“Wu-wei is the understanding that energy is gravity, and thus that brush writing, or dancing, or judo, or sailing, or pottery, or even sculpture is following patterns in the flow of liquid.”
“Panta rhei—everything flows, and therefore the understanding of water is the understanding of life. Fire is water falling upwards.”
– Alan Watts, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown
I’m a novice when it comes to Chinese philosophy – Taoism – and perhaps I should have spent more time previously in pursuit of a better understanding. But in a way I was following my own flow in a different direction. Or better put, I was following a parallel stream with gardening, hiking and time on the water. Eventually experience leads you to the same conclusions, even if you don’t understand Chinese characters and the rituals that lead you to the stream. I’m not sure yet how deeply I’ll be swimming into this stream, but find it familiar and natural. I believe that’s the whole point.
Google the term “go with the flow” and you’ll see various points of origin, from Marcus Aurelius to William Shakespeare. I wrote a post a while back about the river as an analogy of timelessness. So to now tap into the stream of consciousness that is Alan Watts and dipping a toe into the waters of Taoism isn’t unnatural. Unnatural is commuting to the same place every day, sliding into a cubicle and staring at a screen for hours, working through lunch to prove you’re a team player and willing to pay the price to get ahead. Intuitively I knew I had to get out of that world as soon as possible and delighted in the exit strategy provided by my employer at the time. I used a phrase back in my rowing days to describe the lifestyle I’d found myself in with coaching and doing odd jobs to sustain my pursuits: It was an “attractive rut”. Enjoyable enough to keep doing it indefinitely, but limiting enough to recognize that you needed to do more in life. Attractive rut also summed up my time working 50 hours per week in an office environment. Great money, but soul-crushing in the end.
Career shifts, sabbaticals, graduations, divorce, moving across borders to new places and the like are all forms of state changes. Fire is water falling upwards. Transformation of our former self into something new, as dried wood transforms to fuel for fire then ash and finally back to the earth to begin again as something entirely different. But transformation happens in every moment along the way from birth to death. The question for each of us is how true to our path we remain along the way (I’m reminded of splitting wood, and how some pieces are all knotted and stubbornly resist the swing of the axe. Difficult and unnatural, but they’re consumed by the flame just the same in the end). This concept of transformation isn’t exclusive to Taoism:
“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” — Genesis 3:19
We’re inherently different people day-by-day as experience molds us and events steer us just as water swirls around rocks in a stream. We’re watching the world around us swirl around the pandemic and social unrest and transform who we are and will be downstream, and I recognize that I’m also transforming. And so it is. Life is a dance, and we’re all finding our way across the page one way or another, following patterns in the flow of liquid and making our small ripple in the endless stream of time. There’s nothing unnatural about Tao, for it is inherently the natural path of life. What’s unnatural is resisting the flow and diverting yourself towards pursuits that don’t align with who you are. One of the beautiful things about life is discovering your own flow and releasing the resistance to following it.