Thinking About the Tedious

Verse 67 of the Tao Te Ching (via Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation) opens with the following lines:

Inside

Everybody says my way is great,

But improbable

All greatness

Is improbable.

What’s probable

Is tedious and petty.

I think every artist, every researcher, every teacher (or really every human being ever) asks at some point, why do I bother? Why do I bother to create art? Do students even care? Why do I even try? Why am I important anyway? Why do I wake up and go to a job I hate? As anyone reading this knows, self-doubt is a common human experience and for those of us who have chosen to try and create, it is perhaps even more potent and possibly more devastating.

I know I sometimes find those thoughts echoing in my mind as if I was screaming repeatedly into the Grand Canyon, until the feedback of my own mind feel like a high pitched aching distortion of misery. Sometimes, when I stop and watch this, it makes me laugh a little at its utter absurdity. Other times, I allow myself (like many people) to become enveloped by what feels hopeless. It is when we identify with our own thoughts, that we allow this hopelessness to persist.

All identity is crafted from a mix between our internal life, our social interactions and the wider cultural sphere(s) in which we exist. Therefore, identity is ever-changing and ever-moving. You are not the same person you were at the moment you began reading this.

So often, social pressure and cultural history interplay with our own consciousness in such a way that we ignore the small still inner voices that rage so quietly in the back of our mind. We allow the judgements of others, of our wider culture and perhaps most dangerously the wave of expectations from both the outside world and our own ideas of what the world should be, blot out the fact that we have created something beautiful or wonderful or unique. Or perhaps we forget the amazing amount of conditions that have coalesced to create this particular and quite miraculous moment in which we reside.

The easy path is to give up and allow our own misery to wash over us. The easy path is to continue with whatever tedium we have surrendered too. We urge ourselves to repeat the same cycles, because a new one is perhaps too scary or might be harder. But the path towards our own truth, towards the end of suffering is much more difficult. This is the path of honesty, of authenticity.

By the way, I am not going to tell you to take the road less traveled, or present you with some hollow interpretation via Robert Frost because in all honesty, that poem has been grossly misinterpreted.  (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-gives-robert-frosts-road-not-taken-its-power-180956200/?no-ist )

We need to be the Hermit, The Shaman, The Buddha, the Christ Figure (or any other symbol of a retreat in the wilderness and the exploration the inner life), seeking to understand the nature of our own suffering and the limitations we put on ourselves. We must ask ourselves, how have we been in our own way lately? Doing so, is the only way we break from the probable, from the tedious, from the petty. That is the only way that human beings as a whole will reach the distance future, for so many systems of suffering have been created by relying on structures we want to last forever, but are in fact impermanent.

In short, find trust in yourself. And for those of us who create, “Do you work and Step Back, The only path to serenity” (via Tao Te Ching verse 9). We must accept that the inner voice or our creations may never be shared with the wider world. That’s okay. Recognition, Fame, Respect, these things are all fleeting. Instead focus on the fact that the mere ability to create is the essence of remarkable beauty.

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