Puritanism and the reversal of opposites: dissolution of extremes and the coming end of an age
The West – or rather, the North West corner of this small planet – is by tradition and by psychology, puritanical in bent, still, even though this tradition is recent, spanning only the past few hundred years, and even though much of it has been shaken off; and at the same time, the West is also the bastion of a very unbalanced hyper-individualism, hedonism, consumerism, materialism and excess – and no, this is no mere stereotype or inappropriate description, whatever pleasantries we may tell ourselves. (We are also hyper-individualistic, even narcissistic, while having a poverty of inner life, naturalness and authenticity, preferring instead to stick with the herd, and to repress our true feelings and thoughts at all costs – which is another, closely related set of polar opposites.) How is it that such extremes can coexist in one society? The answer is that extremes give rise naturally to their opposites, as the Taoists knew well, and these two polar extremes are mutually generative of their opposite poles. Excessive repression breeds excessive self-indulgence, just as excessive self-indulgence will tend naturally to give rise to repressive impulses. (This was, after all, how the Reformation arose, and one excess lead to its opposite extreme, as indulgence was replaced by repression – Weber would have seen even more clearly with the help of Lao Tzu. Fromm, Blake, Emerson and Thoreau, by the way, are perhaps the closest we have to the Taoists in the West, and we should study them too, and with “ears to hear.”) We could take a lesson from the East, or from the ancient Greeks, and learn the lesson of moderation. We should also learn the lesson of the reversal of opposites: a principle tenet in Taoist philosophy.
“If you want to control the cattle, move back the fences.” – Lao Tzu
If we wish for freedom, we must accept responsibility. If we are licentious or overly careless in our actions, we can expect a backlash of repression; just as, if we are overly passive, tyranny will arise. If we over-consume, a time of fasting will naturally follow – by choice or by dictates of circumstance. If we are too fastidious or self-denying, we will find that we burst out in unexpected ways. If we are repressive of others, they will sooner or later revolt, and all “order,” as we have artificially labelled and conceived of it, will be shattered, only to allow a new and less constricting order to arise.
“If I knew someone was coming to do me some good, I should like to get as far away as possible.”
– Henry David Thoreau
“Trust them, leave them alone.” – Lao Tzu
If we wish for peace, balance, harmony or justice in the world, health, well-being, basic sanity or freedom, then avoiding the extremes of repression and excess will be necessary. The sooner we learn this lesson, the less painful the lessons will be: life and nature will teach us one way or the other, and the slower the learning, the less pleasant, so the general rule goes.
“The older man gets, the stupider he gets, for he was born soft and supple, but dies hard and rigid.”
– Lao Tzu
“Soft overcomes hard.” – Lao Tzu
Find the middle way. Moderation in all things, including moderation. Start, first of all, by rediscovering a basic naturalness and simplicity, balanced by a basic friendliness and compassion for others, and the balance will be restored.
“Return to your original nature.” – Lao Tzu
If too passive, grow bold; if too aggressive, soften. If too meek, grow brave; if reckless, learn some caution and alertness. If too cool, warm up; if too hot-blooded, cool down. If heavy-handed, open the palm; if too docile, speak up, act. This is not simple-minded: it is intelligent simplicity. We all know it, though few practice it, or practice it only haphazardly. A little more consciousness reflections as to our personal and social habits of thought, speech and action, will restore a far greater degree of harmony and also justice, ecological sensibility, and joy to our lives, communities, and to this world. It is our choice however. Simple is best, but complicated sometimes works too. Except…that complicated is not working so well for us. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
“Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
Repression leads to excess, excess leads to repression. When things go to an extreme, that is precisely when they are most likely to flip to their opposite pole. If we want order, stability, peace, harmony, freedom, democracy, justice, well-being, ecological sustainability, or even a basic sanity in the world, then the extremes of repression and excess simply must be tamed and curbed. This is a simple truth, and it is of profound significance whether or not we understand it, and whether we are willing to apply its lesson. Think now, pause, reflect, and restore the natural balance. Life will not spare us its consequences if we refuse to listen now.
The two poles of repression and excess are now both intensifying and also widening: the falcon cannot hear the falconer, the centre does not hold, and things are near a breaking point. Return to the centre, restore the balance, loosen the repressive knot, sever the binds, and move back the fences. In a word: simplify, simplify, simplify. Restore harmony and vitality to society by returning to the natural: trust yourself. Break the bondage now – simply, and without great excess.
Know that dawn is coming. Night does not last forever, and even the darkest night has its beautiful starlight and soft moon. Relish and savour the simple, and new life will be sparked, refreshing all, empowering and clarifying meaningful action, quickening the changes that are needed, and thus renewing the world. It begins with the wonder of a drop of dew, or a grain of sand, moonlight on a lake, or a wildflower. Simplify, open, appreciate what is before you and within you, then act with love and naturalness for the benefit of all. Trust yourself. New life begins in every moment. New life begins now.
I am no poet and no Taoist sage, but the simple is discernable, and the simple is what we need to rediscover now. Simplicity, naturalness and compassion: we could do much worse for our means of guidance – and presently, we are.
Compassion curbs the excesses of excess; simplicity and naturalness curb the excess of repression. When the two poles are harmonized, our natural intelligence and basic goodness is unleashed and unchained, revealed and empowered for the mutual benefit of all, and basic sanity emerges as the light of a new dawn. When the poles are separated and pushed to extremes, then all forms of madness reign, and terror is unleashed upon the land and in the minds of human beings everywhere. Re-unite the two, rediscover the natural, ever-dynamic balance. This is not meant to be cryptic or mysterious, but merely evocative: the heart listens often, more closely and more deeply, to imagery than to reason; therefore, both reason and metaphor can be utilized to restore us to our senses.
“When the two become one, the inner and the outer, the above and below, the male and the female, then you shall see.” – Jesus
Use what works. Keep it simple. Strive for mutual benefit. It is not so very complicated. An excessive fondness with our ideologies – a fixation based upon fear and mistrust of our own nature – has led us to over-complicate virtually everything. Good thing moving our bowels doesn’t require a PhD, or we’d over-complicate that too. Simplify: blunt the extremes, open the heart, embrace your power, and trust yourself to act with natural intelligence on that basis.
The Tao is ever cycling, ever-dynamic, ever-changing, ever-changeless, ever new, ever alive with intelligence and sparkling life. This too shall pass, and a new harmony will be found. Extremes pass away, and harmony is naturally sought by all life. Old orders are now dying. The shell of the old ways is crumbling. A new world is being born. Let us be her midwives, and greet her with great joy.
The advice that the Buddha gave to the lute player sums it up perfectly, “neither too tight nor too loose.” Simplicity and naturalness will soften the extremes of repression. Simplicity and compassion will moderate the extremes of excess. Simplicity is the axis of equilibrium. Naturalness and compassion are the two beacons held in balance. Start with appreciation and a basic trust of oneself, and the warmth and openness of compassion and naturalness will flower. A subtle shift in perspective is all that is needed. With that, inner and outer are both transformed, harmony is restored, and the world is reborn.
June 16, 2011