Let the Reader Beware

I’ll have to admit that as I got further and further into The Taos of Abundance I discovered that it’s not really the book I thought I was buying. I thought I was buying a book that would offer a different perspective on “consumption,” a sort of how-to-live-life with a different perspective. It is that, but it’s also something more.

In fact, I like the chapter called “The Unity of the Taos” enough that I started checking out the book on line. First I went to Boldt’s web site, and wasn’t particularly attracted by what I found there, as he seems to be licensing people to teach a series of classes based on his ideas. I also found his book discussed on several New Age sites, which throws up many more warning signals.

Gurus, particularly unknown, “New Age” gurus make me extremely nervous. By nature I’m not a “joiner.” That said, I liked an awful lot of what Boldt had to say in this chapter because he drew examples from Buddhism and Taoism that allowed me to better understand some concepts that I’ve encountered in my wide-ranging reading but haven’t been able to integrate with other ideas I’ve read.

More importantly, at least at this point I tend to agree with most of what he has to say, as summarized at the end of this rather long, complicated chapter:

The key to an “enlightened” approach is to be found, not in the literal renunciation of money or things, but in psychological disengagement from the concept of ownership of them. Just as I may employ an ego to function in society, without believing that I ultimately “am” one, so I may employ the things in my care without believing that I, in fact, own them. Even as we may employ an ego identity for purposes of social engagement, so we can use money and things for purposes of creative action.

The critical question and one that warrants continued awareness and self-examination is: What is the motivation behind my desire to acquire money and the things that come with it? The motivation behind any action determines its ultimate effect, which is to say, whether that action will serve to free or enslave us. With respect to the acquisition and spending of money, there are two motivations that bring happiness: pure enjoyment and the desire to serve or help others.

Now, I’m not at all sure that a true Taoist would agree that it’s not necessary to have a “ literal renunciation of money or things,” since many of them seemed to do precisely that, but I’d like to HOPE that that’s true, or it’s too late for me to ever reach an “enlightened approach.”

I also like to think that Boldt is also correct when he argues that there are two motivations that bring happiness. I’ve certainly found the first to be true:

Pure Enjoyment: By pure enjoyment we mean, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, “to love a thing for its own sake and no other reason.” What makes enjoyment less than pure is “the other reasons,” in others words, ulterior motives. Will Rogers described just such a motive when he said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” On the other hand, any true enjoyment serves to make us feel more deeply connected with everything else.

I like to think that I’ve learned how to do this as I’ve matured though it’s certainly not the way I started out in life. But my experiences have led me in this direction. Though I’ll have to admit that I appreciate it when other’s praise my photos, I take photos because I love taking them. It’s been a constant in my life since I purchased my first Minolta SLR while on duty in Vietnam. Most of my photos have never been seen by anyone but me, and never will be. In other words, I’d be taking photos just like I am even I didn’t have this web page, though probably not as often. As I said when I began blogging, having an audience probably helps me to do better job of what I’d be doing anyway, whether it’s reading poetry or taking photographs.

If you’d told me when I first went to college that I would become a caseworker and then a teacher, I could have only laughed. No, it wasn’t until Vietnam that I decided I wanted to do something more in my life than just make money, which explains why I turned down the Bank of America training and the job at Dun and Bradstreet.

I’m probably more selfish after 30 years of teaching and less willing to personally go out and volunteer, but I continue to contribute to others. I believe my life has been greatly enriched by helping others, that I’ve gotten more back than I gave:

Service to Others: The other motive that brings happiness is the desire to benefit others. In the Hua Hu Ching, Lao Tzu describes it as one of the four cardinal virtues. “The fourth [virtue) is supportiveness; this manifests as service to others without expectation of reward.” This, as he put it, is not an external dogma, but a part of your original nature.

I’m a bit of a loner in nature, an INTP. Perhaps that explains why I was quite impressed with the last sentence in this chapter:

The test of any desire is: Does it serve to make you feel more isolated or more connected with all of life?

What’s Enough?

It seems to me that even if you have no interest in Taoism you should be interested in much of what Boldt says in The Tao of Abundance. In fact, so far any ideas he’s put forth he has supported with quotations from important 20th century thinkers, not just ancient Chinese Taoists. Still, I was intrigued enough by this quotation from the Lieh Tzu that I ordered the book from Amazon:

When it comes to determining how much you need, there are two important categories to keep in mind. First, there are the material things you need to keep body and soul together. Second are the areas of “need” related to social status and position. With both, you have a great deal of discretion. The ancient Taoist masters were keenly aware of the cost of money and were particularly skeptical of the cost of attaining social status and position. In the Lieh Tzu, Yang Chu says:

[People) “realize happiness is not simply having their material needs met. Thus, society has set up a system of rewards that go beyond material goods. These include titles, social recognition, status, and political power, all wrapped up in a package called self-fulfillment. Attracted by these prizes and goaded on by social pressure, people spend their short lives tiring mind and body to chase after these goals. Perhaps this gives them the feeling that they have achieved something in their lives, but in reality they have sacrificed a lot in life. They can no longer see, hear, act, feel, or think from their hearts. Everything they do is dictated by whether it can get them social gains. In the end, they’ve spent their lives following other people’s demands and never lived a life of their own. How different is this from the life of a prisoner or slave?”

I would have thought that this feeling of being enslaved by consumerism was strictly a modern perception, but apparently I was being a bit naive, which is not to say that there is still not more opportunity to be free of such demands than in previous generations.

It seems impossible to deny that here in America most of us live in abundance unimaginable by those in a not-too-distant past:

… the important point here is to recognize that the way we define wealth has a great deal to do with our individual and collective experience of abundance or lack. Moreover, each of us can benefit from challenging the assumption that we live in a world of scarcity and lack. On a more immediate level, we each might ask ourselves, if we don’t already live in abundance. Certainly, on a material level, most of us enjoy an abundance unprecedented in human history. Think about all you have and enjoy. First and foremost, you have your life. I’m willing to guess that you have enough to eat, ample clothing, and a place to sleep, out of the elements. Beyond the basics, the average middle-class person in the developed world has a higher standard of living than the kings and queens of earlier eras enjoyed. We have running water and indoor toilets; we have central heat and air conditioning, and refrigeration. We eat exotic foods from all over the world. In the dead of winter in New York city, one can enjoy bananas and other tropical foods, something even Queen Elizabeth I would have been unable to do. In addition, we have means of communication and transportation that would have seemed fantastic even a century ago. Through most of their time on this planet, the life expectancy of homo sapiens was about forty years. Today, a good many will live twice that long.

Once the basics of life have been met, it becomes largely a matter of personal definition whether we are “rich” or “poor.”

After attempting to establish that most of us actually live in a world of abundance, Boldt points out the importance of understanding why we often feel we do not have enough and how to counter that feeling:

Now, if in fact, we live in an abundant world, there are three primary tasks for us on the journey to a life of total abundance. The first task is to recognize the inner and outer forces that conspire to make us believe in scarcity and thus to feel lack. Awareness of these factors will help us to overcome their influence over us. The second task is to cultivate a spirit of abundance in our lives, celebrating the gift of life with joy and thanksgiving. As we focus in our thoughts and actions on things that bring a feeling of connection with all life, we begin to move with the flow of the Tao. In this way, we allow blessings to come to us as a part of the “overflow” of an abundant spirit-not as things we crave and struggle for from a sense of lack or desperation. To come from lack can only bring lack, even when we get what we think we need. On the other hand, when we come from the spirit of abundance, we attract ever greater abundance.

I suspect that Boldt is being overly optimistic when he argues that

Finally, as we move in the world from the spirit of abundance, we become a liberating and empowering force in the lives of those we interact with. We help them see, not by preaching, but by example, that we all live in an abundant world and that they as well can free themselves from lack consciousness. Together, we can unite in a spirit of abundance and create new patterns of community and social organization, new lifestyles, and new ways of relating, based on cooperation rather than competition. As envy greed, and competition flow from lack, so do compassion, service, and cooperation flow from a spirit of abundance. It is this spirit of abundance that will be our guide as we embark on the journey to creating total abundance in our lives.

I’d like to believe that such cooperation is possible in creating a better world, and I doubt that these desires are limited to Taoists. In fact, I’m sure that many of my Christian friends have devoted their lives to promoting exactly the kind of world Boldt envisions.

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.