In previous years I have aimed to provide what are now known as content warnings when my posts contained swear or curse words. But just in the years since LoAW began, English swear words have undergone a striking shift; the formerly shocking F-word has become relatively unremarkable, while a six-letter derogatory term for black people is now regarded with horror. In keeping with the likely shift in audience expectations, in future posts I will be warning only about the new crop of swear words rather than the old. I use this post as an occasion to make this transition because the F-word appears in it quite frequently, as the title indicates. That title is probably the last time I will mark that word with asterisks; the word is uncensored in the text.
My wife’s previous round of cancer treatment, in 2015, was one of the most difficult periods in my life. Near the beginning of it I started describing myself as a Buddhist, based on a mere passing question in her hospital survey. But by the end I had become a practising Buddhist, having derived a great deal of support and comfort from Buddhism and its practices.
In the middle, though, I was still experimenting with a variety of ideas and practices from different traditions. The Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi reminded me of the spiritual benefit of practising scriptural reading, and I turned to multiple traditions for help in that regard. Buddhism proved the most valuable by the end, after a long period of learning from other traditions. Among these, I had a particularly powerful reaction to Daoism – perhaps I should say, against Daoism.
“Daoism” here referred almost entirely to the teachings of Laozi and especially Zhuangzi, at least through the explanations of modern commentators – an approach I am happy with. I was especially drawn to Ted Slingerland’s Trying Not To Try, because its discussion of Daoist “effortless action” (wúwéi 無爲) seemed particularly pertinent to my insomnia, which was newly exacerbated by the stressful situation. (The harder you try to get to sleep, the less likely you are to succeed.) That discussion seemed to fit with the interpretation of Zhuangzi that I had gleaned from Chris Fraser’s writings, where one has an appropriate but automatic reaction to the situations one faces. Slingerland’s claim was that Confucians advocated a gradual self-cultivation, and Daoists preferred a more sudden letting-go – and that some situations called for each approach. He suggested dating as an example of the latter, noting how we often seem to find love more easily when we’re not looking.
But, I noticed, that wasn’t how dating had worked for me. I had left my divorce feeling excited about dating and being newly single, a positive attitude – which was almost immediately crushed, as I found myself leaving dozens of personally crafted messages to women on dating sites that went almost entirely unanswered. That was its own difficult time. But what got me through in the end was working on tenacity and courage, against my shyness and fear of rejection. I resolved that in 2007 I would ask out at least one woman every month, and I did. The January and February dates went terribly, but in March I met the love of my life. My success in dating came through a gradual path of deliberate effort: what Slingerland would describe as a Confucian method, not a Daoist.
And regarding my immediate situation in the time of cancer and insomnia, I wrote in my journals: “The thing about ‘just let go’: fucking how? If you’re not already doing it? Letting go with insomnia is not easy. It keeps hold of you. It’s hard.” I realized we need practices to get better – practices that I was starting to find in Buddhism and not seeing in Daoism – and it seemed to me that Daoist emphasis on sudden liberation inhibited practice. Nancy Houfek, a brilliant vocal teacher who taught me most of what I know about giving good presentations, provided a helpful model of skill development that went from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. (Wikipedia attributes this model to a Martin Broadwell.) But what Laozi and Zhuangzi seemed to do was skip the first and third stages, pretending that it was being conscious that made us incompetent, in a way that seemed obviously false to me.
Slingerland’s book drew from cognitive psychology – especially the ideas of Daniel Kahneman – as well as Daoism, and it struck me at the time that modern psychology probably had practices that were more helpful, as I was noting the rise of secular meditation. My journal noted how many doctors recommended mindfulness meditation, and added this comment:
Because science is into practices that work. And frankly I think they do it better than the Daoists. Who, it seems to me, aren’t into practices that work. Sudden-enlightenment people don’t bother with practice; they say “just do it, let go, it’s easy.” To which I say: fuck you. If it were that easy we would have goddamn well done it already. Fuck Laozi and Zhuangzi, fuck the Daoists, fuck Daoism. And really what do you expect from people who are dumb enough to think human nature is good???
The anger that that passage expresses toward Daoism was not something I had felt before that time, and it is not something I feel now. I think it was what Nussbaum calls transition-anger: the potentially helpful initial anger that arises with a newfound awareness that something is wrong. For me it marked a break with Daoism and with sudden-liberation approaches more generally. Being good is hard and we need to work at it, and Daoism isn’t going to help us. Only a gradual path of self-cultivation will do that.
So I thought then, anyway. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In the intervening decade, I haven’t become a Daoist by any means, but I’ve nevertheless come to accept a lot of the Daoist ideas to which I had previously said “fuck”. I’ll talk about that in the next few posts.