When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend on authority.
Therefore the Master steps back,
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 72, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
With all the talk in the last couple of chapters about the need to know that we don’t know, you might begin to think that we shouldn’t be trusting our own selves. But that would be missing Lao Tzu’s point entirely. Lao Tzu most definitely wants us to trust ourselves. He wants us looking inside ourselves for answers; instead of looking outside of ourselves. The point of knowing that we don’t know hasn’t been for us to seek out a teacher, so much as it has been for us to take the necessary step of approaching our own inner selves with humility. You can’t really know what you are going to find in there. Knowing that I don’t know, means being humble enough to look deeply inside my own heart; and experiencing first hand, the awe of discovering what is inside my own heart.
In our day and age, people like to throw that word “awe” around in a way that has sorely cheapened it. When I think of all the things I have heard called awesome, and yes, I have been just as guilty as anyone else, I begin to think that just about everything is awesome. But, if everything is awesome, then nothing is awesome.
And that is the point of what Lao Tzu is addressing today. People have lost their sense of awe. For the record, let’s just remember what that word “awe” means. It is a strong feeling of fear, dread, even terror; it invokes respect, veneration, and wonder. This could be inspired by authority; or by the sacred or sublime.
Awe, as you can see, should be a very powerful word. And if we have any sense, we understand that. That is why the exclamation, “That ice cream was awesome,” just doesn’t make any sense at all. There are things that we should approach with fear, dread, and wonder. If that ice cream makes you feel that way, perhaps it isn’t really safe for your consumption.
When you have lost your sense of awe, religion seems an obvious place to turn for the awe-inspiring. That is certainly how Lao Tzu saw it. We are not knocking religion here, so please don’t get your panties in a twist. What we are talking about is people who have lost their sense of awe. And, because they don’t have the sense to understand that the answers are inside themselves, they are going to start looking outside themselves. Religion offers us that. I am not saying it doesn’t offer other things as well, many of which are beneficial. But, we aren’t talking about those other things today; so, stay focused.
We are talking about having sense, or not having sense, when it comes to awe. The real problem is that people are no longer trusting themselves. That is what causes people to start looking outside themselves. That is why people begin to depend on some outside authority.
And, that is why Lao Tzu says that the Master takes a step back. He doesn’t want there to be any confusion. Because confusion is exactly what we are suffering from, when we no longer trust ourselves. The Master doesn’t want the people to be confused. So, he takes a step back.
I do this all the time with the little girl that I tutor. We have been moving along at a brisk pace and things seem to be going along just fine. Until, all of a sudden, I see it. That look of wonder in her eyes. Oh, who am I kidding? That isn’t wonder. That is confusion. It is time to take a step back. We need to go back. Something hadn’t “clicked.” I missed that moment somewhere along the way. Oh well, we will just retrace our steps back, and I take a different approach. That means I am going to teach it in a different way from the way I was teaching it, since the way I was teaching it had just led to her present confusion. Or, maybe it was that awesome ice cream she was eating a little while ago. Either way, I retrace my steps and show her a new way to look at it. There really wasn’t anything new to learn. Just the same old thing. We are just reenforcing what she already knew. Okay. Yes. That’s better. Now her eyes have changed expressions. Now, she is comprehending.