You Don’t Make the Grass Grow By Pulling On It

You Don’t Make the Grass Grow By Pulling On It July 18, 2015

Zen teacher and punk rocker Brad Warner recently posted a piece titled “Don’t Try to Help” at his blog Hardcore Zen. You ought to read it if for no other reason than that he quotes both an old Zen koan and a great Suicidal Tendencies song, and that’s probably the most interesting combination you’ll see this week.

But I got asked about something similar last week at Starwood by an earnest young man, as we took shelter from the rain together and the conversation turned from the healing arts (he had attended my shiatsu workshop the day before) to healing the world. How do we keep the world from destroying itself?

I think that young man was looking for some sort of answer about how to form an army of love and light, but all I could think of was something Alan Watts said (of course I didn’t remember the exact words, just the general sense, until I came home and looked it up):

Spring comes, the grass grows by iteself. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
Spring comes, the grass grows by iteself. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

I once had a terrible argument with Margaret Mead. She was holding forth one evening on the absolute horror of the atomic bomb, and how everybody should spring into action and abolish it, but she was getting so furious about it that I said to her: “You scare me because I think you are the kind of person who will push the button in order to get rid of the other people who were going to push it first.” So she told me that I had no love for my future generations, that I had no responsibility for my children, and that I was a phony swami who believed in retreating from facts. But I maintained my position. As Robert Oppenheimer said a short while before he died, “It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.” You see, many of the troubles going on in the world right now are being supervised by people with very good intentions whose attempts are to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this, and to prevent that. The more we try to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes.

Of course this idea is older than Watts or Oppenheimer. The Tao Te Ching says:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

That’s just as true when you try to control it “for its own good”, and it’s just as true when you try to grasp the world of just one person in order to “help” them.

Someday I am going to write a book on libertarian (small l) progressive (small p) politics. And the first sentence of that book will be “Progress does happen, but you don’t make the grass grow by pulling on it.”

Indeed there’s a Zen saying (I’m not sure of its original author): “Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.” It does grow! And there are even some things we can do to help it along, we can fertilize it and water it. But even there was can overdo it, we can overfertilize or overwater and kill the tender shoots. And if we get impatient with the grass, if we try to pull it along before its time or to make it grow taller than its own nature will take it, we uproot and destroy it.

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