Seeing The World As Your Self, Intentional Empathy

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)

Back in chapter eight, Lao Tzu offered us six different ways to be in harmony with the way things are. He called this harmony, the supreme good. The first way was in how we live. He said to live close to the ground. Today’s chapter, I think, expands on this. Today’s chapter, perhaps more than any other, exposes how we have been programmed to live out of harmony with the Tao.

Today, Lao Tzu points at the proverbial ladder. A ladder, we like to call the ladder of success. But a ladder that leads us both up and down. There is the same potential for failure as there is success. What if we fail? Oh, but what if we succeed? We have been programmed to trust that ladder. That is where our destiny lies. We are told from early in our lives, some earlier than others, that we need to get on that ladder and start climbing. Some are dismayed when they think that ladder has some missing rungs. Some, seem to be able to start up higher, above any missing rungs. But the ladder still stretches up high above the Earth. Ending somewhere in the clouds, far above the ground. The danger, we are told, is in failure. But, Lao Tzu tells us that success is as dangerous as failure. What does he mean? He tells us that the only way to keep our balance is to remain with both our feet on the ground. When we are positioned on the ladder, every step we take, whether up or down, is a shaky one.

I have a confession to make. I have never cared for ladders. I don’t like climbing them; because with each step, I know I am moving away from the ground. And, I know that my position on the ladder is only temporary. I am just needing to climb up to the roof to do some cleaning of gutters; or some such thing, I can’t reach from the ground. But I also know that once that work is done, I will need to climb back down. And I really don’t like that climb back down. Not until I have my feet back on the ground, am I able to breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t like ladders.

But what is even more scary, more dangerous, is living life on a ladder. Like that ladder, Lao Tzu is speaking of. We begin to lose our sense of balance. And if there is one thing that philosophical Taoism teaches us, it is the importance of balance. Yin and yang have this way of always balancing out. That means success and failure, too. The danger of the ladder is that what goes up, will most assuredly come back down.

Intertwined in our programming on how to succeed, or fail, is hope and fear. I found it amazing, after I first read this chapter, a few years ago, and I started to notice how much hope and fear were a part of my every day vocabulary. They had been programmed into me from early, very early in my life. I try to steer clear of things that I fear. Like ladders. Like needles. And, do I really have to admit this? I have been known to leave a room when a scary movie is getting a bit too scary for me. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. Why don’t I like being scared? It is just a movie. It isn’t real. What am I afraid of? What do I fear?

But I like hope. I love it. I am actually the kind of person that will see the silver lining behind every cloud. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be on the lookout for lightning there, too. Still, hope has been something that I have always been able to hold onto. Ever hopeful. That is me.

But then Lao Tzu comes along and throws a monkey wrench in my works. My programming gets a jolt. Hope is as hollow as fear? Oh, the cognitive dissonance. What does he mean? It was easy enough to accept that my fears were pretty much not grounded in reality; and just plain silly, to boot. But hope? Don’t take my hope away. What will I have left?

But Lao Tzu is unmoved by my pleas. Both hope and fear are phantoms. They aren’t real. Hope is just as unreal as my silly fear of scary movies. The reason these twin phantoms arise is because I am thinking of myself as self. As separate. As alone. But, if I don’t see myself as self, as separate, as alone, what have I to fear?

Then again, what do I have to hope for? What good is that ladder, anyway? If I am not thinking of my self. What exactly is its purpose? Stay away from the ladder, Chuck. No, don’t fear it. But don’t hope in it either. Both are not helpful.

See the world as your self. Realize your connectedness with the whole. Your unity. Your oneness with everything and everyone. This isn’t sacrificing self to the world. It is realizing your self and the world are one. That isn’t self-sacrificing. It raises self to a whole new level of awareness and importance. When you realize you are the world, then your every act is an act of caring, of intentional empathy. Fear and hope vanish, without a trace. In their place, there isn’t emptiness. There is faith. And, there is love. Faith in the way things are. And love for every thing and every one. When you have faith in the way things are, and love the world as you love your self, then you can and will truly care for all things.

You’re Going To Have To Trust

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)

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu asked the question, “Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? I said, then, that our problem is with insisting on holding onto desires. But it is even greater than that. Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart. Cleansing our inner vision may seem impossible to us; what with, being bombarded with all the stimuli to our senses, trying to master our thoughts, and then there are all our desires. How can we cleanse it? And, can we ever trust it?

It may be tempting to try and somehow separate your self from the world. To close your self off. Some think that is exactly how to practice Taoism. Become a recluse, a hermit; detach your self from every one and every thing around you. But I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu had in mind, when he said the Master is detached from all things. Because the detachment that Lao Tzu speaks of doesn’t make us separate from every one and every thing; it makes us one with them. What we have to do is to look deep within ourselves, past the finite; and tap into the infinite. Don’t close your self off. Instead, open yourself up. Let go of your self, as separate; and you will be perfectly fulfilled. But how?

The Master, once again, shows us the way. How do we detach ourselves from all things, without making ourselves separate from them? The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision. Observing what is going on all around you, but trusting what you are on the inside; this is tapping into the infinite within you. When you realize the infinite within you, you don’t become separate from, but one with, every thing and every one. The Master allows things to come and go, without any need or desire to interfere with them. He is an observer; but he isn’t moved by what he observes. What moves him is his inner vision. He opens his heart. It is infinite, like the sky. His heart is both detached from, and one with, all things.

The More I Talk Of It…

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)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu returns to talking about non-being and being. I say, returns. But I only mean it in the sense that he hasn’t specifically mentioned the words being and non-being since chapter two. It was there that he said being and non-being create each other. Chapter two was our introduction to yin and yang. And I said, then, that the relationship between yin and yang can best be explained as the relationship between being and non-being. They create each other; the seed of each one is in the other. But then, after introducing being and non-being, I said how difficult it is to try and put into words, what being and non-being are. We are talking about the eternal reality, after all.. I hoped, then, that it would suffice to understand that being and non-being are represented by yin and yang.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers me another opportunity to expound on what non-being and being are. We will see if I do a better job, today, than I did nine days ago, of explaining them. How to explain non-being and being, being and non-being. One way to look at it would be how Lao Tzu said it in chapter one. Mystery and manifestations arise from the same Source. While caught in desires we can’t realize the mystery. We can only see the manifestations. In this sense, being would be the manifestations and non-being would be the mystery. In my commentary on chapter two, I said it was tempting to say that being is something and non-being is nothing. But I didn’t think that is especially useful. Another way that you could think of being and non-being is to call being, existence, and non-being, non-existence. That may be a little more useful.

What Lao Tzu has been doing for the last several chapters, now, is spending a whole lot of time explaining the value of emptiness. He has talked of emptying and filling, I think, as a way of expressing the infinite Tao. And, ultimately, that tells us more than we, at first, may realize.

Today, he gives us three metaphors to explain the relationship between being and non-being. Being is what we work with. It is what we see. Like the spokes that we join together in a wheel. The clay that we shape into a pot. Or, the wood that we hammer for a house. Being is what we work with. It is what we see.

But non-being is what we use. What would being, be, without non-being? You simply can’t have one without the other. They create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. They follow each other. Without that center hole in the wheel, the wagon won’t move. Without the emptiness inside the pot, you won’t have anything to hold whatever you want. Without the inner space in your house, you won’t have a place in which to live.

And, I can already hear the arguments, I have made them myself, that without those spokes, and that clay, and that wood, we wouldn’t have that empty space, either. But that just proves Lao Tzu’s point. Being and non-being need each other. What we are doing today is distinguishing between the two.

Perhaps, you have never thought about these distinctions before. We tend to not give non-being a second thought. We can’t really see it. We don’t work with it. Before I started going through the Tao Te Ching, I didn’t think about the value of emptiness. When I would think of all the empty space in our Universe, I would wonder why that was. Why all that vast emptiness? And then, when I learned that each atom is primarily a whole lot of empty space… There must be value in that emptiness. It is meant to be used. To be filled. I suppose, if I am traveling through space at greater than light speed, it helps greatly, that most of it is empty. Thank you, Han Solo, for reminding me.

I just keep returning to emptiness and fullness for an expression of non-being and being. Yin and yang. They balance each other out. If you were to ask me if I am a glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of guy, I would answer that it depends on whether you are emptying or filling the glass. What is non-being? It is everything above and beneath, being. It is everything before and after, being. Now you see why I don’t think it is especially useful to call being, something, and non-being, nothing. It is because without non-being, being is nothing. And with being, non-being is everything. Even the idea of a distinction between existence and non-existence starts to get wiggily-jiggily for me. I am afraid I have crossed over into the realm of the more I speak of it, the less I understand it. I knew this was going to happen the moment I started talking of it. It is time for me to stop. Treat it like a bellows. Use it more. Talk of it less.

It Is The Supreme Virtue

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)

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu called it the supreme good. It is like water. Nourishing without trying to nourish, and content with the low places that people disdain. It is being in harmony with the way things are, the Tao. Lao Tzu gave us six ways to be in harmony with the Tao, to be content to simply be ourselves. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu explained how it is that we disdain this. It was a picture of people who are never satisfied, who never know when enough is enough; it was a picture of people who are not content. Their hearts never unclench. They live their lives in prisons of their own making, always seeking to compare and compete with others. And he said, then, the only path to serenity is to do our work and then step back.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins with six rhetorical questions, six “can you” questions. These questions deal with our minds, our bodies, and our hearts. They speak of loving and leading; and of letting, maybe the single most important word in philosophical Taoism. Are we willing to be behind and beneath? Can we be content with being simply ourselves? Or, will we still insist on trying to be ahead and above?

Our minds are prone to wandering. Left to wander, we lose our connectedness, our harmony, our oneness, with the Tao. We start to feel disconnected from everybody, everything; we start to see ourselves as separate. But this is a distortion of the eternal reality.

While my own experience with mind-altering substances is very limited, I like to read or hear first-hand accounts from those who have used them to coax their minds back from its wandering. That is exactly what I think is going on. Users may be attempting to create some escape from reality; but I think what they are actually accomplishing is an escape back to reality. And, I think that is exactly the reason why so many of those substances are banned. The powers that be, the establishment, doesn’t want us experiencing a reality that is different from the one they have manufactured for us, one that enables them to be ahead and above, every one and every thing else.

Now, I am not suggesting that the use of mind-altering substances is the only way to coax your mind from its wandering. I am just not opposed to people choosing for themselves how they might coax their own minds. I know I can and do coax my own mind back to the original oneness every time I catch it wandering. And that isn’t just a daily thing. My mind is prone to wandering, all of the time, all through every day.

Can I make my body as supple as a newborn child’s? Of course not. That ship sailed long ago. I am 52 years old now. But Lao Tzu doesn’t ask us if we can make it supple like that. He asks if we will let it become… This may seem shocking to some; but, I honestly believe there is a whole lot more power in letting things happen, than there is in trying to make them happen.

How clean is your heart? Is your inner vision so clear that you see nothing but the light? Are we in a hopeless situation here? (Maybe some drugs would help.) Seriously though, I think we have our work cut out for us – if we insist on holding onto desires. It is those desires that cloud our inner vision. I have found that as I let go of desires, my inner vision becomes clearer and clearer. Less and less do I see darkness all around me. Oh, there is still darkness, my friends. I see darkness every time I look outside of myself at what is going on in the world around me. People choosing violence. So much darkness. But, inside my heart, there is so much light. Much more light, as I let go of desires. And, I am not alone, separate. That light is in us all; in every thing and in every one.

Lao Tzu is talking about the supreme virtue today; so, it isn’t at all surprising to find him talking about love. Do we really know what love is? Can we love people and lead them without imposing our will? I would be so bold as to say it a different way. Are you loving and leading people when you are imposing your will on them? I just don’t think that loving and leading can be done in any other way than by letting go of our need to be in control.

I am in the process of watching “Sense8” for the second time. It is a Netflix original series; and I give it my highest recommendation, if you haven’t watched it yet. You don’t have Netflix? I think they still offer the first month free to new subscribers. Get your subscription, and watch it. That is a show that speaks to the truth of a love that doesn’t wish to impose its will. I could talk on and on about the show. And I will, if you will message me.

Can you let events take their course? See how Lao Tzu keeps coming back to the need to let. I have found it is the only way to deal with the most vital matters. And even the inconsequential ones. Are you having trouble dealing with life? Maybe, you aren’t dealing so well, because you aren’t letting. We so want to be in control. We want what we want. We want to impose our will. We want things to be our way. And we can’t deal with it. Let it go!

Take a step back! That is what Lao Tzu said, yesterday, is the only path to serenity. Be like water. Be like the Tao. It is the supreme virtue. It is giving birth and nourishing, having without possessing, acting with no expectations, leading and not trying to control. It is freedom from all our desires. And, it is the only way to realize the mystery of the eternal reality.

To Be Content Or Not To Be Content

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu called it the supreme good. It is being content to be simply yourself; and not comparing or competing with others. He gave us six different ways in which we can practice true contentment.

Today, he lists four ways that we demonstrate we are anything but content, with our simple and ordinary lives. Consider these the antithesis to yesterday’s six ways.

How are we to be content? It comes when we realize when enough is enough. If we knew when to stop, then we could avoid danger. We know better than to fill our bowl to the brim. Don’t we? Or, do we think this only applies to a physical bowl? When it comes to living, do we just keep filling and filling? And then wonder to our dismay, why it spills? Why do we keep sharpening our knives, to the point of blunting them? There is a very real connection, here, with yin and yang, the way things are. You can’t keep filling without emptying. You can’t keep sharpening without blunting. If you don’t spend some time emptying, you will over-fill. Emptying always follows filling. And filling always follows emptying. Learn to know when you should be filling and when you should be emptying. There is a time for sharpening that knife; and a time to use it, to blunt it. If you only ever sharpen, the results are the same as if you never sharpened. Know when enough is enough.

If there were one way to describe how many people choose to live their lives, it would be a lifelong chase after money and security. Some may take offense when I say that it is a choice. But, seriously, you do have a choice. You can choose to stop chasing. And it would be good for you to do it sooner, rather than later. Because, until you do, your heart will never unclench. Oh, I know, I know, you know exactly what you are doing. You have this down to a science. Just a few more years, and you will have what you are chasing after. You have my best wishes. I hope you live to enjoy it. Really, I do. I just know too many who never know when enough is enough. Whose hearts never do unclench. Meanwhile, their life here and now is filled with hope and fear for the future; instead of being content to be present.

Perhaps that is why we are always comparing and competing with others. Caring about their approval. We set ourselves up to be their prisoner. It is no way to live.

This is so very different from what Lao Tzu, in yesterday’s chapter, called the supreme good. Today he calls it the only path to serenity. And it isn’t serenity in some far off sweet by and by. It is serenity, here and now, and forever. The Tao is eternally present. If we want to be in harmony with it, then there is only one way. Do your work, and then step back. Know when to stop. Know when enough is enough. Realize you already have everything you need for true contentment, right here, right now. Do your work, yes. Because you will always have work to do. But then take that step back.

Taking a step back is the best advice I could give anyone. It has become my daily practice. I, too, used to think I needed to be always moving forward. But I have found when I am content to stay behind, I get ahead.

What Is The Supreme Good?

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)

Every time I have cycled through the Tao Te Ching, and come once again to this chapter, I always experience a certain crisis. Lao Tzu introduces something he calls the supreme good. The crisis I experience comes in trying to understand what Lao Tzu means by the supreme good. Is this just another name for the Tao, the eternal reality? Perhaps it is. He has already said it is called the Great Mother. Maybe, just maybe, the supreme good is another name for the Tao. In the past, my commentaries on this chapter have ignored the nagging doubts I have about this explanation; and simply gone with the notion that the supreme good is the Tao. But today, as I have been reading and meditating on today’s chapter, the doubts have had a heyday with me. I can’t ignore them. Perhaps, it would help if I could better explain my dilemma.

You see, Lao Tzu starts out by saying the supreme good is like water. And then, he goes on to explain the properties of water that make it like the supreme good. It is only then that he says, “Thus it is like the Tao.” If the “it” in that sentence is essentially the Tao, then we have “the Tao is like the Tao.” Not only do I find that not helpful, I find it a bit annoying. Of course, I could always say that the ‘it” is actually water. Then we just have Lao Tzu repeating the first line again, only in reverse order. Now, we have “water is like the Tao.” I like that much better; and in the past, I have chosen to go with that interpretation, in spite of the nagging doubts.

But here is my problem. Lao Tzu has already spent a good amount of time explaining that the Tao doesn’t choose sides. It gives birth to both good and evil. It is neutral. It isn’t good or evil; it is just the way things are. So, why, all of a sudden, call it the supreme good?

Perhaps, I am over-thinking this. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I did that. But I like seeing the Tao as completely neutral, not on any side. When we talk of yin and yang, we certainly shouldn’t think of one as being good and the other bad. I would have as much trouble explaining how the supreme good could give birth to evil, as religious apologists have, with defending their God, when confronted with the problem of evil. So, I don’t think the supreme good is the Tao. Though it is like water; and water is like the Tao.

Now that I have decided what the supreme good is not, it is only left to say what I believe it is. And, for me to answer that question, I have to go back to talking about water. It is like water, after all. Like water, it nourishes all things without trying to. It doesn’t set out to nourish all things. It doesn’t have to do anything to nourish all things. It nourishes all things because of what it is. Also, like water, it is content with the low places that people disdain. We understand that water always seeks out the lowest places. Water flows down, not up; unless something out of the ordinary causes it to do that. But it can only go up, with effort. And the action of water is, by nature, effortless. Sea level is the lowest altitude for a reason. Lao Tzu calls this humility. But attributing humility to water shouldn’t cause us to think that water is trying to be humble. It isn’t trying to be anything, at all. It is what it is. By its very nature it is content with the low places. And we, for reasons that we all understand, disdain the low places. Which leads me to a much better understanding of what the supreme good is.

The supreme good is like the Tao. But that doesn’t mean it is the Tao. The Tao, remember is neutral. It doesn’t choose sides. It is neither good, nor evil. But the supreme good is, well, good. You could even say it is supremely good. Like water. The Tao is the way things are. The supreme good is harmony with the way things are. Thus, it really is like the Tao. It is harmony with it. It is the supreme good to be in harmony with the way things are, the Tao. It is bad to be out of harmony with the way things are. I hope this is making the sense I think it should be making. For, you see, while the Tao is neither good, nor evil, we can be. Being in or out of harmony with the Tao is how we live our lives. Being in harmony with the Tao is the supreme good. This is the life Lao Tzu wants us to choose for ourselves.

To that end, Lao Tzu lists six ways to be in harmony with the Tao, to live the supreme good. So, keep in mind how it is like water, as we look at these six ways.

The first way involves your dwelling. Live close to the ground. Now, I don’t think Lao Tzu is referring to your physical dwelling, here. I think of dwelling as expressing how we live out our every day lives. Not merely where we live, but how we live. Some may prefer a hobbit hole. Others might like to live in a tree. Your home could be a high-rise apartment and that wouldn’t preclude you from living close to the ground. It has to do with our connectedness with the Earth. Our bodies are made up primarily of water, and then the same elements as are found in the ground beneath our feet. It would be supremely good for us to stay connected to that ground beneath our feet. To stay grounded in reality. That is one way that we can be in harmony with the Tao.

The second way involves our thinking. Keep to the simple. Maybe that is something I should have been thinking when I started my commentary today. Have I over-thunk this? Hopefully, my wrestling earlier will end up helping me to keep to the simple, from now on. Don’t make things so complicated. You end up complicating your life. That isn’t harmony with the Tao. Keeping your thinking simple is the supreme good.

The third way involves conflict. Lao Tzu isn’t promising some Utopia, free from conflict. Good and evil coexist. There will always be those who will try and assert control. Conflicts will happen. When they do, how are we to be? The supreme good would be, being fair and generous. Just imagine what a difference that would make in your living. If you are thinking that would mean that others would be running roughshod over you, then you might just need reminding that you have no control over what others do. But you can control yourself. Be fair. Be generous. Conflicts can be resolved. And what if you get the short end of the stick? Let the Tao balance out all the inequities. It will be fair and generous with you; even if others aren’t. That is the supreme good. It is being in harmony with the Tao.

The fourth way involves governing. This is something Lao Tzu will be returning to again and again. Don’t try to control. It is because someone is trying to assert control, that conflicts arise. If, in our governing we were to let go of our desire to be in control, that would be the supreme good. That is how to be in harmony with the Tao.

The fifth way involves our work. We have all heard this advice, especially when we were young. And most of us have gotten pretty sick and tired of hearing it. Especially when, if we are so bold as to actually do it, we then get told, to get a real job. But, in spite of the naysayers, it is still sage advice. And, it is the only thing Lao Tzu tells us to do in this list of ways to be. Do what you enjoy. When you are doing what you enjoy, you will find that your work is not just something you enjoy, but it will involve less effort, as well. That means it is very tied into being in harmony with the Tao. Doing not-doing, effortless action; like water, nourishing without trying to.

The sixth way involves our family life. We all have one. Though definitions of what a family consists of, do vary. You probably have multiple roles in your family life. You might be a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling. The various roles, we may have, go on and on. But however many or few the roles you play, in your family, be completely present. Children grow up far too soon for you not to be, if you are a parent. My own daughter turns 25 this week. I posted a pic of me carrying her on my shoulder when she was perhaps 2, on Facebook, just a few hours ago. Where did all those years go? I couldn’t always be there, physically. But I was always present with her. And she was always present with me. Completely present. We still are; even though she and I live 15 time zones apart.

I started today’s commentary asking the question, “What is the supreme good?” And, I think I understand what it is, now. The supreme good is when you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete. Be content to be you. Don’t worry about what other people say or do. Just be you. That is the supreme good. Everybody will respect you.

Realizing The Mystery Of The Infinite

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 gone out of his way, the last several chapters, to emphasize that the Tao is both infinite and eternal. It is the eternal reality. And, like the eternal void, it is filled with infinite possibilities. Eternal is easy enough for us to understand. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Everything that has a beginning, has an end. That is certainly why we are temporal. We all have a definite beginning and a definite end. At least we think we do. And, since the Tao has no beginning, it has no end. Like I said, we don’t really have that much difficulty understanding the Tao as the eternal reality. But infinity is another thing entirely.

Oh, it is fun for me to explain, to the six year old that I am tutoring, that there is an infinite number of numbers. They have no beginning and no end. Much like eternity, there. I tell her that no matter how small a number she can come up with, I can always name a number smaller. And no matter how great a number she can come up with I can always come up with a number greater. And she will test me on that, trying to come up with some large number, to see if I can outdo her. But she isn’t too sure about my insistence that 0 isn’t the smallest number. We talk often of the number line that stretches in both directions from the number zero. That there are both infinite numbers less than zero and infinite numbers greater than zero. I even had a bit of fun telling her there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1; though she isn’t quite ready to tackle decimal numbers, just yet.

We might begin to think that, perhaps, infinity isn’t any harder to grasp than eternity; thanks to the help of that number line. But when Lao Tzu talks about the infinite he isn’t just talking numbers. When Lao Tzu talks about the infinite he talks about how the Tao is like a well; used but never used up. How it is filled with infinite possibilities. And, how it is hidden but always present. He explains that it is like a bellows. It is its emptiness that makes it infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces. I remarked, in my commentary yesterday, that I am beginning to think there must be something to this emptying and filling. Since Lao Tzu keeps returning to it. Yin and yang, emptying and filling, this is an expression of infinity to Lao Tzu. Yesterday, he once again remarked on the empty yet inexhaustible, by calling the Tao the Great Mother, giving birth to infinite worlds. It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want.

Today, Lao Tzu answers the question, Why is it infinite? I took a long while before I was ready for his answer. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself. How does the fact that it has no desires for itself make it infinite? What does that even mean? And, of course, I remember that Lao Tzu has also been making quite clear that it is our desires that prevent us from realizing the mystery. There, I am beginning to make the connection. My desires for myself are what makes me finite. As long as I am caught in desire, I can’t realize the mystery. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself. Bear with me while I mull this over a bit.

It is because the Tao has no desires for itself that it is capable, infinitely capable, of being present for all beings.

Okay, I understand, at least a little, what Lao Tzu means when he says that the Tao is infinite and eternal. But I am finite and temporal. Blame it on my desires for myself, if you want. I am still finite. And while you’re at it, you can blame my birth, my having had a beginning, for being temporal. But that puts me in a quandary. Lao Tzu says the Tao is present within me. But how can I, a finite, temporal vessel, ever hope to contain the infinite, eternal Tao? Do you see how easy it is for me to place limits on those infinite possibilities? My problem is what I think I know. Lao Tzu has just the remedy for that: the practice of not-knowing. What if I accepted that I don’t know what I think I know?

What was it again that Lao Tzu has been saying about emptying and filling? Filling always follows emptying. Emptying always follows filling. It is because that bellows is empty, that it can be filled. And, it is because it is filled, that it can be emptied. Over and over again. Expansion follows, and is followed by, contraction. That is how the Tao can be infinite within me. Yin and yang is how the Tao can be present for all beings.

Notice how the Master comes along to show us the way; leading by emptying our minds and filling our cores, weakening our ambitions and strengthening our resolve. The Master stays behind. That is why she is ahead. Do you see how backwards we try to do things? We think the only way to be ahead is to get ahead and stay ahead. But that isn’t the Master’s way, the infinite way. Stay behind, and you will be ahead. She is detached from all things. That is why she is one with them. Just think of all the attachments we have with people, places, things, and ideas. But our attachment to them never does make us one with them. It isn’t through attachment, but detachment, that we can be one with them. She has let go of herself; completely letting go of her finite and temporal desires for herself. Thus, she is perfectly fulfilled.

We have so much more to unlearn, to not-know. Letting go of all our desire to be ahead. Letting go of all our attachments. Letting go of ourselves. Oneness and perfect fulfillment. Eternal and infinite. It is hidden, yet always present, within you. Use it any way you want.


Inexhaustible, Use It Any Way You Want

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)

I am beginning to think there must be something to this emptying and filling. Back in chapter 3, Lao Tzu said, the Master leads by emptying people’s minds, and filling their cores. In chapter 4, he said the Tao is like the eternal void (that is pretty empty). But, it is also filled with infinite possibilities. In chapter 5, he said the Tao is empty, yet infinitely capable. And then there is today’s chapter.

Here, Lao Tzu, after earlier saying it is like a well and like a bellows, now brings his message home to us. The Tao is called the Great Mother. Why is it called the Great Mother? Because it is empty yet inexhaustible, giving birth to infinite worlds. Mother is something we can all relate to. Why? Because every being in the Universe has one. Even if our own relationship with our mother is less than perfect, we have plenty of other examples to choose from. We understand the analogy of a mother being empty yet inexhaustible. Throughout my childhood, my mother did it all. She was up well before all us kids. And only went to bed, long after us. (Actually, I am not for sure that she ever actually slept. I certainly don’t have any evidence that she did.) There were times that I knew she was running on empty. But, she just kept running, virtually inexhaustible.

Calling the Tao the Great Mother is a good metaphor. It gives birth, yet another thing mothers do, to infinite worlds. There is that word, infinite, again. Infinite possibilities, infinite capabilities, infinite worlds. The eternal reality is infinite. There is no end to the possibilities, no end to its capabilities, and no end to the ways you can use it.

Back in chapter 4, Lao Tzu said, the Tao is hidden but always present. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu expands on that. Where it is hidden is where it is present. And that is within you.
I said, yesterday, this journey we are on is a path of self-discovery. Spoiler alert: It is within yourself that you will discover the Tao. That is where it has always been. That is where it will always be. You don’t have to go on some pilgrimage to find it. You only need to look for it, within yourself. You will discover it, as you discover yourself. You have everything you need within you, because you have the Tao within you. That is the eternal reality. That is why you can use it any way you want.

Use It More, Talk Of It Less

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)

We have been talking about what Lao Tzu calls the Tao. It is the eternal reality, the way things are. Because the Tao is both eternal and infinite, it is largely a mystery to us. Lao Tzu admitted, right from the start, that he can’t really tell of the Tao. Our desire gets in the way of us realizing its mystery. But, we can see how the Tao manifests itself in our Universe, in our world, in our lives. By tracing the manifestations, we will find our way back to the Source, and be free from desire; then, we can realize the mystery. That is the point of our journey through the Tao Te Ching. It is a path of self-discovery.

In pointing out how the Tao manifests itself, Lao Tzu explains the way things are, the eternal reality, as a duality, yin and yang; that is, being and non-being. It was in chapter two, that Lao Tzu first mentioned being and non-being. I expressed then, how difficult it is to explain being and non-being. The more you talk of it, the less you understand. But understanding is possible; so, we will be returning to being and non-being again and again, throughout the Tao Te Ching. For now, I still want you to think of them as yin and yang, eternally coexistent in our Universe. There isn’t one without the other. They arise spontaneously, creating each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. And they follow each other.

He said, back in chapter two, that when people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. And, when people see some things as good, other things become bad. This problem is a result of our desire. And the only way to deal with this problem is to practice not-doing; that is, don’t interfere. When things arise, let them come. When things disappear, let them go.

But, we don’t necessarily care for this sage advice. Once again, it is our desire that gets in the way. We want to take sides. We choose beautiful over ugly. And, good over bad. And, we don’t much care to be told that, in choosing sides, we only get more of what we didn’t choose.

So, Lao Tzu reiterates in today’s chapter that the Tao doesn’t take sides; and neither should we. Lao Tzu even goes so far, as to explain that the Tao is the source of both good and evil. It gives birth to both of them. This is a shocking declaration.

We have been dealing with the problem of evil for eons. Actually, for as long as there has been anything around that we could call good. Philosophies and religions have devoted themselves to dealing with the problem of evil; largely, making apologies for evil, while insisting that they are firmly on the side of good. We will have much more to say about good and evil, in future chapters of the Tao Te Ching. But, for today, let it suffice to say that Lao Tzu makes no apologies for the existence of evil. He identifies the source. And he tells us that the Tao doesn’t take sides. The Master, our example for how to live in harmony with the way things are, doesn’t take sides, either. She welcomes both saints and sinners. That is, she lets things come and go, without interfering with them. She welcomes whatever comes her way.

I have a great deal more to say of this, but I keep going back to that caveat at the end of today’s chapter. The more you talk of it, the less you understand. I want to be on guard against this. You probably figured out that good and evil are related to yin and yang. But I want to be careful, here, that we don’t think of yin and yang as good and evil. To suggest that one is good and the other is evil, is to completely misunderstand. See, I may have already said too much.

We need to understand better how the Universe operates, the way things are; that will help us to understand how to not take sides. To that end, Lao Tzu explains that the Tao is like a bellows. Like in yesterday’s chapter, when he said the Tao is like a well, and like the eternal void, he is using a word picture, a metaphor, to explain how the Tao manifests itself. We probably all know what a bellows is used for. It is a mechanism which expands and contracts. It may be used to both take air in and let air out. A simple bellows doesn’t judge the quality of the air it is taking in, or the air it is letting out. It merely expands and contracts, and then expands and contracts, again.

The Tao is like that. How the Tao manifests is like that. Expansion and contraction follow each other, just like before and after. The Tao is the Source for that expansion and contraction. We might call expansion, yang; and we might call contraction, yin. That would be a fair way of looking at how the Tao manifests. But one isn’t good, and the other evil. When we start taking sides, forming judgments, then we find it increasingly difficult to not interfere.

Yesterday, was when we first talked of the infinite possibilities that exist in the Tao. We said, that like a well, it is meant to be used. Today, in saying it is like a bellows, Lao Tzu reiterates, that it is empty, yet infinitely capable. Like a bellows, the more you use it, the more it produces. This is a teaser for us to begin to let loose and imagine the infinite possible uses in our lives.

But even now, I am feeling restrained. Have I said too much already; or, not enough? I can’t use it too much. But I can talk of it too much. So I will close by saying, please understand me when I say how very important it is to not take sides. Hold on to the center!

Filled With Infinite Possibilities

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)

It is just Day Four of our journey through the Tao Te Ching; and I feel like we have already covered so much ground.

Lao Tzu introduced the Tao as the eternal reality, back in chapter one. That chapter was full of mystery. And, why wouldn’t it be? After all, trying to tell of the eternal reality, something that Lao Tzu admittedly says is shrouded in darkness, has to be couched in metaphorical language. Our desire is what prevents us from realizing the mystery. Caught in desire, we can still see the manifestations of the Tao; and, that my friends, is good news. We can trace those manifestations back to the Source. That is the gateway to all understanding.

In chapter two, we talked about this mystery some more. Lao Tzu explained the way things are, the very nature of our Universe, everything that is. He said that yin and yang explain how the Tao brings about balance and harmony – in the Universe, and in our lives. Yin and yang seem to be opposites; but, they really are complements of each other. Their function is to make everything that is, complete.

It was also in chapter two, that Lao Tzu introduced the Master, our example for how to be in harmony with the Tao. The Master leads by following the Tao. Acting without doing anything; that is, not interfering with the way things are; and instead, working with nature.

In chapter three, we got our introduction to the emergent order. I believe that is the eternal reality. Things arise and disappear without any effort on our part. If we will practice not-doing, that is, let things come and go without interfering with them, everything will fall into place. That is the emergent order. It is spontaneous. We can’t begin to realize the mystery of how everything falls into place. Our desire impedes us. But, if we will go with the flow, and let things happen as they happen, we will see how the Tao manifests in our world. Tracing back those manifestations, will ultimately lead us right to the Source. There, we will be free from desire and able to realize the mystery.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu once again, opens with metaphorical language to tell us what the Tao is like. I said, back in chapter one, that what Lao Tzu was doing is like pointing at the moon. Let’s not get distracted by his finger. The Tao is like a well. He didn’t say it is a well. But it is like one. It can be used. It is meant to be used. But, it can’t be used up.

After saying the Tao is like a well, he then says that it is like the eternal void. We tend to think of the void as being a vast emptiness. But in the case of the Tao, this vast emptiness is filled with infinite possibilities.

Lao Tzu is telling us more than we may at first realize. He has been talking of the Tao as something that is eternal, all along. It is the eternal reality. But up until today’s chapter, he has only hinted at the infinite nature of the Tao. Now, that truth is revealed to us. It seems to be empty; but it is filled, filled with infinite possibilities. And, it is meant to be used.

In the next few days, we will let our imaginations roam, untethered, for a little while; imagining, with our finite minds, the infinite possibilities; and, how we can use the Tao in our lives. But not just yet. Right now, there is something else that I want to point out. Lao Tzu has been using mysterious and metaphorical language to speak of the Tao. And, I certainly hope you didn’t miss the yin and yang references to how the Tao manifests in our Universe. But, did you notice how this kind of language is something we normally reserve to speak of God? I did. Infinite. Eternal. Hidden, but always present.

What exactly is the Tao? Where did it come from? Who gave birth to it? Is the Tao, God? I know there are many people that like to think of the Tao in just that way. I don’t. I don’t mean to discourage anyone that does. If that is useful to you, that is fine with me. I used to think of the Universe as needing some kind of divine direction. It wasn’t enough for me to imagine an invisible hand, I wanted to attach a face to it, as well. But then there is the tongue-in-cheek response, Lao Tzu gives, to the question of who gave birth to the Tao. He could have come right out and said, The Tao is God. But he doesn’t. Instead he says, I don’t know. If there was ever a reason for me to love Lao Tzu, that “I don’t know” does it for me. We, too often, don’t want to admit what we don’t know, that we don’t know. But admitting you don’t know is the beginning of wisdom. It means you have opened yourself to the infinite possibilities. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God. And, that is enough for me. If it is older than God, then it isn’t God. You can still have your God. But, realize that the Tao precedes God.

I better stop here; since I have, no doubt, stepped on quite a few toes. I hope you will hang in there with me, as we discover the infinite possibilities that await us.