How I inadvertently become a Taoist sage and how not cool that is.
In March 1989, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for what he called the World Wide Web. Like most people at the time, I was unaware of Tim’s proposal. It was a small event that had big consequences in my life.
In the summer of 1989, I read two books, “The Tao of Being,” by Ray Grigg and, “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoff. They were not the only books I read that year and at the time, like Tim’s proposal, I was unaware of the consequences they would have in my life.
“The Tao of Being,” is a loose translation of the “Tao Te Ching.” It conveys the spirit of the 81 chapters of the “Tao Te Ching,” and reads like philosophical poetry.
“The Tao of Pooh,” goes a different route. It shows Winnie the Pooh as a Taoist hero. It weaves the other characters in the hundred acre wood into the story, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, and the rest of the gang, and uses them to show Taoist principles in action. It’s a very cute read.
I was lucky to read these two books together because they complement each other so well. I am not a keeper of books but I have had a copy of both these books ever since.
The “Tao Te Ching,” was written in 600 BC. That is twenty five hundred years ago. It is no accident it has stayed in print. I used it like an oracle. Whenever I wanted some reflection on an issue I would open it at a random chapter and see what it had to say. It was always helpful, appropriate, and new!
How had I missed that chapter before?
I had read and re-read the book so many times that logically I knew I must have read the chapter before but in the moment it was always new.
I particularly liked the parts about the sage.
“The sage does without knowing, leads without controlling, guides without certainties, questions without answers, teaches without truths, thoughtlessly attunes to the thoughts of others.”
Sounds good right? The humility of it. The incognito wisdom.
“By softening, the sage becomes one with all. When the sage bends to everything, everything bends to the sage. To the world the sage is humble and shy, confusing and unnoticed.”
Right on. I loved the emphasis on letting go of certainty and how it makes the sage kinder.
“Without the pretense of certainty, it is easy to be compassionate.”
Beautiful profound poetry to live by. I wasn’t trying to be a Taoist sage, it just resonated with me whenever I read about it.
Then one day I was confused about something which was not unusual for me. I didn’t know what to do and I felt foolish for not knowing. I cracked open, “The Tao of Being,” at a random page and read the chapter.
Immediately I had a profound insight.
That might sound good but it wasn’t.
It wasn’t the insight I was looking for and it made me feel very uncomfortable.
It was the opposite of what usually happened when I went to the “The Tao of Being,” for reflection. Instead of seeing the chapter in a new light, I saw myself in a new light and I didn’t like it.
It was like all the descriptions of the sage compressed into a single block. I saw that I had inadvertently grown into what looked and behaved like that block.
That might sound good but it wasn’t. Now all the descriptions of the sage didn’t look so good anymore.
“To the sage nothing is known for certain. When the pretense of certainty is abandoned, the world is undivided and lonely, a place for being lost in wonder.”
I knew about feeling lonely and lost and it is no fun. Somewhere in the poetry of it all I thought being lonely and lost in wonder would be balanced by some sagey kind of warm fuzzy feeling.
I had been soaking up this Taoist perspective for a long time. Suddenly I could see it everywhere in my life.
“How can the sage believe what others believe, revere the apparent, pursue blindly what others pursue? But people flourish in their illusions.”
I don’t know about their illusions, but people flourish. Younger men and women, get mortgages, have careers, know about miles per gallon, and give Ted talks about how to succeed.
I scratch my head and wonder about getting my act together. I am pretty sure it is not together in the way other people talk about having their act together. I am not even sure what my act would look like if it was together. And come to think of it, do I even want an act?
“The world teems around the sage who, to the very center, does not know. Others seem to know but the sage knows nothing. Others are clear and certain and confident but the sage is confused and directionless, a fool lost in thought and the world.”
Poetry for the soul but difficult to live. Being confused and directionless, and a fool is painful. Especially when all around you people have the appearance of knowing what they are about. It is lonely.
“Others vigorously perform the duties of life, fulfilling their own and the common need. But the sage is dark and remote, detached and independent, different.”
This is me, particularly at a party. I thought it was social anxiety. Maybe it is. Maybe that is what being a Taoist sage looks like nowadays. It is still no fun.
“The sage uses errors to attain mastery, embraces ignorance to acquire knowledge, cultivates confusion to reach understanding, courts foolishness to find wisdom.”
This must make me very wise because I am foolish and confused a lot. I have had lots of false starts. I have taken dangerous wrong turns. I have trusted the wrong people and made a lot of errors. They were all painful.
If that is the price of wisdom then it is a heavy price.
As I got over the initial shock of my realisation something else began to dawn on me.
“Others are fed by the apparent but the sage is nourished by the Tao.”
This I had to admit was true. Even though I am confused a lot and I go through the world a bit lost, I have always been okay. Yes, bad things have happened to me but not too many. Nothing killed me, and better yet, nothing crushed me.
Being nourished by the Tao doesn’t fit into words easily.
There is a big something.
In Taoism they call it the Tao. Then they quickly add that the named Tao is not the real Tao.
Anyway, I can feel this big something and I know it like I know my name. It is bigger than a starry night and close like my breath. It does its thing regardless of me yet I am part of it and it is part of me.
It doesn’t take care of me like Christopher Robin would.
It could kill me at any moment and one day it will.
It loves without emotion.
It heals me in silence.
It is the belly in my laugh.
Knowing it is enough.
The world goes on around me, crazy and ill fitting.
I don’t really know anything except this big something.
“So the sage wanders a crooked way. And people who think things are straight, think the sage is aimless or confused. But the sage just laughs a crooked laugh and lets them think straight.”
They might be right. Things might be straight. I could be just kidding myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.
It would be the longest though.
If it is a delusion it is a happy one.
For me at least.
Happy, even though it is not cool.
But what do I know.
“The sage knows less than anyone so is most qualified to teach everyone; knows nothing so is most suited to teach everything. Confused by everything, the sage is closest to everything; unable to hold on to one thought, the sage is closest to all thoughts.”
Sorry, what were you saying?