My battered copy of Deng Ming-Dao’s classic ‘365 Tao Daily Mediations’ has been a remarkable gift over the years, but even now I find myself reading passages as if they are brand new.
I was recently struck by the personal relevance of its very simple, practical advice in the following passage, which deals with the reasons we sometimes feel “out of sorts”.
From a Daoist (Taoist) perspective this has to do with being disconnected from “Dao” – which we might take in this instance to mean our basic path, or the substance of our lives.
I thought it worth sharing, so here’s the passage:
“Whenever you feel out of sorts, or cannot sleep, or find it hard to work and think, you are separated from Dao. If you want to get back in touch with it, ask yourself three questions:
- Am I eating right?
- Is my mind tamed?
- Is my world safe?”
These questions may appear simple enough, but can probably only be answered with a lifetime commitment to making checks and adjustments. In this short post I want to unpack these three questions a little, quoting from Deng Ming-Dao in more detail, while also adding a few of my own thoughts.
1. And I Eating Right?
Deng Ming-Dao writes:
“It is not facetious to look at the way you eat whenever you feel out of step with life. Many problems can be alleviated by feeling better physically, and even if this doesn’t remedy things, it will give you a good basis for coping.”
This is solid scientific advice – if in any doubt simply google articles dealing with the impact of nutrition on our mental health and emotional state, and the efficacy of food therapy.
As a simple personal example, some years ago I had a common candida problem which led to mild depression – adjusting my diet contributed to a cure. It also led to some weight loss, which in turn made me less lethargic, and I felt more positive about life in general.
Now, it would be silly to generalise, but I am sure I am not the only musician who would benefit from a better daily diet. And many of us these days surely know a heck of a lot more about healthy eating than we actually practice!
Alongside the basic information widely available and publicised in the media, Deng Ming-Dao offers the following advice:
“Eat a balanced diet rich in nutrients.
Take the time to understand proper nutrition,
and eat a large variety of foods according to the seasons.
The skilful use of foods is far superior to medicine.”
For more detailed advice, Maoshing Li and Cathy McNease’s Tao of Nutrition is well worth a read.
2. Is My Mind “Tamed”?
“Taming the mind” is an issue that I struggle with constantly, and I am sure that many other pianists, educators, and students all face the same difficulty. Deng Ming-Dao:
“Next is the difficult mind that seems to have its own interests, habits, and excesses.
The only way to counter this is guard against worry, stress, intellectualism, scheming, and desires.
This can only happen through a strong philosophical grounding and by methodical meditation.”
Hang on! Since when did “intellectualism” belong on the same list as stress and scheming?
“Intellectualism” is widely condemned within many spiritual systems, but must not be confused with exercising intelligence. Daoism as a worldview has always encouraged study and the acquisition of knowledge, as I addressed in this recent post about “expertise”.
The problem of intellectualism has more to do with what we might otherwise call “intellectual pride”, and with using one’s academic cunning as a means to procrastination or assumed superiority. These are tendencies which, ironically, militate against ongoing learning and discovery.
“Intellectualism” might also include “over-thinking“, which can happen when analysis outstays its welcome, continuing long after a workable solution has already been discovered.
Alan Watts – who achieved so much in helping Western minds understand Eastern thinking – compared our thoughts to a raft which we might use to cross a stream. Once on the other side, we must climb out, ditch the raft and continue on our Way:
“As soon as you have understood the words in their plain and straightforward sense, you have already used the raft. All that remains now is to do what the words say – to drop the raft and go walking on the dry land.
And to do this, you must drop the raft.”
Alan Watts (1915-1973)
Become What You Are (Shambhala Publications, 2003)
The “Artificial Construct”
In Daoist thinking, much of our perceived reality – at least in the domain of human society and interaction – is sometimes seen as an artificial construct. Rather like peeling the layers of an onion, we must progressively strip back this construct if we are to discover the true reality.
“Scheming“ might be defined here as taking the opposite path – that of adding further layers to the onion of artifice in order to improve one’s own public image or prospects. And such scheming is rarely more tempting than in the over-competitive world of musical performance – a point that I have often made here before.
Meanwhile, Western thinking over the centuries has addressed the three classic “Desires” : Money, Sex and Power.
The lure of these has been considered by some to be such an acute danger that monks and religious ascetics of many traditions have seen it as necessary to counter the threat by taking vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience”. Some of the most successful musicians, on the other hand, have had their desires more than amply quenched – often with catastrophic consequences!
Daoism eschews moral absolutes in favour of “wisdom” and balance. In doing so, there is a recognition that the problem is not money, sex or power, but desire itself.
Why is desire such a danger? Essentially for the same reason that worry, stress, intellectualism and scheming are : because it further skews our thinking, adding yet more layers to the artificial construct beneath which reality itself gets buried. The dictum “all things in moderation” has never been more important if we hope to retain a healthy balance and perspective in our lives and thinking.
3. Is My World Safe?
Deng Ming-Dao again:
“Finally, environmental factors such as weather, natural and man-made disasters, and socio-economic problems can break our unity with Dao.
To cope with this, gain as much control over your environment as possible. Keep your home a haven, have control over your work place, and be independent enough to face emergencies. “
We might object that “safety”, too, is merely an artificial construct. So I find it particularly interesting that Deng Ming-Dao here equates safety with our environment – both in the home and at work – and our independence, both of which are firmly rooted in reality.
Surely it makes sense to do what we can to stay physically safe, healthy and away from obvious danger. And any security this brings can help neutralise the negative impacts of worry, stress and desire.
Let’s leave the final words to Deng Ming-Dao:
“It is inevitable that one will fall in and out with Dao. The wise arrange their lives so that they can always return to balance.”