A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
(Lao-Tzu – Tao Te Ching)
We’ve all followed the yellow brick road before at some point in our lives; we’ve all begun our own personal ‘journey of a thousand miles’ to reach a goal, achieve an aim or realise a dream. This is one of the reasons why The Wizard of Oz film, celebrating its 80th birthday this year, has resonated with so many viewers and why the film has achieved unprecedented success in that time. Originally released in 1939, the movie actually lost money initially, despite achieving critical acclaim, before going on to huge success upon its re-release in 1949. It’s understandable, of course, that the timing of the film’s release coinciding with the Second World War would’ve had an impact on the its fortunes, but it seems remarkable that The Wizard of Oz, legendary for its early use of Technicolor, wouldn’t have been profitable for MGM even back then. I guess that’s not important now – according to the Library of Congress (the national library of the United States) The Wizard of Oz is the most watched film in movie history.
The film’s story, originally written as a children’s book by L. Frank Baum and released in 1900 as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a fantasy tale which follows the quest of a young girl called Dorothy who finds herself in a foreign land/world/universe and wishes to return home. She meets a host of weird and wonderful creatures, witches and whatnot along the way – including a scarecrow who has no brain, a tin woodman without a heart and a lion lacking courage – and they join forces to try to locate the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. The newly formed collective hope to achieve their dreams, and fill their respective voids, with the help of the wizard, who asks that they prove their worth by bringing him the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick (she’s been terrifying the merry old land of Oz and is rather miffed with Dorothy, who she blames for killing her sister – the Wicked Witch of the East – after Dorothy’s house landed on her).
After accidentally causing the demise of the second witch towards the end of the film, the gang return to the wizard with the broomstick, expecting to have their wishes fulfilled – a brain for Scarecrow, heart for Tinman, courage for Lion and a return home for Dorothy – but it turns out the wizard is a fraud who has no magic powers. However, he eventually gives the Oz-based trio some symbolic gifts which help them realise the qualities and attributes they were missing were actually inside them all along, before taking Dorothy home in a hot air balloon.
Dorothy finally completes her own part of the quest when Glinda the Good Witch of the South tells her to tap her ruby slippers together three times and repeatedly say to herself, “There’s no place like home.” Dorothy then awakens back in this world, Kansas specifically, where the implication is that her whole experience was a dream. She is left with her own realisation – that, despite some personal difficulties that had befallen her at the beginning of the film, there really is no place like home.
The Taoism of Oz
I’m sure there are many ways one could explore and discuss some of the messages in this wonderful, iconic film – I have just decided on this occasion to do so with the help of Taoism and its seminal text the Tao Te Ching. Or, more specifically, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. The latter uses the works of A. A. Milne’s similarly iconic books Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner to explicate and illuminate the key themes which constitute the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition known as Taoism. It is my aim to bring to life some of the most important aspects of Taoism by aligning them with elements of The Wizard of Oz narrative. The Tao, which translates to The Way, and Taoism are all about working in harmony with nature and the flow of the universe to achieve a state of nothingness. Respect for, and attunement with, the natural order, simplicity, compassion and humility are key elements of The Way. I hope to share some of the wonderfully enlightened aspects of this great mode of being with you through the timeless narrative which underpins this classic film.
The Wu Wei of Oz
Of the many important lessons one can learn from the Tao Te Ching, this notion is particularly relevant to The Wizard of Oz. As Hoff shows us in The Tao of Pooh, we have to appreciate life for what it is and go with the flow; work in harmony with the earth and the natural order of things – not against them. Hoff explains how the world is not a ‘setter of traps’, but a teacher of valuable lessons. We shouldn’t live our lives expecting to be tripped up all the time on our various journeys – but instead go with the flow and learn from our experiences; then use what we learn to develop and grow as people.
It won’t always be smooth sailing, but if we try to be like water, and aim to achieve the Taoist state of being known as Wu Wei, we can tackle any problem. The stream doesn’t complain about the rocks in its path – water doesn’t give up. Water doesn’t turn back – it simply traverses any obstacle in a malleable fashion. Water is flexible, submissive and weak. Yet it cannot be pulled apart and can flow over what is hard and strong. Any obstacle can be worked around and gradually eroded. The nature of the Wu Wei mindset is ultimately what helps our band of merry heroes in their journey in The Wizard of Oz – despite various dangers, threats and fears, they cannot be pulled apart.
The journey versus the goal
Probably the most significant narrative thread in The Wizard of Oz is the characters’ journey to the Emerald City via the yellow brick road; it is through this shared experience that the characters connect, build their kinship and develop their close familial bonds. And by highlighting the importance of the journey over the goal we uncover a significant idea in Taoism – or as Hoff shows us in The Tao of Pooh: ‘There is no Great Reward – from religion, science, business – that we need to work like lunatics and rush around to attain.’ We seem to be in such a hurry to achieve our goals, yet it is actually the process of working towards those goals that often means more than the goals themselves. Hoff uses “the unreachable pot of honey” in reference to Pooh – and often we don’t realise that it’s actually the idea of tasting the honey and it’s potentiality that exceeds the experience itself. Shaking the Christmas presents and wondering what might be inside is often more fun than discovering what the gifts actually are.
For the lead characters in The Wizard of Oz the goals are clear – Dorothy wants to go home, the Scarecrow wants a brain, Tinman seeks a heart and the Cowardly Lion desires courage. They all eventually get what they want, of course, but it is actually the process of attaining them, the journey itself, the quest they undertake together, which helps them achieve their goals – because it is by taking on this difficult mission that three of them discover that the things they thought they were missing were actually within them all along. Dorothy’s case might seem slightly different, but it isn’t – because her goal is to return home, and it is only thanks to the journey, and her shared reciprocal experience with her compatriots, that she realises just how much her home meant to her; she discovers that she was where she was meant to be all along – and that things really weren’t that bad after all.
As Hoff explains in The Tao of Pooh, enjoy the time you spend aiming for your rewards – whatever they may be. Stop trying to ‘save time’ – we are obsessed with this in the West with our various time-saving devices and discoveries, like microwaves, nuclear power or dumbed down quick-read news stories. Are these things actually helping us lead healthier, more informed or safer lives – or are they contributing to doing the exact opposite? As Hoff reminds us, you can’t SAVE time, you can only SPEND it. So spend it wisely. Fulfilment doesn’t come from endlessly chasing a new pot of honey every day – it comes from enjoying the experience; it comes from the journey itself. Don’t waste time rushing to the next goal – but rather savour every step on your yellow brick road; make life-long friends, share unforgettable experiences and build your character gradually amongst those you care about and who challenge you, inform you and make you smile and laugh. Get to know yourself better by connecting with others.
Speaking of getting to know yourself, this is the perfect time to highlight this notion using The Wizard of Oz narrative. Hoff tells us in The Tao of Pooh that it’s important to accept Things As They Are – that we can only unlock the true potential of things, in a Taoist sense, if we use them in their proper way. This doesn’t just go for tools or utensils – it’s about our inner nature. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion realised their place and their limitations – they acknowledged their weaknesses so they could use them for their benefit. One might see cowardice as a negative trait, but it helped to keep the Lion alive. It kept him aware – it keep him on his toes. Ready to act when necessary. He turned that negative into a positive.
I will at this point briefly refer to my own philosophy, as I believe it’s relevant here. Specifically my concept of Genuinity, which is strongly influenced by Taoism. I believe that we all have an inner nature which stems from our Genuinity; it is a childlike, feminine energy which compels us to be good and do good. It’s a positive, life-affirming quality. As the definitions suggest – Genuine: of a person = sincere. Truly what it is said to be. And Entity: being. Existence. A thing with distinct and independent existence. Genuinity is your true self in its truest, most stripped-back form – evident in love, compassion, trust, support, protection, nurturing instincts and our desire to live and keep on living.
I think that when we see examples of Genuinity in action – in films, TV shows, music, art, etc – it resonates strongly with us. We connect with it, because it’s such a key component of our essence as human beings. This is part of the reason I believe a film like The Wizard of Oz is so popular – we love to see the compassionate, kind inner nature of our fellow beings at work. We love to see them overcome challenges together; we love to see them beat the odds. We love to see Genuinity shine through. And it does in the connections these characters make, the collective strength they show and the growth they experience together in this film.
Truly great character
So let’s take this opportunity to just explore the nature of our heroes in a little more Taoist depth – because there are lots of ways the characters demonstrate an affinity for The Tao. The Scarecrow, for example, is brimming with Taoist energy – for a start, he’s literally made of straw, and so his connection to nature is inextricable. But the same of course goes for the Tinman (metal from the earth), and Dorothy and Lion (animals). They share an inner sensitivity to nature because they are inextricably bound to it – just as we all are as human beings.
Benjamin Hoff aligns the inner nature of Winnie to Pooh to a key Taoist concept – the Uncarved Block. And it’s principles are similarly strong in the Scarecrow’s character – the Uncarved Block is simple, natural and plain. It is uncomplicated. And things in their natural state work most effectively. There is strength in simplicity and joy in the simple life. “Things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily lost and spoiled when simplicity is changed,” writes Hoff. Well what could be more simple than a Scarecrow without a brain! All the characters, but particularly Scarecrow and Tinman, show little signs of being ego-led or arrogant – they are simple characters with simple needs, driven by a will to Niceness and their collective support for each other.
According to the Tao, a mind that thinks too much and tries too hard is likely to fail. This is true for Winnie the Pooh and also true for our merry band of heroes in The Wizard of Oz. “Things work out – if you let them,” Hoff suggests. There’s no need to try desperately hard to make things happen – if you accept things as they are, they will always work out in the end. And the Tinman, Dorothy, Lion and Scarecrow, all demonstrate that Taoist ability to listen to their own intuition. “Be sensitive to circumstances, writes Hoff. “It’s only strange when you don’t listen.” If danger lies on the path ahead, take a different path – try a different approach. Be strong – and listen to your intuition – “This isn’t the best time to do this right now – I’ll do this instead…”
Courage and compassion
We all have to face our own Wicked Witch at some point in our lives – but do so when you’re ready. And when you have to take that difficult path or vanquish that particular evil, do so with a respect to your Genuinity; do it with compassion. How do they defeat the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz? With water! What could be more Taoist than that? Be like water – flexible yet unbreakable. Stick together – and conquer any obstacle. Or as Lao-Tzu puts it in the Tao Te Ching: “Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water – but nothing conquers the hard and strong so easily.”
Courage is a theme dealt with explicitly in The Wizard of Oz – pertinently in the case of the Cowardly Lion. And as Hoff shows us in The Tao of Pooh, this is a vital component of Taoist philosophy. “From caring comes courage,” Lao-Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching. Hoff reveals that the word courage itself originates from the Latin word ‘cor’ – which means heart. Courage comes from the heart – it emanates from our compassionate instincts. As does wisdom – Hoff refers to Lao-Tzu’s philosophy to show us that those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are different things. Knowledge doesn’t care, wisdom does. And all of this applies directly to the Lion – he believes he isn’t brave, yet he shows courage in his compassion to help his new friends. The Scarecrow has no knowledge, yet he shows wisdom in the way he cares. The Tinman has no heart, yet he also shows both courage and wisdom – which, again, just proves he had heart all along.
Before we go on to the next phase of this blog piece, I’d just like to note the wizard’s part in all this Taoist synchronicity. He claims to be all-powerful and knowledgeable, yet is exposed as a fraud – a superficial poser. The heroes’ relentless pursuit of answers initially led them to misery. And this is an important aspect of Taoism – there is nothing to be gained by chasing knowledge for the sake of it. “We think too much and care too little,” writes Hoff. Know what you need to know to be contented. And look after each other. Fortunately, our heroes soon realise that their true happiness resides within them all along. This ‘all-knowing, wise wizard’ actually doesn’t know anything about them that they don’t already know themselves. The wise ARE who they ARE, Hoff explains in The Tao of Pooh – they work with what they’ve got. When the gang, and the wizard himself, accept their limitations and realise their true nature, their contentment is also realised. They find their place.
Home is where the nothingness is
Speaking of finding one’s place, perhaps it’s time for us to tackle the final leg of our shared blogging journey – the return home. I always thought Dorothy’s journey shared more similarities with the Lion’s in The Wizard of Oz – mainly because they were the most flawed characters; she’s a bit spoilt and whiny and he puts on a bit of an annoying front at first. But Dorothy undergoes quite a significant personal journey which eventually leads to the realisation of her place in the universe; she gains an appreciation of the home she never knew she treasured so deeply. Another key theme in Taoism is T’ai Hsu – the Great Nothing. As Hoff says: “Nothing is something in Taoism.”
As Zhuang Zhou, one of the key followers of Lao-Tzu, put it in his own book (another of the foundational Taoist texts): “To have no thought and put forth no effort is the first step towards understanding the Tao. To go nowhere and do nothing is the first step towards finding peace in the Tao. To start from no point and follow no road is the first step toward reaching the Tao.” Our Wizard of Oz heroes are all driven by a certain nothing; a lack – brains, heart, courage – and from this nothingness, they are compelled to journey down the yellow brick road. In the end, we realise the path is meaningless. The destination doesn’t matter. To return home, to be content, to feel at one, we must accept who we are. And work with nature. And go with the flow.
To return home is to return to nature. Death shows us that. We return to the soil from whence we came. We become stardust again. In Sigmund Freud’s beautiful example when referring to his death drive (Thanatos), he writes about the salmon swimming back upstream to die where they were born. He suggested that the state of inertia and peace that we experienced as infants before we entered the symbolic realm of real life is what we spend our whole lives seeking. It is only in death that we return home – when we are finally free from desire and pain.
Hoff reminds us that an empty mind is a mind at peace – free from desire and distraction. He helps us realise that an empty mind can hear the birds sing – not to work out which type of bird it might be, but just to enjoy the music. And human beings need to heed some of these lessons now again more than ever. We need to stop rushing around and listen to the birds sing again. Stop trying to use knowledge to figure out the notes in the melody, the key or the tempo. And instead just listen to the song. Enjoy it. Appreciate its beauty and forget about the mechanics. Be at one with nature and assume your place in it as your home. Stop messing with the world and working against nature. The Great Nothing is The Way of the universe and the wise don’t seek knowledge endlessly. They seek knowledge which can help us live better lives and only knowledge which can help us live better lives. “To attain knowledge, add things every day,” writes Lao-Tzu. “To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
The enchanted place
And so there we have it – we have traversed the yellow brick road, we have reached the Emerald City, we have found our way home, undertaken our great journey and discovered our enchanted place. There are many reasons why The Wizard of Oz is the most watched film of all time – and one of them is because it’s a children’s book. Now, that’s not just because kids watch movies all the time – it’s because ‘children who know’ see most clearly of all. This is something that Lao-Tzu makes abundantly clear in the Tao Te Ching and Hoff illustrates beautifully in the Tao of Pooh. The independent, clear-minded, all-seeing child is highest stage of development.
We need to return to the beginning – become a child again. Children are enlightened – they are filled with light and happiness. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty sweet way to live. I’m not particularly good at practising it, but I’m never happier than when I’m kicking a football around, or having a laugh with friends or family, or eating a big piece of cake. There is a childlike quality to all of the lead characters in The Wizard of Oz; they’re cheery, fun, uncomplicated and spirited beings. Like children. Even Dorothy! This childlike energy gives them their drive and purpose. The empty mind of the Scarecrow succeeds; the uncluttered brain prevails.
Anyway, back to that enchanted place – because it’s something that Hoff illuminates delightfully in The Tao of Pooh. He shows us that in Taoism, the enchanted place is “right where we are”. “Take the path to nothing and go nowhere,” we are told. The end of the film suggests that the whole experience was just a dream – Dorothy was in her enchanted place all along. The message I take from it is that we need to stop thinking so much and start caring a lot more. And we will all soon realise that ‘right where we are’ is where we belong. Take the path to nothing and go nowhere. Stop looking for that next pot of gold, stop believing the grass is greener on the other side and realise that contentment lies within you – home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it. And there’s no place like home.