I ask because it’s becoming clear to me that the chase seems to be my natural state. I wonder if it’s yours too.
I’d like to stop. Or at least, I’d like to apply the brakes more effectively. I’d like to be able to pause and say to myself, “Ah, you’re chasing again. Is that necessary? Is it good for you?”
I suspect that it’s good to a point. And after that point, it’s probably pointless, done out of habit and the need to pursue a goal, any goal, without serious consideration of the time and energy it requires, or the true benefit at the end of the rainbow.
Early on, for me, it was girls and fun, often fun with girls, or fun in such huge, wobbly amounts that I wasted my opportunity to be educated in a serious way and often sacrificed my dignity.
At age 15, for example, I followed a summer romance to a bad school. The romance was over before the school year began. So I was doomed to see the girl of my dreams in the hallways between auto shop and woodworking shop, subjects I was forced to take in order to attend that particular school. My heart and mind were set back simultaneously.
But that was young foolishness.
I’m interested in how some of us never seem to learn. In this final third of life, we are still chasing things that pull us off the path to peace and contentment. In fact, the chase itself is a form of discontent. Otherwise, why chase?
Often, what we chase is stuff. New cars. New battery-driven lawn mowers (check). New homes (check). Travel (yup). Are we unfulfilled if we haven’t made it to Thailand for those $8 massages? Or New Zealand to behold Milford Sound? Does India sit out there like a scary but mandatory must-experience? Should we chase India or remain unfulfilled? How about that insanely comfortable new La-Z-Boy? (I’ve owned three in my life. They all had to go away because they were aesthetic violations. I’m over it.) Or the new set of Ping golf clubs? Or the Weber barbecue with the side burner for stir-fried medleys of impressive multicolored vegetables?
Mostly, I think, we chase stories. I do. I told myself about 15 years ago that I needed a new video camera (for $2,000) that was literally tossed out last month after sitting in a drawer for every minute of those 15 years. I also own a gold-nibbed fountain pen purchased for one-seventh of my annual salary in 1977 that sits, lovely and idle, like a taxidermied purebred Dalmatian, just as it has since it came home to fill a dream of cursive glory. A Japanese sports car we bought 10 years ago for its power and handling and luxurious finishings was sold months later because it could not actually get up the slightest incline in winter. It was the best car ever, until it was a sadder story based on reality.
The list is embarrassingly long.
The chase normally leads to the catch; the moment of glory with its effervescent feeling of a goal attained. We all know the feeling at the checkout counter.
Here’s the rub (and we all know this too): once the chase is over and the catch has been made, the narcotic of glorious attainment dissipates. The object of pursuit integrates with all the other objects. It becomes part of the landscape. It becomes the norm. And the norm is, well, the norm.
And yet, it usually starts all over again.
A friend of mine has a better way. He has been trying it on for the past year or two and probably flirting with it for much longer. I think he’d admit that he hasn't infallibly veered away from the chase. But he’s getting there.
His better way is Taoist (pronounced “dow-ist”). Taoism is a philosophical tradition of Chinese origin that dates back to the 4th century B.C. In simple terms, it’s being open to what comes next, then taking what you believe is the right action. It’s more gut-based than head-based, although it’s not like you’ve lost your head; it’s just not running the show.
Wikipedia describes Taoism as “becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the universe…”
According to a site called Personal Tao, Taoism “teaches a person to flow with life,” and to live more in one’s heart.
Who doesn’t want that?
Casey Kochmer, one of he co-authors of Personal Tao, says Taoism, unlike most religions, has no rules or dogma, but he offers a few guidelines. Here, slightly condensed, are most of them:
Be true to yourself.
Connect to the world as you want to be treated.
To those unwilling to accept you for your true nature, no action is required: just silently let them be themselves as you remain yourself.
Know that you own nothing but are merely a passing custodian of items outside of your nature.
Discover a set of practices to aid keeping the mind, body, and spirit engaged and strong.
Take time, relax, and just explore and poke around.
Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities.
Breathe when needing a break.
Follow your gut feelings and trust your instincts.
A life philosophy that advocates, “Take time, relax, and just explore and poke around” is downright lovable. Imagine Taoist scholars intoning that principle from the podium: “Thou shalt poke around.” The Taoists seem to be about chilling and not giving a damn when you don’t have to. Like dope smokers without the dope.
Casey says that most people scoff at Taoism because they don’t believe life can be that simple. But he says, it’s true that "Taoism has no plans.” And that practitioners of Taoism have no expectations.
No plans, no expectations. Both hard to swallow.
Giving up planning would include giving up my to-do list. That makes me shiver.
I like to think I that don’t have many expectations. But with some clear-eyed reflection, the truth is that I’m drenched in them. I might call them “standards” or even “qualities,” but they are really outright expectations. So they set me up for disappointment and emotional turmoil.
Expectations are a big part of the chase. That’s why we are chasing stuff. We expect to be in a sort of little Nirvana when we capture our target. And yet Nirvana becomes Norm.
The really tough part about releasing expectation is relinquishing the control that comes with it. Again, I look inward and see a pretty substantial control-based emotional infrastructure. I might not use the term “control freak” — that’s too strong — but “control lover" or “control addict” are not far off the mark.
What else might a Taoist approach look like to those of us who would like to relax more and live more in the moment?
There’s probably a lot of waiting in curiosity for things to arrive, as if at a train station on a bench beside the tracks with no place in particular to go, just a quiet desire to observe the trains.
Trust, mainly of ourselves, would have to grow. We would trust that things will unfold and we will make the right decision when they do. We would trust that as the forks in the road appear, we will take the one that seems correct and then make the best of it, without suffering the pangs of worry in advance or the pangs of regret afterward.
I like that. It puts the brakes on the chase. It deflates the cravings. It denatures expectation. There’s liberation there.
When we expect less, we are rewarded with more. Peace and contentment, those elusive states that we all want, are more likely to be ours in the absence of expectation and the presence of willingness to go with the flow.
I am witnessing the benefits of the Taoist outlook in my friend. He retired a year ago, knowing, as he puts it, that work of the sort he was doing “distorts one’s essential nature.” He has relaxed into his post-work nature vastly less distorted, infused with visible contentment. He meditates a lot. He grazes the internet. He’s staying fit and in touch with people. He believes in his heart that letting the universe unfold in front of him — maintaining a loose hold — is the way he wants to spend the rest of his life. He wants to abandon, to the best of his ability, as he eloquently puts it, “agency.”
Am I likely to live this way?
It’s complicated. I know I should. (There it is, more expectation, this time of myself.) And when I do — when I give myself over to the breathing and pausing that meditation has taught me — into calmly being rather than diligently doing, I really like the feeling. I almost can’t believe it’s open to me. I also imagine that it lowers my blood pressure. It’s like unclenching and savoring in a single moment. And the more moments that are savored, the richer one’s life, I’d say.
And, bringing this around to the frequent thesis of my blog, Taoistic openness feels to me like an age-appropriate response to the privilege of not having to work so hard at this time of life. There’s still time. Time to let things show up rather than directing all the traffic. Time to flow more and push less. To back off the momentum of perpetual motion if it’s steering us away from peace and contentment. To give up the chase and opt for the savoring.
My intention sits exactly there. You?