“A canoe, mixed sun and cloud, no deadlines in sight” – that’s how Margaret Atwood described her idea of perfect happiness, in answer to Proust’s questionnaire for Vanity Fair.
Before heading for the coast the other day for the book launch, i did I Ching reading on how it will go and to my utmost relief got Hexagram 58, the Joyous.
Now, the book (Devil, unauthorized biography) was published six months ago, launched in the capital at the Winter Book Fair and has received rather remarkable publicity meanwhile – still, i am yet to meet an author who’s launching his book in cold blood.
I had other concerns too – to get to the coastal city of Budva, you need to take the mountain road, steep and very curvy while putting up with local drivers’ attitude which an obviously enraged poster from UK described as “a demolition derby conducted by the drunk and suicidal.” Someone afh100 vents on at the Lonely Planet forum: “what I quickly learned on the roads of Montenegro is that it helps to imagine everyone is trying to kill you. It’s certainly going to feel that way… People will routinely overtake blindly at over 60kph on a bend. On a bend on a mountain pass. They don’t use the horn to indicate they’re about to round a blind corner. Therefore it helps to drive as every moment on the roads might be your last: get ready to brake, change gear or slip into the tiniest space to get away from the madness.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but let’s say that it’s not totally inaccurate, the truth is that unless you learned to drive in Kabul, you’ll have a hard time driving here during first couple of years – then it gets somewhat easier due to the proverbial human adaptation.
When i got the driving licence at 18 and my first car soon afterwords, my father would routinely see me off with the dramatic exclamation: “Remember, you are going to battle for survival!” Fast forward 20+ years, it still pretty much feels like one. More so, in the car with me were two dear friends of mine – both notorious backseat drivers and my dear mother. The perspective didn’t seem promising: an hour and a half to get there, then meeting with the organizer, the launch itself, dinner and driving back in the night.
So, i did breathe a sigh of relief upon getting one of the most encouraging hexagrams in the Book of Changes!
Words “the joyous mood is infectious and therefore brings success” sounded like a music to my ears! There is plenty of Confucian moralization added to the original text – one, of course, needs to interact with others , restrain from frivolity etc., but still – the main message of the hexagram is that of great success and feeling of bliss.
As a side note, what’s true happiness ?
Zhuang Zi, one of the most influential Chinese philosophers who lived around the 4th century BCE — claimed that that people are (relatively) happy, according to their natures and to different extents; thus, to create a society of relative happiness uniformity in political and social philosophy needs to be abolished. Thus, if people were allowed to express their natural abilities fully, according to Zhuang Zi, there would be no need for government, by the law of nature the people would find their own levels of (relative) happiness. That, i guess, would leave the government in the state of absolute unhappiness, as they would find themselves on the lookout for real jobs - but that’s a topic for some other essay (or two.)
Absolute happiness would be for those individuals, who – transcending the ordinary distinction of things – could melt into life’s infinitely changing process; the sage presumably loses his/her sense of self and from there melts into the infinite.
In Chapter 48 of the Daodejing is described the process of achieving wuwei, the state of least interference*:
He who seeks learnedness will daily increase. He who seeks Reason will daily diminish. He will diminish and continue to diminish until he arrives at non-assertion. (Susuki)
He who attends daily to learning increases in learning. He who practices Dao daily diminishes. Again and again he humbles himself. Thus he attains to non-doing (wu wei). He practices non-doing and yet there is nothing left undone. (Goddard’s translation)
Needless to say, a common westerner needs to do a lot of cognitive reframing, so this shift in consciousness can happen.
I say “happen” – because it is not something we can win in a battle - Zhuang Zu also said: Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness. So, somehow one needs to do plenty of work, without doing any and needs to be unfocused and focused on it at the same time. Right, sounds like some mambo jambo, but actually it’s simple – Daoism is basically the way to appreciate, learn from and work with whatever happens in everyday life. From the Daoist point of view, the natural result of living this way is -happiness.
That brings us to the Daoist concept of P’u, the Uncarved Block – the primordial condition of the mind before the arising of experience – and to Benjamin Hoff’s Pooh, the very epitome of the Uncarved Block.
The Tao of Pooh is a book of didactic purpose where the characters from Winnie the Pooh explain the fundamentals of Daoism and it contains pearls of wisdom such as: ” From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times. As Piglet put it in Winnie-the-Pooh, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.”
So, after the 1.30h long drive which the most resembled a combo of amusement rides – the roller-coaster and swing-a-round with elements of kamikadze, we arrived to Budva in state of total numbness, which i believe is the closest to proverbial “state of the Uncarved Block” because it indeed predisposes you to enjoy things “simple and quiet, natural and the plain”… like being alive, having made it to your destination against all the odds – and more so – in one piece. Having left the car at the infamously overpriced parking lot, the four of us melted into the ever growing tourist crowds, where you can’t keep the sense of self, even if you wanted to.
After that experience, the launch itself did feel like a piece of cake.
*for the lack of more adequate equivalent, i came up with the ‘state of least interference’ to substitute the widespread &dreaded term non-action which sounds as an euphemism for couch-potatoing
Hexagram 58, Wilhelm’s translation:http://theabysmal.wordpress.com/2006/10/24/i-ching-hexagram-58/
Margaret Atwood answers Proust Qestionnaire; Vanity Fair:http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2006/10/proust_atwood200610
Driving in Montenegro: a guide for the unwary http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1974057
The Tao of Pooh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tao_of_Pooh
A video from the launch, courtesy of Butua.com portal (in Montenegrin) :http://butua.com/izvjestaji-reportaze/lena-ruth-stefanovic-zbirka-pjesama-djavo-jedna-neautorizovana-biografija/
Illustration of Shi Wai Tao Yuan (A Haven of Peace and Happiness), source: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/38History1143.html