Should we seek isolation to find true peace? Or is it the complexity of community that truly defines us all?
Legendary Chinese philosopher and founder of Daoism, Lao Dan wrote in his book (Dao De Jing) that we should shun society, stay away from pleasing things and focus singularly on the self. 2500 years later, American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said we must simplify life. To illustrate his point he took up residence near Walden Pond to tune into nature for an experiment.
The theory is society clutters us unnecessarily; the theory is we should seek isolation in order to know true peace, to know the Dao or to live unencumbered. The theory is that we should not affect or be affected by society, we should withdraw from humanity if we seek to find our own humanity.
I believe it is the clutter around us that defines us, that gives us that unique spark. Humanity is what it is because of one trait, the ability to cooperate for a common good. No individual can rise alone. It takes a village, so to speak, and the village is complex. We need complexity in order to thrive. Complexity lends us our humanity.
So who is correct? The vaunted master of Chinese thought, the celebrated American poet/philosopher, or me; a lowly American ex-pat living in South China, teaching English to little kids and reading, reading, reading?
I will let you decide.
First, let’s explore what Thoreau was talking about when he exclaimed “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (Walden: Where I Lived And What I Lived For)
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave it close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to it’s lowest terms.”
I love how this man writes.
He has decided to get to the bottom of this thing called life, to reduce it to its lowest common denominator, to see if he can learn from nature how life should proceed.
He makes his famous call for simplicity later in the essay when he says:
“Our life is frittered away by detail.”
“Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states with its boundary forever fluctuating so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.”
He cries out.
There are too many things going on; it would seem; too many changes, all too hard to keep a handle on. We can all relate to this scene. How many of us are buried in bills, how many of us are constantly changing jobs always trying to get more, more, more? To simplify, to reduce our boundaries would seem to be excellent advice.
The semi-mystical sage Lao-Tzu, or Lao Dan, wrote a book that runs along the same lines as Thoreau, or rather, Thoreau goes along with Lao Dan as the Dao De Jing pre-dates Walden by over two thousand years. Lao Dan also advises us to simplify.
The Dao De Jing is comprised of basically eighty-one ‘chapters’. I am using the English edition published by HarperCollins Publishers with translations and notes by Stephen Mitchell as my reference point in this part of my essay. It is an excellent version and I highly recommend purchasing it and reading it over and over for twenty years, as I have done.
The concept of simplification as a means to achieving peace and inner serenity is repeated throughout the book. Here are some examples:
- Chapter 7: the master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.
- Chapter 8: In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple… When you are content to be-simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
- Chapter 12: Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavours numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart. Chapter thirteen tells us success is as dangerous and failure. Hope is as hollow as fear. And finally chapter twenty: Stop thinking, and end your problems. What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!
- Chapter 26: if you let restlessness move you, you lose touch with who you are.
- Chapter 42: Ordinary men hate solitude. But the master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.
So you see, Lao Dan would have us become hermits living in caves. He suggests we have nothing to do with the fruits of man’s ingenuity and we should focus on the simplicity of the Dao, of Nature and her power to overcome all obstacles by simply being. He suggests the common goal of mankind should be the achievement of perfection in nature. Peace and serenity as the end game.
But then what?
Once we achieve the serenity of being one with the Dao, what is our next move? Mankind is a species that requires goals, forward movement, action. There can be no end game for our race. We will always want more. To sit silently in our caves, drinking no wine, eating no delicious food, listening to no sound other than the birds and wind, seeing no vibrant color, this is a description of hell. This is a description of surrender to an enemy of our devising.
Thoreau’s concept of escaping chaotic society by returning to nature and through attrition and the shedding of the things of man, learning what it is life offers in it’s purest form, disregards a basic human need. Living in the woods, alone with the birds and brush, sounds ideal but even Mr. Thoreau had house guests. People would come and discuss philosophy with him, come to gape at the crazy man, or just come to bring him human necessities such as books and writing materials. Walden was not far enough to bring him true isolation. The whistle of a passing train was subject of many of his writings. Like it or not, he was inspired by human noises and the chaos that lie just over the hill from his wooden shack. I don’t believe he ever accomplished his goal of nailing life down in a corner and examining it. Society intruded, humanity called out, complexity beckoned.
So I say embrace complexity! It is not going anywhere and it is intertwined in our species like a DNA helix. You cannot unravel who we are.
And who are we?
We are the only species on our planet to demonstrate a higher awareness of ourselves. There are species on Earth that cooperate, even communicate to a certain degree, but none to the extreme as we humans do.
Why is that relevant? Why is important to this discussion? Why call simplify a lie?
Because it is a lie. We no more want simplicity than we want a hole in the head. In fact, they are equal. Simplicity would be a hole in our head, a place where our striving for something more would leak out and pool at our feet. We need complexity. We crave it, strive for it.
Let’s look at what would happen if we did manage to escape the chaos of humanity, to find ourselves seated in the lotus position in a cave. We might feel this massive weight removed from our chest, a silence within that transcends description. Peace! At long last peace! And the serenity, wow it is awesome! I love my brother! I love all my enemies! And this white rice, while boring and uninspiring, fills my belly so completely!
And then what?
This state of peace could not endure. We’d become restless. We’d start thinking how much cooler all this would be if we did it in a group session. Then, once groups were formed, someone would reach nirvana better than someone else and then the race would be on once again.
It is this restlessness, this need to succeed that drives us as a race. We can deny it, defy it, even try to hide it, but there is no hiding from the truth. To truly simplify would be to lie about who we are. We need chaos, complexity, confusion and all the things that come from this restlessness. We need each other, we feed off each other, we grow in one another. We are human, we are restless; serenity is not ours to hold.