The Tao of Pooh
by Benjamin Hoff
The Tao of Pooh is about “how to stay happy and calm in all circumstances.” Benjamin Hoff uses the characters and stories from Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner to explain basic concepts of Taoism. He also brilliantly integrates his own brief dialogue with the characters as segues into explanations of Taoist principles. Tao (pronounced DAO) means “the way.”
“The basic Taoism that we are concerned with here is simply a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life. From the Taoist point of view, the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness.” Hoff frequently refers to Lao-tse, author of the oldest book on Taoism. “According to Lao-tse, the more man interfered with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the further away the harmony retreated into the distance. The more forcing, the more trouble.”
Hoff explains the principle of the Uncarved Block, meaning things in their natural state. “From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times… When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun… The Uncarved Block is a way of saying, ‘like Pooh.’”
Pooh sings a song called Cottleston Pie. One of the lines is “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.” Hoff interprets this to mean that you shouldn’t try to force a square peg in a round hole as that would ignore the reality that “things are as they are.” Another line in the song is “A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.” Hoff interprets this line as knowing one’s limitations. “There’s nothing wrong with not being able to whistle, especially if you’re a fish. But there can be lots of things wrong with blindly trying to do what you aren’t designed for.”
”No two people are the same, either. Everything has its own Inner Nature… The first thing we need to do is recognize and trust our own Inner Nature, and not lose sight of it. For within the Ugly Duckling is the Swan, inside the Bouncy Tigger is the Rescuer who knows the Way, and in each of us is something Special, and that we need to keep.” This chapter reminds me of career books such as Strengths Finder 2.0 and What You’re Really Meant to Do, which advise capitalizing on one’s strengths and interests rather than pursuing a path of resistance.
In a chapter titled The Pooh Way, Hoff explains Wu Wei, which means “without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort… The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path—not the mechanical, straight-line approach that usually ends up short-circuiting natural laws, but one that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.”
“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort… Mistakes are made—or imagined—by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.”
Winnie-the-Pooh is a Bear of Very Little Brain. “While the clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing…. It’s rather significant that Pooh, rather than the thinkers Rabbit, Owl, or Eeyore, is the true hero of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.” Pooh doesn’t overcomplicate things.
“Lao-tse wrote, ‘To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.’”
I was surprised to see Henry David Thoreau quoted in this book. What does a 19th Century New Englander have to do with Taoism? With a bit of context, there is actually an interesting parallel. Hoff writes, the Taoists “tended to see Confucianist scholars as busy ants spoiling the picnic of life.” Thoreau actually said something very similar: “Still we live meanly, like ants… Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify.” (Hoff quoted a different paragraph from the same chapter of Walden.)
One day Rabbit went to visit Christopher Robin and he found a note saying, “GON OUT. BACKSON. BISY. BACKSON. C.R.” Hoff uses Bisy Backson as a metaphor for one who is constantly busy with a frantic schedule. “Let’s put it this way: if you want to be healthy, relaxed, and contented, just watch what a Bisy Backson does and then do the opposite… Practically speaking, if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But, strangely enough, we seem to have less time… The Bisy Backson has practically no time at all, because he’s too busy wasting it by trying to save it.” Although the book was written in 1982, this seems very relevant in the age of the smartphone.
“Do you really want to be happy? You can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you’ve got. Do you want to be really miserable? You can begin by being discontented. As Lao-tse wrote, ‘A tree as big around as you can reach starts with a small seed; a thousand-mile journey starts with one step.’ Wisdom, Happiness, and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they’re part of a continuous cycle that begins right here. They’re not only the ending, but the beginning as well.”
“Within each of us there is an Owl, a Rabbit, an Eeyore, and a Pooh. For too long, we have chosen the way of Owl and Rabbit. Now, like Eeyore, we complain about the results. But that accomplishes nothing. If we are smart, we will choose the way of Pooh. As if from far away, it calls to us with the voice of a child’s mind. It may be hard to hear at times, but it is important just the same, because without it, we will never find our way through the Forest.”
I first read this book about 20 years ago. I decided to read it again when I read a blog post by Zero Dean which quoted The Stonecutter story from the book.
Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982. Buy from Amazon.com