Life and Death

"The Ultimate Yin" by William Martin


I have been asked (and I often ask myself) how a Taoist approach to life responds to the ultimate Yin of life - death. As I enter my 73rd year the question is anything but theoretical. It is a reality that insists on breaking through the walls of my culturally conditioned denial and avoidance. But let’s stick with philosophy for a moment. The folk Taoism of Chinese culture entertains various beliefs in reincarnation, rebirth, and multiple heavens and hells, but the philosophical school of Taoist thought - that of Lao-Tzu and The Tao Te Ching - does not speculate about an afterlife. It does not deny the possibility, but it is frustratingly consistent in its refusal to pretend to know the unknowable. Instead it recommends the wise practices of; “letting go,” and of “not knowing.” I’ll  “know” someday. In the meantime I want to practice the wonderful art of letting go and develop a relationship of gratitude with this ultimate Yin that is asking for my attention.

I am coming to understand that the presence of death breathes life into the too-easily shrugged off concept of letting go. The Tao Te Ching, repeatedly advises the practice of letting go - of opinions, beliefs, desires, things, and even of people. The Buddhist ideal of non-attachment fit well with Taoist thought when the two philosophies blended in China two millennia ago. Both continue to stress the importance of ceasing to cling. Yet it is all to easy to delude myself into thinking that I am not attached, while in the back of my conditioned mind the thought process is actually: “I’m not attached. I’m just confident that my life tomorrow will have the same perks and pleasures that it contains today. It’s always been that way and I don’t see it changing.” This thinking process is the essence of clinging, and clinging is the root of humanity’s stress, tension, and unhappiness no matter how much my conditioning tries to insist otherwise. 

I do not advocate a morbid preoccupation or obsession with death. I am finding, however, that the acknowledgement of its reality can enhance life in ways that the practice of denial and avoidance can never fathom. One of the changes that the growing awareness of the ultimate Yin has brought to my life is the joy of actually letting go, not just pretending to let go. I am now able to say, from experience rather than philosophy, that letting go increases joy and pleasure in events, things, and people. What I have believed for decades to be true, I now find actually is true!

I am healthy and take great pleasure in the elements of my life, but my physical energy and muscular strength is noticeably less than it was five, or even two, years ago. On the other hand, my pleasure is noticeably greater. My delight in the sights and sounds of the natural world is increasing almost daily. My gratitude for simple things has expanded - for the aroma and taste of morning coffee; for pasta sauce simmering on the stove; for the breeze that comes through the window touching even a mid-summer day with coolness; for Nancy’s loving presence on the patio in the early morning.

Those of you who have had this ultimate Yin enter your life suddenly rather than gradually know how wrenching the process of letting go can be when it is imposed upon you. One of my dear friends has recently discovered that he has a debilitating and terminal disease that will take his energy and his life, sooner rather than later. I can only imagine the fear and grief that he and his spouse must be facing, yet they both report the presence of a marvelous joy that comes from remembering their long years together, from sitting on their patio with evening tea, and from learning how to care for and to be cared for in new and tender ways. 

These friends have had a crash course in letting go. I am reminded that, for the moment, I can take this course a bit more leisurely but take it I must. It is a course we all must take. We can’t “test out of it” with our philosophical meanderings. We will, however, all surely graduate. In the meantime, I think that Taoist thought advises us to allow the mystery of death to teach us the true meaning letting go. This, I believe, will bring us greater joy and appreciation than any of the false promises our acquisitive culture has fostered will ever be able to do. As one of my folk heroes, Arlo Guthrie, says, “Die now, go later!” 

Taoist Living