Not Another New Year’s Resolution

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope
is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self.
Then you can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

As I am reading through today’s chapter, another year is coming to a close. And, today’s chapter certainly seems appropriate for this time of reflecting on this past year and thinking of the coming new one. Was 2014 a success for you? Or, are you chalking it up as a failure? What are your hopes and fears about the coming year?

But, of course, Lao Tzu is quick to point out to us that success and failure, as well as hope and fear, are not grounded in reality. Have you been on a ladder going up or down in 2014? Are you wondering where on the ladder you will be in 2015? Lao Tzu warns us that the ladder is a dangerous place to be. It’s shaky up there. Perhaps, you might consider, as a new year’s resolution (if you are inclined to make those) to resolve to keep both your feet on the ground. That is where you will always keep your balance.

Both our hope of success and our fear of failure, Lao Tzu calls hollow. Hollow? Really? Can’t they be something much more substantial than that? No, he says, hope and fear are both phantoms. Which means they aren’t real. It is all in our imagination. The illusion. We imagine all sorts of things, both good and bad, when we are thinking of ourselves as separate, apart from the whole Universe.

Now, I understand this is all crazy talk. The idea that success and failure are equally dangerous. What could possibly be wrong with succeeding every so often? What danger is there in hoping that we will succeed in the coming year? Oh, we’d gladly give up fearing failure. Just let us hope for success.

But, we can’t have one without the other. We can’t hope for success without fearing failure. And so, some of you are going to say, “Well, fine then. I will just go on living my life just like I always have, hoping to make it further up that ladder.” And, always dogged by that fear that the rung I am on is not taking me where I want to go, fearing that one misstep and down I will go.

Some think the cost is a price they are willing to pay. But here is the problem. You keep paying the price and reaping the cost. All for an illusion. The ladder isn’t real. Those things you hope for, the things you fear, they aren’t real. Only the price you are paying is real.

There is a better way. It is a way to keep all things in balance with both feet on the ground. Stop seeing yourself as separate. That is the grand illusion. Like you are in some circus act. Look beyond your self as separate and see the way things really are. You and the whole world (the whole Universe, really) are one. See things that way and you won’t have anything to fear. Love the whole world as you love yourself. Then, as you care for all things, you are cared for, as well.

We talked before about this idea of the individual as containing the whole Universe within themselves. And, I want to reiterate that this isn’t forsaking the individual in favor of the collective. In a collective, the individual is only part. It isn’t individual vs. the collective. Nor, is it collective vs. the individual. The individual is the whole. We aren’t separate from the whole. We are the whole. It isn’t assimilation of the individual within the collective; but, it may be viewed as assimilating the collective within the individual.

And, it isn’t measured as success, or failure. It isn’t something to be hoped for, or feared. It is just the way things are. That is what I have faith in as another year ends and a new year begins.

A Sense of Balance, The Practice Of Moderation

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 12, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, once again, Lao Tzu is encouraging us to not be swayed by outward appearances. The key is balance and moderation. We need to see beyond the colors to the thing itself. Sounds without definition are a cacophony in our ears. And, our taste buds can be numbed by excess of flavors. Too much thinking only weakens our minds. Hunting and chasing after what we desire makes our hearts sick.

Observe the world, yes; but understand that a lot of what we see is all an illusion. Trust your inner vision. That will show you what is the eternal reality. Let things come and go without forming attachments to them. The sky is big and open. Sometimes clouds fill it. But, then they go on their way. Let your heart be open like that.

A Whole Lot Of Nothing

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I have titled today’s commentary on chapter eleven “A Whole Lot Of Nothing” because everywhere Lao Tzu seems to be looking that is exactly what he sees. Whether it is the center hole in the wheel that makes the wagon move, or the emptiness inside the clay pot that holds whatever we want, or the inner space contained within the four walls we call our home; Lao Tzu recognizes that it is the seemingly insignificant, nothing, which is everything. This is the significance of how being and non-being go together.

We concentrate so much on being. And, pay so little attention to non-being. Perhaps, because we can’t begin to understand what nothing really is. We think it is merely the absence of something. But the nothing is so much more than that. Without that nothing the something is nothing. But because there is nothing, the something is, well, something.

This is one of those chapters in the Tao Te Ching in which there is so much more than meets the eye. There is a whole lot of nothing here. And that nothing is easily passed over. Much like we look at the outward appearances of people around us, and don’t really consider the person on the inside.

Spend some time today thinking about how important all that nothing that surrounds us truly is. Look for the nothing in everything you see. Realize how useful it is. And, make an effort to connect with another person today. Not just a casual encounter. But a personal one. Make genuine eye contact with them. Look beyond the reflection of your own face in their eyes. Get to know that person on the inside. They are probably worth it.

Well, Can You?

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading, and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 10, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Six rhetorical questions. Such difficult questions. Much of what I read in the Tao Te Ching seems easy to put into practice. This seems impossible. If I ever wanted to just be able to start all over again, this would be the time. Keep to the original oneness? Perhaps, if I could just return to the oneness of the young child.

Someone said to me that the young child is pure fluidity. It isn’t aware of any separation, so all its movements are spontaneous and alive and whole and perfect. Yes, this, this is what I want again. But, I am an adult. I can’t go back and be born again. Oh, Nicodemus, how little you understand. If an adult body becomes truly supple, there is a quality to its movement that the child’s doesn’t have, a texture of experience, a fourth dimension of time. And, this would be better, yes.

What Lao Tzu is telling me is that what is impossible is possible. But it won’t be through any effort on my own part. Just coax your mind. It hasn’t wandered nearly as far as you might think. And, there isn’t any thing to do to transform your own body. Just let it be transformed. But, how do I cleanse my inner vision? Just look into the light, my friend, keep looking into the light – until, you see nothing but the light.

Can you go through today and everyday without imposing your own will on others? That is how to truly love them and lead them. Can you let events take their course? Must you interfere? Yes, I know these are vital matters. That is why it is so very important to let things take their course. What is more vital than that the Earth continue its path around the Sun? And, what can you do about that? You can’t deal with the most vital matters. That is why you must leave them be.

It always comes back to what Lao Tzu was saying, just yesterday. Do your work and then step back. Step back from your own mind. Then you will begin to understand all things.

It is giving birth and nourishing, without even trying. It is having without possessing. It is acting without expectations. It is leading without needing to be in control. It is the supreme virtue.

The Way Most People Disdain

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It is as if Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, is saying, “Let me show you a better way.” He was talking yesterday of the way that people disdain. People that are never satisfied with how full their bowls already are. They always want more. More. But Lao Tzu is showing us a better way. The way that most people disdain.

There is a better way than filling your bowl to the brim, the endless accumulation of wealth. Do you think you will be satisfied with great halls full of gold and precious gems? That hoard would be in constant peril from thieves. Your knife will never be sharp enough to defend it.

There is a better way than chasing after money and security, with a heart that will never unclench. And, you don’t have to be a prisoner to the opinion of others. There is a better way. And, here it is: You have work to do. So, do it. Just do it. And, be done with it.

This is what Stephen Mitchell translates as the only path to serenity. But, what is serenity, really? Is it something that we can experience in this life? I think it is. I think it is something we can experience at the conclusion of each day’s work. Don’t be like most people, who can’t sleep peacefully after their day’s work is done. Be content with simply being yourself; today, and every day. And, experience serenity; today, and every day.

Is that it? Is serenity just getting a good night of sleep? Actually, that is only a beginning. When Lao Tzu is talking about serenity, I think what he is talking about is inexhaustible wealth and boundless power. But, most people can’t bring themselves to experience that. They are so busy chasing after the illusion, they can never see the reality. And, because of that, they will never have true wealth or true power.

But, you aren’t most people; so, I will share with you the way, as I have seen it explained. The wealth from giving generously is inexhaustible. The power from not accumulating is boundless. What? You doubt this is true wealth? You question that this is true power? Do you disdain this way? Try doing your work today; and, sleeping on it tonight.

Just The Simple Thing You Are

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about unity and oneness. Of how the whole Universe is contained within each and every one of us. We aren’t individual parts of it. Not some insignificant part. Not even some integral part. We are the whole. Each one of us. The whole. The integral. And, I stopped there. I let it go at that. But, was I satisfied? No, never. Because there is always so much more. It is infinite, after all. Particularly of interest to me is how Lao Tzu sees the individual as infinite and eternal. Lao Tzu’s language concerning the individual could easily be interpreted as collectivist. I could certainly see people picturing the Borg collective. But, far from swallowing up, or absorbing, the individual into the collective, I find Lao Tzu’s infinite and eternal Tao as empowering the individual.

Today, Lao Tzu offers the metaphor of water to help me to explain. Too often, we libertarians are criticized for being atomistic. “No man is an island” is a critique I have often heard when we talk about the individual as being supreme. But what is it that Lao Tzu says about the supreme good? He says it is like water. What do we know about water? We know it nourishes all things without even trying. And, we know that it is content with the low places. He says that people disdain that. People here, I think, does refer to the collective. The collective doesn’t seek to nourish, but to be nourished. It doesn’t seek out the low places. It seeks to be supreme. How very different is the Tao in each one of us; which is very much like water.

I said that our individualism is not atomistic. And that water is a metaphor for that. What do I mean? Well, what is the smallest unit of water? It isn’t the atom. There is no such thing as an atom of water. There are atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, but that is on the atomic level. That would be breaking down the individual into mere particles. But, Lao Tzu isn’t doing that. He is speaking of the whole individual. And if we are speaking of whole individuals as water, then we are talking about molecules. If I were a molecule of water in a vast ocean of water, I would still individually be water as much as all the rest of the ocean is water. I am not a part of water. I am water. I am complete, in and of myself. That, I think is what Lao Tzu is trying to get across to us, when he speaks of individuals having the infinite, eternal Tao present within them.

And we wonder what to do with this information. I’ll tell you what Lao Tzu wants you to do with this information. He wants you to be content to be simply yourself. If you are a molecule of water, be content to simply be a molecule of water. We worry about whether or not we will be respected. We busy ourselves with comparing and competing with everybody else. And, Lao Tzu? He just wants us to be like water. He tells us exactly what we should be about. In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep it simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.

Why must we make things so difficult? Water nourishes all things without even trying. It is content with, and remains content with, the low places. That is why it is supreme.

What It Means To Be Infinite And Eternal

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been kicking around this notion regarding the Tao being both infinite and eternal. Today is a good day to explain what he really means by those terms. Earlier, he said that he didn’t know who gave birth to it, saying it was older than God. Today, he comes to the logical conclusion that must then be drawn. If God didn’t give birth to it, since it predates God, then we can safely say that it was never born. It has no predecessor and no precursor. And, because it was never born, it can never die. This is what Lao Tzu means by eternal. That seems a reasonable definition to me. Everything that has a beginning, will have some ending. But something that has no beginning, can have no end.

His definition of infinite isn’t so obvious. When we think of infinite, we think of something that is immeasurably great; we think of something without limits, without boundaries; and, the Tao is definitely all that. But, Lao Tzu is wanting to stress something else about the Tao’s infinite nature in this chapter. Today, he wants us to see the Tao’s infinite presence.

And, I am reading along and he has been talking a lot about this, and I get it. Or, at least, I think I get it, the Tao is eternal and infinite. Why does he keep repeating himself? Maybe, it is because I don’t really get it. Maybe, I am still seeing myself as separate from the Tao. I mean, sure, the Tao is infinite and eternal; but, I am finite and temporal. How does any of this even apply to me?

And now, I am beginning to see why it is that Lao Tzu keeps repeating himself. I have been looking at me all wrong. I am seeing myself as separate; when Lao Tzu is wanting me to see myself as one with the Tao. How can I see myself as separate, as finite, as temporal, when the Tao is present within me, within you, within all things? We are all one. The entire Universe is one. All of nature is in an eternal, infinite dance. What separates me and you from this oneness, this unity and harmony, is desires which blind us to the reality, and keeps us trapped in the illusion of separateness.

It is that illusion from which we need to break free. As long as we are caught in desires, we see ahead and behind as two very different things. The Master gets it. She stays behind; and, that is why she is ahead. We can only see being ahead, or being behind. We want to be ahead and we fear to be behind. She is detached from all things. How very different is our attachment to all things. We aren’t one with them because of our attachment to them. It is only through detachment that we can become one with them.

So, how do we break free? From the illusion. From our attachment. From our fear of being behind. If it is perfect fulfillment that we seek, there is only one way. And, the Master understands it. She has let go of herself. She has let go of her separateness. She has let go of her fears. She has let go of her attachments. She has let go of her self. And, she is free to be one with the infinite and eternal, the Tao.

This is our journey. It is what Lao Tzu has been trying to teach us of the nature of yin and yang. Not their separateness, but their unity. Their oneness. Yin and yang are not two; they are one. And, we are one. I used to look at nature; and, I observed it all as separate creatures, separate things. Then, I started to realize that they were all one giant organism. The whole Universe, one giant organism. But, even then, I only saw the individual parts. We were all individual parts. But, Lao Tzu sees something a lot greater than that. We aren’t individual parts; we are all the whole. I am not some insignificant part. And, I am not even some integral part. I am the integral.

The Mother In All Of Us

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 6, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu expands on his theme of the infinite usefulness of the Tao. To me, it is significant that he doesn’t say it is like the Great Mother. Nor, does he say it is the Great Mother. He says it is called the Great Mother. Calling is just just another way of naming. And, that is significant because Lao Tzu has already given us caveats about naming eternal things. Still, there is significance in naming the Tao, the Great Mother. He is giving us something we can all understand, mother, and using that metaphor to point at what the Tao is.

It is empty yet inexhaustible. Yes, we already understood that from his earlier likening it to a well and a bellows. It gives birth to infinite worlds. That would make it great. What Lao Tzu is getting at is defining the Tao as the Source of everything. Yesterday, he said the Tao gives birth to both good and evil.

But, good and evil aren’t on our plate for discussion today. It is those infinite worlds that intrigue me. I can almost picture the Tao, the Great Mother, as being in some distant and remote “center” of the Universe, a cosmic star factory, birthing new stars and worlds for eons past and eons yet to come.

I say “almost” because that isn’t the image that Lao Tzu is trying to conjure for us. He isn’t wanting us gazing out to the nether regions of the observable Universe. He wants our gaze to be turned inward. Where is this Tao of which he speaks? “It is always present within you.” That is where “the Great Mother” will be found, giving birth to infinite worlds. Your world. My world. Our world. Infinite worlds. You can truly use it any way you want.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows;
It is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 5, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

One thing that can never be said about Lao Tzu, and that would be that he shied away from tackling the great questions that have always troubled humanity. The great question that Lao Tzu is tackling today is the problem of the existence of good and evil. Perhaps we don’t see the problem with the existence of good. Our problem is with the existence of evil. But, Lao Tzu tells us not to choose sides. The Tao doesn’t. The Master doesn’t. He even goes so far as to say that the Tao gives birth to them both. And I think that is about the boldest statement that anyone ever made regarding their philosophy. Most philosophers and theologians really wrestle with this. I know I do. We don’t like being forced to explain the existence of evil. Or, what to do about it. And, then there is Lao Tzu. He seems rather nonchalant about the whole thing.

Why is there evil in the world? Lao Tzu would tell us that the answer for that is the same as the answer for the question, why is there good in the world? And the answer is, drum roll, please: “It is the way things are.” I warned you (yesterday, I think it was) that sometimes we may not like the way things are. But, the way things are is the way things are. And, the sooner we accept that is the eternal reality, and work with the Tao, instead of against it, the happier we will be.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu is showing us how the Tao governs the whole Universe. There are natural laws at work here. He tells us how to be in harmony with the way things are. And, thankfully, one of the lessons that we get to learn along the way is how to deal with the existence of evil.

Today, he tells us that our knowledge that both good and evil exist should not compel us to take sides. Whenever he starts talking about what the Master does, he is telling us, “Hey, this is how you should be.” Lao Tzu will be returning to this theme again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching; so don’t worry, we aren’t finished with evil. For today, he wants us to welcome both saints and sinners. Don’t take sides. Don’t prefer one to the other. Just welcome them both. Now, I know that is not going to be satisfactory to a good number of you. But I hope you will hang in there with me. Lao Tzu will have plenty more to say.

For now, he wants to talk more about this Tao; using similes, metaphors, and riddles. If we are paying attention, we may just get the answers we are looking for. Or, at least, the answers we are going to get; whether we were looking for them, or not.

Yesterday, we talked about the infinite usefulness of the Tao. He said it is like a well. And, like the eternal void. Today, he says it is like a bellows. Once I start thinking of bellows, I can finally understand how a void can be filled with infinite possibilities. For that is exactly what a bellows is like. If you don’t use it, it won’t be of any use to you. Go ahead, use it. It is empty, yes; but, look what it can do. The more you use it, the more it produces.

I suppose I could talk, on and on, about it. But, there is a danger. The more I talk of it, the less I understand. And, that is why Lao Tzu says just one thing more. Perhaps, the most important thing. “Hold on to the center.” And, I am going to say even less about that. It is an intriguing sentence that almost seems out of place in today’s chapter. Suffice it for me to say, that is what the art of living is all about. It is the practice of philosophical Taoism. It is the practice of wu-wei, effortless action. It is the practice of unknowing. It is something we will be talking about over and over again, until we find it as easy as breathing in and breathing out.

It Is Older Than God

The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden, but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Here we are, already to chapter four, and Lao Tzu hasn’t really told us much yet about the Tao. It is almost like he is following his own advice from chapter one. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

But, of course, he has already told us a lot. We know it is eternal. We know it is a mystery. We know it has manifestations. So, he hasn’t been entirely elusive. What he has been talking about is how the Tao is manifest in our universe. Not so much what the Tao is, as what it is about. And, what it is about is bringing about balance and harmony; order, if you will, in what would otherwise be a chaotic universe.

Today, Lao Tzu begins describing the mystery. He is going to point at it with his finger, and if we don’t get distracted by his finger, we might just see what he is pointing at. Today, he begins using similes and metaphors and riddles to tell us about the Tao. He says it is like a well. It is there to be used, but is never used up. I like that imagery. Then he says, it is like the eternal void. When I think of a void I think of a vast open space, a vacuum, all empty inside. How can the Tao be like a well which can’t be used up; and, like a void which should be empty?

I said yesterday, that we are going to encounter paradox, over and over again, on our journey through the Tao Te Ching. The paradox yesterday was that naming things is both the origin of all particular things and not an accurate representation of what is eternal. That is a clue to how to interpret what Lao Tzu is saying to us today. He didn’t say the Tao is a well. He said it is like a well. It isn’t finite. It is infinite. It is meant to be used. But it can never be used up. He didn’t say it is the eternal void. He said it is like the eternal void. And, in the case of the Tao, this “eternal void” is filled, with infinite possibilities.

Lao Tzu kept this chapter brief and I am wanting to keep things brief today, too. I simply don’t need to try to say everything that I have to say about this today. I have 81 chapters worth of days to do this.

With that said, Lao Tzu does have some closing words for us for today. The Tao is hidden. Yet, it is always present. What does he mean by that? I think he is merely pointing out that it is us that have put the blinders on. It is hidden in plain sight. Why can’t we see it? Back in chapter one, Lao Tzu told us what our problem is. Caught in desire we can only see its manifestations. But, once we are free from desire, then we will realize the mystery.

And, then Lao Tzu tells us a joke. He has already said that the Tao is eternal. But there is one more thing that Lao Tzu wants to make clear. And, he uses humor to do it. The way he has been describing the Tao is using the same kind of language and imagery which is often used to describe a deity. But the Tao is not God. That is why he says, “I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”

In talking about the Tao, Lao Tzu is imagining a Universe, and a Principle governing that Universe, which is older than God. That governing Principle, he calls the Tao. Continue with me on this journey and we will learn more and more about how the Universe works. And, as an extra added bonus, you, and you alone, get to decide where, or if, God fits into the picture.