The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.
If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.
When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 37, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking about perceiving the universal harmony, the way things are. It is the eternal reality before and beyond the way things seem to be, what is going on in our world around us. Lao Tzu insists that one who is centered in the Tao can perceive it, though it is subtle. How subtle? It is so subtle that though the Tao never does anything, through it all things are done. We have to be able to perceive this, for that is the only way for us not to interfere with the flow of the Tao. When we are not centered in the Tao, when we can’t see that all things are done even when the Tao never does anything, we will inevitably desire to intervene. There are so many things going on all around us, that very much need improvement. How can we be indifferent to the pain and suffering? How can we be disinterested? Something has to be done. Why can’t I be a catalyst for the change I want to see in our world? Yesterday, I called that an innate desire all humans have.
Of course, some of the problems seem way too big for any one person to be able to do anything about. Which is why we also have a compelling desire to get the right people in power, so that they can collectively accomplish what we, as individuals acting alone, could never accomplish. Lao Tzu recognizes those desires, the best of intentions, for what they are. That is why he keeps coming back to talking about powerful men and women, and what they can and cannot do.
The problem with our desires, even those which are based on the best of intentions, is that they run counter to the Tao. They don’t accept the eternal reality before and beyond, the universal harmony, the way things are. They don’t acknowledge there is anything before and beyond what we can see and hear in the world around us. When we fail to perceive the eternal reality, our desires will enslave us.
We could talk about all the reasons that powerful men and women can’t be trusted to shrink or get rid of the pain and suffering in our world. We could talk about why so many of these problems are what empowers them. But I don’t think we need to talk about that, today. Because, I don’t think that is the reason Lao Tzu keeps returning to talking about them.
Imagine, instead, a reality that exists where powerful men and women really did have the best of intentions. In that world, the powerful, more than anyone else, can do the most good, or the most harm. That is why Lao Tzu keeps returning to them.
Perceiving the universal harmony, the way things are, becomes all the more important for powerful men and women. For if they don’t, they can really do great harm. Oh, but if they did, what a difference it would make. Why, if powerful men and women could center themselves in the Tao, the whole world would be transformed… That does sound promising. But notice how this transformation takes place. It isn’t because powerful men and women are doing something. It is because they aren’t doing anything. They are centered in the Tao. That is a state of being, not doing. The whole world is transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms, because it is left alone.
I like this reality. I want this reality. But it isn’t based on reality. That is why Lao Tzu begins this little exercise with that word, if. If powerful men and women could… If we want our whole world transformed, we must leave it alone. Left to itself it will be transformed, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.
The reason the whole world is not transformed, the reason people are not content, is because we have those pesky desires to interfere. And we act on them. Powerful men and women have the same desires we all have. Not a one of them is exempt. But, because they are powerful, when they act on those desires, the consequences are all the more powerful. Which is why Lao Tzu is always telling leaders and would be leaders, to trust the people and leave them alone. Don’t interfere with the way things are. Let the world sort itself out. Nature always does that, you know.
If we want to experience peace in the world around us, we need to start by finding peace in our own hearts. And that means, we must let go of all desires to interfere with the natural order. Lao Tzu is a whole lot more, do I dare say, “hopeful” here? While he said “if” with regards to the powerful, he says “when” to the rest of us. When there is no desire, all things are at peace. It is like he said, way back in chapter one: “Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Free of desire, you realize the mystery.”