Spring has sprung over here, the sun is shining and I feel it’s time, at this expansive point in the year to consider the meaning of life, or more accurately the theory of human flourishing. We all of us want to live contentedly in a world that seems full of riches and a community that enhances our spirit, no? So what promotes this state of affairs and what prevents it?
As ever, the serendipity of reading made me think about this, as I happened to be reading blockbusters last month alongside daily dips into the ancient Chinese manual of wisdom that is the Tao Te Ching. At first, the messages each contained for acquiring happiness seemed radically at odds, and then, most intriguingly, closer inspection seemed to indicate that the height of Eastern mysticism and the sagas of Western success were not so far apart philosophically after all.
The Tao Te Ching is a legendary document, supposedly written by the wise man Lao-Tzu around about 100 B.C. although these details are suspect. Supposedly the Royal House he served was in decline and Lao-Tzu left the capital and journeyed to the Han-ku Pass, where the Keeper there, understanding that he was about to withdraw from the world, asked him to write a book before doing so. Thus Lao-Tzu produced the eighty-one…well, what would you call them? Prose poems? Gnomic utterances? Poetic and philosophical riddles? In any case they remain with us today, descriptions of the Tao, or the underlying unifying Oneness that governs and produces the world, and the Te – or what we can get from it. I have no idea what the ‘Ching’ bit means. Maybe it’s a shortening of Ka-Ching! Or some sort of Eastern version of ‘there you have it’. Here is a classic example:
On tiptoe: no way to stand
Clambering: no way to walk
Self-display: no way to shine.
Self-assertion: no way to succeed.
Self-praise: now way to flourish.
Complacency: no way to endure.
According to TAO,
Therefore the follower of TAO
Essentially the Tao Te Ching’s message is one of human economy married with a gentle humility. It is all about gauging what ‘too much’ would look like and understanding excess and an inflated sense of our agency to be perpetual menaces in just about all modes of existing. Desire finds no favour with the Tao Te Ching, any kind of striving or trying or controlling (all of which amount to the same thing) are considered to be quick ways to lose what we most seek to master. At the same time, the ego, that scourge of the Western world, is taken to be the root cause of all our anxieties.
Favour debases us.
Afraid when we get it,
Afraid when we lose it.
The self embodies distress.
The more we try to erect boundaries, defend property, take pride in ourselves or measure what comes into our hands, the more we lose touch with something utterly real and trustworthy, the teachings suggest. And this would be the TAO, the oceanic feeling of unity with what cannot be seen or described but which exists nevertheless as a deep guiding force to existence. As far as I understand it, the Tao Te Ching is about being very still and very quiet, in order that the Tao should become apparent. The more we distract ourselves with endeavour and busy-ness, the louder we shout out to the world with endless demands and recriminations, the less likely we are to be soothed by the innate harmony of existence, and the spirit that flows through all things in their natural state. In other words, we become lost when manically seeking what lies right beneath our noses.
Now it may already be obvious that blockbusters do not follow these principles. In fact, they are all about striving and controlling, their heroes and heroines wanting nothing more than to transcend their immediate circumstances. They are about gaining recognition for the self through love or wealth, marking out the individual from the mass of mankind as someone special and unusual. They are about fulfilling self-interest through work, passion or revenge. Certainly not in tune with the Tao Te Ching there – ‘No self-interest? Self is fulfilled’, it proposes, tersely. The blockbuster disagrees fundamentally with Chinese wisdom over issues like success, the outward expression of intense emotions, and of course, the pleasures to be had from materiality. The characters in these novels long for riches and opulence, they wallow in torrid and tempestuous relationships and they glorify themselves with fame. The blockbuster is excess personified, or at least dramatized, put center stage in order to thrill and awe its audience. And to think that it has less of a message than the Tao Te Ching would be to mistake the avidity with which readers consume them, and the steady upward pressure on standards of living and visible attainment that fuel our culture. But what do human beings actually need? Are we better off living lives of quiet abnegation, or more fulfilled when we reach for the stars?
I wondered whether I might just hit an impasse here, the clash of East and West with no possible resolution. But then I recalled the work of French anthropologist Roger Caillois who, when researching into the concept of the divine, discovered that all primitive societies had a belief in ‘a natural order of the world’, an order that would be a kind of default setting, and that would reassert itself in its inability to tolerate inequality. When the natural order of the world suffered an imbalance, war or famine or some such disaster would result. This struck me as quite illuminating. I could read in the Tao Te Ching a deep-rooted desire to respect the natural order of the world, to mess with it as little as possible and to live lightly and selflessly on the planet, attuned to its innate beauty. ‘Understanding the ordinary: Enlightenment’, it pronounces. Blockbusters, by contrast, give the natural order of the world a great big kick up the axis. But then, for all the dramas that result, there is still a sense that the natural order will reassert itself. All that happens is that the balance of credit is paid off by the characters later in their lives, or by subsequent generations. The bigger the blockbusting characters live, the greater the fall that will at some point afflict them, while much of their success has to be won by a struggle against the odds that few of us would ever cheerfully embrace.
Blockbusters are seductive, but their characters are often haunted by the obligation to ‘pay’ for what they get with grief, distress, or the simple loss of themselves, given over as they are to the relentless pressure of success. Perhaps it’s just the indication that I’m growing older, but it seems like a good idea to me not to mess with the natural order of the world, but to sit still with it, appreciating the ordinary and seeking enlightenment in the smallest and most delicate of things.