April 8, 2011

Tao and the art of narrative circuitousness

Oh, and about that Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

In 1922, Werner Heisenberg, as a student, asked his professor and friend-to-be, Niels Bohr, “If the inner structure of the atom is as closed to descriptive accounts as you say, if we really lack a language for dealing with it, how can we ever hope to understand atoms?”

Bohr hesitated for a moment and then said, “I think we may yet be able to do so. But in the process we may have to learn what the word understanding really means.”

I just found this passage in my evanescent old paperback copy of Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, as I begin again to grapple with just why does the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle comfort me so much spiritually? How did I ever even make the acquaintance of such an abstruse little profundity? How to understand my own understanding? Lao Tzu once said, “Not knowing what one knows is best.” I think I need to be a Taoist. And make a cup of tea.

In 1988, I was standing just outside the rich wooden door of an old collegiate lecture hall in the Physics Building of Rice University. I was twenty-four and only knew the many things I didn’t know. I wasn’t there to know anything about physics. The footsteps of many others taking an evening Continuing Studies course on comparative religions with me clouded the dark stone corridor. I had arrived early to allow these many footsteps to enter before me and in so doing to ascertain whether any cute guys were in the class. But, I had become distracted by a row of headshots of young men pursuing PhD’s in physics that were pinned to a departmental bulletin board. Cute guys. Really cute. Long hair! Tans! Easy, confident smiles! And rocket scientists! Maybe I should hang out in this hall after class!

I was so young and so short of worldview. The fact that not a single photo of a woman was on that board didn’t even register much less bother me. The fact that I was thinking more about how to access intellect via attaching to a man, rather than just attaching myself to intellect, was only the pale pulse of a warning light on the edge of my radar screen. At that time, emotionally contingent and culturally attuned to the still almost axiomatic assumption that what would really light me up was a man and marriage and at least two kids, the heft of my brainwave activity throughout college and beyond was dedicated to calculating where best to stand when to meet whom. Alas. To be learning so much, and understanding so little.

I darted into the classroom and slid into a front seat alongside a little grandmother with a big Bible under her notebook. This was still Houston in the late 80’s. But the teacher, like my still inchoate questions, was unlike anything I had seen or heard in the Republican city limits of my circumscribed youth. Smart and open-minded, apparently gay, unafraid to be both startlingly effeminate and shockingly opinionated—well, shockingly liberally opinionated—and very engaging and considerate throughout, he began by announcing that he was a Catholic Taoist. A Dow-wist? I hadn’t even heard of Taoism, much less someone confidently declaring more than one religious allegiance simultaneously.

“I am Taoist because I believe in the energetic interdependence of everything in the universe, and I am Catholic because I believe we are called by this collective energy to do good works.” I felt like I was studying at the feet of some oddly assembled spiritual Mr. Potato Head, complete with skinny arms akimbo to a lumpy midsection, an overwrought mustache and close-set Angry Eyes tempered by heavy eyebrows tilted out and down. I still love him so much. He ultimately led me to Heisenberg, to all of it. And yet, I can only remember one single thing he taught.

He was explaining that none of the founders of the world’s religions had declared themselves to be God or gods, and how many of them would be horrified to see themselves worshipped and prayed to today, when the little grandmother smiled beatifically and bubbled, “All except for Jesus! He is the only one who called Himself the Son of God.”

He retorted, “Not according to Jesus. He always referred to himself as the Son of Man. Other people refer to him as the Son of God.”

“But, in the Bible…”

In the Bible. Jesus only uses the words ‘the Son of Man’ to describe himself in the Bible.”

The room went silent. Again, this was late 80’s Houston. Class was dismissed, and I didn’t loiter in the halls hoping to say hi to cute guys coming out of evening colloquia. I ran home and began reading the New Testament. Every word. Let’s just say for now that six times the words of Jesus and the words “Son of God” are very conveniently packaged, but eighty-six times Jesus clearly declares himself to be “the Son Of Man.”

Oh, and about that Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step after another, Little Grasshopper. And, these boots were made for walking a circuitous spiritual path. Next week, next step. Now, Tao. And another cup of tea.

Categories: Books, The Dancing Wu Li Masters

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