Inner Sanctum
 Derek's Private Study


Asymmetry

At the basic level of Tao cultivation, we learn that:

  • All things are relative to one another. There is no "long" without "short," no beauty without ugliness, no heavier without lighter, etc.
  • The Great Tao contains all and leaves out nothing.
  • There is no need to judge, criticize or condemn.

These are all timeless truths and great wisdom. To someone used to concepts like Absolute Good vs. Absolute Evil in the West, these teachings are a revelation.

But then there's trouble, because many people, without guidance from real masters, remain at the basic level. They may say something like, "The Tao Te Ching expresses no preferences, because the Great Tao has no bias. Who's to say if any one thing is better or worse? Who should be the judge of that?"

If this sounds right to you, read on.

At the next level beyond the basic we learn about the essential asymmetry of existence itself. In nature, symmetry is the rare exception, not the rule. The perfect circle almost never exists. Ellipses are far more common. Look at orbital mechanics of celestrial bodies. Look at the shape of the Earth. It is not a perfect sphere; it bulges out at the equator.

Look at one complementary yin and yang pair: creation and destruction. Think about it -- are the two equal? Are they really?

No. It is usually far easier to destroy than to create. A building that took years to plan and construct can be destroyed in moments using explosives that cost an insignificant fraction of the cost of construction. A painting that took days to create can be destroyed by fire in a few minutes.

If it's so much easier to destroy than create, how is it that we have a civilization at all?

Because we human beings generally have a far stronger preference to create than to destroy -- yet another manifestation of asymmetry.

Look at day and night. Are they equal? Most of the time, no. For 363 days out of a year, one of them is longer than the other. Only in two days per year are day and night equally divided, at exactly 12 hours each.

Look at love and hate, kindness and cruelty, peace and violence. What do most people prefer most of the time? The answer should be obvious.

"So what? I bet there are people who respond to hate, cruelty and violence," says the stubborn guy who proudly proclaims himself a die-hard Tao philosopher.

Of course there are, but are they the majority? Of course not. While such people do indeed exist, they are not even a significant minority. Why should the general practice of Tao cultivation cater to them?

In the Tao Te Ching, it is clear that Lao Tzu advocates quietness, moderation, humility, non-contention, selflessness. Why? Because these form a positive, uplifting, inspirational path that works very well for the great majority of humanity.

Doesn't the Great Tao also contain cacophony, extremes, arrogance, contentiousness, and selfishness? Of course it does. Do these things work well for most people as a path of cultivation? Of course not.

"I disagree," says the stubborn guy. "Who's to say quietness is better than noise? Who's to say being helpful to others is better than letting them find their own solutions? Remember the story about the farmer who lost his horse?"

This above shows that the self-appointed defender of the Tao is still laboring under the unwarranted assumption of symmetry -- that being arrogant is somehow equal to being humble; being kind is somehow equal to being cruel; inaction is somehow equal to helping others.

No such equality exists in reality. As long as we remain human beings, most of us will tend to prefer the positive over the negative. That's just the way it is. The sage observes and learns from this just as he observes and learns from all of nature.

Human nature is like this because we are all part of the Tao. Nature exists as a complex set of dynamic, asymmetrical balances because asymmetry is an essential feature and indispensible principle of the universe in which we live. It is, in short, an intrinsic characteristic of the Tao.

Asymmetry in Cultivation

At the end of the day, I feel the essence of Tao cultivation isn't just seeing both aspects of dualities... but also in developing a sense of proportion in regards to both aspects.

It is possible to grow spiritually by sharing with one another, encouraging one another, and developing friendships with one another.

Conceivably, it is also possible for some people to grow spiritually by belittling one another, bickering with one another, or engaging in arguments by twisting words and hurling insults.

These are two sides of a duality. Both exist and will continue to exist. Neither side may extinguish the other. We all recognize that.

The next question then becomes: Which side will most of us prefer? Camaraderie and harmony? Or bullying and domination? There is no question in my mind as to what I prefer, and I believe most people have the same preference -- most people benefit the most working in a spirit of fellowship with one another. This is the first asymmetry to note in this particular yin and yang pair.

The second asymmetry to note is this: Although there are few people who are still mired in petty conflicts, and claim to enjoy and thrive on chaos, this tiny minority is usually the most vocal. Their volume drowns out those who wish for peace and a sense of family. The shrill force of their voices is much greater than the quiet whispers of the vast majority. This is yet another manifestation of asymmetry.

With that in mind, I must ask: Why should the majority who wish for the positive let the minority who like to play with the negative ruin a perfectly good online community?

I note with interest that the contrarians squeal especially loud whenever there is any attempt to curb their harmful influence. Suddenly their petty squabbles become sterling examples of how they uphold the freedom of speech.

Then they'll say to me: "Don't forget Derek, the Tao is in manure too."

To which I fully agree, and point out the Tao also resides in cleanliness. If these individuals prefer to wallow in manure, they may do so at an appropriate place of their own. They may not turn our corner of the Internet into their personal cesspool.


I've taken some flack for the above paragraph, but I still stand by every word and see no reason to modify or retract them.

Those who have taken offense are the ones who automatically assume negativity when I speak of manure and cesspool. So they point out that one man's manure is another man's fertilizer.

However, a careful reading of my last paragraph will make it clear that I have passed no value judgment on manure. My only assertion is that the outhouse should be kept separate from the living room. The two should not mix.

It's a simple idea. Really nothing more than common sense. But as the sages point out, when one becomes attached to academic knowledge, common sense is usually the first casualty.