Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
On the weekend we wander through charity shops looking for interesting books.
Today, hidden away in the children’s section I found one that should get a prize for the ironic use of capitals.
It is Benjamin Hoff’s The tao of Pooh and in the foreword addresses a question that has been bothering me for a while.
There is an argument that the whole of western thought is based on the work of Aristotle – an argument that is laid out in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
The essence of this argument is that Aristotle invented reductionist scientific thinking – the art of breaking things into pieces and learning how they worked.
This eventually led to the industrial revolution, the technological ascendancy of the West and to the modern world we have today.
Along the way the West lost touch with other kinds of ideas – ones to do with spirituality and belief and the kinds of things science finds hard to deal with.
As a result, Hoff’s colleagues argued that all of the Great Masters of Wisdom came from the East.
Hoff disagreed and wrote the book to explain why, based on the stories of one of the Great Masters from the West – Winnie-the-Pooh.
If you have any interest in gaining Great Wisdom from Great Philosophers here is a quick summary of some key concepts (as I see it).
- Aristotle: Science rules.
- Confucius: We must have order.
- Buddha: Life is suffering.
- Lao-tse: What’s for breakfast?
One of the things I try to do while writing this blog is come up with mental models – conceptual models that can be used to understand the world around us.
Some people spend a lot of time thinking deeply about things and then they try and work out if what they think is right – can they prove it in some way?
So, most management and self-help non fiction will pull together an idea with supporting evidence and put it forward as something for you to consider.
Take one I’m reading at the moment: Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
In essence the book says work without distraction.
That’s the message, really. The rest is, as Landsburg said about economics, commentary.
There is a thing that happens when people try and write a book about something simple.
The simple thing becomes surprisingly complex.
Take Dan Roam’s The back of the napkin, for example.
In essence the book says that if you try and draw what you’re thinking it’s easier for people to understand.
By the end of the book Roam has a complex matrix of images and structures that you can combine to create messages – some kind of intricate, interlocking communications mechanism.
This is what happens when you try and reduce things to their component parts – a simple whole becomes a complicated and messy set of parts and you lose track of what you’re trying to do in the first place.
If you go too far down this road you become an Academic – someone who spends all their time looking at the trees and unable to see the forest.
And that wholeness is one of the most important parts of Taoism, Hoff explains, and is appropriately called P’u, which sounds a bit like Pooh and means “the uncarved block”, or “the tree in a thicket” or “the uncut wood”.
In essence – it’s the whole tree – representing the whole you.
We spend a lot of time trying to be what we think others expect of us – from dressing in suits for meetings to choosing where to live and how to act.
We’re so busy doing all this that we miss the natural, simple, plain and honest parts of living.
Like what’s for breakfast.
If you’re in too much of a rush to eat in the morning, or you’re always on a diet or you’re out of the house before the kids are up – are you living the life that you really want?
It’s all very well reading about deep work and what philosophers think but when it comes down to it do you know what really matters?
It’s probably worth quoting the extract that starts the book – because it makes the point rather well.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.