When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.
Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us about both the movement and the way of the Tao. The movement is a going back, a reversing, a return. We are expecting to go forwards, but we find instead, we go backwards. Instead of advancing, we retreat. The Tao is always bringing us back to the Source. The way is through weakness, yielding, submission. It never uses force. And, it doesn’t do anything, yet through it all things are done. This movement and way of the Tao is the way things are. We need to understand this is the movement and way of the Tao in order to stay centered in it, and embody it. Submission is never very easy for us. It is our own desires that make it difficult for us. We want to go forwards, not back. We want to appear strong, not weak. We want to be in control, not let the current of the Tao direct us. So, we resist. All because of our many wants, our desires.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu highlights how our desires trouble us, as he discusses the way things are vs. the way things seem to be. This causes very different reactions in people.
What we want is a path that is straightforward. One that is going into the light. One that is clear and direct. Why is it that the path before us, seems only to get darker; and instead of advancing, we seem to be losing ground? This path seems long. Ah, the problems we face when the way things seem to be are so very contrary to the way things are.
This Tao, the way of the Universe, is so very beyond our reckoning. We can’t perceive it. It hides itself from us. How can we know it? I look forward toward the illusion of happiness I see on some distant horizon. But no matter how far I may advance, it only seems that more far off. It is just as well. That happiness I see somewhere far off is just an illusion. True happiness is not out there, it is inside of me, when I find within myself, true contentment with who and what and where I am, right now.
But until we realize this, that all seems so very foolish. It truly takes a superior person to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. Oh, to be a superior person, instead of merely average, always wrestling with my doubts. Oh, I half believed it, when I heard of it. But there was always that other half that doubted it. The half that believed it said, “Look, there is true power.” But the half that doubted it said, “Oh, but it seems so weak.” The better half of me said, “I see true purity.” While the more dominant half saw it as tarnished. While part of me saw true steadfastness, the other part thought it appeared changeable. When I believed, it was with true clarity. But then it started to seem obscure. Back and forth I would go, half believing half doubting. The way things are is not the way things seem to be.
Oh well, we can’t all be superior persons. But I do have good news for all the average ones. I speak from experience, here. So it doesn’t happen immediately, but it can happen through a process. Lao Tzu insists we already have everything we need. And we doubt that. We aren’t content. We desire more. But the more we get, the less we seem to have. Our cravings are unquenchable. We never learned how to appreciate what we already have. So, we always want more. How can we know when enough is enough? We tell ourselves that we will be satisfied with only this much more. But when we have that, we still aren’t satisfied. We need to break out of this cycle.
I had to come to realize that it was my desires that were creating that vicious cycle. That the only way to be content was to appreciate what I already have, and that that is enough. I began to see how the cycle went. The more I desired, the more I would seek; the more I would seek, the less I would appreciate what I already had; the less I appreciated what I already had, the more I desired. This could go on and on, endlessly repeating. Which is why I had to come to an understanding of how the Tao moves, and its way in our Universe. When I see the Tao moving backwards, it is because I had things all backwards. That is why the Tao is always reversing things. It is through weakness, yielding that I found strength. What I learned is that the less I desired, the less I would seek; and the less I would seek, the more I appreciated what I already had; and the more I appreciated what I already had, the more content I became. True contentment came with freedom from desire. I have everything I need.
I never did laugh when I heard of the Tao. But I laughed once I began to realize how utterly foolish my doubts had been. And I still laugh at them; every time they rear their ugly heads. Sometimes, I think Lao Tzu is overly easy on the fools that laugh out loud when they hear of the Tao. He says, “Go ahead and laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao if you didn’t.” But just realize what the fools are missing out on. When you do, you may pity them. For them, the greatest art seems unsophisticated. The greatest love seems indifferent. The greatest wisdom seems childish. Just let that sink in. Because that is a strong indictment. They just don’t get it. What a shame!
For them, the Tao is nowhere to be found. And if they can’t see it, they’ll never believe it. Yet, it is as plain as the nose on my face. Yes, my nose is a very plain one. While the Tao is nowhere to be found it still nourishes and completes all things. Realize that the way things are is not the way things seem to be. There is something before and beyond what you can see with your eyes or hear with your ears. That is good news, even for the fool. Because the Tao nourishes and completes them, too.