When we quiet our minds and “listen,” as I wrote in my last post, we are able to better perceive the reality of the people and world around us, and this reality sometimes pleases us, but sometimes disappoints, upsets, and even terrifies us. When bad things happen to us (e.g. we get rejected or hurt by someone, get sick or injured, get fired from a job, lose a relationship, get attacked by someone, etc), our immediate reaction is often to not believe this is happening to us and to struggle against it.
Taoists take on the difficult task of trying to see the reality of what is happening in each moment as it unfolds, and accept it as reality and work with it, rather than pretending it isn’t true or struggling against it.
“[The Master] dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.”
—-Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Taoists learn that they can’t control most things–the forces of the nature, other people’s behavior, blows of fate, the impermanence of things and people, the mortality of themselves and their loved ones. In its unflinching acceptance of reality, Taoism is a difficult and demanding approach to life—there are no easy outs, no comforting fantasies offered as alternatives to reality. But by perceiving and adjusting to reality, as difficult as it is, you gain a lot, because you are better able to appreciate what is good in life, and don’t waste your own energy in futile struggles against what you can’t change.
“The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.”
–Chapter 29, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Their “acceptance of reality” does not imply that Taoists don’t allow themselves to feel sad or to mourn a loss when they experience a loss. In fact, listening and accepting reality involves being aware of one’s own feelings, and allowing oneself to experience them. Only by allowing oneself to experience the sadness of the loss, can one accept the reality of the loss.
“If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.”
–Chapter 23, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
To better understand the Taoist attitude of accepting and working with reality, I sometimes think of an analogy to surfing (my apologies if the surfing analogy seems trite). Even if the ocean wave approaching is not the type the surfer was hoping for, a good surfer sees the coming wave as it is (not as he hoped it would be), recognizes what is happening moment-to-moment, aligns himself/herself with it continuously over time, and skillfully makes use of the energy of the wave to flow with it, and to accomplish what he/she wants.
“The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.”
Chapter 45, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
The Taoist acceptance of reality is not a passive, depressed, defeatist acceptance of the way things are. Rather this acceptance allows one to use one’s own skills to make use of reality.
“Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.”
Chapter 59, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
“Tree Silhouettes” by Ren Adams
One way to begin to understand and “try on” this way of approaching life is by studying and practicing Tai Chi Chuan, which uses this approach within the context of a martial art and sparring. Tai Chi Chuan provides a strategy and set of skills for dealing with one type of negative reality–the possibility of being physically attacked, or getting into a fight. However, the strategy that Tai Chi Chuan provides could be generalized to dealing with other seemingly negative aspects of reality. In Tai Chi, when a force opposes you (e.g. someone tries to punch you), you learn to remain calm and relaxed while “listening” to your opponent, sensing what he is trying to do, so that you are fully aware of what is happening. Rather than feeling angry or panicked, rather than trying to oppose force with force or trying to overpower the other force, you accept the reality of the force—recognizing it as part of the way things are, part of Tao–align yourself with the force, and use your skill to redirect the force, thus avoiding harm and gaining some control over how the situation affects you.
You may ask, “What’s wrong with opposing force directly with force, and overpowering my opponent? Isn’t that the macho way?” This strategy may work sometimes, but the problem is that, no matter how big and powerful you are, there will always be someone or something bigger and stronger than you….certainly the forces of nature will always be stronger..so the effort to be bigger and stronger, to overpower, will ultimately sap your energy and be a losing strategy…the only way to win consistently is to adjust yourself to the other force so that you can make use of it …this is called “yielding” or “softness” by Taoists, but it is not passivity, floppiness, limpness, or masochism..far from it. It’s a realistic, in fact powerful way of making use of what is around you.
“The proficient Tai Chi student can arrive at the stage of what is technically called the application of ‘receiving energy.’ This is a complete negation of the notion of countering force with force. When someone throws a rubber ball at you, with a little force you can knock it away. Still, this is force against force. Suppose someone attacks you with an iron ball weighing five hundred pounds. Will force suffice to knock it away? The correct application of receiving energy is that when the iron ball comes near, you must first attract it like a magnet and then throw it away. The speed and force you use must be very precise for the purpose. The interpreting, adhering, withdrawing, and attacking energies are all involved in an instant.”
–From Cheng Man-Ch’ing and Robert W. Smith, Tai Chi: The “supreme ultimate” exercise for health, sport, and self-defense, 2004, p. 91
“Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.”
–Chapter 76, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
“Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.”
–Chapter 78, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
This strategy of “softness” and “yielding” has been used, rarely, by some of the toughest and most skillful sports teams. For example, this strategy of yielding to force led directly, and paradoxically, to the dominance of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, who I loved to watch. In an interview with the Buddist magazine Tricyle about his approach to basketball, Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, said this:
Jackson: “When I came into the NBA as a coach five years ago, basketball was all about power—who had the biggest guys, who played the roughest game, who could intimidate who. Our system moves away from that. The whole concept is to defy pressure, to work against another team’s force. Basically we try to get the other team to overload in one area and then work with their energy [to defeat them].”
Tricycle: “That sounds like t’ai chi basketball.”
—Tricycle: The Buddist Review, vol III, No. 4, Summer 1994, p.91.
Not surprisingly, Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches in basketball history.
“When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.”
Chapter 69, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
This strategy can also be applied to governing.
“Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn’t try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself.
The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.”
Chapter 30, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
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