The Problem With Being Self-Aware

“Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal
the reason they’re eternal and immortal
is because they don’t live for themselves
hence they can live forever
sages therefore pull themselves back
and end up in front
put themselves outside
and end up safe
is it not because of their selflessness
whatever they seek they find”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 7, translation by Red Pine)

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH says, “The line ‘Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal’ was apparently an old saying, which Lao-tzu quotes in order to explain its significance.”

CHIANG SSU-CH’I says, “‘Heaven’ refers to the point between the eyebrows. ‘Earth’ refers to the point just below the navel.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heaven stands for the movement of time. Earth represents the transformation of form. Heaven and Earth have their origin in the dark womb. And the essence of the dark womb is the valley spirit that doesn’t die. Because it doesn’t die, it isn’t born. Only what isn’t born can give birth to the living. And because it doesn’t give birth to itself, it can live forever.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “What is not alive is the basis for life. By equating life and death, we are no longer burdened by life and death. By abandoning bodily form, we are no longer hindered by bodily form.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To pull oneself back means to be humble and not to try to be in front of others. To put oneself outside means to be content and not to try to add to one’s life. To find what one seeks means to be in front and safe.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Heaven and earth help creatures fulfill their needs by not having any needs of their own. Can sages do otherwise? By following the Way of Heaven and Earth, sages are revered by all and harmed by none. Hence, they, too, live long.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “Sages do not purposely seek long life but achieve it through selflessness.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Heaven, Earth, and Humankind share the same origin. Why doesn’t Humankind share their immortality? Because Heaven and Earth are not aware they are Heaven and Earth. Only Humankind is self-aware. And being self-aware, there is nothing humans won’t do to stay alive. But the more they care for their life, the more pained their life becomes. The more they nourish their body, the sicker their body becomes. People who have not thought this out say the followers of Lao-tzu are afraid of death and only interested in immortality. But this is getting it backward.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason Heaven and Earth alone are eternal and immortal is because they are content and give without expecting a reward, unlike Humankind who never stops chasing profit and fighting over possessions.”

WANG PI says, “Those who live for themselves fight with others. Those who don’t live for themselves are the refuge of others.”

SU CH’E says, “If Heaven and Earth fought with others over life, they would be the same as others. And if sages fought with others over profit, they would be the same as them. Would that no be a great shame?”

WANG P’ANG says, “Although sages are sages, they look the same as others. But because they embody the Way of Heaven and don’t fight, they alone differ from everyone else. Sages are selfless because they no longer have a self.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “The only thing sages seek is Virtue.”

And here we are with yet another hard teaching. So hard, it seems impossible to attain. Stop trying so hard, then. What, give up? Actually, I think that would be a giant step forward.

Humankind are a selfish lot. We know it is so. And, we don’t like it, not one bit. But what we really hate is when we get called out for our own selfishness. Yes, you read that right. More than not wanting to be selfish, we don’t want to be thought of as selfish.

And, that leads to us putting on a big show of our selflessness. There are people to fool, both others and ourselves. I am not suggesting this is a conscious thing. I think it is mostly unconsciously that we contrive to be selfless. Whether or not we are fooling others, we are certainly fooling ourselves.

I said this is a hard teaching. But that is only because I let my self get in the way of this practice.

But Lao-tzu isn’t asking us to try to be selfless. It isn’t some self-sacrificing altruism that sages are practicing here.

Let’s look again at what Lao-tzu is saying, and what the various sages have to say on the subject.

Heaven and Earth are eternal, immortal. How is this possible? They don’t live for themselves. I really appreciate Ch’eng Chu’s insight on this. Heaven, Earth, and Humankind all share the same origin. We have the same source, the Tao. But they are immortal, at least compared to us mortal beings. Why is that? It is that we are self-aware. Being self-aware, there is nothing we won’t do to stay alive. We put great care into living. We nourish our bodies. People think that it is sages who fear death, and only are interested in immortality. Ch’eng Chu says this is getting it backward. And he is right.

It is people who fear death and long for immortality.

So, being self-aware is a problem. But, what does that actually mean, and how do we overcome it?

Lao-tzu actually explained this just a few verses ago, back in verse three. There, he said our problem is knowing and wanting. That is what Lao-tzu means by being self-aware.

As Ho-shang Kung explains in his commentary on today’s verse, we need to be content and give without expecting a reward. Stop chasing profit and fighting over possessions. What makes sages different from ordinary people is they have overcome self-awareness. Being selfless.

So, how do we do this? It is more about what we don’t do than what we do. We don’t put ourselves in front. Instead, pulling our selves back.

That might seem easier said than done. I certainly am not suggesting I have arrived at some higher plane of existence. But, I do know that when I put myself first, I never know true contentment. Competing. Always competing. Never satisfied. Never content.

To overcome self-awareness, we simply must be content. Content to be last. To be lower. In our verse tomorrow, Lao-tzu will turn to his favorite metaphor for explaining it better.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH (1899-1972). Classical scholar and teacher of philosophy and history. His edition of the Taoteching presents variants, rhymes, and usages along with his own comments. Lao-tzu chiao-shih.

CH’IANG SSU-CH’I (FL. 920). Taoist master of the former Shu dynasty (Szechuan province) during the Five Dynasties period. His edition is invaluable for its preservation of the comments of Li Jung, Ch’eng Hsuan-ying, and Yen Tsun, as well as those of Hsuan-tsung and Ho-shang Kung. Tao-te-chen-ching hsuan-te-tsuan-shun.

JEN FA-JUNG (B. 1930). Director of the Taoist Association of China and abbot of Loukuantai, the Taoist center where Lao-tzu reportedly wrote the Taoteching. Master Jen’s is the only commentary I know of by a Taoist priest subsequent to the Cultural Revolution. Tao-te-ching shih-yi.

LU TUNG-PIN (FL. 845). Leader of Taoism’s legendary Eight Immortals and author of a number of Taoist works, including Secret of the Golden Flower. Several commentaries have been attributed to him. I have used the Tao-te-ching shih-yi.

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