The Tao Te Ching hints that at least some attachment is always good. As chapter 1 allows, Always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. It helps to consider how desire and attachment relate. I consider desire to be like the glue of attachment. Although beneath it all lays the foundation—need and fear. (See Fear Is The Bottom Line, p.139, Reward, Fear & Need, p.181, and Fear Rules, p.186.)
Attachment and desire have bad reputations in some quarters. True, these easily cause imbalance. Yet, lack of desire and any resulting non-attachment can also be precarious when this goes too far. After all, life and attachment go hand in hand. They correlate (p.572): life ≈ attachment, death ≈ detachment.
life -> attaches
detaches <- death
Reading the correlated version of this is interesting: Life attaches death; Death detaches life. Saying that death detaches life is obvious. Saying life attaches death is more subtle. Consider chapter 50’s, There are those who value life and as a result move into the realm of death, and these number three in ten. Why is this so? Because they set to much store by life.
Chapter 1’s, Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets, hints at what we overlook when desire and attachment take over life. Overall, desire and attachment tend to cause us more headaches, as chapter 46 hints: There is no crime greater than having too many desires. Non-attachment, or as chapter19 puts it, Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible is a useful counterbalancing aspiration when we are overweight with desires and attachment to things or beliefs.
Interestingly, so much desire and attachment has fallen by the wayside as I’ve aged that I increasingly find myself on the too-few side of this coin. Sure enough, allowing yourself to have desires (1) is as difficult as ridding yourself of desires once was. As gentle as it sounds, the chapter 1’s call to allow yourself to have desires is no more realistic than ‘free willing’ yourself to have desires… or indeed rid yourself of them!
This is what I call Nature’s justice. It makes the whole idea of chapter 64’s Therefore the sage desires not to desire seem nonsensical. In other words, I desire not to be full only when I feel stuffed. This is like a brown-haired person and a blond-haired person longing for the hair color of the other. The beauty of the Tao Te Ching is that it is balanced non sense — “Rid yourself of desires” yet “Allow yourself to have desires”.
(1) Lau’s interpretation, “Allow yourself to have desires…” can be a little misleading. The literal Chinese is more like this: Hence, normally without desire so as to observe its wonder. Normally have desire so as to observe its fate.
I never had a problem allowing myself to have desire in the sense of giving myself permission. To the contrary, I’ve often gone overboard in the allowing department. The literal Chinese has a simpler matter-of-factness to it. Simply saying, “Normally have desires” avoids some of the moral and free will connotation that saying “allow desires” can evoke.
Jamie G. says
Thank you for this. The Taoist approach seems more natural and “real”. As a former Zen practitioner, I was always a little bugged by the Buddha’s approach along with some of the more traditional teachings about non-attachment. Some of the teachings, similar to the more orthodox Christian views, seemed to set really large straw-men to knock down. At least with the Buddha, according to the Kalama Sutta, said try and see if it works for yourself. For me, it just didn’t accord with reality the way the teachings found in Taoism does.
For example, when I eat too much I desire to be less full. When I’m empty (hungry) I desire to eat more. By avoiding either extreme, I have the best chance at feeling content. But, even then, not for long.
The simple truth is that we are never content for long. Life must struggle to beat back entropy. Any thoughts we have merely reflect that primal life process.
I see this process play itself out in terms of balance. When I lean too far one way, I naturally feel a need at some point to lean the other way, and may also fear to lean even further in what already feels too far.
Because imbalance evokes thoughts (desires and worries), and we trust thought so deeply, we easily make matters worse. This evokes more thought… Here in lies much of our difficulty.
Dan Littler says
I’ve spent a little time puzzling over the paradox of “normally with desire, while normally without desire”, and this is how I interpret it based on my experiences. If we rid ourselves of our conscious desires, those that bother our higher levels of consciousness, we can stop worrying about them, avoid sabotaging our chances of achieving them through emotional action and needy grasping. However, we can’t rid ourselves of our more subtle intrinsic desires and requirements. This probably means that we still strive for our desires, but in a less conscious way, less direct and specific, therefore with much less attachment. In my experience, if I cease to worry about my long term goals, they really do happen to me naturally. Of course, since all things change, they don’t necessarily hang around…
I suppose it comes down to doing things in small stages. In yoga, we should concentrate on improving incrementally on that which we can do, not worry that we can’t get our feet behind our head yet. Does that make sense as an analogy? I guess I mean that when we do what we enjoy, we naturally advance in it, whereas if we only worry about where we’ll be in five years, we won’t deal with the “now” sufficiently to get there.
When you say, “I desire not to be full only when I am stuffed”, what do you mean here? For me, I concentrate on desiring not to be full when I feel stuffed with desire but empty of contentment… I suppose it doesn’t matter whether we use the word “empty” or the word “full”, ah, the beauty of muddling the certainty of language… For me, though, I describe this feeling as “empty”, so desiring not to be full neutralises the feeling: “I feel empty, but feeling empty is what I strive for”.
WOAH I LIKE IT. thanks