Have you noticed the ever-present urge to continue ‘upping the anti’? 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.
Retracing the evolutionary footsteps that brought us into modern times, I recognize this urge to be an emergent property, 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.
Of course, an endless amount of foods fill our 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, that primal hunter-gather instinct didn’t just fall off our genetic DNA when ‘recently’ we found ways to produce and store massive amounts of food. Its code (the genes) still urges us to ‘hunt and gather’ as though we were living in the wild. The only difference is, 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 anti. 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! The Tao Te Ching has more to say on the difficulty we face. Here are some blatant examples…
- Holding a surplus is not in harmony with oneself;
- Knowing to stop [he] can be without danger.
- Knowing when to stop, never dangerous.
Is there any remedy?
Somewhat ironically, any remedy depends on what one truly wants out of life. Desire is the urge that drives us to up the anti, but it can also pull us in the other direction, i.e., taking this, the wise person desires non-desire. 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, it is mostly a matter of taking steps in the opposite direction, in action (Right Action) and outlook (Right Thought), to counter-balance some of that primal ‘ignorant’ instinct. Chapter 16 speaks to this turning back…
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 settles into complacency or strives for what is called profound moral character? In the Taoist view, both complacency (laziness instinct) and striving (survival instinct) are primary forces influencing all living things. Additionally, I’d guess the blending of genetics and circumstances determines how these forces play out for each of us. One thing I know, it ain’t free will! In times past, people just call it one’s Karma and Dharma; well, many still do, don’t they?
I’ve found Hatha Yoga, executed honestly, helps counterbalance the urge for upping the anti, especially in regard to the desire for ever-increasing comfort and security. Rather than reaching for more comfort, I yield to discomfort… even more so as my body ages. I would expect similar results from anything done over a lifetime that calls on intentional giving up, sacrifice, and surrender. The Bhagavad Gita, the ‘bible’ of Yoga, puts the notion of surrender well:
Both renunciation and holy work are a path to the Supreme; but better than surrender of work is the Yoga of holy work. 5:2
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. 12:12