Napping under big-ass, useless trees, or: Expounding on the "Usefulness of the Useless"....

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a therapist is knowing that pretty much anyone can be their own therapist. This isn't like being a doctor, or an architect, or even a chef. Those professions take years and years of training. Not anybody can be those things.

Anybody can be a therapist, though. You, the reader, you can be your own therapist. All it takes is some understanding of basic human psychology and the courage/ability to have some blunt-force honesty with yourself.

That's it.

Of course, attaining those two attributes--understanding of basic psychology and blunt-forced self-honesty--is more difficult than I often acknowledge, but it doesn't change the fact that sometimes I feel as though my profession is useless.

A lot of these kinds of feelings probably stem from the fact that, as I've written about before, I've spent my professional life working almost exclusively with clients who are of the "mandated" variety. Most of my clients have had no real desire to seek out counseling. Someone in a position of power over them has forced them to attend counseling or suffer some sort of undesired consequences. A probation officer, or a parole officer, or a social worker has required the people I work with to come see me.

Obviously, if a Judge is telling you to go see a counselor otherwise you'll lose custody of your children, you have some substantial difficulties maintaining any semblance of control over your life. Basically, you're struggling to be bluntly honest with yourself. You're in extreme denial about certain aspects of your life, otherwise you wouldn't be at the mercy of some idiot judge or probation officer or social worker somewhere who's forcing you to go talk about your shit to some idiot therapist.

But, because of their lack of ability to be bluntly honest with themselves, they're also the ones who think they need counseling less than anyone else.

And they tell you as much.

Over and over and over and over and...

Here's a pretty typical conversation I have with a mandated client of mine:

Client: I don't know why I'm here. I've got nothing to talk about.

Me: You don't? Well why do you think you're here?

Client: Because my (case manager/social worker/probation officer/judge) wants me to be here.

Me: And why would they want you to be here?

Client: Because they're dumb.

Me: They're dumb because they want you to be in counseling?

Client: Yes.

Me: What's wrong with counseling?

Client: It's useless. What do you know about my life? How can you help me? Who says I even need help? I know what I need to do.

Me: So why don't you do it?

Client: Because....

Me: ...

Client: ...

Me: Well, maybe counseling can help you figure that out.

Client: No. Counseling is dumb. And useless.

Almost inevitably, such attitudes change over time. Although my writing is devoid of all charm and charisma, in person, I'm even more so. But the therapeutic process in and of itself, when done with even the minimal amount of competence, has a way of converting even the most ardent nonbeliever. And in many--if not most--situations, the client actually has some reluctance when it's time to end the counseling relationship.

Anyhow, whenever I have such conversations, it reminds me of a concept I first learned and heard about as an undergrad in college. The concept is what the old Taoists called, "The usefulness of the useless."

Counseling, in a lot of ways, really is a useless profession and activity. But it is that uselessness, precisely, that makes it so useful.

One of my favorite memories of college is not very interesting. I’m going to tell it anyway, because I’m the one writing the blog, and I get to choose to take a risk and tell a not very interesting story so as to help me make some kind of (possibly not very interesting) point.

I must’ve been 20 years old or thereabouts. I was sitting in a “Chinese Philosophy” class and we were several weeks into the semester, which meant we were still slogging through the requisite moral and literary admonitions of the Analects. The professor, great teacher that he was, made it a point to make the Confucius sections of the course as perfunctory as possible. You can’t talk about Chinese philosophy without talking about Confucius, of course, but the less you have to talk about him the better. Placing Confucius at the beginning of the course was akin to being a child and having a parent create a dinner meal in such a manner that you were semi-consciously inhaling all your asparagus as rapidly as possible before being allowed to enjoy the meatloaf and brownies your mom made (except that while the Analects tastes like raw broccoli raab, it has the nutritional value of a box of Lemonheads). We just had to take a few weeks to get through the bastard, and then we would get to the tastier, more substantial, more filling stuff.

(That analogy is a bit of a cliché – the whole “eating nasty vegetables to get to the good food” one – and I’ve never understood it because most vegetables are delicious. But food analogies work best when speaking about philosophy because philosophy comes in many different flavors and textures, and it needs to be chewed and digested. And sometimes really challenging philosophies give you indigestion and rotten philosophies make you sick. So, like my boring story, I’m sticking with this analogy, even though it might be weak.)

Anyhow, after several weeks, Confucius had simply become too much for one of the students. He hadn’t the tongue nor the small intestine needed to force feed himself anymore of the dry, under-seasoned, overcooked Confucian philosophy. He stood up in the middle of class – a balding, middle-aged man with a thick handle-bar mustache, trucker’s cap and a paunch – interrupting the professor, who had his back turned as he was writing something on the whiteboard, and asked, quite angrily, “What the hell is the point of all of this?”

“Excuse me?” the professor asked, turning around.

“I said what the hell is the point of all this philosophizing? What’s the point of all this sitting around talking about boring shit? I’ve never seen anything so useless in my life.”

The professor, a youngish, proto-hipster type, almost as if he were expecting the response (or had dealt with it before), stated, “Ah, yes. Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but very few understand the usefulness of the useless. If you stick around long enough, we will get to Chuang Tzu and you will learn that while philosophy might be useless, that is precisely what makes it so useful.”

The student, some poor “non-traditional” bastard who had probably been forced to take a philosophy class because there were no more seats open in any of the history courses, didn’t stick around for Chuang Tzu. He simply grabbed his coat off his desk, and left the classroom right then, never to return. Which is too bad, really.

(The fact that this story rates as one of my favorites from that period in my life should give you an idea of how “useless” my college experience was. Most of the other memories of that time consist of me sitting drunkenly alone in some dark corner of a house party on the outskirts of the campus trying unsuccessfully to get laid.)

This story has stuck with me for so long, one: because it’s such a perfect analogy for the world’s relationship with philosophy at large, and two: because it was the first time I, myself, had ever heard of the idea of the “usefulness of the useless,” an idea that would come to change the course of my life.

Later that semester we did get past Confucius, and we got past Mencius, and we got past Mo Tzu. Later that semester we eventually got to Lao Tzu, which was basically the reason I took the class. But Lao Tzu came and went. In fact, all the aforementioned names came and went. It was as if the philosophy professor was the child in the analogy I gave a few paragraphs above, and he was the one trying to get through the boring part of the meal to get to the Good Stuff.

We ended the semester and spent the most time dissecting The Book of Chuang Tzu, in which the idea of the usefulness of the useless becomes a recurring theme. And, sure enough, if we (or I, at least) came away with anything, it was understanding to find the usefulness of the useless.

Chuang Tzu did not waste much time getting to that point. At the end of the first chapter, Chuang Tzu’s friend Hui Tzu – a fellow useless philosopher – tells Chuang Tzu about a huge tree whose wood is “useless.” The branches are too gnarled and bumpy to be of any use to even the best of carpenters. Chuang Tzu points out that the only reason the tree has been able to grow so large and live a long time without being bothered or accosted is precisely because it is so useless. Then Chuang Tzu ends the chapter by suggesting that Hui Tzu use the useless tree to take a nap under it, since it’s large enough to provide useful shade for such a use (again, only being large enough in the first place because it was too useless to chop down).

In the middle of chapter 4, seemingly in explication of the tree story at the end of chapter one, Chuang Tzu tells the story of “Carpenter Shih” who sees an extremely large tree which he refuses to cut down, telling his apprentice (from Burton Watson’s translation):

“Forget it – say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree – there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be that old!”

After Carpenter Shih returns home and falls asleep for the night, that same large tree intrudes on Carpenter Shih’s dreams to tell him (Watson, again):

“What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves – the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I’ve finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this – things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I’m a worthless tree?”

At the end of chapter four, Chuang Tzu has Confucius (of all people) point out that it’s the grease that makes the torch useful, and it yet it is the grease that burns itself out of existence in its usefulness. The same goes for cinnamon trees and lacquer trees. Their usefulness leads to their destruction. Throughout the book we are admonished to be like “Burnt ashes” and “uncarved blocks of wood” and other things of the like – things that are generally not considered to be all that useful.

So what does any of this have to do with the study and practice of counseling? Maybe nothing. What the hell do I know?

Regardless, the Chuang Tzu is not merely a philosophical text. It is also a spiritual one, meant to help others navigate their own labyrinthian spiritual quests. Texts like the Chuang Tzu are not “road maps,” per se, as each person’s spiritual path is distinct and idiosyncratic, and another person’s road map might not be so…useful. What they are are vehicles for delivering a set of ineffable, esoteric, supra-lingual principles – or, at least, attempts to do as much.

And what do we know about spiritual practices? That to the typical (normal?), world-attached person, most such practices seem pretty worthless. Meditation, prayer, mantra-recitation, yoga, fasting – these things don’t bolster the stock market. They don’t take care of threats to our “National Security.” They don’t help us drill for oil. They don’t create jobs. Etc. Etc. Etc. And yet, if more people practiced such things, maybe some of these issues would take care of themselves.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe you think that plenty of fundamental Christians pray and they’re still fascist dicks. Likewise, the asswipe members of any Islamic terrorist group  undoubtedly also do much of the above-mentioned practices, and yet, that hasn’t stopped them from being murderous, child-raping, slack-jawed, idiot, desert-rubes. But I would argue that what we’re talking about is the cliched-but-in-this-case-relevant distinction between “Religion” and “Spirituality.” Fundamentalists have a tendency to partake in “Religious” practices as opposed to “Spiritual” ones. (NB that this distinction presents with a litany of problems and contradictions, and I personally find the term “spiritual” too limiting, loaded and in some ways distasteful, but it’s the most functional term I could use for the purposes of this essay.)

The point of all this, being that spiritual practices are typically considered useless, worthless and/or not-worthwhile for the vast majority of people, but the people who actually invoke these practices tend to find them very useful in ways that the others couldn’t even fathom. And what all of this has to do with philosophy is that, at its best, philosophy is a spiritual practice.

Over the past couple of millennia philosophy and spirituality have dichotomized into two separate, distinct entities, when in reality any worthwhile philosophy is nourishing for the soul, and any nourishing spirituality consists of sound philosophy.

The “ancients” seemed to understand as much. In old Greece, spirituality and philosophy were essentially one and the same, at least for the philosophers. Socrates and Plato and Democritus and Zeno and Epictetus and Epicurus and so on were on a search for spiritual truths. This inclination could be found as late as the Roman Stoics, wherein both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius proposed that “Philosophy”–as the Stoics understood it–was the only path to spiritual salvation.

In ancient China, again we see that, at least amongst the philosophers, there was no distinction between philosophy and spirituality. Ancient Chinese philosophical books have provided spiritual feed for “Western” societies for at least 150 years now – and obviously have done the same in their home of the “Far East” for more than two millennia. Most obvious among those works would be the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu. However, even the Anelects of Confucius, the essays of Mencius and the writings of Mo Tzu are all quite obviously attempting to quell the spiritual cravings of their readers through the practice of what we would traditionally call “Philosophy.” And we’re yet to even touch upon the Ch’an (later “Zen”) literature which was most prolific during the middle part of the 1st millennium AD, which blurred the lines so thoroughly that students of both philosophy and of “Religion” (traditionally the field that concerns itself most with “spiritual” matters) are at a loss of whether to describe traditional Ch’an literature as philosophy or as religion. Most seem to defer to the label of “religion” but it’s not totally clear why. I would argue that works such as the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, the Lin Chi Lu and the recorded sayings of Huang Po, fit slightly less awkwardly within the heuristics we use to determine whether something is “philosophy” than they do within the heuristics of “religion.” After all, there’s no anthropomorphic God, no set dogma and no real religious hierarchy involved in the Ch’an sect. There are set practices and principles of practice, but there is nothing the disciple is expected or required to believe. There are no real concepts of “right” or “wrong” re: those principles and practices (some of this changed as Ch’an made its way to Japan and made itself “Zen”– a way of living with many virtues, but one which became somewhat more religious as time went on, even with masters like Bankei and Ikkyu coming along to resist, futilely, such momentum).

Beyond all that, historically, the philosophy of most indigenous tribes/shamanic-animist traditions – from the Americas, to Africa and all points in between – was inseparable from its spirituality. Their philosophies on how to live life were/are/have been direct extensions of their religious understandings of the world.

But all of that’s almost beside the point. As we move along it will become quite clear why a true philosophy is a true spirituality – and vice versa – but in the meantime I imagine (if anyone is still reading at all) that people are getting weird at the mere suggestion that we are going to do anything “philosophical.”

“Why philosophy?” they might be asking. “It’s a waste of time. I’m a doer. I don’t just sit around thinking about stupid shit all day. I GET THINGS DONE, GODDAMMIT.”

To which I respond: Good for you. I applaud your ability to keep yourself busy and to… I don’t know… complete things, I guess. Although you know that someday, sooner rather than later, you’re going to die, and your loved ones are going to die and your kids are going to die and their loved ones are going to die, and your kids’ kids are going to die and so on and so forth. And “Western” civilization as we know it will crumble and other civilizations will spring up in its wake, and eventually the human species, or its evolutionary progeny, will become extinct, and the earth will die and the sun will expand manifold, swallowing up whatever’s left of the earth and several other planets in its wake, and – if physics is right about this thing – eventually the Universe itself will continue to expand to the point that atoms themselves will be unable to retain their constitution and the entire Universe will literally RIP APART. The fabric of space and time and everything that we know will cease to exist in the most literal meaning of the phrase, so literal in fact, that our minds are utterly incapable of conjuring any kind of understanding of what kind of nothingness will exist (or not exist) in the really – if you really stop to think about it – not very distant future. It’s all going to happen sooner rather than later – in many ways it’s already happened – and all your work and busy-ness and completing things-ness will ultimately be for nought.

And so the answer to “why philosophy?” should be readily apparent, because even a nihilist (especially a nihilist) would do well to ensure their lack of belief or faith has been capably thought out by somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing.

Even so, there are two other answers I’d be generous enough to share.

One: When I was growing up, we lived in a rural area – in the middle of nowhere really, 5 miles from the nearest town, which boasted a population of about 800 people. It was quite often that my old man would gaze upon the sight of a sublime sunset over the jagged Sangre de Cristo mountains as the dipping sun caused the range to live up to its name, turning the range into a glowing, radioactive blood-orange, or while he was looking up at a veritable kaleidoscope of stars in the night sky, or sitting outside on the porch with a cup of coffee during a cool summer evening, and he would get philosophical, damn near poetic really about the nature of life, love, and the Universe. My dad wasn’t what we would call in today’s parlance a man who was “in touch” with his feelings. I, myself, was a sometimes overly sensitive boy more in touch with my emotions than I had any desire to be. And so if philosophy had what it took to bring the two of us together and to bond us in a manner I still miss to this day, then that was reason enough for me. Just as philosophy’s ability to connect two people together was enough for Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu, Seneca and Lucillus, Zeno and Pythagora.

And while that might be reason enough for me, in and of itself, there is still the following: As both Alan Watts and William James (and I’m sure a host of others) have already pointed out, as human beings, we are all philosophers. The very act of having what we call a “conscience” means that we are cursed to be philosophers. Even the philosophy that philosophy is a stupid waste of time is still a philosophy. The only question is whether we are “good” philosophers or poor ones. And it’s a fine question, because since we have no choice in the matter, it would seem to make sense that it would be beneficial for us to be decent at it. Like walking. We kind of have to walk, so we should, at the very least, be kind of competent at it.

And counseling is, at the end of the day, a philosophical and spiritual practice. Or, at least from my perspective it is. A person being depressed or anxious or moody or using drugs or finding themselves repeatedly in unhealthy relationships usually stem not from chemical imbalances in the brain, but from their own faulty philosophies, or their own failure to adhere to their philosophies. Existential crises are really spiritual crises, the cure for which must be some kind of "spiritual" practice or outlook.

Still, we need to get something straight. When I speak about “philosophy” I’m not talking about lifeless syllogisms or modal logic-semantics or discussions on “The Coextensiveness Thesis and Kant’s Modal Agnosticism in the ‘Postulates.” Though, I’m not attempting to be dismissive of such things, for they ultimately have their virtues as well. It’s just that they have a time and a place, and this discussion is neither. What I’m talking about is that philosophy which my old man would practice on those cold winter mornings, when he would wake up at the call of the roosters and chop wood in the freezing snow and start roaring fires in the stove, and the effort and pain of it all would lead to a “runner’s high” whereupon he’d sit next the wood stove and discuss with me the merits of such a chosen life. Whether living in poverty in the mountains of southern Colorado in the middle of winter precluded one from living the “good life.” I’m talking about the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’s essays and Lao Tzu’s poems and Lin Chi’s koans.

I’m talking about the type of philosophy (and counseling) that is good for the “soul.” The type of philosophy (and counseling) that you can carry with you at all seconds of the day. The type of philosophy (and counseling) that doesn’t necessarily lead us to a greater understanding of the “meaning” of everything, but the type of philosophy which leads us to a useful meaning of “understanding.” The kind of philosophy (and counseling) that gets us through the worst of days in one piece and the best of days in a measured peace.

Therefore, if philosophy is spirituality and vice-versa, the kind of philosophy I’m writing about is the kind that makes us happier, in the sense that spiritual awakenings make us happier (supposedly). It’s a hedonic philosophy. But as a spirituality that also happens to be a philosophy, it also must necessarily must make some kind of “sense.” It has to be a spirituality that stands up to scrutiny, that at once encourages and survives skepticism. It has to be philosophically sound. And the counseling practice that stems from such a philosophy must reflect that philosophy, both in practice and in purpose.

Naturally I feel that the philosophy of Laziness that I have written about before falls into this category. When you are lazy, you are the gnarled, useless tree of Chuang Tzu’s. If you are useless, no society can use you, and therefore society leaves you alone and you are free to grow large and useless, and you are free to play in the mud. In short, by becoming useless, life in and of itself suddenly becomes “useful.” You no longer need justify your existence with busy-ness and worry. And I came to this conclusion after many years of the useless practice of philosophy as a means for spiritual growth. Just the act of shooting the shit with other like and unlike-minded individuals. Or, if I really wanted to be extra useless, I would shoot the shit with myself. Not only have I wasted endless hours sitting around talking about “boring shit,” I have wasted endless hours talking to myself about “boring” shit.

Moron. I’ll never accomplish anything wasting so much time with such spurious behavior. Maybe I should find some motivation to become more ambitious and useful.

…Or maybe I can go find a big, ugly tree to take a nap under.

How about you?


  1. Sometimes being completely useless (spending the day in my pajamas and binge-watching useless shows) is so useful. My brain is on overload all week long (is my daughter ok at school, am I a horrible mom for working full-time, is my husband having a good day at work, when is the last time we went on a date, what should I cook for dinner this week, am I devoting enough time to each of my staff, etc.) and the only way I can continue to be useful and function and get shit done is to take some time to do absolutely nothing useful at all. Can a personal philosophy contradict itself like that and still work well? I need to be useless in order to be useful and I need to be useful the majority of the time to feel ok about being useless. Sometimes doing nothing is what rejuvenates me and on the other hand, sometimes being busy and incredibly useful is what gives me fresh perspective.

    1. Sure. It's all about balance. I work full-time and I work hard, and I have a family, and I have tons of chores and responsibilities too. I'm pretty useful a good amount of the time. But I think a lot of people have the "be busy and useful" part down pretty good. I think a lot of people have a harder time with sitting around and being "useless." In psychology the terms that are used are "catabolic" and "anabolic." Being busy is "catabolic" and requires some form of rest, or "anabolic" phase in order to prevent burnout and other psychological dysfunctions.

      In fact, there's a really good book called "Flow" that talks about how people seem to be most happy when they're engaged in activities where there is a balance between the catabolic and anabolic states--just stressful enough to require focus and concentration, but not so stressful that one gets frustrated. I have written an essay about what I agree with the author on and where I differ. Maybe I'll go ahead and post that one next.


Post a Comment