This week, a philosophy book with a twist: illustrating an ancient Chinese philosophy through a staple of 20th century British children’s fiction.
In The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet, Benjamin Hoff brings each element of Taoism to life by applying it to the tales of Winnie the Pooh and friends. He does this by explaining familiar Pooh stories in a Taoist context, showing how particular Pooh characters exemplify the personality types that Taoism speaks of, and through imagined dialogues between himself, Pooh, Piglet at al on the facets of this world philosophy. Hoff did this to:
…release Taoist wisdom from the grip of the Overacademics and restore to it the childlike awareness and sense of humour that they had taken away.
Hoff ups the book’s intellectual game by threading it with excerpts from ‘real’ Taoist philosophers, and these heavier tomes are much easier to navigate when prefaced with a simple explanation from Pooh. Take this example from the chapter ‘Bisy Backson’ – a play on Christopher Robin’s misspelt ‘busy, back soon’ note to Pooh, to describe those people who ‘always seem to have to be going somewhere’ rather than enjoying the present moment:
And then (Pooh) thought that being with Christopher Robin was a very good thing to do, and having Piglet near was a friendly thing to have; and so, when he had thought it all out, he said, “What I like best in the whole world is Me and Piglet going to see You, and You saying, “What about a little something?” and Me saying, “Well I shouldn’t mind a little something, should you, Piglet,” and it being a hummy sort of day outside and birds singing.
When we take the time to enjoy our surroundings and appreciate being alive, we find that we have no time to be Bisy Backsons anymore. But that’s alright, because being Bisy Backsons is a tremendous waste of time. As the poet Lu Yu wrote:
The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?
Hoff’s analysis goes beyond Taoism’s beneficial impact on individual well-being, by demonstrating the destructive nature of an ‘anti-Tao’ approach on the world. This discussion of US politics and environmental policy does get a bit ‘earnest ‘n’ preachy’ (technical term) at this stage, but there is surely some truth in the statement that:
…modern man’s difficulties, dangerous beliefs, and feelings of loneliness, spiritual emptiness, and personal weakness are caused by his illusions about, and separation from, the natural world. Well, the Taoists told us this sort of mess would happen.
My fiance bought this book for me after I’d completed a Mindfulness course, having read it himself years ago and recognizing the links between the two disciplines. I’d recommend it to anyone seeking some gentle self-reflection, and I can imagine myself re-reading it in the future if I ever feel a bit frazzled and need a philosophical re-boot. It makes a complex but comforting philosophy accessible, and moreover there is something very reassuring about rethinking your whole life in the company of imaginary childhood pals. Next up, I’d like to see Rastafari as told through the tales of Enid Blyton, or Paganism as told through the tales of Road Dahl. I’m serious. This stuff works.