‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.‘
This may well be an unfashionable idea, or perhaps an unpopular belief system to enter into. But what if, everything is going to turn out fine?
The internet, and culture generally, are full of voices that are telling us that ‘it’s all going to shit’. Economic meltdown, increased militarism, ecological collapse, a giant meteor that’s going to do away with us; in all these cases, it’s just a matter of time. The End has already begun, the apocalyptic visionary of many stripes is everywhere present. We’re all going to hell in a handcart.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Radio 4 recently, taking refuge in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent series In Our Time and chortling to the ribald and yet intellectual old-school humour of those brilliant comedies such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Meanwhile I’ve been inadvertently pumping myself full of news about lost sailors and missing aeroplanes. Tales of the abduction of children in Nigeria. The growing crisis in Ukraine. Slotted regularly between the fabulous opiates of The Archers and Desert Island Discs, the incessant Radio 4 news has a clear subtext – we’re all fucked. The Great Decline and probably The Last Days are upon us.
At least that’s what I’m ‘supposed’ to think.
I’ve written before about how humans are neurologically wired to remember bad experiences more distinctly than good ones. We crave those stories of what a friend of mine calls ‘the problem’. There is always a ‘problem’. Something is wrong, and our neurology is geared to notice this, to be attentive, to marshal cognition and muscles and language and culture, to address it. Think about it, what for you is ‘the problem’ now? Or to put it in another way, what is there that needs to be done next? Something, as every politician will urgently inform you, simply must be done.
But what if nothing needs doing and more broadly the world does not need either ‘saving’ or abandoning? What if, as the poem Desiderata puts it; ‘whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should’? Pan back in space and time for example; witness the differences that humans are making to the planet. Through the destruction of forests, the burning of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, nanotechology, the internet, the global gradual increase in human lifespans. Grand changes indeed, but nowhere near what happened in the early earth; when the atmosphere was poisoned with oxygen by selfish genes who photosynthesised without any thought of the long-term consequences. On that basis, and given the ability of life as a whole to recover from all kinds of environmental changes and externally visited events (like meteor strikes), I don’t have much fear that humans will spell the end of life on this planet no matter what we do.
‘The problem’, in essence, is imagined to come from us humans and our relations with each other (and this is an often forgotten point about apocalyptic visions; that they always include some form of human generated original sin). Something is wrong with people. According to some we are Godless perverts doomed to Biblical floods, for others we are debilitatingly deluded by our dangerous faith in a supreme being. Our apocalyptic commentators must find this Fall and then, through their eschatology, deliver us from evil (which typically is realised by going back to some primordial state or transcending the meat suit of the body).
Perhaps ‘the problem’ can be fixed by becoming a breatharian and preparing to ascend into your lightbody for 2012? Maybe the Fall was industrialisation, or farming and the answer is to prepare for a post civilisation world (cue ninja bushcraft and air rifle practice). Maybe the problem is all that Paganism in the Bible and we should start handing out copies of The Watchtower? Or if the problem is Xtianity, then being a Satanist is surely the right (er?) thing to do \m/ Ave Satanas! etc.
Not only are these discourses sometimes examples of answering the complex question of our being-in-the-world with a simple answer, they also often claim that, ‘the problem’, whether through positive action or ennui, must be engaged with. According to this mindset, we need to address what’s going on round here. To do any less indicates woolly-headed, naïve, fluffy-quasi New Age thinking, lacking in rigour, and in courage to face facts.
I would agree that many of ‘the problems’ faced by our species are very real; social inequality, for my money, is the biggest one (pun intended). However the story of the evolution of our planet, and the development in technical capacity by humans, does not in my view necessarily point to the show being over by any means. What if things are going to work out just fine? This isn’t to say that hurt, horror, pain, inequality doesn’t happen. This isn’t to say that everything is okay now and nothing needs to be done, to be nurtured, or to be opposed. Rather it is to take a rather grander, and simpler (less ideologically driven) position that provides a somewhat Taoist-flavoured perspective.
Now when people think of Taoism they tend to imagine rather beatifically smiling tai chi teachers and jolly old wise men. That’s all true of course, but there are also plenty of fascinatingly engaged and tactical expressions of this paradigm. The perception of the Way of the Tao (and one might argue the ‘Way of the Wyrd’ in a western context) isn’t about not acting. It’s not even about not making mistakes, but it is about finding, and indeed in some sense trusting in, the Way. Trusting in the process.
The Taoist classic the Tao Te Ching has various things to say about politics and social relations. Including advice for government ministers;
Governing a large country
is like frying small fish.
Too much poking spoils the meat.
When the Tao is used to govern the world
then evil will lose its power to harm the people.
Not that evil will no longer exist,
but only because it has lost its power.
Just as evil can lose its ability to harm,
the Master shuns the use of violence.
If you give evil nothing to oppose,
then virtue will return by itself.
~ John McDonald translation ~
What a powerful spell this Taoist-style perception is! A life-hack on our own neurology, a banishing on the Fall and the Apocalypse memes, a magic that may nurture and empower us in every sphere. What a radical (and indeed in some senses revolutionary or even ‘Satanic’) enchantment to cast! But this charm can’t simply be deployed at a linguistic level. Transforming ‘problems’ into ‘challenges’ is all well and good (as long as we can keep our sense of humour about what we’re doing). For a deeper effect giving thanks is a potent technique, as are methods such as Metta Bhavana and changing our perspective. One might build this development, of an ‘active equanimity’, into a ritual. Releasing our fear of the future in order to free up cognitive capacity and widen our awareness:
As your own neurology relaxes around the idea of ‘the problem’, so you get into that Taoist groove. Experiencing the deep understanding, the gnosis that the universe is unfolding just as it should. Being aware that, as you make contact with this paradigm, the effect on you will ripple outward, in weirdy astral and direct inter-personal terms, touching everyone you’re in contact with. Invoking a nurturing, compassionate and engaged relationship with the world. Giving you an attentive and relaxed place from which to make judgements that open up, rather than limit, our possible futures.
Thanks for reading this, enjoy yourself, and as…
(You may also want to listen to less Radio 4 news 😉 )