The Sweetness of doing nothing at the bottom of a Well
or endeavors of what a philosopher teaches…
While in Qufu over the past 100 days I marveled at the people who seemed to literally spend their days doing little if anything to what most would attribute to doing work or something that might be defined as work. It was as if they were beyond work. It cost so little to live there that if you chose that particular lifestyle then that life would come the greet you and you would decide to stay. And you would find comfort in this and say to yourself… this feels pretty good. At first I thought this must be a Confucius thing. That knowing who you are and having over 2500 years of history to back it up meant “I can find happiness in being just who I am” without all the attachments living beyond oneself brings and be happy with who we are and as such aspire to nothing beyond this because this is the best life can bring…. or so it seems….
This brings to mind the ancient story of the frog that lived in the bottom of a well. He was happy living an uneventful yet what he thought was a full life until he got the attention of another frog who happened one day to appear at the top of the well and learning what would appear as what his limited life brought him. Once he learned of what he was missing being stuck at the bottom of the well he became quite miserable. Having been reminded that this was where he must live out his life he must re-learn the sweetness of doing nothing… or in other words just sitting around appearing to just eating bugs every day.
Then a teacher, a philosopher as such who knew the teachings of the ancient sages, appeared who reminded the people of whom they are and from where they came… as centuries earlier their predecessors had all come from the top of the well and they had made the choice to jump in and that they are only at the bottom of the well by choice. But they had become so comfortable here at the bottom of the well they had forgotten and feared what lay outside the comforts of home. This teacher was a new age philosopher whose task, or mission, was to rewrite the words of the ancients in order that they have life again after all the centuries that have gone by. He too had to choose rather to jump in and join them at the bottom of the well. He had mysteriously been able to join them many times in the past having the means they did not to come and go as he pleased.
That in the end what would it matter if the happiness they found here at the bottom of the well was enough or not or so they thought. However just in case their children spent all their time learning the language spoken outside the well… but possessed a lack of ability or so they had been taught to climb out of the well once and for all. That they should/could find the happiness they had known before the frog told them what they were missing by doing nothing at the bottom of the well they now called home. Hadn’t they been taught by their greatest teacher Confucius that it was not where they are but who they are that was ultimately important. That they were to bring something to the table of life more important than what money could buy which was to know and be thyself.
They knew the whole world looked to the teachings of the ancient sages who had once hailed from their home. That none of their ancestors had originally been from this place. They knew all the stories about why they were here at the bottom of the well… that at some point they had been enticed to jump in. While now none of them thought they could leave, they must do more to entice other “friends from afar” to come join them at the bottom of the well. Or they must find a way to climb out.
They knew the teachings of Confucius by rote or so they thought. His teachings now but a shell of their former selves after being changed and adapted to suit whoever was in charge at the moment. But they in fact felt they lived by them by doing nothing more than being themselves. What else could possibly matter? However this alone would not save them… they had to change. Hadn’t Confucius begun his quest all those centuries ago by studying the I Ching, the Book of Change? Wasn’t it by looking back at what had occurred that one could know what was to come next when similar circumstances presented themselves… and who was this modern day philosopher who kept coming and going. What could he possibly teach them they did not already know? Now he appears having written a new version of the I Ching, claims to being a Taoist philosopher and having written extensively about the Tao and Lao, Chuang, and Lieh Tzu… and knew the history of the frogs at the bottom of the well better than they knew themselves… or better said what they had always known and taken for granted or simply forgotten. Perhaps he was here to remind them. But then isn’t all true learning re-learning what we have always known and simply forgotten…
But then they had known the happiness of doing nothing and wondered why or how change could possibly bring them something they felt they already possessed. It seemed everyone else wanted what they had without having to take the plunge into a deep dark well that was only lit an hour or so a day when the sun was directly overhead. They knew they must bring others to someplace they would go if they could go themselves without their leaving home.
What a paradox living had brought their cold dark home. What was the true meaning of happiness? They had thought everyone wanted what they had… An endless supply of bugs to eat and lots of relics from their past they had brought with them to admire. Who needed a future when they had their past? Why couldn’t living in your past be enough to give you a future… Was it the role of this new philosopher to somehow show them the way? They had learned you could be as complete a frog, or person as your spirit had taken you by embracing the past and that in itself had always been enough. Others from outside had come along and taken the finer points of Confucius to market for themselves because they could do so without the need to join those in the bottom of the well. Leaving them with a few crumbs the others infrequently threw down to seemingly make them happy with what they had left from memories of who they once were. Having nothing to do they had learned the happiness of doing nothing except to wait and watch for the sun to pass by each day or wishing on a star seen but for a moment overhead at night. Being left to be content with just what they had.
Otherwise to be left in the dark… to be as complete a person as your spirit has taken you thus far but now frozen in the bottom of the well as if waiting for change that must inevitably occur. Your memories reminding you of what you are here to contribute that will lead you back to your ultimate endeavor and destiny beyond where you now find yourself in the bottom of the well.
Their new teacher or the philosopher telling them they must first overcome their fears so that they too could learn how to come and go as he does but they can’t or won’t because they have lost the desire or knowledge of how to do so. It seems they were not always a frog whose jump was just a few inches. That this being enamored with Confucius and looking inward had blinded them to other abilities they had always had but now never used. That their comfort in doing nothing but rest on the laurels of Confucius had made them into something they were not… that their fear of failure was more than their need for success that the venture out of the well would lead them too. It was just too easy to stay where they were. They just thought they were happy… a prevailing innocence that kept them… well innocent.
But wasn’t that what following Confucius had taught them all these centuries? Just as it is said to get to the castle you must first cross the moat… the same goes for the thoughts you have each day. They are like the clothes you decide to wear each day. That in reality the well they were in was an illusion they had created for themselves. As if they had intentionally dug it and then jumped in… Thinking that knowledge and Confucius would forever give them the cover they needed to maintain this happiness of doing nothing. An unaccounted for love of being unaccountable to and for themselves except as they have been taught by the innate presence of Confucius everywhere they look. As if he is always looking over their shoulder. As a look back shows he is always gaining on you when you are there in Qufu.
They had forgotten a neighbor of Confucius named Mencius. He taught love. That we are forever surrounded by grace and are here to be filled with love. To love the whole world and to allow our enthusiasm fill us with our gift and that we are to share that gift with everyone we meet. Mencius lived a few centuries after Confucius and could see the hole people were digging for themselves. Embracing the sage who would one day overshadow all they were to become. As the philosopher, you are continually reminded that you are here to do the work…. and to make things right. That the happiness of doing nothing begins with knowing that to forgive oneself is the first step to happiness. That God dwells within each of us as us… Just to be happy as we meet others smiling with our mind.
To treat everyone you meet as a member of your universal family wherever they are. Knowing when you help yourself that you are actually helping others. Understanding that to lose your balance is sometimes just living your life you are here to live.
Accepting everyone you meet as a teacher. As you spend your time crossing over to who you are yet to become by always looking through your heart all the while knowing that it will be in this way we know God.
Coming back to Qufu and the frog in the bottom of the well… finding the sweetness of doing nothing and enjoying where that leads as you begin by knowing others as you come forward to find yourself in the Tao. Acknowledging your role as the one responsible for bringing forth the words of the ancient sage as a member of the I Ching/Confucius Society in Qufu that leads to my obtaining a work permit and foreign expert status. To be the teacher and philosopher conveying that the only limits are self-imposed. Bringing the thoughts and works of Confucius and my friends forward as I release others from the well….
(First draft written Christmas Day – December 25, 2010)
Addendum written over five months later as I am now a professor at Jining University teaching oral english to students who feel bound by where they now reside as they attempt to themselves climb out of the well. – June 1, 2011