Boldt’s “The Beauty of Abundance”

Now that I’ve finally gotten the Christmas gifts off to the Colorado Websters, I’ve finally had time to finish Boldt’s The Tao of Abundance, a book I’ve enjoyed far more than I ever imagined when I bought it several years ago, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others of a like mind.

Luckily, the final chapter entitled “The Beauty of Abundance” was well worth waiting for:

This chapter examines the principle of li and the beauty of the Tao revealed in the natural order of the universe. The organic patterns within nature, the collective human consciousness, and the life of each of us as individuals reflect the natural order in life. For one living in the Tao, these organic patterns serve as essential guideposts on the path of beauty. The role of art is to orient the human imagination to these patterns and to show us in them a reflection of the wholeness, harmony, and rhythm of the universe. Today, art has largely been taken over by commercial interests whose purpose is not to lead us to transcendence or the path of beauty but to sell us things.

This cosmic li runs through all levels of Being, including the human being. As Chu Hsi puts it, “Principle [li] is not some separate thing in front of us; rather it’s in our minds. People must discover for themselves that this thing [li] is truly in them, then everything will be okay.”

Looking back, I realize that discovering these “organic patterns” has been one of the major goals of my life, whether through art, literature, mathematics, or science. In fact, it may well have been the single unifying principle of my life.

Klodt offers a different way of seeing “beauty” one we often forget as artists caught up in our own personal efforts:

Thus, we can conceive of li in three broad dimensions: First, there is the li of each individual thing; second, the li within the human consciousness; and finally, the cosmic li, which in a sense is the grand pattern of patterns. It is this threefold understanding of li that we will use to elucidate our discussion of beauty. Beauty is the revelation of the organic patterns, the underlying cosmic principle of organization in and of things. The principle of li will help us to appreciate the Beauty of (or Tao in) the whole universe, the Beauty of (or Tao in) the individual thing, as well as the Beauty of (or Tao in) the human consciousness.

Perhaps this explains my love of Whitman, despite the fact that I lack his eternal optimism. He, more than any other artists, seems to pay tribute to all three elements, while most of us mere mortals find it difficult to pay tribute to one element at a time.

And I suppose it goes without saying that I found particular comfort in this observation by Klodt:

Is it really remarkable that those who live in nature be they ancient Chinese Taoists, eighteenth century Native Americans, or nineteenth century naturalists like John Muir so often said essentially the same things? For example, when Muir said, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find that it is attached to the rest of the world,” it could have been Chuang Tzu or Chief Seattle speaking. Wisdom is inherent in nature and reveals itself to people of any nation, race, or time if they will open themselves up to it. We too can avail ourselves of this wisdom by making time to spend in nature.

I could only hope that one or two of my photographs seem attached to the rest of the world, even though that is usually the way I see those things that I photograph.

Klodt’s Leisure of Abundance

Klodt’s chapter “The Leisure of Abundance” sounded strangely reminiscent of a conversation another birder and I had at Nisqually the last time I was there, two old guys wondering why cheaper goods didn’t result in people having to work less. After all, when I was young, way back in the old days, the dream was that modern machinery would free man from having to work, or at least work so hard or so long.

As Klodt points out, this dream has largely been sacrificed in the name of consumption:

To be sure, the emphasis on efficiency in the workplace has resulted in tremendous increases in productivity. Yet productivity gains have not been translated into increased leisure but have instead gone into increased consumption. In her excellent book, The Overworked American, Juliet Schor notes that if Americans today enjoyed the same standard of living they had in 1948, they could work every other year or take six months off. Today we have a variety of “labor-saving” devices and entertainments unknown to earlier generations. In 1948, Americans didn’t own dishwashers, home air conditioners, microwaves, or automatic dryers. They didn’t have televisions, computers, compact disc players, or VCRs. Fewer Americans owned their own homes, and the typical single-family dwelling was smaller (roughly the size of today’s three-car garage). Yet we could well ask if the material: things and comforts we have gained in the last fifty years are worth six months of the year, or half of the time of our lives.

At the very least, we should ask how things might be different if we had opted for more free time rather than greater consumption. It is pretty clear what things we wouldn’t have, but what would we have that we don’t have now? Would marital relationships be stronger? Would our children be better cared for and feel more secure? Would we have greater opportunities to express ourselves creatively? Would communities profit from increased participation in their social, cultural, and political life? Would we feel relaxed and enjoy the simple things of life more fully? Would we be friendlier and take more interest in our neighbors? Would we be healthier in body mind and spirit?

Obviously, all we can do is speculate about what might be if we weren’t driven to consume so much, but what better time to think about our values than amidst the Christmas season which increasingly seems dedicated to Mammon rather than to Christ?

Of course I’m already biased this way. Leslie and I long ago gave up giving gifts to each other, and last year our family decided that the only gifts adults would give to each other is homemade gifts, which is really quite simply the gift of time. That, of course, explains why my leisurely approach to blogging has been temporarily interrupted by a hectic rush to finish Christmas projects, but at least all of the things I’m doing are things I like to do.

I’m sure early Taoists, just like early Christians, could never have imagined how addicted modern Americans are to their things, but it’s clear they would consider us hopelessly addicted to our possessions.

Klodt comments on this passage from Lao Tzu:

These are my three treasures,
Compassion, frugality, and humility
Being compassionate one has courage,
Being frugal one has abundance,
Being humble one becomes the chief of all vessels.
-Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu said, “Being frugal one has abundance.” In a society in which social standing and even personal worth are measured by our possessions, frugality is hardly a value. Yet if we trace the origin of the word, we find that it is derived from the Latin frux, or fruit. To be frugal is to be fruitful. To save, to conserve, to mend, to repair, to do without what is unneeded – surely these are virtues. Yet Madison Avenue has convinced us that these behaviors are neither sexy nor desirable. We go ’round and ’round in a cycle of work and spend, in the interest of preserving the social, which is to say the economic order.

To those who say that society would fall apart if people thought a little more before they bought, or bought a little less, we could well ask if it is not already showing ample signs of breakdown? We could ask what our commitment to ever-expanding production and consumption are doing to our humanity. Moreover, sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that there are limits to the earth’s capacity to support runaway growth.

Better that we confront and deal with this problem now than cover our eyes and wait until we are forced by major ecological and economic crises to face it later on. It’s up to all of us to explore alternative visions of abundant living, with a view toward creating a social order that is ecologically responsible and committed to preserving, and indeed nurturing, human- heartedness.

Obviously much of what Klodt discusses here has more to do with our contemporary world than Taoism, but one could certainly argue that most great religious leaders have offered the same advice, which just shows how difficult it is to get people to see beyond material possessions.

It’s an Up and Down World

Klodt has definitely given me a greater appreciation of the Taoist idea of yin and yang, the constant fluctuation that underlies life. Although I’ve long held the belief that the Golden Mean was the best philosophical basis for life, a belief I subscribed to after discovering it in a college philosophy class that introduced me to Socrates and Aristotle, I didn’t realize then that it was also a fundamental belief of Confucianism and Taoism. Seeing it in terms of Taoism certainly provides more evidence for the wisdom of that belief.

Klodt devotes much of the chapter called “The Harmony of Abundance” to a discussion of the Western attitude toward sex and Nature and a fascinating discussion of the I-Ching that deserves more attention, but the passage that really stood out for me was this one:

At its apex or zenith, yin transforms into yang, and vice versa. Things expand just so far, then they contract. (Keep blowing up a balloon and eventually it pops.) Endless growth or expansion is not possible. In the history of civilizations, as in life itself, we see birth, growth, and expansion, followed by decline, decay, and destruction. In biology, the out-of-control growth of what we call “cancerous cells” rapidly destroys the host, unless the growth is somehow checked. The understanding that things move toward their counterparts can be applied to a variety of circumstances in life. For example, from the perspective of yin/yang philosophy, the idea of perpetual economic growth is incongruent with the natural order of things, where loss follows gain; decrease, increase. Even if we were able to show uninterrupted growth in terms of the abstract measures of economic statistics, we would suffer loss in others ways (as indeed we have). The next chapter will examine the price we have paid in terms of the loss of leisure in modern life. In our collective struggle to end one kind of poverty (material), we have succeeded in creating another (time).

One could only wish our political leaders could see the wisdom in Klodt’s observation. Unfortunately, at times it strikes me that our whole Capitalist society is premised on this idea. “Growth” is seen as the ultimate good, and More is always better than less, and there’s never Enough if advertisers are to be believed.

Klodt shows how our failure to understand this concept of yin and yang also affects the way we view others. If we see our world in terms of opposites, we see ourselves as good and those who oppose us as evil, though experience should have taught us otherwise:

Carl Jung (following Heraclitus) called this phenomena enantiodromia, or “a running contrariwise.” He said, “Every psychological extreme secretly contains its own opposite or stands in some relation to it.” The worst crimes are committed in the name of fighting evil. The hero falls defeated by his own hubris. One (person or country) humbly and diligently strives and ultimately achieves success. Yet soon, pride and laziness set in and, with these, the onset of decline. The I Ching instructs us to consider danger and misfortune when things are going well and to recognize, when events seem to be running against us, that “this too will pass.” We find harmony, not by defeating evil once and for all, but by recognizing the relationship between good and evil and remaining psychologically in the middle, between the Pairs of seeming opposites.

Danger arises when a man feels secure in his position. Destruction threatens when a man seeks to preserve his worldly estate. Confusion develops when a man has put everything in order. Therefore the superior man does not forget danger in his security, nor ruin when he is well established, nor confusion when his affairs are in order. -I CHING

As we can needlessly and fruitlessly battle sex by making enemies out of the polarities in life, so too can we needlessly and fruitlessly battle change by viewing it as something separate from ourselves. Change isn’t happening to us. We are happening in a sea of change. We battle change with the fanciful hope that favorable circumstances will always prevail. We battle change when we resign ourselves to unfavorable conditions for fear that they will never change. The Taoists tell us not to battle change but to surrender to it-not in a sense of resignation but with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving.

It’s hard not to recognize our current leaders who seem to have justified torture, an international crime, in the name of destroying “the axis of evil” in this description. Perhaps more frightening is the knowledge that many opposition leaders and much of our population also bought into these ideas.

Considering human history, I suspect that this “us-versus-them” mentality is genetically coded, hard-wired, as it were, and it only makes matters worse when the culture reinforces those beliefs. Certainly any religion that implies those who have joined a particular church are “God’s Chosen People” fosters this “us versus them” view. But one only has to have taken a high school history class to be reminded that America has too often seen itself in this same light, some even going so far as to suggest that all of history has led to the founding of this great nation.

Follow Your Bliss

I’m not sure whether Klodt’s chapter “The Power of Abundance” owes more to Taoism or to Joseph Campbell’s advice to “Follow Your Bliss,” but it’s hard not to like the advice he offers here. As Dave noted in an earlier comment, though, it might help you more in the pursuit of happiness than in the pursuit of work. Of course, I’ve always resisted others’ suggestion that I try to make money from my hobbies because I’ve always felt that the very nature of “work” detracts from the joy to be found in pursuing hobbies you love.

Still, I would certainly agree that:

We are happy when this Te, or natural ability of ours, is fully exercised, that is, when our nature is fully and freely developed.

If there is one essential principle of the Tao of Abundance, it is this: Follow your nature. Your nature is your strength. To deny it is to rob yourself of your own power, your Te. Many deny their talents, gifts, and abilities, then complain they can’t be happy or successful in this world. This is like placing leg-irons around your ankles and then complaining that you can’t run fast. Following your nature is a simple matter of doing what you are naturally good at. In his commentary on the Chuang Yzu, Kuo Hsiang wrote: “If by nature a man is a strong man, he will carry a heavy burden without feeling the weight. If one is by nature a skillful man, he can manage all sorts of affairs without feeling busy.” Ease, joy, and power are natural by-products of following your nature, and need not be sought for themselves. Denying your gifts and abilities doesn’t just limit your power, strength, and joy; it robs you of the guiding and motivating force that leads you to the life you were born to live. Following your nature puts you in the flow of the Tao. Remember, as Lao Tzu put it, “the Tao’s principle is spontaneity.” If you are suppressing your own nature every day in your work, you can hardly expect yourself to live spontaneously in any aspect of your life. Denying your nature deadens and dulls the senses and switches off your innate intuitive intelligence. It makes you feel heavy and doubt yourself.

This seems like “common sense” advice. Most of us of a certain age have seen people whose lives have been miserable because they denied their own nature and tried to become what someone they loved wanted them to become:

We are seduced away from our spontaneous nature by the promise and illusion of security. The way of nature means embracing creative insecurity, moving with and effectively responding to, continuous and spontaneous change. By following the way of your nature and doing the work to which you are naturally suited, you enter the stream of your destiny. You have simply to flow with it. If, instead of following your nature, you choose your career to please your parents, to make more money, or to win social acceptance your destiny will escape you. Again, people often overlook their innate talents when making career choices, then complain that they don’t know what they are here on this Earth to do. They often become sidetracked by peripheral issues.

I’m not sure I’d call making money a “peripheral issue,” but Klodt’s observations are hard to deny.
I know I’ve always hated plants that have been trimmed in ways that deny their natural growth pattern. There are few things uglier than a tree that’s been topped to avoid a power line or a shrub that’s been pruned to fit a particular shape, unless it’s a bonsai, of course 😉

I do know from my experiences producing this web site that Klodt is also right when he says:

On the other hand, as you give your gifts and express your inmost nature in the outer world, you attract to yourself the people, circumstances, and resources you will need to fulfill your destiny. You enter a field of experience that, from a conventional perspective, seems magical, but in fact is only the natural state of your being. Spontaneous, creative action and synchronicity in relationships and events become the order of the day. You find yourself being at the right place at the right time. It is not anything you are consciously doing; you are simply allowing your own nature to move you into the flow of the Tao.

For me, at least, the best reason to spend so much time and money producing a web site is to attract others who share your interests and appreciate your efforts. Such a community has helped me to grow in ways it’s hard to imagine until you’ve actually been part of one. Virtual communities of poets, photographers, philosophers and programmers have enriched my life in ways I would never have imagined before blogging began.