Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.
If these three aren’t enough,
just stay in the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday’s chapter was a downer. I am not making any apologies for that. I liken it to going to a physician and being told the bad news first. Until we realize we are sick, we won’t be able to move toward health.
As a recap of yesterday’s chapter, especially for those who weren’t able to read it, Lao Tzu chronicled exactly what ails us as the great Tao has been forgotten. Being the clever and resourceful creatures we humans are, we have contrived all sorts of substitutes, crutches if you will, for our lost connection with the Tao. In individuals, these crutches are our cleverness and our knowledge. In families, it is our moral duties to each other. In our country, patriotism rears its ugly head. But Lao Tzu doesn’t leave us with only the dark and bleak diagnosis. There is a way to be healed. Today’s chapter, will go a long way toward healing us of our forgetfulness.
Because the great Tao has been forgotten, people are stumbling about in confusion and sorrow. But be of good cheer. The Tao is not lost, only our connection with it has been lost. What has been lost can be regained. Consider today’s chapter, the physician’s prescription. But, be forewarned: drastic times call for drastic measures.
We need to remember the forgotten Tao. And the sooner we do, the sooner our connection with the Tao will be restored. And that will result in a return to our natural state. Let there be no regrets for lost years. Some people suffer from a lifetime of regrets. But we need to leave the past in the past, where it belongs. The Tao is ever present. And realizing, once again, where we come from means being completely present.
All those crutches, the substitutes we have contrived to go on with our living with the Tao forgotten, have got to go. As Lao Tzu puts it, they need to be thrown away. The goodness and piety. The cleverness and knowledge. The filial piety. The patriotism. All of these are signs of the turmoil we are all suffering.
Today begins our road to recovery, a recovery of our connection to, and harmony with, the Tao.
Using the analogy of crutches, I think it is good to understand this. There is a time when crutches can be very useful. But there comes a time when the crutches need to be set aside. They are no longer an aid to your healing. They will only hinder further healing. That time is now. The crutches are not of any help to us. They never were.
Lao Tzu lists three pairs of substitutes for the Tao that we simply must be willing to throw away. I call them crutches because we have become dependent on these contrived and forced methods for living our lives. Holiness and wisdom. Morality and justice. Industry and profit. Some of these may be near and dear to a lot of my readers. The temptation to hold on to these things, rather than throwing them away, may be great. I can already hear some of you asking, “What is so wrong with holiness and wisdom, with morality and justice, or with industry and profit?” and, I sympathize. My answer is that there would be nothing wrong with them, if they flowed voluntarily from the core of our being. But, we all know that these things aren’t flowing voluntarily from the core of our being. We are stopped up. There is a blockage. Our connection with the Tao has been lost. These things are systems we have contrived to take the place of what we used to do effortlessly, spontaneously, and intuitively.
And some of you will no doubt agree with me that we have this blockage; but, can’t we wait to throw away the crutches until the blockage has been cured? The crutches seem useful to us, until we have the cure. If we were waiting on bones to be healed, I might agree with you. But our problem is much deeper than broken bones. The crutches don’t aid us to regain our lost connection with the Tao. They only serve to prevent us from regaining our lost connection. Throwing away the crutches is the cure.
We can’t wait for people to be a hundred times happier to throw away holiness and wisdom. People won’t be any happier until we throw away these crutches. We can’t wait for people to do the right thing before we throw away morality and justice. People won’t do the right thing as long as we have these false systems in place. And, we can’t wait for there to be no more thieves before we throw away industry and profit. The system of industry and profit we have contrived is directly responsible for the thieves. More on this later; bear with me, I will better explain exactly what is wrong with these things.
But first, trust me, the question isn’t, “Can we get away with anything less than throwing them all away?” The question is, “Will even this, be enough?”
I want to reiterate that the Tao has gone nowhere. It is still where it has always been, deep within the core of your being. And, as long as we insist on using these crutches, we will never get well. The only way to begin to remember what we have lost, the only way to realize where we come from, is to get rid of all the poor substitutes we have contrived to take its place.
Now, I really need to add this about Lao Tzu’s list of throwaways. I used to have a love/hate relationship with these things. All of us probably have. When I would get to this particular chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I would really wrestle with Lao Tzu over his throwaways. The struggle was real; for I both loved and hated these things, Lao Tzu said I needed to throw away.
It took a series of epiphanies for me to realize my problem, and our problem.
What I, what we, had done is put these things on a kind of pedestal. That is why they have become so hard to give up. Looking at them up there on that imaginary pedestal, it can be hard to see what is so wrong with them. Industry and profit took me an especially long time to be willing to throw away. My epiphany came when I realized (yes, there is that word, again) that these things are nothing more than ideas, intangibles. They aren’t real. What is holiness and wisdom? What is morality and justice? What is industry and profit? What are any of these things, apart from what we have been programmed to believe they are?
Because I had an especially hard time letting go of industry and profit, I will just talk about that pair. But, this exercise will work with any of them, believe me.
For some time now, I have considered myself something of an anti-capitalist capitalist. I want freed markets. So, I asked myself, “Can I work within our present system, this system of industry and profit, to get where I want to be? Because, let’s be clear, our present system of industry and profit is not a free market economy. It may or may not be fair to call it capitalism. But, I don’t have any real interest in debating that. To me, that is a great waste of time and energy. The question is, “Can I work within this present system to bring about a whole other reality? Once I started asking myself these kinds of honest questions, I didn’t find them all that hard to answer. Is there any doubt we have a real problem with thieves in our present system? And I am not referring to blue collar thieves, here. It is the white collar, very much sanctioned by the State, thieves to which I am referring. What is it going to take to be rid of these thieves?
Suddenly, the pedestals these throwaways have been on, crumble and fall away. No longer do I love them so much. Now, I understand just how much they need to go.
But, like I said earlier, that was never the question. The real question is, will this be enough?
And, Lao Tzu anticipates that question. He answers, if throwing these three things away isn’t enough, just stay in the center of the circle and let all things take their course.
That sounds entirely too simple; and, entirely too difficult. I have asked the question, “But, how?” so many times, that I am somewhat ashamed with myself. It really is simple. It is only difficult because we are approaching it from an entirely unnatural perspective. Just like when we were so reticent in our refusal to throw away the refuse. Staying in the center of the circle is simply staying connected to the Tao. Letting all things take their course requires that we practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. What makes it difficult is what we think we know. We want to hold on to our cleverness and our knowledge. And, our addiction to being in control. Our will to power, how swiftly we resort to the use of force, our desire to interfere. Stay in the center of the circle. Stop thinking. Stop doing. Let your mind empty and your core fill, to overflowing. Realize where you come from, and you won’t stumble about in confusion and sorrow, any longer.