There’s a well-known Chinese painting depicting three men at a vat of vinegar. It is a story to illustrate the differences between the ‘Three Teachings’ of China—Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The vinegar represents the Essence of Life. The story and what it all means is told best in the book called, “The Tao of Pooh”—an excellent read about how Winnie the Pooh is an amazing Taoist master and has Life all Figured Out. I will attempt to summarize and interpret the story but the book is worth having.
The first man to taste the vinegar was Confucius and he exclaimed, ‘It’s sour!’, which represents how he felt about life. He felt the present wasn’t as good as the past and that the way Man ran things was out of step with the Way of Heaven, or how things should be done, according to the old rituals and ceremonies where the Emperor was the true intermediary between heaven and earth. Only through a complex system of prescribed steps and actions will true rightness on earth be achieved. Confucius, being concerned with how out of balance society was, saw the vinegar as ‘polluted wine.’
The second man to dip his finger in the vinegar and taste it was the Buddha who said, “It’s bitter!” To Buddhists, life was bitter, full of suffering from our attachments. The world was seen as a revolving ‘wheel of pain’ for all creatures and generated illusions and non-fulfillment. To find peace and happiness, Buddhists felt one must transcend the dust of the world to get to Nirvana, and the journey was constantly being interrupted by the bitter wind of day-to-day existence. To the Buddha, the vinegar was just bitter and shouldn’t be thought of as anything other than that.
Now, the third man, Lao-tse, smiled when he tasted the vinegar and exclaimed, ‘Ah yes, Vinegar!’ Lao-tse saw it as it was, without judgement so he could remain in his naturally happy state. From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness arise when we don’t accept the natural state of things as they are and when we hold an unappreciative and interfering mindset. When arbitrary and abstract rules or conditions were imposed from the outside, misery followed.
To the Taoists, life was already in a state of balance naturally and the earth was a reflection of heaven. When man interferes with this balance, harmony retreats further and further. So the world was a natural teacher of lessons, not a setter of traps. The basic usefulness I am getting at here is that this particular Pooh-ish philosophy is that the natural way of living happily has everything to do with appreciating, learning from and working with whatever happens in everyday life.
Another concept illustrated very well by Pooh is that of the ‘Uncarved Block’. Pooh is this—one who, in his original simplicity contains their own natural power and wisdom. In this simplicity, one is able to accomplish quite a lot because there is not a lot of interfering Knowledge. It is the still, calm, reflecting ‘mirror mind’ that often sorts out what needs to be sorted. Hence, Pooh, the Uncarved Block, is the true hero in the stories.
I have often used Winnie and Pooh and his friends with my clients and in training other therapists because each represents a personality tendency but Pooh emulates what many of us might aspire to for a happier, more peaceful life. The ‘Wu Wei’ in Taoism is a lot like The Pooh Way. Pooh knows how to live life without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical thinking or behavior. He just flows like a river around rocks and sticks and twists and turns.
Rabbit of course, is the busy, judgy, over thinking, bossy pants of the group. He can never sit still and just ‘be’. Something is always not right and must be changed. He draws in others and his schemes always go awry and then he blames others too, and ultimately himself. Poor Rabbit, even if his intentions are good, his methods make a big mess of everything.
Then there’s Piglet—the anxious, teller of tales and holder of big fears. He believes that being a Very Small Animal means he can’t handle what life throws his way, even while he’s right in the middle of handling it! Who thought of putting the note in the bottle to get help? Who got out of the treehouse when it fell and got help for everyone else? Who found a house for Eeyore and then gave up his own house for Owl when needed? Piglet is so anxious, he doesn’t know his own capabilities, and then sometimes, he envies others for what they seem to have (which is really nothing different).
Everyone knows an Eeyore—both inside themselves and outside in the world. Eeyores are really good at pointing out the negative in and around us, expecting bad things to happen, and finding that a dark cloud does in fact seem to follow them around. Eeyore may be a more extreme version of that little negative voice in the head, or another person’s you hear, but we all have it at least sometimes. However, he really just wants to be acknowledged and appreciated for his insight. The beauty of the Hundred Acre Wood is that they all accept Eeyore just the way he is. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, you may recall that it is the Sad feeling character that ultimately sets the annoyingly ever-Happy character straight when she’s mucking things up. We need all of these parts of ourselves because they have something useful to teach us.
We’ll stop there and go back to Pooh, who has been napping no doubt while I described the others, or looking for honey or just sitting in his Thoughtful Spot. Pooh just IS and what comes from being simple, childlike—an Uncarved Block, is F.U.N. If you’ve read anything I’ve shared before, it all comes back to play and F.U.N. (our Fundamental Universal Need). When you are an Uncarved Block, you are more able to enjoy the simple, quiet and natural ways of being in the world and the world in its natural state. It’s not that difficult things don’t happen but they happen because we, individually and as a species, are out of step with the natural flow of the universe, and we can hurt ourselves and other beings because of it.
There is a Taoist/Poohish idea that ‘The Wise are not learned; the learned are not Wise,’ means that thinking you know something—like Rabbit or Owl, doesn’t mean it will bring you any happiness or put you on the right path for you. In the Tao of Pooh, the author says the ‘wise know who they are and they work with what they’ve got and do what they can do.’ That’s not to say we don’t need or want to improve but we accept what is right now—like accepting that vinegar is vinegar and not judging it as bitter or sour, as if it should be something else.
Trusting that our own Inner Nature is there, we can recognize it, appreciate it and work with and not against it–this is the key to being in The Pooh Way. There is more to say about this but I’ll wait for Pooh to tell it. In the meantime, go find your own Way, with Pooh along as a guide and friend. It’s always friendlier with two.
There’s tremendous beauty, magic and F.U.N. out there when we are not preoccupied with Knowing. If you want some help along the way, I’m available for consultation, counseling and coaching at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more fun opportunities, check out my website and upcoming Joy Filled Play Retreat in the Bahamans with wild dolphins at http://www.yourlifewelllived.net/BiminiRetreat2022.html. For now, go out and PLAY!