A Very Present Fear

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu assured us that the Tao is the ultimate safety net. It doesn’t let a thing slip through. Any failures on our own part are never the final word. When we fail, the Tao is always there to catch us. Today, he goes further, explaining exactly what it is that holds us back from being happy, content.

If I have said it once I have said it a hundred times, there is a world of difference between simply knowing something (that is, giving mental assent to it), and actually realizing the truth of it. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t say that they know that all things change. But just what difference does that make in their lives? When we live out our lives as if things are always going to remain the same, we haven’t yet realized that all things change. And, because we are expecting, or counting on things remaining the same, we will hold onto things, no matter how fleeting they may be.

How can we come to realize? That is a most important thing. And, thankfully, Lao Tzu has covered it many times before. First, know that you don’t know. As long as we insist that we know, we will never come to realize. Practice not-knowing, that is true knowledge. Presumption is a disease, remember. We need to be healed of all knowing in order to realize truths that will make a real and lasting difference in how we live our lives.

It is a matter of living in this present moment. We may be living in the past. Resting on our laurels, our vast accumulation of knowledge. Or, we may be dogged by our past. The shadow of our failures may loom large. But we can’t let the past hold us back from living in this present moment. Let it go!

Then again, we may be so focused on tomorrow, its hopes, its fears, that we won’t allow ourselves to live in this present moment. How often do we postpone happiness to some future time? Once I get more money, or more of this or that, then I can be happy. But not now. It must wait. And, as each precious present moment goes by without us enjoying even one of them, we are always dogged by our fear of death.

And, let’s be clear here, this isn’t a fear of dying in the future. We all know that we are going to die in the future. And we’re okay with that. As long as death is something in the future, what is there to fear? What really worries us, however, is that we are going to die much sooner than some future time. Death in the present moment, that is what we are afraid of. I will put off happiness until some future time, because I am scared I will die today.

You may think that is nonsense. If I really feared I was going to die today, wouldn’t I make the most of today? No, you aren’t quite understanding. For those dogged by this fear, it is too late. Today, we are going to die. Yesterday, I could have accomplished so much. Or tomorrow, if I were to live to see it. But today? No, it is too late. The fear of dying is what is holding us back from living in this present moment. But, if we could just let go of that fear, then there would be nothing we couldn’t achieve. That is Lao Tzu’s promise for today.

That we can’t control the future is another one of those things we really must come to realize. Merely giving mental assent to that truth is never going to be enough. For as long as we try to control the future, for isn’t that what we are doing when we postpone really living until some future time, is like trying to take the place of a master carpenter. There is Lao Tzu’s metaphor of the day. Don’t be messing around with those tools. You will only end up cutting your hand.

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