PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys
PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — June 2014

Little Teachers

Little Teachers

In Taoist philosophy, the essence of practice is wu wei, usually translated as “effortless effort” and represented by the movement of natural phenomena: the tumbling water of a river, clouds scudding through the sky, falling rain, the turning of the planets and the seasons. In human nature, this has to do with the art of allowing things to happen rather than trying to force, manage, or control them through the imposition of our will.

We adults seem to have a hard time with the “effortless” part of effort. We try our best, try harder, try and try again—but in none of this do we see the ease and efficiency of an allowing that moves things, not by some exerting, but by its very nature. The difference can be grasped readily in the image of a leaf floating on a river. The leaf can rest in the natural motion of the water, or it can try to propel itself. From a bird’s-eye view, these two scenarios might look much the same, but we can see that the leaf’s effort to propel itself would be redundant, wasteful, pointless, since it’s flowing along anyway. By simply resting in the natural movement of the river, its effort becomes effortless.

We may be concerned that if we abandon effort, nothing will happen in our lives. We’ll end up sitting on our hands, waiting. This, perhaps more than any other belief, reveals the hubris of Particle willfulness. Look around! Does the hand of Nature seem idle? Everywhere we turn, we see a brilliantly creative, organizing intelligence that must humble us again and again. Each electron, each galaxy, is spinning with clockwork precision and with no exerting anywhere! And are we not part of Nature? Do we not belong to this prolific creativity as much as the trees and stars? Asleep in willfulness, we have fallen to believing that if we don’t make something happen, nothing will happen, but this is belied by all Creation.

I recall watching my grandson when he was a few months old. One of the most striking things about infants is their natural receptivity to effortlessness, their ease in belonging to the Mystery that moves them as it does all of us and all things. The little hand “knows” to go to the mouth, as though Nature Herself had taught the infant the essential gestures long before he could understand what makes them essential. My grandson was born “knowing” how to hold his head up, how to nurse, how to cry when he needed something. At three months, this knowing expanded to include smiling at familiar faces, and soon after, he began laughing out loud. Imagine—laughing! Astounding. He always responded with delight when I held a picture book in front of him and read to him; something in him recognized and, in this sense, already “knew” language. This something later turned him over, got his arms to start pushing the ground away, and lifted his bottom while bringing his knees up under. Before we knew it, the whole house had to be baby-proofed to make way for this unstoppable effortlessness!

In all of this, we see that easy state of allowing native to every infant—a state of grace and gracefulness—a natural cooperation with deep life, which conceives, delivers, nurtures, and brings up all babies by becoming them. For all their natural knowing, they are ignorant, in the original meaning of the word, “not knowing,” and in this knowing-through-not-knowing, they embody a profound and easy trust in the living moment at hand. Their efforts to gain control of their body and their world are effortless, like the leaf moving with the river; at this point, they have no choice but to grant their instinctive impulses right of way as they move along the arc of becoming more and more fully who they are. Later, of course, they will have a choice. We have this choice now. Babies have a great deal to teach us, simply because they have not learned to interfere, to judge, to resist, to try to manage what must be allowed. They have no agenda; their agenda is life-becoming-greater-life before our eyes. And arguably, there is no other time of life that rivals these first months and years in sheer development, creativity, and accomplishment—all through the great efficacy of allowing.

Babies teach us to not so much lead our lives as follow them. There is something of the Taoist master in each of them, fulfilling the precept set forth by Lao Tze in the Tao Teh Ching, and echoed by many great spiritual teachers, “Do nothing, and everything will be done.”

June 2, 2014   Comments Off on Little Teachers