Striving for Strife


What else will humanity strive for? Would we be content merely to count our blessings, keep famine, plague and war at bay, and protect the ecological equilibrium? That might indeed be the wisest course of action, but humankind is unlikely to follow it. Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger, tastier. When humankind possesses enormous new powers, and when the threat of famine, plague and war is finally lifted, what will we do with ourselves? What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day? Write poetry? Success breeds ambition and our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals. – from Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

With a single paragraph, the brilliant Mr. Harari perfectly encapsulated what I have always considered to be the most frustratingly fatal folly of our species.

Over 5,000 years ago, a man named Lao-Tzu composed a deceptively simple book of ancient wisdom called the Tao Te Ching. Within its pages, he employed poetic verse in the service of dismantling the age-old notion that ambition is a virtue from which all progress and personal growth spring:

The Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act, they would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form, there is no desire. Without desire, there is tranquility. In this way all things would be at peace.

Lao-Tzu’s ideas inspired generations of Chinese truth-seekers to aspire to the ideal of the Sage through an ostensibly paradoxical lack of aspiration: “The Taoist sage has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail. He who never fails always succeeds. And he who always succeeds is all-powerful.” []

I often describe myself as lazy in my self-deprecating attempts at humor. When asked, for instance, why I don’t seek a romantic partner, I reply that I am too damn lazy to put out the effort and that a woman with even a modicum of self-esteem would quickly tire of my unwillingness to make the kind of compromises expected in such relationships. But what can be viewed as sloth from one angle can become something quite different if observed from a different perspective. Might it also be accurate to say that, finding myself content in my current circumstances, I am making a wise decision to refrain from muddying the waters?

My self-declared laziness was called into question recently by a friend who observed that a man who writes as prolifically as I do must be the antithesis of a slacker. While I appreciate the implicit compliment in his observation, I disagree with its premise. When asked why I write, I always find myself bereft of a suitable reply. I do not desire fame or notoriety (in fact, I positively bristle at the thought); I do not wish to earn money with my words nor do I hope to be published beyond the confines of this web space. I am not engaging in self-therapy nor do I expect advice, praise or commiseration. In essence, I write for the same reason that my dog chases after his own ass: when left to its own ambition-free devices, the act of writing is simply the natural spontaneous behavior of the organism that I am.

Americans in particular find the notion of non-ambition extraordinarily distasteful. Our entire culture is saturated with messages of aspiration and achievement, success and wealth, superiority and victory. Such unfettered motivations are precisely what have us on the fast-track to self-immolation. We’re admonished to never quit, always pursue our wildest dreams and desires, and derive our very sense of self-worth from tangibly measurable “achievements”. Look where this has gotten us. Yesterday, every single person living on the Hawaiian islands was treated to a real-life reenactment of Dr. Strangelove and yet, less than 24 hours later, the national zeitgeist has laughed it off and as if on auto-pilot, immediately resumed its suicidal pursuit of “exceptionalism”, both collectively and individually. We are literally incapable of reevaluating our troublesome “values” of which we’ve sung the praises for almost two and a half centuries. Our selfish arrogance has been on such full display for so long that we feel it impossible to rein it in without bringing humiliation and shame upon ourselves. But what’s so fucking terrible about a little humiliation and shame? If accepting such a deflation of collective ego is necessary to derail our current course of self-destruction, then it follows that just such wide scale humility would constitute the next stage of beneficial human evolution. It also follows that the continued pursuit of self-gratification, image and acquisition would constitute the path to extinction.

Ambition is not an essential element of positive action, though it is often a contaminant of it.  Acknowledging one’s actions as positive is not an essential element of positive action, though it often serves to confuse the actor with superfluous concepts and ego reification. Ambition dilutes purity. Non-doing is not non-action: it is fearlessly allowing natural action to play out as it will. Each of us is a vehicle of natural action. We needn’t worry that a dramatic decrease in our material desires may render us inert and dumb. A true understanding of one’s place in the natural dance engenders behavior that is always skillful for the very fact that it is un-self-consciously so.

Being alive means that we will continue to encounter situations and events that require skillful action. However, we can only display such natural poise in the face of conflict if we dispense of the notion of conflict altogether. We can fight with life or we can dance with it. Which stands to yield the optimum results?

When the war is over and the battlefield is empty, do not remain crouched in your foxhole on alert for the next violent eruption. The wise warrior lays down his arms, goes home and rests by the fire with no thought of future sorties. He dispenses of the notions of glory and victory and savors the eternal moment of sacred silence. And this is precisely why he will live to fight another day.

Do not make declarations or statements of intent. Listen not to the voices of wealth-saddled misery beckoning you to keep them company. Dispense of ideals and shed your beliefs. Avoid task masters and those who dole out cunning advice. The true masters of the Universe have no names, hold no titles, and are unrecognizable in the flesh. Those who fear not death or failure are the true Immortals. If you can release your grasp, cease struggling, lay down and die, you will surely live forever.

24 thoughts on “Striving for Strife

      1. Surprisingly I think this is actually the first Alan Watts I’ve read. I’ve listened to hours and hours of his talks on YouTube but I didn’t own any of his books until Christmas. If I don’t ever manage that blog post I’ll still be sure to let you know my thoughts on it. It’s along the lines of: what he preaches is basically a paradigm for letting go of paradigm…
        And thank you. I’m pleased to know you are still supportive of my work after all this time.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe not a van , but a cozy cottage in the country side . Through data stratification I can’t help but look at the future , and strive towards maximizing my assets so that myself and family can live comfortably when the time comes.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. As long as planning for the future is recognized as simply the specific tenor of the present moment, it can be accomplished with as little anxiety as the act of tying one’s shoes and can therefore be entertained without ambition as defined here. But I should point out that they make some really nice vans these days — some roomier than my apartment.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. The article you linked to goes on to say something meaningful about the Tao: “Whatever the truth, Taoism and Confucianism have to be seen side-by-side as two distinct responses to the social, political and philosophical conditions of life two and a half millennia ago in China.” They are different, Confucianism having more to do with social structure and governance while Taoism is the individual path one would take. As Watts describes it in one of his lectures: Taoism is more of a rite of passage once you’ve put aside the pursuits and ambitions of life and, basically, have “retired”, in the Western sense, and have the time to contemplate the deeper things of life. Or, as Socrates puts it: The purpose of philosophy is to prepare one for death. Achieving that state of mind as an active, working individual in today’s world is an enviable thing.
    Your last two sentences encapsulate these very ideals, as do all the words here. Thanks, Paul, for the refreshing insights.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’ve heard much about the different but not conflicting purposes of Confucianism vs. Taoism, but I think those comparisons are made for purposes of clarity. Confucian ideals followed faithfully but without self-consciousness would constitute what Lao-Tzu meant by “non-action” and can therefore be seamlessly incorporated into a Taoist inspired life. Thanks, Pablo!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, you don’t fool me. You undoubtedly have a desire when you write, like the pedophile in a preschool, you hope to reach out and touch someone. Else why post your philosophical sermons online — for all to read? If you were true to your word – you’d write them and burn them (or at least store them in a thumbdrive for baffled archeologists to find in the year 22018).

    I’d submit that humanity is the ultimate form of life (as we know it) and one of the defining attributes of life is to expand to fill all space, all niches. This trait, I’d wager, is one that is evident in us as a blend of curiosity, a dollop of manifest destiny and a thick slice of ambition. This trait, I would continue, reveals itself as a continuum from this state of tranquil acceptance of the null all the way to the thrashing, clawing screams of stockbrokers and their masters the institutional bankers. The notion, I would point out, spans from zero —–> to narcissistic ambition.

    And we all fall upon this scale. And I would agree that the bell curve of distribution is such that desire skews up to the right, much more than one would hope. But without some form of this basic life characteristic — we’d mostly likely not be alive. Does not all medicine, technology, progress stem from the rejection of the status-quo? Could we have this conversation without someone, millions of someones, in the past, having ambition to excel and strive for betterment?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Two thoughts: 1) this is why communism, in its original form, can never be a sustainable system–no one is content to have what everyone else has. 2) this is very timely–just this morning I was saying to Ken, “Why have I spent the last two mornings writing a short story and a blog? I don’t care about being rich or famous, and I probably never will be. Am I just wasting time?” He said, “You write because you like to do it. No better reason than that.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very true. And since time is an abstract measure of a misunderstood phenomenon (i.e. the chain of cause and effect upon which we apply a contrived measurement is not actually what we think of as linear time), it stands to reason that it cannot be wasted.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Since I’ve become sick, I have a lot of time on my hands. Rarely, if ever, do get bored anymore, but when I do, I just take a nap.
    As much as it saddens me occasionally that I cannot any longer bust my ass to make a living, I’m much more content to live a simple life… and as for trying to find a partner, all joking aside, if you are content, then good for you. I get it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This Paul, THIS.
    ‘If you can release your grasp, cease struggling, lay down and die, you will surely live forever.’
    My mind is once again blown, and I find myself uniquely inspired by your words. Thank you for this. All of it. You are fucking brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In honor of your post, I was not going to respond, because responding is doing something. However, I had to let you know I appreciated your brilliance, so here I am…doing something. What a paradox you have created. I suppose, like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear the sound, if I wrote a book and just left it on a thumb drive, the book would have existed only for me…and I would have missed out on one of the ultimate human pleasures: sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL! I will re-categorize all my actions going forward as neither “doing” or “non-doing”…but sharing. So, thank YOU for consistently sharing your thoughts of WP. A small audience, yes, but an appreciative one.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I find myself in much the same place as some of the others here, stunned by the brilliance of the work and unable to form a suitable response, be it counter or concordance. I think I need to explore the narrow line between non-doing and non-actin a little more … or is that truly a chasm?

    I will share this, very quickly: reading this made me think of the response I get from people when I tell them about the theory espoused by many futurists today, namely that the end of capitalism is near. As the cost of production gets to essentially zero through automation and scientific breakthrough, everything we want or need will cost nothing so there would no longer need to be an exchange of money for goods. Simultaneously, those same breakthroughs will eliminate the need for toil. Folks won’t have to work; everything is accessible.

    People look at me, perplexed, and say “then what reason would anybody have to do anything?” in which I always respond “for the love of it, of course.”

    You do this because you love it, I suspect, same as me, and same as Ken surmised for the reason that Suzanne does it. In a better world, we would performs actions for their own rewards, and perhaps for the greater good, and not for the ambition of ourselves.

    I don’t know it that’s the point I wanted to make, or the one you were making, but that’s what I came up with today while I should have been “doing” more at work. 😏

    Liked by 1 person

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