The Tao of Abundance

mandela

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.

2 thoughts on “The Tao of Abundance

  1. I appreciate both – what science offers and what spiritual life brings. I think they can coexist and they should. It is true that we live in a world where we are driven by having/wanting more material things but we all know that materials do not bring the real joy; these things do not fill the emptiness we feel deep within ourselves…so while I appreciate the conveniences of what material things offer, I seek spiritual wellbeing. And yes, I also strive for a simple life. Focusing on what’s really important in life I think brings richness in life while riding of the clutter of life we easily get trapped into.

  2. There is much to recommend this book – or, more to my point, Taoist philosophy – as an antidote to Western thinking about society, life and consciousness. I have read it with interest and believe I’ve recognized what is valuable in it, but I’ve done so in spite of its naive view of human nature and the fact that the author comes across as an elitist.
    He describes how he found a moment of detached bliss and a glimpse into the mystery of the Tao after a 40-day fast in the mountains. Returning from the fastnesses of of Yosemite National Park, he boarded a bus with some “fat and frumpy tourists” and suddenly found himself in awe of their transcendent beauty. Disregarding their “looks, intelligence, personality {and} views,” and “Without liking them or disliking them… without relating to them on any other level than their very existence…” he describes how he felt a profound love for them. (p 269)
    What a mensch.
    Regarding the view of human nature he attributes to the Tao, he says in so many words that Taoism proceeds from the fundamental assumption that we are, essentially, fallen angels – that our natural state is one of social, psychological and economic harmony and that these pristine conditions of our existence have somehow been corrupted by – what? Nature? Normal cognitive development? Buying and selling? Whatever – we’re all like angels newly bounced off heaven’s haywagon, and our essential problem is that we’ve simply forgotten how to live and think. Right thinking and proper inaction (40 days without food?) apparently returns us to lost bliss.
    “The fundamental premise of this book is that the universe is you and is for you. If you put yourself in accord with {it}, it will take care of you abundantly. To experience this abundance, there is nothing you need do first.” (This on page 4, prior to the following 268 pages explaining what is not to be done, and the 72-page “Tao of Abundance workbook” in the back.)
    But read on, overlooking the “trite aphorisms” that drove another 1-star reviewer off by the second chapter. Look for shiny hard nuggets hidden in the fluff. For balance, remind yourself of our species’ hard-fought, brutish, uncivilized beginnings and the miracle that we have not all burnt each other at the stake now that we have mastered fire and religion.
    Buy this book, but be considerate of the author and get a used copy. That way, he will be shielded from the economic effects of your purchase. (See his views on the corrupting influence of the global market economy, the cult of money, honest work as slavery, etc., p 157 et al.)
    I can only speak for myself: Taoism is a good thing and this book has helped me think about the artificial aspects of the life in my own head, and among my brothers and my sisters on the planet. But I’m not a fallen angel; I may well be an eternal spirit on an incredible road trip, but I’m driving in a late-model monkey machine with maintenance issues. The “way” of progress does not lie lost behind me, but beckons like a shimmering mirage over the hot asphalt, always just ahead.
    Meanwhile, I’ll look for a more substantive book on the subject. This is a “how to get abundance quick” primer for people who motor around up there in the rarefied mountain lanes and would rather not be accused of being motivated by the same drives that motivate “fat and frumpy” types.

What do you think?