February 4, 2019
Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?
- Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation)
This one hit me hard the first time I read it.
Generally speaking, you don’t turn to a book like the Tao Te Ching unless you have questions you’re trying to answer. I don’t remember exactly when I discovered the Tao, but I’m sure I was feeling lost at the time, struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and likely fighting a heavy depression.
In retrospect I was probably trying to direct my life in a way that it didn’t seem to want to go. I once had a vision of myself as a novelist. That vision was pure in the beginning, but over time I allowed it to become my identity. The motivation switched from love to ego – from heart to mind – and the part of me that wants to be in control, that wants to be acknowledged, choked the life out of my dream like a python.
The choking took about ten years and it was awful. I fought hard through a lot of those years, determined that my flawed vision of how things should be was the best vision, and all the while being further and further crushed by writer’s block. If I had been a little wiser in those days, if I had read and understood the Tao, things might have been different, but you have to trust that things come to you in their own time if you let them.
I equate mud with mind in my interpretation of today’s quote. With thoughts. The Tao is about letting go of ego and moving beyond mind in all things. It’s about tapping into a deeper, older, more intuitive knowledge that is a far better guide than your brain. When I was struggling with writing, I wasn’t mature enough to let my mud settle. I was entirely in my head, thoughts spiralling, trying to write this way or that way, arguing with myself, believing the endless chatter about how I wasn’t good enough, how my writing sucked, how I wasn’t as good as this writer or that writer. I was falling for the story I was telling myself that it couldn’t work out and that I’d always be stuck in a 9-5 job if writing didn’t save me.
How much pressure is that?
Ego, ego, ego. Control, control, control. The Tao instructs you to let go of those things. To not let your mind run away with the story and drag you down the kind of psychotic rabbit hole I was fumbling around in. It asks you not to fight your thoughts, but to release them. True clarity isn’t found in the noise in your head. It’s found in the silence of your soul. I couldn’t see that, because I needed things to be the way I wanted them to be. My ego was in charge, which made me miserable and destroyed the very dream that sustained it. Had I stepped back, released my thoughts, and been more open, things might have been different.
I think that’s what Lao Tzu was talking about when he wrote that right action will arise by itself if you let it. I had trouble with that promise at first. It seemed too passive to me, like if you do nothing the world will sort your life out for you. In some cases I suppose that may be true, but it eliminates personal responsibility and I think taking responsibility is important.
I read it now as an encouragement to simply be open. A funny thing happened when I eventually let go of writing fiction. I should say that it wasn’t a triumphant and empowered decision. It was bitter and fearful, but it was at least sincere. If you’ve been reading the blog, you know the story of how I wound up in music. I had been resisting music for years, almost entirely out of fear, but not long after I quit writing I was at a resort in Jamaica watching a band play covers. They were having a great time, and as I listened, an intuition rose up that said, “You need to start playing music now.”
Music was never in the plan. I was a writer. It’s who I was. It was killing me, but it’s who I was. It was clouded with mud but when I let it go, when I took my mind and ego out of it, music suddenly arose in a profound way. The right action was to follow that intuition, and it wasn’t calculated. It didn’t come from my head. It came from that deeper place that exists beneath thoughts and desires and ego. Of course I still had to act, but when I did, it wasn’t with any grand desire. I didn’t look in the mirror that night and say, “I have to be a hugely successful rock star or this is a waste of time!” There was no ego or identity in it. I just decided to put myself out there with no expectation and see where it would lead.
You can spot the irony a mile away, can’t you? From music came my original music blog and writing up interviews with lots of cool and famous people. From music came this blog. From music came touring in Europe with Sarah Smith and eventually a published book. When the mud settled on writing, the right action arose and led me back to writing in a different, but much healthier and more mature way.
Which is all a rather long-winded way of saying that if you’re struggling with purpose or direction, maybe you’re spending too much time in your head. Maybe you’re too wrapped up in the story. Maybe you’re so attached to a particular outcome or plan or identity that you can’t or won’t see any other option. The Tao says to look past your thoughts. Let go of your need to control. Be open to something different.
Don’t get stuck in your mud.