The only way I’ve found to escape life without unintended consequences is to give myself to life. This is an example of chapter 78’s Straight and honest words seem inside out, or as D.C. Lau put it, straightforward words seem paradoxical. I can essentially lose myself in the moment by utter devotion to that moment and the action or non-action therein. This approach to life is the one experienced by all nonthinking animals. They can easily do without doing, (wei wu wei), be involved (responsibility) without being involved (responsibility). (shi wu shi), as chapter 63 put it.
Such primal devotion is the only healthy escape I know. I’ve found giving myself to other escapes, (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sex, rock and roll, work, shopping, eating, etc.) has adverse consequences. Especially problematic were those to which I devoted myself fully. Dedication to the moment removes the escape side of these, or any other, activity.
Attachment to sensual pleasures always promises escape, but never truly delivers. Ironically, devoting myself to the moment makes escape easy. Naturally, there are no promises being made in the latter, which sheds light on chapter 70’s Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do. Under heaven none can know, none can do. In other words, the ‘moment’ is beyond knowing and doing.
Given the choice, we usually choose the promise of pleasure. Rather, the promise of pleasure chooses for us. We are such pushovers. What is pleasurable about pleasure anyway? Is it a lack of stress, a sense of peace, or a sense of balance? No! In reality, pleasure promises these and more, yet it all turns out to be promises quickly broken (1).
Humanity’s Drug of Choice
Why is alcohol (2) the drug of choice the world over? In life’s toil, we seek refuge in a worry-free moment-to-moment ‘space’, still and simple, yet our urges and circumstances often pull us toward the opposite. Alcohol gives the mind a temporary thought-freer sense of ‘space’. Essentially, alcohol gives us an easy way to experience the ‘moment-to-moment’ flow, albeit through a very fuzzy veil.
In addition, civilization restrains our natural sense of ‘space’ through its story. This uses education and tradition to inhibit and conceal as much of the populace’s individual idiosyncrasies as possible. Essentially, we’re ‘strangers’ under the skin and require a common narrative to help us feel connected. Civilization’s underlying social disconnection was an inevitable outcome of the now long-lost intimacy of our ancestral hunter-gatherer way of life. Alcohol temporarily releases us from civilization’s story and its contrived conformity, and that allows our idiosyncrasies to express themselves more freely.
These issues underlying substance abuse are more acute now that our technology enables a less connected life style that can rush forward at full tilt. It was different when the only way to get somewhere else was to walk there; the only way to communicate with others was to be with them; the only way to eat was to hunt-and-gather up your daily vittles. Life and moment-to-moment went more hand-in-hand before technology allowed us to bypass nature’s discipline. Indeed, our ability to circumvent nature’s wild side began with the stone ax and has progressed exponentially ever since. No doubt, that is why chapter 80 advises us… Enable the people to again use the knotted rope.
The alternative to drugs, alcohol or otherwise, is a natural moment-to-moment awareness. Obviously, this ‘organic’ approach requires more self-awareness of awareness. It is just so much easier to ‘pop the cork’. In truth, only the fuzzy veil–free space that a moment-to-moment awareness offers is enough to thwart that rush into the imaginary future our thoughts relentlessly lure us.
(1) Pleasurable choices are biological hoodwinks to push us to live life. It works great in the wild because there are natural limits on the outcome. Much of civilization has been a clever stacking of the ‘pleasure deck’ in our favor. That is why religions regard the desire for pleasure to be problematic. Here are a few examples: Genesis 4:7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”; Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truths, “let your sole desire be the performance of your duty”; chapter 15’s, Maintain this way, not desiring to be full, and chapter 64’s, Taking this, the wise person desires non desire.
(2) Even if animals wanted to drink alcohol until they were drunk, they couldn’t. They don’t have access. Interestingly, cows given unlimited access to highly concentrated nutritious food will eat themselves to death. In the wild, they don’t have access. We are similar, as we can see by the epidemic of obesity and the diseases to which it leads. Civilization offers great benefits for humans paid for by the unintended consequences of great global suffering for us and countless other animals. Alas, harm always goes hand in hand with benefit.