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.” [http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/lao.html]
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.