Learning from Taoism.
Hi, I’m Lauren and I’m an ‘over-commiter’. Always have been. Always will.
Or maybe not.
In the last 6 months or so I started a new job, took up a place in a yearlong leadership programme, enrolled in a Master’s degree, and got engaged. I’ve always managed to somehow convince myself that any number of things can be done with enough energy and intention. And over the last 10 to 15 years of my life I managed. Hell, in my last job I was flying to and from JHB almost every week, completing a distance learning Honours degree, playing for a social soccer team in my spare time and I seemed to get by. Or at least I considered myself to be getting by. And that was just it. I was just getting by.
About 2 months ago I pulled my ligaments playing soccer like the amateur I am, one week before my sister’s wedding. Can you picture a bridesmaid on crutches. Yip – try making that look glam. I have never really had a real injury, and as minor as this sprained ankle was, I could not believe the psychological effect it had on me. And those around me. Man I was a pain.
Fortunately my mother was visiting from Durban, in the lead up to the wedding, and she and the f-bomb did a sterling job of prepping for a bachelorettes party on my behalf, being ordered around by the invalid on the couch waving a crutch around like a bloody sceptre.
And maybe I should have enjoyed it, being able to lie down all day and tell people what to do – but it made me feel utterly incapable and as if I was not contributing. I realised that I pride myself in being able to get a lot of shit done, and being confined to metal legs or the couch brought me to tears a number of times. Being capable and productive have come to hold such value in my life, that taking a forced break almost broke me. I wasn’t able to handle not feeling as though I was doing something.
The ankle has pretty much healed now, or at least I walk normally on it. I haven’t started playing soccer again because I am a wimp. But I have found myself in a different situation which begs me to question my insane need to be productive 24 hours a day.
My new job is quieter than the old one. Quite a lot quieter. No travelling, hardly ever a need to take work home after hours, and I’m no longer expected to be on call almost all of the time. And I find myself wanting to complain about it. My body and mind are not used to the concept of “free time” after hours, and so when I am left without anything pressing or urgent to attend to, I start to question my productivity and value, in all spheres.
I brought this up with my leadership coach (one of the amazing perks of my Masters programme) and his response summed me up in one sentence “I get the impression you think doing ‘nothing’ is a bad thing”. Damn right. I can’t spend a rainy Saturday watching movies because I feel I should be doing something proactive, productive, valuable with my time. Saying no to outings and projects and social events is difficult for me, as I am always wanting to be busy. I am constantly wondering if I should be pushing myself further, if I am growing fast enough.
I don’t say no, and I don’t do ‘nothing’.
And then I was hit with some wisdom. Some brilliant wisdom contrasting the ideals of the west, with the philosophy of the east. My coach referred me to the philosophy of Tai chi and Taoism in which action comes from a place of inaction, or rest.
According to the ancient Chinese text written by Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching states: “Being and non-being give birth to each other, / Difficult and easy complete each other, / Long and short form each other, / High and low fulfill each other…”
In other words, nothing of substance can exist without the complement of non-substance, a tree cannot exist without the space that surrounds it – therefore nothing creates something. This is a philosophy therefore of balance, and the attraction of opposites. Of Yin and Yang. Where the yin side of emptiness and nothingness is as important as the yang side of movement and action.
This commitment to rest, nothingness and emptiness contrasts so strongly with the Western focus on the Yang – needing to do more, achieve more, be more successful. We appear to have devalued entirely the Yin in our daily lives, to the extent of living completely out of balance.
My coach forwarded me the following passage from a friend which further resounded with me:
We have a very unhealthy relationship to rest in this fast-paced, achievement oriented culture of ours. We seek permission to let go and stop all the rushing and doing, far too often. We feel guilty if we aren’t in the race hare-ing along, our to-do lists our masters and us their slaves, and most importantly there isn’t enough dialogue about the purpose of it. It is as important to take conscious periods of rest as it is to pay attention to what you’re eating.
The poet and philosopher David Whyte says that rest is:
"…a conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be."
In the same essay on rest he concludes that…
"to rest is not self-indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given."
What does this mean in practice for me? In the past rest has never been prioritised in my life, and on the most part I have always equated rest to laziness, stagnation or uselessness. And so at the outset it is important for me to reshape my understanding of rest, and to ensure I don’t misconstrue the philosophy of nothingness, Wu Wei, as laziness. Wu Wei is non-action, non-doing – a state of action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. It is a way of being in a world that constantly expects us to go, go, go. In practice for me, I think it means not fighting against periods that are less all-consuming and action focused, but use those times to reflect and respond naturally to the demands on my time, rather than resorting to a place of anxiety where I then strive to find other “useful” things with which to fill it.
Wu Wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. An element that adapts itself to reality, rather than attempting to oppose, fight, argue or change reality. A practice of eliminating unnecessary action, and letting go of thoughts or actions that may hinder or block the spontaneous flow of events that take place naturally.
In our western, achievement and success oriented world, we constantly label, analyse, ponder WORRY, and fill our minds with so much thought and intellectual ideas that we no longer are able to clearly see what is there, how we feel, or what we need to do. In this ‘information age’ we are constantly bombarded with new thoughts, new ideas, new demands, that we very rarely take the time to reflect, empty out and start from a place of balance.
And so begins my journey on trying to develop a better relationship with rest. Not to give up on pursuing my goals, or being a productive, engaged individual, but to learning to say no where necessary, and to use my ‘spare’ time to reflect, recuperate, and find balance. I will probably also need to consciously commit to and prioritise times of rest, rather than just wait for them to come around. I have for so long actively pursued Yang, and now I think it may be time to start pursuing Yin in equal measure.