Laozi: subtracting day by day

Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day;
The practice of Tao consists in “subtracting day by day,
Subtracting and yet again subtracting
Till one has reached inactivity.
But by this very inactivity
Everything can be activated.”
Those who of old won the adherence of all who live under heaven
All did so not interfering.
Had they interfered,
They would never have won this adherence.

Laozi

I’m beginning to see trust and allowing in the Daoist trajectory of “wei wu wei” – acting without acting, doing without doing, uncontrived action.

Are you living your purpose?

I used to long to find my purpose in life.

I imagined it as a place I was meant to be, a career I was meant to follow, an ideal or a teaching or talent that would bring me fulfilment in life if I just poured my whole self into it.

I thought I had found it in being a “problem-solver” of the intellectual kind. But however great it seemed at first, thinking for a living eventually grew old.

I wasn’t fulfilled by mastering complex ethical problems, and as my job in ethics came to an end I began to feel increasingly devoid of purpose and even prospects.

My grand spiritual quest was in stasis, my PhD ran into a brick wall, and the books I wrote didn’t provide the sense of purpose, direction, or income I’d hoped for.

The four temperaments taught me that ideals and meaning and therefore purpose in life were fundamental to my sense of self and my worldview. Yet thanks to my deeply pessimistic and world-weary outlook, I regarded these things as unreal.

Getting into positive thinking via the Abraham Hicks material has helped me enormously. But it only just occurred to me that I’ve still been looking at the world through the filter of my past disenchantment and despair of any real meaning or purpose.

What is purpose?

The real reason we want purpose is because we think it will feel good when we have it.

Try to analyse purpose and it loses its mystery.

Purpose is, after all, just an intention or a goal. It’s what you pro-pose or put forth.

But melancholics won’t be content with an arbitrary goal or a self-generated intention.

By our very temperament, we desire something greater and more powerful than ourselves, and that means something inherently mysterious.

That’s why all my attempted goals and paths lost their appeal as soon as I considered trying to make some kind of career out of them: what I sought was, by definition, to reduce them to predictable, repeatable and therefore non-mysterious processes or outcomes.

Mysterious power

And yet there was something I had encountered however briefly in my years of searching. I came upon it while trying to emulate the “acting without acting” of the Daoist canon. I think I hit upon it by accident and succeeded because there were no instructions, no real method, just a description and a feeling.

What I had was best described as a “mysterious power”, a product of faith, feeling, and intuition that I allowed intermittently to flow.

I found it again last night, trying to put my baby daughter to sleep.

I remembered the sense of ease, the feeling of alignment, the certainty (faith) that it would work because (mystery) I was aligning myself with this great power that creates, guides, and nourishes all things.

The feeling is most like those dreams where you discover you can fly just by focusing in a particular way with a kind of expectation and gentle certainty that allows you to find invisible footholds in the air, or simply levitate as easily as drawing in a deep breath.

It’s the feeling you get when you change ever so slightly the angle or focus with which you regard a familiar scene like your own living room. Everything changes and you suddenly appreciate it in a whole new light with a feeling of clarity and buoyancy like a gust of wind has filled the room and stirred everything in it.

Or like a lens suddenly coming into focus, and everything is sharp and crisp and you feel your control over that act of focusing, while everything else is securely in the flow of that mysterious power.

I never knew what to call it, and I tended to lose it in the past as soon as I ran into cold hard thoughts about “reality”.

But last night I allowed it to come to the fore, and with it came a shift in perspective. I wasn’t exhaustedly trying to get my daughter to sleep so my wife and I could relax, instead I was lovingly helping her to sleep so she could rest and refresh and grow.

With this mysterious power guiding me, buoying me and uplifting me I felt not only that I had the energy and the patience I needed, but also the sensitivity and the guidance to find the easiest and best path forward.

Better yet, that by staying in this feeling of power I was already on the right path, and everything else was coming together to make it work out perfectly.

Is purpose right for melancholics?

Whatever this thing is that I find fulfilling, it doesn’t match the idea of purpose. It’s much more like a way of being than an external goal – yet it is satisfying in the way that I always imagined an explicit purpose or direction would be.

It suits the melancholic longing for authenticity, meaning and the ideal.

So maybe that’s the purpose of life for a melancholic: to find authenticity, meaning, and the ideal; not for the sake of accomplishing other tasks, but as the goal in and of itself.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is a bit like living in a fog. You can hear everything going on around you, but you can’t really see where you are going. This can lead to worry and anxiety, but it is also what makes us desire the ideal – because the ideal is always right no matter what is going on around you.

And when you know how to act, how to be, then you can at last be authentically yourself.

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.