In Praise of Hardship

October 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm 1 comment

This weekend I attended an excellent and inspiring retreat organised by the British Taoist Association and led by Meng Zhiling, a Taoist Monk from Beijing. Among other things, Meng talked (via translators) about his time as a hermit in the mountains. As I understand it, he spent a total of 13 years there, the first five trying to locate a true practitioner of the Tao and the last eight living with the old Master that he found. His Master was the true practitioner that he was looking for.

Once he found his Master, and was accepted by him, Master Meng set about digging a cave for himself to live in. He dug it out, made furniture for himself, and started to raise vegetables to survive. The only things he bought were cooking oil and salt (his master did without either of those two items). Meng explained that in going to the mountains, he set himself hardships and difficulties. Living there was hard enough, especially in the winter, but Meng kept seeking harder and harder tasks to set himself. For example, as a monk he begged daily for food. But he limited himself to asking only 7 households for assistance. Whatever he got (if anything) from the 7 households was what he lived on for the day. If he got nothing then he went hungry. The area he lived in was remote and poor, so the people were not able to be generous in their help. His aim was to use these hardships as part of his self-cultivation – overcoming these hardships was his means of reclaiming his original nature. His aim was to follow the Tao, to achieve oneness with the Tao, and he used his hardships as a tool to accomplish this.

He was sometimes in situations where the remoteness of his travels, the harshness of the environment and the lack of food meant that he might have died, and no one would have known. Our saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” applies I think to what Meng was trying to achieve. Having overcome all the hardships he set himself, he knew that there were few situations that he would find himself in, in which he could not cope.

We all have hardships in our life. Most of us don’t choose these hardships as Meng did; we feel that hardships are imposed on us by life or karma. But Meng’s attitude of transforming the hardships into self-cultivation is open to anyone to accomplish. Instead of being defeated by hardships or suffering from them as an evil that cannot be avoided, we could change our attitude towards them, and use them (as he did) as tools to transform ourselves (in the Taoist sense of finding our original nature). To the Taoists the person who can transform harsh events like this is a cultivated person and one who is beaten down and defeated by hardships and is unable to overcome them is an ordinary person. Most of us are of course ordinary people, but it is still open to us to view hardships not as suffering imposed from outside (like fate) but as tools for transformation. I suppose Meng would agree with the saying that all experience is our teacher. Everything can be turned into a learning experience.

The problem is that hardships, suffering, financial problems are all stress inducing, and the effect of stress is to drain us of energy, weaken our immune system and make it harder to come back from defeats and disappointments. This is why practice is so important to Taoist cultivation. Practice means that we use other methods (also tools) to keep our body, mind and spirit in a state where we can withstand the damage of stress. Meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Kung, self-massage, acupuncture and all the other arts of self cultivation can help us keep bodily strength and energy that can fight off the depression and tiredness that afflicts the spirit.

It is not enough to have the right attitude to hardship. Attitude is philosophy or view, it is how our mind conceives of the hardships. This is important, is key, but it is not enough. We are also body, and if we do not train the body to fight off stressful damage, then our attitude can be overwhelmed by depression and illness. Taoism has tools for fighting off these difficulties on all fronts-where right attitude of mind and good energy of the body help to create a strong spirit. If all these are in place, the will is powerful, and all hardships can be overcome through transformation.

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Youssu N’Dour Never Grows Up – Good Idea! Living Philosophy – from my journal October 2006

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