Monday, October 15, 2007

Integrity, Nonaction & Living Green

(Part of the Blog Action Day initiative.)

Through nonaction
No action is left undone.

It may seem strange, writing about "nonaction" on a day when bloggers worldwide are dedicating their posts to environmental action and awareness. On the Blog Action Day website, however, they offer this advice: "What works best is to keep writing as you normally would. Your audience reads your blog for a reason, you don't need to suddenly change your voice, style or emphasis. Simply find an angle on your regular postings which relates to the environment."

As you know, dear readers, this blog is devoted mostly to spiritual and philosophical explorations, often with a poetic flare and, every once in a while, with politics sneaking in just under the radar. It would be easy to write about the Druidic respect for and adoration of nature, about the sacredness of Mom Earth and the responsibility we each have, as her children, to care for and appreciate her; or perhaps to discuss the political nuances of the environmental and conservation "green" movements, the mythos of endless resources and a modern culture obsessed with consumerism... But then, I never do take the easy way in this little blog, do I?

Dryad, Posed FigureAs I sat last night considering what I wanted most to say about the environment, and how to relate it back to my spiritual life, I began to ask myself what truly effective, daily action would look like. What does it mean to "live green," not only with the products and services one buys and the political groups one supports, but within the depths of one's being? As I pondered this question, a paper I had written years ago came to mind--an essay on the nature of "integrity" from the Taoist perspective on nonaction.

Integrity, Two Perspectives

For many Western minds, the word "integrity" evokes an idea of respectability, self-determination and stability; someone cool, calm and in control, unaffected by petty problems and well above slander and defamation. Such a conception stems originally from the word’s etymological roots in Latin, which mean “entire” or “whole.” The common Western view seems to suggest that a person with integrity--that is, a “whole” human being--is upright and incorruptible, one who faces the world already complete and is, thus, reliable and consistent. In short, integrity means having an unchanging character despite a challenging, changing and potentially harmful world.

Quite at odds with this understanding of integrity is that which is discovered in Victor H. Mair’s translation of the Chuang Tzu (Wandering on the Way, from which all the following quotes are taken). The very use of the word "integrity" in this context might seem counterintuitive when one considers the emphasis the text continually places on personal evolution, ever-changing transformation and the ineffable existence of the sage with(in) the Way. Certainly, the Taoist conception of what Mair translates as "integrity" is far from the Western view of being a complete, composed individual separate from the shifting (and often harmful) conditions of the surrounding environment. The distinction lies in the subtle difference between the Western and Taoist approaches to the key feature of integrity--wholeness.

The Chuang Tzu says simply: “Integrity is the cultivation of complete harmony.” A person has integrity when “she is indispensable to all things.” Important to note is that being "indispensable" is clearly not synonymous with being "useful." The Chuang Tzu text is full of memorable anecdotes about worthless trees peacefully living out their days, tales which depict with striking clarity the real "utility of uselessness." To the Taoist, being useful suggests a negative relationship of manipulation (and often subservience) that is detrimental to both parties--harmful not only to those being used, but to those doing the using who lose touch with the fundamentals of living, relying upon and imposing themselves on others instead.

On the other hand, to be "indispensable" implies a kind of harmonious existence within a complex, greater whole. Air, for example, is indispensable to lunged creatures; however, it neither strives to be "useful" nor attempts to avoid being broken down and drawn into the blood stream. Similarly, the sage of integrity does not over-extend himself or attempt to impose himself on others, nor does he attempt to be useful to them. Rather, “he goes along with the world but does not substitute himself for it.” He exists simply as he is, according to his nature and destiny, neither striving to be more nor attempting to be less. Thus is the sage open to transformation, recognizing the inherent evolution and change of all things, and this very openness is the source of his integrity, the root of his spiritual wholeness.

Integrated Nonaction & The Environmental Movement

This distinction between an integrity that elevates (but isolates) an individual from his surroundings, and one that emphasizes a harmonic wholeness within which the individual functions fluidly and dynamically, is an essential difference when we come to ask ourselves what it means to "live green."

It is clear already that the reigning can-do mythos of an entrepreneurial modern Western culture runs the risk of overlooking the heart of our current environmental crisis. Pollution, global warming, even organized violence and war, with their devastating effects on infrastructure, landscape and natural resources--these are not problems that we can "fix" from an external, morally superior viewpoint. If we mistake this new line of "eco-friendly" products or that innovative "green" approach to business as permanent solutions, we are likely to find ourselves frustrated quickly. If we seek only for new, environmentally-conscious ways to do the things we want to do, to act the way we have always acted--we will just find ourselves facing a new form of the same crisis a generation from now. No single new technology or industrial blueprint will resolve the multifaceted and ever-shifting tensions between a natural world and a human society that has grown so distant from it. In other words, before we can take effective action in the world, we must cease to substitute ourselves for it.

Knarled Tree's Dryad (Graphite)The Taoist conception of "nonaction" provides great insight into how to accomplish such a radical shift of mind. Importantly, nonaction is not synonymous with "inaction," in which an individual intentionally refrains from acting. Rather, the idea of nonaction evokes a state of spontaneous openness to the immediate presence of all things as they manifest and move with(in) the Way (that is, the Tao, the Divine, the World/Universe, or Nature Herself). Action and inaction represent a duality of intention, in which the actor is viewed as an autonomous power; when we embrace nonaction, we acknowledge not only intention, but attention--an essential attending to the Way in which things exist and interact harmoniously, and how we ourselves are already a vital part of this harmony. I imagine that it is very similar to the Druidic idea of the "song" of the world. We do not impose our song on others, we listen for the song--both the worlds' and our own--its progression, its crescendo, and we blend our unique notes into that music.

Because the sage does not “detract from the Way with the mind,” nor with deliberate action, she is able to live casually and harmoniously within it. Instead of futilely exerting herself in trying to preserve that which is naturally transient, she “unifies her nature, nurtures her vital breath, and consolidates her integrity so as to communicate with that which creates things.” In this way, even the inaction of daily life becomes an integral part of "environmental action." Choosing to sit quietly in meditation instead of turning on the energy-sucking television, spending our time cultivating attention and creativity rather than on banking that overtime pay so we can buy more things, even retiring to bed at a reasonable hour so that we awake refreshed and energized rather than lethargic, crabby and burdensome to others--each of these "inactivities" are ways in which we participate effectively in the recuperation and restoration of the natural world. By transforming along with the world, we are also able to maintain what is essential, a unity which does not transform. This kind of unity is what Taoists might refer to as our integrity, although it is, on second glance, vastly different from the Western conception of individual ‘wholeness.’

One person cannot do it all--but each person can do exactly what is appropriate and harmonious for the whole.


  1. Brilliant post - I see you are also thinking along Taoist lines.

    I'd love to have this on the Pagan Theologies wiki - may I?

    It is our vulnerability that makes us human - something that it is all too easy to forget, or to over-emphasise the "brokenness".

  2. Thanks, Yvonne. :) I'm glad you liked it (personally, I felt like it was a little more scatter-brained than I'd like, but I was trying to incorporate ideas from a paper I'd written several years ago, so I guess a cut-and-paste quality is inevitable w/out sufficient time for revision).


    I don't know what a Pagan Theologies wiki is, but you certainly may share the post with whomever you like. :)

    Your comment about "brokenness" reminded me of that idea of "grace," which I think is also an important spiritual concept. I'll probably get around to writing more on that sometime, too.