Tao Te Ching and the Complexities of Going with the Flow
Lately, I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching. It’s the seminal text of Taoist philosophy, a system of thought that I’ve been attracted to since I was a stressed out, straight-A university student with two jobs sitting in a class on Eastern religions and learning that there was an entire philosophy devoted to the universal principle of “going with the flow.”
Going with the flow has never been easy for me. I worry a lot, I say yes to everything, I fill my schedule to the brim and forget that it takes time to eat and sleep. It’s why I became a yoga teacher, basically: It’s my lifelong lesson to learn how to chill on out.
The Tao Te Ching, generally translated as “The Book of the Way,” is a volume of 81 very short “chapters” written originally by Lao Tzu (translated into modern hands quite poetically by Stephen Mitchell), a master who resisted writing any of his teachings down at all because, well, as the first line says, “The Tao that can be written is not the eternal Tao.”
Here’s a passage that gives a good sense of the flavor of this philosophy:
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
It sure sounds nice. Teaching without saying anything, though? I am a yoga teacher, spoken word poet, and writer. Sometimes my throat is raw from all the talking I do all week. And when my work is done, I like seeing it published. I love hearing students tell me that my class made them feel better. When I perform a poem at a competition, I want high scores, darn it!
Which goes to show how much I am not a Master.
Then again, maybe there are good reasons not to be. This one passage, (which I referred to in my last post), has been particularly nagging at me.
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.
Every yoga teacher I know has the life mission of improving the world. If I didn’t want to improve the world, I would just sit at home and eat ice cream and never talk to anyone.
The repeated “not-doing” the book refers to sounds a little like giving up. Of course, I’m not giving up. I keep reading and writing about this. Lao-Tzu’s laconic passages remind me of Zen koans, riddles like "If a tree falls in a forest, does anyone hear it fall?" that make you think so hard your brain explodes.
Thankfully, there is a helpful introduction from Stephen Mitchell, who explains that Lao Tzu's insistence on "wei-wu-wei," or "doing-not-doing" is often misunderstood as passivity:
A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can't tell the dancer from the dance. (viii)
It does seem comforting to read a whole book of philosophy that tells you to go home and hide under a rock. But that’s not what it’s saying. It’s going with the flow, not sitting motionless in the water.
When I teach yoga, I have no choice but to teach what I know, to the best of my ability. There’s no other way to do it. My desire to be validated as a good teacher will only ever get in my way, because I can’t control what other people think of me. I can only do my best. When I get up on a stage and perform a poem that I wrote that’s close to my heart, the best I can do is share that: whether or not the judges score me well is not within my control, at all.
I can’t improve the world. It’s not an object separate from me. I am the world. If I want to improve anything, it’s going to have to be my own self. There are difficult choices and actions to be made daily, but I’m starting to get that when those choices feel right, when they reflect the best of our intentions, our efforts can become effortless. When we let go of the desire to control what happens next, we don’t have to take it so personally when things go pear-shaped. Going with the flow becomes the most natural thing in the world; what happens next just isn’t the point.