Chapter 15: People of Power
“Once upon a time
people who knew the Way
were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,
“Who can by stillness, little by little
make what is troubled grow clear?
Who can by movement, little by little
Make what is still grow quick?
To follow the way
Is not to need fulfillment.
Unfulfilled, one may live on
Needing no renewal.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
There are about three types in people. What separates them is their attitude toward time.
The first kind romanticizes hunter-gatherers.
The second kind romanticizes the Middle Ages.
The third kind dreams about the future.
Each projects the Way outside of the present; they just project along different timelines and tell different stories about how we fell off the beam and how to get back on it.
The first kind—the Progressives—gnash their teeth over capitalism, consumerism, climate change, the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, and pretty much the entirety of Western civilization. You know them: they shop at Whole Foods, feel ambivalent and guilty about shopping at Whole Foods because it’s corporate and bougie and owned by Amazon, buy all their stuff from Amazon and feel said ambivalence and guilt about same, do yoga, virtue signal Wokeness, strive for Wellness, deny the progress that is obvious to everyone else, and document the minutiae of their lives on Instagram as a hedge against existential despair.
The second kind—the Traditionalists—gnash their teeth over abortion, the sexual revolution, the erosion of family values, the collapse of community, what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” Hollywood, porn, and Critical Race Theory. You know them: they take pride in having large families with Tradwives, they champion “religious liberty,” they’re concerned about attacks on free speech, they’re convinced Christianity and Western Civilization is under assault, they’re tickled by the Benedict Option but grudgingly relish the comforts of modern suburban living, and they probably voted for Trump.
The third kind—the Modernists—gnash their teeth over taxes, regulations, government bureaucracy, friction, inefficiency, and the political extremists on “both sides.” They believe that hard work, science, technological innovation, free markets, and economic growth have improved and will continue to improve the material standard of living and that the material standard of living is the standard of living. In the future we will cure disease and death, and the lucky among us will live on a sea-steading libertarian platform paradise, a New Zealand sheep farm, Mars, or plugged into the Matrix.
The careful reader will have noticed, and perhaps thought it a typo, that above I wrote types “in” people, not types “of” people. We are not the stories that ravel our minds. What all three of these types share is the projection of paradise outside the present. They imagine fulfillment was or will be found, or at least easier to find, in Star Wars or Star Trek—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or a distant technological utopia—in a quiet place or outer space. Game the scenarios out, and what you find is that the Progressives want to eliminate self-consciousness and evolutionarily regress to pre-human primates; the Traditionalists want to eliminate the modernity that offers them the freedom to practice their religion unmolested; the Modernists want to escape the human condition and ascend to the Cloud. What they share is the idea that if we move the furniture of the world around thus and so, we will find peace.
The problem is that the “once upon a time” in this chapter is allegorical.
Once upon a time you knew the Way, but at some point you started telling yourself a story, and your type took hold. But you can, by stillness and by movement, wriggle out of your type, and find clarity and foster growth. In Buddhist terms, samsara—the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth—is not a set of historical conditions; it’s a story spinning in your head. Nirvana is not located in a lost golden age or a kingdom to come. As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is “within you” and “at hand.” And as Emerson wrote, “Every age is a good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”