“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” -Lao Tzu
Nature teaches us the creative side of destruction. A volcano emerges and ravages everything in its path. Eventually, new land-forms emerge, harboring new life and reconfiguring the geographic patterns of the affected space. I was going to list more of these metaphors but then realized that there are millions and I’ll let you use your imagination.
In contemplating nature, we learn the importance of balance. There is an old Arabic proverb, “Sunshine all the time makes a desert.” Rain all the time swamps everything. And, most importantly, nature at large doesn’t care. And so most environments that harbor life and its nuanced beauty are subject to constant change and subsequent adaptation. Change is the way of nature. Everything that exists in this universe is subject to some form of decay.
And then we humans come along and we’re so naive and adorable — we think we can formulate these vastly false concepts of permanence and solidity. Whenever we think we’ve got it made, nature comes around to remind us that the world is not ours. We can invent ways to optimize it, sure, but at the end of the day the world itself is not optimized to our interests. Everyone dies, accidents happen, stuff comes up. That’s the way it is. A favorite poem by Stephen Crane:
“A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.””
The unthinking and non-reflective response to this fear is a culturally popular (but still emotionally legitimate) basic nihilism. We see this in teenagers who are new to the indifference of the universe. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to feeling hopeless and meaningless in a cold world. Over time, the angsty teens get over this. Nature happens to them in the same way it happens to everything and everyone else, and they are provided with more fodder for growth. We experience death and loss, love and attachment, success and failure. We acquire experiences in the form of memories, now more than ever, given the image-driven nature of present day culture.
The existentialist position of us modern folk is based on this same idea of experiential acquisition. It’s important to get out there and see the world, eat the foods, drink the drinks, meet the people, do the stuff! There’s a certain Epicureanism that permeates the culture of experience. Everything is a possible new adventure to be “photographed”, both physically and mentally, and cached away for future reflection.
This is a natural human passion, a desire to soak up life and get the most out of it. It’s commonly perceived as arising from a place of benevolence and enthusiasm, and it mostly is. But it’s also led us to having a strangely arrogant relationship with nature. In perceiving ourselves as singular agents who exist to soak up life and acquire experiences, we start to recognize ourselves as the proprietors, ignoring the chaos and dynamism of the natural order in favor of a simpler humanism. We start to feel ownership over this world whose gifts we gobble up and whose time we so meticulously curate for ourselves, since we’re given such a limited amount of it.
And so we reach Lao Tzu’s acquisition stage. We build knowledge, soaking up everything we can. We build a foundation. It’s like a sculptor going out and buying the big slab of stone.
The next step is to start hacking away at the stone. This is what meditation and contemplation do. It’s what real love does too. Once we’ve spent some time soaking up the source material and filling up on the world, we have to start chipping away, simplifying, and reflecting all the while. Of course this applies in a literal material sense as well. Most of us have too much stuff that we’ve acquired along the journey. In removing actual things from our lives each day, we set a material precedent for the actual nitty gritty, which is a more esoteric thing.
The heart of this spiritual type of removal requires a certain degree of self-confrontation. You can stare lazily at a foggy mirror and not be able to see zits or boogers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Meditation, over time, increases the potency and magnification of the mirror image. We start off by seeing the self as we wish it was. Then we see the self as we think it is. Then we see that the self is, of course, not what we think it is at all. Then this false conceptualization of the self starts to melt away like a wax mask, and a real face emerges. And we do this actively; the world happens to us in Stage One of this cyclical process, but in Stage Two we have to have the conscious self-discipline to start chipping away at the stone.
A simple walk through the forest will remind one of this natural requisite of destruction and removal. We need the negative space to make use of the positive space, the rests to make use of the notes. The more dynamic and nuanced the relationship between growth and decay, the more severe and romantic life becomes. The choice of how to approach it is ours, but wisdom only forms on the basis of honest reflection generated in response to experience.