With great effort, uncle Joe cautiously lifted his 305 pound frame from the old tweed-tufted armchair at the head of the oak table in the chandeliered dining room, emitting a short gravelly bark; “Well, I guess I had more than my fair share of that Christmas goose. I’m stuffed,” this last ejaculation sounding more like a question. Other sighs were heard round what remained of grandma Millie’s table setting. All present seemed in general agreement that they had consumed themselves full to bursting.
Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow. (Tao Te Ching #9)
Thus ended the big day of consumption in America! NORAD was still on full alert, even though Santa with his reindeer and sleigh had long since come and gone, all packages delivered and opened, toys scattered across the living room floor, the chubby kids fighting one another for that last bit of Christmas pudding. Fattened drunks were all perched on assorted couches, dozing in front of the TV, the evening football game blaring, while a lone neighborhood pothead was wandering around outside, stoned, wondering why it was so warm at the end of December.
It seems as though consumption (along with acquisition and the accompanying inertia) is our chief concern in this curriculum of the West. Despite the fact that we consume more than most, we just cannot seem to get enough – enough food, enough stuff, enough attention; and the more we have, the more we want, until we are consumed with and consumed by the very act of consuming.
Therefore the sage seeks freedom from desire.
He does not collect precious things.
He learns not to hold on to ideas.
He brings men back to what they have lost.
He helps the ten thousand things find their own nature,
But refrains from action. (64)
In Russia, some folks still call tuberculosis by the name “consumption,” just as Hippocrates first identified it in ancient Greece – phthisis, a progresssive disease characterized by the wasting away (atrophying) of the body. There you have it my friends, could it be any clearer? Consumption, tuberculosis, is the disease that consumes the host until the host is gone! But, in the USA that is what we do day-in an day-out, and most especially every holiday season… we consume until we collapse!
Perhaps, our notion of consumerism is an appropriate way of describing the very disease that infects us, a disease that is eating us away as we eat away at Gaia. It is a cultural act of self-consumption as we chew through everything that is at-hand, or belligerently go after all that is not readily at-hand. It is appropriate that we call ourselves a consumer society, for we are consuming ourselves along with our host (not to be confused with the resurrected one). And as TB consumes its victim, so we are consumed on that celebratory day, thus consuming ourselves with faint hopes of participating in some small way in the event of the resurrected one’s birth. But, maybe we need not the resurrection of a distant savior, so much as we need an experience of returning.
Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of not being. (40)
Tuberculosis grabs hold of its victim until it chokes the life and breath out of him. And as we continuously grasp for more, we become more deeply enmeshed in a trap of our own making, unable to catch a solid breath, spitting blood as we choke on our own bile of consumerism. We are consumed in the very act of consumption; consuming ourselves as we ravenously consume the world we depend upon. We become the victims of our own grasping, our own consumptive behaviors. We need to relax that grasp, and just let go, even a little bit.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.(48)
This is what Lao Tzu had in mind with the idea of ‘wei wu wei’ — spontaneous engagement through non-controlling, non-grasping action. It is abandoning that hyper-logical mechanism put into effect with the earliest organization of urban bureaucratic life — with legalism and the codification of civilized behavior. It is, perhaps, a call for the reversal of millennia of linguistic and legalistic hair-splitting, of rationalized self-interest, of acquisition, consumption, and control.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.(29)
Releasement or letting go of control was a key for Lao Tzu, not just in personal terms, but politically as well. In this respect, Lao Tzu may have been one of the first true voices of modern anarchic thought, a rejection of the legalism developing with Confucius and the bureaucratization of feudal China. It was a rejection of hierarchical relations, of the force of government (overt or covert) and its diverse machinations.
Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.
Lao Tzu recognized the State as an artful and artificial construct established to maintain control over the disparate elements within the civil hierarchy; he sees the State itself as an all-consuming structure that swallows all its victims, destroying persons in the very act of consuming them. He suggests a different kind of relation between those who would lead and those who would listen.
If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed;
When he stands before them, they will not be harmed.
The whole world will support him and will not tire of him.
Because he does not compete,
He does not meet competition. (66)
Hierarchy necessarily gives way to control, and ‘shit’ rolls straight downhill, I’m afraid. He who is managed from above in turn manages those below, each in turn attempting to rescue some measure of self-importance, some sense of dignity, within an ever descending spiral of formalized hierarchic relations. And ultimately the client, the citizen, pays the price at the bottom of the ordered hierarchy. Too many would-be kings, royalty, and imperial hegemons already people the diverse State bureaucracies and courts around the globe. We are overrun with rules and rulers — from starkly impersonal legal dictums to abstract religious proscriptions.
“Thou shalt not!” is not the most effective way to bring-up youth. Nature will take its course in childhood, as in adolescence, and adulthood. The controllers must give up the control, the consumers… the consumption. Then, perhaps, we all may return more naturally to the event of life and living.