Know When To Stop

The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The last couple days have been mentally and emotionally exhausting for me. I spent way too much time on social media; much of that time sighing at posts made by friends and acquaintances, who I wish I could make understand the wonders of the Tao. My post, yesterday, particularly exhausted me. I poured the contents of my heart out on that one. Pleading for people to be decent human beings. I have an audience of somewhere around 1400 people each day. That would be the number of people that have direct access to what I write. But even after yesterday’s post, the silence has been deafening. I hoped someone would read it. But I have serious doubts.

Whenever I survey the world, I try to remember that the hopelessness I feel is but a phantom. It isn’t real. But before I go on to today’s commentary, I would like to correct one mistake that I caught after posting yesterday. I said, near the end of my commentary, that there is one thing I do know: we used to enter a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if we were attending a funeral. I was echoing what Lao Tzu had said in the chapter about the requirements of human decency. But I realized I made a mistake there; when I said I knew we used to express this kind of human decency. After posting, I thought better of that. I think I was romanticizing our history of prior wars. I don’t actually know that we ever entered a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if we were attending a funeral. Hollywood may depict prior wars like that. Even many of our history books might suggest that. But I really doubt that has ever been true. Maybe there have been a few individual acts that demonstrated the human decency that Lao Tzu was asking for; but they haven’t been the norm, in any age.

Hopelessness. The Tao can’t be perceived. How am I ever going to be able to make people understand its wonders? It is smaller than an electron; yet, it contains uncountable galaxies. What Lao Tzu is getting at here isn’t the utter hopelessness, though. What he is saying is that the mystery of the Tao isn’t something we can perceive with our senses. That doesn’t make it any less real. But it does make it seem less real to those of us, conditioned to only believe in something that is tangible.

Hopelessness. If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, oh, what a wonderful world it would be. I mean, Lao Tzu comes right out and says the world would become a paradise. But we know better. We know better in two distinct ways. First, we think we know better than to trust the Tao. We can get along just fine without it, thank you very much. Lao Tzu’s teachings are nonsense! Or, they are lofty, but impractical! Then again, we think we know better because we know that powerful men and women can’t remain centered in the Tao. It would be great if they could, but they can’t, so that is that. Hopelessness.

I guess I fall firmly in the second camp, I don’t trust powerful men and women. I don’t believe they can be trusted. But I refuse to give into the hopelessness. I do trust the Tao. Though the Tao is a mystery we cannot perceive, it does contain uncountable galaxies. The Universe follows the Tao. The Earth follows the Universe. And, you and I can follow the Earth. We can accept the world, just as it is. We can accept ourselves, our world. It isn’t a hopeless situation.

We just need to do our work and then stop. We need to know when to stop so that we can avoid danger. Because, while there is a time to be in danger, there is also a time to be safe from all harm. We can avoid trying to force things. We can avoid trying to dominate events. We can go with the flow of the Tao. I don’t have to convince others. I don’t need others’ approval.

We just need to understand that names and forms are provisional. There is a time when the functions of institutions should end. All things end in the Tao. That isn’t a hopeless end, at all. All things end in the Tao like rivers flow into the sea. I am just going to be like water. I am going to function like water. Flowing, always flowing, until I end in the Tao. Things that served us for a time, may no longer serve us. I don’t have to convince others of this. But that doesn’t mean I can’t know when their time has come to an end. I am just going to be like water. I know where I will end.

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