The Master’s Way: The Value Of Non-Action

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions;
that is the Master’s way.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the value of non-action. And because I am always getting new followers, it gives me the opportunity to explain what Lao Tzu means by non-action. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated doing nothing. But doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds think it means; so, we need to do better than that.

It is a concept that permeates through the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. This is a great mystery. How is it that not doing can result in all things being done?

To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor to explain Wu Wei is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. He could also be picturing water when he says, “The soft overcomes the hard” and “The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.”

Water, I think, is an apt metaphor. But it isn’t the only way that Wu-Wei can be exemplified. He also says, “That which has no substance enters where there is no space.” That amplifies the mystery. But it also explains it. It shows the value of Wu-Wei.

Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, now is it? Water still nourishes, though it doesn’t have to work at it. And the soft and gentle overcome the hardest things. Overcoming without having to try to overcome?

What is Lao Tzu getting at? I think he is defining a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a completely natural, non-contrived way.

Not-doing, then, just means that it isn’t about what we do, it is about what we are. Let’s explain this further.

Lao Tzu is extolling the value of non-action. I said that word, non-action, is Wu-Wei, in the original Chinese. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without” and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “govern”, or “effort”. So we could translate Wu-Wei as “without doing”, “without acting”, “without governing” (my personal favorite), or “without effort”. In the past, I have tended to go with “without effort” as my default. And then to further explain it, I used the words “effortless action”.

I was looking at some less commonly referenced senses of “Wu-Wei”. For instance, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort.” to arrive at “effortless action”. But, given all the ways that Wei can be translated, and just because I like that it can mean “govern”, I, personally, like to think that translating it “without controlling” might be a better way to convey Lao Tzu’s meaning. Looking back over how many times Lao Tzu has told would-be leaders to give up their need to control, I think I am spot on.

But hold on there, there is more to this than that.

Sometimes, when Lao Tzu is speaking of Wu-Wei, he presents it as a paradox, Wei Wu Wei, which is often translated “doing not-doing”. The paradox explains the state of being that we need to be in. It is “harmony with the Tao”. Doing without doing, or governing without governing, is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. We have given up our need to control, our will to power; we don’t “try” to do anything. We merely go with the flow. But how do we do this? How do we achieve this state of being? I think Lao Tzu would say it isn’t as difficult as we make it out to be. It is really the most natural way to be. Doing what comes naturally, sounds easy enough, yes. What is unnatural is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. That is the value of non-action. That which has no substance enters where there is no space.

But to help us further, Lao Tzu points to the Master. The Master teaches without words, and performs without actions. That is the Master’s way. And it should be ours. As long as we are trying to make things happen, we are exerting effort. That isn’t the Master’s way. It isn’t about what you do. So stop with the doing. Be an observer of nature. Nature isn’t in any hurry. But it does have its own rhythm. We need to pick up on that rhythm. Though it isn’t in any hurry, all things do get done. There is a flow to the rhythm. Everything acts according to its nature, even we, ourselves. Get attuned to that rhythm, that flow. Become one with it and go with it.

How Not To Be Ordinary

The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

So, I have been wrestling with what to do with today’s chapter. In the past, I have spent a whole lot of time trying to unravel the mystery of the One, the Two, and the Three. And felt a great sense of accomplishment once I finally determined I had succeeded in unraveling the mystery. But, in spite of my feeling of accomplishment, I still felt that wasn’t the point of what Lao Tzu was teaching in today’s chapter. It was merely an esoteric exercise that wasn’t useful, beyond saying, “Look here, at my knowledge!” That isn’t what Lao Tzu is all about.

So, instead of going through a lengthy explanation of how I arrived at my understanding of the mysterious One, Two, and Three. I want to keep that part brief and delve into what I think is the purpose of what Lao Tzu is saying in today’s chapter. For anyone who is interested in all my efforts to unravel the mystery, message me, I would be more than happy to share it with you.

Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter with the Tao giving birth to One. The One is nothing, or non-being. The One gives birth to Two. This is non-being giving birth to being. The Two are yin and yang. The Two gives birth to Three. The Three, or Third, is chi. It is the energy or life force that flows through all things. It is the Tao in motion. One, Two, Three. These Three are all aspects of the Tao, non-being and being, yin and yang, and chi. These Three give birth to all things.

Then, he begins with all things and counts back down to the One. That is where it gets interesting, in what I think is a useful way. The Three comes in when he says “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male.” It is chi that turns things around. Remember, the Three is what gives birth to all things. Understanding that back and front are a representation of yin and yang, so back is yin, just like female is yin, we have yin facing yin. And, with male being yang, we have yang facing yang. That isn’t a state of harmony. But the action of chi turns things around. Yin is no longer facing yin, and yang is no longer facing yang. Male and female combine. That is, yin and yang. The result is harmony.

I apologize, if this abridged version explaining the mystery of the first two stanzas of today’s chapter leaves you confused, or otherwise dissatisfied. I think some explanation was due. And if you need any further help, please message me with your questions and comments.

We are now back to the One. The One that I think is the whole point of today’s chapter. Remember back in chapter 38, when Lao Tzu compared the ordinary person with the Master? He was talking, there, about our will to power. In yesterday’s chapter he was comparing the superior person with the average one, and the fool. Today, he remarks about one thing that sets apart the Master from ordinary people. It is that he doesn’t hate solitude. He makes use of it. He embraces his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe. The Master understands how the One is the catalyst for achieving harmony.

Ordinary people hate solitude. They don’t know how to make use of it. They don’t embrace aloneness. They don’t realize that by being one, they are one with the whole universe.

I don’t want to be ordinary. There, I said it. I want to be extraordinary. I want to be the master. And that means I need to understand how one becomes two and two becomes three and three gives birth to all things. I need to understand how yin and yang combine to achieve harmony. And I need to understand how one solitary individual can be the catalyst for achieving harmony in my universe. I need to embrace my aloneness, as oneness. Oneness with the Tao, which is one with all things.

How I Came To Pity The Fool

When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.

Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us about both the movement and the way of the Tao. The movement is a going back, a reversing, a return. We are expecting to go forwards, but we find instead, we go backwards. Instead of advancing, we retreat. The Tao is always bringing us back to the Source. The way is through weakness, yielding, submission. It never uses force. And, it doesn’t do anything, yet through it all things are done. This movement and way of the Tao is the way things are. We need to understand this is the movement and way of the Tao in order to stay centered in it, and embody it. Submission is never very easy for us. It is our own desires that make it difficult for us. We want to go forwards, not back. We want to appear strong, not weak. We want to be in control, not let the current of the Tao direct us. So, we resist. All because of our many wants, our desires.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu highlights how our desires trouble us, as he discusses the way things are vs. the way things seem to be. This causes very different reactions in people.

What we want is a path that is straightforward. One that is going into the light. One that is clear and direct. Why is it that the path before us, seems only to get darker; and instead of advancing, we seem to be losing ground? This path seems long. Ah, the problems we face when the way things seem to be are so very contrary to the way things are.

This Tao, the way of the Universe, is so very beyond our reckoning. We can’t perceive it. It hides itself from us. How can we know it? I look forward toward the illusion of happiness I see on some distant horizon. But no matter how far I may advance, it only seems that more far off. It is just as well. That happiness I see somewhere far off is just an illusion. True happiness is not out there, it is inside of me, when I find within myself, true contentment with who and what and where I am, right now.

But until we realize this, that all seems so very foolish. It truly takes a superior person to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. Oh, to be a superior person, instead of merely average, always wrestling with my doubts. Oh, I half believed it, when I heard of it. But there was always that other half that doubted it. The half that believed it said, “Look, there is true power.” But the half that doubted it said, “Oh, but it seems so weak.” The better half of me said, “I see true purity.” While the more dominant half saw it as tarnished. While part of me saw true steadfastness, the other part thought it appeared changeable. When I believed, it was with true clarity. But then it started to seem obscure. Back and forth I would go, half believing half doubting. The way things are is not the way things seem to be.

Oh well, we can’t all be superior persons. But I do have good news for all the average ones. I speak from experience, here. So it doesn’t happen immediately, but it can happen through a process. Lao Tzu insists we already have everything we need. And we doubt that. We aren’t content. We desire more. But the more we get, the less we seem to have. Our cravings are unquenchable. We never learned how to appreciate what we already have. So, we always want more. How can we know when enough is enough? We tell ourselves that we will be satisfied with only this much more. But when we have that, we still aren’t satisfied. We need to break out of this cycle.

I had to come to realize that it was my desires that were creating that vicious cycle. That the only way to be content was to appreciate what I already have, and that that is enough. I began to see how the cycle went. The more I desired, the more I would seek; the more I would seek, the less I would appreciate what I already had; the less I appreciated what I already had, the more I desired. This could go on and on, endlessly repeating. Which is why I had to come to an understanding of how the Tao moves, and its way in our Universe. When I see the Tao moving backwards, it is because I had things all backwards. That is why the Tao is always reversing things. It is through weakness, yielding that I found strength. What I learned is that the less I desired, the less I would seek; and the less I would seek, the more I appreciated what I already had; and the more I appreciated what I already had, the more content I became. True contentment came with freedom from desire. I have everything I need.

I never did laugh when I heard of the Tao. But I laughed once I began to realize how utterly foolish my doubts had been. And I still laugh at them; every time they rear their ugly heads. Sometimes, I think Lao Tzu is overly easy on the fools that laugh out loud when they hear of the Tao. He says, “Go ahead and laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao if you didn’t.” But just realize what the fools are missing out on. When you do, you may pity them. For them, the greatest art seems unsophisticated. The greatest love seems indifferent. The greatest wisdom seems childish. Just let that sink in. Because that is a strong indictment. They just don’t get it. What a shame!

For them, the Tao is nowhere to be found. And if they can’t see it, they’ll never believe it. Yet, it is as plain as the nose on my face. Yes, my nose is a very plain one. While the Tao is nowhere to be found it still nourishes and completes all things. Realize that the way things are is not the way things seem to be. There is something before and beyond what you can see with your eyes or hear with your ears. That is good news, even for the fool. Because the Tao nourishes and completes them, too.

How The Mystery Is Manifest

Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 40, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Nestled in the center of the Tao Te Ching, we find these four lines, identified as chapter 40. Don’t let the size of this chapter fool you. These four lines are very important for explaining the way things are. Four words stand out as the focus for today’s chapter, “return” the movement of the Tao, “yielding” the way of the Tao, “being” as it relates to all things, and “non-being” as it relates to being. We will take these one at a time.

Return is the movement of the Tao. Lao Tzu has talked a lot about returning in the preceding chapters, so saying that returning is the movement of the Tao, isn’t exactly surprising. But because this is an otherwise brief chapter, it does afford us the opportunity to understand better, what Lao Tzu means by returning. So, I looked up the original Chinese for the word which Stephen Mitchell translates, return. I think it helps greatly to understand how returning is the movement of the Tao. The word that Lao Tzu uses signifies reversing. I thought that was interesting. Return as a retrograde motion or movement, helps to make sense of what Lao Tzu is saying. He has said it before, “It is better to retreat a yard than to advance an inch.” That is an excellent way to look at it. We are all about advancing. But sometimes it is better to go back. Sometimes, it is the only way to go forward. Thus, Lao Tzu talks about returning to our primal selves. Or, to be like a newborn child. When we get to a point where we can no longer go forward, we may be wondering, which way to turn? Shall I go to the left, or to the right? What we always seem to resist is the very notion that the Tao, which is always returning to the Source, would ever be leading us to go backwards. Yet, that is often exactly what the movement of the Tao is going to be. A going back, a retrograde movement.

Yielding is the way of the Tao. I looked up the original Chinese for that word, yielding, as well; and I was more than a little surprised to find that it signifies weakness. But why was I surprised? Lao Tzu has had so much to say about the will to power, and none of it was good. We seem to think that the exercise of power, of strength, of the use of force, and sometimes even violence is the answer for just about any problem we face. But Lao Tzu has always turned the tables on those who think they know. It is through weakness that the Tao manifests its power. Yielding, weakness, is the way of the Tao. When we run up against an immovable object in our path, we don’t push forward, trying to force our way through, we go back. We yield. Submission is a good word to use here. We submit to the way things are. We accept our weakness. And use it, as our strength. Don’t try to be powerful. Be weak.

All things are born of being. The concepts of being and non-being are something that Lao Tzu introduced to us back in chapter two, when he was talking about yin and yang. He said then, they create each other, they support each other, they define each other, they depend on each other, and they follow each other. In chapter 11, he said, being is what we work with, but non-being is what we use. In this chapter he says, All things are born of being, and being is born of non-being. What he is talking about are two very distinct aspects of the Tao, the manifestations and the mystery. Both arise from the same Source. It is the Tao that gives birth to all things. Saying that all things are born of being is saying that all things are manifest through the Tao.

But how are those things manifest? Being is born of non-being. That is the mystery aspect of the Tao, the non-being that gives birth to being. Understanding that reversing is the movement of the Tao and weakness is the way of the Tao, we begin to realize the mystery of the Tao. It is the special complementary relationship of yin and yang. It goes backwards to go forwards. It shows its strength by being weak. Understanding and working with the complementary yin and yang is how we stay centered in the Tao. Yang is what we work with, but yin is what we use.

How To Restore Harmony

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 39, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has said in different ways, how being centered, or in harmony with the Tao would turn the world into a paradise. Now he describes it for us. I don’t mind admitting it. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world like this? A clear and spacious sky, a solid and full earth, all creatures flourishing together, content with the way they are, endlessly repeating themselves, and endlessly renewed. But, unlike the utopia that a planned society promises us, I am thinking of the Zeitgeist movement, or “The Giver” (I reviewed that movie, yesterday), it isn’t something that we can do anything to bring about.

No matter how noble our intentions may be, when we start interfering with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, and creatures become extinct. Hey, that sounds like the actual world we are living in today. I want to go back to that paradise. With the endlessly repeating and the endlessly renewed. I want us to be content with the way we are.

How can we be content? I think it comes down to remembering the lost Tao. Yes, our connection with the Tao has been lost. But we aren’t going to get it back by trying to change our outward circumstances. Does that mean being content with a filthy sky, with a depleted earth, with the equilibrium crumbling, and creatures becoming extinct? Far from it. But it does mean understanding that when we try to do something, we will not only leave a whole lot of things undone, we will only make things that much worse.

Left alone, nature always returns itself to balance. If we really have compassion on the parts, we need to understand the whole. Even the most powerful among us, full of the best of intentions, never know any better than in part. They deceive themselves and us, when they think more highly of themselves than they ought. It takes a constant practice of humility to understand the whole. You have to always be putting yourself after and beneath others, rather than before and above them. It is hard to let yourself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as stone, when you want to glitter like a jewel.

Can we practice that kind of humility? Are we willing to be shaped by the Tao, into whatever way it wishes? If we will be content with the way we are, then harmony with the Tao will be restored.

Don’t Try To Be Powerful

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking about how our desires are a problem for us. I recently watched the movie “The Giver” based on the book of the same name, by Lois Lowry. I had read the book some years ago when my own children were in middle school, and loved it. And I enjoyed the movie, too. And it got me thinking about how the community of sameness dealt with the problem of our desires. I am assuming that a lot of you read the book back when you were in middle school. But I apologize if I am spoiling it for those who somehow never read the book, and haven’t seen the movie, either. I do encourage you to do both of those things. If you haven’t yet, and spoilers are something that bother you, I apologize, because today’s chapter is full of spoilers.

In the community of sameness, set in some distant future, the elders have designed a community where there are no desires. It ends up being a bland, black and white world. There is no color. No variation in the climate or the terrain. There are no differences, only sameness. Everybody basically looks the same. Everybody basically acts the same. Sameness is celebrated, and anything that sets any one individual apart from the rest of the community, is not allowed. The elders in the community, understand that the only way to eliminate any possibility of all the negative desires is to eliminate any possibility that there be positive desires. There is no suffering, but there is also no joy. There is no hatred. But there is also no love. Freedom, choice, are no more. Because people free to make their own choices, often choose badly.

This community intrigues me because this is what powerful men and women might like to do in order to rid the world of pain and suffering. It is enticing. A community set up on the best of intentions. It is a utopia. At least to those who don’t know any better. If you have never experienced anything else, what’s not to like? There is no war. There is no poverty. There is no hunger. And, what’s more, all memories of what life used to be like, with its wars and poverty and hunger have been erased. That, along with any memories of what it is to experience joy, and love. So, no one, in fact knows what they are missing out on. Is this what Lao Tzu has been getting at, with all his talk about powerful men and women being centered in the Tao, and the world becoming a paradise?

The story would be pretty boring, if not for one very important addition to the community. There is one individual in the community that is burdened with all the memories. That individual is the receiver of memories. This person, alone, bears the burden of all the horrors of their previous experiences; but also, all the joy and the love. The question is, why should this burden be only on one? Besides the obvious sparing of everyone else, this person counsels the elders, so they will never repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

The problem arises when the current receiver of memories, having advanced to a ripe, old age must now transfer those collective memories to a new, younger receiver of memories. The old receiver now becomes the giver. What happens when the new, younger receiver gets a taste of not only all the bad, but all the good? Suddenly, becoming aware for the first time, that there is something before and beyond the illusion that has been put in place of reality, how will he or she respond? I have spoiled the book and the movie enough. So, I won’t answer that question and spoil it further, for those that ignored my spoiler alert.

The answer to the question on whether this is what Lao Tzu was getting at when he talked about powerful men and women being centered in the Tao, and the world being transformed into a paradise, is no, absolutely not. He isn’t envisioning a utopia where there are no desires. It isn’t all desires that must be eliminated, it is the desire to interfere with the Tao, that we have to be on guard against.

That is the desire that we want none of, in order to know peace. If powerful men and women didn’t have that desire, then the world would be transformed. But, alas, just like the rest of us, they do have that desire. The community of sameness isn’t a utopia because it is centered in the Tao. The Tao embraces our differences; good and bad arise from the same source. And that source is neither good, nor bad.

I said all that, to say this. If we want to be truly powerful, we won’t try to be powerful. Trying to be powerful, the will to power, is the desire to interfere with the Tao. The Master, one who is centered in the Tao, doesn’t try to be powerful because he doesn’t desire to interfere with the Tao. Unfortunately, all our powerful men and women are nothing but ordinary men and women, those who keep reaching for power and never have enough. Their desire to interfere is unquenchable. Oh, they have good intentions, just like the elders in the community of sameness had good intentions. But the will to power will always be their undoing.

The will to power will always drive ordinary men and women to do something. Something must be done. And they, because they aspire to be more and more powerful, are just the ones to be doing it. They are always doing things. See just how committed to it they are? Yet, many more things are left to be done. That is okay, they will say, just give us more time, and more power.

Meanwhile, the Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. How very different! That is the example we should be following. But ordinary men and women, always desiring more and more power, will never stoop to the Master’s level.

There are many more ordinary men and women, than there are masters. Many of them are kind and just and moral. These aren’t necessarily bad people. Remember, they may have the best of intentions. But the results are always the same. It doesn’t matter how kind or just or moral you are. If the will to power is what drives you, you will never be satisfied.

No matter how much they do, something will always remain undone. Sometimes many things. The will to power is insidious. When people don’t respond, like the people in power want them to, they will roll up their sleeves and begin to use force.

People sometimes make bad choices. Well, something must be done about that. We need to force people to do the right things.

There is a downward spiral that takes place in our world when the Tao is lost, when people aren’t centered in the Tao. At first, we try to substitute goodness, in place of the lost Tao. Do good, because it is the kind thing to do, or it is the just thing to do. But what happens when people, who aren’t centered in the Tao, continue to make bad choices. When goodness is lost, we substitute morality. We will force people to do good, because it is the moral thing, the right thing to do. But what happens when morality is lost? Perhaps you see a world full of immorality, but immorality isn’t the absence of morality. Amoral is probably a better description. That is when the will to power will substitute ritual. Don’t do good because it is good to do good. Don’t do good because it is kind or just to do good. And don’t do good out of some sense of duty. That has all been lost. Now all we have is ritual. Do good, because that is just the way we do things. But that is just the husk of true faith. The Tao has been lost, and all we have left is the husk. People will still sometimes make bad choices. Their connection with the Tao has been lost. Goodness, kindness, justice, morality, none of these motivate them. And ritual is an empty shell. There is nothing there to motivate people to do good. That, Lao Tzu says, is the beginning of chaos.

An empty shell is all that remains. That is what happens when we leave reality behind and dwell in the illusion. The illusion that people can do good out of goodness, or because of kindness, or out of a sense of justice, or because it is the right thing to do. Goodness, kindness, justice, morality – these are all just illusions. Why must it take things devolving until only the empty shell of ritual remains for people to see the illusion for what it is?

Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. And we are going to have to follow his example. Too long have we been concerned with the surface and the flower, while failing to perceive the depths and the fruit. If we are going to dwell in reality, we must let all illusions go. And that means the will to power must be let go, as well. The Master has no will of his own. He knew, all along, what that will would do to him.

When Will We Realize The Mystery

The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 37, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking about perceiving the universal harmony, the way things are. It is the eternal reality before and beyond the way things seem to be, what is going on in our world around us. Lao Tzu insists that one who is centered in the Tao can perceive it, though it is subtle. How subtle? It is so subtle that though the Tao never does anything, through it all things are done. We have to be able to perceive this, for that is the only way for us not to interfere with the flow of the Tao. When we are not centered in the Tao, when we can’t see that all things are done even when the Tao never does anything, we will inevitably desire to intervene. There are so many things going on all around us, that very much need improvement. How can we be indifferent to the pain and suffering? How can we be disinterested? Something has to be done. Why can’t I be a catalyst for the change I want to see in our world? Yesterday, I called that an innate desire all humans have.

Of course, some of the problems seem way too big for any one person to be able to do anything about. Which is why we also have a compelling desire to get the right people in power, so that they can collectively accomplish what we, as individuals acting alone, could never accomplish. Lao Tzu recognizes those desires, the best of intentions, for what they are. That is why he keeps coming back to talking about powerful men and women, and what they can and cannot do.

The problem with our desires, even those which are based on the best of intentions, is that they run counter to the Tao. They don’t accept the eternal reality before and beyond, the universal harmony, the way things are. They don’t acknowledge there is anything before and beyond what we can see and hear in the world around us. When we fail to perceive the eternal reality, our desires will enslave us.

We could talk about all the reasons that powerful men and women can’t be trusted to shrink or get rid of the pain and suffering in our world. We could talk about why so many of these problems are what empowers them. But I don’t think we need to talk about that, today. Because, I don’t think that is the reason Lao Tzu keeps returning to talking about them.

Imagine, instead, a reality that exists where powerful men and women really did have the best of intentions. In that world, the powerful, more than anyone else, can do the most good, or the most harm. That is why Lao Tzu keeps returning to them.

Perceiving the universal harmony, the way things are, becomes all the more important for powerful men and women. For if they don’t, they can really do great harm. Oh, but if they did, what a difference it would make. Why, if powerful men and women could center themselves in the Tao, the whole world would be transformed… That does sound promising. But notice how this transformation takes place. It isn’t because powerful men and women are doing something. It is because they aren’t doing anything. They are centered in the Tao. That is a state of being, not doing. The whole world is transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms, because it is left alone.

I like this reality. I want this reality. But it isn’t based on reality. That is why Lao Tzu begins this little exercise with that word, if. If powerful men and women could… If we want our whole world transformed, we must leave it alone. Left to itself it will be transformed, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.

The reason the whole world is not transformed, the reason people are not content, is because we have those pesky desires to interfere. And we act on them. Powerful men and women have the same desires we all have. Not a one of them is exempt. But, because they are powerful, when they act on those desires, the consequences are all the more powerful. Which is why Lao Tzu is always telling leaders and would be leaders, to trust the people and leave them alone. Don’t interfere with the way things are. Let the world sort itself out. Nature always does that, you know.

If we want to experience peace in the world around us, we need to start by finding peace in our own hearts. And that means, we must let go of all desires to interfere with the natural order. Lao Tzu is a whole lot more, do I dare say, “hopeful” here? While he said “if” with regards to the powerful, he says “when” to the rest of us. When there is no desire, all things are at peace. It is like he said, way back in chapter one: “Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Free of desire, you realize the mystery.”

Why Your Work Must Remain A Mystery

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 36, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about how to perceive the universal harmony; that is, the eternal reality before and beyond whatever is going on around us in our world. Lao Tzu had already said that the Tao is not something we can perceive with our senses. So, perceiving the universal harmony, words that point to the Tao, is going to seem monotonous and without flavor to us. It can’t be perceived by looking or listening outside of ourselves. When you look for it, there is nothing to see. When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear. However, one who is centered in the Tao can perceive the universal harmony, by looking inside their own heart. There, they can find peace. A peace that is there, regardless of the pain and suffering that is going on around them. That peace is inexhaustible.

Today, Lao Tzu continues talking about this; but he renames it. Now, he calls it the subtle perception of the way things are. Because I am always getting new followers, this gives me an opportunity to explain what Lao Tzu means by “the way things are”. Often, we mistakenly think the way things are is what is going on in the world around us. What do we see all around us? There is joy. I wanted to start off with something positive, because there is a whole lot of positive things going on in our world. Lots of joy. But, there is also pain and suffering. To some extent, all the negative things help us to appreciate all the blessings we experience. But for some, it seems like all there is, is pain and suffering. I am thinking of the countless wars, the refugees, the poverty, the hunger. I am so blessed, I don’t experience all those horrible things, first hand.

Perhaps, because I don’t experience all those negative things, I have no business talking of them. And, I probably wouldn’t, if I wasn’t residing in a country whose government is so directly and indirectly responsible for a lot of the negative things going on in the world. I am not suggesting the U.S. government is solely responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world. So, please don’t misunderstand. But, I do think that taking advantage of my right to free speech, is a good way to point out the misdeeds of this government.

But all of that is talking about things that are external to myself. And all of that, both the joy, and the suffering, are not the way things are. At least, not “the way things are” that Lao Tzu is talking about. When Lao Tzu talks about the way things are, he is referring to the eternal reality before and beyond all of the joy and sorrow we experience in our world.

So, what is the relationship of the way things are with the way things seem to be? They are coexisting simultaneously. But how do they relate to each other? That is an interesting question. Because it relates to how we can experience peace in our own hearts, even in the midst of great pain.

The way things are is before and beyond the way things seem to be. The one is eternal, while the other is temporal. The one is infinite, while the other is finite. The way things seem to be is a direct consequence of how we accept the way things are. If we were centered in the Tao, the world would be a paradise.

If you don’t like what you see in the world around you, be assured, the problem isn’t out there, it is inside of your self, and countless other selves. The world is your self. That is how Lao Tzu is wanting us to see things. All other beings are an extension of our selves. Take care of your self, and the world will take care of itself.

That is important for us to understand; because as we look around at our world, and we perceive pain, suffering, and misery, we naturally want to do some shrinking of that. Or better yet, let’s just get rid of it, entirely. I say “naturally” because I do believe we, humans, have an innate desire to improve on the way things seem to be. Many are convinced that if we just were to get the right people in power, then we could start to shrink, or get rid of all the awful things that are occurring. That is a compelling desire. I get it. But, sadly, it isn’t based in reality. That just isn’t the way things are.

Today, Lao Tzu tells us the way things are. And the sooner we accept this, the better it will be. If you want to shrink something, you simply can’t set about to try and shrink it. If you want to get rid of something, you can’t simply set about to try and get rid of it. There are laws at work here. Universal laws. It is the law of yin and yang, which governs our Universe. If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. Expansion always precedes contraction. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish.

Well, I don’t like that, not one little bit. But, I don’t have to like it. It is the way things are. When I try to interfere with that, I only make things that much worse. I can’t just take something, without first allowing it to be given. This is the way things are, the eternal reality before and beyond the way things seem to be. Stay in the center of the circle. Don’t interfere. Let things come and go. Only shape events as they come. Not before. And not after.

Putting this into practice, when all around you people are clamoring that something must be done, isn’t exactly easy. Because you have to adopt a certain disinterest in what is going on around you. I don’t know any other way not to go mad. That disinterest is your path to find that peace in your heart we were talking about yesterday. You can’t let what is going on around you, move you.

No, you need to wait for your mud to settle. Wait for the right action to arise all by itself. You know what overcomes the hard. And it isn’t more hard. You know what overcome the fast. And it isn’t more fast. You are going to have to be soft and slow, to overcome the hard and fast. And when people around you, especially your friends and family, are complaining about your disinterest, your indifference to their pain and suffering, you are going to have to be content to let your workings remain a mystery. They won’t be, but you have to be. Just show people the results.

How To Perceive The Universal Harmony

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

That is a pretty grand promise, right there, at the beginning of today’s chapter. If you are centered in the Tao you can go wherever you wish, without danger. That word, danger, keeps popping up. It is probably a good idea to understand what Lao Tzu is meaning here. Back in chapter 29, Lao Tzu said there is a time for being safe and a time for being in danger. He said, then, we need to see things as they are, without trying to control them. We need to let them go their own way, and reside at the center of the circle. That is being centered in the Tao. Then, in chapter 32, Lao Tzu said, if we know when to stop, we can avoid danger. It was in that chapter, Lao Tzu reiterated that the Tao is not something which can be perceived. Now, here, in chapter 35, Lao Tzu, once again, enjoins us to be centered in the Tao. Then, we can go wherever we wish, without danger.

Clearly, danger is something that can be avoided. And, the times we find ourselves in danger, rather than being safe, have little to do with where we may go. Avoiding danger isn’t a matter of avoiding the places where there is danger. For, if we are centered in the Tao, we can go wherever we wish, without danger. So, if our surroundings are not what determines whether or not we are in danger, what does? This is important for us to understand; because sometimes, when we are centered in the Tao, we will find ourselves in pretty dangerous situations. You can even be experiencing great pain and suffering. Lao Tzu isn’t making any grand promises about freedom from pain and suffering. He is promising that even when you are in the midst of pain and suffering, you can be free of danger.

It is a matter of perceiving the universal harmony; that is, the reality, before and beyond, our present circumstances.

Perceiving the universal harmony, these are words that point to the Tao. But we have already said that the Tao is not something that can be perceived. In other words, our senses are of no use to us in perceiving the Tao. And, words that point to the Tao, like “perceiving the universal harmony”, because they point to something that is imperceptible to our senses, will seem monotonous and without flavor to us.

How delightful it would be if it could be like music or the smell of good cooking. That would make people stop and enjoy. But, of course, it isn’t like that, at all. When you look for it, there is nothing to see. When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.

How, then, can we perceive the universal harmony, and be free of danger? Our senses tell us what is happening on the outside of us, and all around us. But, as we said yesterday, this is a matter of the heart. You have to look within your own heart to find the universal harmony. And, of course, we are not talking about your physical heart. Your heart, in this context, is the core of your being. That is where the Tao is. And, that is where the universal harmony may be perceived. The one who is centered in the Tao perceives the universal harmony by finding peace in her heart. This isn’t a peace based on outward circumstances. This is a peace that you have in your heart, in spite of any pain and suffering you may be experiencing. That requires focusing within, instead of without. As long as we are focusing on our suffering, our pain, we will never find peace. But, when we turn our focus away from what is going on around us, and to what is going on inside of us; when we use the Tao centered in the core of our being, we will find it is inexhaustible.

That is what Lao Tzu meant by knowing when to stop, to avoid danger. Stop focusing on your outward circumstances; there, there is danger. Focus, instead, on what is happening in the core of your being. There, there is safety.

Why Resistance Isn’t Futile

The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we talked about how to know and master ourselves. It means we have to stop lying to ourselves, that we don’t have enough and that we can, somehow, avoid death. Knowing and mastering ourselves means we realize we have enough, which makes us truly rich; and, we stay in the center of the circle, embracing the death of our selves as self, with our whole heart. To do this is to endure forever.

Today’s chapter, an ode to the great and humble Tao, shows us how this “death” is accomplished. It shouldn’t be any surprise that it requires no effort on our part. Stay in the center of the circle. Don’t resist the Tao, as it accomplishes everything in us. That is it, in a nutshell. But, perhaps, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what Lao Tzu actually says in today’s chapter.

“The great Tao flows everywhere.” This has been a constant theme for Lao Tzu. Like water, the Tao flows. “It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the Source.” What do you have to do for the Tao to flow through you? Just like with every other being, nothing is required of you. The Tao flows through you, whether or not you are aware of it. That we pretty much go about our lives, unaware of the flow of the Tao doesn’t change the reality that the Tao is flowing through you.

The Tao is called the great Mother. Why? Because all things are born from it. It is the Source. Because the Tao flows, it pours itself into its work (us). It nourishes infinite worlds (including us).

But here is where it gets interesting. The Tao gives birth to all things; yet, it doesn’t create them. It makes no claim to having created us. A Creator would. But the Tao does not. It makes no claim on the work it accomplishes. Though it is solely responsible for giving birth to us and nourishing us, it doesn’t hold on to any of us. We are free! This is important for us to understand. You can’t know your self, unless you know you are free. And you can’t master your self, unless you are free to be your own master.

I want to pause here, before I go on with the rest of the chapter, just because it is so very important that we understand this. We can resist the Tao. In fact, we often do. If we weren’t free, we couldn’t resist it. Much of what we have been talking about, as we have been journeying through the Tao Te Ching, is Lao Tzu saying, “Don’t resist it.” Those would be just idle words, if we weren’t free to resist.

Okay, all of you free beings, yes, you can resist it. But your life will be so much better, if you don’t. Why do we resist, then? We resist, because of what we were talking about, yesterday. We resist, because we see the self as self; and, seeing the world as self, involves dying to the self as self. And death to us, seems like annihilation. “I” will be no more. But, is what it seems to be what it really is? The answer to this question is found in the rest of the chapter. Let’s read it carefully.

The Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts. Lao Tzu says, because of this it can be called humble. But don’t pass over the significance of this too quickly. The fact that the Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts, points to exactly how the very next thing that he says does not end up being nihilistic.

All things vanish into it and it alone endures. There is that death that we were afraid of. I am going to vanish. There isn’t going to be anything left but the Tao. And yet, what has Lao Tzu been saying, all along. Being centered in the Tao is the only way to be truly your self. If you embrace death with your whole heart, YOU will endure forever. But wait, if I vanish into it and it alone endures, how do I endure?

It is the great philosophical question. And, it is what makes the Tao great. I think it is a matter of understanding what is meant by the death of self as self. We see examples of this all around us, but though we have eyes to see, we somehow miss this. Death isn’t the final chapter. The life cycle, which nature exhibits for us, demonstrates that death is only part of the cycle. The cycle endlessly repeats itself. The Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts. The Tao has vanished, too. Yet, it endures. We merge with the Tao and are hidden inside of it. Yet, we endure, too. It isn’t the self that dies. It is the self as self that dies. What emerges from death is your true self. The self that endures forever.

We don’t have to be aware of this. The Tao isn’t even aware of its greatness. Which makes Lao Tzu wax eloquent in his praise of it, “Thus, it is truly great.” But, if you are like me, you are probably wondering about our freedom to resist any of this. I know I said we are free to resist. But, this all seems to suggest that resistance is futile.

The best answer to that question is that there are a whole lot of things that we can and do resist that happen anyway. Does that mean resistance is futile? Wait, stop here. I do need to say that in spite of my insistence on using that “resistance is futile” line I am not referring to Star Trek and being assimilated in the Borg. I do not believe that is what Lao Tzu means, at all. I very much believe the self, your true self, endures this death.

But, is it futile to resist the knowledge about yourself that you already have enough, just because you, in reality, have enough? Is it futile to resist embracing the death of self as self, just because you are going to die to self, anyway? No! It isn’t futile. Because it matters. It matters, because it affects how you live your life, right here, right now. When you lie to yourself, telling yourself that you don’t have enough, you rob yourself of true contentment. When you resist embracing death with your whole heart, you cheat yourself out of fully living, of being your true self.

I am not going to lie about this. The Tao is our beginning, and it is our end. We really are, just along for the ride. That is the way things are. But we can make the ride a bumpy one. We can make ourselves miserable along the way. We are free to do so. But why do we?