Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | July 30, 2010

Stencils and Decoder Sheets; Making Sense of Our World

I’ve been struggling with two concepts lately. The first is the foundational understanding of taoism, and the second, the idea that we are living in a broken, dysfunctional world.

First, when I run through the standard explanations of taoism in my mind, it soon turns into a vaudevillian comedy skit in my brain. Out of the wuji, the void, come the two things, yin and yang. As they move about, circling each other, they give birth to the great taichi. Within each is a little bit of each. The interplay of yin and yang give birth to the eight things, the eight things of the I Ching, which in turn interact creating the 64 archtypal hexagrams, and from this comes the ten thousand things or everything else. And somewhere in the middle of all this come the five things which can give birth to the next, i.e., earth creates metal, metal creates water, water creates wood, and wood creates fire. Conversely, the elements can control one another, i.e., wood controls earth, earth controls water, water controls fire, fire controls metal, and metal controls wood. It’s a great system, it has been thought out over the ages and has stood the test of time. For the most part, it works. I personally have had wonderful experiences and growing experiences using the I Ching, practicing tai chi and following taoist thought and approach to life. But in the end, what I’m thinking is, it’s just a stencil, like everyhting else, that we lay on top of reality to make sense out of things and have a system in which to live our lives.

It is the same with buddhism, hinduism, catholicism. All are well thought out systems that stand the test of time, that make sense out of our reality, and allow a means for human beings to live out their lives in a sensible, meaningful way. But the truth is, they are all just stencils or decoding pages placed on the original landscape of our existence, and depending on what holes are cut out of the sheet, what “words” they want you to see, that’s what you see.

There are other stencils. Political ones, democracy, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and on and on. Capitalism is a stencil.

I’m not proposing the removal of all stencils. Humanity needs filters, needs systems in which to operate, especially on a global level, to survive and to fulfill themselves as humans. I am not, in other words an anarchist. But I do believe that a lot of these stencils, the people who come up with them or are in control of them, they can get corrupted and coopted, they can be used to manipulate, control, and exploit the masses. What we need are benevolent stencils, that look to benefit mankind and help people on the path to development an fulfillment.

I was caught up in the idea of “koyannisqaatsi” or life out of balance. From the catholic point of view, the world we live in is skewed, out of balance, dysfunctional, broken, calling for the Savior to come and give us a Way out. What was giving me trouble was the taoist concept of the life of balance, the yin and yang…is life balanced or not. And what I realized was that the world itself is not out of balance; it is the stencil, the system we are in, the overlay we live our lives by that is broken and dysfunctional and needs fixing.

What would we see if we removed the filters? The world, the nature of our universe, our place in it, is. The world revolves around itself, and revolves around the sun. Seasons change. Winter spring summer fall. Generation after generation, lives, grows, dies. It is a rhythm, a flow, a way. We need to keep the filter as see through as possible so that we don’t get too far from the way things really are. Authentic, genuine, real.



  1. A couple of unconnected thoughts–

    Science is a stencil. People (atheists especially) tend to overlook this. Fundamental concepts like mass, length, and time are all artificial, made-up ideas. We humans invented the ideas of length, it doesn’t actually exist. No actual object has a real, definite length; any two measurements of length, if sufficiently precise, will yield different values. All the rest of science– the theories and physical laws and so on– are ideas we came up with in order to help make sense of the world we live in. In that respect, science is no different from mythology. (On the otherhand, science is gorgeously self-consistent.)

    “What would we see if we removed all the filters?”

    I once read a description of wuji as the state that a room is in when the lights are off, no one is in it, and no one is thinking about it; an utterly incomprehensible chaos. Would we even be able to see if we removed all the filters? Would the universe even make sense if there were not some particular observer’s perspective about which everything could be ordered? I don’t know, but I doubt it. (

    “And what I realized was that the world itself is not out of balance; it is the stencil, the system we are in, the overlay we live our lives by that is broken and dysfunctional and needs fixing.”

    Afghanistan is one of the worst places on Earth, and yet, even it has an overabundance of natural beauty. The high, narrow mountain passes on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad are like nothing else I’ve ever seen. They pastel colors of the Registan, rising up from the banks of the Dari River, as seen from Takhtapul, are beautiful under that blue, cloudless sky. Afghanistan could be a paradise if people would just stop killing each other. But it is man’s sin that caused the world to fall in the first place, and the natural world, apart from man, suffers as well.

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