It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.
That’s C.S. Lewis writing about the Tao in his famous book, The Abolition of Man. Since the book’s publication in 1947, Lewis’s name has been associated with the Tao because of his love and respect for the natural law it embodies.
But I associate Lewis with the Tao for a different reason: his beer drinking.
You see, Lewis spent many Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child public house drinking beer with J.R.R. Tolkien and other friends.
It’s vintage Lewis. Although he was at times melancholy, Lewis could find enjoyment almost anywhere doing almost anything: attending church, taking long country walks, living at his humble Kilns, tutoring students, writing theology or children’s fiction, teaching.
The difference between enjoying and enjoying the enjoying
Lewis’s capacity for enjoyment stemmed at least partly from the early influence of a little-known Australian philosopher named Samuel Alexander.
Alexander pointed out the distinction between enjoying something and being aware of the enjoying. Here’s how Lewis put it:
“Enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment. Of course, the two activities can and do alternate with great rapidity, but they are distinct and incompatible. . . The surest way of spoiling a pleasure [is] to start examining your satisfaction. . . [N]early everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it.”
In other words, we cannot enjoy a thing or person and think about ourselves at the same time. It is impossible to think about our enjoyment and simultaneously take joy in the other thing.
The Taoist doesn’t enjoy the enjoying
A similar truth pervades Taoism.
Thomas Merton described the way of Tao as “the simple good with which one is endowed by the very fact of existence. Instead of self-conscious cultivation of this good (which vanishes when we look at it and becomes intangible when we try to grasp it), we grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life.”
The true “man of Tao” grows “without watching himself grow, and without any appetite for self-improvement.” The man of Tao takes in his surroundings, but without thinking about taking them in, more concerned about the “outer and other” than about himself.
Merton once recounted a famous Tao story by Chuang Tzu, called “The Woodcarver.” At the request of a prince, a master carver named Khing made a bell stand that was so beautiful that the people ascribed it to the work of spirits. When the prince asked how he accomplished such a feat, Khing replied:
“I am only a workman: I have no secret. There is only this: When I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles, that were not to the point. I fasted in order to set my heart at rest. After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success. After five days I had forgotten praise or criticism. After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs. . . I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand. Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.”
Khing’s thought centered only on the bell stand. He was completely absorbed in the object. To enhance his ability to see the object, he fasted, an ascetic practice that shrinks the self and leaves the individual free to see the other — the object — freed from the distortion of ego.
It might be said that Khing accomplished a masterpiece because he took no thought about completing a masterpiece. He was concerned only with creating the bell stand.
This Taoist insight in the West
This Tao-like understanding of art and creation is not far different from the Western understanding of art and creation. By putting aside self, the goodness of creation comes forth and the artist is able to see it, appreciate it, and, without distorting it in a whirlwind ego, put it down on the canvas or page.
In the words of philosopher Josef Pieper, the artist’s is a “purely receptive stance toward reality, undisturbed by any interruption by the will.”
Lewis was an artist, and not just in his essays and fiction. He was an artist in all things, including tutoring, living at his humble Kilns, taking long walks, and attending church. He took things in, without thinking about himself taking it in. Like a real man of the Tao.
This enabled him to drink beer at the Eagle and Child pub on Tuesday mornings. Not only is beer a Taoist-like drink that enables the drinker to obtain a small amount of inebriation that shrinks the self and enables the objective goodness of things to shine through the soul, but the Tuesday morning gatherings at the pub were good and Lewis, a man of the Tao, was able to see it and take it in.
To the average person, Tuesday morning drinking sessions are outrageous. Tuesday, after all, is a far cry from the weekend, the “proper” time for drinking. Tuesday morning drinking interferes with one’s pursuits and ambitions; morning beer makes you drowsy; spending time in a tavern in the morning takes away some of the most productive hours of the day.
But Lewis didn’t care because he didn’t care about ambition and the efficient use of time. The Tuesday morning beer sessions were good. His friends were good. The beer was good.
And so he went.
And had fun.