Yesterday, Giulia and I watched a BBC documentary on the Great Salmon Run.
To reach their spawning grounds, every year, millions of fish attempt to find their way through thousands of miles of open ocean and hundreds (or even thousands) of miles of inland rivers to find the very patch of gravel where they were born. The fish encounter so many obstacles (bears, eagles, wolves) along the way that only 4 out of every 1,000 survive. Then, after having spent their final bit of energy in the act of reproduction, they die.
I felt surprisingly touched by this story. These fish live for four years in the ocean before embarking on their journey toward death. The instinct to reproduce is so deeply engrained that they persevere through months of adversity and stop at nothing for the chance to end their lives where they began. Of course, death is part of a vast cycle, of which the individual fish are unaware.
The salmon story illuminated another aspect of a conversation that I had with my editor Tristan a few days back. He asked me what his girlfriend’s mother had asked him: what is the Tao? I haven’t spoken much of Taoism on this blog, which is a shame, because the Taoist tradition is a repository of deep wisdom.
This question, which is the source of countless meditations and riddles, is impossible to answer, although some answers are less inaccurate than others.
What the word ‘Tao’ refers to is that ineffable essence that allows a seed to grow into a tree.
It’s the wondrous force that ignited the Big Bang and condensed matter into stars and planets.
It’s the ultimate mystery lying within your body’s physiological processes that regulate themselves without a conscious controller.
“It’s there in the river, as it flows to the sea; it’s the sound in the heart of someone becoming free.”
All these ways of speaking of the Tao are only partial, however, since we could never fully say in words what It is. Whatever It is, it is beyond language, beyond concepts, beyond ideas (sounds a lot like God or Nirvana, no?) Hence Lao Tzu’s famous quotation, “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”
After bantering a few answers (most famously, ‘your everyday mind is the Tao’), my editor and I looked out at a group of children playing…and there was an answer.
Having children…making more of Itself…bringing new forms out of nothingness…this is just what Life does.
Isn’t that interesting? That we live in a universe that is constantly shape-shifting, and never static? We are a result of its dynamic, creative impulse, and have the possibility to engage with it in a way that the salmon cannot.
To truly flow with the Tao and allow its creative potential to flow through us, the mind must stand aside. Anybody who has created children in the literal sense, or had other “babies” like artistic projects, knows that true inspiration bubbles up from a deeper source than the mind. To create, the mind’s calculative habits must get out of the way. We must move beyond the burdens of social conventions and simply go with what feels right.
This is why the Taoist literature so often uses water to illustrate the essence of the Tao. Water is constantly in motion, and follows the path of least resistance. Even though it is very soft and weak, over time, its motion can carve entire landscapes. When we attempt to block its flow, it simply moves around the obstacle.
I’ve already witnessed the incredible wonder of having brought a book into this world. And any day now, I will meet the living being who will call me father.
With both the book and the baby, it feels not so much that they are ‘my’ creations as the Tao/Universe/God flowing through me. Sometimes I look back on passages in the book and think, how could I have been capable of writing that? I suspect that this feeling will be even stronger when gaze upon my son’s face.
I’m looking forward to sharing with him (and you!) all the reflections that arise from being part of this Universe, this Tao, whose essence could never be put into words.