Sometime before Christmas some files on my computer became corrupted. At first I thought this was by chance but then, as time passed, and more and more files seemed affected it became clear that a virus had somehow got through and begun to affect the system. It turned out to be a polite form of coercion for on closer examination of files I found a courteously worded demand for $500 and a set of instructions about how to pay if I was to ever be allowed to use files that the virus had encrypted.
I won’t go into details as to how the money was supposed to be paid, suffice it to say that it was the digital equivalent of leaving home with a bag full of used and unmarked notes, receiving calls at payphones, and driving around the countryside at speed. For a fraction of the ransom demanded I was able to obtain software that removed the virus, and which continues to protect the system from all manner of threats, many of which I think we take for granted.
Unfortunately, those files that were encrypted couldn’t be saved. To my surprise I found myself unaffected by this even though they included the text of an entire book, and several original photographs. Where in the past I may well have cussed, and shouted in disgust, imagined that God and his angels were set against me, and perhaps even taken it out on the computer, which after all is simply a machine – I found myself insouciant.
Strangely, this unperturbedness also became a source of mild excitement. It was as if I were watching some other person than me calmly going through the steps necessary to correct the attack, whilst at the same time remaining confident that any loss of data might, if not a good thing, rather be simply as it must.
Some years ago I hired some young people to work on some projects for me. When they failed to deliver, as they had promised, they retorted: ‘It was never meant to happen’. This I found to be an irritating tautological defence, because on the one hand I agreed with them. I believed, even then, that the world is how it is rather than how I, or others may prefer it; and recognized that as a human being it’s impossible to control events. None the less, I was peeved.
This time I suffered no such discomfiture. I was immune to the attack upon my computer for even my work, much of which had taken hours, if not days to prepare, no longer seemed a part of me. Naturally, I started to question how this change within my personality had come about. I had not willed it, for indeed I had not the wit to recognize that such as state might exist and, if I had, that it could be such an enjoyable experience.
I remembered that my state of mind had a name in ancient China. Thomas Merton wrote of it:
‘The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action-because it is to act without activity. In other words, it is action not carried out independently of Heaven and Earth and in conflict with the dynamism of the whole, but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but it is action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed “rightly,” in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is completely free because there is in it no force and no violence. It is not “conditioned” or “limited” by our own individual needs and desires, or even by our own theories and ideas.’
As I write in Photography and Zen, the philosopher who wrote those words was a Taoist called Chuang Tzu. Unlike Lao Tzu, who many know through knowledge of the Tao Te Ching but may never have really existed, Chuang Tzu is documented as a real person who lived during the 4th century BC. His contemporary Confucius, a former government official, stressed discipline and effort as virtues needed to lead a noble life. These attributes, of course, are exactly what are required in order to administer a state.
Chuang Tzu, however, took a different stance:
‘Fishes are born in water
Man is born in Tao.
If fishes, born in water
Seek the deep shadow
Of pond and pool,
All their needs are satisfied.
If man born in Tao,
Sinks into the deep shadow
To forget aggression and concern,
He lacks nothing
His life is secure.’
The difference between the approaches of the two philosophers is that, where for Confucius, right mindedness is an active process demanding thought, discipline, ritual and effort – Chuang Tzu thinks of it as ‘forgetting’. I agree with him, for it was not by dint of effort that I overcame any feelings of disquiet when my computer became infected, but rather, a kind of emotional forgetting that I should be feeling upset in some way.
*All quotations from Thomas Merton (1970)’The Way of Chuang Tzu’, London: Unwin Books. Text copyright 1965 The Abbey of Gathsemeni