Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unforced Results

Birds Gotta Sing

A guy is in prison and his wife writes him a letter, "I've been having a hard time making ends meet since you've been in the joint. I'm thinking I should plant some vegetables in the garden to save some money, but that was always your department. When is the best time to plant the vegetables?" He writes back, "Don't touch the garden. That's where I buried the money from that last bank job." She writes back, "Well the cops came and dug up the whole garden." He writes back, "Now is the time to plant the vegetables."

I like this joke a lot because even though it's a bit manipulative on the part of the guy in prison, he does get a "forceless result". The garden is dug up and ready for planting and he didn't have to lift a finger to help his wife. He just used the forces that were already at play in the world around him.

There is a famous Taoist parable about the ox butcher who just seems to sort of dance around the ox and it falls apart. The Emperor watching this is much impressed and comments that his knife must be very sharp, to which he replies that he's never sharpened his knife and neither had his father and grandfather both of whom were ox butchers and passed the knife on to their sons. He describes how he learned to find the spaces between the various cuts of meat, the tender connective tissue that holds the animal together, and cut that, instead of hacking away at the tougher, more resistant areas. The Emperor is even more impressed with this and says that he has learned to live from a butcher.

Taoism, like any religion, can be as complicated and involved as a person wants to make it. I think in all religions there is a kind of split between people who like rituals, ceremonies, incantations, books, rules, and guidelines on one side, and people who seek a direct experience of the core principles of that religion on the other.

A person of the first kind who is, say, a Christian, might be attracted to the Catholic Church, where a person of the second kind might just take one of the core teachings of Jesus and devote their lives to living it.

Myself, I am the second kind of person. I consider myself a "Free Style Taoist". I'm not particularly interested in the principles of Chinese medicine, or Feng Shui, or Chinese Astrology, or in esoteric texts. I just do my best to "flow more~force less". I listen for what feels most deeply right to me and I do that. I look for the job I don't have to force myself to do, the town I don't have to force myself to live in, the partner I don't have to force myself to be with, etc.. As much as I can, I look for what feels most natural and right. I trust my body and whatever intelligent process is moving this Universe to guide me to my "part" in this epic drama of existence.

There is another kind of split I've noticed in the world of religion and philosophy. On the one hand there are people who try to do what's right (according to their religion or belief system) no matter how it feels. Their idea is to do what's right until it feels right.

On the other hand there are people who do what feels right until it is right (according to their religion or belief system). The first kind of person is, for instance, charitable because it's the right thing to do. They give to charities whether they want to or not hoping that in time it will feel right and they'll want to give.

The other kind of person only gives when it feels right and hopes that in time they'll genuinely feel like giving more and more. This kind of person usually has the idea that this kind of authentic giving is more likely to produce good results, where the first kind of giving is more likely to validate the expression "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Again, I count myself among this second group. I do what feels right until it is right. I've got nothing against the other path, it's just not mine.

My Taoism then, is simple: Flow more~Force Less. But simple is not easy. Easy, to me, is living in a black/white, good/evil, selfish/selfless, true/false, masculine/feminine, yin/yang, either/or, world. What's more difficult and challenging, and to my mind, more rewarding, is to see all these polar opposites as embedded in each other the way yin and yang are in the famous "T'ai-Chi" symbol. There is no "yin" symbol, no "yang" symbol. Only the T'ai-Chi symbol in which they are each inside the other dancing in circles. Context becomes important here. What's appropriate to one situation is not appropriate in another.

I am constantly finding and losing balance, adjusting according to circumstances. Staying as neutral as possible to maximize responsiveness, I must listen to the world inside and outside of me in order to feel into "what feels most deeply right". And it's not easy. I use too much force all the time. I think we all do. I'm just looking to use less and less and still get the job done. Whether it's "butchering the ox" or "planting the vegetables", making a living, writing a song, teaching T'ai-Chi or riding my bike.

Here's a forceless result: I wrote a song called "Jump You Fuckers" about the economic collapse. I post a video on youtube and a man in Holland likes it enough to make it into a much better video that to date has 64,000+ views. Neither one of us has another video with anything like that many views. We were both pleasantly surprised and still are as the numbers climb. I didn't ask him to make that video. I didn't even know it was possible. I put mine up freely, he freely made it better, and we both have gotten some real appreciation for our work.

We didn't do anything forceful. We both did what felt right and did it freely without calculation. This to me is "wu wei" or "non-action". It's taking the action that doesn't need to be forced. It feels like not acting at all. It feels, I imagine, like a bird does when it sings. It is obeying its nature. It's not trying to sing better, it's not trying for a "hit" song, it's not worried about what the other birds think of its song. It's just singing because it's a bird and that's what birds do.