There is a line that comes to me at least once every week. Like so many things that have made a deep impression on me, and changed the way I go about my daily life, they were first spoken by my late T’ai Chi grandmaster John Kells. He said, ‘Softness is when our physicality no longer resists energy.’
After half a lifetime of forcing myself to do things against my own will… Or rather, my will forcing the organism usually known as Caroline to do things against her own gut, I have slowly begun to yield to the requirements of life, rather than to batter myself against them and be proud of my bruises.
Doing, doing, doing, doing, doing.
Like John Lanchester’s ‘concrete, concrete, concrete, concrete, concrete…’ from his book The Wall.
Non-doing cannot be approached via the acute angle of action. Only glimpsed at first when attempting to move in life without a forceful mind. How do we get anything done without forcefulness? I can’t answer that for anyone else, any more than I could show an oak tree how to grow its taproot in a granite cleft.
In the phrase, ’no longer resists energy’ is the hopeful glint of something utterly precious, the radical idea that human creatures, like all other living beings, can respond intuitively to and in concert with our surroundings, times and events, if left to their innate inclinations after having been raised in conviviality – that is to say – within a loving community. That the baseline of being alive is not resisting things-as-they-are, and that what is needed to better respond to the given moment is to let go of that which resists. That the result of this would look like very little, but be supremely beneficial to a much wider cohort of what we dismissively refer to as ‘life on earth’ than any product of will, ingenuity or progress. That there would be infinitely fewer iatrogenic effects (‘doctor-caused’, or in this context, the endlessly proliferating side-effects of doing).
Well that all sounds very nice, very Tao of Pooh. What is it that resists? Almost everything in our conditioning, especially the ‘good bits’. The wall of will is made of every encouraging word when we ploughed onward, every admiring glance from impressed schoolmates or colleagues. I find my own bricks aren’t made of fear, they are made of compressed pride, a much harder, more impervious substance.
For softness to have any chance of permeating a person, and for that softness to benefit those in connection with them, two conditions must arise. One is yielding to our conditioning, which I heard nicely summed-up in this phrase, ‘giving up for good the possibility of a happier past’. The second is letting go of the desire to win at all costs. This one’s a challenge. There’s a reason that ‘eat bitter’ and ‘invest in loss’ are such unpopular Taoist maxims. Everybody loves ‘wu wei’ and ‘be like water’, but no one wants their will to be continually be thwarted and to find themselves in the lowest places (which is where you find water).
‘But I don’t want to win at all costs!’, we say. That’s a lie. We don’t want to lose, or die, or have our cities crumble, our way of life hijacked or destroyed. What is it in us that will persist under those circumstances? Ask those who have lost a lot, or everything. Ask refugees, and those who have survived near death. We could revere the wisdom of the marginalised rather than reject it. But it’s bitter medicine, and our tastes have changed as now we only want to pay for sweetness.
Here are two streams with which, with luck, can eat away at our will and forceful minds.
Neither makes any sense to that which resists energy, indeed, they actively dissolve that wall. Humour to laugh at oneself, primarily, and love, especially when we cannot imagine it, seem so plain, and so ordinary, and not worthy of a thousand words.
Like water, then – the highest good.