Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.
Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.
I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
There was a time, a very long time, when I didn’t know what I didn’t know about today’s chapter. I have read through it countless times. And, for the longest of times, it seemed out of place, and totally uncharacteristic of what I presumed I knew of what Lao Tzu was all about. It seemed very depressing. Was Lao Tzu going through some dark night of the soul? I have read other commentaries on it, and found I was not alone in scratching my head. In my own previous commentaries, I have mentioned one translator, in particular, who said Lao Tzu was being pathetic and unappreciative, wallowing in self-pity. That had a profound affect on me. Was Lao Tzu being pathetic and unappreciative? That just couldn’t be the case. I finally came to the conclusion that Lao Tzu was empathizing with us, not wallowing in self-pity. You would have to isolate this chapter from all his others, taking it completely out of its context, to arrive at that particular translator’s interpretation. But today, as I read through the chapter, it really clicked for me, for the first time.
I am fresh off my commentaries from the last few days. I am understanding now, more than ever, what he is getting at. We have forgotten the great Tao. We no longer trust ourselves; and, our self-appointed rulers certainly don’t trust us. Lao Tzu has given us exactly the prescription for what ails us. We need to throw away every substitute for the Tao, and begin to trust ourselves, again. We need to stay in the center of the circle, and let all things take their own course.
In today’s chapter, we find Lao Tzu inside the center of the circle. The very circle he told us to stay inside. Here, we find him letting all things take their own course.
I can’t begin to describe how much empathy I feel for Lao Tzu right now. Not because he seems to be in distress. Because the way things may seem to be aren’t the way things are. No, I feel empathy, largely because I now understand, thanks to the present circumstances I find us all in. I talked a bit, probably too much, about those circumstances, yesterday. The horrible choices the two major parties are offering Americans (and the world) in this presidential election cycle.
After all I said in yesterday’s chapter, today’s chapter is actually a relief. “Stop thinking, and end your problems. What difference between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!”
Ridiculous, indeed. That is exactly how I am feeling right now. And, I just bet I am not alone, in feeling this way. “Other people are excited, as though they were at a parade.” But, here it is: “I alone don’t care. I alone am expressionless. Like an infant before it can smile.” Lao Tzu goes on speaking of the view from the center of the circle, with several more, “I alones”.
It can be lonely in the center of the circle. Other people don’t seem to have these same problems. They seem to have it together.
But this isn’t self-pity. And, it isn’t depressing. What it is is an expression of detachment from, and disinterest in, everything which is going on outside of the circle. He wants us to know that he understands how difficult it is to be detached, to be disinterested. But, just like he realized how ridiculous those things outside of the circle are, we can too! We, too, can realize just how okay it is to be different from ordinary people. To stay in the center of the circle. To let all things take their own course. To drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.
My friends, now, more than ever, I can appreciate how great it is just staying in the center of the circle. I don’t care about what course the presidential election is going to take. Because, regardless of the course things take, mother’s milk nourishes me.