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The Use Of The Useless

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The Use of the Useless

By Mike


In today’s hectic way of living and being, it seems all too easy to get prodded along in a certain direction, whether we want to or not. Or even worse: whether we even realize we’re being prodded at all. I think we can each find instances of where this has been true in our lives. Perhaps we get stuck working the holidays -- or just working more than we'd like to. Or perhaps -- speaking of holidays -- we end up focusing way too much on material stuff. Culture is like a current that carries us along. But we need to stop and ask, Where is it going? From where are we getting our priorities? If we don't stop to ask, we risk living our lives according to prepackaged standards that really don't serve to fulfill our spiritual and psychological needs.


Does the current of our priorities run toward the freedom of the open sea, or to a dammed up existence? The sea is untamed; it is vast, beyond control. By contrast, a dam is tamed, an artificial constriction, often used to harness energy for controlled, limited purposes. While such limited purposes are necessary in their own right, I think it is profoundly needful that we all learn to see past the dammed up way of thinking and being, to become more acquainted with the open sea.


According to Native American traditions, the difference here is between what is called the “wakan” (the sacred, mysterious, dangerous, uncontrollable) and the “washte” (the mundane, ordinary, safe, controlled). (I owe this understanding to James Audlin's book "Circle of Life".) The wakan is like the sea; the washte like a dammed up river.


Note that this distinction is not a matter of "good" vs "bad." Wakan and washte -- Sacred and mundane -- is not a moral category at all, but one that speaks to how we relate to our very existence, how we see reality itself. What really distinguishes "Sacred" and "mundane" is utility.


People nowadays are very scientific, objective and practical. We're concerned with a thing's use, and we indeed tend to value only what is of use. This habit of thinking runs contrary to the notion of "Sacredness" we have been developing here.


It is genuinely surprising how deep this type of utilitarian thinking goes in today's Western culture. For us, it has not merely been a pragmatic means of going about tackling problems. Rather, it has firmly planted its roots right into our philosophy and general worldview. More than any other culture in history, we see the world through the lens of the concept of "object", that is, we see the world as a collection of objects. "Objects" as such are lifeless, controllable things, whose only meaning and value is what we impute on them. Think about how this "object mode of thinking" might affect the way we relate to our environment, to others, and to our very own selves. Here we can touch upon ethics, because morality always involves seeing beings as ends in themselves, having value in themselves, and whose value is not defined by the mere use that others find in them.


In conjunction with this, our culture, more than any other in history, thinks of knowledge as control. What is beyond control is rarely valued, and sometimes even outright denied.


However, Sacredness is neither “object” nor controllable. And knowledge (or knowing) of the Sacred is beyond control as well. W.H. Auden once wrote: "The value of a profane thing lies in what it usefully does; the value of a sacred thing lies in what it is."


From the great Daoist work, The Chuangtzu (translated by Thomas Merton):


Hui Tzu said to Chuang, "I have a big tree, the kind they call a "stinktree." The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense."

"There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching - big and useless."

Chuang Tzu replied, "Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can't catch mice!"

"So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down."


Because the Sacred is beyond utility -- precisely because we can find no value in it at all in terms of limited human purposes -- we can each rest under its shadow, and without fear of anyone cutting it down. And paradoxically, this “useless tree" -- a Tree of Life? -- can become immanent in all our doings. I think usefulness, all of our limited purposes, must have this "uselessness" -- that which lies beyond those purposes -- as their foundation. The Sacred may indeed entail risk; that's what distinguishes it from "washte". Sacredness involves abandon, openness, sensitivity, and recognizing the groundlessness of our ordinary, all-too-safe, way of seeing. Again, it's not that one need eliminate the other, but that a harmony may obtain between them.


Matthew 6:28 See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.


This passage from the gospels is often shared in the context of “be anxious for nothing,” but perhaps we can also see something else here.


The flowers in the field know the secret of Chuangtzu’s tree. They do not plot and plan their course. They are not concerned with such things. And yet in their true import they surpass the height of pomp and wealth. They are more glorious in their uselessness than Solomon was in all his (useful) power.

Edited by Mike
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