Who wants to be a Taoist sage? I do . . . don’t.
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While Taylor Swift was being born in 1989 I was discovering the Taoist approach to life. She has since made an album about that time. I haven’t. Yet.
Back then I was busy reading two books, “The Tao of Being,” by Ray Grigg and, “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoff.
“The Tao of Being,” is a loose translation of the, “Tao Te Ching.” It conveys the spirit of the 81 chapters of the, “Tao Te Ching,” and reads like philosophical poetry.
“The Tao of Pooh,” goes a different route. It shows Winnie the pooh as a Taoist hero. It weaves the other characters in the hundred acre wood into the story, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, and the rest of the gang, and uses them to show Taoist principles in action. It’s a very cute read.
I was lucky to read these two books together because they compliment each other so well. I’ve had a copy of both ever since.
Through the years I’d open, “The Tao of Being,” at a random chapter and it always amazed me how appropriate it was. And how new. Had I missed that chapter before? No, I’d read and re-read the book so many times it couldn’t be the case.
“The Tao Te Ching,” was written in 600 BC. That’s twenty five hundred years ago. It’s no accident it has stayed in print. I found something new every time I read it. I particularly liked the bits about the sage.
“The sage does without knowing, leads without controlling, guides without certainties, questions without answers, teaches without truths, thoughtlessly attunes to the thoughts of others.”
Sounds good right. The humility of it. The incognito wisdom.
“By softening, the sage becomes one with all. When the sage bends to everything, everything bends to the sage. To the world the sage is humble and shy, confusing and unnoticed.”
Right on. I loved the emphasis on letting go of certainty and how it makes the sage kinder.
“Without the pretense of certainty, it is easy to be compassionate.”
I’ve been reading about the sage all these years and thinking it sounded great. I wasn’t trying to be a Taoist sage, it just resonated with me whenever I read about it.
Jump forward to a couple of weeks ago and I’m confused about something. Being confused is not unusual for me. I don’t know what to do and I feel foolish for not knowing. Feeling foolish is not unusual for me either.
I crack open, “The Tao of Being,” at a random page and read the chapter. Immediately I have a profound insight. It’s not the one I’m looking for and I don’t like it.
It’s the reverse of what happened before when the chapters seemed new. Now it’s me. I’m seeing myself in a new light and it’s harsh.
All the chapters about the sage compress together into a block. I never really got what it meant before. Without meaning to I’d grown into what looked and behaved like that block. Being a Taoist sage didn’t sound so good anymore.
“To the sage nothing is known for certain. When the pretense of certainty is abandoned, the world is undivided and lonely, a place for being lost in wonder.”
I know about feeling lonely and lost and it’s no fun. Somewhere in the poetry of it I thought being lonely and lost in wonder would be balanced by some sagey kind of warm fuzzy feeling. It wasn’t.
I couldn’t brush it off either. I’d been soaking up this Taoist perspective for too long. I couldn’t kid myself it was all bullshit. It didn’t help.
“How can the sage believe what others believe, revere the apparent, pursue blindly what others pursue? But people flourish in their illusions.”
I don’t know about their illusions, but people flourish. Younger men and women, get mortgages, have careers, know about miles per gallon, and give Ted talks about how to succeed.
I scratch my head and wonder about getting my act together. I’m pretty sure it’s not together in the way other people talk about having their act together. I’m not even sure what my act would look like if it was together. Come to think of it, having an act seems a bit fake.
“The world teems around the sage who, to the very center, does not know. Others seem to know but the sage knows nothing. Others are clear and certain and confident but the sage is confused and directionless, a fool lost in thought and the world.”
Sounds like poetry for the soul when I read it but being confused and directionless, and a fool is painful. Especially when all around you people have the appearance of knowing what they’re about. It’s lonely.
“Others vigorously perform the duties of life, fulfilling their own and the common need. But the sage is dark and remote, detached and independent, different.”
“The sage uses errors to attain mastery, embraces ignorance to acquire knowledge, cultivates confusion to reach understanding, courts foolishness to find wisdom.”
That makes me pretty wise because I am foolish and confused a lot. I’ve had lots of false starts. I’ve taken dangerous wrong turns. I’ve trusted the wrong people, and made lots of errors. They were all painful. If that’s the price of wisdom then it’s a heavy price.
“Others are fed by the apparent but the sage is nourished by the Tao.”
I don’t want to admit it but it’s true. Even though I’m confused a lot and I go through the world a bit lost, I’ve always been okay. Yes, shit things have happened to me but not too many. Nothing killed me, and better yet, nothing crushed me.
Being nourished by the Tao doesn’t fit into words easily. There is a big something. In Taoism they call it the Tao. Then they quickly add that the named Tao is not the real Tao.
Anyway, I can feel this big something and I know it like I know my name. It’s bigger than a starry night and close like my breath. It does its thing regardless of me yet I’m part of it and it’s part of me.
It doesn’t take care of me like Christopher Robin would.
It could kill me at any moment and one day it will.
It loves without emotion.
It heals me in silence.
It’s the belly in my laugh.
Knowing it is enough.
The world goes on around me, crazy and ill fitting.
I don’t really know anything except this big something.
“So the sage wanders a crooked way. And people who think things are straight, think the sage is aimless or confused. But the sage just laughs a crooked laugh and lets them think straight.”
They might be right. Things might be straight. I could be just kidding myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.
It would be the longest though.
If it is a delusion it’s a happy one.
For me at least.
Happy, even though it’s no fun.
But what do I know.
“The sage knows less than anyone so is most qualified to teach everyone; knows nothing so is most suited to teach everything. Confused by everything, the sage is closest to everything; unable to hold on to one thought, the sage is closest to all thoughts.”
Sorry, what were you saying?