Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading, and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 10, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu was all about the only path to serenity. It was about the art of contentment. Which is just another way of saying the art of living. Which is just another way of saying, the Way; which is the Tao. What we want is to be in perfect harmony with the way things are. That is the eternal reality, the Tao. If we are going to do that, we are going to have to learn the art of contentment. And that isn’t going to be easy. But then anything worth ‘being” never was going to be easy. I said being, because this isn’t about doing anything.
I want you to keep that in mind as you read through this list of “Can you” questions with which Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter. Perhaps, they seem impossible to achieve. Or perhaps, they just seem hopelessly idealistic, and not at all realistic. But Lao Tzu has a reason for asking these questions of us. He is trying to draw something out of us: The Supreme Virtue.
I keep talking about this eternal reality. I have called it a mystery. It is a mystery because it is shrouded in darkness; and, well, mystery. But it is the gateway to all understanding. This eternal reality is to be contrasted with what I refer to as the illusion. Where the eternal reality is simply, the way things are, the illusion is the way things seem to be. The way things seem to be is really what shrouds the eternal reality and keeps it a mystery to us. So, one of the things we are going to be about as we are going through the Tao Te Ching, is recognizing the illusion for what it is. Once we have identified what is false, then the truth will be a lot easier to recognize.
Today’s “Can you” questions are going to help us with that.
Why are our minds so prone to wandering? Because of the way things seem to be. It clouds our understanding. Quite simply, we are distracted. You could call it “bread and circuses,” an apt metaphor. Lao Tzu believes that we all were born with an original oneness. This original oneness is a connection to the eternal reality, which is innate; but has been lost through years of conditioning. In the place of the eternal reality has been substituted the illusion. Can we coax our minds from its wandering? Well, of course we can. But it isn’t going to be easy. Because the illusion seems so very real, after years of conditioning. Most people don’t believe there is anything but the illusion. That is the only reality they have ever known. If this sounds anything like the movie “The Matrix” I am not surprised. I certainly can pick up on a lot of that theme in that movie.
What is this about letting our bodies become as supple as a newborn child’s? This seems kind of strange. What does Lao Tzu mean? I don’t think he means it to be taken literally, for one thing. Newborns are a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. When he sees a newborn, he is thinking about that original oneness. That suppleness. The beginning of life and all the promise and potential of the Universe in that tiny being. Don’t get stuck on the word “body” here. He isn’t referring to flesh. He is talking about something much more. He is wanting us to get back to our original oneness. Our original suppleness. And this isn’t something we have to do. It is something we simply let happen. We are going to talk again and again about effortless action or not-doing. Letting things happen is a pretty steady theme throughout.
Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? Ah, now we are getting to the heart of the matter. We have been so focused on all that is going on around us, and our inner vision has become clouded. Things seem dark. The eternal reality is shrouded in darkness. But our inner vision can be cleansed. We can get to the point where we see nothing but the light.
Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? I said earlier that this was a whole lot like the movie, “The Matrix.” Are you going to take the red pill or the blue pill? Do people really want to be unplugged? How do I help people to see the illusion for what it is? Well, one thing we are not going to do is force anyone to do anything. Lao Tzu will talk about this repeatedly throughout the Tao Te Ching. It is the art of governing. And the very first rule that we must follow if we want to govern well, is not try to control. We are to love and lead people by serving as an example of the art of living, the practice of contentment. The Tao doesn’t force and we won’t have to, either.
Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? There is that word “let” again. You really do have a choice, you know. It requires patience. This letting things happen naturally. Letting things run their course. They do have a course. We get impatient and want to help things along. Or try to alter or abolish things before the time is ripe. And, of course, Lao Tzu would say this about the most vital matters. It is easy to let things happen naturally when our life doesn’t depend on it. That is what he means by vital after all. But letting events take their course when lives are on the line? That is going to be a challenge. Not only does Lao Tzu not want us imposing our will or forcing others, he doesn’t want us imposing our will or forcing events.
Finally, can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? This is another one of those that sounds kind of weird. How do we step back from our own minds? Let’s not make this too complicated. Lao Tzu is merely referring to the years of conditioning our minds have had, which have caused it to stray from its original oneness. We need to take a step back from all that conditioning. Get a fresh perspective. See the illusion for what it is.
Make no mistake about it, this isn’t an easy thing. We are talking about giving birth and nourishing. Having without possessing. Acting with no expectations. Leading, and not trying to control. “Be” these things and you will have accomplished the supreme virtue.