My husband Thom is much more of a Taoist than I am. In case it’s new to you, Taoism (pronounced Dow-ism) is an ancient Chinese teaching originally developed from a book written over 2,500 years ago by a man named Lao Tzu. Often referred to as “The Way,” Taoism emphasizes a harmonious relationship between nature, humanity and the divine. Put another way, Taoism is a path to simple, SMART and sustainable living. This year Thom decided to make the book The Tao of Pooh part of his summer reading. After quickly absorbing the content, he urged me to read it as well. I was surprised to discover that The Tao of Pooh offered both an entertaining and unique perspective on Taoism, as well as a number of simple living lessons that I thought any minimalist might appreciate.
As most of you probably already know, Winnie-the-Pooh is a popular character in a beloved children’s story. Originally created in 1928 by a man named A.A. Milne for his son Christopher Robin, the tale features a lovable and gentle bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Then in 1982, an author named Benjamin Hoff wrote The Tao of Pooh using Pooh and his friends as a backdrop to symbolize basic Taoist principles. Using conversations with Pooh and his friends, and excerpts from the original story, Hoff illustrates some of the key elements of Taoism in an enlightening and lighthearted way. While the short book contains dozens of thoughtful gems, here are those that I believe are most closely related to a simple and SMART life.
The Uncarved Block. Hoff believes that the character of Winnie-The-Pooh is a great example of the Uncarved Block. This Taoist principle suggests that everything, including people and objects in their original, natural and simple state contain their own natural power. Often called the “still, calm, reflecting ‘mirror mind,’ the Uncarved Block just ‘is.’”
Pooh is such a great example of this because although he appears simple-minded, he is not stupid. Instead, he is childlike, open, and receptive to the idea that “Life is fun.” According to Hoff, “From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work…” As his friend Piglet says, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.”
Inner Nature vs. Cleverness. Pooh loves to sing and one of the songs he sang in the original story is named “Cottleston Pie” which contains the line, “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.” In an amusing way this song clearly and simply points out that “Things Are As They Are.” Unfortunately, Pooh’s friends and just about all the rest of us are constantly arguing with and trying to change the reality of the moment. Instead, as Hoff points out, “…everything has its own place and function. That applies to people, although many don’t seem to realize it, stuck as they are in the wrong job, the wrong marriage, or the wrong house. When you know and respect your own Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.”
Another aspect of Inner Nature is recognizing our limitations. Hoff says, “Once you face and understand your limitations you can work with them, instead of having them work against you and get in your way, which is what they do when you ignore them…And then you will find that, in many cases, your limitations can be your strengths.”
According to Hoff, Taoism teaches that while the intellect may be useful for analyzing certain things, deeper and broader matters are beyond its limited reach. Pooh’s friend Owl serves as a perfect example of the scholarly brain. Rather than reflecting wholeness or balance, Owl over-thinks everything and stays stuck in a disorganized and impractical manner. Owl doesn’t experience events so much as read and think about them. He then ends up missing the mystery and spirit behind them all. As Hoff says, “Scholars can be very useful…They provide a lot of information…It’s just that there is Something More, and that Something More is what life is really all about.”
Wu Wei. Pooh offers a great perspective on Wu Wei. In fact, Hoff calls Wu Wei “The Pooh Way” and says it means, “without doing, causing or making.” Like water, Wu Wei flows around the rocks and obstacles in its pathway. It is not forced, or mechanical, but flows naturally. Just as the Tao Te Ching says, “Tao does not do, but nothing is left undone.”
Hoff goes on to say, “When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress. No struggle…Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.” Hoff finishes by explaining, “When you work with Wu Wei, you have no real accidents. Things may get a little Odd at times, but they work out. You don’t have to try very hard to make them work out; you just let them.”
Bisy Backson or Busy, Back Soon. Although Hoff used Bisy Backson as an example of an overworked, stressed out and constantly busy person over 30 years ago, I doubt he had any idea how relevant it would be for our culture today. Bisy is always on the run, going somewhere and is “Anywhere but where he is.” Hoff says, “Our Bisy Backson religion, sciences and business ethics have tried their hardest to convince us that there is a Great Reward waiting for us somewhere, and that what we have to do is spend our lives working like lunatics to catch up with it.”
“Say, Pooh, why aren’t you busy?” I said.
“Because it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.
“Why ruin it?” he said.
“But you could be doing something Important,” I said.
“I am,” said Pooh.
“Oh? Doing what?”
“Listening,” he said.
“Listening to what?”
“To the birds. And that squirrel over there.”
“What are they saying?” I asked.
“That it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.
“But you know that already,” I said.
“Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too,” he replied.
“Well, you could be spending your time getting Educated by listening to the Radio, instead,” I said.
“Certainly. How else will you know what’s going on in the world?” I said.
“By going outside,” said Pooh.
Bisy Backson works frantically to save time, forgetting that time can’t be saved, only spent wisely or foolishly. On the other hand, when we take pleasure in the process of life, enjoy our surroundings, and appreciate just being alive, we stop the practice of being a Bisy Backson.
The Tiddely-Pom Principle aka The Snowball Effect Another one of Pooh’s songs, Tiddely-Pom says, “The more it snows, the more it goes.” In other words, push a snowball down the hill, the bigger it grows. The more you think about something, good or bad, the bigger it grows. As Hoff says, “Do you want to be happy? You can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you’ve got? Do you want to be really miserable? You can begin by being discontented.” The Tiddely-Pom Principle is a great reminder that whatever we focus and dwell upon in our world, good or bad, grows and expands. Choose wisely.
As I mentioned above there are plenty of more clear and illuminating examples of a simple and SMART life to be found within the pages of The Tao of Pooh. I was impressed with the timeless quality of so many of the examples and particularly resonated with the references of the importance of a simple appreciation of nature as essential to a happy and stress-free life. As Hoff says, “Abstract cleverness of mind only separates the thinker from the world of reality, and that world, the Forest of Real Life, is in a desperate condition now because of too many who think too much and care too little.” Hoff reminds us that, “The one chance we have to avoid certain disaster is to change our approach, and to learn to value wisdom and contentment….We can no longer afford to look so desperately hard for something in the wrong way and in the wrong place.” Hoff concludes his story by saying, “If we are smart, we will choose the way of Pooh.” I couldn’t possibly have said it better myself.