This book either explains Taoism through Winnie-the-Pooh, or it explains Winnie-the-Pooh through Taoism. If you’d ask the author, Benjamin Hoff, he would probably say: “same thing.” The book is short – you could read it in an afternoon. I liked it but I also have some criticism that I will deal with at the end. In fact, I am going to go on a bit of a rant.
The book gave me the impression that Taoism is a collection of old wisdoms, with a sort of overarching outlook on life in general. Much like classical Stoicism. And the wisdoms of Taoism could be likened to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I might be horribly wrong here because Taoism is also a spiritual system, but the book by Hoff is written for a Western audience who would find the little wisdoms more accessible.
The problem with little wisdoms is that they are removed from daily life. They are also a bit like platitudes. You hear them and think: “A yes I know this” and you move on. At times, The Tao of Pooh felt a bit like this. For example, it teaches that everyone is unique and has their own talents and weaknesses, and struggling against that only causes pain. Well, yes, thank you for the reminder.
Another thing with little wisdoms is that they are often true. The problem lies in people and how we learn things. Wisdom is gained through the tears of disappointment, but first you need the experience of disappointment. Rules for life need to get embedded into your emotions through experiences, and then you feel them to be true. Then you can live them. Then you can look at a saying about the “innate truth” about things and say “that is so true!”
A book cannot really do this. But, by linking these wisdoms to Winnie-the-Pooh, Benjamin Hoff can at least illustrate the messages with passages from Pooh’s adventures. That’s a helpful step towards effective communication of wisdoms. It’s also a bit funny and cute. Who would think that a children’s book had so much to teach? Maybe Winnie-the-Pooh isn’t just a children’s book.
Halfway through the book, something began to irritate me. There are three voices in this book: the Tao te Ching stories, the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne and the voice of Benjamin Hoff. And Hoff injects himself between these voices of wisdom but doesn’t sound wise himself. In fact, he comes across as unjustly critical. There is some unbalanced anger between the lines that feels really out of place. For example, he talks about the theme of Enjoying the Process and Living in the Now, and he begins this chapter with a condescending critique of Western ideas of progress. Well, sorry Hoff but if we would follow your ideas, we would all still be living in the Middle Ages with our teeth falling out.
Hoff is trying to make a point that Taoism is different and has something to teach that other knowledge systems do not, but he is ham-fisted in its criticism of Confucianism, Buddhism and modern science and says that people shouldn’t ask so many questions. And, at one point he seriously proposes that a Taoist man had lived for 256 years. I regarded my book from a distance and wondered what the hell I was reading.
Another example comes when Hoff introduces the concept of Nothing and how it can reinvigorate you. Yes, we also know this from meditation and sleeping, and letting the subconscious work things out. But Hoff starts his chapter by saying that people get confused about learning and knowledge and go chasing off after things that don’t matter and therefore do not appreciate what’s in front of them. That is not true. That is just not true. There’s another saying that says Facts Feed Wonder because knowledge can also raise your fascination and appreciation about things and this is especially true when looking at the natural world. Curiosity and learning are strong jump starters for caring about something. Hoff could easily introduce the Nothing concept without sounding smug and ignorant, but he doesn’t.
Near the end, the little wisdoms start to contradict each other. First, Hoff explains that you should live like a river that bends around obstacles, and if you struggle against the way things “Naturally Are” you end up hurt, and he lambasts Western Busybodies who fight against the world. Then, he says that pessimists are stupid and he points to Thomas Edison as a man who followed his “Inner Truth” to achieve something, (but he was a busybody who fought against the status quo of the world to get rich). Finally, Hoff says that discontent with the world is the first step towards misery. Well, what do you want me to do with all this? Should I just sit in the sun with a smile on my face and do nothing? Hoff never integrates the wisdoms into something coherent and useful for daily life.
A lot of Taoist thought appeals to me, especially the calls for living in the moment, enjoying the world and seeing things from a positive perspective, and I have encountered these before under the name of mindfulness. I also think that that incarnation of eastern ideas is much more helpful and appropriate for the modern world. So… a cute book but not an unqualified recommendation.