What is less obvious is how the perception and experience of good fortune and misfortune are complimentary, as chapter 58 puts it, Misfortune, yet of good fortune its resting place… and so on.
Understanding this connection helps take the edge off misfortune for me. However, this complimentary, ‘yin—yang’ view can be too abstract to fully satisfy one at times. Something more concrete and empirical helps too…
Worry is Food for Thought
Looking at this biologically is revealing and may offer more solace. Our core instincts evolved for optimal survival in the wild! This is a profoundly important fact, in my view. Instincts optimized for survival in the wild are obviously not optimized for ‘survival’ in civilized circumstances. Ignorance of this simple reality leaves us confounded by life at every turn. What’s more, we didn’t evolve a keen ability to view life experience in retrospect. No wonder we fail to learn from history, and consequently are destined to repeat it.
In the wild, a steady state of concern—call it fear if you like—ensures that the individual is aware of its surrounding much of the time. Being alive to the moment enhances survival; there will be less chance that you end up as a tiger’s dinner and a greater chance you’ll find enough to eat as you hunt and gather. Our biological program is for concern, not ‘worry’. Worry is the emergent property of a healthy, natural concern. Our ability to think makes worry possible, and the circumstances of civilization exasperate this. For example, the supermarket-fully-fed belly frees up the mind to worry about other issues… like a too full belly 😉
Civilization Optimizes Comfort and Security
The Princess and the Pea story alludes to this primary pursuit of civilization. The idea here is that in seeking comfort, the Princess experiences less comfort. What we expect of life determines how miserable our lives actually turn out. On the other hand, living out each day in a kind of ‘cup is half full’ kind of way, makes the best of every situation.
In the wild, animals — including humans in our pre-civilization days — begin each day with the ‘cup empty’, and spend the day filling it as best they can. The unintended consequence of civilization is how this short-circuits the moment-to-moment living process. It allows us to ‘store up wealth’ whether that be pigs and wheat, or gold to buy pigs and wheat. This exasperates our situation because like the Princess and the Pea, we can afford to expect and seek more comfort and security.
Of course, pointing this out isn’t going to help anyone approach life differently… including me, to be honest (i.e., understanding doesn’t cut it—one must know). However, I find it is helpful to at least know this in principle—a law if you will—and look to my moment-to-moment experience to test it out. Arising from instinct, emotions never cease to egg on my misinterpretation of what is actually happening. I find, therefore, it is essential to continue this testing constantly! This is the Taoist ‘constant’ [cháng (常) ordinary; normal; constant; invariable; usually) referred to throughout the Tao Te Ching and spoken to succinctly in chapter 16:
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness,
… this means answering to one’s destiny;
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant,
… knowing the constant is called honest.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
The bad news is that the worry gene must be fed! It helps to regard this ‘worry gene’ as one of our senses—a sixth or seventh sense if you will. The only question facing us is with what do we feed its insatiable appetite? The good news is that we have teachings to feed it… especially the pithiest ones of the Tao Te Ching and Buddha’s Truths. Our brain’s ability to think gets us into this problem, but it can also help alleviate it.
In the wild, animals like us have no means to store food. We’re opportunistic omnivorous creatures. Like raccoons and chimps we keep moving, keep hunting and gathering to survive. Actually, this is true for most animals—higher ones anyway, unless they are hibernating.
Our materialism in general, and shopping in particular, is simply an emergent property of our innate hunter-gatherer instincts. Civilization’s circumstances merely give form to that natural instinctive function. Looking to find the emergent property side to the seemingly crazy and dysfunctional aspects of human existence helps me rest more peacefully impartial.
Or the ‘Perfectionist’ Gene
Shopping and worrying are not the only maladaptive consequences of instinct, thought and civilization. The urgency we may feel to be perfect in whatever aspect of life we deem essential can make life feel unfulfilled and miserable — unnecessarily so!
This follows the same process as the one for how concern leads to worry, or hunt-gather to shopping. In the wild, to be as close to ‘perfect’ in whatever matter an animal is attending to at the moment will enhance its survival chances. In the wild, the standards to which one must measure up always reset themselves to zero—each moment. Like maintaining balance, the working with perfection is never accomplished for more than the moment you are ‘in’.
Thought allows us to weave our core needs and fears into idealistic projections of perfection. The wealthier our circumstances, the more comfort and security we have, the more concern we can devote to our ideals of perfection. This helps explain why most ‘revolutionary idealist’ throughout human history, to my knowledge, have launched there agenda from positions of relative wealth.
Perfect without Pain
I got inspired to ‘work with perfection’ when I began taking yoga seriously. This meant studying the Bhagavad Gita. For several years I strove with all my heart and soul to be perfect. These excerpts for chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita highlight my goal at the time:
6:43 And he begins his new life with the wisdom of a former life; and he begins to strive again, ever onwards towards perfection.
6:45 And thus the Yogi ever‑striving and with soul pure from sin, attains perfection through many lives and reaches the End Supreme.
I failed… naturally. One reason is probably that the idea of ‘perfection’ stood out, where as the ‘former life‘ and ‘through many lives‘ passed right by me. I didn’t/don’t believe in reincarnation, per se.
However, this experience of failure was ‘perfect’! Out of it came a motto that has guided my life ever since: work with perfection, without expecting perfection. That allows me to strive on diligently without suffering the consequences of holding expectations.
It also helps to be realistic about these matters, as this verse points out:
7:3 Among thousands of men perhaps one strives for perfection; and among thousands of those who strive perhaps one knows me in truth,
I look at all this now as a path all living creatures are on, from birth to death. As we grow older, we grow wiser than we were though the learning experience that is life. I no longer hold to the perfect ideal that much of the Bhagavad Gita ‘advertises’. I can’t see nature as either perfect or imperfect. In my view, ‘good enough is good enough‘ is Nature’s way.
Bottom line: It is whichever message that speaks to what we need (or fear) to hear, that will draw us in to it the most. I find this true across the board, but it is especially obvious in politics and religion! For me personally, I ended up seeking something more practical (Buddha’s Truths) and mystical (the Tao Te Ching).
More posts on the instinct and civilization relationship: