This week I picked another concept which I find difficult to clearly verbalise and decided to make a diagram to illustrate my meaning.
Last summer I re-read the Tao Te Ching. I read one or two chapters each day in 4 different translations and made notes on what I thought the main themes of each chapter were. It took me two months to complete and was a very enlightening exercise. Some themes seemed to be repeated many times. One of these themes challenged the idea of trying to be good.
Like many people I grew up seeing the world in a simplified, black and white way. There was good and there was bad. In line with this thinking I used to try with all of my might to be good in every action I did, all of the time. It took me half a lifetime to learn that this was neither helpful for others nor good for me. And it was the Tao Te Ching which pointed it out.
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Now I think this is quite a subtle thing to understand, or at least, it is for me. Basically, if you push too hard to be good your actions will begin to be worse.
For example, if you are trying to be a good parent and help your child to grow and become a basically happy, decent adult. If you neglect them or harm them this is obviously bad and will not help them, but if you do everything for them and never say a bad word to them you also harm them because then they cannot grow and learn to deal with the world. In the developmental psychology literature this concept was first written about by Winnicot when he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways.
Another example might be in keeping exactly to speed when playing a musical instrument. While keeping good time is essential to good playing, having no flexibility at all and keeping rigidly to the exact time of each beat can often make a piece of music sound mechanical and lacking in life and emotion.
It’s easy to see the same principle at work when people study for exams. Obviously studying helps and is important for success but if a person pushes too hard they can impact their mental and physical health and frequently then do worse in their exams.
So how could I go about illustrating this idea?
Well first I thought that it might be useful to make a diagram which shows a morality scale. To illustrate this I first thought of a Star Wars analogy – Jedi (for the good side) and Sith (for the bad side).
I even looked up some brilliant Jedi and Sith artwork by one of my favourite artists Iain McCaig who worked on concept art and storyboards for Star Wars Episodes 1, 2 and 3…
However, a good diagram is something that should be easily understood by many people and since not everyone is a Star Wars fan (sadly) a different illustration might serve me better.
Then I began to think about common ideas of good and evil. One of the most common in my culture is the idea of devils and angels. So I made a drawing of the wing of each.
Then I used these drawings to put together a basic morality scale…
This works as a general scale of good and evil but doesn’t show why extreme good might end up being bad (apart from the fact that an extreme altruist’s actions would obviously be bad for the person themselves). In the Tao Te Ching, the problem with extreme goodness that it forces the system, it tries to push the river. It is the opposite of Wu Wei, which is “unforced action”, or “natural action”.
So then I began thinking about how to illustrate the benefits of Wu Wei. My sketches and diagrams got more and more complex (and more and more useless) until I remembered this simple well-known symbol which captures it perfectly…
I worked on the basic diagram to make it more visually interesting by making one side chrome and the other white, added my explanation and it was done!
The week after next, I’ll explain the process for making realistic chrome in Photoshop as I did here.