While looking through my older books recently, I happened to rediscover Laurence G Bold’s The Tao of Abundance, a book I must have bought in 2000 when I was looking for better ways to live a simpler life, a goal I’ve long pursued. It seemed to go along with the grow-your-own, do-it-yourself style of life that has been a model for much of my adult life.
Of course, I also love the graphics that accompany the text, probably because I’ve long been drawn to mandelas and to symbolic art.
And, though I think Bold tends to misrepresent Christian values in his attempt to promote Taoistic values, I tend to agree with his overall assessment of the problem facing modern society:
It is the loss of a living spiritual experience in daily life that, more than anything, breeds the alienation and anxiety that plague modern life. Since we have no means of transcending them (nor even the belief that it is possible to do so), we feel pressured by time, restless in space, trapped in ego. Our preoccupation with material possessions and material achievements both reflects and perpetuates our sense of spiritual emptiness. Without an experience of transcendence, the world is, as Wordsworth put it, “too much with us.” In a life of getting and spending, we don’t just “lay waste our powers”; we miss the wonder and bliss of what it is to be alive.
For many today, there is a growing recognition that the spiritual dimension is fundamental to human life, as much a feature of what it is to be a human being as the capacity for language or the ability to walk erect. It is not, as we have been taught by modern science and psychology, a relic from a superstitious or prescientific past. As Anne Baring and Jules Cashford put it, “ ‘The sacred’ is not a stage in human consciousness that people grow out of or into, but it is at least an element in the structure of consciousness, belonging to all people at all times.’ “
Like it or not, that probably represents my own assessment of modern day life, both for myself and society as a whole. It was not until it became clear to me that the satisfaction of buying things was never as compelling as the need to buy new things that I began to seriously question why I was increasingly alienated from society as a whole. Of course, I resonated to Emerson’s line “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind” as a freshman in college, which, of course, didn’t prevent me from saddling up to a new Ford Mustang when it first came out.
It’s crossed my mind more than once that if I only had found a religion I could have been completely committed to, I could easily have become a monk. But that was not to be, and instead I have long found my spiritual inspiration in poetry and philosophy. No wonder, then, that I’ve been drawn to Taoism, for as Bold notes:
Yet for many today, especially for the more well-educated, the traditional portals to a spiritual life no longer seem relevant. For these, neither mythology, with its complex and culture-specific iconography, nor religion, with its antiscientific bias and preachy moralism, offer ready access to an experience of the sacred in daily life. As an articulation of the perennial philosophy, Contemplative Taoism offers a spiritual vision that is neither religious nor mythological, but philosophic in approach and poetic in expression.
In subtle and beautiful poetry, it speaks not of exploits of God or gods but of the reality of an Eternal transcendent consciousness that all of us move in, whether we are conscious of it or not. To access this timeless wisdom, there is no need to learn about or identify with a pantheon of gods or a mythological story about a single all-powerful deity. Recognition of the Eternal Tao does not require that you join an organization or that you subscribe to religious rules and regulations. You needn’t call “it” Tao or yourself a Taoist. You need only begin to wonder at the mystery of life.
Originally, I was drawn to the Taoteching as poetry with it’s startling images, but increasingly I come back for the philosophy underlying Taoism, mirroring an earlier interest in Transcendentalism’s Oversoul. It is this force that most intrigues me, the “Holy Ghost” of the Christian Trinity.
Though I’ve been cheered somewhat by recent religious efforts that emphasize the importance of the natural world, I must admit that my love of the nature and wilderness has increasingly made me question science’s attempts to subordinate the natural world to man’s aims:
The Taoist approach to science and technology was not, as René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and other early modern scientific philosophers advocated, one of exploiting or conquering nature, but of working with nature, as a part of nature. Descartes argued that scientific knowledge should serve to render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” On the other hand, the Sung scholar, Lin Ching-Hsi wrote, “Scholars of old time said that the mind is originally empty, and only because of this can it respond to natural things without prejudices. Only the empty mind can respond to the things of nature.” For the Taoist, the use of science and technology is not a matter of better imposing man’s will upon nature, but of more effectively responding to, or harmonizing with, nature.
In other words,
Western and Taoist science differ, not only in their motive for scientific discovery (dominance vs. accord), but also in their methods. Both the modern Western and ancient Taoist scientist endeavor to see the world free from prejudice. Yet because they begin with different sets of metaphysical assumptions, their methods are as different as night and day. The Western scientist seeks freedom from prejudice (objectivity) by collecting vast amounts of empirical evidence and subjecting it to rigorous intellectual analysis. The method of the Taoist is the concentrated observation of natural phenomena in the state of kuan or empty-minded contemplation. The empty mind, also called “the uncarved block” or “perfect mirror,” reflects the world as it is, without the distortion of intellectual bias or opinion.
The Taoist scientific philosophy of responding to nature, and the Taoist method of kuan, or empty-minded contemplation, provide an alternative vision of science as valid as the Western approach. Where Western science has been used as a tool to dominate and control nature, Taoist science sought accord, to “follow the way of nature.” Where the Taoist method prefers knowledge gleaned from the passive, or intuitive, intelligence, the Western scientific method prefers that gained by the active intelligence–compilation, analysis, and reason.
While it’s impossible to deny the many benefits of Western science, I find it equally impossible not to question whether it has gone too far. Those who are willing to blindly adopt the last scientific discoveries seem unable to recognize that past discoveries have often caused more problems than they solved because scientists ignored the ecosystem as a whole, only able to focus on an immediate problem. Ignoring the fact that ecosystems have evolved the way they have over thousands of years seems unlikely to lead to the best solutions.