Posts tagged ‘stress’

In Praise of Hardship

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.

October 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm 1 comment

A Chuang Tzu Story

In my last post I wrote about a line I found in Chuang Tzu on ancestor worship. I was actually looking at Chuang Tzu to find this story (quoted in my book, The Spiritual Teachings of the Tao),

Tzu Kao, the Duke of Sheh, was about to leave on a mission when he decided to consult Confucius.

“The King is sending me on an important mission to Chi. The Prince of Chi will probably treat me with great respect, but will be in no hurry to deal with me. It’s difficult enough to hurry an ordinary man, much less a prince. This worries me no end. You have always told me ‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

My diet is plain and simple, I eat no spicy dishes that  make me thirsty. Yet only this morning I received my orders, and this afternoon I’m already gulping iced water. My body’s burning up, and the mission hasn’t even started! If it fails, I’ll be judged harshly. I suffer on two fronts and don’t feel capable of carrying out this commission. Can you give me some advice?”

The Master replied, ”In the world there are two great principles: one is the requirement implanted in our nature and the other is the conviction of what is right. The love of a daughter for her parents is implanted in her, and can never be erased from her heart. That a minister should serve his ruler is what is right, and he can’t escape this obligation. These are called the great universal principles.

Therefore a daughter finds peace in serving her parents wherever they may be, and this is the height of devotion. Similarly, a minister finds peace in serving his ruler, whatever the matter, and this is the height of loyalty. When you simply obey the commands of your heart, thoughts  of sorrow and joy don’t arise. There’s no alternative to acting as you do, and you accept this as your destiny. This is the perfection of virtue.

As a minister and a son you must do what can’t be avoided. Absorb yourself in your mission and ignore your own self. When will you have time to think of loving life or hating death? Act like this and all will be well.

Let your mind be content with the situation you’re in. Stay centered, and resign yourself to the inevitable. This is the ultimate you can pursue. What else can you do to fulfil the charge of great Tao? The best thing you can do is also the most difficult- to let things take their natural course.”

I wanted to read this story, because I had remembered these lines,

‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

I was wondering how well I was doing in following Tao in relation to my law suit against the Monty Python group. A Taoist would say, ‘Don’t go to court. Forget it. It’s not worth the hassle and pain.” This is right. Don’t get embroiled in affairs is the Taoist way. Affairs, whether legal, business or sexual, get you entangled in them, and this leads to endless thoughts and strategies for either disentangling them, or finding a successful way through. The results of these actions are characterised correctly by Chuang Tzu- If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. You pay the price for engaging in these activities, whether you win or lose.

You will not be surprised if I tell you that I have not avoided distress during the 8 years of pursuing this case.  I did suffer and lost the even-tempered and tranquil Taoist mentality that is both difficult to find and hard to maintain. I suffered stress, illness and it probably took years off my life. Very un-Taoist.  So why did I take on this battle? In a couple of weeks I will have the Judgement on the case, and after that has come in I will try to explain why I undertook it. Till then, I had better stay silent.

June 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm 3 comments

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.