Newsletter - July 2022
Flow versus Interference
We’ve all heard the phrase “to go with the flow.” It generally refers to going along with whatever is happening around us. “Interfering,” on other hand, is not going along with it, typically because we have a better idea in mind which is the driving force behind our attempts to make changes. The Tao Te Ching has interesting things to say about this.
It’s not as simple as going with the flow is good and interfering is bad. (The labels “good” and “bad” are problematic, but that’s a separate point.) For now, the point is there’s a subtle balance and we tend to err more on the interfering side. The Tao Te Ching simply points out the predictable consequences. Let’s explore them.
The Tao Te Ching says “the Tao… flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things” (chapter 25). “All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea” (chapter 32). “The great Tao flows everywhere. All things are born from it...” (chapter 34). The common theme is one of change, and of steady flowing change at that.
If this natural flowing change is what happens when things go their own way, then what happens when we try to make them go our way, as it were? The answer is that the natural balance is at risk. At worst, we can really mess things up. “When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct” (chapter 39). However, this is not to say that we mess up every time. I think the question is, where are we coming from when we act? Are we centered in ourselves and our actions spring from a desire to rearrange the world to suit ourselves? Or are we centered in the Tao and our actions spring from the Tao?
Here's how the Tao acts. “The Tao gives birth to all beings, nourishes them, maintains them, cares for them, comforts them, protects them, takes them back to itself, creating without possessing, acting without expecting, guiding without interfering” (chapter 51). Is that what we do when we act? If so, then we are centered in the Tao and are guiding rather than interfering. The keyword is “guiding” and the quote makes a clear distinction between this and interfering. This is why “True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering” (chapter 48).
So, why is it that we tend to interfere rather than go with the flow? Aside from simply wanting to have things go our way, I think another reason might be because “going with the flow” sounds like a rather passive response to life. It suggests we’re merely spectators watching something unfold on its own, while having no active role to play. However, going with the flow need not preclude guiding. What’s more, guiding is often not a passive business at all.
Here’s a useful analogy. If we were in a canoe being carried gently downstream by the flow of the Tao, then being passive would be to do nothing at all; guiding would be to put our paddle in the water from time to time to adjust our direction; and interfering would be to try to paddle upstream or to imagine that our paddling could somehow alter the flow of the river.
Of course, we’re free to do any one of these things – it’s just that the consequences are different. For a start, interfering provides no guarantee we’ll get our way. More likely we’ll simply create confusion and stress for both ourselves and others. (Imagine the splashing and confusion as we try to paddle upstream.) In contrast, guiding starts by becoming aware of the flow of the river and responding to it. Or, if you like, it starts by listening to the Tao rather than ourselves and then acting in harmony with what we hear rather than chasing our self-centered thoughts and desires. This is why the Master “…doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being” (chapter 50). By the way, there’s that word “flow” again.
Note that to guide rather than interfere is not necessarily to choose an easier path. For example, what do we do when we see the natural balance of the Tao being upset? Do we “let things go their own way” or do we step in and try and restore the balance? This is a tough call. Lao Tzu tackles this dilemma head on when contemplating how we respond to weapons and violence.
“Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint. Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content?” (chapter 31). So, will a “decent man” use violence to combat violence? That certainly sounds like interfering. The answer is he might, but if so then with sorrow. Why? Because he is aware that “His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn’t wish them personal harm. Nor does he rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral” (chapter 31).
So, if the decent man enters the battle, is he guiding or interfering? To say he is trying to restore the balance of the Tao is to sidestep the question, isn’t it? We’re on tricky ground here. What if my idea of restoring the balance of the Tao is not the same as yours? Does that make us enemies? This is no simple matter.
Let’s summarize. I think what distinguishes going with the flow and guiding, from not going with the flow and interfering, lies in where we’re coming from and what our intent is. If we’re centered in the Tao, listening to what is unfolding around us, and looking for the unique contribution we can make – then we’re coming from the Tao and our actions will be in harmony with it. If we’re centered in ourselves, listening to the noise of our thoughts and desires, and seeking to rearrange the world to suit ourselves – then we’re coming from our selves.
In both cases what we’re seeking is fulfillment. In the second case, the best we’ll get is a fleeting satisfaction which will last only until the next desire pops up to replace the last one. In the first case, we find fulfillment by letting go of desire altogether. How do we do that? By letting go of ourselves. “Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled” (chapter 7).
Does Lao Tzu say we should always be centered in the Tao? Or that being centered in ourselves and seeking to satisfy our desires is wrong? No, the Tao Te Ching contains no thou shalts or shalt nots, no rights and wrongs – just neutral observations as to what will likely unfold depending on the choices we make. I think Lao Tzu’s words serve to wake us up so we become aware of what’s going on and can thereby make conscious choices.
But, hey, that’s just what I think. What are your thoughts about going with the flow as opposed to interfering? Is there a real distinction here, or do you think it is simply in the eye of the beholder?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)