BOOKS: Benjamin Hoff – ‘The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet’

“But is Brain all that important? Is it really Brain that takes us where we need to go? Or is it all too often Brain that sends us off in the wrong direction, following the echo of the wind in the treetops, which we think is real, rather than listening to the voice within us that tells us which way to turn?”

This double book collection was given to me by my dear old Dad who has long been looking into Taoism/Buddhism, and I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that anything he recommends is worth regarding. It is most certainly due to mon pere’s influence that not far into The Tao of Pooh I found myself reading about values I’d held way before I came to pick it up. Before beginning it, I had practically no knowledge of Taoist ideals, and for this purpose it works as a first (if shallow) foray. I’m deeply curious about ways of thinking and religious and spiritual concepts, though have never entertained any thought of prescribing to organised religion (though Taoist teachers, I believe, see it much more as spiritual guidance rather than a faith like Christianity would be), so this reading was purely out of interest. My overly critical view of all things faith and philosophy means that while I gained so much from The Tao of Pooh, I have many many qualms about what is written when I reached The Te of Piglet.

The main message that I took from these books was the importance of remembering that you are an animal – even a ‘Very Small Animal’ (an analogy to illustrate the self-deprecating feeling that you are insignificant in the universe; but being assured the world has a place and a use for everyone). To explain the Taoist teachings on this matter, Hoff is highly critical of academia (thinking too much and doing too little), technology and the destruction of the world by humans. Taoism rightly professes that when man so long ago assumed his superiority complex over the earth, he became unfulfilled and therefore unhappy, as he worked against his true nature. This notion is basically the premise of The Tao of Pooh, which did bring me so much understanding not only into Taoism but into the wrongs in the functionality of modern society which I whole-heartedly agree with.

The Tao of Pooh’s chapter 4 particularly resonated with my own beliefs by perfectly articulating the ways in which lack of regard for our human Inner Nature lends itself to the creation of unnatural environments, which facilitate unhappiness. Ignoring your inherent human nature will never lead to happiness; which should, of course, be the ultimate goal for oneself, others and the earth. This chapter is so easily related to my feelings toward the capitalist system. Put simply: working for money to live is not the intended goal of animal life, and forcing ourselves into such a situation is not fulfilling the needs of our Inner Nature – which was never primarily to live according to socially constructed ideas and restrictions. I’ve speculated towards this concept for a long time, and there is no shortage of evidence to support it. Mental illness is at an all-time high in Britain, possibly the world due to divisive, oppressive rules and sanctions. It’s notable how the people who live simply and within their means peculiarly seem the happiest. The Japanese actually have a word for ‘death by overwork’. No other species forces itself into such unnatural living circumstances as the human race, and surprisingly no other species so regularly throws themselves off of cliffs.

Hoff, writing in The Te of Piglet, later reaffirms this notion: “To the Taoist, unhappiness is the result of being guided by illusions – such as the mistaken belief that man is something separate from the natural world”. A few weeks after finishing Hoff’s collection, I watched the Blackfish documentary about Seaworld’s captive orcas, and the principles I read about were immediately related. At one point in the film, it’s said that there is no recorded instance of a wild orca attacking a human – yet there are countless incidents of those in captivity harming and even killing zoo workers over the years. Captivity, alone in a dismally tiny tank being baited by humans every day, kills the orcas’ ability to exercise their intended Inner Natures, which leads to disorder. I.e, living under unnatural circumstances causes the individuals experiencing it to become unwell. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to relate the capitalist system – a socially constructed ideal which we are expected to accept and to live under – to the kind of captivity which causes the disturbing change in animals held against their will… Just a thought.

For myself, after the joy of Pooh came the disappointment of Piglet. There are so many chapters in Hoff’s second offering in which it seems he only rants about and bemoans the modern world, at times seeming patronising. There is a particular point wherein Hoff begins what appears to be an assault on feminism which didn’t sit well with me at all, and I feel derails the message of the first book which I thought was to promote harmony to oneself and others, which doesn’t come across as equally the case in Piglet. Continuing this line of thought, the whole book presents a dubious image of women: they are only ever mentioned in the way I mentioned above, but so I’m told is an issue within most all Taoist and Buddhist writings.

Overall, I took mixed feelings and a basic understanding of Taoism from Hoff’s collection. The relation to the Winnie the Pooh stories, however, is great and perfectly achieved with extracts from A. A. Milne’s original stories and beautiful illustrations throughout. Pooh and Piglet are an interesting education – Pooh of course the most – but by no means a full or uncomplicated grasp of Taoism for beginners.