18 February 2017
Below is another recent letter, edited for privacy and clarity, with my Zen friend. We, like many other Taoist, Buddhist and T'ai Chi folks, find the constant doing and interfering of ordinary behaviour to be unsatisfactory. In our own ways we seek to find a healthier, less frenetic relationship to the earth, the world and ourselves. Aspects of our continuing conversation are hopefully interesting to you T'ai Chi friends. In explaining many things that are said without words in T'ai Chi, I find I am clarifying for myself some of the subtle ways of our art, and how it relates to inner and outer life. If it's not of interest, don't worry. I hear there are other things to read on the web, and also many nice pictures of cats.
Hi B, I just found my notes from Alan Watts, quoted in a book I read last week from an Aberdeen writer Esther Woolfson: his take on wu wei was 'masterly inactivity' and also 'knowing when not to act'. Both of these are wonderful too and flesh-out the small list we have going here seemingly encompassed by the tiny diad 'wu wei'.
Regarding your recent email, whilst working on drawings the last few days I have also been thinking about the non-doing aspect of doing (if there can be such a thing). Excuse sketchiness of thoughts, as I am sort of working it out whilst writing...
My current feeling is that it is possible to make almost any work in either helpful / skilful or unhelpful / unskilful ways, and yet to the observer, no obvious difference would be visible. Using natural and much less harmful materials to make my drawings is certainly part of why I feel I can even draw just now, rather than filling the world with more stuff, however 'artistic' that stuff. It will be interesting over the next year to see how it seems to be leaving overt traces in the world again, as opposed to the momentary and transient air movements my T'ai Chi creates. Part of me has begun to think that no matter what folks do, it's all too much (too many people, individual actions somehow of no use on a macro level). This is purely on a population size basis, and yet it seems to be the only thing that most people do not wish to address, but truly the most over-arching thing on a planetary level. My 'natural' inclinations seem so much less important than this. So an aspect of me is inclined to stop doing anything, or just camp at some worthy protest against natural places that are being despoiled, for instance to oppose fracking here in the UK, and add my personal life force to the great non-doing - saving wilderness from anything more being done to it at all. I am sure that would be non-action in action... however, many have already been-there-done-that. What has been achieved? I am still under-read and under-informed about this.
On a personal level, even that could become another justification, another cog in the mental machination. This aspect of things is very hard to talk about with anyone who doesn't do some form of internal practice. From the outside, if one devoted one's life to a particular cause, everything could be impeccable, and someone would ask 'where's the problem? You're doing a good thing'. Yet one could know, deeply, that the same grasping tendencies or the same averse behaviour was underneath it all. It is certainly possible to do both meditation and T'ai Chi in unhealthy ways.
The Harari books 'Sapiens' and 'Homo Deus' have short circuited many of my glib words on following inner knowing and feeling, as I now learn that similar justifications are verbally given by the racist or the techno-futurists for why they do what they do. It is necessary to find a more rigorous way to speak of why I do what I do, or rather, why non-doing is so important. I do not yet quite have these words, and I need to work towards them. In T'ai Chi class, it's so clear why one might choose non-resistance: as the nature of the art means we get immediate physical feedback from the person we are working with. In conversation or writing it's so much harder. I can't just hit the reader and say 'see, it would be so much less painful if you'd have turned and yielded!' That would be an interesting book, though.
Many people only think benefit comes from something having been done, from a medicine having been taken. They find it almost impossible to see if something has gone well because no-one did anything, or that they got better because they just waited a while. They don't have anything to point at, no-one to praise or blame. Most of my job is spending a few years with a person pointing out when they don't interfere with things and it goes really well. I say 'Yes!' and they invariably say 'but I didn't do anything!'. It's an art, like stalking some rare shy bird, to learn to recognise the feeling of non-doing. At first it's in retrospect only, by seeing the mess we get into by struggling, and the comparative calm when we don't. Later there is actually a flavour, or subtle feeling to it whilst it's taking place, but I am not yet able to put it into words. Maybe it should not be put into words. Actually, it definitely shouldn't be put into words, as that would make us think we had 'grasped' it...
And further, some people love a struggle, they love a fight, they love tension, they don't feel better when it's all calm. For them, drama is fun for it's own sake. Liu I Ming advises the Taoist to steer clear of folks like this, but what if they run most large countries? What if they're your boss?
For now, I feel we must live the lives we lead, make the art we make, and not dilute or undercut it in fear, that's for sure, as we are in many ways in a battle with an ingenious and ferocious opponent. Our stories will be co-opted, our language and imagery mined for effect or advertising and our very hearts sold back to us by the commercial web whether we had meant to commodify our unconscious or not. My first inkling is that we need to have conversations in groups, in private and not to report any of it online. [the irony of this sentence being included here is not lost on me...] Gatherings of actual people in real life, and conversations on the phone or in letters or by email will also be of use. I don't know where this would lead, but I agree with Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder that real community and in-person trustful relationships are the best way to create lasting beneficial change.
In the T'ai Chi Classics, (which are basically re-writes of the Tao Te Ching for martial artists) it says a thing that jumps to mind right now: 'Don't enter the competition'.
Also my Grandmaster, when discussing the arguments raging in the T'ai Chi world (it's like every other world - literary, music, art...) said: 'It's just dogs barking'.
Yet if I step back completely, do I leave the world to the dogs? What is it to care and not to care?People are 'like straw dogs to the sage', according to Lao Tzu. And as I romantically think of my friends on the river today feeding the swans, apparently, I am some way from being like this.