Within the last six weeks, I have moved from one end of England to the other, changed my job from working in finance to teaching, and my sister (who I am very close to) has moved permanently to Australia. All of this happened very fast, and I feel completely unhinged. Everything in my world is upside down! Please suggest something to read that will restore some normality!!
When everything in your world has changed, you need to read the book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi , or in simplified Chinese, 庄子). The 2006 Penguin Classic edition of the Book of Chang Tzu by Chuang Tzu and Martin Palmer is a comprehensive collection of the teachings of this unique philosopher.
Chuang Tzu is estimated to have lived in the fourth century BCE and was one of the greatest Chinese thinkers. This book gathers together his sayings, his adventures, and many anecdotes about him. Chuang Tzu presents a philosophy in which changes of all kinds are embraced and welcomed, and he always reacts to transition with a light heart. He advocated the joys of making the best of a journey, not focusing on its ending. In this he is like his predecessor Lao Tzu, who wrote, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” You can apply this thought to your current upheaval – a certain amount of laissez-faire is what you need at present.
Chuang Tzu is credited with the development of the philosophy of the way of the Tao. Tao is often described as a force that flows through all life. A happy and virtuous life is one that is in harmony with the Tao:
“Tao is the One Thing which exists and connects the Many things. Tao, Nature, Reality are One”.
Here is a famous example of how Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) explained his teachings:
“Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”
Reading the collected writings of and anecdotes about Chuang Tzu is a calming and refreshing experience. Irreverent and maverick, he was a man of great humour and wit, brilliantly using metaphor and fable, in forms ranging from dialogue to philosophical monologues. Sit with this book in the sunshine under a tree, and sanity and humour will begin to return. You will accept that all of life is Change, but you can take it in your stride. Maybe you are a butterfly dreaming you are you. “Some pursue happiness – others create it”, said Chuang Tzu.
Looking closer to your home, where better to turn to ease your mind than to the Romantic poets. The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendant of the great poet, is an excellent volume to dip into on a daily basis. You may well be familiar with the poems of Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron. If you are not, you are in for a treat. Start with Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. “This Attic Shape, this still unravish’d bride of quietness”, will serve as a meditation for your unquiet mind. Nothing can ever change on the urn, decorated with nymphs and fauns, where all activity is frozen in time forever. Ponder that thought! Would you rather be frozen forever, or feel the pulse of change?
Keats wrote that it “appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.” The Romantics were masters at finding beauty and joy in the immediate world around them, and you can learn from them to do the same yourself, spinning a citadel of calm from your own meditations.
Keats was no stranger to Change himself. Having trained as a doctor, the minute he qualified, he dropped medicine to become a poet. His themes are the ageless questions of mortality, the fleeting quality of youth, and the rapture to be found in nature. If you have visited these poets before, the familiarity you will find will be of great comfort. If you are new to them, you will be entranced by the beauty of their imagery and sentiment. Move on from Keats to explore the other Romantics, reading and learning one poem a day, and you will find that you can fall back on beautiful verse to rise above the more immediate dramas of your existence. Because the Romantic poets created works that can take you to a sublime sense of reality rather than dwelling in a mundane sphere, you will rediscover awe and wonder in small matters, like William Blake, who wrote:
Now that you are feeling soothed by the contemplation of higher matters, you will feel able to relax into a novel. Pick up Marilynne Robinson’s fabulous book Gilead. This is universally praised for its serenely beautiful writing, and for its atmosphere, which is one of intense peace. John Ames is a vicar at the end of his days. Love has come to him late in life. He has a young son, to whom he decides to write a letter describing the events of the past. It’s a book in which not much happens, but the beauty of the prose is in itself a revelation, and the gentle insistence on facing the most important matters in life is remarkably understated. Dive into this book for an experience a little like swimming with dolphins.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist with The School of Life. For more information about the service click here. Our next class on How To Spend Time Alone will take place on 18 April 2012, for more information and to book tickets please click here.