My Father the Taoist?

Do you want to improve the world? 
I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. 
It can’t be improved. 
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. 
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

– Tao te ching, 29

When I was 16 I said to my father: “Dad, you care so much about philosophy. Truth. Living a good life. What about all the suffering in the world? The homeless people. How can they be helped?”

He said, “That is not my concern. Nor yours. Just live your life as best as you can, follow your spiritual path. Find the Truth. Focus just on that. Don’t worry about others.”

This seemed to me a bizarre response. How can such a wise person be so… uncaring? Didn’t the young Buddha grieve seeing suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die for us? The spiritual person cares more for others than for himself, so I thought. Yet, the most spiritual I knew as a young sixteen year old was a my father. So how can he say. “Forget about others, improving the world, and live just for your personal spiritual task?”

I said to myself: “There is the philosophy side of him and the middle class, conventional, conformist side. His apathy towards my anxieties about homelessness and injustice and all the pain in the world – that is the conformist side of him. It can’t be the philosophy side of him! It must be his philosophy side being overwhelmed by the conventional side. Why can’t be like Gandhi, or MLK? How can such a strong spiritual person be so…ordinary in terms of his acceptance of injustices and not try to change the world?” I felt sad. For him, for what seemed to his inability to break out of the orbit of middle class complacency. And for me, for my inability to break out of his oribit – for being caught in the pull of his complacency.

But could it be that his response to me was itself a philosophical response? That he meant it as a philosophical response to me? That in his regard at least he was a Taoist, warning me that if I tampered with the world, I would ruin it? That if I treated the world like an object to be saved, I would lose it? 

 He would have denied this and not identified as a Taoist. I am not sure he even knew about Taoism. To him the Tao Te Ching would have seemed like some Far East mumbo jumbo, far removed from the clear affirmations of the Truth in the Gita or the Upanishads.

Still, the resemblance between what Lao Tzu said and what he said is unmistakable.

Seeking can get in the way of being. Caring about others in an anxious way can be an obstacle to knowing yourself – and to helping others. The peace the world needs begins in oneself. As that peace flows outward without intention or fear, it multiples without effort.

What my father meant wasn’t, “Forget the homeless. Focus on your material goods and satisfaction.” He meant: “Forget the homeless. Let go of ordinary desires, including the desire to help. Be mindful of that desire, as with any desire. Don’t grasp. Don’t get caught in the world of should, oughts, deserves. Be still. Be one with all. Relate to others not as external beings who need your help, but as your own self.”

But if I relate to them as myself, shouldn’t that mean I ought to care about them since of course I care about myself?

My Dad’s point: “Care without caring. Be without striving. Quiet the mind. Don’t give in to the mind as it comes in the seductive form of guilty or judgmental compassion. Be unmoved by the seduction of the mind. Disassociate from your small self, even as it presents itself to you as the compassionate, caring, world directed self, and judges your stillness as complacency.”

Thinking is irrational. Non-thinking is rational. Doing is irrational. Non-doing is rational. 

Caring is selfishness. Non-caring is compassion. Selfishness is compassion, and compassion is selfishness.

One who doesn’t strive wins because he never loses. He is everywhere because he is still. He doesn’t fight or push or resist or accumulate because he has all.

He sees a homeless person and sees just him. He doesn’t see himself as privileged, nor the other as unlucky. He sees words and concepts as incomplete, and sees only the Tao as complete.

“How can we tell the difference between complacency and being with the Tao?”

Focus on other’s actions and if they are complacent, and be caught in judgments. There is no healing, no helping there.

Focus on yourself and if you are complacent, and be caught in guilt. There is no freedom there, no growth.

Complacency is a coping mechanism when the natural flow of energy is blocked. Pushing against it makes it stronger. Be with the natural flow. Let the Tao move around and through the coping mechanism. The Tao changes without effort. With effort, the mind strengthens the resistance.

A batter who constantly swings the bat doesn’t hit the ball. Or can’t control the ball if he hits it. Knowing when not to swing, to be still, to let go is the source of strength. The strongest batter is the most patient. He swings through non-swinging. He resides in emptiness and follows the Tao into movement. And into stillness. He surrenders to the Tao. He is free because he doesn’t control.

He resides in himself without being alone. He lets go and never loses what he has. 

My Dharma

It is better to do one’s own dharma, even though imperfectly, than to do another’s dharma, even though perfectly. By doing one’s innate duties, a person does not incur sin. (The Bhagavad-Gita, 18:47)

This week, as I watched the Trump-Putin new conference and the subsequent coverage, I have been pondering this quote from The Gita.

Unlike many of the commentators, I don’t find Trump’s friendliness to Putin, or Trump trusting Putin more than he trusts his own intelligence community, that surprising. Even a cursory attention to people like the alt-righter Alex Jones or the white supremacist Richard Spencer shows that many people in America (how many?) feel greater affinity to white nationalists in other countries than they do to fellow Americans who they see as globalists. 

On this view, all the following are basically the same: liberal democracy, globalism, a global state, multi-culturalism, feminism, anti-colonialism, secularism, liberal fascism, etc. And opposed to it is are basically various forms of nationalisms, where to each nation there corresponds a people bonded along cultural and racial lines. So each nation belongs, first and foremost, to the unique people who culturally define it.

So, then, on this view, the big fight now is between nationalists and globalists. The nationalists want nothing more – from their perspective – than to have their country, as it is true to their culture and race. They are simply trying to be themselves. And then here come these globalists imposing a fake/false/imperialistic universal framework which they are trying to impose on everyone else.

I have no doubt that when the cameras aren’t around this is how Trump talks to his friends. And how he talks to Putin and Kim Jong Un. Trump’s famed confidence that he can make deals with these autocrats is just the confidence that he and them can get aligned against the globalists. The issue isn’t democrats vs republicans, or capitalism vs communism, or even democracy vs dictatorship. Those are all by and by. The main issue is seen as: a global cadre of elites have formed in the last 50 years, who espouse multiculturalism and anti-colonialism and feminism and all other such “good” things, and in the name of that goodness, they are taking most of the wealth for themselves. This cadre is diverse in gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so because of that diversity, it assumes that it has found a universal framework for all people. This group presumes that it is more enlightened because it embraces people beyond culture, race, religion and nationality. And the “main stream media” gives them the praise and adoration, since it is part of this cadre itself. So people like Trump and Putin, though wealthy, feel as if their not being globalists limits their ability to have more wealth – and, as importantly, to have prestige and admiration. So they feel more affection for each other than to, as they see it, globalists who are betraying America and Russia.

This isn’t to deny that Putin might have something on Trump. Or that Trump’s finances might be tied into Russian money. Things which give Putin leverage over Trump. But it is to say that beyond that, there is here an alignment of resentiments and worldviews against the coalition of “globalists” like Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, etc. (women, blacks, jews, etc.).

Much of the dizzying sense around Trump and his actions in our politics and media is created by the confluence of two facts:

  1. Trump is operating with a framework of globalists versus nationalists, and
  2. The American cultural, media and political consciousness is still mired in the framework from the last 50 years, in which it is unthinkable that a prominent American might feel he has more in common with a Russian than he does with  many of his fellow Americans.

Ironically, while nationalists like Trump and Steven Bannon are so intent on physical boundaries around America, they are doing more than anyone to explode the old conceptual boundaries of America. It’s an issue even beyond race. Trump seems more comfortable with a non-white nationalist like Kim Jung Un than with a white, spreading freedom globalist like George W. Bush.

I predict that as our media and political consciousness itself comes to adopt the globalists vs nationalists framework, much of Trump’s actions will stop seeming mysterious, and thereby will stop seeming miraculous and as if he can never be held accountable. Right now he is gliding in between the old and the new frameworks, and so getting by without being held responsible in one or the other.

So, what does all this have to do with the Gita quote?

It’s a reminder to myself to keep doing my dharma, and not to get lost in all the cultural upheavals of the moment. I am not just a spectator of the history that is happening out there out in the world, or on TV. I am a part of the history myself. Trump has his dharma. Putin has his. Robert Muller has his. Politicians have theirs. Academics have theirs. And I have mine. Everyone’s dharma is to listen to the voice of God in them and to not worry about the dharma of others. Whether they are able to do that will determine how joyful and peaceful a life they lead, and ultimately how transformative.

The seismic shifts happening our culture and politics are huge. And they can be confusing and disorienting. But as long as one listens to one’s own dharma without worrying about the dharma of others, one can be grounded in that reality, the true reality. One then still feels in control, or at least not out of control. For one is then not trying to control others or the world. Not trying to control how Trump or Putin or the Republicans or the Democrats or the media should act, but focusing only on the source of inspiration within oneself. Content in the awareness that the inspiration within oneself which doesn’t put down others is the greatest and the shortest path towards a brighter future, and that such inspiration is always within us and guiding us. All we have to do is listen.