The wish to possess all under heaven and control it
I see this has no end
Because all under Heaven is the Numinous vessel
It cannot be controlled
Those who try spoil it
Those who grasp lose it- Tao Te Ching 29
I have been leafing through some Taoist writings of late and so by way of taking a bearing for this essay I opened my copy of the I Ching and received hexagram 25, No Error, which essentially has to do with the nature of timing. The commentary concludes,
The way to be free from error is to act in a manner that is appropriate to the time
I have a natural sympathy with Taoist philosophy which may in part be accounted for by the fact that I am a market gardener and live much of my life outdoors. I see the traces and patterns of which the Taoists’ speak everywhere every day first-hand in the landscape and thus philosophically, the tenets of Taoism chime directly with my immediate experience. It’s hardly surprising perhaps that this be the case since the Taoist system has ancient agrarian roots and uses seasonal and elemental metaphors and references to the natural world a good deal as a means of elucidating its understanding of reality.
Thus, we read for example in the Tao Te Ching verse 25;
Man models himself after the Earth
The Earth models itself after Heaven;
The Heaven models itself after Tao;
Tao models itself after Nature.
To follow the Course on its meandering way we are told, is to follow nature’s inherent patterns as they unfold moment by moment, between ‘Heaven and Earth’. Wisdom in action thus understood, might be conceived, and measured by our willingness to engage fully in any given moment in the naturally occurring hierarchical relationship that exists between Man, Earth, Heaven, Tao, and Nature wherein we encounter as a living process, the explicit difference and implicit sameness of these different forms, a myriad of expressions, appearing as it were, out of the formless and disappearing into the unchanging in a constant ebb and flow. By attending consciously to these patterns (the warp and weft, rising and falling, veiling, and unveiling of matter in and out of the immaterial) in their cyclical, seasonal, dynamic movements it is, say the Taoists, possible to act in a timely or providential way and in so doing, in following the Tao or Course faithfully, we render it possible to avoid the error of acting outside the inherent flow of things as they unfold in time and according to the times.
Summarising the character of Tao, Lin Yutang writes enigmatically;
Tao is the mother of all things; it cannot be named or predicated; it manifests itself in form and disappears again in formlessness; it does not act; it does not talk; it is the fathomless and inexhaustible source of all life; it is strictly impersonal. In addition, it is impartial, it is immanent, and it operates in cycles by the principle of reversion which causes the levelling of all opposites, making alike success and failure, strength and weakness, life and death and so forth.
There is a Chinese word that has something loosely to do with notions of right timing, something closely related to acting with ‘no error.’ The word is ‘Li’ and it means various things including guideline, coherence, pattern, the way things fit together, the sense made by things and the how and why of things. It is commonly translated as ‘Principle’ but maybe the most vivid rendering of li is organic pattern. We can understand organic pattern to mean for example the natural markings in a piece of jade, the grain in wood, the patterns of clouds or the fibre in muscle. As an example of Li,I think immediately of a huge oak tree that grows a mile or so from here. The oak tree is an expression of the quality of Li, in-form; its bark is patterned in this way, its overall shape and proportion are entirely Li. Li is what a thing displays without effort when it is entirely and naturally itself. It evokes another Chinese word, Ziran– meaning nature, otherwise described as something being ‘so in itself or ‘self-same’. Whatever bears this quality of pattern is absolutely natural or, in Daoist thought, ‘Heavenly,’ and what does not is something else-something manipulated away from its origin, often described in Daoist literature as ‘human’.
The River God once asked Ruo of the Northern Sea to explain the difference between the Heavenly and the Human;
‘That cows and horses have four legs is the Heavenly. The bridle around the horse’s head and the ring through the cow’s nose are the Human. Hence it is said, do not use the Human to destroy the Heavenly, do not use the purposive to destroy the fated’
Considering the natural tension that arises between the heavenly and the human (the original and the manipulated) we might consider what it means to act in a way appropriate to the times we are in in ways that ‘bring no error.
I began this reflection with the I Ching and the issue of timing. In his commentary on verse 25 of the Tao Te Ching Lin Yutang writes,
All order is born of a principle and all rise and decay are interrelated. When something reaches a limit, then it reverses its direction. When the end is reached the beginning begins’
In this way of thinking my assumption here is that we might well consider the times we are in as being a time of reversion or return. In so many ways it seems, we have reached the limits of what is possible for our human project as currently devised and thus some kind of return seems inevitable. This being naturally and inevitably so, (in the sense that winter follows autumn) the Taoist might well ask what else there is to be done at this time other than to accept the fact and follow the flow of its inevitable course downward. There is a natural flow to the times which we may attend or ignore, but that it is so, despite our thinking, is the point at hand. A river in flood is what it is, whether we wish it or otherwise. To swim with or against the current is our choice-we might call this free-will-which itself demands the virtue or skill we apply to our current situation which we could call, in sympathy with the Taoist view, the fate of our birth and the specific times we have been born into. What is auspicious follows on from what is inauspicious, and visa versa, and we can act accordingly if we are sensitive enough to do so. To discern whither the current is going is the required skill, to grasp our predicament and to understand the forces that are at play here and now and to adjust our actions accordingly. We stand here in western terms with Heraclitus and recognise a universal truth; Panta Rei-everything flows.
Turning again to the Tao Te Ching, we read in verse 36;
He who is to be made to dwindle (in power)
Must first be caused to expand
He who is to be weakened
Must first be made strong
He who is to be laid low
Must first be exalted to power
He who is to be taken away from
Must first be given
This is the subtle light.
To act in sympathy or harmony with the subtle light is to follow the principle of Li-to follow the guidelines as they make sense now, understanding that whatever is occurring, is the inevitable fruit of what has preceded it in the way that winter follows autumn. The fruit of being exalted to power is to be laid low.
To be able to engage in activity appropriate to the moment is to acknowledge the veracity of the universal principle of polarity best understood in Taoist terms as Yang-Yin or respectively positive/negative, light/dark, life/death, strong/weak, firm/yielding, rising/falling -which offers a particular quality of guidance for action and non-action that is more subtle than the stance of mere opposition commonly adopted in the west. In Taoist thought, the polarities outlined above move dynamically and are subject to the principle, in Chinese, of hsiang sheng– meaning mutual arising or inseparability-which states that one pole cannot and never could exist without the other in the same way that being arises out of non-being and returns, ‘as sound arises out of silence and as light comes from space.’ The seed of darkness resides in the light and visa-versa. Life itself exists always at some point in between the poles. Thus, it is said by the Taoists, from this position, that ‘east opposes west but each relies on the other for its existence.’
Thus, we read again in Tao Te Ching verse 2;
When everyone knows beauty as beautiful there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil.
To be and not to be arise mutually
Difficult and easy are mutually realised
Long and short are mutually contrasted
High and low are mutually posited
Before and after are in mutual sequence
Reading the Taoist position as expounded here, we might conclude that in times of reversion, whilst, it may feel counter intuitive and even impractical, given our extraordinary tendency towards hyper-active problem solving in the world-it might be advisable (auspicious) to pause, to slow down, to stop and actually ‘do nothing’-prior to further action-ie, take stock of the way things are and to better sense the way they naturally want to be, in a full and comprehensive sense, since reversion requires this and it requires that we look at our own situation first since it is here-maybe only here- that we can assume some genuine responsibility for the ways things will in fact, unfold.
In making a bridge between eastern and western thought it is notable that Taoist philosophy was of the greatest importance to the Swiss psychoanalyst CG Jung. This is important since at heart Jung’s deep conviction was that one should make sense of one’s life within the cultural and spiritual milieu of one’s birth. Jung was a European and as such, despite the unpropitious circumstances, he dedicated his own life’s work to the revival of a meaningful western psychology that might counter the terrible schism he saw writ large in the western society of his birth and which he depicted as a devastating and fateful break between what he called the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths.
In formulating and developing his remarkable body of work over several decades, it is hard to over-estimate the understanding Jung gained through his study of other cultures including those of India, Africa, North America, and China. Of central importance to his work on alchemy which he understood to be of the utmost importance to the European psyche was the Taoist text, the Secret of the Golden Flower given to him by Richard Wilhelm. His commentary on Wilhelm’s text is extremely illuminating and demonstrates the way in which Taoist thought touched the very core of his own experience both personally and clinically.
Jung held that the realisation of the Self, through the process of what he called individuation was ultimately best understood as a sacred marriage, a heiros gamos of opposing yet complementary forces always at play in the psyche, a marriage of the conscious and the personal and collective unconscious, of good and evil, light and shadow in an ever-renewing creative process of unfolding that had no final end point in life. This understanding follows entirely on the principle of mutual arising as expounded in Taoist and western alchemical thought and stood directly in opposition to what Jung considered to be on one hand, the one sided position of material science which separated self from the falsely objectified world as it strove towards greater consciousness and away from ‘primitive’ thought, and on the other, to the dogmatic Christian tradition which had sought to separate good from evil, light from darkness in a final and definitive way that, for many hundreds of years then cast the instinctive, feminine, chthonic aspects of the psyche out into the wilderness at, what he considered to be great personal and collective cost.
Considering the curious inter-relationship between the personal self and the wider world Jung wrote insightfully;
If things go wrong in the world this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need- because outside authority no longer means anything to me-a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.
Jung, it is important to note here, is not advocating the need for some kind of self-improvement programme. He is saying quite simply that the first step if things go wrong is always to ‘put myself right’, which is to say, in sympathy with the Taoist attitude, to bring myself back into harmony with the way of things. To put ourselves right is the right action at this time if we accept that something is very wrong with the way things are.
To illuminate this point, Jung was very fond of telling the Taoist story of the Rainmaker as described by Richard Wilhelm in his rendering of the I Ching, who observed the events described in the story at first hand.
The story tells of a village in China in which the people were starving as a result of a prolonged drought in the region. To attempt to counteract the drought Wilhelm wrote,
The catholics made processions, the protestants made prayers and the Chinese burned joss sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally, the Chinese said; We will fetch the rainmaker.
The rainmaker came from another province and on arrival in the village asked only for a quiet little house somewhere and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day an unseasonal snowstorm arrived, and the drought subsequently came to an end. Wilhelm who was staying in the village at the time went and found the rainmaker and asked him how he made the snow come. He replied that he was not responsible for making the snowfall. Wilhelm then asked him what he had been doing for the previous three days. He replied,
‘Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordnance of heaven. Therefore, the whole country is not in Tao and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So, I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally, the rains came.’
In relation to this story Jung also used to reflect with his students on the writings of Nietzsche, in the late Christian tradition.
Physician, heal thyself: then wilt thou also heal thy patient. Let it be his best cure to see with his eyes him who maketh himself whole
Comparing these words from the western tradition with the story of the rainmaker Jung wrote;
He (the rainmaker) does not curse the earth or pray to heaven to behave and produce rain. He says to himself that he was right when he left his village and when he got here, he was wrong. This place is out of order so he is the one that is wrong; that wrong is nearest to him and if he wants to do anything for the chaotic condition it must be done in him-he is the immediate object of himself. So he asks for that little house and there he locks himself in and works on himself; he remains shut in until he reconciles heaven and earth in himself, until he is in the right order, and then he has cured the situation; Tao is established. That is exactly the same idea. So the best cure for anybody is when the one who thinks about curing has cured himself; inasmuch as he cures himself he is the cure’
In his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung reflected on the way in which some of his patients would simply outgrow a problem that would destroy others. He concluded that what he had termed outgrowing was in fact the development of a new level of consciousness;
Here and there it happened in my practice that a patient grew beyond himself because of unknown potentialities, and this became an experience of prime importance to me. I had learned in the meanwhile that the greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved but only outgrown
In considering what this meant in practice Jung reflected further.
What did these people do in order to achieve the development that liberated them? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself, became for me the key opening the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen …this is an art of which few people know anything. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating and never leaving the simple growth of the psychic process in peace.
We are, according to Taoist tradition, bound by cosmic (heavenly) laws that infinitely outweigh any given governmental, social or economic (human) system. That which is forged in time cannot rule over that which is a first principle out of time. In a hierarchical sense-the smaller cannot create the greater but it can adhere to the patterns or principles of the greater. We are, say the Taoists, bound by the eternal reality of the principles of Yang and Yin and as such we live always in a world of explicit duality and implicit unity. The multiplicity of forms is borne out of an absolute underlying and invisible unity and our work as humans is to perceive and acknowledge both spheres as one single coherent reality., In precisely this way we can say that our feet and head are explicitly different forms of one unified body.
Our actions have consequences precisely because we are of the earth and not separate from it. When we move, everything moves. When we totter, everything totters. When we act, there is a response. As an integral part of the Earth system, we have by our collective actions over time precipitated and amplified- for whatever well or ill-intentioned reasons- a state of immense imbalance in response to which the greater system itself is now adapting, correcting and changing itself in search of harmony and balance. From a Daoist perspective of course, the greater movement of earth systems to compensate for our actions is quite natural and quite impersonal but the result of this imbalance is that the very delicate set of conditions that makes human and much of creaturely life possible on earth is under existential threat and thus it feels and therefore is to a considerable degree, absolutely personal.
Having reached its zenith, every organic system naturally returns to its source and the end becomes the beginning. It is not any different than the ebb and flow of crops in our polytunnels over the course of a growing year or in the changing seasons that direct our work or the waxing and waning of the moon in the course of a year. It is simply inevitable and something we can respond to with more or less consciousness, sympathy and awareness. Looked at this way it might be helpful to reconsider the quality of attitude we might be advised to adopt to co -exist fruitfully on the earth in a time, as the Tao de Ching 36 puts it, of dwindling, weakening, being laid low and being taken away from. This remedy would seem to be to yield (yin) to the situation first rather than blindly strive(yang) to win at all costs and to move for a time with the downward feminine impulse and away from the rising masculine impulse. How we interpret these things in practice is something worth considering.
This is, the Tao would suggest, the appropriate response to the times and the way of no error. It is in truth a form of wu-wei or effortless action rather than mere passivity and surrender to the fates. I suspect it is connected closely to Jung’s experience of his patients naturally ‘outgrowing’ a previous state which ultimately implies an expansion of our conscious position, in part at least, through the integration of unconscious material into a new attitude- accommodating more completely whatever has been cut off or denied by our outdated scientific and religious position in pursuit of greater though one sided consciousness depicted as scientifically materialistic and morally good. It is not a view that will sit well with our modern western bias for thinking and action, as Jung observed and is in fact hard to grasp, since it is a profoundly unfamiliar attitude for the western mind to adopt.
Considering the attitude of self-development further, Jung wrote;
When I examined the way of development of those persons who quietly grew beyond themselves I saw that their fates had something in common. The new thing came to them out of obscure possibilities either outside or inside themselves; they accepted it and developed further by means of it…In no case was it conjured into existence through purpose and conscious willing, but rather seemed to be born on the stream of time…I have been deeply impressed with the fact that the new thing presented by fate seldom or never corresponded to conscious expectation
If we take Jung’s observations seriously then we too must be open to accepting ‘obscure possibilities’, even to taking a position quite contrary to our typical position if we wish to be aligned to the pattern of this moment. To follow the times faithfully, is to follow the ‘subtle light’ which is to say, to follow the Way as it actually is but that may be hidden from what seems obvious and apparent. To do so would be no doubt a defeat for the western ego and a necessary one at that. Humility may well prove to be the leit motif of our times and the first necessary condition for a more balanced future. Conditions seem hugely unpropitious for such a change of heart and tack,-since our current western model towards dominating, damaging and assailing the world is yet so prevalent in every system, be it political, social or economic – but the seed of hope, such as hope exists, lies, I suspect in this more subtle light- the alchemical lumen naturae, and in the fact that it is always in every persons hands to get themselves back in order to then work effectively and sensitively with whatever unfolds, however grim or terrifying, remarkable or astonishing ,in the faith that through whatever rites of passage we must now endure, the rain will eventually come and the drought be assuaged in time as individual attitudes shift.
Speaking personally, I am neither hopeful nor hopeless today about the situation we find ourselves in or about our prospects for the future. What I imagine is that the rainmaker had it about right and we could do well to think on that before rushing about ever more frantically to ‘fix’ the mess we’ve made when the chaos remains inside us unassuaged.
Physician, heal thyself it has been said. To straighten things out we may paradoxically have to get more flexible and fluid and become more receptive to the way things are moving (as in a dance in which we are creatively participant) thereby recovering at least our own natural balance from which effective and skilful or timely action might arise. This alone is noble action and represents a powerful action in the face of great dismay. The universal forces at play are far greater than us and any system we have or will ever create and this is important to know and understand deeply since it means we can at least privately choose a new attitude appropriate to the moment we are in. Far from being a prescription it is simply a matter of allowing what is natural to come forwards and to move accordingly. As is written in the Zhuangzi:
The fluidity of water is not the result of any effort on the part of water but is its natural property. And the virtue of the perfect man is such that even without cultivation there is nothing which can withdraw from his sway. Heaven is naturally high, the earth is naturally solid, the sun and moon are naturally bright. Do they cultivate these attributes?
Thinking of the oak tree down the lane, it’s interesting to me that surrounding it are various clumps of flowers and other offerings that local people have planted or left around its trunk over many years. It’s nothing formal of course though its roots go deep into the psyche and have expression as a deep appreciation and acknowledgement by everyday people from the village for a living being that embodies so fully what I am calling li-organic pattern-something that I experience in its presence as something akin to truth. Someone told me once that tree and true carry the same linguistic root and that makes sense. I could call the oak tree ‘wise’’ or even an ‘elder’ and I do see it both ways sometimes -but of course that’s word baggage and the tree doesn’t care too much about my words, preferring I imagine the great silence that always surrounds it. Li is a simple principle and it either is or is not present in a thing or indeed an action or a movement. In the things of Heaven, as we have seen, it always is and never strays. Like everything of real importance, it cannot be named in words, as Zhuangzu says of the Tao,
“…it may be attained but not seen, felt but not conceived, intuited but not categorized, divined but not explained”.
Not this, not that. The path as ever, is perfectly mysterious and subtle.