To Lao-tse, the harmony that naturally existed between heaven and earth from the very beginning could be found by anyone at any time, but not by following the rules of the Confucianists.
According to Lao-tse, the more man interfered with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the further away the harmony retreated into the distance. The more forcing, the more trouble. Whether heavy or light, wet or dry, fast or slow, everything had its own nature already within it, which could not be violated without causing difficulties. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed from the outside, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life become sour.
To Lao-tse, the world was not a setter of traps but a teacher of valuable lessons. Its lessons needed to be learned, just as its laws needed to be followed; then all would go well. Rather than turn away from "the world of dust," Lao-tse advised others to "join the dust of the world." What he saw operating behind everything in heaven and earth he called Tao, "the Way." A basic principle of Lao-tse's teaching was that this Way of the Universe could not be adequately described in words, and that it would be insulting both to its unlimited power and to the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so. Still, its nature could be understood, and those who cared the most about it, and the life from which it was inseparable, understood it best.
The basic Taoism that we are concerned with here is simply a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life. From the Taoist point of view, the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness.
The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed. When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun. From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.
It seems rather odd, somehow, that Taoism, the way of the Whole Man, the True Man, the Spirit Man (to use a few Taoist terms), is for the most part interpreted here in the West by the Scholarly Owl--by the Brain, the Academician, the dry-as-dust Absentminded Professor. Far from reflecting the Taoist ideal of wholeness and independence, this incomplete and unbalanced creature divides all kinds of abstract things into little categories and compartments, while remaining rather helpless and disorganized in his daily life. Rather than learn from Taoist teachers and from direct experience, he learns intellectually and indirectly, from books. And since he doesn't usually put Taoist principles into practice in an everyday sort of way, his explanations of them tend to leave out some rather important details, such as how they work and where you can apply them. On top of that, it is very hard to find any of the spirit of Taoism in the lifeless writings of the humorless Academic Mortician, whose bleached-out Scholarly Dissertations contain no more of the character of Taoist wisdom than does the typical wax museum.
But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn't seem to match up with our own experience of things. In other words, Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language, But isn't the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn't? It seems fairly obvious to some of us that a lot of scholars need to go outside and sniff around--walk through the grass, talk to the animals. That sort of thing.
Everything has its own place and function. That applies to people, although many don't seem to realize it, stuck as they are in the wrong job, the wrong marriage, or the wrong house. When you know and respect your own Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don't belong. One man's food is often another man's poison, and what is glamorous and exciting to some can be a dangerous trap to others.
That doesn't mean that we need to stop changing and improving. It just means that we need to recognize What's There. If you face the fact that you have weak muscles, say, then you can do the right things and eventually become strong. But if you ignore What's There and try to lift someone's car out of a ditch, what sort of condition will you be in after a while? And even if you have more muscle than anyone alive, you still can't push over a freight train. The wise know their limitations; the foolish do not.
A saying from the area of Chinese medicine would be appropriate to mention here: "One disease, long life; no disease, short life." In other words, those who know what's wrong with them and take care of themselves accordingly will tend to live a lot longer than those who consider themselves perfectly healthy and neglect their weaknesses. So, in that sense at least, a Weakness of some sort can do you a big favor, if you acknowledge that it's there. The same goes for one's limitations,
Sooner or later, we are bound to discover some things about ourselves that we don't like. But once we see they're there, we can decide what we want to do with them. Do we want to get rid of them completely, change them into other things, or use them in beneficial ways? The last two approaches are often especially Useful, since they avoid head-on conflict, and therefore minimize struggle. Also, they allow those transformed characteristics to be added to the list of things we have that help us out. In a similar manner, instead of struggling to erase what are referred to as negative emotions, we can learn to use them in positive ways. We could describe the principle like this: while pounding on the piano keys may produce noise, removing them doesn't exactly further the creation of music. The principles of Music and Living aren't all that different, we think.
The Wise are Who They Are. They work with what they've got and do what they can do. There are things about ourselves that we need to get rid of; there are things we need to change. But at the same time, we do not need to be too desperate, too ruthless, too combative. Along the way to usefulness and happiness, many of those things will change themselves, and the others can be worked on as we go. The first thing we need to do is recognize and trust our own Inner Nature, and not lose sight of it.
Literally, Wu Wei means "without doing, causing, or making." But practically speaking, it means without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort. It seems rather significant that the character Wei developed from the symbols for a clawing hand and a monkey, since the term Wu Wei means no going against the nature of things; no clever tampering; no Monkeying Around. The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path--not the mechanical, straight-line approach that usually ends up short-circuiting natural laws, but one that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.
When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made or imagined by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.
When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making peg fit where they don't belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn't try. It doesn't think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn't appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.
The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard--one that thinks too much. The animals in the Forest don't think too much; they just Are.
When you do that sort of thing, people may say you have a Sixth Sense or something. All it really is, though, is being Sensitive to Circumstances. That's just natural. It's only strange when you don't listen. One of the most convenient things about this Sensitivity to Circumstances is that you don't have to make so many difficult decisions. Instead, you can let them make themselves.
Practically speaking, if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But, strangely enough, we seem to have less time than even a few years ago. It's really great fun to go someplace where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find that you have lots of time. Elsewhere, you're too busy working to pay for machines to save you time so you won't have to work so hard. The main problem with this great obsession for Saving Time is very simple: you can't save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly. The Bisy Backson has practically no time at all, because he's too busy wasting it by trying to save it. And by trying to save every bit of it, he ends up wasting the whole thing.
The honey doesn't taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn't mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won't have very much. But if we add up the spaces between the rewards, we'll come up with quite a bit. And if we add up the rewards and the spaces, then we'll have everything-every minute of the time that we spent. What if we could enjoy it?
Do you want to be really happy? You can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you've got. Do you want to be really miserable? You can begin by being discontented. As Lao-tse wrote, "A tree as big around as you can reach starts with a small seed; a thousand-mile journey starts with one step." Wisdom, Happiness, and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they're part of a continuous cycle that begins right here. They're not only the ending, but the beginning as well. The more it snows, the more it goes, the more it goes on snowing.
Knowledge and Cleverness tend to concern themselves with the wrong sorts of things, and a mind confused by Knowledge, Cleverness, and Abstract Ideas tends to go chasing off after things that don't matter, or that don't even exist, instead of seeing, appreciating, and making use of what is right in front of it.
In the forty-eighth chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse wrote, "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day."