Archive for February, 2010


February 25, 2010

Our socially-mobile American culture places a high value on ambition and striving.  To me, some kinds of ambitions seem worthwhile, such as ambitions to pursue a good education; to follow one’s own personal areas of interest, fascination, and passion; or to build a career that is enjoyable and provides a certain level of material comfort.  Hard work, discipline, and persistent effort to accomplish a personal goal, to perform well in school or at your job, to pursue an area of interest, to practice an art that you love, or to contribute something positive to society, is admirable.  However, it seems to me that our culture often goes too far in fanning the flames of ambitious striving for external “signs of success”—status, prestige, fame, money, and power.   In some of us, this kind of excessive striving  can lead to preoccupation and chronic worries about getting ahead, or feelings of complete inadequacy and worthlessness if we don’t get ahead in the way, or at the rate, that we had hoped.  In other people, there is a restless, unrelenting pushing to get ahead, in a grasping, sharp elbowed way—an attitude of “step on anyone’s toes,” “claw your way to the top.” An insatiable desire for enormous amounts of money, power over others, status, and prestige is usually quite destructive.  John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group, wrote a book entitled Enough on this type of excessive greed in the world of finance.  To paraphrase the psychologist Nancy McWilliams, our modern American culture tends to encourage us to make “accumulating narcissistic supplies” the focus and goal of our lives, unfortunately.  Is struggling to fill the bottomless pit of desire for money, power, and presitge really the way to live a good life?  In those deficient in integrity or with outright sociopathic tendencies, extreme ambition can lead them to do whatever it takes–lying, cheating, stealing–to “get ahead”…the ultimate example might be Bernard Madoff.

For full disclosure, and so I don’t sound holier-than-thou, I should admit that, from a fairly early age, I have been a striving, ambitious sort of person.  I’m not at all the sociopathic variety, but more of the highly conscientious type, who tends to worry about doing well enough.  Although my striving was, and still is, driven quite a bit by internal interests, it so happens that the type of career I’ve ended up in is a pressure cooker, filled with other highly ambitious, striving types, who are rushing around all day, with too many commitments and deadlines, with barely a minute to spare.  I have a tendency to get too caught up in the rat race.  I often wonder what it is about me that I chose a life like this.  I haven’t fully figured that out yet, but I know that I am also very attracted to the Taoist attitude of relinquishing striving, and letting go of these sorts of excessive, ambitious preoccupations that increase stress, disrupt inner quiet, distract you from the internal interests that motivated you in the first place, and that ultimately can be destructive…This conflict in me is reflected, I now realize, in the (unintentional) irony of the title of my blog, “The Aspiring Taoist”… really, I’m aspiring to not aspire for a higher rung on the ladder…striving to not strive for external signs of “success”…

“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

–Chapter 9, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

Striving  can feel invigorating at first, but when it becomes excessive, or, ironically, when one achieves what one was striving for, one can feel strangely unsatisfied and unfulfilled.  The excessive striving has cut one off from oneself and others, has been deadening in some way, because the striving has been so all consuming.  Once the goal of the moment has been achieved, one can end up in a fairly isolated palace or ivory tower.  If you are caught up in the race for external signs of success, then no seeming achievement can fill the bottomless pit of excessive desire and grasping for narcissistic supplies.  What particularly fascinates me is the idea of saying “no” to offers that could lead to more external signs of success, saying no because one values one’s real life, as it is.  I love this story about the Taoist, Chuang-tse:

“While sitting on the banks of the P’u River, Chuang-tse was approached by two representatives of the Prince of Ch’u, who offered him a position at court.  Chuang-tse watched the water flowing by as if he had not heard.  Finally, he remarked, ‘I am told that the Prince has a sacred tortoise, over two thousand years old, which is kept in a box, wrapped in silk and brocade.’  ‘That is true,’ the officials replied.  ‘If the tortoise had been given a choice,’ Chuang-tse continued, ‘which do you think he would have liked better—to have been alive in the mud, or dead within the palace?’  ‘To have been alive in the mud, of course,’ the men answered.  ‘I too prefer the mud,’ said Chuang-tse.  ‘Good-bye.’

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, 1982, p. 41

Restless, all-consuming striving disrupts the stillness that Taoists value so highly, in which you can feel at one with Nature.

“Lao Tzu postulated the idea of Wu Wei, usually translated as “nonaction,” to explain man’s appropriate relationship with nature….Nonaction does not mean idleness, apathy, or indifference to the Taoist; it rather implies the unresisting attitude that he adopts as he abides and communes with nature…

“To be suitably ‘not active,’ man must also discard ambitious desires, for desire is the initiating force which engages man’s active movement.  Since the greatest revelation of Tao lies in  ‘stillness,’ that ‘stillness’ must be preserved in the inner being by dismissing all motives that would disturb it or draw it into action.  Do not move in response to outward inducements but only to that which is within and spontaneous.”

–David Chow and Richard Spangler, Kung Fu:  History, Philosophy, and Technique, 1982, pp.18-19

Only when one discards excessive striving and ambition, when one gets closer to the natural world, when one simplifies one’s life and achieves a sense of inner quiet, relaxation, listening, can one fully be alive and aware.  Some of this is a matter of knowing when enough is enough, when it is time to stop the extreme striving.  Some of this is being able to see through the illusion of the need to accumulate narcissistic supplies.  There must be a marvelous feeling of freedom in letting go of all the grasping for prestige, status, and recognition.

“Unchain yourself from achievement and enjoy an ordinary life.  Flow like the Tao, unhindered, unnoticed, unnamed, with no goals, no expectations.  Be like a child, like a fool.  Know that there is nothing to know.  This is the direct way to freedom.”

–Chuang-tzu, quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s “The Second Book of Tao,” 2010, Penguin Books, p.102

In an essay entitled “Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall,” the 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen wrote, “Those who have way-seeking mind and wish to abandon fame and profit should enter.  Those who are half-hearted and lack sincerity should not enter…When the way-seeking mind is aroused inwardly, there is immediately freedom from fame and profit.  In the vastness of billions of worlds, true heirs of dharma are rare. ”

–Dogen, “Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall” in the book Moon in a Dewdrop:  Writings of Zen Master Dogen, 1985 p. p.49

Lao Tzu wrote, “The highest good is like water.  Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.  It flows in places people reject and so it is like the Tao.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English

“Tea Landscape” by Ren Adams

I love this beautiful quote from the Taoist Ko Hung below, which, to me, is about letting go of the grasping for narcissistic supplies, and instead finding meaning in life by immersing yourself in the wonder of Tao (see also the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16, quoted in the About section of this blog): 

“The contented man can be happy with what appears to be useless.  He can find worthwhile occupation in forests and mountains.  He stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple.  He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage.  He leaves the jade in the mountain and the pearls in the sea.  Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he can be happy—he knows when to stop.  He does not pick the brief-blossoming flower; he does not travel the dangerous road.  To him, the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind.  He sings as he travels among the green mountains.

He finds sheltering branches more comforting than red-gated mansions, the plow in his hands more rewarding than the prestige of titles and banners, fresh mountain water more satisfying than the feasts of the wealthy.  He acts in true freedom.  What can competition for honors mean to him?  What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold?  Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything.  … The cook creating a meal with his own hands has as much honor in his eyes as a famous singer or high official.  He has no profits to gain, no salary to lose, no applause, no criticism.  When he looks up, it is not in envy.  When he looks down, it is not with arrogance.  Many look at him, but nobody sees him.  Calm and detached, he is free from all danger, a dragon hidden among men.”

–Ko Hung, quoted in the Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff, 1992, p. 187-188

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