Sunday, 2 December 2007

Meeting the Mensch

God bless the Bodhi Tree Bookstore (second-hand section), and God bless the person who handed in their old copy of “Shadow Dancing in the USA” to be sold on.

Because it was sold on to me. The first couple of chapters got me so excited that I bought several copies to give to friends; it’s out of print but you can find second-hand copies online.

“Shadow Dancing” is a collection of essays by Michael Ventura. Ventura has a particular talent for describing the many intertwining strands of meaning – historical, political, psychological, mythical, physical and spiritual – surrounding a cultural phenomenon, and weaving them into a whole that is rich with fascinating questions, and powerful in its call for a more conscious engagement with the human condition.

I just finished reading the centrepiece of the book, a scholarly and passionate 60-page essay entitled Hear That Long Snake Moan, on the cultural origins and impact of American music, and I wanted to stand up and shout. I had “encountered the Da Ren”.

The phrase li jian da ren occurs 5 times in the I Ching.

“Li” signifies auspiciousness.

Some of the various meaning of jian are: to observe, be exposed to, consult, encounter, consciously, advice respectfully sought.

Da ren literally means 'big' or 'great' 'person'. It signifies someone not occupied with petty concerns, who can see the bigger picture and understand the situation more profoundly. A wise man, in other words. A mensch.

Wilhelm translated li jian da ren as “It furthers one to see the great man”. Brad Hatcher renders it “Rewarding to encounter a mature human being”, which I prefer – because ‘greatness’ is such a sullied word, so often either inflated with connotations of celebrity or trivialized: ‘You look great'.

But a mature human being…that’s as rare and as much of a treasure now as it was at the time the I Ching was written.

And the implication of li jian da ren is that you not only see the Da Ren – you not only encounter him, but you seek his counsel. There is an interaction, and consciousness is involved.

When I do a reading, I’m in that role. When you consult the I Ching, it speaks to the Da Ren in you, asking you to stretch yourself a little or a lot, to look from a broader, or at least a different, perspective. It’s no good to just look out from the eyes that asked the question; you need to step back, or up to the plate, and take a look from there. It’s an invitation to dream into the question, and wake up into a more inclusive reality, one in which you are more of a participant.

Reading anything by Michael Ventura does that for me. He is not only a virtuoso writer; he is a deep thinker, and a mature human being.

‘Maturity’ is a word that also has problems nowadays; it often comes with a package of odd pop-psychology connotations. It actually means ‘ripe, fully developed’, i.e. an adult rather than a child. But that means different things to different people. To my parents, acting ‘maturely’ meant being rational rather than angry, even when anger was an appropriate emotional response. For a lot of people, it means not taking risks. Ventura's take on the subject is more what I'm after:
"I'm looking for a maturity more alive, a maturity that's not afraid to be desperate, a maturity that isn't terrified of looking ridiculous. A maturity that's still willing to get dangerous if that's what it takes."
I think it’s a lot harder these days – roughly 3000 years after the I Ching was written – to be a Da Ren. Our world is one hell of a lot more complex than it was in the Zhou Dynasty. Politics, commerce, and technology in the Global Village – an oxymoron if there ever was one – throw up new and more demanding questions about what it is to live a good life, balancing private concerns with human responsibilities. We have lost the templates for family and personal relationships, and we are all finding our way in new territory, while the ground beneath our feet continues to shift. Most alarmingly, the very earth beneath our feet is changing in ways that are genuinely threatening.

We live in a world in which it’s as tempting as it is easy to be distracted from the central essentials of life.

Like frogs in the cookpot, we need wise men to help us notice that the temperature is rising. For example, that our
“sense of being overpowered by media has become such a fundamental part of our experience that we take such impotence for granted…We know the screen is not real, yet we feel unreal beside it. Our moments of love, trembling between fear and grace, are not “true love” – we’ve seen what that looks like on the screen. Our hesitant speech, with its painful silences, isn’t good dialogue. Our desperately awkward acts of survival are not real physical bravery. We are like people who’ve combed their hair in a magic mirror. The mirror shows only a state of idealized perfection, while we grow older and our hair is thinner and longer. No wonder, after dressing before such a mirror for eighty years, we look a little strange.”

He says, too, that we’re living in an Age of Endarkenment, and that
“What each of us must do is cleave to what we find most beautiful in the human heritage - and pass it on.”
“The future of the world is the future of the heart. Our capacity for love will ultimately have more effect than our capacity to store information.”
Over and over, he points out that history is not a spectator sport.

“Stop looking for other people to supply the solution. You’re the solution. If you’re not, there is no solution.”

That’s a Da Ren speaking, and inviting us all to be mature human beings.

“Shadow Dancing” may be out of print, but Ventura is alive and (I sincerely hope) well, and you can access a collection of his articles on his website:, and his up-to-date “Letters at 3am” on the Austin Chronicle’s website:

No comments: