Competing Realities

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)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu talked about observing the world but trusting your inner vision. What he was doing is identifying two very different realities. One, the finite and temporal one, with which we are all quite familiar. We perceive it with our senses. I would call that reality an illusion. It is a dependent and subjective reality my mind projects, a hologram. But, what makes it even more interesting to me is what I “think” of my self is also part of that hologram. The other reality, Lao Tzu keeps talking about, is an independent objective reality. It is both infinite and eternal. It isn’t an illusion. It is the Way things are. I harmonize my self with that reality by trusting my inner vision, the spontaneous and intuitive real me, in the core of my being. In a sense, these two “realities” compete with each other. Yet the Tao competes without competing.

How the reality, with which we are all quite familiar, competes is by enticing each of us to compete with each other, to see our selves, as separate from others. Seeing ourselves as separate is part of that hologram we project. When we see the self as self, as separate, we create for ourselves a competing reality with the infinite and eternal one.

One feature, readily apparent, of this competing reality is the “so-called” ladder of success (and failure). Because we see our selves as separate, we compete by defining success by how far up the ladder of success we can climb. But, being a finite and temporal reality, we find ourselves competing for finite resources, finite time, finite everything. There is only so much room at the top. It is me against the world.

It should go without saying that being a part of the reality we are projecting, that ladder is also an illusion. Real ladders are dangerous enough; but, ones we create out of thin air are even more so. Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. Measuring success and failure the way we do, when we see our selves as separate, is a very dangerous reality. We pin our hopes and fears on that ladder. But what are our hopes and fears? They, too, are mere phantoms, both equally hollow. The reason they arise is we keep thinking of the self as self, as separate from the world. We live out our lives, always hoping for success and fearing failure. What we are really doing is postponing contentment and fulfillment until some imagined future where our desires will be realized. We live our lives, not in the present, but dogged by the past, and striving for the future.

The infinite and eternal reality is always present. One of the reasons that the reality we are projecting is an illusion is it isn’t a present reality. It is all about the past and the future. There is only what has happened before, and what we hope will happen.

Lao Tzu wants us to stand with both our feet on the ground of reality. Standing in the present, the always present, is the only way to always keep our balance.

When you realize the rungs of that ladder are no place to be standing, and you start to live in the always present, you see just how dangerous both success and failure are. The phantoms of hope and fear no longer pester you, for they have no place in the always present.

You transcend the finite and temporal reality by seeing your self in a whole new way. No longer do you project your self as self. Now, you trust your inner vision, where you see the world as self. Your inner vision shows you the always present reality. You are not isolated, alone, separate from the world. You are connected, and one, with all things. You aren’t separate from this reality. You are one with this reality. This is the Way things are. Have faith in the Way things are. You and the world are one. Love the world as your self. Now, you can care for all things as you care for your self.

That was enough to chew on for today. Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will offer us a riddle. Don’t worry. He doesn’t leave us guessing at the answer to the riddle. What we cannot know, we can be.

How Open Is The Sky?

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)

Yesterday’s chapter was a whole lot of nothing. Today, Lao Tzu counters that with the dangers of excess. If we want to avoid the dangers of excess, we need to learn how to trust our inner vision. It always keeps things in balance.

He begins by talking about the finite and temporal reality we perceive with our senses. Colors dazzle our eyes. But, you can have too much of a good thing. Those same colors can blind us to the infinite and eternal reality. Sounds, too, in excess will deafen our ears. You can even over-do flavors, and numb your sense of taste.

We talked, a couple of chapters ago, about the importance of reining our minds, so prone to wandering, in. Lao Tzu asked, “Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness?” Too many thoughts, weaken the mind. We need to realize when it is time to coax it back from its wandering.

Desires, the problem we have been talking about all along, wither our hearts. “I want, I want, I want.” We postpone contentment, when it could be ours today.

This is what it is like being a captive in a finite and temporal reality. It is a limited and limiting reality. Only what we can perceive with our senses, and nothing more. Try to take these to some extreme, and you only prove just how finite and temporal this reality is.

How do we escape this prison? How do we tap into the infinite and eternal reality, which Lao Tzu insists is right there, always present, inside each of us? Wise and virtuous persons observe the finite and temporal world around themselves. But they don’t limit themselves to that reality. They trust their inner vision.

Lao Tzu talked about our inner vision a couple of chapters ago, as well. He asked, “Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?” Now, I am going to be so bold as to suggest that Lao Tzu wasn’t setting us up for failure. He didn’t ask if I could coax my mind back from its wandering, or cleanse my inner vision until I see nothing but the light, knowing I most certainly cannot. We have the infinite and eternal reality always present inside of us. It is hidden in the core of our being. And, we can access it, and use it, in anyway we want.

So, how do we do that? How do we tap into it? Because this sounds really hard. But Lao Tzu will still insist it is easy. Only we, make it hard.

So, here is the key. Are you ready?

Let it happen. Don’t try to make it happen. Let it happen. Allow things to come and go. Don’t resist them when they come. Don’t reach for them before they arrive. And, don’t try to cling to them when they leave. Open your heart. What does that mean? Desires have been withering it. But like the petals of a flower, we need to let it open up again. How? By letting go of desires. Open up your heart, until it is as open as the sky.

How open is the sky? I got a message from one of my followers, after my commentary on yesterday’s chapter. He apparently does a lot of flying in airplanes, and talked to me about the emptiness he sees when he looks out a plane’s window. The sky is so empty that it can be filled with thousands of planes, in-flight, every day. That is a whole lot of emptiness which can be filled. Open your heart like that. You will be amazed how much your heart can be filled, with still room to spare.

By not resisting, and welcoming all things, you access the infinite and eternal inside of you. You can trust your inner vision. It will show you the Way, intuitively and spontaneously.

Tomorrow, we will see that our ideas of what constitutes success and failure are equally dangerous. And, we will discover that hope and fear are equally hollow. We will be challenged to look at self in a whole new way. And when we do, we will experience the infinite and eternal reality within ourselves.

A Whole Lot of Nothing

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)

Yesterday, I asked you to ponder the question, “What if nothing is impossible to you?” Today, I have another question about nothing. “What if there is a whole lot more nothing than there is everything?” That isn’t much of a question, really. We have been discovering the truth of this for some time, now. When you look out in space, what do you see? A whole lot of empty space, right? Oh, there are planets out there. And stars, lots of stars. And moons. And asteroids, meteors, comets, and among all the other things, don’t forget the black holes, too. But, when I look out into the night sky, I find myself appreciating how much emptiness there is out there. How much nothing. And, when we look at something under a microscope, we find that whether we are examining cells, or molecules, or atoms, or even the infinitesimally small parts of an atom, the amount of empty space to be found just boggles our minds. The whole Universe is filled with emptiness, with nothing. Today’s chapter is an ode to nothing.

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu introduced being and non-being. And, as I recall, I devoted no amount of time trying to explain these concepts. I was too busy talking about yin and yang. I hinted that yin is non-being, and yang is being. I said being and non-being create each other. But, I didn’t try to explain that being is what is, and non-being is what is not. I knew we were going to get to today’s chapter after so many days, and it could wait. Lao Tzu certainly didn’t mention non-being and being, directly, since chapter two. I could wait, if he could. Instead, he has spent several chapters talking about non-being, indirectly. By referring, time and time again, to the infinite possibilities available in emptiness. Somehow, we needed to gain a greater appreciation for non-being, without knowing we were talking about non-being. Non-being, emptiness, nothing, has infinite value, because what is not, as we have been seeing over the course of several chapters, now, is everything.

Wait just a doggone minute! How can nothing be everything? It all has to do with understanding the infinite usefulness in nothing.

If I were to point out a wagon wheel to you, you would probably notice how the spokes are joined together to make the wheel. If I showed you a pot I had shaped out of clay, you may or may not appreciate how well I formed it. I never was very good at sculpting things out of clay. When we look at a house, we admire the handiwork of its construction. All these things we are looking at, and appraising, are the being we work with.

But none of that being would be possible without non-being. Without the center hole for the axle to be inserted into, the wagon won’t move. Without the emptiness inside the pot, it wouldn’t be able to hold anything, let alone whatever we want. Without the inner space inside the house, it wouldn’t be livable. Non-being, that emptiness, that nothing, is what we use. The more non-being there is, and we are discovering more and more of it all the time, the more there is to use.

That should be enough about nothing, for today; but, we will have more to say about nothing in future chapters. Tomorrow, we will talk about how to trust your inner vision.

What If Nothing Is Impossible?

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)

I was really quite bold, yesterday, when I previewed today’s chapter by saying of the supreme virtue, “…you might think, maybe this is something hard to do. But, the only reason it is hard to put into practice is because we make it hard to put into practice. Lao Tzu will show us just how ‘easy’ it is.” Then, today arrives, and Lao Tzu leads off with six rhetorical questions, six seemingly impossible tasks for us to accomplish.

How can we be expected to accomplish these things? Keeping to the original oneness, our bodies becoming supple as newborn children again, cleansing our inner vision, loving and leading without imposing our will, letting events take their course, stepping back from our own minds. Well, I said it was us that makes it so hard. That Lao Tzu will insist it is quite easy.

What if I told you that nothing is impossible to you? We limit ourselves to a finite and temporal reality, when there is an infinite and eternal reality available to all of us. Practicing the supreme virtue is really about living a life of ease, one of true contentment. Why are we stuck in a limited and limiting reality? Let’s look at these just a little closer. And, see if we can break free.

We all know how prone our minds are to wandering. And, we often beat ourselves up over that. Why can’t I keep my mind from wandering? Damn it! There it went again. But Lao Tzu isn’t asking us to keep our minds from wandering. Take a breath, relax. Let your mind wander. Now, gently coax it back. Don’t try to do this. Don’t expend effort to make it happen. Just coax it back. You can return to the original oneness, and keep to it.

As if keeping our minds under control wasn’t enough, then he challenges us with letting our bodies become supple as a newborn’s. But is this really the challenge we make it out to be? He didn’t say to make our bodies supple. He asked if we could let it happen. We resist, when we should go with the flow of the Tao. If you want to be supple, be supple. Let yourself be supple.

And, now, we turn to talking about our inner vision. In talking about coaxing our minds and letting our bodies become supple, Lao Tzu was talking of our outer nature. But, of course, we have an inner nature as well. The core of our being, where the Tao is hidden but always present. Our inner vision needs cleansing, because, after years of disuse, there are, now, lots of cobwebs and dust in there. We need to be able to trust our inner vision. This is something Lao Tzu will talk about in a couple of chapters. So, cleansing it is important. As we allow our minds to empty, the core of our being will be filled. Intuition and spontaneity will rise. Will we let it? Will we trust it? Or, will we continue to allow our clever minds to talk ourselves out of what our intuition knows without knowing. Will we be so frightened by spontaneity, that we resist it with our bodies, making our bodies rigid, when they should be supple?

These first three tasks are only seemingly impossible because we make them harder than what they need to be. The last three are even more easily doable, if, we have taken care of the first three.

How strong is your will to power? Can you love people, and lead them, without imposing your will? Remember, the Tao leads by following.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? This one is my favorite, I think, because in our arrogance, we think we can control things that are really beyond our control. The Universe is forever out of our control. Just think about this for a moment. The most vital of matters are already beyond our control. Yet, we don’t see that. We somehow think our worrying, our fretting, our trying to control, will accomplish anything good. But, if you want to know what is impossible, consider all the things we simply take for granted, that we can’t possibly do a thing about. We need to realize this. It is the only Way to deal with the most vital matters. Let events take their course. Be supple. Go with the flow.

Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? Lao Tzu talked, yesterday, about doing your work and then taking a step back. This step back from your own mind means no longer relying on our own knowledge, our own cleverness. The gateway of all understanding is right there, in the darkness. Will we dare to peer into that darkness, and trust our inner vision? Or, will we choose to remain trapped in our own minds?

We want to be those who have chosen freedom over captivity. Choosing the infinite and eternal over the finite and temporal. And, Lao Tzu points us at the supreme virtue. It is the power of giving birth and nourishing, of having without possessing, of acting without expectations, of leading without trying to control. Nothing is impossible for you! Don’t make it so!

Today, I am going to be content with just this; saying my work is complete, and taking a step back. If you have any questions about any of these, feel free to message me; I will be happy to go into any of them, further.

Be sure to come back, tomorrow, where we will talk about nothing.

The Problem With Fullness

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)

Before I begin my commentary for today, let’s compare Stephen Mitchell’s translation, above, to Robert Brookes’:

“A cup too full will soon be spilled,

a sword too sharp will soon be dulled,

too much of anything cannot be kept.

Wealth and power soon turn to arrogance,

and misfortune follows.

Instead, draw back when your work is done.

This is the Tao.”

We have been learning the value of emptiness. Today, Lao Tzu teaches the problem with fullness. It is telling that you have never heard someone say to you, “That is too empty.” It may not be full enough; but, too empty? No one talks like that. It just isn’t part of our lexicon. But, too full? Yes, we have experienced that over and over again in our lives. You can’t have excess emptiness. But, you most certainly can have excess fullness. This may change, forever, how you think of the whole “glass half empty or half full” debate. Remember what Lao Tzu has taught us before: Wherever there is excess, the result is always deficiency. Whether you are filling a bowl or a cup, overfill it, and that excess is going to spill over. What a waste! That knife, or sword, can be too sharp. It will lose its edge. Place too much value on money and security, wealth or power, and misfortune always follows. Why do you think heart disease is the number one killer? Too much of anything can’t be kept. Deficiency always follows excess.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu gave us a few aphorisms to show us the Way to practice true contentment. Today, he offers us a few more, to show us how we practice discontent. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said, Enjoy your work! Today, he shows us why it is that we might not. If you want the only path to serenity, avoid excess in everything you do. Do your work, yes. But, know when to stop. Do your work, then step back from it.

Tomorrow, we will return to talking about the supreme virtue. Being the supreme virtue, you might think, maybe this is something hard to do. But, the only reason it is hard to put into practice is because we make it hard to put it into practice. Lao Tzu will show us just how “easy” it is.

What Happens When You Don’t Compare Or Compete?

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)

I have been referring to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person since my commentary on chapter one. To refresh your memory, in chapter two’s commentary I said, “Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous doesn’t mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.” I wanted to do this, today, because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter opens with talking about what Stephen Mitchell calls “the supreme good”. This is the “Te” in Tao Te Ching. And, calling it the supreme good makes me want to go back and think about what Lao Tzu has said previously about good and bad. He certainly didn’t say there is no such thing as good and bad, though I did say the Tao doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. But a lot of what I have been saying about good and bad has been talking about a subjective thing, human constructs. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. It is a subjective thing, it is all in how you see things. Once again, the Tao doesn’t take sides, and wise and virtuous persons don’t, either.

However, now that I am faced with talking about the supreme good, I find myself needing to differentiate between the subjective good and bad, we have talked about before, and the objective good and bad, which Lao Tzu addresses today. What was it, again, we have said about virtue? Virtue, the supreme good, is being in harmony with the Tao. Te and Tao go hand in hand, together. The supreme good is being in harmony with the Way things are. If you want to be in harmony with the way things are, that is, be virtuous, you will need to practice wisdom, that is, trust your inner vision. Which, of course, is why I refer to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person.

The supreme good, virtue, is like water. This is the first time Lao Tzu will use the metaphor of water, though it won’t be his last, not by a long shot. How is being in harmony with the Way things are like water? First, because, just like water, it nourishes all things without trying to. Without any effort water nourishes all things. And, being in harmony with the Way things are, also, requires no effort. All those who practice this, are nourished by it. A second way in which being in harmony with the Way things are is like water is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. One of the attributes of water is that it seeks out the lowest places. Lao Tzu would say, “It is content there.” And, being in harmony with the Way things are is being content to be beneath, below, rather than being above. In other words, just like water, it is like the Tao.

I am going to go out on a limb, here, and believe that all my readers are just like me; you want to be wise and virtuous persons. And, good news, Lao Tzu gives us a list of aphorisms to help us along the Way. These cover every aspect of the art of living. Do you want to be like water, too? Here are some ways to accomplish this.

In dwelling, live close to the ground. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “choose modest quarters”. The idea is very much the same. Be humble in your dwelling.

In thinking, keep to the simple. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “value stillness”. If you have storms raging in your life, you can be sure, they started with the way you think.

In conflict, be fair and generous. In Robert Brookes’ translation he says, “In dealing with others”, I like that. Dealing with others doesn’t always have to involve conflict. He goes on to say, “be kind.” Being fair and generous is being kind. But Robert Brookes continues by saying, “in choosing words, be sincere.” I am really enjoying comparing these two interpretations because they go so well together. Be fair and generous, be kind and sincere. Now, think of how easy it is for conflicts to be resolved, if even just one of the parties to the conflict were to practice these.

In governing, don’t try to control. Robert Brookes says, “In leading, be just.”

In work, do what you enjoy. How many times have we heard that one before? But Robert Brookes gives it an interesting twist, “Be competent.” How true this is! You can’t just do what you enjoy, if you aren’t any good at it. I enjoy singing; but, I don’t expect to earn a living at it. I am not competent enough!

In family life, be completely present. This, right here, is something I want every one of my followers to take to heart. We all have multiple roles we act out in family life. We are children, siblings, parents, and if we live long enough, grandparents, too. Everyone moans about the condition of family life, today. Much like they have been moaning since the very first families walked upright on the Earth. But, if you want to do something besides just moan, be completely present, in whatever role you have. Whether you wish to believe it, or not, it takes no effort to actually do this.

Okay, we took them all, one by one. I even consulted a second translation just to make sure we had them covered. But, you know what? It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water! It nourishes all things without trying to, it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is the supreme virtue. When you practice it, everybody will respect you.

Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will counter all the ways he said we can practice true contentment (from today), with the ways we practice discontentment. Pay special attention. Lao Tzu is offering the only path to serenity.

Infinite, Eternal, and How To Be Perfectly Fulfilled

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)

Perhaps, a lot of my readers are just like I was, in their understanding of words like eternal and infinite. For many years, I believed I knew exactly what these words meant. To envision eternity, all I did was imagine a very long time line, infinitely long. I could look at any point on that time line and know that, if I were able to look infinitely into the past, or infinitely into the future, from that point on the time line, I would never come to an end. That was what eternal meant to me. I have to credit C.S. Lewis for actually helping me to see that I had it all wrong. I was certain I was understanding eternity, but I had confined it to a time line. C.S. Lewis explained eternity to me by starting with that time line, yes; but then, he pointed at the space apart from that time line, and said, that is what eternal means. It is timeless. It isn’t part of the time line, and has nothing to do with the time line. All a time line does is give you points in time. Points in the past and points in the future. Our lives began somewhere on that time line. And, they will end somewhere on that time line. C.S. Lewis would go on to say that “God” isn’t on the time line. God can see all of the past, and all the future, at once, spread out as if it is always now.

Enter Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu says the Tao is eternal. Why is it eternal? Because it was never born; thus it can never die. Yes, I understand this, now. The Tao isn’t on that time line, either. It was never born, so you can’t point to the time line and say, “There, is its beginning.” And, since it has no beginning point on the time line, it can’t have an end point, either. The Tao is always present. That is how Lao Tzu explains it.

And the Tao is infinite, too. We have been talking about the infinite Tao for a few days now. It is its emptiness that makes it infinite. It makes it infinitely capable. Its possibilities are infinite. It gives birth to infinite worlds. But, does that really explain what infinity means? Well, the emptiness does hint at it. But, Lao Tzu explains it in a way, in today’s chapter, which was all new to me.

It has no desires for itself. Ah. Now, that emptiness is taking on even more meaning to me. Having no desire. Being empty. Having no desire for itself, it can be present for all beings. Infinity and eternity are forever intertwined with each other. The Tao is always present. It is always present for all beings.

Okay, that should be enough about the infinite and eternal for today. What am I supposed to do with this? This is when I ask myself what wise and virtuous persons do to harmonize with this infinite and eternal reality. Am I forever stuck on this finite and temporal time line; or, is there some way to tap into the infinite and eternal?

Understanding the Way things are, wise and virtuous persons find themselves ahead, because they stay behind. They are one with all things by being detached from them. They are perfectly fulfilled, because they have let go of themselves.

What exactly has happened here? It is what we learned about the Tao, yesterday. A wise and virtuous person begins with yin, not yang. Yang is all about getting ahead. But, yin is content with staying behind. Yang wants to be one with all things, while yin remains detached from them. However, by leading with yin, yang naturally follows. If we had led with yang, we would have had much different results. You will never be perfectly fulfilled by seeking to be perfectly fulfilled. Contentment isn’t about the things we don’t yet have, that we want so very much. Contentment is about being content, right now, in the present, the always present. If you want to be perfectly fulfilled, let go of all your desire, be empty, let go of all of yourself; you begin to realize fulfillment, contentment, isn’t something to attain, it is something to be, right here, right now. It isn’t something postponed. Because, that is what desire does for us. It postpones contentment, fulfillment, until later, once you have the object of your desire. But, when you are empty, it is always present.

Tomorrow, we will talk more about what wisdom and virtue mean. How do we harmonize with the Way things are?

It All Begins With Yin

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)

In chapter four, Lao Tzu compared the Tao to an empty bowl. It is inexhaustible to those who use it. In chapter five, it was an empty bellows. Infinitely capable. In both of these metaphors, emptiness is what gives them their utility. It took me a long time to realize this. I didn’t see the “value” in emptiness.

Being empty always seems to be looked on as a “bad” thing. We value “fullness”. Somehow, anything that is empty, has to be lacking something essential. It should be filled. But, of course, that is exactly what emptiness is “used for”. The value of that empty bowl, its utility, is that it can now be filled. With whatever you want to fill it. But, how hastily we rush to fill it. Not appreciating the infinite possibilities available to us in that emptiness. Both, infinity and eternity are in that emptiness. You can use it anyway you want. Just, don’t be in such a hurry to limit yourself to the finite and temporal.

Which brings us to today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu, once again, says the Tao is empty yet inexhaustible.

To refer to the Tao, today, he calls it the Great Mother. Out of that emptiness comes infinite abundance. That is the Way things are. The Tao is the Source, it gives birth, to infinite worlds, all possibilities. In calling the Tao the Great Mother, Lao Tzu isn’t saying the Tao is a woman. He isn’t personifying it. The Great Mother is a name for yin. It is the Female principle at work in our Universe. Yang, the Male, comes out of the Female. And then yin and yang continue to follow each other eternally.

Back in chapter four, Lao Tzu said the Tao is hidden but always present. Today, he tells us where the Tao is hidden but always present. It is always present within you. That is, each of us, contains, within the core of our being, the yin, which gives birth to all things. It is a creative force which you have, within you, to use any way you want. So, how will you use it?

We will have much more to say about this, for there is still much more for us to realize. But, for now, I am going to remember Lao Tzu’s sage advice from yesterday’s chapter, “The more you talk of it, the less you understand.” Trying to talk of the mystery, when we are still caught in desire, is (dare I say it) problematic. Tomorrow, we will talk a little more about what Lao Tzu means by the words infinite and eternal. Then, he will return to talking more about how wise and virtuous persons harmonize themselves with the Way things are.

Holding On To The Center

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)

Do you remember back in chapter two, when Lao Tzu began talking about how our desire, how we see things, creates all new problems for us? He said, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” I said, then, the Tao doesn’t make these distinctions, we do. Our desire, how we see things, creates the reality we perceive all around us. Soon, we will find ourselves over-esteeming and over-valuing. That is excess, which leads to deficiency. And, we talked for a couple of chapters about how to deal with the problem of excess and deficiency. Lao Tzu tells us to practice doing without doing, then, everything will fall into place.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins by teaching us how we can avoid doing something, when we really should do nothing. Don’t take sides! If we didn’t see some things as beautiful, some things wouldn’t become ugly. And, if we didn’t see some things as good, some things wouldn’t become bad. We need to avoid making these distinctions. That is our problem. We insist on making these kinds of distinctions. But, “The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil.” Wow! Do you see how unapologetic Lao Tzu is, here? Both, what we see as good, and what we see as evil, have, as their source, the Tao.

A wise and virtuous person doesn’t take sides, either. I want to be very clear, here. I don’t care how knowledgeable you think you are; and, I don’t care how good your intentions are, either. If you take sides, if you choose one side over another, if you say, “ah, this, here, is beautiful, while that is ugly”, or, “this is good, while that is bad”, you are being neither wise, nor virtuous. To practice doing without doing, you must free yourself of all desire, and welcome both saints and sinners.

To further illustrate this for us, Lao Tzu returns with another metaphor for emptiness. For, we really need to be empty of all desire. Yesterday, we saw the utility of emptiness in an empty bowl. Why, you can use it for anything! The possibilities are endless. Today, it is a bellows.

“The Tao is like a bellows; it is empty yet infinitely capable.” Once again, we have perfectly illustrated, the utility of emptiness. A bellows works with both yin and yang, just like the Tao does. When you put it to use, it repeats a process of contracting (yin) and expanding (yang). The expanding takes air inside. The contracting expels air out. It starts out empty. But the more you use it, the more it draws air in, and then pushes air out, the more it produces. When you set it aside, it is empty again. But, when you need it again, there it is, ready to be used again. Infinitely.

The Tao is like that bellows. It is the Way things are in our Universe. Periods of expansion are followed by periods of contraction. And, the reverse is, obviously, also true. Yin follows yang. And, yang follows yin. The Tao doesn’t take sides. Neither yang, nor yin, are preferable. They are one, in unity of purpose. Expansion and contraction bring about balance.

Is there, really, anymore to be said about this? But, the more we talk of it, the less we understand. Just use it. You will see. Don’t take sides! Hold on to the center. Balance will be the result. Don’t interfere!

Tomorrow, we will have another yet another metaphor for the Tao; and, we will find where the Tao is hidden.

The Value In Emptiness

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)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu introduced what many will call the pressing problem of our time, that of excess and deficiency. It may or may not be a surprise to some, that excess and deficiency were a problem in Lao Tzu’s day, as well. Indeed, excess and deficiency is a perennial problem for us humans. Why is there excess and deficiency? Well, surprise, surprise, the problem is our desire, which Lao Tzu has been addressing the last two days. We create deficiency, when we do anything to excess. The two always go together. If there wasn’t any excess, there wouldn’t be any deficiency.

And, of course, there will always be those who, because deficiency is something “bad” will propose solutions to solve the problem of deficiency. We have been doing this for thousands of years, now. It is so very obvious to us clever humans, exactly, what must be done. We need to do something about that excess. Excess is what caused the deficiency, get rid of the excess and, voila, no more deficiency.

Except… That isn’t ever how it works. When we intervene, when we interfere, we only bring things further out of balance. Oh, don’t misunderstand, here. The Tao will adjust excess and deficiency. And, the Tao will do it by taking from what is too much and giving to what is not enough. But, unlike us humans, with our good intentions, the Tao doesn’t make it personal. The only thing we should do in the face of the problem of excess and deficiency is to do nothing. Yes, Lao Tzu was serious, yesterday. Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.

I wanted to rehash yesterday’s theme, before I got into today’s theme, because it is so very important for us to understand. The practice of not-doing, or doing without doing, is a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. An often misunderstood concept, and one the vast majority are loath to put into practice in their own lives.

The problem is, we don’t see the value in nothing. And, so, Lao Tzu is going to spend a few of our upcoming chapters talking about the value of nothing, of emptiness. Once we start to see that doing nothing is doing something, and the infinity in emptiness, we can really start to harmonize with the Way things are.

In today’s chapter, Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses two different metaphors to point to the value of nothing, emptiness. “The Tao is like a well; used but never used up. It is like the eternal void; filled with infinite possibilities.” But. before I try to work with these two metaphors for the infinite possibilities to be found in emptiness, I want us to look at one other translation of today’s chapter. I talked about Robert Brookes’ translation in my commentary on chapter one. I was just introduced to his translation, copyright 2010, a couple of months ago. And, today’s chapter, is one of those chapters, where Brookes’ translation really gets at what Lao Tzu is conveying.

“The Tao is an empty bowl, inexhaustible to those who use it. Indeed, in its depths lies the origin of all things.”

The reason that the “empty bowl” metaphor works better for me is because the utility of the empty bowl is its emptiness. With a well, we keep wanting to draw something out of it. You might tell me it is empty, but as long as I can draw water out of it, I am not buying the whole “emptiness” argument. And, then to shift to saying it is like the eternal void, while that certainly does conjure up images of emptiness, it is just too abstract to think of the infinite possibilities with which it is filled. But an empty bowl? That I can work with. For Lao Tzu wants us to see the value of emptiness. What is the purpose of that empty bowl? Well, as long as it is an empty bowl, the uses for it are inexhaustible. Are you going to use it for cereal and milk? How about ladling some hot soup into it? Or, maybe you will put it to some other use. I don’t want to spend all my time coming up with the infinite variety of ways that empty bowl can be put to use. The point is, that emptiness has value. It has utility. And, we rarely take the time to appreciate the value of emptiness. Of nothing.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss Lao Tzu’s instructions to practice doing nothing. Everything will fall into place, if we will only get out of the way, and let them.

Robert Brookes points out the emptiness of the Tao, and says that in its depths lies the origin of all things. Stephen Mitchell, too, talked about origins in today’s chapter. “[The Tao] is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”

Older than God? That is just a humorous way of saying the Tao has existed forever. And since it has no beginning, it has no end. Now, what was it we were saying about the Tao in chapter one? Oh, yes, it is the infinite and eternal reality. If we want to break away from the limits of the finite and temporal reality, discovering the value of emptiness will bring us a long way toward tapping into the infinite and eternal Way things are.

Tomorrow, we will look more into the practice of doing without doing. And, we will have another metaphor on how emptiness produces infinite possibilities.