Dao Du Jour II, Day 35: Small Magic

Chapter 35: Humane Power

“Hold fast to the great thought

and all the world will come to you,

harmless, peaceable, serene.

Walking around, we stop

For music, for food.

But if you taste the Way

It’s flat, insipid.

It looks like nothing much,

It sounds like nothing much.

And yet you can’t get enough of it.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

The first line in today’s chapter sounds suspiciously like the formula of The Secret, perhaps the saddest brand of snake oil: “the law of attraction,” according to which your thoughts can change the world. “Setting intentions,” “manifesting,” “energy”—that sort of thing. Published in 2006 by Rhonda Byrne and translated into 50 languages, the book has sold 30 million copies and was made into a film in 2020 (the occurrence of which definitively disproves its hypothesis).

The Secret was a New Age retread of the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale, whose church, incidentally, Donald Trump attended with his family as a child. Childish is precisely what such thinking is: magical thinking is the infantile belief that you can think things into being, a cognitive vestigial organ we inherit on account of our cries as a baby swiftly summoning mother’s milk. Because our inner child is alive and well, we are forever vulnerable to its charms.

Reaganomics is a similar, secular form of the creed: if you’re poor, it’s your fault because you’re not working hard enough. The Secret is more insidious: if you don’t have what you want, you’re just not wanting it hard enough. It is easy to run an ideology critique: that The Secret is a clever adaptation of late capitalism, assuring the overworked and underpaid that the problem is not economic but psychological or spiritual, that it tries to cover up the true secrets hidden in plain sight: that the rent is too damn high, that child care, health insurance, and college are too expensive, that corporations are undertaxed and have too much power; that tech companies have adapted the psychology of the gambling industry to deploy algorithms that hijack our limbic system to sell ads to get us to buy stuff that won’t make up happy; and so on. The “music” and “food” we walk around trying to fill our ears and mouths with leaves us wanting. The “law of attraction” is a tool for distraction.

There is some truth to that story, and you can tell it all you want, but it is not a “great thought”: it will only bring you burnout, outrage, and despair. And the only defense you’ll have left is irony, a kind of self-righteous knowingness, the consolation that you can see the code of the Matrix. But you will have succumbed to the evil twin of the power of positive thinking: the dark secret of nihilism.

The Secret would not be so popular if it didn’t contain a piece of the truth. “To ‘see through’ all things,” C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “is the same as not to see.” In that text, Lewis uses the word “the Dao” as a catchall for the Logos, Natural Law, the Principles of Practical Reason, the Hindu notion of Rta: “that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.” Because, as Rumi writes, “what you seek is seeking you,” it is easy to lose sight of the whale we are sitting on as we fish for minnows.

When we stop “walking around” and just sit, it is as though the lights have gone out. The way before is dark, “looks like nothing much,” “sounds like nothing much,” “tastes insipid.” But if we are patient, the darkness will begin to secrete shapes. Our eyes will adjust. We will see things anew. The “great thought” is to stop thinking entirely.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”