She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.
Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
That is a pretty grand promise, right there, at the beginning of today’s chapter. If you are centered in the Tao you can go wherever you wish, without danger. That word, danger, keeps popping up. It is probably a good idea to understand what Lao Tzu is meaning here. Back in chapter 29, Lao Tzu said there is a time for being safe and a time for being in danger. He said, then, we need to see things as they are, without trying to control them. We need to let them go their own way, and reside at the center of the circle. That is being centered in the Tao. Then, in chapter 32, Lao Tzu said, if we know when to stop, we can avoid danger. It was in that chapter, Lao Tzu reiterated that the Tao is not something which can be perceived. Now, here, in chapter 35, Lao Tzu, once again, enjoins us to be centered in the Tao. Then, we can go wherever we wish, without danger.
Clearly, danger is something that can be avoided. And, the times we find ourselves in danger, rather than being safe, have little to do with where we may go. Avoiding danger isn’t a matter of avoiding the places where there is danger. For, if we are centered in the Tao, we can go wherever we wish, without danger. So, if our surroundings are not what determines whether or not we are in danger, what does? This is important for us to understand; because sometimes, when we are centered in the Tao, we will find ourselves in pretty dangerous situations. You can even be experiencing great pain and suffering. Lao Tzu isn’t making any grand promises about freedom from pain and suffering. He is promising that even when you are in the midst of pain and suffering, you can be free of danger.
It is a matter of perceiving the universal harmony; that is, the reality, before and beyond, our present circumstances.
Perceiving the universal harmony, these are words that point to the Tao. But we have already said that the Tao is not something that can be perceived. In other words, our senses are of no use to us in perceiving the Tao. And, words that point to the Tao, like “perceiving the universal harmony”, because they point to something that is imperceptible to our senses, will seem monotonous and without flavor to us.
How delightful it would be if it could be like music or the smell of good cooking. That would make people stop and enjoy. But, of course, it isn’t like that, at all. When you look for it, there is nothing to see. When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
How, then, can we perceive the universal harmony, and be free of danger? Our senses tell us what is happening on the outside of us, and all around us. But, as we said yesterday, this is a matter of the heart. You have to look within your own heart to find the universal harmony. And, of course, we are not talking about your physical heart. Your heart, in this context, is the core of your being. That is where the Tao is. And, that is where the universal harmony may be perceived. The one who is centered in the Tao perceives the universal harmony by finding peace in her heart. This isn’t a peace based on outward circumstances. This is a peace that you have in your heart, in spite of any pain and suffering you may be experiencing. That requires focusing within, instead of without. As long as we are focusing on our suffering, our pain, we will never find peace. But, when we turn our focus away from what is going on around us, and to what is going on inside of us; when we use the Tao centered in the core of our being, we will find it is inexhaustible.
That is what Lao Tzu meant by knowing when to stop, to avoid danger. Stop focusing on your outward circumstances; there, there is danger. Focus, instead, on what is happening in the core of your being. There, there is safety.