One of the most common questions I get when teaching people new to the Daoist approach is “am I doing it right?” While perfectly understandable in a modern world that encourages us all to not ever feel like we’re good enough (the honest answer “no, it’s terrible because you’re a beginner and you’ve never done this before” would likely cause deep offence in some people, which is a little counter productive), it is still a pretty strange question when we take a second to look at it closely. Where does this desire to be immediately perfect at something we didn’t even know existed the day before come from? If it could be done ‘right’ after such a meagre amount of time and attention invested in it, then it’s worth considering that you could already do that thing, and that you haven’t actually learnt anything new, denying yourself an opportunity for growth.
In the Daoist view, we are interested in ongoing growth and evolution, and it’s not a place we ever arrive at or ever get ‘right’, but we are always getting a little better at it. The idea of arriving at perfection is not desirable as the world is always undergoing cycles of change. If you’re at the top and in the moment of perfection, it’s nice, but it must change. There’s only one way to go from the top, and that’s down. The perfect hexagram in the Yi Jing, 63 – Reaching the Summit*, reflects this notion. It seems perfect, but the advice of 63 comes with a warning: “It is a grace period that will go south, a danger following an accomplishment”.
Rather than arriving at perfection already, the Daoist approach is much more interested, especially at the beginning, in following a progression even if we are unaware of how it is all happening. It warns against thinking of the end result and trying to take the whole thing in at once, and instead asks us to cut it into steps to have a clear vision of progression, go slowly, and take advice from those who know the topic better than we do.
We don’t want to assume we have arrived or try to be in the “final” result straight away because we cut off our possibility of growth. Rather than looking at the results (yin), we want to be looking to see if we’re in the process (yang) or not. To be in the process, we only have to do our best to follow the cues, and after this all that’s necessary is a continuation of these same efforts – a process, after all, is an ongoing thing. In Chinese medicine theory, they say that you can’t directly alter the yin, you can only alter the yin by altering the yang. Chasing the result is not a good process. For those practicing a while already, we see this easily and at times quite regularly. We have a process (practice and cues) that we follow, and one day something interesting and unexpected happens as a result. The mistake is to try the next day to replicate that result and go searching for the phenomenon that occurred, even though the original process that actually caused the phenomenon had nothing to do with that – just a day earlier we didn’t even know that thing existed in us.
It’s the same with our life in general. Happiness is a result, a result caused by life being in a good process. You don’t have to focus at all on “being happy”, but rather focus on improving the process of your life – changing the things you can change and learning to accept those you can’t. When life is going well and we are happy, we don’t want to stop the process that caused the happiness and chase the happiness itself, we simply want to keep up our process and let the happiness arrive on its own, feed back into our process and make it even better. Remember, our process (which is Yang, and quick, and leading) started before the results (which are Yin, and slow, and following) appeared. Eventually we might be able to see that a good process is the result, and the practice we do can be for its own sake rather than for some imagined fantasy of perfection that never arrives.