It was a Friday; I wasn’t working, I’m a little behind on my read count, so I took this off the stack. It looked short and light enough to finish in an afternoon. This need to achieve things rather than “living in the moment” of simply existing and enjoying the book goes against the principles of Taoism, of course. But I never claimed to be Pooh Bear.
The Tao of Pooh is a short book written before I was born that purports to elucidate certain concepts related to Taoism through the characters and story of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. According to Benjamin Hoff (who, incidentally, has the best first name ever), Pooh is a textbook Taoist. Pooh is the “Uncarved Block” who simply takes life as it is and learns to enjoy the little things, whose simple-mindedness and child-like state of wonder and enjoyment means he is never far from a good day. Hoff examines how some of the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood embody competing schools of thought—Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.—or how their actions and statements are not compatible with a Taoist outlook. For people like me who aren’t familiar with Taoism, it’s an interesting and accessible primer. Yet it also possesses a bitter coating of irritating smugness that makes the primer hard to swallow.
A lot of Taoist thought appeals to me and agrees with how I try to lead my own life. I’m not so good at living in the moment—my mind tends to race ahead and dwell on potentialities more than is good for it. I know this is an issue, however, so it’s something I am actively working on. When I’m listening to friends speak, when I’m reading, when I’m knitting and watching TV, I make a conscious effort to inhabit that moment, to give it my full attention. I listen rather than simply wait for the silence that means I can say my piece. I think and relish and absorb the words rather than skim over them because I want to reach the end. I watch and see and think about what’s happening rather than absently check my phone to see if anyone has posted anything interesting on Twitter. “Living in a moment” is challenging in the age of distraction and definitely a goal worth having.
Beyond that, though, I just like the Taoist-compatible idea that we should strive for harmony and try to find the positives in situations that seem inherently negative. Shit happens, right? And stress is inevitable—but it’s also really bad for you. I try to minimize my stress by putting things in perspective. If something isn’t working on my computer, or if I’ve spilled tea, then hey, those are annoyances, but they aren’t a big deal. The more I can let little nuisances pass over me and through me like waves breaking against a rock, the better I’m able to save my time, energy, and emotions for things that really matter.
Hoff makes some very interesting observations, too, about the way Western thought privileges jargon over plain-spoken language:
The Confusionist, Dessicated Scholar is one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or his own small group, writing pompous and pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others.
And a few pages later, Hoff questions the value of received or academic knowledge compared to experiential knowledge:
… and one sometimes gets the impression that those intimidating words are there to keep us from understanding. That way, the scholars can appear Superior, and will not likely be suspected of Not Knowing Something. After all, from the scholarly point of view, it’s practically a crime not to know everything.
But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. In other words, Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language. But isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t?
This resonates with my personal arc of epistemological self-awareness. I tend to remark these days how much I miss university—I miss the classes, and the peers and friends I had who shared my love of learning math and English and philosophy—my last three years of university were among the best and most fulfilling I’ve had so far. Yet I am glad I did not take some professors’ advice to apply to grad school right out of the education program. Setting aside the absurd idea that I could tell teachers how they could teach without getting experience in a classroom myself first, I knew that I needed to leave the ivory tower for a little while. I am such an intellectual; I am just so well suited to the way the game is played in university. That means I was lucky and did well, and doubtlessly I could have continued doing well—but it would be hollow, really.
Now that I’m outside looking in, I can see how, as wonderful as university was, it has a lot of flaws. In particular, Hoff is right: it privileges certain types of knowledge and gatekeeps to make sure only those who play the game get to share in the discussion. The past few years that I’ve spent examining my own privilege as a white male and watching feminist discourse on spaces like Twitter have shown me that there is a lot of valuable and even intellectual knowledge exchange happening outside the regular channels of academe. But it’s ignored at best or appropriated at worst. You’ve got so many women and people of colour talking about their lived experiences, and then so-called “experts” on these issues ignore them or shout over them and say, “Actually, you have it wrong.” Your personal experience is somehow wrong. That’s bizarre. But, for a long time, I was that kind of person—I spent a long time drinking the Western rationalist kool-aid without really understanding that there’s more to intellectual discussion than the Enlightenment can provide.
So understand that I am somewhat sympathetic to what Hoff describes in this book, especially with regards to the shortcomings of being “clever.” And it’s clever of him to use Pooh as a vehicle for explaining Taoism. There’s just one problem.
I’m an Eeyore person.
My dad gave this to me for my birthday, probably because he knows I like Eeyore. I have multiple Eeyore stuffed animals, multiple Eeyore mugs … I’m all about the Eeyore, man. And he doesn’t come off well in The Tao of Pooh. Apparently, Eeyore is a pessimist and a downer who constantly worries. Maybe so. Yet I see the optimism in Eeyore that others don’t: his house of sticks keeps falling down, and he keeps building it! A true pessimist would say, “What’s the use?” and just give up. No, I am Team Eeyore all the way.
Hoff’s use of Pooh as the allegorical Uncarved Block and simpleminded apotheosis of Taoist thought is strangely and, hopefully, uncharacteristically insular. I agree wholeheartedly that maintaining the sense of wonder we have about the world as children is important, especially now that we have so many claims on our valuable free time. I liked Hoff’s observation that it is impossible to save time, only to spend it, and so we need to stop thinking about how we can save time and instead spend it wisely. That’s true. Yet he is so critical of so-called “clever” people, of anyone who wants to know more than what is on the surface of things. And I find that so unfortunate.
Furthermore, there is a smug tone to his critique of clever people. It’s one thing to promulgate your alternative philosophy and another to look down on people because you think your philosophy makes you superior. I know people who I wish wouldn’t stress out over things in their life they can’t change—but I also try hard not to judge them, because sometimes those things make their life hard. Somewhere along the way, between his descriptions of Tao and Te and pu and wei wu wei, Hoff seems to lose the value of empathy. In what is probably my least favourite chapter, “Bisy Backson,” Hoff rails against education and awareness of the outside world:
“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.
“Er … well….” (Click.) “Now just listen to this, Pooh.”
“Thirty thousand people were killed today when five jumbo airliners collided over downtown Los Angeles…,” the Radio announced.
“What does that tell you about the world?” asked Pooh.
“Hmm. You’re right.” (Click.)
“What are the birds saying now?” I asked.
“That it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.
Look, I get what Hoff is probably intending with this exchange: he’s saying that if the news is going to depress you, stop listening to the news, and you won’t be as depressed. It’s true that media can be very depressing at times, because sensationalism and violence and tragedy sells. Nevertheless, the flippant way in which Hoff dismisses the idea that we should care about what’s happening to other people is disappointing. It’s a false dilemma: it is possible both to stop and enjoy the birdsong and the nice day and to spend a little time contemplating the tragedy of a five-airplane mid-air collision and how it is affecting so many people. The human mind is a wonderful thing and is capable of entertaining more than one thought per day.
This is why The Tao of Pooh is more frustrating than it should be: there is little middle ground here. Hoff makes so many valid critiques about our Western society and its overemphasis on being busy, being industrious, being clever. He presents a great overview of some of the key tenets of Taoism. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to do this without communicating how very pleased he is with himself and with Taoism that it appears to offer all the solutions to life, the universe, and everything. Just be more like Pooh Bear, and you’ll be OK! Nothing could possibly go wrong….
This message, while vapidly reassuring, is not helpful. In reality, we are flawed creatures. No single philosophy can ever offer the perfect solace or the best way to live. Hoff is right that there is a little Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, etc., in all of us. Unlike him, however, I’m not so sure the solution is to choose the Way of Pooh. We should instead be aware of when we are Eeyoring and when we are Pigleting, examine why we do those things, and see if that causes problems for us. But stumbling through life without any awareness of history, underlying knowledge of the world around us, or ability analyze and think critically, is not the solution.