Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.
Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.
I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about the refuse we must not refuse to throw away. Lao Tzu concluded yesterday’s chapter by saying, “Stay in the center of the circle and let all things take their course.” And, I said this “staying in the center of the circle” requires that we stop thinking and stop doing. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues where I left off.
Today’s chapter is easily the most misunderstood chapter in all the Tao Te Ching. Is Lao Tzu in the throes of depression? Is he experiencing some “dark night of the soul”? Twelve times he uses the personal pronoun, I. Seven of those times, he says, “I am alone.” Over and over again he violates his own, earlier instructions, not to compare and contrast ourselves with others. The tone of this chapter just seems wholly uncharacteristic of Lao Tzu. What is going on here? One translator (not Stephen Mitchell) referred to this chapter as, “One of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.” Wow! I was stunned when I came across that critique. Really? This, from a so-called friend? Who needs enemies?
I admit I used to struggle with today’s chapter, which seemed so out of place. It took me awhile to get so familiar with the Tao Te Ching, that I no longer struggled to find the context which has to rule any interpretation of a particular chapter. But this critique was coming from a translator, surely they had familiarized themselves with what they were translating? Or, maybe they just were translating from the Chinese to English, without any thought for context? Either way, I shouldn’t call the translator, Shirley.
But let’s take a look at the criticism, to see if it has any basis in reality. Is this a pathetic expression of loneliness, perhaps the most pathetic ever written? Does Lao Tzu show no appreciation for his many blessings?
I think this particular translator couldn’t have been more off target. And, here is why: While the chapter does take on a very dramatic change in tone and style, I think that can be explained, if you don’t try to read it as a stand-alone chapter. You have to read it in its context. Keep in mind, the division of this work into 81 chapters was a later addition. When it was originally penned, it was one complete work. I like being able to take a chapter each day; but I always understand that each chapter just continues where he left off. Sometimes, the chapter divisions aren’t even, necessarily, good places to stop.
What have we been talking about in the chapters leading up to this one? He has been talking about the turmoil and chaos that results when people don’t realize where they come from. When the great Tao is forgotten, people stumble about in confusion and sorrow, contriving systems to try and fill the vacuum created by their own lost connection with the Tao. Lao Tzu has told us what we need to do. Observe the turmoil of beings, yes; but contemplate their return to the Source. All those contrived systems need to be thrown away, so we will begin to remember the Tao. Lao Tzu isn’t being pathetic in this chapter. He is being empathetic.
That is the point of all the first person pronouns. He is taking on our suffering, as his own. This isn’t mere sympathy, where he feels sorry for us, or pities us, but can’t possibly understand exactly what it is we are going through. Oh, he knows and understands very well, what we are experiencing. He experiences it, as well.
The context is so obvious to me now, I wonder how I ever struggled to see it before. We said, yesterday, that staying in the center of the circle, and letting all things take their course means “Stop thinking and stop doing.” And how does Lao Tzu begin today’s chapter? “Stop thinking, and end your problems.”
He is talking to himself, yes. But this is that intentional empathy we have spoken of before. He sees the world as his self. “What is the difference between yes and no, between success and failure? Must you value what others value and avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous! How can we possibly empty our minds when we can’t stop thinking? Stop thinking, and all your problems vanish.
Lao Tzu understands just how “alone” we can feel at times. That is why a complete, seven times, he says, “I am alone.” It is that sense of being alone that Lao Tzu empathizes with. So, he compares and he contrasts between the one who feels that, and all the others, who seem to be other than him. They are the ordinary ones. He is so very different. It feels like a very solitary path. Other people are so excited. Why is it that I don’t care? Other people have what they need? I alone have nothing. I just drift about, without a home. My mind is empty. I am an idiot. The reason Lao Tzu feels this way is because we all have felt that way.
Other people are bright, sharp, and have a purpose. I alone am dark, dull, and drift about like a wave on the ocean. Is it any wonder he is talking, or should I say mumbling, to himself?
This is all ridiculous! But he doesn’t call it ridiculous to mock us. The point of calling it ridiculous is to show us that it is completely okay to feel alone, while realizing you are not alone. That is where the empathy comes in. You are not alone. No matter how very alone you feel. You are not alone. And, it is okay to be different. We are all different, unique, individuals. Our empathy with each other never erases our individuality. It is okay to be different. What wouldn’t be okay, would be for us to all be the same. How very ordinary, that would be!
But we are different! Which makes us extraordinary! So, stay there, in the center of the circle. Let all things take their course. Just drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.