My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.
My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?
If you want to know me,
look inside your own heart.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 70, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Having already distilled down his teachings into three “treasures”, Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, tells us exactly what makes it so difficult for us to understand them and put them into practice. The difficulty doesn’t lie in the teachings themselves. Being simple in actions and thoughts, being patient with both friends and enemies, being compassionate toward ourselves, this isn’t hard. What makes it so very difficult is that we try too hard. It isn’t a mental exercise; but we make it one, trying to grasp it with our intellect. There is no “try” in putting these teachings into practice, there is only be or don’t be.
Lao Tzu isn’t intending to discourage us, when he says it is impossible to grasp the meaning of his teaching with our intellect. The same is true about his warning that we are doomed to failure if we try to practice them. But, if discouragement isn’t his intention, then what is?
This is the very reason that so many will throw up their hands and dismiss his teachings as nonsense, or lofty but impractical. Of what use to us are they?
What Lao Tzu is doing is bringing us to a place where we can understand. His teachings aren’t intended to be grasped with our intellect, they are, after all, older than the world. So, he directs us to look deep within the core of our being, there, we will find the answers. What resides at the core of my being? The Source, itself, before and beyond anything that we can think or know. If you want to know me, look inside your own heart.
This isn’t the first time he has reminded us of this simple truth. Don’t try to be simple, just be simple. Don’t try to be patient, just be patient. Don’t try to be compassionate, just be compassionate. The power to be these things doesn’t reside outside of ourselves; but it also doesn’t reside in our mind. No amount of knowledge is going to ever to be of any help. Actually, the more we think we know, the less we will understand. And, our will power will always come up wanting. It is a matter of the heart. No, not that organ inside of you, beating away as it pumps blood to every cell of your body. Lao Tzu is talking about something much deeper within the core of your being. He is speaking of the Tao, itself.
Just follow the Tao. It is so easy. Perhaps too easy. Why is it that everything has to be such a challenge for us? The truth is that we like challenges. But this isn’t a challenge. It was never intended to be a challenge. And, it is because we make it into a challenge, that we make it impossible to achieve. Are we going to practice doing not-doing, knowing not-knowing, and not-competing competing? Are we going to live the life of ease that has been right there all along for us to live? All our actions can be effortless! Must we exert effort? Can we realize just how little we know, and be content to not-know? Or, will we insist that our cleverness will yet win the day? Will we be like children at play, or must we behave like the adults we know we are?
It really is a choice of be or don’t be.