Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Going Against the Grain

Scott Bradley

A former contributor to this site spoke of "going against the grain" as an alternative to what he perceived as the inappropriateness of "going with the flow" in pursuit of self-cultivation. I am not sure in which sense this later is understood as "inappropriate", a word which I have only used for lack of any other more suitable. The only point of reference I have for this sentiment is that of the teacher Richard Rose who said that where he came from (he was a self-described "hillbilly"), everything that went with the flow ended up in the sewer. I can only imagine that he was speaking to a popular advocacy of "going with the flow" which, at the time of his speaking, was to be found on the bumpers of VW vans.

I bring it up again here because I see it as a fundamental parting of the ways between two approaches to spiritual cultivation. This is not to say that one approach is wrong and the other right, but that one must in some sense choose between them.

It may be that I am presenting a caricature of the meaning of "going against the grain", but I cannot avoid seeing it as entailing conflict and rejection. One sees what is "unacceptable" in oneself, others and the world and fights against it. One discovers what is unacceptable in oneself (and, unfortunately, others) and confronts it in such a way as to precipitate a transformative crisis. We see this exemplified in Christian conversion where one is brought to his emotional knees and repents of his unacceptability. It is important to understand that a similar sentiment can also be found in Zen — should we find it too easy to scoff at Christian experience. This is an important point to make since it is probably the case that we have a greater respect for the efficacy of the Zen experience than we do of the Christian. And this allows us to address the issue more from the point of view of the efficacy of the approach rather than from the supposedly right or wrong of it. We are, after all, speaking of psychological experience, not eternal truth.

It may be that the approach of confrontation is in fact effective, but it is definitely not the path of philosophical Daoism. This path would respond, I think, that "going against the grain" is the grain. This is our natural inclination. This is what we most naturally do consequent to our enslavement to the concept of an autonomous and insular self that discriminates and judges so as to reinforce its self-perception. This being the case, the truest way of "going against the grain" is to "go with the flow", for it is precisely this which we most typically do not want to do.

This critique of “going against the grain” constantly emerges as I exercise myself (and offer the same here) with Daoist perspectives. In a recent post I suggested we try to shine the light of all-inclusive Dao on apparently polar opposites like Democrat and Republican opinion in such a way as to emerge non-partisan. When I (at any rate) try this, I discover what the true “grain” is, namely an addiction to discrimination and a definitive sense of right and wrong. This is what the light really illumines. “Going with the flow” must now follow the twin and seemingly irreconcilable paths of both accepting this addiction and transcending it. Two Roads.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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