Nowhere Near It – 隔靴搔癢

Growing up in a traditional Han Taiwanese home, the adults spoke to me in Chinese idioms. 

One expression, 隔靴搔癢 (phoneticized as gé xuē sāo yǎng), can be loosely interpreted as: “Failing to get to the heart of the matter” or even “nowhere near it“.

Yet the literal translation of the words actually mean: “scratching an itch with the barrier of wearing boots“.

There’s so much wisdom, humour, and poetry in these words.

We can say we’ve read a book, obtained some formal accreditation, articulate some intellectual theory, but how often without the lived experience of “scratching the itch”, we will may truly miss the core of the matter. Lived experiences root us, inform us in ways that words cannot capture; we can posture ourselves by reciting impressive buzz words, but ultimately, there’s a distinct difference between direct encounters and a simulated performance.

I’ve watched my son practice his batting at baseball. I don’t know how many strikes he made before making contact, and the countless more to hit his first home run. He can watch a trillion videos. He can talk about his swing. But nothing can replace the direct encounter; our body knows. Our ancestry knows. The essence of this idiom reminds us that appearances don’t mean much when it lacks heart and honesty.

I see this a lot in the spiritual space. Sure, it was a hot topic two years ago: The contextual, the cultural, respect and inclusion were well marketed because many didn’t know where to start but from performance, in the name of ‘good’ economics. Now that discussions on anti-bias, inclusion, and honouring cultural origins are no longer part of an upswing trend, where are we now with our spiritual practice?

And to be fair, oversimplifying this issue is also unhelpful. The reality is that things becomes increasingly important when we can ask difficult questions around spirituality and appropriation. What happens when ancestry is multi-racial? What does respectful multi-culturalism look like? What is the role of Third Culture kids (individuals who adapted in a culture differing from their parents’ or the one associated with their country of origin)?

We’ve been chatting about this in Homing Coven. We discussed how ancient systems such as the Chinese I Ching, the Brahmin Chakra system, the Jewish Kabbalah Tree of Life, have “lent inspiration” to more modern spiritual systems that have been on-trend the past few years. My question is without feeling the urge to jump to canceling, perhaps we can also discuss how dominant culture seems to consistently steal (“take inspiration”) from sources of more complex ancient systems while simultaneously erasing the cultural groups from their own practices, and most of all, avoid this. Not to mention that one common point I hear from many folks is how these watered down systems make it easier for them to approach the said practices, though if they are so simplified, what is left in these practices; can they even be called the same thing? And why does this form of instant gratification equate to being accessible? What of dedication and devotion to learning?

It’s important to me that things are considered deeply, and for extraction to be avoided, no matter who the dominant group is. I’m hesitant when a modality is presented as “the best of all the traditions”, as it makes the assumption that the curator knows best, and often from a place of bias. And most of all, I am hesitant to seek spiritual insight from contemporary systems who claim they know a lot about scratching their leg while still wearing their boots, the walls of the boots preventing them from making any direct contact.