— an excerpt from The Activist’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern Revolution by William Martin
I’m not a curmudgeon, though I used to accuse myself of being that. I’m really not. A curmudgeon is a grouch, a complainer, a crabby guy who sees nothing good about anything. That’s not me. I’m basically a happy, even-tempered, easygoing person with no real complaints about my life. (You know there’s a “but” coming, don’t you?)
But I am also willing to look at the general direction of the society and world in which I live and say, “This is insane! This is crazy! We have to stop this!” My shouts come not from my inner curmudgeon but from my lifelong love of Taoist philosophy. Though the sixth century B.C.E. Chinese sage Lao-Tzu is sometimes considered a quietist, one who talks of “going with the flow,” the thrust of his teachings in The Tao Te Ching is social criticism. This classic book is, among other things, an observation of the ways people choose to make their society unhappy and destructive by ignoring the movement and natural rhythms of the Tao. He didn’t make these observations because he was grouchy. On the contrary,from what we know, he was accused of taking too “carefree” an approach to life, of not being serious enough or productive enough. But he was conscious of the forces that propelled his society in unnatural, hurried, and aggressive rhythms. He came to a point where he was no longer fooled by the subtle games of a dysfunctional world, and he taught and wrote of an alternative path —a path not of unhappy complaining but of simplicity, joy, and contentment.
This path is difficult to navigate. It requires the ability to see clearly yet not become discouraged; to acknowledge that the world is on the brink of disaster yet not become immobilized; to live in the midst of collective insanity yet not go mad. These abilities are not easily cultivated. It is easier to acquiesce to societal beliefs and repress any feelings that are discordant with these beliefs.
I stumble often as I travel the Tao. I sometimes fall off the path into a trench of depression. Then I am vulnerable to the voices in my head that accentuate feelings of uselessness, impotency,and futility: “What’s the use?” At other times I veer off into self-righteous anger in which my critical voices have a field day pointing out everything that is wrong, leading me into rant and rage. The upshot of either depression or rage is that I lose the ability to enjoy life. I don’t see clearly and am diverted from helpful and effective action.
Lao-Tzu did not try to fix his society. He instead called people to create, first within themselves and then among themselves, an alternative society, an entirely different way of being in the world. We are not to stand apart from things and change what is wrong with them, as if we were “here” and what’s wrong were “over there.” We are a part of things and must learn to live in awareness of that. We must ask ourselves, “Do our assumptions, attitudes, and actions grow out of a gentle and courageous awareness of the Yin and Yang of life? Or do we conceive of our life as a battleground, full of enemies and booby traps, a life in which we must carve out our existence in anger and aggression?” The choice between these two assumptions and perspectives is one of profound importance.
The basic assumptions we hold will determine the fate of our society and our planet. If we want to be at peace and of help, we will have to pay consistent attention to the attitudes that drive our actions. We will have to learn to find sanity and peace in an insane and violent world. Only by discerning the rhythms of the Tao can we possibly hold that paradox in place. Blessings to us as we find our way.
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William Martin is the author of The Activist’s Tao Te Ching and six other books of Tao Te Ching interpretation, including titles highlighting parenting, love, aging, and caregiving.
He lives in Northern California. Visit him at www.taoistliving.com.
Based on the book The Activist’sTao Te Ching. Copyright © 2016 by William Martin.