The balance between perseverance and patience
In the first part of this series on Conscious Living and Dying I referred to my early involvement with the Taoist philosophy as represented by the Tao Te Ching. I remember learning about the key principle of Wu Wei and being totally perplexed. As a young man this principle was illogical, and yet I knew that one day I would fully recognize the brilliance and truth inherent in the principle. This is the foundation of Conscious Living, which embraces the art of surrender described by Conscious Dying. It is as simple as your breath, and why many meditative practices focus on the act of breathing. It is a perfect metaphor for living in harmony and balance.
The first “academic” book I wrote focused on the process of creativity. I had read the life stories of many brilliant men and women, and I was fascinated with the nature of genius. The title of this first book was “Genius, Creativity and God.” I had come to understand the actual process, the 4 steps of creative expression. Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Expression are these 4 steps, and they describe a lovely dance between the masculine desire for creative expression and the feminine wisdom of surrender. I included countless stories of creative genius where the project, whether it was art or science, needed to be shelved for a certain period of time. The work of preparation had been done, but something was “blocking” the natural flow of creativity. A period of incubation was necessary. A very simple example of this process is when you are trying to retrieve some information from your memory, the name of a person or a restaurant. The harder you try to recall the name the more frustrated you become. Only when you stop trying to find the answer does it suddenly pop into your consciousness.
There are so many great stories of serendipity, where some brilliant revelation comes out of “nothing.” But the truth is that there had been a process of preparation which created a “space” into which the new idea could arise and land. Einstein’s brilliant Theory of Relativity could not have come to a mind less prepared. So in any project in our lives there is a requirement for preparation, and equally there is a requirement to let go and allow things to unfold “without effort.” This would be a good definition of Wu Wei. Life requests a balance between perseverance and patience. Mastery demands it. The ancient Taoist masters used the simple examples of nature to explain the laws that govern The Way (Tao). Water especially is used to describe Wu Wei. If you spend time observing the action of water, especially evident in a mountain stream, you will see the mastery inherent in the feminine art of surrender and flow. Water will “win” the battle with rock over time, even though it appears to the casual observer that water must surrender and move around a rocky barrier.
I marvel daily as I watch the water in the quebrada (mountain stream) on the land where I live. Depending on the rains this quebrada can be gentle and lovely, or it can become a ferocious torrent. At one level it is ever changing and on another it is as permanent as the rocky channel that defines it. I think often about the brilliant life lessons that I have experienced. Some have been gentle and others have been devastating. Always the need for the lesson had been the same, that certain aspects of my life had moved out of balance. I remember, for example, the process of developing my garden and landscape company. A second “career,” I found great pleasure in working with woody plants, from tiny shrub roses to huge oak trees. One of my very favorite jobs was pruning ornamental trees, magnolia, Japanese maple, etc. In the early years I worked alone with just a few hand tools and a small pick-up truck. But “success” would ruin the tranquility of my work, for after 10 years or so I found myself with six employees, fice leased vehicles, and all of my time was spent doing paperwork, selling new jobs, and fixing problems with ongoing projects. The year I made the most money, perhaps 20 times what I had earned working for myself, was the most unhappy year of this second career.
One of the most humiliating experiences in my North American culture is declaring bankruptcy. I endured this humiliation twice, once in my 30’s and the second time in my 50’s. At 33 I can remember feeling like a total loser, hitting a very hard “bottom.” Recovery from this was long and painful. But at 55 it was much worse, and then it included a divorce and total life makeover. I can understand why many men do not survive failure at this level and at this age. And yet always in the back of my mind, despite my personal anguish was this glimmer of light. I knew that this pain, and the law of reversal, was necessary and even “good.” I could see that I had essentially failed at a game I never truly embraced. The “American Dream” that I was spoon-fed in the 1950’s never really took; the conditioning failed. I remember one of the first important books that I read at about the age of 20, a book published in 1959, by Allan Watts, called “The Wisdom of Insecurity.” In this brilliant little book Watts describes perfectly the futility of this American Dream. So all the while I did my best to fit in and play the game my soul was crying for leaving.
Today I can look back at the saga and bring the light of forgiveness and acceptance to the inevitability of my “failure.” And, as always, there is a new dawn; the phoenix does arise from the ashes. Any saga, if fully lived, will have a very happy ending, and I am living proof that this is so.
Louis Bourgeois lives in Cuenca with his wife and baby. He teaches courses in Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org