Not Just Empty Phrases

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
‘If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you be truly yourself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 22, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The problem in today’s chapter is in what we want to become. Lao Tzu tells us, over and over again, no matter what it is we want to become, we are going to have to learn, first, to be content with what we already are. Let yourself be what you already are. Stop trying to become something else. Content yourself with being. Let the Tao take care of the becoming.

The Master is our example. Did the Master start out as the Master? No way. The Master started out the same way we all do. The Master, no doubt, had ambitions too. The Master wanted to become something else entirely from what he was. But, what sets the Master apart is that he learned to reside in the Tao. He contented himself with being lived by the Tao. And the Master realized something along the way. He, like all the ancient Masters, realized that it is only in giving everything up that you gain everything.

The Tao is what brings balance and harmony in our Universe; and, in our lives, if we will only let it. I think we are afraid to just be ourselves. To truly be ourselves. I know I have been. And those fears still bother me. It is scary to be different. To be alone. But what is perhaps even scarier is that we aren’t really all that different, or that alone. We are all much more alike than we are different. That is why we compare and compete with others. We fear both our sameness and our differences.

Still, what we are, and what we will become, is something we need to leave to the Tao. This is the only path to wholeness. The only way to truly be, and become, yourself.

The Truth Isn’t Out There, It’s Inside You

The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao.
That is what gives her her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were.
The Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 21, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about a casual observer, looking at the way things seem to be. To that casual observer, Lao Tzu appears like he is all alone, and very foolish indeed. Being different makes you stand out. That is the appeal of conforming to what you perceive everybody else is doing. That is why we value what other people value and avoid what others avoid. But Lao Tzu embraced what made him different. He was content to simply be himself and drink from the great Mother’s breasts. Yesterday’s, was a very personal chapter for Lao Tzu; one where he opened himself up to be observed by all. That made it unique. It wasn’t an easy chapter to digest. It isn’t easy to be put under the microscope and judged by others’ standards. Especially, if your observer is only seeing the way things seem to be, and not able to realize the way things actually are.

Today, Lao Tzu points our eyes back at the way things are. It is the ungraspable, dark, and unfathomable Tao that the Master always keeps her mind at one with. That is what makes her radiant. Of course, that leads us to the obvious question of how can this be?

You can’t grasp something that is ungraspable. That goes without saying. So, how can you be one with it? Good question. And here is the answer: Stop trying to grasp it. Give up your grasp on whatever preconceived notions you have. Stop clinging to your own ideas. As you let go of all those things, the Tao remains. It alone remains with you.

There again, how can something so deep and dark make someone radiant? We get messed up here trying to make ourselves radiant. And all we have to work with is something that is deep and dark. It is seemingly impossible to get radiance from this. And, it is. Because we aren’t supposed to be making any of this happen. But there is something we can do. Stop trying. Take that step back. And let the Tao do what it does. Actually, it doesn’t do anything at all. Yet, through it, all things get done. And, the Master is made radiant.

The Tao, so mysterious. Before time and space, these constructs which we use to try and explain the wonders of the Universe, there is the Tao. Always. It is beyond is and is not. That is what makes it so mysterious. Because we can’t seem to get beyond the realm of is and is not, before time and space. This is something we can’t know. We must be content not to know; and instead, to simply be.

Today, he returned to talking about the Master. That took the spotlight off of him. But Lao Tzu wasn’t completely out of the picture. At the conclusion of the chapter, he answers the obvious question that the casual observer still must ask: How do I (Lao Tzu) know this is true? Well, Lao Tzu answers, I look inside myself and see. If you want to see the way things are, instead of the way things seem to be, that is the place you, too, need to be looking. We keep telling ourselves the truth is out there, somewhere. But it isn’t out there, it is inside you.

Things Are Not What They Appear To Be

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the need to do some Spring cleaning. There are things that we need to throw away. Things that we have substituted for simply following the great Tao. I promised, at the end of the chapter, that if we stay in the center of the circle, balance and harmony will return. Because, all around us is chaos, we need that return to balance and harmony.

Lao Tzu has spent the last few chapters talking about the turmoil in the world. Both the reasons for it, and its cure. In today’s chapter, we have what one translator of it referred to as, “one of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.” Even I, have found this chapter disturbing and seemingly uncharacteristic of Lao Tzu. I have previously characterized it as Lao Tzu’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” believing he was suffering from a serious bout of depression.

It has only been after reading over and over again through the Tao Te Ching, over many months, now years, that I have come to appreciate what Lao Tzu is doing in today’s chapter. Hopefully, I can make sense of it in today’s commentary.

I think the place to begin is with this: Things are not what they appear to be.

What has always thrown me in reading this chapter is how often Lao Tzu uses the personal pronoun, I. I count a total number of twelve times that Lao Tzu uses that personal pronoun. And, seven of those times, he is saying I am alone. Yes, it does begin to sound pathetic. If we were to isolate this chapter from the rest of the Tao Te Ching, I would agree. This is a despairing man. And, I am not suggesting that the translator I mentioned earlier wasn’t trying, desperately trying, to put all of this into context with the rest of the Tao Te Ching. I just think he made the same mistake that I made to begin with. He couldn’t reconcile it; just like I couldn’t reconcile it. And that was that. But I can’t give up on this.

There are clues to Lao Tzu’s intent throughout the chapter. They are to be found in all of his comparing and contrasting himself with other people. This chapter seems to be full of all the differences between himself and others. At the very end, he even comes right out and says it, “I am different from ordinary people.” The whole chapter’s theme seems to be, at best, a celebration of difference. I have even previously entitled commentary on today’s chapter “Vive La Difference” so yes, it is there. But, hold on there. There is more here than just that.

Let’s look again at the first stanza. “Stop thinking, and end your problems….” Here Lao Tzu is talking in the second person. We have the pronoun you. What really is the difference between yes and no, between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? And Lao Tzu’s “answer” to the question? “How ridiculous.”

That “How ridiculous” may be the most important thing he says. But I still want to reconcile this with the rest of the Tao Te Ching, and I have my work cut out for me. Lao Tzu has already insisted, back in chapter eight, that we need to be content to simply be ourselves, and not compare or compete with others. And that is exactly what makes this chapter seem so contrary. Because it seems, comparing and competing with others is exactly what Lao Tzu is doing. That is why I said to you, “Things are not what they appear to be.”

What has Lao Tzu been talking about the last few chapters? The turmoil of beings. Our trust issues. Forgetting about the great Tao. The need to throw away the substitutes and return to the center of the circle.

And, I began to wonder, who exactly is talking in this chapter? Is it Lao Tzu? Does he really feel all alone? And I started to understand. What Lao Tzu is describing, for us, is the way things seem to be. We have talked about this before. The Tao is the way things are. The way things seem to be is not the way things are. What Lao Tzu is doing is setting up an observer, one who sees things the way they appear to be.

To the observer, Lao Tzu appears very much alone; while other people, seem to have their act together. But remember, friends, when everyone is running toward a cliff, and you alone are going the other direction, you will be seen as the insane one.

That “running toward a cliff” is an apt metaphor for the chaos we are experiencing in our world today. The whole world is in turmoil, chaos seems in ascendancy. But, what if you took a step back? What if you remembered the great Tao? What if you returned to the center of the circle; and stayed there, no matter what every one around you was saying and doing? Would it make any difference? Maybe not to the multitudes that value what others value and avoid what others avoid. But, how ridiculous is that? To the casual observer, you are a fool, an idiot. But, you just stay right where you are, drinking from the Great Mother’s breasts. I dare you to do it.

Time For Some Spring Cleaning

Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.

If these three aren’t enough,
just stay in the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

For the last couple of days we have been talking about the reason we have trust issues. It is because we have forgotten the great Tao. Having forgotten, we lose our intuitive connection with the Tao; and then, things that used to come naturally to us, become forced and contrived, as we strive to live our lives. We can’t trust our selves. We can’t trust the people around us. Even members of our own families. Our friends seem like enemies. The reality is we have become our own enemy. This is chaos. We talked about the sense of duty that arises as we try to perform our roles. Like the roles of parents and children. I said, yesterday, that in the midst of all this chaos, there was really only one thing to do. That is to take a step back. Remember where it is that we came from. See how far we have wandered from the Tao. And start all over again. Today’s chapter is telling us how to do just that. It is time for some Spring cleaning. It is time for throwing out all the things that are going to hold us back; and doing, once again, what comes naturally.

Lao Tzu promises us that if we throw these things away, people will be a hundred times happier. They will do the right thing. And, there won’t be any thieves. This almost sounds too good to be true. But the very reason that it sounds far-fetched, just goes to show us how far we have wandered. When a whole country, or in our case, the whole world, is in the midst of chaos, it is understandable that we would balk about these throwaways. Because it means giving up control. And control is one thing we crave when life is chaotic. Giving up your need to control, both your self and others, is tough. But that is only because it is so very important. Holiness and wisdom don’t make people happy. But giving up our need to control will. Morality and justice don’t make people do the right thing. But, we are scared. Because we no longer trust people to do the right thing. But we can’t make people do the right thing. No matter how much control we try to exert over their lives. It is hard, so hard, to believe that throwing out morality and justice can do anything but make things a whole lot worse. But we have to do it. We need to return to trusting the Tao, again. Even industry and profit are means of control. We may have the best of intentions. We don’t want to promote idleness. But, why is it that people are not content with their simple, ordinary lives? Industry and profit, however well-intentioned, are not ridding us of thieves.

The solutions we have contrived to try to solve the problems that we have created for ourselves aren’t going to work. They can only be solved by returning to the Source, the great Tao. We need to start trusting again. And that trust begins with realizing that the way things are is the way things are. The way things seem to be is only an illusion. An illusion that we have created as we have wandered away from the Source. So, we need to begin by throwing away everything that props up that illusion. And then we need to, once again, return to the center of the circle. The center of the circle is that place where we learn not to meddle in the affairs of others. We begin to let all things take their own course. And staying in the center of the circle, balance and harmony return.

A Sense Of Duty

When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.

When the body’s intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.

When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.

When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 18, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about trust issues. Lao Tzu said that to properly govern people you must begin with trusting them. When we fail to begin with trust, we make them untrustworthy, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He explained that the Master trusts the people, and the people prove themselves worthy of that trust.

Today, we are going show how our trust issues are tied into our relationship with the Tao. And, because the Tao flows through all beings, when we are out of harmony with the Tao, this discord spreads from individuals, to families, and to the whole country.

Trusting is harmony with the Tao. I don’t know how else to put it. A lack of trust is to be out of harmony with the Tao. Trust is a manifestation of harmony with the Tao. To not trust all beings is to not trust the Tao. All beings are a manifestation of the Tao in how they live their lives. A lack of trust is testifying that the way things are is not really the way things are. This is a denial of the Tao. Like the great Tao has been forgotten.

And there are consequences when the great Tao is forgotten. Today’s chapter is a warning to us. But we need to understand what Lao Tzu means by such things as goodness and piety, cleverness and knowledge, filial piety, and patriotism. Otherwise, we may not heed the warning.

He begins by saying that when the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. We need to understand what he means by goodness and piety. Because they don’t sound like bad things. But they are. How can that be? What could possibly be wrong with goodness and piety?

Well, first off, they are poor substitutes for the real thing, the great Tao. It has been forgotten. The natural law, and our trust in that natural law, has been forsaken. And that has created a void in our lives, and in our world. Not like the eternal void (see chapter 4). The eternal void is filled with infinite possibilities. Out of that emptiness, comes abundance. But the void that is created by our forgetting the Tao is nothing like that. It is a vacuum. It doesn’t produce anything. It just sucks.

Goodness and piety sound like a good thing. But they aren’t natural. They are contrived. They run counter to the Tao. They aren’t based on trust. They are based on a lack of trust. They are duties. What is required of you because you can’t be trusted. This goodness and piety are what is expected of you, not something that flows naturally from you. They are born out of a sense of duty.

How these are contrived duties is best explained as we explore how forgetting the Tao affects individuals, families, and the whole country.

Lao Tzu talks about individuals first, when he refers to the body’s intelligence declining. What does he mean by body intelligence? I think he is talking about an individual’s connection with the Tao. I can’t think of a better word to describe this natural connection with the Tao, than intuition. We understand doing things intuitively. It means they just come naturally. It isn’t something that is contrived. It doesn’t require effort on our part. We just go with the flow. Or, like I told a friend, today, ride the wave. When we go with the flow of the Tao, we are acting effortlessly, we are doing intuitively and naturally, every thing that we do. It is a beautiful thing.

But the great Tao has been forgotten. And our intuition, our natural connection with the Tao, our body’s intelligence, declines. So, once again, that void, that vacuum, is created. Cleverness and knowledge step forth to try to fill in. But cleverness and knowledge, like goodness and piety, are contrived. We lean on our cleverness and knowledge to produce goodness and piety. Because it doesn’t come naturally to us. We have forgotten the great Tao.

Forgetting about the great Tao leads to no peace in the family. Family is important. It always has been; and it always will be. And peace in families is a beautiful thing. Parents and children naturally working together in love. Beautiful. But the great Tao has been forgotten. So, what produces peace and harmony in families has been lost. Filial piety begins. Filial piety is not going to be a familiar term to many of my readers, so I will explain that this is, once again, something that is born out of a sense of duty. It is the duty of parents to provide for their children. For children to honor and obey their parents. You may think that parents providing for their children, and children obeying their parents, is a good thing. And I am not going to argue with you. But this is an obligation. It is contrived. It is a duty. It isn’t based on trust. It is based on a lack of trust. It is a requirement. It doesn’t flow naturally. And no matter how “good” it may be, it isn’t good that it is being done out of a sense of duty. The goodness and piety, that are required of us, are not flowing naturally; like they would if we hadn’t forgotten the great Tao.

Forgetting about the great Tao affects individuals, families, and, yes, the whole country. The whole country falls into chaos. That is when patriotism is born. Perhaps you think you can envision a patriotism that isn’t born out of a sense of duty. Perhaps you think that I owe a duty to my country; and if I don’t love my country, because I lack that sense of duty to it, that patriotism, then I should leave it. But I will only counter that patriotism is born because the great Tao has been forgotten. That patriotism, with all of its flag-waving, is not in harmony with the Tao. Our country is in chaos, not because I am not dutifully waving my flag, but because the great Tao has been forgotten. If my country’s leaders don’t trust me, it isn’t because I can’t be trusted. But because they don’t trust, because they aren’t trusting the Tao, the country, with all its inhabitants, is in chaos. Patriotism is a contrived fix for what ails us. But it ain’t nothing like the real thing. And we remain in chaos. Because what we need to do is take a step back. Take a step back. Pause, and consider how it is that we got into this mess. And hopefully, start to remember. Remember the great Tao. End the decline. Start afresh, flowing naturally with the Tao.

Trust Issues

When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!’

-Lao Tzu –
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Trust. The issue is trust. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. We don’t trust our families. We don’t trust our friends. We don’t trust our neighbors. And we sure don’t trust strangers. While we are on the subject, we don’t trust our leaders, either. And they don’t trust us.

And we like to pin our trust issues on the people we don’t trust. After all, it is their fault that they aren’t worthy of our trust. Right?

Whenever I return to this chapter in the Tao Te Ching, I always remember the countless times I came home, from college and even after college, and would have discussions with my dad on my new found political philosophy, libertarianism. My dad was a good man. He was conservative. Believed strongly in his faith and his family and his country. Probably in just that order. He liked the idea of limited government. But he wasn’t too keen on the idea of personal freedom. And I was making some pretty radical statements. Suggesting that drugs and prostitution should be decriminalized didn’t go over so well.

He was all for limiting government in general. But when you got down to specifics, well, there wasn’t a lot to limit. And that was 30 some odd years ago. Now, I am going to cut my dad some slack. He grew up in a different time. A simpler time. He didn’t know any better. My dad just didn’t want his own children using drugs. So no one should be using drugs. And no one should be having sex outside of marriage. This is just the way he thought. Any suggestion that people should be free to live their own lives outside of his own personal morality was just not something that he was capable of considering.

I tried to explain that decriminalization was not condoning immoral behavior. But he insisted that people need to be controlled. That left to their own devices, the people couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing. It was important that there be laws. Moral laws. Unambiguously condemning anything that didn’t fit into a righteous framework. It was for their own good.

Something that never occurred to me, at the time, is why we have these issues of trust, anyway. Why is it that people are so untrustworthy? Why can’t we trust people? Why are we so convinced that they won’t do the right thing if they aren’t forced to do so?

And then Lao Tzu comes along. Well, that is putting it all backwards. Lao Tzu was around a long time ago. He understood it long ago. But I hadn’t read Lao Tzu. Not until many years later. After my dad was gone. The reason people are untrustworthy is because we make them untrustworthy. We make them untrustworthy by not trusting them. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I know that some people are going to scoff at this. Trust is something that must be earned. Once it is earned, then they can be trusted. But you know what? It wasn’t always like this. We have all heard it before, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We say that lightly now. Not really taking the time to consider exactly what that means. It is a code of ethics. You begin with trust. You don’t start out demanding proof of trustworthiness. You start out with trust. And only after that trust has been betrayed does someone become untrustworthy. That is the way it was. Yes, those were simpler times. And I’d even say they were good old days. Because I am feeling kind of nostalgic for that. I want us to start trusting each other again.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. When you trust people, you are going to get burned. But that isn’t your shame. Not the first time, anyway. But just because your trust has been betrayed by one, or even a handful of people, doesn’t mean you can’t trust everyone, at least to begin with. Let people earn your continued trust by proving they are worthy of your trust from the start. Because it is their shame when they betray that trust.

Lao Tzu wrote this chapter talking about why it is that people are untrustworthy, specifically in relation to how people are governed. And, I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that I would prefer the Master to be governing. And why not? When he is governing, people are hardly aware that he exists. That is my kind of leader. He doesn’t talk, he acts. But when his work is done, the people say, “Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!” And they are right. Because he trusted them. And they proved themselves worthy of that trust.

That is so much better than the alternatives. What difference does it really make if our leaders are loved, or feared, or despised? Oh, we may think that having leaders that we love couldn’t be all that bad. But I am not so sure that there is any negligible difference between those that are loved with those who are feared, or despised. I just know that they don’t trust people. And because they don’t trust people, well, you know where this is going. But then again, I don’t trust that kind of leader, either. Oh, I used to. Once. To their shame. But never again.

A Meditation To A Life At Ease

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the Source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 16, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is a meditation. It has been my constant meditation for many moons now. I appreciate the value that so many people place on setting aside time every day to formally meditate. That just never worked for me. My meditation has been something that has been pretty much a constant thing. More than a daily practice, it is a constant practice. I just learned to appreciate the value of emptiness. So, my constant practice is emptying. Emptying my mind, my self, of all thoughts.

How do I do this? Well, what worked for me was to stop trying to empty my mind, and just let my mind be empty. I let thoughts come and then I let them go. I don’t let them accumulate. I just let them go. I don’t worry about the thoughts that come. I just acknowledge that they have; and then I let them go. It is simpler than it sounds. Really.

And, I let my heart be at peace. Is my heart ever troubled? Sure it is. And I acknowledge when it is. Then, I let that trouble go. I don’t hold on to it. There is so much turmoil. I see it everywhere I look. Everywhere I turn, the turmoil of beings greets me. I experience turmoil too. I am not claiming some unnatural thing here. It is perfectly natural to experience turmoil in your life. I do. We all do. Just don’t hold on to it. Let it come. Don’t resist it. But don’t hold on to it, either. Let it go.

What Lao Tzu has taught me, especially in today’s chapter, is how to accomplish this emptying. How to be at peace. So, how do we do this? I thought you’d never ask. Remember a couple chapters ago? It was the chapter with the riddle. This is where Lao Tzu told us we can’t know it, but we can be it. It is in realizing where we come from. That is how we get to be at ease in our own lives.

Today, Lao Tzu says to watch the turmoil. See, it is perfectly alright to observe it. But just because we are watching or observing, that isn’t what we should be contemplating. That isn’t what we should be thinking about. That is how to let go of that turmoil. In our minds and in our hearts. Instead of contemplating the turmoil of beings, we need to be contemplating their return to the common Source. It is in that returning to the common Source that we experience serenity.

Remember yesterday, when we were talking about waiting until our mud settles? This is all about returning. We need to wait on the Tao, our common Source. Return to that Source. What causes us to stumble around in confusion and sorrow is our failure to realize the Source. And remember, realizing isn’t knowing. It is knowing that we don’t know. It is being empty. Having nothing. And finding you have everything.

Realizing where I come from is knowing not-knowing. It is doing not-doing. I naturally have become tolerant. It isn’t some forced thing. It isn’t against nature. It is simply going with the flow of the Tao, the way things are. I let things come without resistance. I let things go without trying to hold onto them. That is natural tolerance.

And, I have become disinterested. This is a perfectly natural thing, as well. It isn’t that I don’t care. Being disinterested means, now I can truly care; because I have no vested interest in any outcome. That is natural disinterest.

Everything amuses me. My most natural reaction to just about anyone or anything is to quietly smile. While, inside, I am laughing. Because, it is all so amusing. Am I saying I find tragedy amusing? Not at all. The tragedy is all part of the turmoil. I observe that all around me, even my own. Then, I let it go. It is what is left, that is amusing. Because it is nothing. Nothing at all.

Actually, I am as kind-hearted as a grandmother, as dignified as a king. I am so immersed in the wonder of the Tao, that I can deal with whatever life brings me. I am even ready for death. Though I am not doing anything to hasten its arrival. I am not doing anything at all. Yet, all things are being done. This is a life at ease.

Fulfillment Or Ease?

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful as someone
crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapeable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience
to wait till your mud settles
and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 15, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu uses the Master to show us what being in perfect harmony with the Tao looks like. Today, he refers to the ancient Masters, who he esteems without over-esteeming. For Lao Tzu, the ancient Masters were so profound and subtle, their wisdom so unfathomable, that there was simply no way to describe it. So he gives up on that notion right from the start.

He can’t begin to describe their wisdom. But he can describe their appearance. And, of course that means another round of similes. In the past, I have tried to take these one by one. Today, I don’t want to do that. I never like repeating back what he has just said. I prefer to trust that you have read the chapter and you have those pictures in your own mind.

You might even be wondering exactly why describing their appearance is helpful. Maybe it would be more helpful if we could describe something so profound and subtle. But exactly how do we do that? Lao Tzu was at a loss for words. And I don’t think I can do any better. So, try to keep those word-pictures in mind, and consider the lesson we might learn from them.

We have been talking about doing our work and then taking a step back. The necessary step to realizing a life of ease. In our fast-paced world we have come to expect that we can drive up, place our order, and expect it to be waiting for us when we pull around. Lao Tzu is expecting us to do the waiting. That was really the importance of describing the appearance of the ancient Masters. It was describing their attitude. How careful they were. How alert. How courteous. How fluid. How shapeable. How receptive. How clear. And he talked a lot about water in those descriptions. How they interacted with water. The iced-over stream that needed crossing. The melting ice. The glass of water.

Lao Tzu has a couple of questions he is asking of us today. And how we answer these questions, makes all the difference in the world, whether or not we will enjoy this life of ease, he is saying can be ours. The ancient Masters had the answers. And you do too. Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear?

Sure, that is another metaphor. But I am assuming you have, some time in your life, stepped into a pool of water, stirring up the mud. At first, the water that was previously clear, is all muddy. But, if you wait, if you wait long enough, the mud will settle back down to the bottom. And, the water will be clear again. Having the patience to wait, means that things that are stirred up will return down to rest again. What is required of you? To simply wait.

But waiting is hard. We want to get moving again. Usually sooner than we should, but later than we would have liked. The mud hasn’t settled. All those things that are stirred up, haven’t been given the opportunity to right themselves. Because left alone, that is exactly what they will do. Without any further interference from us. That is why we need the second question. Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?
Not only does your mud have to settle; but the right action has to arrive all by itself. This is what being in perfect harmony with the Tao means. It means waiting on the Tao. You can’t just put in your order at the first window and expect it waiting for you at the next. I can’t help but wonder what Lao Tzu would have thought of drive-thrus. Probably along the order of how inconvenient convenience could be. Oh, I love drive-thrus. I love the convenience. And I take advantage of that convenience all the time. But it does tend to inure us to a way of living, not in harmony with the Tao.

So much of our trouble lies in our inability to wait. To wait for things to settle themselves. To wait for the right action to arise, without needing us to do anything at all. We are talking about a life of ease, after all. And ease means, well, not having to do all those things, that we are all the time feeling like we have to do. We aren’t talking about being lazy. We are talking about conserving energy. We are talking about not expending unnecessary effort. We make our own lives a whole lot harder, even with all our modern conveniences, than is necessary. All because we don’t have the patience to wait. To remain unmoving.

The Master has it figured out. That is why she is our perfect example. She isn’t seeking fulfillment. And this, is where we screw things up. Because fulfillment is exactly what we are seeking. We are wanting a life of fulfillment; when what Lao Tzu is offering us, instead, is a life of ease. But that life of fulfillment can’t offer us what a life of ease offers us. In fact, that life of fulfillment, with its lavish promises, has us chasing after rainbows. Remember that ladder? Yeah, we need to stay off that ladder.

Fulfillment vs. Ease. That is the choice that is before us. Fulfillment is enticing. It is tangible. It is, well, full. We easily can see the value of fullness. But we aren’t so easily enticed by emptiness. Yet, Lao Tzu has spent chapters already on the value of nothing. On emptiness. On something that, though empty, is inexhaustible. The Tao itself. Go on. Keep using it. The more you use it, the more there is. Yet, it is empty. Always at ease.

When you stop seeking fulfillment, when you stop expecting it, then you can be present. Being present is such a powerful thing. A profound and subtle thing. I can’t describe it. But I can be it. I can welcome all things. I can let them come. And I can let them go. And you can too.

Why Does It Have To Be A Riddle?

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnameable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it, and there is no beginning;
follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it,
but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from;
this is the essence of wisdom.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 14, translation by Stephen MItchell)

Well, it would have to be a riddle. Lao Tzu told us right at the beginning that the mystery of the Tao is shrouded in darkness within darkness. The Tao is the Way; it is the art of living at ease in our Universe. And today’s chapter is a riddle. Because the gateway to all understanding can only be found by peering into that darkness.

You can look for it, you can listen for it, you can reach for it. But that isn’t going to help you. Because there isn’t anything to see, or to hear, or to grasp. We talked yesterday about that illusory ladder leading, we hope to success. But above it isn’t bright and below it isn’t dark. The art of living at ease, so very subtle, is beyond anything that we can know. It is always returning to nothingness. This is why it is important to appreciate non-being for everything that it is.

It has no beginning and no end. That is why you can’t approach it or follow after it. Are you getting discouraged? Don’t. No, you can’t know it. But you can be it. It takes that detachment we have talked about before. It takes knowing that we don’t know. It means not forcing, not trying to control. It takes realizing where we came from. We talked before about the difference between knowing and realizing. Realizing means taking that step back. Knowing we don’t know. And being content not to know. That is when realization comes. You don’t know it. You can’t know it. But you can be it. You can be at ease in your own life. By realizing that all you think you know, all your efforts, are not helpful, but hindrances. It is in returning to your primal identity. That of a newborn. That knows nothing. And does nothing. They just are. That is where you come from. That is your beginning. Realize this. Take a step back from everything you are doing. Everything that you have done. And wait. Wait on the realization. This is the essence of wisdom. Your own gateway to all understanding.

A Simple Change In Perspective

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)

The last time I talked about this chapter was New Years Eve, 2014. It was a time to reflect on another year ending and a new one beginning. It seemed timely then for Lao Tzu to be talking about success and failure, hopes and fears. Eighty-one days later and now we are probably realizing how many of those New Year resolutions have fallen by the wayside, yet again. Don’t beat yourself up. Today’s chapter is just for you.

Lao Tzu understood that success and failure were equally dangerous. And, as far as hope and fear go? Well, they are equally hollow. Not convinced? Well, let’s try to understand things from his perspective.

What he was trying to warn us of, is the danger of that proverbial ladder of success. Ladders are notoriously shaky things. Even the real ones. But, Lao Tzu was addressing the imaginary one. The ladder with rungs that take us step by step further and further away from the reality of the ground beneath our feet. Many of us see the ladder and immediately notice missing rungs. For some, those rungs are missing right at the very start. You want to succeed? Good luck with that. For others, the rungs at the bottom are easy to reach; it is only later that you don’t know where that next step is going to take you. We, of course, have had it drilled in our heads that we must climb that ladder. It is just the way things have to be. No changing it.

Yet, Lao Tzu has the audacity to claim that there is something better for us; if we will dare to keep both feet on the ground. That better thing is balance. So much better than that shaky ladder with its missing rungs. So, is Lao Tzu saying to us to just give up? To decide not to even try and succeed? I don’t think so. I think he is saying there is a better way to live. That measuring success and failure by what position you are, on an imaginary ladder, is no way to live. Every journey begins and ends at the ground beneath our feet. He wants us to keep both our feet firmly planted on the ground of reality. This is the only way to maintain balance in our lives.

And speaking of reality, can you see why it is that hope and fear are equally hollow? It is because they aren’t real. They are just phantoms. They aren’t real. So they aren’t grounded in reality either. Now, I want to be clear here that we can have realistic hopes and fears. That isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about here, though. What he is talking about is what happens when we see our selves as separate from the whole Universe. When we see ourselves as alone. And, like the whole Universe is really out to get us. That isn’t grounded in reality. It does seem like it though, sometimes. You start entertaining those thoughts and they will fill you; sometimes with hope and sometimes with fear. Doesn’t really matter which one; because they are both equally false. Both equally hollow.

Lao Tzu wants us to understand that we are not alone in the Universe. And, the Universe is not out to get us. I’d even go so far as to say the Universe wants each and every one of us to succeed. If only we will let it. But that means understanding the reality of the way things are. And having faith in that reality. So, what is the reality that Lao Tzu is speaking of? What does it really mean to keep both our feet on the ground?

It means that we stop seeing ourselves as separate, apart, alone. And choose instead, to see the whole world (actually, the whole Universe) as connected. To see yourself not just as part of the Universe; but, the whole Universe as complete in you. It is a matter of seeing the Universe in us instead of seeing ourselves in the Universe. A simple change in perspective. But oh, what a difference it makes. That is reality. That is the way things are. Have faith in that; even if you can’t have faith in any other thing. Love the world in you, the Universe in you. You and the Universe are one. Start seeing the Universe in you. Then you can start to care for all things in the Universe.