Tom Hodgkinson: We would all like to float around on a cloud of unknowing. But it don't pay the rent


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The Independent Online

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. In the West, we are brought up to believe that hard work is the answer to every problem. We must act, we must act now, and we must act decisively. Strivers are praised; skivers are condemned.

When a politician dies, a former enemy will often say something like: "I didn't agree with her, but I admired her tenacity and single-mindedness." But that comment privileges action over morality. You might as well say of Hitler: "I didn't agree with his ideas, but I admired the single-minded way he carried them out."

It would have been better for the world had Hitler stayed in his Viennese garret, painting terrible pictures. The "striving" philosophy is fundamentally flawed because it places form above content: what are you striving for exactly? If you are working hard for evil ends, then the hard work is not a good thing.

Such thoughts are swirling around my brain because we are running a course in Eastern philosophy at the Idler Academy. The teacher is Tim Lott, the novelist and journalist. In the classes, Tim has discussed the nervous breakdown he suffered at 31, and his subsequent recovery, which was when he discovered the work of Alan Watts, the pointy-bearded philosopher who pioneered interest in Buddhism and Taoism in the States.

Watts taught that we should all stop trying so hard. Sometimes you need to just go with the flow. Abandon the ego, and stop minding so much about your desires. They only lead to misery. And don't take things so seriously. Embrace the Tao, the watercourse way, and wu wei, the principle of inaction. Life is taken care of better than you can imagine.

In theory, I am in agreement with the Watts approach to life. After all, we would all like to float around on a cloud of unknowing, benignly chuckling at the folly of the universe. But it don't pay the rent. One wag at Tim's talk tried to use Eastern philosophy to get out of paying, which I thought was a bit much. "It's about ideas, not money," he said. "Our landlord doesn't accept ideas at the end of the month, I'm afraid," I retorted.

I think it's also a mistake to think that Western philosophy is all about action. Tim mentioned the old Greeks as having the opposite mentality to the Buddhists and Taoists. They were all about pinning things down and studying them, he said. They saw the body as a machine driven by the ego.

Yes, but they praised contemplation and retreat as well. Aristotle gets quite Buddhist at some points: he says that the businessman is doomed to being anxious and unhappy, and that you would be more sensible to pursue the vita contemplativa.

Medieval Christianity was also characterised by a love of contemplation, and a merry fatalism quite Oriental in character: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die." Just think about the contrast between the old-fashioned medieval type of Sir Toby Belch, versus the new humourless striving personality of Malvolio, the Puritan.

However, it is very difficult to be a Taoist, especially when you have just opened a small retail business in the middle of a recession. In the first few months of opening the Idler Academy, I turned from laid-back poet to Basil Fawlty. Instead of reading enigmatic poems about huts in the mountains when I went to bed, I read books about how to succeed in business. I woke at 5am every day, sweating with worry. I shouted at staff and my partner, felt a permanent knot in my stomach – a period of intense stress that ended with a breakdown.

Tim would say that my ego had gone crazy. Bertrand Russell agreed: he said excessive self-importance generally leads to a nervous breakdown. I guess this must be a common problem with small businesses. After all, you have probably taken a financial risk as well as told everyone your plans. You are therefore quite understandably scared of failing. Your ego is at stake. The experience certainly seemed to prove to me that striving makes you depressed. However, I can't really see how it could have been different. If I had stayed in bed all day and done nothing, no one would have got paid. And you can only reach mastery of a skill after much practice and much failure. Creation inevitably involves pain. But we also need to take it easy. That is the dance of life.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'