China’s gift to us all
A Chicoan’s new book suggests that we could live richer lives by getting in touch with the Tao
One afternoon in 1969, when Ray Barnett was a young soldier stationed in Saigon, he found himself with time on his hands and decided to visit Cholon, the Chinese section of the city. “I’d majored in Chinese history at Yale, but I’d never even been to a Chinatown, much less China,” he says today.
The war in Vietnam was at its height, and the country was in turmoil, but what he found in Cholon surprised him. “It was such a vibrancy of street life, right in the midst of the war. Even the beggars, the cripples, were joking and laughing.”
The memory stuck with him long after he returned to the United States, earned his doctorate, married and took a job teaching biology at Chico State University. When he led a tour to China in the early 1980s, he was again struck by how “vibrant and vital life was on the street, how happy and healthy people were even though they had no reason to be.”
When he returned to America, he was struck in turn by how unhappy and unhealthy so many people were, even though they lived in such a rich country. How could this be?
It was a mystery he determined to solve. Being a teacher gave him time to travel, and he returned to China and Taiwan several times, exploring city and village, searching for the secret of Chinese society’s seemingly indestructible buoyancy.
Eventually he determined that it was simply the “Chinese way of life,” and that this way had evolved out of centuries of folk practice based on the “ancient native outlook of Taoism … the oldest continuous and consistent approach to living on the planet.”
Many Americans are aware of Taoism primarily because of Lao Tzu’s classic Tao Te Ching, the 2,500-year-old collection of short, mystical poems that underpins philosophical Taoism. They’re less aware of what Barnett calls “folk Taoism,” the popular religion of China that “is centered in the temples you see scattered throughout the countryside, villages, and cities, even today.” Together with the philosophical Taoism of the scholars, the religious Taoism of the priests and the Taoism expressed in the visual, medical and martial arts, it forms a complex system that penetrates to all levels of Chinese society.
The 5,000-year-old culture of China, Barnett decided, has a lot to teach Americans, whose culture after all is less than 500 years old. So he decided to write a book about it.
The result is Relax, You’re Already Home: Everyday Taoist Habits for a Richer Life, a most unusual self-help book. It somehow manages to be several things at once: a “breezy” (Barnett’s word) and useful guide to more healthful living; an enlightening introduction to everyday Chinese life and Taoism; and, in its most touching aspect, an account of how Barnett used Taoist practices to help himself and his family overcome a great personal loss. And it has particular appeal for local readers because so many of the examples of healthful activities he describes are set in Chico, especially in Bidwell Park.
Barnett, who will turn 60 in March, is a trim man of medium height with a neat gray-flecked beard. He and his wife Tammy and two children, Ashlinn, 13, and Lou, 10, live in Valley Oak Village, the co-housing complex off Forest Avenue near Lower Bidwell Park. The Barnetts were members of the original group of seven families that started the innovative collection of 31 townhouses clustered around a common house and green area.
For the past 10 years he’s also been a leader in the effort to create the new Northern California Natural History Museum, to be located adjacent to Bidwell Mansion. The sponsoring group has raised more than $6 million, and design work is expected to berin soon.
Relax, You’re Already Home is Barnett’s second book. In 1987, he published Jade and Fire, a mystery novel set in China in 1949, during the Communist assault on Peking, as Beijing was then called. Critics praised the book, describing it as a thriller in the LeCarré mold that deftly sets a crackling murder mystery against the backdrop of a watershed moment in modern Chinese history.
Barnett has since written another thriller, this one set in Taiwan, but his attempt to find a publisher for it coincided with the events of 9/11, and his effort was unsuccessful. “I think it’s a good one,” he says, “better than Jade and Fire in many ways, but the timing was just awful.” He continues to work on the book and plans to shop it around again.
In the meantime, he’s busy doing radio interviews—he has them lined up for Denver, Atlanta, Louisville and two cable networks—and book signings for Relax. Self-help books are as plentiful as they are popular, so perhaps Barnett’s publisher, Tarcher/Penguin, is hoping Relax is sufficiently novel to break out of the pack. What’s really notable about it, however, is just how commonsensical its recommendations really are.
Taoism is the original “go with the flow” philosophy. The word tao (pronounced “dow") is usually translated as “path” or “way” and refers, somewhat mystifyingly to be sure, to what Barnett says is “the backdrop and impetus for everything that happens, all the myriad processes of transformation that constantly course through the universe.”
Tao is, then, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” in Dylan Thomas’ immortal words, the universal energy that flows through all things, producing constant change, such that nothing remains the same, not even for a nanosecond. And a Taoist is one who understands this and lives in a way that acknowledges and accepts change, no matter its nature.
In Chinese life, this philosophy has resulted in a variety of activities that Barnett believes contribute to the culture’s cohesion and vitality. Because the Tao is most apparent in nature, for example, the Chinese revere and spend time in nature, immersing themselves in the Tao.
Americans should do likewise, Barnett urges. You don’t have to live in a shack in the woods, just take a walk in the park each day. Eat lunch there. Go to the creek and just sit by it. “Creeks are magnets for Taoists,” he writes.
He makes numerous suggestions: Take the kids camping. Visit every park or green space in the region over the next week or month. Learn to identify five native trees in the neighborhood. Buy binoculars and identify 10 common birds in the area. And so on.
What else should we do that the Chinese do? Barnett lists nine “daily habits,” from exercising and eating well to letting go of the past and living in the present, and four “seasonal habits,” including celebrating such “cosmic rhythms” as the solstices and lunar new year and honoring (and forgiving) your ancestors. (Please see sidebar.)
If this sounds foreign or New Agey to you, it’s my fault. Barnett makes a convincing argument for each of these habits and provides plenty of examples and imaginative suggestions for each one. He’s tried them all out on his own family, and the book is full of stories—of how they each contribute to the family altar of “important things,” for example, or how, after taking a walk on full-moon nights, they come back to the house, pull out the mats and sleeping bags, and cuddle up on the living room floor, parents and children, enjoying the soft moonlight until they fall asleep.
This is Barnett’s second family. He had two daughters with his first wife, Donna, and five years ago the younger one, a beautiful, vibrant woman named Holly, died of cancer. She was 23. “Holly’s death was a watershed in the life of our family,” he writes. “It was, of course, wrenching for her, and wrenching for us. Yet there it was—no escaping, no wriggling away from it. Holly had a lethal cancer that shrugged off all of modern medicine’s efforts. She died four months after the diagnosis. We grieve for her still, and remember her every day.”
The family has come to two realizations from her death, he writes. The first is that your fate “may have nothing to do with how hard you work or how good you are.” We are not in charge of our lives, the Tao is, “and the Tao flows where the Tao flows. It is grand, and not the least bit swayed by human wishes or desires.”
The second realization is that “how long you live is not as important as how well you live. … We would all have liked for Holly to have had more than two decades, true. But Holly lived life deeply and richly. That makes her life a vibrant success. From the perspective of the mighty Tao, flowing through eons and eons, the important thing for us humans is just to experience Tao fully. Whether it’s for two decades or eight is less important.”
I read this book with delight, feeling encouraged to continue with the healthful habits I already have and eager to add some new ones to my life. The book is especially useful for parents, I think, because of its emphasis on family activities that kids will enjoy as much as their parents. We can all be a little more Chinese and get in touch with the Tao. Ray Barnett is right: It would be good for us.
Habits for a richer life
(from Relax, You’re Already Home)
1. Immersion in the Tao—spend time in the natural world.
2. Realizing you’re already home—relax, and simplify your life.
3. Getting physical—eat healthy, rest when you’re tired, and exercise appropriately.
4. Escaping the mental prison—keep your mind and your worries in perspective.
5. Accept, accept, accept—let the Tao flow as it will; respect fate.
6. The clown within you—celebrate the Tao-drenched world.
7. Quality family time—it’s the little things that count with your loved ones.
8. Displaying the sacred—make an altar to remind you what’s important.
9. Digging in—work to help the Tao flow in your community.
10. Living in the seasons—participate in the cosmic rhythms.
11. Continuity with your ancestors—show respect to those who came before.
12. Celebrating your guides—festive holidays to honor those who knew.
13. Finishing a year, starting a year—close the past and start anew, with gusto.