Life is the creativity of the storyteller, not the blueprint of the architect

I was swimming today and my kids joined me. They rarely swim with me now that they’re teens. But when they were elementary school age, they loved being in the pool.

Today, one floated in the pool with me. The other sat on the edge testing the water, talking about the science of pH. Recreational time with my teens is so important. Our conversations wander. Sometimes it’s quantum physics, sometimes it’s the newest Star Trek Online release, and sometimes it’s water.

Today, we talked about water, how it’s soft flowing around our legs. My youngest pointed out if you tried to push through it fast, however, it becomes hard.

He thinks about life and philosophy a lot (he’s the one to bring up quantum physics), and after I connected that observation to Dao, his analytical mind immediately identified the problem with my belief.

I say “problem” because that’s what critics, like my son, say. The “problem” with Laozi is he’s a fatalist, even a nihilist. After all, isn’t he telling us willpower may be a problem, that competition is a failure of imagination, and that life’s foundation is chaos born of creativity?

Yes.

Like water, Dao flows and when we move with it, we find peace. When we fight the current or push through the softness with demanding strokes, we struggle. It’s the difference between trying to make options appear versus choosing among the options that do appear. It’s the difference between deciding who we’re going to be versus discovering who we are.

For my son at 14, Dao is limiting. Daoism tells him that life is mysterious and unpredictable, so contrary to his perception, his days are not really about making his life happen as much as responding to what happens. He sculpts his life from the clay he’s given and finds that depressing.

To me at 53, Dao is unlimited. Daoism tells me that life is mysterious and unpredictable, so as I’ve discovered, my days are not about structuring everything around me, but adapting and responding. I sculpt my life from the clay I’m given and find that exciting.

Life is the creativity of the storyteller, not the blueprint of the architect. I love approaching life this way because I’m liberated from the responsibility of making things happen, making things work, from achieving and competing. I leave all those “shoulds” behind and simply live my story.

My dad once told me he had had a happy life because he never really had any goals. He told me that when I was young, and I found it funny. Of COURSE you’ll be happy if you never care to achieve something, I thought, because you never struggle and compete, risking failure. In time, I saw his words differently, because my dad absolutely had failures and successes, sad times and hard times, joy and blessed events. He only meant he didn’t live with a plan. He had no expectations from life but took what came his way.

I’m so much my father’s daughter.

I find the uncertainty, the surprises, the serendipity to be the joy in life. I prefer not to know what’s coming next, not because I fear it, but the joy of life is the process of adaptation. I so much don’t want to predict and plan that I don’t even want to know what’s going to happen next in my fiction writing: I’ve never written an outline but the story unwinds on my keyboard. This adaptation to the unknown is another feature I love about CrossFit: different work outs every day and I never try to look ahead at what they are before I show up.

I’ve made so many strange turns in my life, lived vastly different lifestyles in nearly every decade, and I could not have planned or predicted most of what happened.

I embrace change. In fact, I’ve had people tell me I am “change incarnate,” but I’m sure that’s because it is a hard experience for them.

Seeing my children grow up has been a hard change for me. Every age is a joy to see, but there’s grief at the loss of the former, and I could never have predicted those feelings. I miss my cuddly babies, my curious toddlers, my preteen adventurers. This loss, more even than deaths I’ve experienced, has softened me to the difficulty many people have with change.

So I appreciate the lesson…and keep coaxing my kids to swim with me.

Daoism has nothing to say about what you should do

If you’re new to Daoism, I encourage you to read the original works. Don’t rely on people you follow on social media. The beauty of the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi is the emphasis on living our stories spontaneously without an attempt to control, define, or evaluate them.

Implicit, and to some extent, explicit is the understanding that the Dao cannot be institutionalized or defined by principles. And yet, in so many places I see those proclaiming Dao with lessons about what you should do.

Many people tell you that Daoism defines the world as an “illusion” and the “real” world is “out there” if we can stop our minds from distracting us. And they provide ways for YOU to DO what you SHOULD. Each of those capitalized words is the very antithesis of Daoism.

This. Is. It.

There is no before and after. There is no surface and something-more. There is no doing and not doing. There is no knowing and not knowing. There is no flesh and spirit. There is no beginning and end. There is no being and not being. There is becoming. 

And still, Daoism is your story, told in your words, a path created by your steps. What is your Dao?

 

Let’s get philosophical

Non-doing (wuwei), non-knowing (wuzhi), non-desiring (wuyu). These are the keys to walking with Dao.

What a bunch of bullshit.

When I first read about Dao, I dismissed it as nonsense. Isn’t this “un-ness” what we think of as “chaos,” after all? Musn’t this worldview necessarily end in nihilism? At that time, I was firmly western in my view of life: ontological presence — the belief that there is an unchanging reality behind things — is the only thing that allows us to bring order from chaos. We do this through:

  • principles of action that create order in events (cosmologically as god, nationally as government, and in your everyday life as you yourself or maybe as your boss).
  • principles of reason that create order with regard to knowledge, meaning, and morality.

In Greek, the word for principle is arche. Having no controlling principles or rules for order is anarche. And as any rational adult will tell you, anarchy is destructive, lazy, and selfish. The clearest difference in my mind between western philosophy and western religion is that philosophy will acknowledge that reason creates these principles but religion tells us we merely discover them. In either case, reason and principles are what reveal reality. The West has relegated the aesthetic (emotion, sensation, intuition) to a subordinate role.

Daoism does quite the contrary.

I’m reflecting on Laozi and Zhuangzi in new ways thanks to an American philosopher who truly “speaks my language” (David L Hall). My academic background focused on Greek thought. My scholarly pursuits included reading and editing western philosophy. My personal reading focuses on post structuralism and feminist philosophy. So, when Laozi told me to quit using my reason, I was at a loss.

This is why, I suppose, many people seek out a “master.” I’m not interested in a temple or sage of the modern variety. Daoism, as it’s evolved over the centuries, has become a typical religious experience of humans trying to control everything. Through rituals, self-sacrifice, and occultism, modern Daoists:

  • game the universe by creating contracts with and paying off the gods
  • seek to mitigate death through secret, exotic formulas
  • seek to soften the blow of existential impotence with an internal war, of which they are both ally and enemy. (Asceticism is the favored choice, as a war of attrition.)

All of these approaches are ways to control what we can’t truly control. But we feel better trying and distracting ourselves, and many of us believe in an immortal parent who will care for us regardless.

The earliest Daoist authors (and like Jesus didn’t call himself Christian, these authors didn’t call themselves Daoists), are explicit about not doing any of these things. Non-being came from being, after all. We lose the Way when we act, when we know, when we desire.

Here’s the thing:

An aesthetic perspective, as opposed to a rational or logical one, involves experiencing the world in a relatively unmediated fashion. Mediated experience requires one to grasp or comprehend the essence of a thing, while the unmediated aesthetic experience is simply had as lived experience. (Ames, Roger and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The key to what Laozi means is to understand that reason defines and discriminates and makes permanent. The West assumes being is the true reality and life as we live it is the becoming part that obscures it; think of the forms of Plato, the god of Christianity.

No, says Daoism. Reality is becoming. Nonbeing arises from being and being from nonbeing. This yin-yang dynamic so often mentioned with regard to Dao is not about two principles, two competing poles, not about “there’s black because there’s white to balance,” but black is always becoming white and white is always becoming black. Yin-yang is process not presence.

Dichotomies may be created by language and reason, but reality is a dynamic equilibrium, transience. Being and nonbeing exist together in motion and as such, reality is a becoming. Becoming can only be intuited through lived experience; using reason and creating principles drives us further from Dao.

This is the “non-knowing.”

As a creative process, intuition allows for transience and change necessary to participating in a becoming universe. This aesthetic cosmology is comprised of self-creativity/self-actualization — the virtue or excellence specific to a thing, the de of Daode Jing (and perhaps the arete of Greek?). There is no one correct order. Each thing has its own. The universe is the sum of all orders, a homogeneous chaos.

I’ll write more on the mediation of experience. Or rather…not mediating…by knowing without universalizing, doing without coercing, and desiring without objectifying.

Let’s complicate things

There’s a panhandler on a corner in my town.

Many times I’ve driven by feeling pity for him because he was homeless, wore shabby clothes, and had few options in life. But one day when I drove by, I was coming home from a job I hated, stressed about bills and loved ones I was worried about, and the thought came to me, what a damn lucky guy.

This panhandler didn’t have the worries I had. He didn’t have a house payment, a schedule to juggle, and other people to care for. And he had a job after all — a good one, because he was sitting on the corner for only a few hours a week. At least he was getting some sun and rest. Maybe he was a liar, playing on people’s pity and his life was not as his sign suggested.

That moment was my first stumbling awareness of Tao.

The pity I’d felt had been an extension of my Self into a space it had no business being. The envy I felt on another day was equally inappropriate. I’d been judging his life by my own, making assumptions and creating a dichotomy where only plurality exists.

Judgment always depends on where you stand.

I value owning a car: how sad you waste money on taxis or time getting places when you could travel quickly in comfort. My dad, who never drove, had the opposite view: how sad you waste money and time on that machine when you could get fitter using pedal power.

Oh, I doubt I’m challenging your nimble mind with my mundane examples! You understand how pluralism works. Maybe you even know what standpoint theory is.

So how do you feel when I ask whether you:

  • have gay friends?
  • would use a nongendered bathroom?
  • would be friends with a couple who has a nonmonogamous marriage?

Did you feel yourself tense and your mind dart for a moral line-in-the-sand?

Let’s complicate it.

  • What do you think about a parent who chooses assisted suicide?
  • What do you think about a neighbor who becomes a sex worker?
  • What do you think about a friend who pays for an abortion?

Now we have more context to consider when judging “right” and “wrong”. But are these examples different in principle from the former examples? Are you required to be part of the choices any of these people make? Yet you may try to limit their choices directly by confronting them or indirectly by voting for laws that control them.

And still, are the values you hold even your own?

This is the point Laozi makes. The values we uphold in our moral dichotomies are not our own. They belong to our culture — cultivated by many different entities from retailers to religion. When we reinforce them through thought and action, social conventions and laws, we’ve trapped ourselves and we’ve trapped each other. We are very far from walking with Tao.

Tao isn’t found in the “superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.” (Tao Te Ching: LeGuin).

You may know the wonderful allegory about the farmer and the horse. I think of this often, like when I drop some coins in the panhandler’s cup and wonder about whose life is “good” or when I’m attacked by people who call themselves “good” Christians.

A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians. All his neighbors offered their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock. All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t a disaster?” The two horses bred, and the family became rich in fine horses. The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them; one day he fell off and broke his hipbone. All his neighbors offered the farmer their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” Another year passed, and the barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able-bodied young men were conscripted, and nine-tenths of them died in the war. Thus good fortune can be disaster and vice versa. Who can tell how events will be transformed? (Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version Perennial Classics. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)