talk about philosophy.  Not too many people I can talk about poetry with.  There are some situations in which we complain and gripe.  There are a few people with whom I can bare my soul.  Who am I in each of these different scenarios?

There are degrees of authentic presence with other people.  There are situations in which we are polite and mannerly, which is essentially following a rule book.  There are situations in which we are diplomatic which requires sensitivity, fast and careful thinking and word choice.  There are times when we say what we think other people want to hear.  Then there are the feelings with which we encounter others.  Sometimes we speak in mutual love.  Sometimes we speak in mutual anger.  Sometimes we speak in mutual sincerity.  Sometimes in company with others we feel lonely because there is much of who we are that we cannot express in the environments we find ourselves in.  Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of situations in which one cannot talk because the listening audience is to heterodox to the one talking.    Who are we in these differing ways of dialogue?

I think that there are different degrees of depth in our personality makeup.  When we are alone, some of us are in touch with a depth that we can’t express in public, for various reasons.  We think, do, and feel as we wish when we are alone.  This may be who we really are.  There is also meditation and prayer, which takes us to an altered, deep level of personality above ordinary experience.

So who we are alone is one measure of the self.  Then, on the other hand, there are times when a person gets lost in sociality.  These are times when our environment dictates who we are, how we act.  When I was a Harvard student in Boston, I felt so connected to my social environment that there was no real divide between me and the culture of Harvard.  On the positive side, I was learning social graces and expanding my intellect.  On a negative side, I was all surface, appearance, propriety.  I lost my feeling of peace when alone in Nature.

But we can’t love when we are alone.  Love isn’t a feeling we shine out from our heart.  Love is an action word.  We love when we are involved with others.  We can love, also, when we do something of service to others, even when we are alone.  When I write, or play music, which will eventually get to other people, I love what I am doing.  My love for others comes out in words or melodies.  Sometimes peacefulness comes out.  When I am in company with others, I aim to bring love and the Good to our encounter, my love for humanity, and what I have learned to date that is good.  I may listen empathetically; I may joke around; I may share my personal life, I may inquire about others’ loves, lives, interests.  In all this I strive to be authentic.  I want people to meet who I am, not who I want people to think I am.

Once, a long time ago, I was talking to a stranger in a bar.  She said, “I’ve never met a real person before.”  I hope that wasn’t the whole truth.  But I think that we encounter degrees of reality in the people we meet.  I knew a man who accidentally told me that he is skilled in becoming the kind of person he thinks his social companion wants him to be.  That would be the opposite extreme of who I was back in the bar.  Being an authentic self is knowing self, and bringing self to social interactions.  And self in relationship with others is self expanded, growing through the interaction, acting on and in love and the good.  Being authentic in relationships expands who we are as we come away with an encounter of the other, another reality than our own.  While we may be one kind of real self when we are alone, we are also a real self when we are authentic in our relationships.

 

 

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Language Games and Interfaith

I had a striking experience with acupuncture yesterday.  Not only did the tranquility of my treatment relax my stiff muscles, it helped me with concentration, alertness, and mood–it put a spring in my step.  It accomplished all this as I lay on a table with a few needles in me, listening to meditative music with ocean waves.  My body healed itself.  Or as the Chinese doctor said, acupuncture restored the flow of ch’i in me.  The philosophy behind this treatment was to still my mind first, then my muscles would relax.

This got me to thinking.  Lying on the cot, stilling my mind and muscles, listening to quiet music made me think about life outside the doctor’s office.  The stillness, the absence of stimulation, all quieting my mind, relaxing my muscles.  Then there is the hectic pace, the over stimulation of our society, the noise.  If it is therapeutic to be in a still, quiet environment, is it still possible to live an ordinary life in society?  I saw that I would need to adjust my lifestyle, of course, and not let stress and stressors into my mind.  I thought about the tranquil Chinese music they played when I practiced T’ai Ch’i at another Chinese studio.  It would be as hard for me to listen to Chinese music, if I weren’t doing T’ai Ch’i due to its simplicity and meditative quality.  T’ai Ch’i, the acupuncture office, Chinese music are all products of a culture that values quietness, I think.

I thought about interfaith relations.  I am deeply committed to interfaith ideals and multicultural societies.  But what if being deeply immersed in a culture that values stillness and quiet is incompatible with other cultures that are more boisterous, aggressive, and confrontational?  I ask, can one be open to intercultural ideals while being committed, oneself, to a deep tradition and culture?  This is what Lyotard calls, “the heterogeneity of language games.”  What if music is more than aesthetic?  What if music embodies a cultural philosophy and ethics, like the Chinese music I heard at the T’ai Ch’i studio?  I like classical music, jazz, blues, and rock.  But these are aesthetic judgments.  These forms do not embody a western ethics or culture.  Beethoven composed in Vienna, but his music has world appeal.  But the Chinese music I heard reflects the ethics of stillness, meditative quiet, and tranquility of Chinese culture, I think.  It is akin to Palestrina’s choral music, which one could say does embody a Christian ethics.

Is it possible to live within the norms of a deeply held culture, and also hold multicultural ideals?  That would be quite a feat.  I once heard a Christian minister speak art an interfaith gathering.  She was so sensitive to interfaith values, and so anxious not to offend anyone, that she didn’t even pronounce the name, “Jesus.”  That is interfaith at its worst.  That is multiculturalism eroding one’s own norms and values.  Interfaith means different faiths living in mutual respect.  But can I live with the tranquil Chinese music and all that it represents, and also enjoy Z.Z. Top?  Or does one preclude the other?  One thing I do know, life is richer for me living in the multicultural city in which I live.  Without multiculturalism, a white man like myself wouldn’t have been able to experience Chinese healing.

What Acupuncture Taught Me about the Tao

I went to a centre of oriental medicine today to get a Tui Na deep tissue massage.  I was experiencing muscle stiffness, especially in my neck and shoulders due to the amount I type or play the piano.  I thought that the rough kneading, slapping, and chopping that comprise the Tui Na massage would loosen me up.  I had experienced some relaxation from a Tui Na massage I got at booth at a city fair in summertime.  So I went to the centre to get another one.

They ushered me into a room with an oriental doctor and he asked me some questions about my lifestyle and symptoms.  He said something really interesting, “First you relax the mind, then the muscles relax.”  Then doc had me lie on a table.  Next thing I knew, doc started putting acupuncture needles in me–feet, legs, abdomen, arms, cheeks, and interestingly, a needle at the top of my head–right where the last chakra is, and another needle where the “third eye” is, as doc said.  Then doc attached an electric pulse to the two needles in my head and third eye.  Then doc dimmed the lights, put on some soothing music with ocean waves, and left me there for 20 minutes.  At first it was really hard for me to lie there.  My mind was restless; my body was restless; I got bored.  I felt a disjunct between my muscles and my inner self/feelings.  After a while, my mind/body were all one.  Calm was coming over me.  After acupuncture, doc put some suction cups on my neck, shoulders, and back.  I felt much, much better.  Doc told me to come back in a week.

I wanted a force external to me to manipulate my muscles and relax them.  But by leaving me on a table to relax, with the few acupuncture needles in me, my mind relaxed and my body relaxed itself from within.  My mind/body healed itself from within.  Taoism teaches us to be natural and spontaneous.  In Taoism you don’t force things–either in social manners, or in ethics.  You yield to “the way of water,” “the breath of the valley spirit” and return to “the uncarved block.”  I think that’s what happened to me at the oriental medicine centre.  I began my healing process and my body taught me about the Taoism I learned in school.