Chicago - Oct. 22, 2020
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The Tao Is To Chill

"The clouds above us join and separate. The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns. Life is like that, so why not relax?" - Lu Yu

According to cultural standards and influences, here's what our day should look like: A joyous awakening at precisely 4:30 a.m., giving us exactly enough time to squeeze in a workout, journal about our feelings, work on our novel, practice our Japanese, iron our clothes for next month, work on our side-hustle, take a shower, fix a nutritious yet unusually delicious breakfast, and finally head to work, where we'll bustle away the eight hours productively and meaningfully, only to come home to a delicious dinner, a clean house, and a delightful, yet complex piece of classic literature we'll cozy up with after our warm bath.

A fantastic day indeed. The problem is, it seldom works out like that. The closest most of us get is consistently wishing we had such a routine. Some of us get a bit further; we'll actually eat breakfast before work (the jury is still out on just how nutritious said breakfast is).

Complete a baker's dozen of not-so-practical tasks before you've had your morning cup of tea; if you can't, bathe in the guilt of being a lazy procrastinator who will never amount to anything. We are told to believe that a hyperactive, hyperproductive approach is the only way to lead a meaningful life. This mode, of course, can bleed into an unsustainable and unhealthy lifestyle. The results? Quite unfavorable. We're left feeling the need to do all these fantastic things without ever really understanding why or how to go about them; worst of all, we never even get close.

We're often told we live in a hyperactive society. That might be true, but I submit it's truer to say we live in a hyperwishful-of-being-productive society. We're embedded with the desire to do so much before we've even fully understood what it is we're trying to do or why we're doing it, which inevitably sets us up for failure. Take action, take control, do something, achieve something, hustle, hustle, hustle! For what? For the sake of merely saying how busy you are? How many tasks you have crossed off your to-do list? What's the point in consistently trying to do everything when you end up doing nothing? What's the point in doing everything, anyway? It almost feels like people are overloading themselves for the aesthetic of being productive, rather than for the actual achievements productivity brings. Surely there must be a less spasmodic, hyperenergetic alternative that's just as effective.

A suggestion comes from the East by the name of Taoism (or Daoism). This ancient Chinese philosophy stresses "universal, holistic, and peaceful principles such as living in harmony with nature and natural order." This philosophy believes in "valuing balance and a necessary unity of all extremes," with the Yin Yang dichotomy often used to illustrate this relationship. As explained in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taoists are uninterested in constraining labels and dichotomies; instead, they focus on "understanding the nature of reality" through a series of rituals to order life morally, regulate consciousness, and increase longevity.

The Tao, meaning "the way," cannot be defined exactly, but it is often equated with being the universe. It is, in fact, beyond human comprehension, "beyond what we can express in language." Nonetheless, the philosophy's main figures Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were concerned with wuwei, or effortless action. This concept suggests that very often the most meaningful and impacting actions are the ones we do not have to take. The Tao is in every action, even the non-actions that are often overlooked - particularly today in Western societies, because surely if you're not doing anything, there can't be anything purposeful or effective about you.

Consider a stone in a river. The water naturally flows; it does not force itself to wake before the crack of dawn to first do 100 push-ups, write the next greatest satirical novel of our age, and then shoot down the path of the river. It merely flows as it naturally is meant to, at its natural pace, on its natural course, without the impediment of social constraints that'll yield nothing that the natural process cannot yield. It is with this slow, graceful, natural but purposeful action that the natural consequence is yielded: erosion of the stone. Certainly the alternative could have been taking large, heavy buckets of water and sloshing it over the stone once every few months when nearby villagers get the sudden urge to reclaim their lives through meaningless, mundane, fruitless actions. But what does violently splashing the stone once in the while do that a steady, slow stream cannot? Indeed, the answer is that the latter does much more than the former will ever, all without the unnecessary strains, pains and pressure one feels attached to the former.

Taoism is often misunderstood as being a philosophy that champions passivity. In fact, what Taoism suggests is that life should unfold in the natural flow it is meant to be in; there is "no need for human tampering." Examples of these mankind interferences include our rigid interpretations of morals, aesthetics and laws, which only further our suffering. Good and evil, according to Philosophy Terms, are merely man-made illusions. One needn't rely upon mundane rigidity, isolating labels and harsh categories. What matters in Taoism is essence.

The Taoist approach to life is a laissez-faire one where one withdraws not from life itself but rather "from conventional values and the demaractions made by society." The Tao embodies the "process of reality itself" and the natural, often unforeseen unity and transformation of various elements. Inherent to this is change. While the structures and standards by which we live prevent fluidity of life and reality, Taoism encourages the acceptance of change. The change found in the ebb and flow of nature should be our source of inspiration. Nature has a profound, poetic tranquility associated with it, despite there being dynamic changes occurring all of the time. Nature does not resist; it embraces whatever is happening and flows with it. If we look closely, we might find in nature the very wisdom we're starving of.

There's a line to be drawn between ambition and addiction to ambition. We have to always be doing something, it seems. We have to achieve something brilliant and fantastic before we're 22. We have to have long, impressive to-do lists that get checked off with enough time for us to get in a bit more work on our passion projects in the evening. With the overstimulation, hyperactivity and hyperproductivity we're surrounded by (all promising burn out before we're even in our 30s, but let's not talk about that), we might take refuge in the tranquility and acceptance the Taoist's way of handling the situation offers. But if you haven't got the time for ancient philosophies because you're too busy ticking items off your to-do list, you can start by just chilling the hell out.

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Previously by E.K. Mam:
*
How Studying History Made Me A Stoic.

* Dear High School Students And Recent Graduates . . .

* Tunes To Remedy Any Existential Crisis.

* Flex You.

* Simply Cynicism.

* Suffering With Stoics & Cynics.

* Machiavelli's Prince Charming.

* The Jolie Laide Of Philosophy.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on September 17, 2020


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