Once, driving down the freeway, I got behind a dump truck that had the words “Do Not Push” on the tailgate. It looked like the Tao on wheels.
For those who may not be familiar with the Tao te Ching, it’s an ancient Chinese wisdom text–one of my favorite pieces of spiritual writing–which emphasizes living in accord with the Tao (roughly translated “the Way”), the guiding principle of the Universe.
The wisdom in this writing at first glance seems to be foolishness because it speaks of the potency of non-action, the power of yielding, and the effectiveness of letting things follow their natural course.
Here’s an example of what the Tao has to say:
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.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
~trans. Stephen Mitchell
The teachings of the Tao te Ching are counter-intuitive for most people, but for Westerners they are downright counter-cultural. In our society we bestow all kinds of accolades on people who can make things happen, who can control events and shape surroundings, who can impose their vision and will on others and on the world. In short, for us, pushing is what it’s all about.
I probably don’t need to offer up a long list of where our pushing has gotten us: a depleted environment, a devastated economy, unending wars, a democratic process on the brink of collapse and an accelerated pace of life that has left many people literally sick with stress.
Thanks to the cross-pollination of cultures made possible by telecommunications and travel, most of us in the West are now familiar with the yin-yang of Eastern thought. We have t-shirts, canvas bags and bumper stickers that tout the black and white yin-yang symbol, but I think on the whole most of us have yet to internalize what the symbol is really teaching: there is an active and a receptive principle, and when the two are out of balance disease and disharmony are the result.
I suppose one reason we in the West are so fond of living on the active side of the equation is because we focus so much on the individual and seem to believe that an individual’s worth is determined by how much she or he can “make things happen.” So in order to measure up, we push. We do all we can to make our mark on the world and shape the circumstances around us, but in so doing we fail to behold the beauty and wisdom around us or allow ourselves to be replenished by life itself.
When I trace this inclination to push to its origins, though, what I see isn’t egotism, but fear. I suspect that a lot of our pushing comes from a basic lack of trust in Life, the Universe, Source, God, whatever you choose to call it. This fear arises from perceiving ourselves to be separate and on our own. We have to take matters into our own hands and push to make things happen because deep down we believe we’re in it alone.
Now, I have a couple of friends who have just given birth, and I am sure they would tell us how necessary it is sometimes to push. And they’d be right–if the pushing is in service to life. When we are in alignment with nature’s cycles, cooperating with them rather than trying to control them, then the pushing will enhance life rather than diminish it.
When that occurs it is not really us doing the pushing, but Life pushing through us. This is the non-action the Tao speaks about. Not that we are static beings, but that our activity doesn’t arise from self-will.
I love that it was a dump truck driving around spreading this Taoist wisdom. Our pushing so often works to our disadvantage, both as individuals and as a society, and it’s something we’d be better off without.
So when you find yourself wanting to push, wanting to impose yourself, wanting to control people or circumstances, you might just pause for a moment and notice where the desire comes from. If you trace it down to its roots, what is the fear?
Now imagine the freedom you could feel if you let it go.
[Tao te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell, New York, Harper Collins, 1988.]