The Old Sage (Lao Zi, Lao Tzu), whether he existed as an actual person or not, is making a comeback, of sorts, with lots of pre-digested soup-of-the-soup style wisdom flooding English-language bookshelves and newsfeeds of late. Perhaps the times require it: Daoism was “born” out of a reaction to growing tyranny in a period of Warring States (400 BCE) and later used to legitimise some rather overbearing “unifiers” (looking at you, Cao Cao, in 215 CE… even today, we haven’t forgotten that in Chinese “speak of the Devil and he shall appear” takes the form of 说曹操曹操就到 “Say Cao Cao, and Cao Cao is already there” — a reference to the vast network of surveillance spies that helped him to, eh, overcome opposition, amongst intellectuals, powerful allies, and also the common people), and this has something to say, perhaps, to our own age of darkening horizons, replete with a consciousness of constant mass surveillance carried out, as a matter of safety and precaution, on a truly staggering scale. Popular Daoism’s “Middle Way” philosophy can be deceptive, however, and adapts well to misinterpretation, lending itself flawlessly to a mindset that accepts things as they are, even under conditions of tyranny and crushing oppression, whether at a global, national or personal level. Some of the modern translations, commentaries and Western-pabulum spin-offs of Daoist classics, born of our own times, and understood through our own cultural lenses, have a tendency towards this kind of “great miss”. As such, earnest seekers could find themselves at the mercy of hopelessness, despair, or (on a more personal level) narcissist abuse. This is one of the dangers of supping only on the soup-of-the-soup-of-the-soup, and trusting to others for a filtered-down understanding.
I finally got annoyed enough to revisit some Daoist texts recently when I saw a meme encouraging people (under the guise of Daoist wisdom) to discourage their children from harbouring strong ambitions, and to enjoy the taste of tomatoes and tiny, ordinary pleasures instead. Perhaps it was meant as a gentle reminder to helicopter parents who pressure their kids to be over-achievers to step back and let their kids stop and pull the petals off the roses, for once. And sure, mindfulness is important if one is to achieve extraordinary things, but… this was backwardly expressed enough to present a dangerous justification for crushing naturally talented, active-minded children into submission, to “be content” with what’s presented before they even get a chance to seek out anything else beyond that. To live in a tiny boxed-in reality, safe in the knowledge that whatever else might be out there wasn’t for them to discover. To leave unprofitable talents undiscovered, undeveloped and unexpressed — a depressing, shallow, recipe for lifelong misery, in other words. An extraordinary child, and in fact, any child, needs to seek out extraordinary experiences in addition to tasting sun-warmed tomatoes off the vine if he is to grow, to try, to succeed and fail, and find meaning in his life. We are in fact programmed for it as humans, before we allow our brains and hopes to ossify completely. Crushing a child’s ambitions into something ordinary, middling, and thus likely profitable is not Dao, it’s just being a dick.
Well, I’ve studied religion, history, mythology, philosophy, politics and Chinese language for many, many years now. I’ve studied the Daoist and Chan Buddhist classics in Chinese, looked at ancient oracle bones, practiced Chinese martial arts, made good friends with the Yi Jing (and its applications), learned about Chinese alchemy and the shamanistic traditions and folk religions that helped to inform and shape Daoism as it arose and took to writing. Hell, I’ve even used the principles of an ancient Chinese book about building and construction by Feng Shui (the real thing, not the pabulum you think it is) to roof barns in a tornado-susceptible area.
So here are three bite-size concepts to consider, as you begin to explore the principles of Daoism.
The Middle Way is attained through striving, mediocrity is maintained through settling.
The truly strong man will discover for himself the limits of his capabilities and endurance. In this way, can he strive towards the Middle Way, knowing intimately the limits of his incarnation, having discovered these for himself. His strength lies in his perfect adaptability to a wide variety of conditions which he has experienced and understood for himself. He knows that by remaining in the centre, he can move into action in any direction easily, as needed.
The truly weak man will accept what is comfortable and acceptable (permissible) as the Middle Way, as this is easier and safer than striving to know his own abilities and to exercise them with precision. He will create limitations for himself, citing the “Middle Way” as an excuse to avoid every kind of hardship, stress or striving. He will not seek to better himself or discover the depth of his roots or the extent to which his branches can reach; he does not know the workings of his own mind, and may even believe that to do so is “dangerous” or “unhealthy” or “pointless”. This is not the Middle Way, this is a self-deceiving excuse for laziness and inexactitude.
The truly strong man who resides in the Middle Way is capable of greater service to those around him, even when extraordinary circumstances arise. Knowing well the limits of his capability, he is able to act without hesitation or fear when it is required of him. This is because he is well-informed in experience and self-knowledge, and perfectly at ease in every situation. Secure in the knowledge of himself and his capabilities, he can adapt easily to what his particular Fate requires of him at any time. The Middle Way has made him agile and responsive.
The truly weak man becomes useless and flies to pieces in a crisis. As soon as his comfortable mediocrity is threatened by extraordinary circumstances, he becomes a hindrance, unfit to weather that which is no longer middling and safe. His false equanimity is a danger to others, ill-adapted to change. In times of crisis and of change, he will not seek to restore the “order of Heaven” (the natural progression and passing of human life, relationships, nations, dynasties), but will seek to preserve that-which-is. He will cling even to that which no longer serves, because that is where he has grown accustomed to his middling comforts residing. His middle way has made him fragile and brittle.
The Middle Way is a conscious and informed choice.
The man who is unwilling or unable to come to the knowledge of his full capabilities within the scope of his present incarnation is unable to make an informed and intelligent choice about his actions or inaction. He will suffer, and find solace in following what he believes to be the Middle Way, but it is in fact hollow and devoid of true satisfaction, a slavish adherence to rules and restrictions. He will find himself perversely comfortable as his demons, untamed, devour him slowly. This way is devoid of Integrity, and leads to living death. This man will insist on the forms and emblems of his “Integrity” even as he is devoured. He believes that this Integrity belongs to him, and only through the emulation, adulation and subservience of others can he appreciate the “truth and value” of the Integrity he believes himself to possess. In fact, he looks ever outwards for justification, and is empty and devoid of any true Integrity himself.
The true man of Integrity does not insist on his integrity. It is nothing to him whether or not it is recognised by others. It is only for him to be an example and to live out of the fullness of his own being, which he has discovered for himself, and only those who can recognise true Integrity will perceive it, and strive towards it themselves. He does not require the justification or subjugation of others to know that the Integrity he possesses is True Integrity because he knows well that “Integrity” does not belong to him, but he to it.
In order to rest in perfect Integrity, a man must first become firm and yielding through experience.
It is well known that the willow will weather the storm that shatters the oak. True Integrity abides. Knowing well through experience of the extraordinary and through knowledge of the limitations and lens of his own incarnation, the man of Integrity comes to a fullness of understanding. He does not insist on his Integrity through reckless display of heroism unless this is what is required, and then only through those actions to which he is uniquely suited. True integrity, therefore, has nothing to do with the egocentric pride of its bearer. True integrity, when called to action, is an application of the right force at the right time which is designed to redress an imbalance in the “flow of the Heavens”. Only insofar as the Will of Heaven and the Will of the man of Integrity coincide can the Integrity of a man be considered True Integrity. The man who possesses True Integrity knows that he does not possess it, but resides in it.
Knowing this, the man of True Integrity is able to accurately assess a situation and apply the correct force to redress it. He is also humble enough to understand when his own action in such matters will be ineffective or harmful, and be able to keep silence or withdraw, even if this should pain him personally. He is the willow who knows both how to remain firm and when he must bend. He also knows that things, as they are, are fluid and changing. It may be that the opportunity to redress an imbalance has not yet arrived, or may never arrive during his incarnate lifetime. Because he does not insist on the “emblems” of his Integrity, his ego is not bruised when he is constrained by circumstance. He understands that small acts towards redress, though unseen and unrecognised, will aid in the flow of time if they are rightly applied. He is a heretic who has retired to the mountains but continues his work in private, unmolested. He is an encourager of people in the Way, even when he does not seem to act. He sees the Way beyond his own incarnation and his own small part in its flow. He is like a light that shines across the centuries from the Heavens themselves.
The man of False Integrity is rigid in his ways. He insists on one way, one doctrine, one method in dealing with every circumstance. He is like a bladder full to bursting, inflexible and ill-adapted to specific and extraordinary conditions. His rules and regulations protect his Ego, but are of little use outside of the tiny kingdom he builds around himself. He is therefore weak and brittle, and will shatter to pieces even in a strong breeze. This man will also act with the times, but he will either set himself up as a bastion of Integrity, against the flow of time, and be shattered to pieces, or he will adapt his own conceptions to align his egocentric sense of Integrity with the Tyrants who may feed him. He cannot comprehend that both the slavish adherence to anachronism and the lackey bootlicking of “adaptable morals” is false Integrity, and that these will destroy him. He is a pillar of the community or a martyr, ultimately ineffectual and a discourager of people in the Way. He will seek, indefatigably, to coerce others into his own way, through fear and false promises of safety and wisdom but it is not the Way. He is trapped and preoccupied with his own times, and cannot see beyond them; he is a darkener of days. When men of false Integrity prevail, history forgets their meaningless deeds over centuries, and passes over such blood-stained times without comprehension or comment. These are the authors of Dark Ages, ships wrecked upon the crags that serve only as a mute warning to any wiser sailors who may pass after them.
So please do study the Dao, now, with these discernments in mind — not only in your books and newsfeeds, but in the people, the families, the nations and times around you. Only insofar as you can recognise the Dao in the things around you (small and large) can you begin to perceive its meaning, and flow, and to live in it. In order to attain a non-differentiation between things, one must first discern their differences. Discerning their differences, one can begin to know the intents which drive them. When one can perceive these intents, one comes to an understanding of whether or not these are “guided by the Dao”. Only in this manner will one slowly come to understand what Dao actually is. Dao is neither purely active nor purely passive. It can be perceived in the flow of the intentions of things, but only through deep observation over time, by cultivating oneself with honesty and (personal) integrity. One may judge a man or a movement in terms of what one believes is “the Way” and set oneself against it. But this is neither listening or understanding. Dao is a silent informer within a man’s own heart, and grows with his understanding of his own capabilities and limitations; as a man grows in the Dao, he understands the Integrity of his apprehensions, and seeks to act according to his own nature, informed by Dao.
So, you know, armed with all this, use it to cultivate your own being, not to be an overbearing and judgmental, self-justifying dick to others. And live that dance.