The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
TL;DR: Take space. Take all the space you need.
The Tao of Pooh is Benjamin Hoff’s attempt to explain Taoism and Taoist beliefs to the layperson - using Pooh, his friends, and their antics to serve as an analogy for The Way of Tao. Now what is Taoism? I don’t really know, but I’m going to attempt to explain it. Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy that arose around the same time as Confucianism, seemingly as a bit of an opposing force to Confucianism’s rigidity, simplicity, and rules-based approach to life. The Tao or “The Way,” or “Nature,” or “The Universe” is first and foremost a completely personal lived experience. It refuses to be intellectualized or codified. In fact, the very attempt to add structure or language to the Tao means that you do not understand the Tao (the first rule of the Tao is you do not speak of the Tao, no prizes for guessing the second rule). It’s understanding your Inner Nature as well as the nature of the world around us, and creating harmony between the two.
And why Pooh? Because Pooh is a bit of an embodiment of many of the principles of Taoism. He doesn’t try very hard, over-intellectualize matters, or grasp at things beyond his means - but somehow everything always seems to work out for him. I guess that’s Taoism? Check back in a couple years, I’m still learning. I’ve pulled out some of the quotes from the book that made me think, maybe they’ll make you think too.
“The Way of Self-Reliance starts with recognizing who we are, what we’ve got to work with, and what works best for us.”
What is Inner Nature and how do you find it? That’s a somewhat duplicitous question because I know what my Inner Nature is, I can feel it. But when I try to put it into words, I immediately put myself in a prison of my own creation. By claiming parts of yourself as an identity, you in fact suppress other parts of yourself that very much exist. For example, for most of my life, I’ve been described as “outgoing” and “friendly,” and I totally bought it. I spent so much of my time obsessing about my social life, planning engagements every single day so I could keep up the identity I had created for myself. And if I ever noticed that people were drifting away from me or I had a Friday with no plans, I would feel anxious. I would feel as though something was wrong. With me. And I would immediately hop to to fix it. I gave my power away to an idea of who I was, rather than paying attention to who I actually was.
Yes, I love people and connection, but you know what else I really love? Hanging out at home with my parents, going on long drives by myself, journaling on my own, reading on my own, painting on my own, meditating on my own. I love being on my own and this whole time I’ve been denying myself that simple pleasure because I thought I was supposed to be “social.” It wasn’t until I gave myself some s p a c e that I was able to see, nurture, and integrate this aspect of myself.
“There is no such thing as an ability that is too useless, too crooked, or too small. It only depends on what you do with it. As Lao-tse pointed out, the bad can be raw material for the good.”
Somehow everything always comes back to Shadow Work. The shadow is an aggregate of aspects of yourself that you suppress. The shadow develops because when you show these aspects of yourself over the course of your childhood, people begin to react negatively to it and learn that this part of yourself is “bad.”
For me, it was anger. When I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to be angry. In my family, Children (especially those of the female variety) simply didn’t get to be angry. Of course, we all know, everyone feels anger. My dog gets angry at me all the time, but I force my love on him anyway because that’s just the relationship that we have and no one gets to say anything about it because that’s just how it is. Anyway... I spent the better part of my life suppressing anger and distracting myself from it, until it would get to a point where it was so built up within me that it would explode through - hurting me and everyone around me in the process. My twenties have been an exploration of how to work with this anger in productive ways. Used correctly, anger can be healing, it can help you make and stick to decisions, it can be a catalyst for transformation, it can be an indication of something in your life that needs to change, it can be an effective means of communication, it can be a protective shield. But only if you control it, and not the other way around.
How well do you know your own shadow?
“In the story of the Ugly Duckling, when did the Ugly Duckling stop feeling Ugly? When he realized that he was a swan. Each of us has something Special, a Swan of some sort, hidden inside somewhere. But until we recognize that it’s there, what can we do but splash around, treading water. The Wise are Who They Are. They work with what they’ve got and do what they can do.”
I truly believe this. I think there are multiple beautiful swans inside each and every one of us and, given the right environment, these swans would thrive. Unfortunately, we live in a world that recognizes only certain swans as swans and denigrates so many aspects of the human spirit and potential as worthless, unproductive little ducklings. I really think it boils down to this - will your skill make a constantly increasing amount of money in this capitalist society we live in? Yes? You and your skills are worthy. No? Fuck off loser.
The way in which we condition children and people of this nation to align their skills, output, and interest to whatever will make them the most money is, I’m sure, well intentioned, but ultimately soul-crushing and destructive. I see this all the time in my Indian, immigrant, family. Educated, kind, loving, people that compel their children into STEM degrees for the sake of “stability.” But really it’s fear. A fear of the unknown, a fear of trying and failing, a fear of not understanding their children. I say, arm them with Kendrick lyrics (all I have in life is my new appetite for failure) and allow them to discover and develop their Swans for themselves. And be ok with them defining success for themselves.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that all this comes from a place of deep privilege. I have the resources to take time and space to pay attention to what is within because I am not worried about where my next meal will come from. There are so many people in this country and this world that are still in a place where survival is the only goal. But, I think the point is that regardless of who you are and what your circumstances are, there is a potential for beauty and greatness within you. And I think that means something, even if the world around you doesn’t recognize it (I love myself; The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs; I love myself; It can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind. Thanks K-dot).
“‘The Tao does not do, but nothing is not done.’ It means that Tao doesn’t force or interfere with things, but lets them work in their own way, to produce results naturally. Then whatever needs to be done is done.”
This is probably the aspect of Taoism that most people living in the modern world will take serious issue with, but I think it actually makes a lot of sense. It comes down to working smart rather than working hard. If you’re swimming in a river, for example, you’ll get much further faster if you pay attention to the current and work with it rather than against it. Instead we (1) pay no attention to the current and set goals for ourselves that work directly against inner and outer nature and (2) as a society place a lot of value in the ensuing struggle.
We’ve been conditioned from a young age to not only work hard but to always appear to be working hard (#hustleculture). Why? Please someone explain this to me, what is so great about working hard if there is no joy in it? Feels to me like the social conditioning that us worker bees have to undergo to convince ourselves that we are entirely happy “hustling” away all day every day to make even more money for already rich white men.
I have nothing against work. Work ethic and discipline are incredibly important, and the foundation of any meaningful life. I’m not advocating for no work. What I am against are (1) making a whole personality and identity out of being a hard worker (because it makes me question what you’re trying to distract yourself from), (2) working without joy, (3) working without an understanding of the deeper purpose. I think when you work from a place of meaning, love, and understanding, it simply doesn’t feel like work anymore. It’s also about taking some time to search for your own personal current, rather than wasting all your energy trying to swim to a spot that someone else pointed out to you.
And you know what, there’s also something beautiful about allowing the current to take you wherever it wants to, not forcing anything at all. Maybe you’ll end up somewhere better than you yourself could have imagined.
“We simply need to believe in the power that’s within us, and use it. When we do that, and stop imitating others and competing against them, things begin to work for us.”
We have to believe, we have to pay attention, and we have to step off the treadmill of modern-day life to give ourselves the space for deeper creativity. I sometimes think the experience of life can feel like food in an esophagus. One specific direction to move in, counter to the laws of gravity (nature), and a fuck-ton of pressure pushing you that way. And I’ve found the best tool against this is to simply start asking why. Why do I want this? Why am I doing this? And then give yourself the space you need to actually come up with answers. A deeper understanding of self leads to a deeper understanding of the world around us and the part we play in it.
“Like silence after noise, or cool, clear water on a hot stuffy day, Emptiness cleans out the messy mind and charges up the batteries of spiritual energy.”
And if there is one paragraph that resonated with me more than anything else in this book, it’s this:
“Many people are afraid of Emptiness, however, because it reminds them of Loneliness. Everything has to be filled in, it seems, but when all the spaces are filled, the Loneliness really begins. Then the Groups are joined, the Classes are signed up for, and the Gift-to-Yourself items are bought. When the Loneliness starts creeping in the door, and the Television Set is turned on to make it go away. But it doesn’t go away.”
I mean, if that’s not a perfect encapsulation of my 20s, I don’t know what is. I felt a constant need to fill the void within - with substances, pretty clothes, and pretty people - when I all I ever needed to do was enter the void, empty, and become wind (yes that’s an Avatar reference, fight me.) Loneliness is not warded away with things and people, loneliness must be faced head on and befriended. Then she turns into s p a c e, and space is welcome, peaceful, beautiful, generative, and complete essential.
You made it all the way here??? Awesome, shoot me a note and tell me your thoughts!