Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.
Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.
Approach it, and there is no beginning;
follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it,
but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from;
this is the essence of wisdom.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 14, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
A couple of chapters back, Lao Tzu told us how the stimuli our senses are taking in, can make it difficult to focus on our inner vision. “Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste.” He very clearly wasn’t referring to our physical eyes, ears, and tongue. The eye, ear, and taste, here, are a description of our inner vision. “Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart.” We want to be able to cleanse our inner vision (see chapter 10); so we can trust our inner vision. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu talked about the proverbial ladder of success and failure. And how our hopes for success and our fear of failure are not only equally dangerous, they are equally hollow. If we want to keep our balance, we need to stand with both our feet on the ground.
Today, Lao Tzu expands on this theme, by beginning with a riddle. Thankfully, he doesn’t leave us guessing what the riddle is all about. We want to know ease in our own life. That is the whole point of that ladder, right? The riddle tells us we can’t know it.
Our senses aren’t any help to us. Looking for it won’t help, because it can’t be seen. Listening for it won’t help, because it can’t be heard. Reaching for it won’t help, because it can’t be grasped.
What that proverbial ladder promises us, a life of ease, isn’t grounded in reality. It is both dangerous and hollow to put our hopes in that ladder. The real problem with the ladder is that its promises are always future promises. You can’t have that life of ease, now, says the ladder. But you can have it in some future time – if you will only climb higher. But the future has a way of always being a distance away. You look above, it isn’t bright. You look below, it isn’t dark. How can you approach it, when there is no beginning? How can you follow it, when there is no end? It just goes on and on and on, without beginning, without end, seamless. It isn’t something you can even give a name; it is unnameable. It always moves back (or returns) to the realm of nothing (nothingness). Getting frustrated yet? It isn’t that it is formless. It is that its form includes all forms. It is an image without an image. It is so subtle. So subtle, that it is beyond anything that you can conceive.
Okay, okay, we know we can’t know it. That was the point of the riddle. Infinitely confounding. That would seem to be very, very bad news. But Lao Tzu doesn’t just want us to abandon all hope. Though that is a good starting point, when you enter here. What we can’t know, we can be. Notice he said be and not become. For this isn’t some pie in the sky, reserved for the sweet by and by.
You can be at ease in your own life, right here, and right now. Just realize where you come from. Realizing this is the essence of wisdom. So, how do we go about realizing it? Speaking as someone who has followed this path awhile, perhaps I can help.
Realizing, as I have said before, is something beyond knowledge. Realizing is spontaneous. And, it is intuitive. You may have a lifetime of stored knowledge and yet never experience realization of that something you think you know so much about. Realization doesn’t come through effort. You shouldn’t set about to try and realize it. That is not only anti-intuitive, it is misunderstanding what spontaneity is. It is an “in the present moment” kind of experience. It happens, when it happens, in the present moment, spontaneously; and you experience it, intuitively. We all know what intuitive means. It is beyond, or outside the realm of, knowledge. And it isn’t just reserved for women. “How do you know that? I don’t know, I just do.” Intuition isn’t something that is, or can be, forced. It just happens. So, refer back to the riddle. This isn’t something you can know. We defeat ourselves when we insist on knowing, rather than being. Don’t try to know. Just be. We can’t know. But we can just realize.
Notice, too, he said come; he didn’t say came. It isn’t “Just realize where you came from.” This isn’t about your past. It isn’t about where you came from. It is about the present. Where you come from. That is what we just realize. Spontaneously. Intuitively.
So, having said all that, are you still wondering how to just realize where you come from? Because there really is an answer. And here it is. I want to live in the present moment. I want my heart open like the sky, ready to experience spontaneous and intuitive realization. So, I practice not-knowing. Knowing that I don’t know. And, I practice not-doing. I don’t interfere with the flow of the Tao. I let things come and go as they will, effortlessly. And that, my friends, is living in the present moment. That is when spontaneous, intuitive realization comes. It is where you come from.