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Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao - Wayne W. Dyer Assuming these new age self-help gurus are guilty of being woo-woo shamans until they prove otherwise has generally spared me a lot of disappointment, though I do try to avoid being cynical if I can help it. My first encounter with Wayne Dyer, however, doesn't break the mold as one could've guessed from my one-star rating.

My low opinion isn't so much about the content of Dyer's ongoing ramblings he's packaged as "advice". "Let's be nice, less controlling of other people, more mindful of our impact on the environment... (among other things)" is by no means a bad set of rules to lead your life by. But are they really a revolution in personal growth and ethics to anyone who's ever read a work of philosophy, psychology or even other new age trite of this sort before? Even conceding that, my main grievance with the work is Dyer's suspect methodology.

The two things that immediately ought to get your spidey senses tingling regarding Dyer's interpretation are:
A) He derived his insights based on a set of English translations of a text originally written in ancient Chinese;
B) He's surgically removed the text from its cultural, historic and religious context and is treating every little ambiguity in it as a "fill in the blank" game;

But let's tackle them one at a time.

A): The Language

Knowing that there are scholars who devote their entire academic careers to the "Dao De Jing" with the knowledge of:
1) The languages (ancient and modern Chinese);
2) The context;
3) The various versions (!) of the actual text;
4) The commentaries;
let's grant that Dyer is still entitled to his interpretation written during the course of a year he, as I assume from the constant references made in the book itself, spent in Maui (must've been nice).

I am not one of the scholars, if you're wondering - but that just emphasizes my point even more - if someone of such limited erudition as yours truly can make the points I'm making, imagine what a more learned person's more meticulous examination could conjure up.

Let's grant him some more ground to stand on. Having suffered through a few semesters of ancient literary Chinese courses (basically - the written language in which all of these classical Chinese texts were written), I have some sympathy for not wanting to undertake a task as daunting as learning a foreign language purely for a, lest I'm unaware of any existing or upcoming continuations, one-time project like this.

But what does it tell of his intellectual integrity, respect for the readers and the source material alike, to not even seriously acknowledge that he never consults the actual text in its original form? If not through deliberate study of the language and Chinese characters, then least of all with the help of scholars and/or people proficient in the language?

Instead - he plays a 2500+ year long, language-crossing game of "broken telephone" in good faith that his most immediate sources will be good enough. Or did he seriously think that the numerous occasions he meditated in front of the image of Laozi (as he keeps reminding us in the book) somehow allowed him to bypass the language and temporal barrier separating them? Add to that Laozi's as a person's historicity is dubious at best, thus making Dyer's spiritualist shenanigans unintentionally funny (even if you're not a materialist, you'd have to admit that contacting a person who may never have existed, this side or beyond the grave, would surely be challenging, to not say impossible).

If you think the language issue is divorced from reality, and Dyer can still successfully derive meaning from good translations (though how would he know the quality of a translation in any meaningful manner without the knowledge of the original text?) - here's an example how Dyer's reliance on an English translation distorted his reasoning about what the 71st chapter of the "Dao De Jing" is actually about (I'm putting it in spoiler tags in case you're not interested in such an in-depth analysis):

DDJ #71: 知不知上;不知知病。
Me: To know (知) that you don't know (不知) is superior (上); to not know (不知), and to think you DO know (知) is a disease (病).
Dyer: Knowing ignorance is strenght; ignoring knowledge is sickness.

[..]DDJ: 聖人不病,以其病病,是以不病。
Me: The wise man (聖人) is not (不) sick (病), for to be sick with (以..病) this disease (其病) [of not knowing and thinking that you do know], therefore is (是以) to not be (不) diseased (病).
Dyer: The sage is not sick, but he's sick of sickness. This is the secret of health.

Now, I probably won't win any awards for my translation, but the point is that, through picking a poetic sounding translation, Dyer completely misses what the verse is about. He assumes the verse is about health. In fact, the "disease" here is simply a metaphor, not an actual "disease", and surely not the subject matter at all.

Therefore his following interpretation about "to be sick of being sick" as a model for ideal health simply does not make sense, if only for the fact that the semantic equivalent of what "to be sick of [something]" is in English would be phrased very differently in Chinese, and it isn't reflected in the original.

B) Context

The "Dao De Jing" is a very oblique and eclectic text; there's lots of imagery, metaphors, and Daoistically-loaded words (the uncarved wood, the One, the ten-thousand things, the mysterious female, etc.). The meanings of its verses are ambiguous on a lot of occasions, but with the advances in Daoist studies, it's not nearly the open-ended enigma Dyer wants it to be. Even with Laozi, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

As much as we'd like to think of it as an ancient self-help manual filled with universal truths that resonate throughout the ages and helps us better our lives even in the 21st century - the implications, when looking at the text in its context, are not nearly as romantic.

Consider the following:
1) The obvious: you had to be literate (which very, very few people were at the time, need I remind you) to be able to read it at the time it was written, so it might have not been intended for the general public to enjoy at their leisure;
2) Its ambiguity may not have merely been nice sounding words, but actual code to make the true meanings obscure and esoteric, thus intelligible only to those "in the know" (in fact, a lot of Daoist texts later in history practice this);
3) When it speaks of warfare and governing the country - it's actually meant to be advice for rulers how to conduct wars and govern a country;
4) Some verses might not have any higher aspirations than to simply upset the sensibilities of the Confucians of the time - especially when it speaks of death (big no-no to Confucians) and the futility of rituals;

That said, I don't think this makes it impossible to use the "Dao De Jing" to find meaning and utility in your day to day life, but even if one grants that, one has to admit Dyer's interpretations are all over the place, lazy, and at times completely nonsensical.

I'm still confused whether he wants Daoism, as derived from the text, to simply be what he thinks Buddhism is; whether he interprets everything along the lines of some all-religions-are-really-one-and-the-same-at-their-heart reasoning (he makes allusions that the Dao is really God, slips in references to Sufi poets, quotes from the Bible to back up his reasoning, etc.); or whether there's still some completely different bundle of contradictions in his repertoire.

In light of this it's unsurprising how he completely misses the true Daoist flavor of the text at the most basic levels. "Doing" the Dao (as he instructs you time and time again at the end of each chapter) deliberately should've struck him as completely counter-intuitive to the Daoist idea of non-action (Wu-wei) if he really became such an expert on the text's intricacies; for someone who bemoans the woes of the "ego", he sure can't stop basking in his self-importance, imposing to you how trying this challenge was with his first-world problems (making through a 90 minute yoga session), even referring to himself as a master of the Dao at some point.

And that brings me to the most uneasy question about this whole endeavor - Dyer's motivation. Is he merely a clueless buffoon, who didn't know there's actually so much more going on with this Dao thing than this one text, and wasted a year under the illusion that he's seriously practicing its "wisdom"? Or was this just the next project of a businessman who knew he could recycle what he has probably "taught" for years anyway and patch it onto the text as the insights drawn from it? So he's either ignorant and lazy or calculating and insincere, and neither prospect makes me warm up to him.

If you want to read it for Dyer's pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-spiritual, fluffed up (whatever happened to the 81st verse's "fine-sounding words are not true"?), equally ambiguous and nonspecific directions, knock yourself out. Probably nothing in this review could have dissuaded you from doing otherwise anyway.

If you want to read it to learn about the "Dao De Jing," this is hardly the best book for it.