Achieving Without Trying
The following talk was given at the 2018 Mental Wealth Festival organized by the City Lit Institute and which took place at the National Gallery, London. Many thanks to the organizers and to all those who attended.
I work as a doctor in Emergency Medicine, but I would say my real interest is in the field of 'mind-body integration': that strangely elusive idea that our bodies and minds are completely one and the same thing. In medicine we treat them as separate; not just in medicine, in contemporary life in general it seems, so my interest led me to old wisdom, in particular the ancient knowledge of Asia such as yoga, Buddhism, taoism and zen - which can be umbrella-ed under the term 'ways of liberation', as most of them were concerned with the challenge of how we humans might 'liberate' ourselves from our recurrent problems and live more in harmony with the natural world, the Universe. And a lot of the practices of these 'ways' are precisely geared towards breaking down this artificial separation we create between ourselves and our 'bodies'. 'Yoga' for example not only refers to the 'yoking' of ourselves to the ultimate reality (Brahma) through practice, but also the yoking - or union - of our minds and our bodies. Yet in our modern, technology-driven culture we don't even have a word for mind-body union, let alone a concept of it! Perhaps this was what Lao Tzu meant when he wrote, in the classic Tao text, the Tao Te Ching that "when the body's intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge step forth".
Which (sort of) brings us to the title of this talk: 'Achieving Without Trying: Lessons from the Tao'. Taoism developed around two and a half centuries ago in what is now China. It was influenced by Buddhism but also sprang from the school of 'natural philosophy' of the time. This was not some 'spiritualist' movement: these were scientists who were looking at the natural world to see what patterns may be revealed therein. One of the questions they asked was 'how can we live more in harmony with the natural world, with ourselves?' I want to keep this in mind when I talk about 'achieving'. By achieving here I mean something that is important to you, something meaningful, that will provide ongoing well-being and happiness, rather than something you feel you should be achieving. As we shall see, from a Taoist perspective, these kind of important things only really happen when we stop trying to make them happen. As long as you are striving, you'll have a much harder time achieving what you need, and vice versa. How many times has something good happened to you - finding a partner for example - only when you stopped looking for it?
The Effort Paradigm
We'll start out by talking about what I call the effort paradigm. In Western culture, especially British and North American culture, we place great value in effort. Effort really is the one thing you cannot do too much of, even if it burns you out. (Of course this is regardless of what is actually achieved in all this doing). 'Trying', 'striving', 'pushing yourself' and so on are all good things, and if you aren't trying, pushing yourself etc, you are somehow seen as defective. Self-help culture is not immune to calls to 'get out of your comfort zone', to 'lean in' and so forth. This is hardly surprising: in almost every story we are told, or that we read or watch in films there is the protagonist who overcomes some hardship or enemy to emerge at the end a stronger, better individual. Moreover we are continually expected to 'be someone', to be 'getting somewhere' and to 'find our purpose'. Again, if you don't then you are at risk of becoming that most pitied and despised of modern figures: the failure.
On the surface the effort paradigm is full of positive messages, meant to be encouraging and motivating. However there are some real problems here. First off, being challenged to 'be someone' automatically implies that currently you are not, which isn't such a nice message. I once heard depression describes as 'the exhaustion caused by trying to be someone', which is as good a definition as I've come across! By constantly needing to 'get somewhere' we find it impossible to accept where we are now. Everything we do is just another step towards something else, everything is just preparation for something else, and our minds are constantly being pulled into the future to the extent that we no longer know how to be in the present. And 'finding a purpose' is - as we shall see later - based upon the myth that purpose is something that can be somehow magically 'found' like a jewel in the ground.
All of this trying generates a lot of unnecessary effort, a lot of force. If you consider how much force we put into our daily lives: alarm clocks force us awake, we walk so quickly from place to place, deadlines, hurrying from task to task, to the point where even in our social lives there is often a sense of purpose, of needing to fulfill some purpose or obligation. When was the last time we did anything at a leisurely pace, no place to go, no jobs to be done? The real problem with the effort paradigm is that we end up judging ourselves, me measure ourselves against where we should be in our lives, and we compare ourselves to others; we grow increasingly self-conscious, and it is this that ultimately inhibits our lives and limits our potential.
He who stands on tiptoe
doesn't stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn't go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light
He who defines himself
can't know who he really is
(Tao Te Ching, ch 24)
This self-consciousness is perhaps the main reason our lives are so complicated, why we seem so out of synch with our own needs. Human activity - for adults at least - is often at odds with our well-being. (We're not the only ones, baboons are known to live in extremely hierarchical 'troops' in which much of their attention is taken up with 'social issues' related to these hierarchies - Who is the alpha male today? Who do I need to watch out for? - and it's probably no coincidence that they live quite short, violent lives!). Much of this is certainly due to our self-consciousness. The interesting thing about self-consciousness is that it only exists with reference to other minds. We develop self-consciousness in infancy, when we gradually realize that others - our caregivers, our friends, our teachers - have minds a bit like ours; that they may be forming opinions about us. We tend to assume we have some core within is, some identity that makes me 'me', a self that may be influenced by but is still separate from the outside world. But actually this isn't really true. My idea of myself is actually based upon predictions; predictions based on social interactions and relations. I second guess what other people may think about me, my tastes accord with what society values. I am socially evaluating myself all the time. As a result what I am doing in any given day is usually based upon what I feel I should be doing, or what I need to do to fulfill my social expectations. This is to the point where if I step outside this, if I do things based upon what I want to do, I feel guilty! Actually, guilt has nothing to do with being 'bad' - after all bad people don't feel guilty (it's why they're able to be bad) - it is the discomfort caused by stepping outside of my socially prescribed roles.
All of which makes our activity complicated. Essentially we are acting from 'outside-in'. Here we return to Taoism, and the observation that in nature activity tends to be from 'within to without' - such as how natural phenomena grows, including human beings. From simplicity to complexity. There is also the observation that animals and children tend to behave spontaneously, from this same internal drive, rather than, as adults we behave self-consciously, in accordance with what we think others think. Spontaneous action doesn't need force, because it is motivated by our own innate drives, and requires far less exertion because we are not resisting the activity in any way. If you've ever seen a cat spring up a seven foot wall, or children running about all morning without rest, or if you've seen someone who has mastered some physical art, and marveled at the fluidity, and wondered at how easy they make the difficult look, you've seen spontaneous action.
At this point, to illustrate the principle of spontaneous action we practiced the following exercise:
1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, tilt your pelvis slightly to flatten the curve of your back, gently squeeze your pelvic floor and drop your shoulders (instant posture!)
2. Now, like a 'bored child', gently twist your upper body to and fro, swinging your arms from side to side
3. While swinging let your arms and shoulders completely relax and let your breathing do what it wants, there's no need to regulate it
4. See if you can visualize a 'ball' (I imagine a 'small melon' sized ball, made of some incredibly lightweight, strong metal) sitting a little above your pelvic floor. See if you can keep this ball as still as possible while the rest of your body moves 'around' this center.
5. See if you can put more expression into your movement. You might at this point notice how little effort is required when moving in this way
6. Finally, note where your mind is? Is it in your brain? Your center? Your body? In fact, what part of your physical experience is 'outside' of your mind? Is there any meaningful separation at all?
In the second part of this talk we'll talk about stress and conflict. Nowadays only some of our stress is what you might call natural stress: hunger, physical threat, extremes of cold or heat or sleep deprivation, or infectious disease. A far greater amount of stress is caused by other people: 'social evaluative stress', exploitation, disempowerment, interpersonal conflict and so on. Why do we come into conflict with each other so much? Well, one reason is surely that we are so conflicted within ourselves. We often find it difficult to accept who we are; we want to have more security, or status, or we feel we're not getting anywhere or don't have the things we should have and so on. We are bombarded with conflicting expectations and ideas of who we should be or what we should be doing, and these expectations often conflict with our internal drives and wants. As such we start rubbing up against others or vice versa. People may demand things of us, expect things we don't want to give. They might even be abusive, or aggressive, or manipulative, or they may come to us with problem after problem.
We tend to react to this kind of conflict. We might externalize the aggression, become defensive or aggressive ourselves. We might internalize it, we might withdraw or distance ourselves or become passive. Or we may feel the need to fix the problem in some way and can't rest until this is done. In all cases we personalize the conflict and make it about us. The problem with these reactions is that they don't work: by responding with more aggression we just escalate the conflict; by withdrawing we just take on the 'bad energy' ourselves or perpetuate the aggression; by trying to fix the problem we often just replace one problem with another.
This kind of thing isn't new. They've been around as long as we've been living in complex societies. The Taoist approach to conflict was to practice what you might call a 'third way' - neither aggressive nor passive - summed up in the principle of wu-wei or 'non-resistance'. Here, the response to conflict is to 'step aside'. Now, this can be a difficult idea to accept. Surely if there is a problem we ought to fix it? If someone is being abusive towards me I need to stand up for myself. Attack is the best form of attack, I don't take my problems laying down, and so on. However there is at least one very good reason why the principle of stepping aside makes sense. And this is that, if someone is attacking me, or being abusive, or trying to manipulate or exploit me, then they already have the advantage. They already have the 'power' as it were - otherwise they wouldn't be doing it! Not to mention the element of surprise, the motivation and often the advantage of having done it lots before. In these case 'fighting fire with fire' just isn't going to work, I'm just going to end up wasting my energy.
And so the master does not waste time reacting in such a way, but responds in such a way that the 'aggressor' (or exploiter or whatever) ends up wasting their energy instead. An analogy is with a closed door. If somebody tries to barge my door down I can either lock it, in which case my door and lock just end up getting damaged, or I can open it at the right moment and let the person doing the barging fly through and do a few comedy somersaults over the floor. We let the other persons aggression 'travel past'. Note that the idea is not to hurt the other person, but to simply let them learn that their activity, their aggression, their demands, are futile. This can be done in many ways, even something as simple as completely listening to someone's concerns without in any way trying to fix things or give an opinion. Easier said than done, of course.
(Here one of the participants gave a great story to illustrate this point: an elderly couple had finished unloading some baggage from the back of a taxi when, behind their backs, someone walked off with a suitcase. Thinking quickly, the lady hurried up to the man, stood in front of him and cried out 'Why thank you so much, we could not find that case anywhere, my husband is always losing these things!' Completely caught off guard, the would-be thief had no choice but to put the case down and slope off!)
Of course, getting into this kind of 'flow state' isn't easy. To be able to act spontaneously, un-self-consciously, apparently without effort, takes - ironically - a great deal of practice and commitment. But I think it is something that we are all capable of. After all, we are naturally meant to be like this and it is only a lifetime of social conditioning that makes us otherwise. We lose trust in our natural abilities. We become suspicious of our innate drives, our desires, and lose sight of what we actually want to do. We become attached to work as an end in itself. Instead of working towards making 'the difficult easy', we resign ourselves to difficulty, and eventually become attached to the idea of 'struggle'. Because of all this we tend to lose our internal momentum. So the challenge here is to see if we can re-discover that, because this really does seem to be the key to 'achieving without trying'.
An important point here is that rediscovering and learning to trust our internal drives, and making these the basis of our activity, may well require a deal of hard practice. However equally importantly this hard practice is not the same thing as struggling. In the 'classic view' of 'success' we magically discover our goal, then work hard towards getting that goal, and then through a lot of struggle achieve that goal! We may fall down, but we dust ourselves off and keep going. (and God help you if you quit!) That's not really how success happens though, it's just another story based on all the other stories that our culture repeats over and over. If we look at people who have really managed to achieve something 'outstanding' it is primarily because that something was meaningful to them. They acted upon their own internal drives. Also, even though they undoubtedly put a lot of work and practice in they actually wanted to put all that work in. In some way they actually get attached to the practice and don't really care too much about the outcome. If anything, the goal is just there as a reminder, but the real joy - the flow - is in the practice itself.
It has been said that to really succeed in something you need to be able to 'fall in love' with the process. For this to happen, this something needs to be something you want, as opposed to what others want, or what you think you should want. This is also why certain 'goals' we set ourselves don't really work out. Take dieting for example. Dieting generally doesn't work precisely because it is so difficult: It is well nigh impossible to 'fall in love' with the feeling of being hungry! On the other hand it is not so hard to become a bit obsessed with eating good foods, or exercise, because these are things that generally make us feel good in any case. Another problem is that by attaching to a goal, what tends to happen is that once we are there - or nearly there - we tend to then be done with it and subsequently fall back to old habits. However by becoming attached to the process itself, rather than fixating on some end-point, by finding joy in the 'discipline' itself we become more engaged in it, more 'in the moment'. Moreover if we 'stumble' now and again, or fall back a few steps, or even 'quit' and find something else we like better, then that's not a problem, because it was the process that was important in any case and not what it may have been leading to.
A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets her intuition
lead her wherever it wants
(Tao Te Ching, ch. 27)
To finish off we can imagine for a few moments meeting a great 'master'. This is that type of person who is completely at ease with themselves, unhurried, quietly strong and confident, but without ego, they don't need one. You like this person, they don't judge you, they make you feel good about yourself. And for a little while I want you to imagine that you are this person. You might even want to visualize this 'version' of you. Take time looking at the details, and with a little practice you can even exchange a few words with this 'you'. (if you find it difficult imagining yourself in this role, you can actually visualize another figure, just remember that this is still intrinsically 'you'). You can practice this often. I find it especially helpful if I'm not sure of something. It is simply a way or reminding yourself of how much you already know, how together you already are, even though the current of life can make us feel otherwise. Ultimately there is no need to 'be someone' or to be 'getting somewhere' because you already are exactly who you need to be and exactly are where you need to be at this very moment. How could it be any other way? And how do you 'find your purpose'? The answer is, of course, to stop looking for it.
In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
(Tao Te Ching, ch 48)
- H James, September 2018