Walk the tightrope
We don’t need religion, but mystical traditions still have a lot to teach us, says John Burnside
Because I was born working class and raised Catholic, I spent my rebel years debating a problem that almost certainly didn’t exist, even as my day-to-day life was limited and circumscribed by one that quite clearly did. That second problem (social injustice) was rarely discussed in my pious home or Pope John XXIII comprehensive and, when it was, the level of debate was so crude and so thoroughly tainted by received ideas as to be laughable. In our deliberations upon the existence and nature of God, on the other hand, we erected a vast and complex edifice of borrowed sophistication and seemingly infinite qualification. So, while urgent political questions were frowned upon (counter arguments ranged from “God has a plan” to “Why bother, when you can’t do anything about it anyway?”), the pointless arcana of theological debate were encouraged by priests and teachers recently “liberated” in their thinking by Vatican II – and it took me a long time to realise that we had everything upside down.
I look back now and I can hardly believe how Jesuitically conditioned I was, even at 16, or how thoroughly I had been prepared for a life of political naiveté and social malleability. I may not have liked it that I was poor and that the rich were, by and large, undeserving, but the status quo seemed to me as inevitable as rain on a Bank Holiday. My only consolation was to say that I was occupied with “higher things” and, even after the wilful, humourless, decidedly moody Judeo-Christian God had evaporated from my thinking like spilt diesel on a summer’s day (and it really did happen that quickly, in a matter of hours), I continued to wander a maze of religious texts and arcane reasoning, in the sure conviction that I could replace that crude, made-in-man’s-image Jehovah with some further – and higher – reality. This reality was to be accessed, of course, not via the Church, but by mental fight and direct experience in the time-honoured mystical traditions, which meant both reading and the pursuit of “altered states” through various means, including alcohol, drugs and the holy sacrament of LSD.
I will say no more here about the latter, but I do recall that I read a good deal, everything from Meister Eckhart to the Mahabharata, Duns Scotus to Alan Watts, Zen koan to the Zohar. I read it all – but nothing changed, partly because I didn’t really understand the challenge these books posed and, partly, because I had yet to be freed from that old Jesuit pledge – “Give me a boy till he’s seven years old and I’ll make him a Catholic for life.”
And then, all at once, everything changed. Suddenly, I saw that what I had assembled – all the individual fragments and experiences and notions – suggested a narrative that I had failed to understand. It was as if I’d been sitting at a table with a jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit the pieces together to make the picture I thought they were supposed to make, the picture that was printed on the box – and then, after years of frustration, I had finally understood that I had the wrong picture. I had missed the real world because I had been trained to look for something else. Yet everything I needed was there, right under my nose. All I had to do was abandon the received image and then, carefully, spontaneously and with no expectations of success, put what I had together, to make a whole. It is one of the basic tenets of science that complexity arises from an essentially simple original principle – that the most elegant explanation is usually the best. As it happened, that most elegant of explanations had been staring me in the face for years, not just in my mystical investigations, but also in my search for a meaningful politics to replace the received ideas that had been handed down to me – and when these two fields, which I had been trained to keep separate, finally came together, it was both a surprise and, at the same time, something close to a statement of the obvious.
Put simply, it began with the understanding that, in politics, as in mysticism, the object of the quest is order. How does order arise? How is it maintained? What does it mean? Once I had abandoned my residual attachment to a human God / divine agency, out there pulling strings from the beyond, that question became much clearer and a basic principle – a working model of the origin of complexity’s “ten thousand things” – eventually presented itself. It began with the recognition that order is not imposed upon the world, it is intrinsic to all things, and it is spontaneous. In Daoist thinking, this spontaneous self-perpetuating order is represented as wuji – that constant play of yin and yang (complementaries, not opposites), turning in an eternal circle of change. That change happens to create order: it is a constant balancing act, one might say, as if reality were an endless tightrope walk, and the universe was constantly making adjustments to stay on course.
This is only a model, of course, it is not the thing in itself, but it reveals something that was always missing from my God-haunted boyhood – which is the basic principle that the universe is a self-ordering system. In a God-based system, the divine order comes from outside – usually from above – and it is imposed. Naturally, this gives rise, in turn, to social and political models in which order is similarly prescribed “from above” by kings, or parliament, or the police state. Yet the wuji model reveals the emergent nature of real order: it arises spontaneously, from pretty much anywhere in the system, and it is intrinsic to the fabric of reality. No need for God, or gods, no need for an outside or an above, and so no need for hierarchies. Order – Dao, if you like – is the fundamental game that the universe is playing, by its own endlessly adaptable rules, spontaneously – which is to say, by no fixed rules at all. This isn’t mystical; this is simple observation. Lao Tzu says we cannot define “Dao”, but we see its action everywhere. Order emerges – and because this principle is basic to the entire fabric of reality, it also applies to social and political life. (An aside here: might it not be that it also works at the quantum level, that the old wave / particle conundrum arises from the fact that, at this level, the yin of wave and the yang of particle flip-flop perpetually at a frequency we cannot begin to register, so that what we observe at any one time is a snapshot of the subatomic play of wuji? I’m no scientist, but I have to say that I find this notion appealing.) But there is a political version of this process – a parallel model to wuji – that describes the world in a very similar way and that is the Dialectic.
Nowadays, that parallel seems clear to me: for yin and yang, read thesis and antithesis; for the endless cycle of wuji, read synthesis becomes new thesis: everything turns, order emerges and, if we can learns something of how the principle works, we can become spontaneous agents of order in this, the only and self-governing world. It may not be that we find answers, as such – given the nature of the system, we already recognise that no answer would suffice for long anyhow – but we might be able to diagnose errors sooner.
For example, we would see that the old separation of “this world” and “higher things” is a nonsense, no matter what form it takes. If there is a basic principle that orders reality, then that principle is everywhere; if that principle is emergent, then any meaningful political order must also be emergent, or it is bogus. Order imposed from above, “order” arising from gross inequality, or from the institutionalisation of the imagination – this is not order at all, but tyranny in its myriad forms. That tyranny arises from time to time in the flow of wuji is a fact, but our indignation and desire for justice also part of the cycle and it is the duty of anyone who values order – the religious as much as the political – to act upon that sense of what is just. To see wuji as a matter of just “going with the flow” is a failure to understand its nature: in this system, we are all agents for change, one way or another.
So far, so personal, you might say. And so obvious. But in a time of corruption – and we are most certainly in that time – at a time when so many have turned from “politics” in disgust (though every choice, including turning away, is political), I have to contend that these obvious facts need to be restated with some force. If we can accept the idea of wuji – of the intrinsic Dao as opposed to the extrinsic God – and if we see its link to the Dialectic, the possibility and purpose of bringing spontaneity into our political thinking becomes clearer. We abandoned politics because all the good ideas get hijacked and twisted by professional politicians and spin-doctors and, most recently, faux-greens – but the basic idea, the idea of an emergent politics is, in fact, incorruptible, because it depends upon the shifting tide of imagination.
To recognise that is the real realpolitik – the top-downers and bottom-liners may impose what they like, but it cannot endure long and, while it does, we gain by recognising the harms and limits it imposes, even upon its own proponents, in the most surprising ways. Meanwhile, the politics of wuji imposes nothing at all; it calmly recognises and imaginatively works with the play of emergent order – and the outcome of such a politics is, inevitably, the pursuit of justice. Of course, this is actually a very old idea: it is, in the true sense of the word, anarchism. Godless wuji, the endlessly shifting Dialectic, the spontaneous play of the universe – anarchism – was so beautiful that we needed the massive edifice of Church-and-State to blind ourselves to it. Yet it’s in the very nature of such edifices that they eventually crumble, to be replaced by new edifices perhaps, but not necessarily.
The corruption of the capitalist world is so blatant now – the machinery is creaking so loudly and the Emperor is so well and truly naked – that it is tempting to turn away, but we have to resist that temptation, not just because our refusals matter, but also because the real mystery is the world itself and the real spiritual adventure is out there, in the shift and sway of wuji, and in the infinite self-renewal of Dialectic – and, like the medieval reformers, who left their cells and their retreats to nail their demands to the doors of the cathedral, our main obligation now is to turn off the TV, set aside the commercially produced fodder of self-help books and cosmetic mysticism and godlessly, playfully but in all seriousness step out on to the tightrope and walk.