Many years ago, exactly when is not germane, I was assailed, when my turn came, by the BIG QUESTIONS. Why am I here? Do I have a more important purpose than pushing papers or working on an assembly line. What does infiniti feel like? What is right and wrong? Why? All of the religious inconsistencies aside, does God exist and what does that mean to me? Et cetera.
In the second decade of the new millenia (capitalization deliberately omitted) mention of such thoughts is usually couched in jeering sarcasm; a marker of cynical nihilism and a jarring reminder of the belief that resistance to the corruption and base nature of our social environment is futile. But when that base nature wounds us, outrage bellows forth. Well, well, upset by injustice. Surely this is a life-changing event for a cynic. But not so much. After the initial rush of emotional Qi has dissipated itself in the almost infinite labyrinthe of minor meridians, we replay the incident in our minds. Depending on how harmonious our Qi flow is, we play it a greater or lesser number of times with greater or lesser intensity and experience fear and anger with each replay. We continue to hurt.
Because I disliked emotional pain and eschewed vengeance, and was confounded by my lack of options for ending the pain, I chose learning and investigating the what and why of my psychic pain. If I could learn enough about it, perhaps I could avoid or minimize such experiences in the future. In the end, it has worked quite well for me. The American philosopher, George Santayana said it far more succinctly and elegantly.
“The purpose of education is to free us from prejudices. The barbarian is the man who regards his passions as their own excuse for being; who does not domesticate them by understanding their cause or by conceiving their ideal goal. He is the man who does not know his derivations nor perceive his tendencies, but who merely feels and acts, valuing in his life its force and its filling, but being careless of its purpose and its form. His delight is in abundance and vehemence; his art, like his life, shows an exclusive respect for quantity and splendor of materials. His scorn for what is poorer and weaker than him is only surpassed by his ignorance of what is higher.”
For me, the BIG QUESTIONS were not just one of several defining characteristics of late adolscence, they were the tools that would bring me understanding of the world and a measure of inner peace in spite of the base nature of people. I investigated what seemed to me a large number of roads to useful knowledge, each with it's own exceedingly complex explanation of existence and peoples' place and function in it. Frustratingly though, each had internal contradictions or were simply too complex to be of use for the mundane tasks of daily life. (In the term mundane I include not only menial tasks but the daily stuff and substance of life. Getting along with co-workers, deciding how to use what money you have until the next pay period, getting a beauracracy to work in a way that doesn't worsen your circumstances.) Religions depended on faith. Most philosophies were concerned about large groups. The great natural philosophers were being made obsolete by 20th Century scientific discoveries. And science turned out to be not only inexact, but promised only tiny steps in the advancement of understanding the world/universe/existence. So many, many theories. But I learned a great deal from those explorations. Far more than just what I didn't consider useful. I learned about the point of diminishing returns, the law of supply demand, the concept of ethnocentrism, what was then the notion of mysticism, ideas of human motivations, the use of language to persuade, theories of what comprised a human being. I accumulated many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.
After several post-adolescent years of learning about existence, I came across a book named Tao Te Ching. The common and loose translation in use back then was The Way of Life. The accompanying legend says that the greatest sage of Taoism decided it was time to leave the role of sage behind. This necessitated leaving China to live where his reputation was unknown. He was prevented from leaving by an Imperial guard on the Great Wall who told him his knowledge was too valuable to China for him to leave. They reached a compromise. The sage wrote a summary of his wisdom in 82 chapters and gave it to the guard in return for passage out of China. Those chapters became known as Tao Te Ching.
The title alone spoke thousands of things to me. THE Way of Life. THE as in the singular way. WAY as in how things work, the path to take, the nature of things. As a moth, I had found a flame; my flame. Well, those 82 chapters are basic principles and not how-to algorithms. This discovery was only a beginning.
The chapters of Tao Te Ching are generalizations derived from contemplation and analysis of a lifetime of experience from a multitude of perspectives – teacher, peasant, son, advisor, scholar, member of a monastic group, natural scientist. They’re also drawn from a lifetime of the cultivation of Qi by many different methods and with differing objectives. Many of the chapters made immediate sense to me and gave me new dimensions of the principle to consider. Like the space at the hub of a spoked wheel. Without that space the wheel is unfit for its intended purpose. Space is often viewed as the definition of nothing. So, according to that chapter, nothingness has utility. At the very least, this principle forced me to look more closely at any given thing. I had to consider any given thing in more contexts than the one in which it presented itself to me. And that was my first tool of creativity. It lead to others and to the study of more specific Taoist ideas about the nature of existence like Yin & Yang. The Law of the Unity of Opposites not only soothed my outrage at the baseness of human society and the randomness of the universe, but gave me an understanding that allowed me to leverage the cyclic changes of existence for the betterment of my own life.
If you are expecting change, and you have some ideas of how things will change, you can prepare for the changes instead of being blind-sided by them. The Inter-transformation rule of the Law of Yin & Yang mandates that the stock market must, MUST, go down as well as up. Deeper analysis according to the characteristics and behavior of Yin & Yang can reveal the smaller and sublter ups and downs of even a single stock. One of my classmates in Chinese medical school had been an economist. She added the lens of Yin & Yang to her tools and accumulated enough money Qi to refrain from working while in school.
Had I embraced nihilism I would be in the same place now, 40 years later, struggling with bitterness.