If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
‘If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,’
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you truly be yourself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 22, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, I really struggled with my blog post. Which is the antithesis of what the art of living is supposed to be. I even entitled the post, “How Can I Make This As Simple As It Is?” Which is an interesting title given that it was so difficult for me to write yesterday. What exactly was my problem? I identified it yesterday. I was trying to grasp at the ungraspable. I was trying to show you all the intricate details of the dark. I was trying to plumb the depths of something that was unfathomable. The art of living is being, not doing. I have said that over and over again throughout this journey. And yet, I was trying to make something that is already simple, simple. I wanted to give you something to do; when it is really about being, not doing.
Oh well, that was yesterday. And today is today. And today, we are really going to explore that idea of being, not doing. Yesterday, I did say a couple of very important things, I think. I said that being at one with the Tao is being at one with yourself. And, I said being in harmony with the Tao is being in harmony with yourself. That is the theme of today’s chapter.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I am sure we all got asked that question over and over as we were children. Perhaps, some of us are still hearing it from time to time. What do you want to be? What do you want to become? Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter with a list of things we might aspire to be or become.
If you want to become whole, if you want to become straight, if you want to become full, if you want to be reborn, and finally, if you want to be given everything. What do you want to be?
I am assuming with that question, that you are not that already. If you believed you were already whole, you wouldn’t be aspiring to become whole. And, with each one of these aspirations, Lao Tzu has a very odd way of getting us to where we want to be. When we aren’t whole, we want to strive to become whole. That would be our answer, right? But Lao Tzu gives us, not something to do, but something to be. Be what you already are.
Let yourself be partial. Let yourself be crooked. Let yourself be empty. Let yourself die. And finally, all those hopes and dreams, all your aspirations (whatever they may be), give them all up. Every last one. Don’t try to be what you are not. Be what you are. Let yourself be what you are. That, Lao Tzu says, is the way to become or be everything you want to be.
And, because Lao Tzu understands we will need the example of the Master to help us to understand what he is saying, the Master arrives as our example of how to reside in the Tao. Because that is what we are talking about, after all. The Master doesn’t display himself, and that is why people can see his light. People can trust his words because he has nothing to prove. People can recognize themselves in him because he doesn’t identify with himself. The Master succeeds at everything he does because he does everything with no goal in mind.
I can hear you mumbling about how strange this Master is. He doesn’t always sound like any human we have ever encountered. And yet, I continue to insist that each one of us can be the Master. That is certainly what I aspire to be. And guess what, I know just how I am going to become that. By letting myself be me.
Perhaps we scoff at that phrase about being given everything. But Lao Tzu was already expecting that kind of response. He says the ancient Masters weren’t using empty phrases when they said this. And this is key to our understanding of this chapter; and, everything about the art of living in contentment. It is only in being lived by the Tao that you can truly be yourself.