Tag Archives: taoism

The Tao of Earthsea

I started reading about Taoism somewhere in my early teens. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the powerful sense of familiarity. I hit it again when reading my first version of the Tao Te Ching: I knew this stuff already, on a deep level, and could not explain it.

Recently I’ve re-read the first four of Ursula Le Guinn’s five Earthsea books. I first read them when much younger – I was in single figures when I started with The Tombs of Atuan, which isn’t the first book in the series. I’d never read anything like it.

On this read, it struck me how much the wizard Ged talks about doing and being, doing nothing, and the duties of the king in regards to his people. I recognised whole speeches as being reflections of the Tao Te Ching. Of course there is an Ursula Le Guinn Tao Te Ching, which I’ve got, and in it she talks about having read, re-read and lived with the core Taoist text for many years.

It was a potent reminder for me of the way in which fiction, things we delve into only to amuse ourselves, can have profound impact. Whether you wonder about the underlying philosophy of a book or not, you still let it in. We are shaped by our environments, and there’s nothing in us that is designed to respond to our psychological and emotional experience of arts and entertainments any differently from lived experience. When we pick what to watch, or read, or play, we pick our environments and those environments have the power to turn our genes on and off.

I stay away from torture porn films. I do my best not to look for too long at images of real life horror offered by the media. I’ve got room in my life for erotica, but not for pornography. I’ve never read any of the Game of Thrones books, nor watched any of it. Often I’m going by age rating and other people’s reviews, and a gut feeling about what I don’t want to have inside my head informing my body about what it needs to deal with the environment I live in.

Tao, Druidry and authenticity

I first became aware of Taoism in late childhood, via The Tao of Pooh, which I read, loved and no doubt mostly didn’t understand at all. But it spoke to me nonetheless and when opportunities have come up to explore further, I’ve taken them. I own several interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. My Druidry has always been coloured somewhat by the things I’ve learned from Taoism.

One of the Taoist ideas I find especially appealing to explore is the role of personal authenticity. Religions that are about transcending this world tend to encourage practitioners to put aside the self, the ego, the illusion in order move on up into the realm of spirit. I’m a spiritual materialist, my feet are on the earth and my sense of the sacred is earthly. I’ve no desire to transcend.

Taoism says be yourself, but see yourself as part of something far bigger and longer lasting than you. It teaches that human nature is naturally in tune with the Tao, if we let it flow, and that human artifice is the thing that keeps as away from being part of the flow of the universe. To live well and live simply is the goal, to be quietly part of the world and acting from our true nature so as to be aligned with the Tao. I’ve been in too many contexts that wanted me to hack bits off myself. The affirmation that my most authentic self is a good thing is something I find helpful, and healing.

It’s a line of thought that brings me back to Mary Oliver’s ‘You do not have to be good, you only have to left the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ For me this has been the basis of stripping away artifice and finding my authentic self. Whatever that is. I’m still looking, still finding things that aren’t me but have been squashed onto my surfaces. Still hunting out bits that have been hacked off in the past.

There’s a ‘good enough’ notion at the core of this. A human is fundamentally good enough. What we do to ourselves and each other can take us away from that, when we deform who we are to try and become what we think we should be… But in essence we are all good enough, we just need to settling into that, be with it, make room for it. Cruelty is not natural, nor is taking far, far more than we need in order the waste the vast majority of it. Our animal selves are likely much better than the weird socially constructed humans we’ve been cobbling together for thousands of years.

I do not have to overcome my ego. I do not have to deliberately crush any part of me that feels good about things. I do not have to punish my body to be spiritual. I do not have to deny my earthly being and my earth-based life to be spiritual. I just need to settle down in this soft animal body I have, and love the warmth of sunlight on my skin, and love the tactile surfaces and the warmth of other soft animal bodies, the hills beneath my feet, the shade of trees, the sunset… Rather than the spiritual path seeming like some vast and daunting effort, it seems gentle, easy even.

Fighting trousers or bending reed?

I’ve just read Jo’s excellent post http://octopusdance.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/meh/ where she talks about achieving detachment so as to be more in control of our emotions, and our lives. She makes some very good points about the ways in which our desire to be in control of things and people we have no control of, can prompt really unhelpful emotional responses. I’m sat here nursing a bucket load of those – fear, anger, resentment, fear, more fear. I’m not good at situations where I feel entirely unable to control what’s happening in my life. I’m very tired of facing situations where assorted official bodies have the power, at least, to strip me of every last thing I care about for reasons that have a lot to do with their subjective views and my failure to be quite normal enough. Meh indeed.

In my teens I explored Tai Chi and a little Taoist philosophy. One of the ideas I encountered was of yielding rather than resisting. It underpins the Tai Chi discipline. We bend, and by doing so, overcome the force and aggression of others. In not fighting, we triumph. Now, compare that with what we get in the Celtic myths, full of strident warriors out doing crazy heroic things. Cu Chulain tied to his rock and fighting until he dies. Macha running the race that kills her. And even Rhiannon, offering to carry all comers as she takes punishment for a crime she never committed, doesn’t seem to be yielding so much as enduring. My impression of the Celts is of a proud people who, when challenged by life, faced it down or died trying. Often the latter. Assuming the mediaeval tales are any kind of insight into Celtic mythology, they suggest an ethos all about doing what honour demands, and dying if needs be. On the whole that’s easier to do when your enemy is also holding a sword, or happens to be a wild boar. Trickier when you are fighting against the hideous tides of paperwork, red tape, crazy laws, kafka-esk systems, a society that doesn’t have room for you, or any of the myriad other things a modern druid can wind up banging their head against.

The scope for going out into the world and fighting injustice with a big weapon, is not what it used to be.

While I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself a ‘druidry and something’ druid, there are other influences. Aside from the Taoism, there’s existentialism in my head, and post modernism, green politics, a fondness for rationalism, a profound respect for humanist and atheist thinking and probably a lot more. Inevitably I am to some degree a product of my own times, and my own reading.

Do I bend in the gale to avoid breaking, or do I make like a Celtic warrior and fight to the death? Nothing I am up against will give a poo either way. It’s a case of do as you’re told, or be harassed, threatened, and legally forced to comply. There are a lot of situations in which a person has no legal right to decline, or to hold an opinion. There is yielding, or being flattened. The pragmatist in me does not see a great deal to be gained in being flattened. The powers that be are indifferent to heroic gestures, or principles other than their own. I know of people who have given their lives for causes they believed in, and I have a depressing sense of how much difference that makes. Being alive, and continuing to make a nuisance of yourself appears to be more productive.

Being a druid is of course not entirely the same as being a Celtic warrior. There’s the whole peace angle to consider for a start. Usually there are other paths aside from direct conflict. Sometimes conflict is the only way. All I can hope for is the wisdom to figure out when to be a Taoist and yield before the unstoppable forces, and when to be a Celt, and dig out the fighting trousers and refuse to go quietly.

I owe the idea of Fighting Trousers to an excellent chap called Professor Elemental, who you can find on youtube, and, should. Today is not the day for donning the fighting trousers. Tomorrow, who knows?