The Sunday Lao Tzu: on love

“Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart and the senses.”


Love is not supposed to be easy. It’s not a universal cure-all, a panacea for the ages. Love will not give you a happy ending. Love does not mean that everything is going to be all right.

At the same time, love is not a disease, an infection, a shot through the heart. We could say it’s a form of madness, a consensual delusion. But if love is not returned, or rejected, or ignored, then the pain is very real, and as sharp and deadly as any blade.

It is impossible to write dispassionately about love – which is kind of the point. We all need companionship, the feeling that we are valued and treasured for the things that we are. We all need comfort and passion, support and shelter, finding in another person those things that we lack, or that we need.

Love is, simply put, the moment when you find someone and know, without doubt or equivocation, that you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with them. Through hardship and heartbreak, through joy and delight, in sunshine and rain. If you can, then love has served its purpose. If you can’t, then there can only be pain. That primal, simple truth has been subsumed in a backwash of sentiment and retail opportunities, and it simply isn’t needed. If you love someone, and they love you back, then they don’t need a token of your appreciation once a year. They know.

But it’s always worth telling them, just to be certain.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: on governing

“To lead the people, walk behind them.”

When the best leader’s work is done the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

I enjoy Lao Tzu’s teachings on the art of government. He is pragmatic, practical, something of a libertarian, always aware of the importance of a light touch.  He’s also very clear on the need for a leader to have a deep understanding of the needs and the will of the people.

I wonder, then, what he would make of a leader who heavily taxes his people and cuts their services, and then loudly proclaims that it is now their job to take up the slack.

I wonder what he would feel about a politician who chooses to insult and demonise a large portion of his population, and time that speech to coincide with a parade by thugs and provocateurs who have made it their mission to do the very same thing?

How would he view a government that punishes it’s most vulnerable citizens because of the actions of the rich and powerful? Or a political party that systematically forgets, ignores or lies about the promises it made to the people in order to achieve power?

More to the point, what are WE supposed to think of all this?

(I understand and apologise to you, oh my Readership, for the political slant X&HT has taken over the last few days. It’s simply been the way my attention ha been drawn. We’ll be back to the usual shenanigans tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.)

The Sunday Lao Tzu: Little Wonders

“From wonder into wonder existence opens.”

As a writer, as an artist, the most important thing for me is to keep hold of my sense of wonder. I never want to feel like I know everything, and that I can no longer be surprised or amazed. I want to start every day with the expectation of learning something new, to be astonished or uplifted by an event, a piece of music, a film, a picture, a sunrise, a night sky. Even a simple act of kindness, an unexpected smile or laugh can be the tiny spark that lights up my day.

I’m open to all and every experience, and still have the capacity to be mesmerised or moved by the simplest thing. Some call the ability to hang on to your sense of wonder child-like, and from there it’s a simple step to call it childish, to sneer as if the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary is something to put away once we are grown. I couldn’t disagree more. Finding wonder in the everyday, in the sights and sounds that surround us is the first step in making and remaking our world into a better, more magical place.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: Quiet Time

“Silence is a source of great strength.”

When I write, I like to be in a quiet place, physically and spiritually. On a day off, if I’m working on a blog post or getting some word count down, there will be no music on, and no sound to be heard apart from the soft tick of fingers on keyboard. It’s a simple fact that I’m not much of a multi-tasker, and I’m very easily distracted. It’s better for me just to switch off and work.

I find quiet time to be an important source of inspiration, too. I like to walk, wandering like a flaneur with no real sense of destination or purpose, content to see where the road leads. This will often put me in a contemplative mood. That’s the moment where ideas often arrive, or solutions to a narrative problem solve themselves. On occasion, a character has simply popped into my head and started talking. Because I’m quiet, I’m able to listen to them. Rory Armstrong introduced herself to me in this way. If I’d had headphones on, it’s likely that she would have been drowned out.

Being quiet, and open to the world around us, I think we’re much more likely to find inspiration and strength in everyday life. Sometimes, all you have to do is shut up for a minute and listen.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: Three Things

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”

I think I’m at my happiest when I’m doing simple things. Reading, writing, cooking. A life lived quietly and without fuss. Today’s teaching strikes me as not just true, but directly applicable to the way I live my life. Simplicity, patience and compassion are all interconnected, and when you start to live with these three things in mind, then you are on your way towards a more contented existence.

I have always been a patient person, to the point where it becomes something of a kink. My favourite part of Christmas is the anticipation. Waiting to see how the dinner will turn out, what gifts are under the tree. As I tend to know what TLC has bought me beforehand (with the exception of The Pot, which came as a genuine, delightful surprise) the wait until I can get my mitts on the new loveliness becomes part of the pleasure of the whole experience. It’s an exquisite torture. See, told you. Kinky.

But patience also comes out of care and preparation. It’s pointless rushing a loaf of bread while it’s proving, or a slow-cooked stew while it bubbles fragrantly on the stove top. Is it a coincidence that my favourite meals are the ones that take a bit of time to prepare and cook, filling the house with delicious smells, allowing the expectancy of the meal to become part of the whole experience? I don’t think so. And of course, the food I like tends to be simple, hearty, rustic fare. I’m not a big fan of fussy over-done stuff. Although Heston Blumenthal always makes me laugh.

Compassion is a no-brainer. If you don’t live a life filled with understanding and empathy towards everyone else, if you lose your patience, then your time on the planet becomes much more complicated. People can be vain, stupid and cruel. That doesn’t mean you have to be. For the most part, getting angry with an obstacle of any kind doesn’t help matters. In fact, it can frequently make things worse. Basil Fawlty thrashing his broken down car with a tree branch is an image that springs to mind. I’ve never seen the boys at Kwik-Ft do that. Treating the people around you with a little patience, understanding and humour works wonders. Call it a charm offensive if you like, but it works a hell of a lot better than yelling and screaming.

Now, I know this is all making me sound like some sort of annoying zen guru, answering questions with yet more questions or gnomic statements, floating smugly through life. That’s not the case. The idiot in the modded Peugeot who cut me up on the way into work yesterday got the finger and a robust curse. I get angry and pissed off. I rush stuff and grumble about it. But I try to remember that simplicity, patience and compassion do work, and that sometimes all you need to do to solve a problem is to take a breath, step back and look at it differently. Sometimes, the answer really can be simpler than you think.

The Sunday Lao Tzu: starting small

(In the attempt to keep the blog fresh as I make the attempt to give you something new every day, I have decided to theme my Sunday posts arounds the teachings of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. Expect the Sunday X&HT to be a bit more philosophical, if not necessarily spiritual).

“All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.”

I don’t do new Year Resolutions, for the same reason that I no longer keep diaries. They always seem like a good idea, and I start off strongly, entering whole-heartedly into the agreement with myself to be a better person, to journal my every move. I have a stack of notebooks that have entries through the first week of January, an apologetic second burst somewhere in mid-February (when I was a teenager these usually coincided with Valentine’s Day, and consisted of bursts of woeful spite and, if things had been going really badly, love poems) then nothing. Rueful, shameful blank pages. Most of my resolutions have started and ended this way, and I view it as a sign of finally growing up that I stopped making unrealistic pledges that would be quickly abandoned.

I’ve realised that I was going about things in the wrong way. Rather than launching with both feet into a project and losing interest in the face of the hard and sustained effort that was required, I would have been better starting gently, easing into the task. This was a lesson that Lao Tzu teaches, but that Nanowrimo allowed me to apply to real life. By doing something every day, the task soon becomes a habit, then a part of your daily routine. No matter how little, the daily bit is the important bit. (Sidebar: yes, I know Nanowrimo is a 1667 word a day challenge, and that doesn’t sound like a little thing. By by breaking that task down into further 500 word chunks, it’s surprising how quickly you make your daily, weekly and monthly goals.)

The Habit is something that I hope to achieve with the PostaDay exercise. The point where I feel twitchy if there’s a danger of not posting is the point where I know I have accomplished something important.

When your objective stops being a chore, and becomes a daily pleasure, then you have succeeded in your goal.