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How Taoism Teaches us to Take All Things as They Come, Even COVID

Adam, of Adam & Eve fame, was the only original storyteller as he was supposedly the first man on earth. The rest are all re-tellers of stories. I’d read or heard of this somewhere, though at the moment, I am not sure of the source of this piece of information. All storytellers somehow take inspiration or just re-tell the original tales in their own ways to fit the bill. This statement of course is not intended to hurt the sentiments of storytellers but is meant to be taken on an amusing note. I too am going to do the same now – retelling a story told innumerable number of times and try to take away a few insights from this story.

As for me, I got to hear this from Alan Watts. It kind of stayed in my mind all along. I felt now is the right time to relate it. Alan Wilson Watts was a British writer and speaker. He was known for the works that he did in interpreting and popularizing Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism to the Western audience. He had received his Zen training in the United States. He advocates these philosophies and is a prolific and convincing speaker. He is very popular amongst his numerous followers even to this day.

So this story will be told my way, not a new version, just the same tale but in my words. It is called “The Parable of the Taoist Farmer.” Here it goes.

Many years ago, there lived a Taoist farmer in an isolated village. He had a horse that helped him with his work in the fields pulling carts and performing other farm work. The neighbours said, “You’re very lucky, you have a horse.” To this, he replied, “Maybe.”

Then one day, he forgot to latch his gates properly and the horse broke out and ran away. Hearing the news the farmer’s neighbours came to inquire about the incident. They stood inspecting the gate and said, Oh! What bad luck. The farmer slowly replied, “Maybe.”

Then about a week later, the runaway horse came back home bringing with it six more wild horses which the farmer and his son kept with them. Again hearing about the news of the horse bringing back six other wild horses, the neighbours came again to visit, inspect, and said, “Oh! Fantastic. What good luck.” To this the Taoist farmer replied, “Maybe.”

The son then thought of taming the wild horses. He tried to ride on one of the wild horses. The horse kicked and threw him off breaking his leg. The neighbours commented, “Bad luck.” The farmer again replied, “Maybe.”

The neighbours couldn’t help but wonder how all the time the answer was “Maybe.”

Around that time, war broke out in the country. Young men were being recruited as soldiers to be sent to war. The recruiters also came to the village of the farmer, but the farmer’s son was left behind as his leg was broken. The son avoided fighting the war because of his broken leg. Again upon hearing about the incident of the son being left out of recruitment, the neighbours said, “Oh! What good luck!” Again, the farmer replied, “Maybe.”

The core idea of this parable could be like the following. Good outcomes may come out of things that look like bad luck, and similarly bad outcomes may come from situations that present as good ones. We can never be sure of what will be the consequences of misfortune or what will be the consequences of good fortune. As for the farmer, he takes both situations in his stride, unmoved by both. He has the perfect balance.

The story fundamentally reflects the attitude that nature is dynamic and is an inter-related and integrated process of immense complexity. It is very difficult to say whether anything that happens is for good or for bad. We have to accept both the situations stoically and not be overly excited by the highs or be brought down to dumps when lows come our way. Maintaining a balance in both the situations is the key.

As for Taoism or Daoism, it is an ancient Chinese religion founded in the third or fourth century B.C. by Lao Tzu. Taoism is a religious philosophy which believes that people should lead a simple honest life and not interfere with the course of natural events. Taoism emphasizes on “going with the flow” also known as “wu wei” for it believes that life flows in very much the same way as a river flows. Like the river, we may have influence over our lives, but we can never take complete control over our life situations. We have to manoeuvre through it with the least possible friction.

A Taoist for one prefers to look at life events without judgment or interpretation. According to Taoism, the true significance of incidents can never be understood. Every event has elements of both good and bad. Furthermore, each event has no specific beginning or end and may continue to influence future events for years to come. A very good example of this Taoist view of life can be cited in the above parable of the farmer.

Just before this present pandemic, everything seems to be going great for us humans on this earth (or it may seem). Subsequently, the pandemic came as a consequence of what we humans have been doing all this while. The environmental degradation, global warming, population explosion, pollution of land, water, and atmosphere, ambitious development projects, a lot going on for humans alone and not for the rest of the inhabitants of the earth. Humans seem to be only concerned about the interest of humankind; the rest left unheeded. This human behaviour has led to this present alarming situation that we are faced with. With the pandemic and the lockdowns, life has come to a standstill. There is even a term coined for this. It is called “anthropause.” Scientists have recently suggested this technical term for the unprecedented halt in human movement and activity across the globe caused by the pandemic (courtesy: Natgeo).

This is having a good effect on the environment. Devoid of the interferences and disruptive activities of humans, wildlife in some landscapes is seen to be thriving. With the decrease in pollution levels, the skies are getting clearer. This is positive outcome. On another spectrum elsewhere, this sudden halt in human activities have lead to economic challenges and consequent spikes in poaching and other wildlife crimes.

We are reeling under the onslaught of the pandemic. It is troubled times for one and all. Gloom is the general sentiment at large. So it is bad fate. The answer should be “Maybe” like the farmer’s. What we have to focus on is the light at the end of the tunnel. Things cannot be like this forever. We have to look forward to a time when our planet begin to recover from this devastating crisis, and we should be hopeful that this sudden great pause is a “refresh” button and would result in an environment that provides opportunity for every living organism to coexist in harmony. Thus a little restraint and patience is what is required at the moment.

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