Have you noticed the ever-present urge to continue upping-the-ante? Not only that, but isn’t the sky often the limit? We can’t help but aim for the next step up, and when we reach it, that level becomes our new bottom line. Most of us are content for a little while, but then we reach for more… again and again.
Retracing the evolutionary footsteps that brought us into modern times, I recognize this urge to be an emergent property (p.121), with its origin in our hunter-gather instinct. In the wild, this instinct urges us on and on in search of the next tasty morsels, the next satisfying thing to fill the belly.
In contrast, endless amounts of foods fill our grocery stores these days. If we have the money, we just go buy food when we get hungry, and even when we’re not. No longer do we need to hunt and gather all day, everyday, as we did in the wild. However, our genome didn’t delete the hunter-gatherer instinct’s DNA when recently (i.e., ~10,000 years ago) we found ways to produce and store massive amounts of food. Those genes still urge us to hunt and gather as though we were living in the wild. The only difference now is that clothes, cars, religion, hobbies, money, gadgets, music, vacations, intoxicants, junk food, and the cool things in life, have become the things to fill the belly. Chapter 12 speaks to the problematic side of this urge playing out in civilized circumstance:
The urge to fulfill body and soul never ceases because the hunter-gather instinct within us is not aware that we have enough already! Thus, we are always upping the ante. No matter what we have, we desire more. More just feels better (despite any high-minded ideals to the contrary). Oh how nature’s hoodwink hooks! (p.100). The Tao Te Ching has more to say on the difficulty we face. Here are some examples…
- Holding a surplus is not in harmony with oneself; #9
- Knowing to stop [he] can be without danger. #32
- Knowing when to stop, never dangerous. #44
Is there any remedy?
Somewhat ironically, any remedy for this imbalance depends on what we truly want out of life. Desire drives us to up the ante, but it can also pull us in the other direction. Chapter 64 puts it bluntly, taking this, the wise person desires non-desire, or as Buddha said in his Fourth Noble Truth (p.604), “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. Which way desire pulls us depends on whether we know we are out-of-sync with nature, or not. Such Right Comprehension is where the sacred journey begins. From there, one crawls, in action (Right Action) and outlook (Right Thought), toward what counter-balances that primal ignorant instinct. Chapter 16 speaks to this returning …
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.
Still, that may only be dreaming on my part, considering my views on free will. Yet, on the other hand, life is a learn-by-living process. Why would the remedy for this imbalance turn out to be any different from how we learn to walk as toddlers? The imbalance, stumbles, and falls are the indispensable first steps we take in learning to walk. How much stumbling is necessary before learning occurs? That again depends on what one truly wants of life.
That leaves me with one last question: What determines whether one remains complacent or strives for what is called profound moral character as chapter 10 puts it. Certainly, both complacency (a.k.a, laziness instinct) and striving (a.k.a., survival instinct) are primary forces influencing all living things. The interplay between these instincts and one’s circumstances determines how these forces play out. One thing I know, it isn’t free will!
I find Hatha Yoga, executed honestly, helps counterbalance the urge for upping the ante, especially in regards to ever-increasing comfort and security. Rather than reaching for more comfort, yoga invites me to surrender to discomfort… even more so as my body ages. I would expect similar results from anything done over a lifetime that invites deliberate surrender. The Bhagavad Gita, the bible of Yoga, puts the notion of surrender well…
5:2 Both renunciation and holy work are a path to the Supreme; but better than surrender of work is the Yoga of holy work.
12:12 For concentration is better than mere practice, and meditation is better than concentration; but higher than meditation is surrender in love of the fruit of one’s actions, for on surrender follows peace.