It has always amazed me how the Sage teaches through the I Ching. At first, we only get a vague feeling that we are receiving a “new lesson.” Then some time goes by when the subject presents itself again, defining it just a bit more. Then some time later, the missing Rosetta stone is revealed, at which point the message becomes clear and defined. In the end, we suspect that this process has been necessary for us to understand it.
The following lesson began in the summer of 2011 when an I Ching friend sent us a link to a lecture by Dan Dennett on “memes.”
For you who are unfamiliar with memes, the Meriam Dictionary describes them as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
Dennett’s lecture focuses at first on a scientist who observed a peculiar ant-behavior that was clearly contrary to the ant’s biological imperative to survive, and which, indeed, brought about the ant’s death. Afterwards, a scientist examined the ant’s brain and found it had been invaded and damaged by a certain kind of fluke causing it to self-destruct.
Dennett next compared this to the “memes” that influence the brains of humans, leading them to think in ways that are contrary to their biological imperative. He then showed a New Hampshire license place that has on it the revolutionary war slogan, “Live Free or Die.” Dennett then continued with a list of things that people have said are “worth dying for”: freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, Catholicism, Islam, etc..
His point gave a new angle to what we have learned from the I Ching, and have written about in our books: the deleterious effect that untrue words and ideas have on the human mind, psyche, and body.
A seemingly unrelated question that long had been in my mind came after watching this video: why does the I Ching consistently make the point that evil is not an intrinsic part of our human makeup, and likewise is not intrinsic to the Cosmos? Always, when I experienced what I called “evil behavior,” it made me aware that those words were not true. It urged me to come to a deeper understanding.
What “clicked” in me particularly while watching this video were the words “injection” and “infection.” I suddenly saw that all so-called evil behaviors are the result of infectious ideas that have been injected into the mind from an outside source. I had already learned that evil is the result of our being conditioned to think in ways that are in conflict with our true nature, but now these two new words made the matter clearer and simpler.
The concept of “infections of the mind” came more vividly alive later when I happened to listen to a live performance of the opera, Otello, by Guiseppi Verdi. I had seen it both as an opera and in its original form in the Shakespeare play. This time, I was struck by the realization that Othello’s mind has been infected by an outright lie, told to him by one of his lieutenants, Iago. The general situation is one in which Othello has chosen another lieutenant to replace him when he will soon be leaving for Venice. Iago, jealous of that lieutenant and seeking to discredit him and get the position for himself, has injected into Othello’s mind that his rival lieutenant is having an affair with, Desdemona, Othello’s wife. Othello disbelieves Iago at first, but Iago contrives “evidences” to prove his assertion, thus fixing Othello’s suspicion. From that point on, the infection grows in Othello to the full mental state of feeling utterly betrayed. These feelings are such that Desdemona’s innocent denials only seem to him to further prove her disloyalty. No sooner than he kills her than her maid, who happens to be Iago’s wife, enters, and in horror at what Othello has done, reveals Iago’s evidences to be false. In horror and remorse at what he has done, Othello then kills himself.
A few more weeks passed by when the thought came that Shakespeare must have been fascinated with the way infectious ideas are being injected into the mind, because this theme occurs repeatedly in his tragedies. In King Lear, Hamlet, and MacBeth, a single negative idea, injected into the minds of the main characters, starts them on their totally self-destructive courses.
King Lear, for example, has become infected with the self-flattering idea that he will give his kingdom to the daughter who best proves her love for him. He has expected that Cordelia, his favorite daughter, will be the one who will best say how much she loves him. However, it is his two ambitious daughters who floridly declare how much they love him, while behind his back they mock him. Cordelia, who truly loves him, finds herself unable to make a demonstration of her love. Lear’s insistence on this idea leads to both Lear’s and Cordelia’s destruction.
In play after play, and even in the comedies, Shakespeare investigates the self-destructive nature of ideas that, coming from without, infect the minds of the characters around which his plots revolve. Measure For Measure is one such example in the comedies. The Duke, in this play, temporarily hands over his dukedom to a subordinate noted for his strict morality. This subordinate soon turns the place into a madhouse of morality as he seeks to make examples of immoral behavior, in order to “to clean up the dukedom.” His first example is a young gentleman who has got his bride-to-be pregnant; the penalty he proscribes is for the young man to be hanged at dawn. When the young gentleman’s sister comes to plead for her brother’s life, the subordinate, attracted by her in the extreme, tries to bargain her brother’s life in exchange for her acquiescing to his desire. Fortunately, the duke who has been studying the situation in the garb of a monk, reveals himself and puts all to rights.
It seems that the main difference between the tragedies and the comedies, is that someone in the comedies, usually an unlikely person, puts the runaway infection in a sensible light, thus exposing its totally absurd nature.
This is shown particularly well in The Merchant of Venice. The plot revolves around Antonio, who is about to lose a pound of his flesh to Shylock, because he is unable to pay back what Shylock has loaned him. Hearing of this, a woman friend of Antonio’s resolves the problem by disguising herself as a judge who intervenes in the case. She proposes to Shylock that while by law he is entitled to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he is not entitled to “a scruple more” than a pound. If he so much as cuts off the weight of a hair more, he himself shall die. Commonsense draws Shylock back from the brink of turning the play into a tragedy. We see a similar pattern repeated in The Winter’s Tale, even though the threat is not always a death threat, in the The Merry Wives of Windsor, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest.
What is it, I asked myself, that makes these “fictions” so interesting, “classic,” and timeless as pieces of literature? Is it because they reinforce in us an inner truth we all possess: that what we call evil is neither indigenous in us, nor part of the Cosmic way, but rather comes from abstract and false words — ideas planted in our minds, usually during our youth, that hide our true nature, which is totally good from our conscious awareness.
I was also drawn to ask myself, what allowed that “bonfire” of vengeance to be lit in the mind of Othello, once he heard that his wife was unfaithful? Surely it was his pride, inflamed by the false words.
Then came the question: what was behind that pride? How did it come about? The Sage answered that question, as well, namely, that pride is an ego emotion that is created the moment when, as a child, our innate dignity is injured. Usually, this happens when we are told, “you know nothing!” If this injury is not healed, pride then develops into a “compensatory system” that makes us think that we are in some way important. The pride system acts like a splint on a broken bone; it enables us, in limited ways, to use that bone until it has healed. Unfortunately, that healing usually does not fully take place. It is prevented by the false, but widespread view, that we are born faulty and lacking, and “there’s nothing we can do about that.” Pride thus becomes a permanent fixture in our psyche — our main way of compensating for the injuries to our psyche that subsequently occur. It is permanent until we find the way to heal that wound.
Pride, being a makeshift system of compensations, is extremely vulnerable to ideas that either flatter the mind, or arouse it to a sudden defense. Hurt pride is the sickness behind all hate crimes. Pride makes us blind to the fact that everyone is born with dignity; that dignity is the Cosmic essence of our being. Dignity is also the sum-total of all our Cosmic possessions; it allows us to know innately what is harmonious and true, and what is not.
Ideas that have the potential to infect the mind are bound up with idealistic virtues propounded by the culture we live in. In the case of Hamlet, it is the “virtuous” duty put on him by his father’s ghost, to avenge his father’s murder — an idea that was quite common in the Middle Ages. In Measure for Measure, it is the virtue of blind obeisance to the letter of the law that is enforced by the threat: “either you obey it or you will be executed.” Today’s form of “execution” is not so literal; rather it occurs in the form of condemning people for their mistakes.
We little realize that pride-based ideas have a strong hold on us until such time as that original deep wound to our dignity has been healed. For most of us who have grown up in the Western cultures, that idea is that “our original nature is faulty, and the source of evil in us.” We free ourselves from it by deprogramming (utterly rejecting) that idea with Cosmic help. In this way, our natural dignity is released from its prison. From that new place of full self-possession we can then discover and dispense with ideas that have been driving us to self-destruct.