Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.
If you don’t realize the Source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 16, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Back in chapter twelve, Lao Tzu began talking about all the things that distract us. The clutter of our lives. The turmoil. He said then, “Colors blind the eye, sounds deafen the ear, flavors numb the taste, thoughts weaken the mind, desires wither the heart.” We are in this world full of distractions. And, as tempting as it might be, we can’t separate ourselves from the world. We and the world are one. We aren’t separate. But, what can we do? Lao Tzu said, “The Master observes the world, but trusts his inner vision.” Today’s chapter shows us how to do just this. To observe the turmoil of beings, but instead of being caught up in all the confusion, trust your inner vision, contemplate their return to the Source.
In chapter fourteen, Lao Tzu talked more about this. Referring to how to be at ease in your own life, he said that looking and listening and reaching was not the way to realize it. If you want to be at ease in your own life, you have to realize where you come from. That is the essence of wisdom.
Something I didn’t really say then, though I should have, is that Lao Tzu didn’t say “realize where you came from.” Where you came from is not nearly as important as where you come from. Where you came from speaks of all the things that separate us from one another. In what country were you born? Who is your family? What is your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your social and economic class? All of these are distinctions which separate us from the whole. They divide us. They set us apart, establishing what makes us different from all the rest.
That is not to say that we are not all individuals, unique in the Universe. It is only to say that where we came from does not help to bring us together. Oh, we will congregate with those who are like us. But it is always us versus them. There are always the others. Those who are different from us. We live our lives as separate from all the others. But thinking of ourselves as separate makes living an unending competition, with winners and losers. We hope for success. We fear failure. Why do we hope and fear? These phantoms only arise because we are thinking of ourselves as separate from all the others. (See chapter 13).
Lao Tzu wants us to see the world as ourselves. That is the only way to realize this life of ease. Today’s chapter helps us to realize this wisdom.
I like to sit outside in my backyard. I do so every day. It is my own special place. Now, you would think that this is a quiet place, wholly undisturbed by all the turmoil of the world going on around me. Actually, my backyard faces one of the busiest streets in the town in which I live. There are always cars going by. People walking by on the sidewalk. Our local library is just across the street. The local college campus is within walking distance, a block or two away. Lots of traffic, both cars and pedestrians, lots of turmoil. Could I have picked a worse spot for emptying my mind of all thoughts and letting my heart be at peace? Actually, I think Lao Tzu would agree that I couldn’t have picked a much better spot. How do I do it? This emptying of my mind of all thoughts. How can my heart be at peace?
This is what I do. I observe the world around me. I don’t set about trying to empty my mind of all thoughts. I simply don’t worry about them. I don’t dwell on them. They come, they go. I don’t give them my mind’s attention. My mind ceases to fill up with thoughts and, instead, empties. I observe the world around me. I see all the turmoil of beings. But I don’t let that turmoil steal my heart’s peace. I don’t contemplate the turmoil of beings. I contemplate their return to the Source.
Remember, it is the essence of wisdom to realize where you come from. I have already said that is more important than where you came from. Where you come from is the very same place where I come from. Where each separate being in the Universe comes from. We all have this in common. It is what makes us one. It is the essence of wisdom to realize this. As long as I am thinking of myself as separate, I can’t realize this. As long as I think of all the others as separate, I can’t realize this. That is why, as I observe the world and all the turmoil of beings, I don’t contemplate the turmoil. I contemplate their return to the common Source. The Source we all return to. This is how I let my heart be at peace. This is serenity. Now. In this present moment. The only moment we live. I am always returning to the Source. Always returning. Each separate being is always returning. Every moment.
Does my mind sometimes wander? Sure it does. All the time. But I don’t beat myself up over that. I gently coax my mind back from its wandering. I return to contemplating, in this present moment. We are all returning to the Source.
You must realize the Source! Your Source. Our common source. Are you stumbling about in confusion and sorrow? You have been too focused on the turmoil. You and the turmoil have become one. You must separate yourself, not from the world, not from all other beings, but from the turmoil. Observe the turmoil, but don’t contemplate the turmoil; don’t let the turmoil suck you in. Contemplate the return of all beings, including yourself, to the Source. When you realize where you come from, serenity is yours, now. That life of ease.
Yesterday, Lao Tzu described the appearance of the ancient Masters. Today, he describes your appearance; when you realize where you come from. It is what you naturally become. Tolerant. Disinterested. Amused. Kind-hearted. Dignified. I could have been any of those things if I worked hard enough at it. But this isn’t something that involves working. And it is so much better that it just comes naturally. I have naturally become all those things. I am not patting myself on the back here. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t work to be any of those things. No credit is due me. It is just what I have become. It just happened naturally.
It just happened naturally as I became immersed in the wonder of the Tao. Now, in this present moment, I can welcome all things. My mud has settled. The right action arises all by itself. I can deal with whatever life brings me. What will life bring me? I am not seeking fulfillment. I am not expecting anything. I just go with the flow. Letting things come and go. Will it be death? Even then, I am ready.