Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Valueshock Explained

Why the term "valueshock"? Well, it is meant to indicate a time in which transformative potential rises, like the synergy between the ground of the earth and the dynamic thermal currents of the sky, which forms the cleansing and cathartic energy known as lightning. It is a natural force that has been wondered at by humans since the dawn of recorded history: consider the poem from Hexagram 51 of the I Ching, written somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago:

51 Shock
Shock brings success.
Shock comes--oh, oh!
Laughing words--ha, ha!
The shock terrifies for a hundred miles,
And he does not let fall
The sacrificial spoon and chalice.
(from the Richard Wilhelm / Carey Baynes translation, 1923 / 1950)

The structure of the hexagram is said to represent the dynamic force described above: the rumble of thunder doubled in its force as it roars through the vault of heaven. It is a metaphor on times such as those we live in, where the dread notes of fear resound throughout the world, joined by the sound of transformative potential that is latent in the most terrifying moments of history. The commentary written to this hexagram by Carol Anthony and Hanna Moog may help us to perceive this synergy between the rumble of conflict and the possibility of liberation:

A person may receive this hexagram when he has experienced an unsettling event, which has shaken his confidence in the ordinary ways he has been relating to his life. The shock is to make him aware that these ordinary ways, which he has been taking for granted as correct, have failed to help him in the given situation. It also shows him that the values he has been following are questionable, and that his path has now led him to a dead-end.
(from I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way, ichingbooks / Anthony Publishing Co., 2000; p. 547)

The "unsettling event" referred to is the cycle of violence and destruction that began with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and which continued with the war of occupation currently being waged in Iraq. We have also seen the re-emergence of the cult of genocide around the world over the past 20 years--in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and now in Chad. Meanwhile, the seemingly endless round of attack and counter-attack between the Israelis and Palestinians goes on to this very moment; while mushroom clouds of nuclear capacity appear in Korea and Iran. Finally, there is no longer any question (even in the President's mind, during his rare moments of lucidity) whether the "war on terror" can ever be won--but only as to how bad it might get.

These are the shocks of our time. In our world of today, the shock indeed "terrifies for a hundred miles"--and for a hundred thousand. But how can "shock bring success"? What did these people of ancient times know that we seem to have missed, consumed as we are by our fear and horror? Perhaps they perceived that the way through shock is to remain open to what it has to teach us. These people were guided by the natural world and their place within it, which was not one of lordship and dominion, but rather of an active and humble participation in the natural rhythms and movements of the Earth and its creatures. They saw that, as terrifying as a thunderstorm could be--as threatening to life and property--it nevertheless brought nourishing rain to the fields, while its ionic force cleansed the air, relieved the humidity, and balanced the pressure of the atmosphere. The clarity and stillness that follow a storm are palpably regenerative--thus the movement in the poem from alarm (oh oh!) to relief (ha ha!).

But note the absence in the verse of any intervening human destruction to counter the shock received. Instead, it tells of one who remains so inwardly quiet and steady that he can continue with the ritual of nourishment, so that "he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice."

Well, that's fine for sitting out a thunderstorm, but what about when people start flying airplanes into the buildings of your most important and populous city? Let us remember that the folks who wrote these quaint-sounding poems lived in a time of warfare and strife such as would make life in modern Baghdad seem a bargain by comparison. I'm not kidding, and a glance at the historical records of the time proves it: this was a time, spanning several centuries, in which a hundred Osama bin Ladens wrought terror, death, and destruction over a part of the world roughly in scale to today's Middle East. Tyrants and their armies fought, conquered, looted, and burned in an unceasing whirl of mayhem and murder. Life was very cheap, and never assured from one day to the next, no matter where in China you happened to live. It was known as "the warring states period." And they meant it.

So the insight that these people offer us into shock is worth paying some attention, because it was insight earned through lived experience. There were no "think tanks" or "wonkers" in that era (plenty of bureaucrats, though)--these would arise in the Confucian era, soon to follow this. In the warring states period, there were just people desperately trying to survive and still live decent human lives.

The answer they arrived at, which they expressed in the philosophy of Taoism and its formative documents--the I Ching, the Chuang Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching--involved teaching a personal sense of humility: the ability to learn from shock, to grow from it, rather than react impulsively or violently to its appearance. To do this, they turned the shock inward, upon themselves, and let its rumble be felt within, where it could shake loose the crust and corruption of ideological acculturation. In other words, they allowed the shock inside themselves, where it could clear away the clutter of conditioned values. Thus, the expression in the address bar to this site: valueshock.

What we are able to accomplish as individuals will contribute, more than any group belief system or mass movement, to the enrichment and growth of the whole, of our nation. To the extent that each of us can feel the shock of our times and turn it inward in a calm but rigorous process of self-examination ("he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice")--to this extent, I say, we will all benefit. In order to fully accomplish this transformation of society out of the deep cleansing of received belief within each individual, certain seeming sacrifices must be made. We will have to rely on our own natural discernment, and not on the dictates and insinuations of a mass media that is no longer in touch with reality (is there anything more unnatural, more unreal, than "reality TV"?). Therefore, we will have to follow Barack Obama's advice from his keynote address at the DNC, and turn off the television, and ignore the shrill print-noise of those mindlessly addictive newspapers which are appropriately termed "tabloids" (or "dogma-pills", as I call them). There is a surfeit of information to be had in this culture: you will not lack. But wherever you feel you're being hawked to or sold an inner bill of goods or a system of belief, turn away and turn within.

The times are indeed desperate--perhaps more so than in any period of this nation's history since our Civil War. For those of us with young children, there is an almost implosive density to this moment in history, as if their future and the quality of the lives they will grow into will depend on how we meet the current crisis. But it is more than a crisis of conflict or of leadership--any candidate who tells you that he or she will instantly restore order and peace to life and resolve humanity's most pressing problems must be rejected (and to be fair to Senator Kerry, I have not heard him once make such a claim). For what we need now are leaders capable of facing reality; we do not need Bible-beating fantasy-dwellers preaching security to us at the point of a gun (or worse still, a draft notice). Our leaders cannot work in a vacuum, nor should they be allowed to pretend that they can. We must demand of them that they, like us, deeply question the values that the shocks of our time have exposed and shaken from their brittle pedestals of authority and sanctity.

Shock brings success--or at least it can, if we can listen to it within ourselves. This is a time when we can be sucked further into the vortex of fear, denial, and despair--never to emerge, nor our children to know what it is to live freely or in peace with mankind and Nature. It is also a moment of wondrous transformative potential, when the shock and horror that has eclipsed our world at the dawn of a new millennium can lead us to a point of balance and mutually supportive harmony that will effect such changes as have not been seen in living memory. The choice is up to us, each of us, in this very moment.

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