The cardinal virtues of Taoism are patience, simplicity, and compassion. It occurs to me that I haven’t really talked about simplicity. The Quakers have a song (more familiar to me as a theme in Copeland’s Appalachian Spring) about the joy being simple. It’s an odd little song, especially since it doesn’t really seem to make sense. But I think there’s wisdom in simplicity.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think simplicity means renouncing the world, selling your possessions, and moving to a remote cave in Tibet. I think what simplicity means is that you should avoid attachments that will suck you in and dominate your life. I don’t mean this in a Buddhist way (with all due respect to Buddhists) where you try to sever all attachments. I think Taoist simplicity means taking a dispassionate look at your attachments and politely showing the troublesome ones the door. If, for example, I buy a flashy red sports car, that’s fine. But if I become so attached to it that I’m having nightmares about it, or I spend so much money on it that I can’t do other things, it’s become a negative attachment and needs to be dealt with.
It’s a similar concept with relationships as well. A relationship that demands a disproportionate amount of time in the long term (keeping in mind that everyone has times when they need more help), or does not hold up their end of the relationship by giving back to you needs to be consciously modified or politely shown the door. Simplicity, I think, is a lesson to not create too many attachments that pull you away from your focus on your physical and spiritual well-being.
Backsliding is inevitable. No matter what habit we try to make or break, we are going to backslide. The danger in this, for me, is that when I backslide, I start getting into self-recrimination, and the more that I hate on myself for being weak, the mote I continue to backslide.
The Taoist answer to this is two pronged. The first part is to simply live each day without concern for the past or the future. In other words, live deliberately. The second part is to choose to focus on the positive. Once of the aspects of the Tao that appeals to me the most is how positive it is. As a habitually negative person, it is all too easy to get into a negative tailspin where I think nothing will ever go right and basically give up as a result. Given this tendency, I need something to deflect this destructive chain of thought. Taoism shows me the way.
What I’ve tried to do is understand that the Tao is the most powerful force in the world, and I can harness that power to achieve anything. This involves, among other things, concentrating on the good and productive aspects of something rather than the bad. Thinking about how good brushing my teeth, for example, feels when I’m done is far more motivating than thinking about how much I don’t feel like doing it at the moment.
Pardon me, I need to go brush my teeth.
I am very dissatisfied with the state of my body. Part of this is just a factor of getting older, but I have never been a physical person and putting forth the effort to exercise is foreign to me. This morning I did some sword exercises, which are quite tiring and probably good aerobic exercises. But nothing I have done in the past has any noticeable effect on the creeping middle age spread.
I suppose I could blame my metabolism. No, not for making me fat. The opposite. I was skinny for most of my life through not fault of my own. That fact, and the related fact that I was never very adept physically, meant that I never really had to worry about it. Sure, I worried about being out of shape sometimes, and worked to alleviate that. But I never struggled with my weight.
Now that my metabolism has slowed down, I’ve got a situation that I’m very poorly equipped to deal with. The real problem, I think, is that I don’t want to alter my eating habits, and no amount of extra exercise (unless I decide to devote my life to it) will make up for what I eat. But those eating habits had decades to get entrenched. Oh well. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I would imagine that some people would think I have a screw loose about cleanliness. I certainly didn’t start out that way. In common, I think, with a lot of children, I was extremely messy when I was young. Part of this was in defiance of my mother and part of this is probably a distinct disinclination to spend effort in doing anything other than playing. Although, strange to say, I had a game that I played specifically when I had cleaned my room that I played when I was very young.
I continued this defiant messiness into college, although I always knew people whose personal spaces were entirely filled with stuff to the point that it was impossible to walk through, an extreme I never went to. But over the years I’ve become much neater. Why? Well, probably part of it was pleasing pothers. But the largest motivation is because of depression.
For me, it’s depressing to be in a cluttered environment, and give that I’m prone to depression anyway, it helps keep me out of funks to put effort into cleaning on a regular basis. And that’s the most important things about cleaning for me. Doing it on a regular basis. I need to keep things in a state where a relatively small amount of work yields a clean house. Otherwise I become depressed at the thought of so much work and the clutter continues to accumulate. So I control it so it doesn’t control my mood.
Today I turn 40. Strangely, I don’t really have any feelings around that. Part of that lack, I think, is the fact that I’ve been going through such a profound shift in my life recently. I’m not about to regret the passage of time when I’ve had such a profound breakthrough and am (finally) addressing problems that have been lingering since childhood. I guess it feels like I should have some regrets. I certainly regret the circumstances (and specifically my actions that led to those circumstances) that led to my divorce, and regret the weaknesses in my nature that prevented me from helping others like I wanted to all those years.
But I feel quite positive about the direction that my life has been going recently. Ad I’ve been casting off the burdens that I have place on myself, it’s become more and more delightful to be me. I’ve still got a long way to go. I certainly haven’t gotten to the point where I’m excited about celebrating myself on my birthday, for example. But being 40 is fine. Just not looking forward to THE EXAM.
There is no fate except what we make of it. And yet there are events in our lives that we don’t have control over. The trick, really, is to realize the difference between the two. II’ve noticed in myself and my brothers a certain grim fatalism about life. I think this is the consequence of a childhood where one person’s whims and desires were paramount and ours meant little or nothing, so we acquired a learned helplessness.
This have been a real problem in my life. For one thing, I took that learned helplessness into my relationships. For another, I haven’t done a whole lot of engagement with my life. I think the less of “no fate” is that, while some events are beyond my control, I must engage with life in a positive way. If I want something to happen, I am the one (and only) person to make that happen.
On the other hand, there’s a certain perverse satisfaction in being fatalistic. Expect the worst, I remember myself saying, and you’ll be happy about any result better than that. In addition, frankly, if you don’t try, you won’t fail.
Hogwash. Expecting the worst and not trying made me desperately unhappy. The Tao teaches that small things, done in time and with the foresight of wisdom, yield great results in the future. But to do this, I must engage with my life. I must make things happen. I will not sit on my hands any more.
Being a man in our culture means never displaying any “weak” emotions, which is just about every emotion other than anger. The strange effect that this tends to have is to sublimate all kinds of strong emotions into anger. Which means that men are angry. A lot. I’m certainly not a traditional man, but I certainly fell into this little trap.
My theory, such as it was, was to try to function on a purely intellectual plane, having seen how disastrous functioning on a highly emotional plane was. And I still think that it is better to step back from a situation and take a detached perspective of what’s going on before making a decision. The problem was all the emotions that I repressed trying to be perfectly rational were still there, and it ended up being a pressure cooker that kept building and building. It got harder and harder to keep the lid on that stuff, and sometimes it got out. And, thanks to my maleness, got turned into anger. The end result of this was that I got really angry about things that didn’t seem like they should anger me that much, if at all.
And, of course, anger wasn’t acceptable either, so I tried my hardest to repress that as well. Learning to release emotions into their actual forms has been a great relief for me. And, of course, I was really angry for quite a while. I recommend a good therapeutic yell in your car. You might startle some people in the cars around you, but oh well.
I’ve always been intellectual, and the Tao is very intuitive. It’s an interesting contradiction, to be sure. One of the most important things that I’ve learned in the process of going through my divorce is how important emotion and intuition really are. And how insistent.
Things that I had thought I had dealt with and were gone came roaring back to the point that I was upset more often than not. It really tiring after a while. And it taught me that emotions can’t be suppressed or ignored. Given that that’s how I had tried to work with them, a change in tactics was in order. So I looked to the Tao.
This is another way in which I think I instinctively craved the path that would release me from the decades of pent-up emotions that were slowly eating me from the inside out.; There’s room for the intellectual in the Tao, but it cannot be dominant. What I’ve realized is the emotion is the motive power and intellect is the guiding principle. Intuition is our fundamental insight into the Tao and therefore the workings of the universe, and is the best guide for our actions. As a die-hard intellectual, of course, that’s a tough lesson to learn.
I was raised Catholic, and for the Catholic faith sexuality is a dirty, shameful thing only to be done (in the most extreme view) for procreation, and even then you shouldn’t enjoy it. Thanks St. Augustine of Hippo. Now American Catholics are a little less extreme that that, but that was what I was told growing up. Is this a healthy view? Most emphatically not. Does celibacy and sexual restraint have a spiritual point? I think so.
The Sexual Revolution sought, rightly I think, to overthrow this paradigm of sexuality as shameful, but like most revolutions it went overboard in the opposite direction, and rendered sex at best an expression of universal love and at worst simply a recreational activity.
For me, and I think for most Taoists, sex has no intrinsic value. It is a natural process. But it can be given value, from the very best (an expression of love between adults) to the absolute worst (rape). The real spiritual danger in it is if it becomes something that you indulge in for selfish pleasure. I suspect that this is the origin of the Christian teachings about the subject, but taken to an extreme for whatever reason. All kinds of sexuality, from lovemaking to “check her out” lust, can bring us joy, but the warning of the Tao is that over-indulgence focuses you on the self and selfish pleasure, and leads you away from the Tao.
So I keep sexuality as an expression of love. And a healthy appreciation of breasts. Yay boobies!
One of the more unfortunate traits that I inherited is a tendency to judge people around me, usually quite harshly. I’m fairly sure that this tendency is a way to reinforce my own lifestyle choices by putting down those who choose differently. I’m absolutely sure that this is obnoxious and spiritually counterproductive. Most spiritual practices that I know of emphasize the importance of humility, and I had always assumed that that was a function of religion’s social control function, especially in regards to the Catholicism that I grew up with. But I don’t think that’s the real function of humility, at least in Taoism.
Put simply, I think that if I overesteem myself, I become deaf to the quiet voice of the Tao. What it really comes down to is that I worked hard to convince myself that what I was doing was right, and that effectively prevented me from really examining my behaviors and seeing what was taking me away from the Tao and, therefore, making my life harder and less fulfilling. In invested too much in the way I was doing things, and couldn’t improve my behavior as a result. And was generally obnoxious about putting down other people for not living their life my way. While other people may be fulfilled or not fulfilled by their behavior, the solution is for them to be humble and seek their own path and seek their own path, not to follow mine. Not that mine worked very well for me anyway.