Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Tao of Relationships

[note: This is one of the two papers mentioned here. At some point in the future I may post excerpts from the other one, or perhaps an edited version that isn't quite so long. Even I have my limits!]

While Western philosophy historically tends to be primarily theoretical, aiming to uncover the fundamental nature of things, Chinese philosophy is historically very practical. Rather than being concerned with a never-ending quest to discover the underlying substance of the universe, it simply seeks out how one should live. If Western philosophy is characterized by a search for Reality, then Chinese philosophy is characterized by an attempt to regain Harmony. If the determining factor of the validity of a Western philosophic system is its consistent adherence to Logic, then the validity of a Chinese philosophy is found in the way in which it impacts the lives of those who adhere to it.

Chinese philosophy, at its core, is concerned with the well-being of the individual, and the recovery of harmony in relationships. These relationships concern the dynamic interaction of people with other people; but they also concern the dynamic interaction between Heaven and Earth, as well as the interaction of humans with Heaven and with Earth. In all of these, both for the benefit of the organic whole as well as for the well-being of the individual, harmony must be regained and maintained.

Chinese philosophy is preoccupied with the quest for harmonizing relationships. In part this is because the Chinese culture has long understood that while we may experience life as individuals, no individual exists in isolation. No one is truly self-sufficient, and so any quest for happiness in life that does not primarily concern itself with bringing harmony to relationships is doomed to failure. Simply put, one cannot be fully content if one’s life is characterized by relational discord, either with other people or even with the natural environment.

The Taoist/Laoist school of Chinese philosophy is then, like all ancient schools of Chinese philosophy, concerned with harmonizing relationships. And while the main Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching may be interpreted in many ways, an interpretation of it which does not address the way in which it may be used to help bring harmony to relationships is, no matter how scholarly, incomplete. It is true that to read the Tao Te Ching as exclusively, or even primarily, a handbook for the relationally challenged does not do justice to the text. It is, after all, a very complex book with many levels of meaning. But, the fact remains that principles taken from the Tao Te Ching, when applied to relationships, even and especially in the modern West, can revolutionize the way that we interact with often infuriating loved ones.

Relationships, and, particularly committed, romantic relationships, can be both the source of a great deal of happiness as well as the biggest obstacle to true happiness. While it is often maintained that love and hate are opposites, it can truly be stated that in romance they exist side by side. Anyone who has been in love can testify that our experience of love is a complex bundle of emotions, often flying from ecstasy to infuriation in 5.2 seconds or less. Those for whom we care most deeply are, by virtue of the powerful emotional bond of love, the only people that can truly drive us insane.

This truth is not primarily a theoretical truth; it is practical, and experiential. But, the theoretical groundwork for it is laid in the Tao Te Ching (chapter 36 of Michael Lafargue’s translation), in the notion that the dynamic interaction of Yin and Yang (“the Two”) gave rise to the natural world (“the thousands of things”). This notion, along with many other Taoist notions, implies that nothing exists singularly; it is accompanied by an opposite. Strength and weakness arise together; if we do not know one we do not know the other. Knowledge and ignorance arise together; if we have no knowledge of one, we have no knowledge of the other. The same is true of all opposites – they arise in pairs. Good and bad, male and female, full and empty, hard and soft, movement and stillness; all of these are pairs of opposites who only appear together. If there is no knowledge of one, there is no knowledge of the other. The same is true of love and hate. It is hate that teaches us love, and love that teaches us hate. And, if we spend enough time with one we love, we will learn to hate them. If we spend enough time trying to understand one we hate, we will learn to love them.

And so the biggest obstacle to harmony in relationships might be our attempt to define love and hate as mutually exclusive opposites, instead of realizing the truth that they arise together out of the power of an emotional, relational bond. Rather, then, than seeing the moments that hate is manifest in loving relationships as static moments (and so defining the relationship as characterized by hate rather than love), we should appreciate the powerful, dynamic interaction of love and hate in our relationships as an integral part of the relationship. Hate can serve as evidence of love.

This is all well and good in theory, but, by being a theory it fails, so far, to be an embodiment of ancient Chinese philosophy. Chinese philosophy is pragmatic; any theory which cannot be acted on, or any theory that is harmful to act on, is a bad theory. Again, the value of a philosophy is not found in the beauty or logic of the theory, but rather in its practice. So, while it may be “true” to state that hate and love arise together as a pair of opposites, in what way does this knowledge affect our ability to relate to loved ones, and how can this knowledge be constructively applied to our relationships? I believe that other parts of the Tao Te Ching, while again not primarily concerned with interpersonal relationships, can shed some light on this. And so, at the risk of systematizing a book that is decidedly not systematic, I propose that there are a series of Taoist values that can help bring harmony to love/hate relationships.

The first such value concerns the individual. Simply put, the Tao Te Ching says, “Be yourself!” Act out of your own nature instead of trying to adapt yourself to externally imposed expectations. Chapter 11 of Lafargue’s translation sets up a kind of gradation of values; first Tao (Being itself), the Te (Being individualized in a person), and, from there, Goodness, Morality, and Etiquette. This implies that rather than conforming to society’s expectations (even though those expectations include Goodness, Morality and Etiquette); first and foremost one ought to simply Be. Do not allow who you are to be determined by something external to yourself. Do not allow yourself to be molded by “improvement plans.” If you are truly you, there is nothing wrong with you.

Knowledge of this brings security to relationships. Often the biggest source of conflict in a relationship can be one person in the relationship truly lacking their own identity. They seek to find their identity in the context of the relationship, by conforming to the expectation of another. The more they conform the more they realize that they are not really being themselves, and so they begin to resent the relationship, and their partner. Someone who is secure in their own identity does not need a relationship to define them. So, they will be able to approach the relationship as a whole, healthy person, and appreciate their partner as a whole, healthy person, without placing on them the burden of expectations, and without trying to conform them to their own plans.

This is the second Taoist value that applies to relationships. Just as you should be yourself, you should allow your partner to be themselves. Taoism is always suspicious of moral “improvement” projects. Your partner is not broken, and so they do not need to be fixed. Your partner is not deficient, and so does not need to be improved. Chapter 62 of Lafargue’s translation of the Tao Te Ching says that “The world is a spirit-thing, it can’t be ‘worked’ on,” a fact that, while probably intended to apply to the relationship between rulers and their subjects, easily transfers over to interpersonal relationships. That chapter goes on to say that “One who works ruins/ one who grasps loses.” In the context of a relationship, any attempt to “work on” your partner will not help the relationship. Any attempt to “improve” them will not improve the relationship. It will only undermine trust and communication, two keys to healthy relationships.

Of course, even in a committed, loving relationship between two people who are very much themselves, conflict is inevitable. The key to a healthy relationship, then, is not to try to eliminate conflict altogether (which is impossible), but rather to make sure that the conflict is not too destructive. In other words, in a relationship, don’t be afraid to fight (you’ll fight anyway); rather, when you fight, fight fairly. Chapter 8 of Lafargue’s translation says that “Sincere words are not elegant/ elegant words are not sincere./ Excellence is not winning arguments/ winning arguments is not excellent.” So often, because people are not secure in themselves, when they fight in their relationships, rather than fighting fairly and naturally they fight to manipulate and win. But manipulation (by the use of “elegant words”) only undermines trust, and it does no good to “win” a fight if, by doing so, you lose a relationship.

Just as conflict is inevitable in a relationship, so are problems. The most difficult task in life may be to live with another person, or to be constantly around another person. No matter how much you love that person, you will not always see eye to eye. You may do something to hurt them, or they may do something to hurt you (or, most likely, a combination of the two will occur), but, no matter what, things will not always go smoothly. So, finally, the Tao Te Ching teaches the universal truth that small problems are relatively easy to solve, but big problems are big trouble (Chapters 71 and 72 of Lafargue’s translation). The best “solutions” are the least drastic. To this end, communication is the key to problem solving. If something happens that bothers you, communicate your feelings to the other person. Do not blame them, or try to change them, but rather, simply and honestly present them with the “problem.” Then, through open and honest dialogue in which neither side tries to manipulate the other side, and neither person aims to win, you can, together, work out a simple solution.

Love and hate, like all opposites, according to the Tao Te Ching, arrive in pairs. Those you love, you hate. The key to a healthy relationship is to understand this. Understanding this, you can be free to be yourself, allow your partner to be themselves, fight fairly, and solve problems while they are still solvable. And, knowing this, you can resist the temptation to view the relationship as static. If you see your relationship as static, you will become dismayed when it, at times, tends toward hate. But, if you appreciate the dynamic interplay of love and hate you will no longer need to hold on to your expectations for the other person, and actually experience a healthy relationship.

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