Monday, November 3, 2008

Virtue of the small

The contented man can be happy with what appears to be useless. He can find worthwhile occupation in forests and mountains. He stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage. He leaves the jade in the mountain and the pearls in the sea. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he can be happy - he knows when to stop. He does not pick the brief-blossoming flower; he does not travel the dangerous road. To him, the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind. He sings as he travels among the green mountains.

He finds sheltering branches more comforting than red-gated mansions, the plow in his hands more rewarding than the prestige of titles and banners, fresh mountain water more satisfying than the feasts of the wealthy. He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. He sees the light in the "darkness," the clear in the "cloudy," the speed in the "slowness," the full in the "empty." The cook creating a meal with his own hands has as much honor in his eyes as a famous singer or high official. He has no profits to gain, no salary to lose; no applause, no criticism. When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance. Many look at him, but nobody sees him. Calm and detached, he is free from all danger, a dragon hidden among men.

- Taoist alchemist and herbalist,
Ko Hung

The Taoist ideal is living in simplicity, in the most direct relationship with nature that is possible. It might be argued by some that this life style is perhaps not fit for everyone. Though, it seems to me that there is much to be gained from understanding this way of life, this perspective.

The Taoist mind is the mind of a child. Children respond to the world much more directly, simply and honestly than most adults. The word being alive is simply WHAT IS to a child. Communication with the natural world is engaged in often with joyous abandon by children who are presented with the opportunity.

So why does any of this matter?

To me, the child's mind is our original mind. It is a state to which we as adults can not only strive for but also reconnect with in a pragmatic, daily way. The world, the universe at large, is a wondrous and mysterious place. How much that is overshadowed by our fears and concerns as adults? Our concerns about being someone and about doing something important. Children know that what they are doing is important, whether that is eating ice cream on a hot summer day and having it run down their hand or its jumping around in the mud catching frogs or imitating them. The small things are important. The small things have virtue. These small things are really vital in life, yet so many adults have forgotten to experience them.

The virtue of the small, the weak and the dark are often ignored or looked down upon in our culture.

One interpretation of the TE in the Tao Te Ching is virtue. As Benjamin Hoff describes it in the Te of Piglet:

Te is not, as its English-langauge equivalent suggests, a one-sized-fits-all sort of goodness or admired behavior that can be recognized as essentially the same no matter who possesses it. It is instead a quality of special character, spiritual strength, or hidden potential unique to the individual - something that comes from the Inner Nature of things. And something, we might add, that the individual who possesses it may be quite unaware of - as is the case with Piglet through most of the Pooh stories.

How many people in western culture seek to be somebody? Or be somebody different? From teens to adults who never really matured, never really grew up fully because they never had a chance to get to know themselves. To get to know their te, their own personal, individual virtue.

So many adults I have met, no matter what age they might have written on their birth certificate still act out the drama that they never really faced as they transitioned from teens to young adult years.

Our culture lacks significant rites of passage for people in the major stages of life changes. Getting a driver's license. Reaching legal drinking age. Graduating high school, then college. These things are almost meaningless on the truly individual, personal level.

It lacks a way to truly acknowledge the sacred cycles in our lives.

So much time it seems is spent seeking youth, seeking to stay youthful. Yet in "becoming adults" people rarely seem to grow up, really. They bury their child's mind under fantasies, fears, and masks. For all their age, they seemed to have gained little that can be called true wisdom.

An truly matured adult might be described one who takes care and fosters a healthy relationship to the child's mind within them.

We have forgotten the virtue of the small to such an extent, that many of us worship BIG. We love powerful things, powerful people and personalities. Even when we look at nature, we tend to focus on the fastest, biggest, most dangerous, most frightening. When and if nature is talked about, we spend most of our nature discussions talking about these creatures.

Yet so much of the natural world depends on the work of the small. The bacteria, insects, spiders. The fungi that help break down the soil and decaying matter into nutrients usable by plants. Even the smallest mammals are mostly ignored for their true virtue.

Bats are one of those creatures that are so often recognized for the fear they inspire: for the way they suck blood (though only 3 out of several thousand species actually feed on blood, and they lap it up and don't actually suck), the way they can get tangled in long hair (thought many species can see even in pitch blackness something as fine as a single human hair using their echolocation), the harm they can cause by spreading rabies (which is rare and they generally die from the disease too quickly to be able to spread it to humans) and so on. What seems to often to be missed or ignored is the great care with which they use to tend to their young. They way that bats in a colony will groom themselves and sometimes each other. The acute awareness with which they experience their world. The longevity with which they can live, despite their small size... likely a testament to how well they take care of their bodies and especially, their teeth. Some small species can live for over 30 years. That's incredible, if you consider that another insectivore of comparable size like a large shrew generally does not live long enough to have its first year birth day celebration...

There is much wisdom to be gained in studying the virtue of the small...

From Bat Species Survey of Olympic National Park 2004

No comments: