“Goldfish at Sunset” by Ren Adams

Our modern American culture tends to value leadership and devalue following.  “Be a leader, not a follower.”  This message is ingrained in us, starting from an early age.  Our TV ads and movies repeat and reinforce the message.  Many schools or colleges state that they aim “to educate the future leaders of America.”  Although we are a democratic country, we still tend to value “movers and shakers” and charismatic, assertive political leaders who can inspire or goad others to follow their own goals, agenda, or priorities.

In contrast, Taoists don’t emphasize the importance of attaining leadership, at least not in the sense of out-competing others, gaining and asserting power and control over others, or achieving recognition, popularity, prestige, or fame.  None of these things appeals to them (see my earlier post non-striving).  Typically, Taoists are not even in the mainstream of society, but rather are often nonconformist,  sometimes even recluses.  They are independent minded, and are not impressed or swayed by charismatic, manipulative leaders.

Perhaps the one sense in which Taoists themselves might be considered leaders is in setting an example of a way to live that is simple, unconventional, and centered on the Tao.  If they are leaders in their chosen fields of endeavor, it is out of sheer love for the work itself, rather than out of grasping for fame and glory.  Although Taoists don’t tend to seek political power, the Tao Te Ching includes advice for political leaders, and emphasizes the seemingly paradoxical need for leaders to follow the people they are leading, to show humility, to respect and listen to and understand the people, to put the best interests of the people ahead of their own desires for power and control.

“All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 66, Stephen Mitchell translation

“If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57, Stephen Mitchell translation

This idea that leaders should stop trying to control and start following the people and the Tao was a particularly radical idea at the time that the Tao Te Ching was written in China, when emperors and warlords held total power over the population.  But this Taoist goal seems difficult to fully attain even in our modern, Western democracy.  Even in a democracy, in which the people can vote, political leaders’ efforts to follow the people are not necessarily sincere.   Insincere, Machiavellian “following” involves determining what is currently popular and fashionable, following the daily poll numbers, and tailoring your message to the polls to attain or hold on to power.  In contrast, the Tao Te Ching encourages a sincere, non-manipulative form of following that is not motivated by a desire for power, but rather by an interest in following the Tao.

“The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 66, Stephen Mitchell translation

A leader’s sincere following of the people is not, however, passive and indiscriminate.  It doesn’t mean being a slave to the superficial whims, fashions, fads, prejudices, or hatreds that can spread quickly through a crowd, and that are often transient emotional reactions.  Rather, sincere following, in the Taoist sense, seems to mean following the people’s deepest and most enduring values, the part of them that is centered and peaceful, the part of them that is attuned with Tao.  This probably sounds overly idealistic, virtually impossible to achieve….even the Tao Te Ching itself admits it…but it is worth aspiring to:

“Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67, Stephen Mitchell translation

The usefulness of following applies not only to political leaders, but to leaders in all sorts of areas.  In his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, the  coach Phil Jackson, writes  about applying Buddhist and Taoist principles of listening and following to leadership in the high pressure world of professional basketball:

“Though there are occasions when a firm hand is needed, I learned early that one of the most important qualities of a leader is listening without judgment, or with what Buddhists call bare attention.  This sounds easier than it is, especially when the stakes are high and you desperately need your charges to perform.  But many of the men I’ve coached have come from troubled families and needed all the support they could get.  I find that when I can be truly present with impartial, open awareness, I get a much better feel for the players’ concerns than when I try to impose my own agenda.  And, paradoxically, when I back off and just listen, I get much better results on the court.”

–Phil Jackson Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, p. 67-68

Learning to “follow” another person or group of people, and to engage in a form of mutual, interactive following with others, is an important Taoist skill.  Again, this type of following does not involve a passive surrendering of one’s will to another, nor does it involve giving in to peer pressure.  It does not need to involve one person gaining power or control over another (except, perhaps, when the principle of following is used in the context of competitive sports or martial arts—see the discussion of basketball and Tai Chi Chuan below—but in those cases, paradoxically, it is the one who is most skilled at following who is able to achieve mastery and control over the interaction).  Rather, it involves a way of listening and connecting to each other, of understanding each other more deeply.  If we devalue and neglect this type of listening and following, and value only “leadership” in the modern American sense—asserting and imposing ourselves on others— we risk becoming more and more self-involved and more disconnected from the people and things around us, which can end up limiting and hindering us.  To continue the basketball example, even with the superstar Michael Jordan on their Chicago Bulls team, Phil Jackson and his assistant coach, Tex Winter, had the team work on de-emphasizing the dominating leadership presence of Jordan, and work on functioning together better as a team.  Jackson and Winter taught their players to use a strategy called the triangle offense, that Phil Jackson said is best described as “five man Tai Chi.” The triangle offense requires continuous moment-to-moment awareness and following, both of teammates and members of the opposing team.  In addition to the talents of the team members, it was this training in awareness, listening, following, working together as a team that Jackson believes led to their successes.

Another example that comes to my mind of the value of listening and following comes from my experiences playing in musical groups.  When I was in high school, I studied the clarinet quite seriously, and played in various youth orchestras.  I remember a conductor who I played under for about 4 years urging the orchestra members to listen to each other and follow each other and him while playing together.  To illustrate this type of following, he asked one of the violinists to stand up and walk while the conductor tried to follow his walking pace.  First, the conductor acted out the type of following he didn’t want.  The violinist walked, and the conductor walked along with him, but was always lagging slightly behind the violinist, never really with him.  Then, the conductor illustrated true “listening” and following…this time, as the violinist walked, the conductor stayed exactly with him, so the two looked perfectly in sync, and it was difficult for the onlooker to tell who was leading and who was following.  This type of following takes a high level of awareness and attunement to the other person, and an instantaneous translation of this attunement into motion.  This illustration, however, just shows one side of the following.  In playing music together, there would ideally be a mutual, reciprocal type of listening and following that goes on between performers that results in an exhilarating type of communication and attunement.  This is where the magic can happen in musical performances.   BBC Music Magazine recently wrote this about a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic:  “What’s extraordinary about the Berlin ensemble is not just their clarity of sound, nor their crisp articulation, but the level of freedom with which the players move as one, each tracking the other like swallows in flight.”

This type of following also can be learned and strengthened in practicing the Taoist martial art, Tai Chi Chuan.  In Tai Chi Chuan, one learns to follow the teacher in the class, and carry out the movements in synch with the teacher.  Also, in learning push hands with a partner in Tai Chi Chuan, the challenge is to learn to very sensitively perceive what your partner is doing or intending to do, and to follow your partner’s movements so closely that you stay in continual, steady contact.  As your partner advances towards you, you yield, while remaining in contact; as your partner retreats away from you, you advance towards him, while remaining in contact.  My Tai Chi teacher quotes his teacher, Dr. Tao Ping-siang, who said repeatedly when instructing students in pushing hands, “Don’t push back, and don’t pull away.”   The other person may try to increase or decrease the pressure in the contact between you, but you stay with them, and don’t allow any change in pressure between you to occur.

“If your [opponent’s] side is hard, change your own side to make it soft.  This is called following.  If your opponent is moving and you adhere to him while following in the same direction, it is called sticking.  Then you are attached to your opponent:  when he moves faster, you also move faster; when he moves slower, you move slower, thereby matching his movement…When he moves forward, he should feel that he cannot reach you, and when he retreats, he should feel that he has nowhere to escape to…If you achieve this level of sensitivity, there is no force that will defeat you…The T’ai Chi principle is as simple as this:  yield yourself and follow the external forces.”

— “T’ai Chi Classics II.  Treatise by Master Wong Chung-yua” in T’ai Chi Classics, translated and with commentary by Waysun Liao, 1990, pp.99-107

This is much easier said than done, and requires an inner calm, a deep state of relaxation, a continuous, moment-to-moment awareness, and a “listening” and sensitivity to your partner. (See three of my previous posts: inner quiet, relaxation and serenity, listening.)

Chen Ziqiang (left) and David Gaffney (right) practicing an advanced form of Tai Chi Push Hands called Da Lu

As you read this, you might be wondering about what seems to be a contradiction in Taoist values.  Why is it that Taoists tend to be so independent and unconventional,  so uninterested in following the crowd or domineering leaders, and yet, in another sense, value certain types of following so highly?  Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching emphasizes the independence and unconventionality of Taoists, their lack of susceptibility to peer pressures.

“Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharper;
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20, Stephen Mitchell translation

The seeming contradiction between independence from others, on the one hand, and the high value placed on following, on the other hand, can be resolved by understanding that what Taoists value is to be attuned to the Tao, to be “immersed in the wonder of Tao,” to follow Tao, as indicated in the last line just quoted from Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching.  Taoists are independent of superficial fads and fashions, independent of peer pressures or pressures from “charismatic leaders” that are not deeply rooted in the Tao.  But they are very interested in listening to and connecting with others on a much deeper level, and in sensing and following Tao in others.

“Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38, Stephen Mitchell translation

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


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