“We mold clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.”
–Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching
I was heeding this sage wisdom from one of China’s most ancient and celebrated texts just as my L train pulled up to 1st Ave in all its roaring glory. As I competed with other Brooklyn-bound travelers to squeeze onto a car before its doors closed, just as fiercely as we were competing to outdo each others’ uberhip hairstyles and latest-edition kicks, I thought, “Taoism and New York would never, ever jive.”
I had never quite noticed the inherent narcissism that is necessary for survival in this city until I attempted to disassemble my own.
“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”
I’ve always been a hard wanter. Whether in terms of my ambitious career goals, need for validation, or in setting my sights on someone too boo-up with — wanting, desiring, salivating for, were always my biggest skillsets. You could say that’s what drew me to this city. I wanted to be around other people who were so driven to acquire something that they would be willing to put up with sky high rent, shitty winters, crowded subways, and sewer rats while they pursue it.
However as I spent a year participating in that sewer rate race, I began to recognize, in myself and those around me, that that same ambition can be the thing which ends up getting ahead of itself, burning us out, and leaving so many of us smoldering in our embittered sound engineer/cocktail mixologist embers… with no health insurance.
Some of the most driven among my circle in the music industry often speak with entitlement about their fates while sourly hunching over glasses of whiskey just like Gollum crouching over his Precious.
I started to see that in myself. I had gained a little clout, and now I was ‘networking’ instead of just plain socializing. I was ‘strategizing’ instead of just plain creating.
I was developing a hunchback of my own, clinging to this precious goal as if it would run away with the next girl if I ever let it out of my sight. In this pursuit, I was compromising the parts of me that were the foundation of my creative side in the first place. So I sat up straight. I decided to start reading about meditation. Which is how I ended up with the Tao te Ching in my backpack.
No dream is worth turning into a creepy little greenish-gray fictional creature over. No matter how many cool shoes and bikes I would be able to buy with that sweet record deal advance.
How many of us are Gollum-ing our position at work, our crush, our status in a scene…. or our precious, precious, delicious likes/followers on instagram?
-Is our hunger eating us alive?-
“Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.
If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.”
There comes a point in every unrequited infatuation when its starry-eyed half begs to be released from desire’s chains. When they liken their attraction to a literal prison.
Which begs the question — is it better to get what you want, or to ultimately be free from the desire altogether?
It’s a question that poses western against eastern philosophy. Where western philosophy promotes acquiring your desires with no end and by any means necessary (the consequences of which are clear, culturally and environmentally) eastern philosophers seek transendence beyond the fight altogether. To reject the game, so to speak, would be to win the game.
The problem with desire-fueled life is that it’s insatiable. There is always some loftier dream behind each immediate one. Desire-fueled living is willing to sacrifice everything, including its sustainability as a life-force, in the pursuit.
To borrow again from the Tao, “He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”
And, as I am recognizing in American consumerist culture more and more, one who does know when enough is enough will always live in poverty.
Maybe we can find a way to balance knowing what is enough with what is on the horizon. Suppose there’s a way we can combine the two hemispheres’ opposing philosophies to create an updated, New-York-ready Tao Te Ching 2.0:
For our generation, perhaps it can be about maintaining a graceful and humorous dance along the tightrope of desire. We can be free from the rule of covetousness by creating an empty vessel within ourselves, like the Tao describes, while simultaneously knowing how to invite good things to flow through that vessel, coming and going as they please. Most importantly, knowing how not to let the walls of our vessel cave in when, for a time, all it holds is space.
And I guess what this looks like in my dating life is me texting my first, most genuine, goofy, emoji-filled thought rather than the painstakingly re-edited messages to the dude whose attention I’ve been craving. And when I invite him to the new exhibit at MoMa and he’s “got a lot on his plate,” it’s me going anyway, and enjoying the fuck out of the art, as well as whoever else happens to be there doing the same.
It’s me finally outlining the boundaries of the kinds of space I’m down to occupy with people, rather than re-drawing those boundaries to fit the comfort zones of those who happen to be heartcrunchingly, dizzyingly attractive. (They tend to melt my boundary-drawing crayons with their hotdude lazergaze. Someone should probably alert Crayola of this issue.)
It’s me reinforcing the walls of my own content and empty vessel, so that everything which passes through can do so in a freer state. So that I can do so in a freer state.
And what this looks like for my shoe and bike collection is recognizing that I have enough. And what this looks like for that sweet record deal is recognizing that I am enough.
And what this looks like for me squeezing onto a packed L train is learning to swim harmoniously within a school of fish. To move as one with “the flow.”
It’s me realizing that eastern philosophies of non-desirousness are not, in fact, at odds with the New York way of life, but may actually be essential to it.