Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.
Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.
Approach it, and there is no beginning;
follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it,
but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from;
this is the essence of wisdom.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 14, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
A riddle? Really? I never much cared for riddles. But today’s chapter is a riddle. So, let’s see what we can make of it.
We were talking, yesterday, about how we have been indoctrinated; actually, I think programmed is a better word for it. Since early on in our childhood, we have been told that there is this ladder; and if we want to succeed we need to get on it, and start climbing. Everyone has to climb that ladder. There is no other way. Yesterday, I said that the ladder is an illusion. It isn’t reality. But we are made to think that it is real. Success and failure are defined for us in very particular ways. And we are told that, of course, we want to succeed. Failure is not an attractive option. Lao Tzu exposed the ladder for the illusion that it is, saying we need to rethink our ideas of what constitutes success and failure. Success is as dangerous as failure. It doesn’t matter whether we are going up or down this imaginary ladder. Our position is shaky. We need to stand with both our feet on the ground.
Now, if we could recognize, right at the start, that the ladder was nothing but smoke and mirrors, an illusion, it would be easy to resist its allure. But it seems real to us. All our programming has been designed to deceive us into believing that that ladder is real. So, most of us will end up hoping to succeed and fearing failure while we attempt to climb that ladder.
Today’s chapter, a riddle, offers us the perspective of those who are on that ladder. First off, remember why we are there. What have we been promised? We have been promised that this ladder offers us a life of ease. We only need to work hard and climb higher and higher on that ladder.
But, having spent some time on the ladder, what is the reality? You look for that life of ease; but it can’t be seen. You listen for it; but it can’t be heard. You reach for it, and it can’t be grasped.
While on that ladder, I look above, up higher, where it should get brighter. But, what did I find? It isn’t bright. That should have told me something; but I wasn’t yet ready to realize the truth that was right there. Then, I dare to look below me; to stare into the abyss that I fear awaits me, if I made one wrong step. To my surprise, below me it isn’t dark. Now, right here, the sane move would be to climb back down off the ladder and stay off it, for good. But I wasn’t being very sane. You see, I was still going along with my programming. Just because reality wasn’t lining up with what I had been taught, wasn’t going to stop me from continuing on in my desperate quest for this life of ease, promised to all of us, who will just work hard, and go ever higher and higher on that ladder.
What I found on the ladder is that the life of ease, promised to us, is all an illusion. It is unknowable, seamless, unnameable. It seems to be there and then it is gone. It returns to the realm of nothing. I can’t say that it is formless, for it has a form. But it is a form that includes all forms. It is an image without an image. It is subtle. Yes, that is what it is, subtle. So subtle, that it is beyond all that we can conceive.
As I approach it, it has no beginning. If I try to follow it, it has no end. This is what life on the ladder is like. Trying to know that life of ease, we have been programmed to believe comes to us, if we will only climb high enough on that ladder. But you can’t know it! Should I let that reality sink in? Perhaps not. Lao Tzu doesn’t end that statement with an exclamation point like I did. Or, even a period. He promises, what we can’t know, we can be. You can be at ease in your own life. But you need to get off the ladder.
Where did you come from? Now you may think that this is a question of who our parents are? What is our country of origin? What is our economic status? But those are all questions that have us thinking about things in ways that only lead us back to that ladder. And, Lao Tzu isn’t interested in where we came from. The question is where you come from. And that is something that we must realize. It is the essence of wisdom to realize it. Realizing where you come from happens when we see the way things really are. When we no longer see the self as self, and, instead, see the world as self.
Realizing is both intuitive and spontaneous. And people want to know, how do we come to realize it? But you can’t know it! That point still remains true. I can’t tell you how to know, because you can’t know it. I can’t even tell you how I know it. Because I don’t know it, not in any way that can be explained.
All I can really say about it, for now, is that intuition and spontaneity aren’t things that can be contrived. They flow effortlessly. Like yin and yang. Intuition is very much yin. Why else is it often called woman’s intuition? But yin flows just as effortlessly in men, if we will let it. Spontaneity, on the other hand, is very much yang. And often we will talk about the spontaneous, some will say wild and crazy, things that men do. But, of course, women can be just as spontaneous. So, what can I do to hasten it? But there is nothing you can do. There is nothing to do. Just let it happen. Just be. Just breathe, and go with the flow.