I’m addicting to solving problems. Or at least, trying to solve them. The Mega Problem that has occupied my attention for most of my life is “What’s life all about?” I’ve always assumed that there is an answer to this question.
Religion, philosophy, science, psychotherapy, self-improvement systems. These all spring from the assumption that there are problems to be solved and the purpose of life is to find the answers.
But what if this assumption is ill-founded? What if the cosmos actually is absolutely fine just as it is, us included? Could it be true that erroneously believing in the existence of problems is our only problem?
This notion has begun to peck away inside my head more and more insistently. It feels like a baby chick of a realization that isn’t developed enough yet to be born, yet has the potential to become a beautiful reality.
However, given my habitual inclinations naturally I’ve been viewing this budding idea as a problem to be solved. Is it true or false? Should I trust the intuition? What is the evidence for and against it?
Intellectually I know that these questions are just Monkey Mind doing its thing. I don’t see how there could be a rational answer to the question, “Is the search for answers to ultimate questions a fruitful or fruitless pursuit?” That query is part of the problem that either does or doesn’t exist. To ask the question is to foreclose the answer.
Still, if there truly are no problems—just our illusory belief that they exist—then the cosmos’ response to my cogitating can only be: No problems, mate. This includes your thinking that there are.
I’ve only come across one philosophy (if you can call it that, “Way” sounds better) that enshrines No problems, mate at the core of its belief system: Taoism.
Virtually without exception, other religions, philosophies, and spiritual paths either consider that life is meaningless and nihilistic—not particularly appealing—or that life is a problem needing solution.
The solution goes by various terms. Salvation. Enlightenment. Satori. Realization. Understanding. But whatever it is, it’s damn hard to come by. Usually you need help. A savior, master, guru, teacher, grace, God, Buddha, angel—someone or something special has to intervene before you can solve the problem of life.
Not with Taoism. That’s because there’s no problem needing to be solved. Again, the only problem is believing in problems. We overlay the natural order of things, Tao, with our own conceptions about how things should be. This creates a gap between what is and what should be, at which point our contentment is screwed.
Then we feel that we need help. Desperately. So we seek out a religion or spiritual system that promises a solution to the problem that we’ve created ourselves. Only problem is, there’s no problem. It’s akin to calling a locksmith to get the front door open when all we need to do is turn the knob.
Taoists say that we make life a lot more complicated than it really is. Everything is happening as it should. In fact, there’s no way that anything untoward could happen. There only is the Way, Tao, operating at all levels, in every circumstance, from our first to our last breath.
I hope Taoism is true. To me it has the ring of reality. I resonate to notions of the One much more than the Many. The idea that the cosmos is divided into discordant pieces—hell and heaven, devil and God, evil and good, damnation and salvation—strikes me as horribly unscientific. And unlikely.
Nature is just so, well, natural. Everything is beautifully interconnected. Causes and effects flow seamlessly into each other. Nothing stands on its own, disconnected from the larger whole.
I bet there are no problems. Just an inability to recognize and go with the flow of Tao. Here are a couple of stories from “The Book of Chuang Tzu.”
Confucius was sightseeing in Lu Liang, where the waterfall is thirty fathoms high and the river races along for forty miles, so fast that neither fish nor any other creature can swim in it.
He saw one person dive in and he assumed that this person wanted to embrace death, perhaps because of some anxiety, so he placed his followers along the bank and they prepared to pull him out.
However, the swimmer, having gone a hundred yards, came out, and walked nonchalantly along the bank, singing a song with water dripping off him.
Confucius pursued him and said, “I thought you were a ghost, but now I see, Sir, that you are a man. I wish to enquire, do you have a Tao for swimming under the water?”
He said, “No, I have no Tao. I started with what I knew, matured my innate nature and allow destiny to do the rest. I go in with the currents and come out with the flow, just going with the Tao of the water and never being concerned. That is how I survive.”
Confucius said, “What do you mean when you say you started with what you knew, matured your innate nature and allow destiny to do the rest?”
He said, “I was born on dry land and feel content on the land, where I know what I know. I was nurtured by the water, and felt safe there: that reflects my inner nature. I am not sure why I do this, but I am certain that this is destiny.”
Master Tung Kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “That which is called the Tao, where is it?”
Chuang Tzu replied, “There is nowhere it is not.”
“But give me a specific example.”
“In this ant,” said Chuang Tzu.
“Is that its lowest point?”
“In this panic grass,” said Chuang Tzu.
“Can you give me a lower example?”
“In this common earthenware tile,” said Chuang Tzu.
“This must be its lowest point!”
“It’s in shit and piss too,” said Chuang Tzu.
(More elaborate discussion of these Taoist truths can be found here and here.)
This is good - I see we're in a pretty comparable place. Zhuangzi is one of my favorite thinkers. If you haven't looked at A. C. Graham's philosophically astute translation (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters), I thouroughly recommend it.
Posted by: Dave | March 29, 2006 at 06:13 AM
Dave, thanks for the tip. I've thought about getting Graham's translation but didn't know if it was that much better, or different, than the two translations I have already.
Your "philosophically astute" characterization makes me want to buy it. Not that I ever need much urging to get a new book.
Posted by: Brian | March 29, 2006 at 09:56 AM
Cool. Nice blog. I write a lot about the basic precepts of Taoism, and places and people I've found who seem to follow this 'Way'- even things outside what is considered 'traditional Taoism'. I believe we can find peace if we can learn to follow this Way, or as I put it, Surf the Tao, no matter what is happening around us.
Posted by: A.V. Michaels | March 29, 2006 at 02:53 PM
Read Joel Goldsmith for a Western view on "no problems, mate," who healed under the prayer that there is no illness, no problems to solve.
Zhuangtzu's wife dies, and his friends make the journey to his home to console him and help him in his distress.
As they come along the path to his house, the friends hear loud singing and banging on the household pots. They rush into the house to see what the ruckus is.
Zhuangtzu is sitting on the floor, drumming and singing away. He friends are horrified! "Master, you have lost your mind! Your wife is dead and you should be mourning, it is unseemly for you to sing and play like this."
Zhuangtzu replies, "I did not grieve before my wife was born. Why should I grieve now that she is dead?"
Taoism ain't for sissies. Remember, Original Man dies when the winds drill the seven holes in his head.
Posted by: Edward | March 29, 2006 at 03:39 PM
Confucius was confused. I know him/her personally and would not follow him around the corner. Jesus is still the man.
Posted by: Netemara | April 01, 2006 at 03:35 PM
Jesus might be "still the man"... but Lao Tzu knew the Way...
Posted by: tao | April 01, 2006 at 09:24 PM
You wrote, "It’s akin to calling a locksmith to get the front door open when all we need to do is turn the knob.
Another way to view this is as follows: It’s akin to calling a locksmith to get the front door open when there is NO front door at all.
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | April 03, 2006 at 12:19 AM