Not Just Empty Phrases

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 22, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I think it is very easy to read through today’s chapter and think these are all just empty phrases. What does he mean? We are driven from early in our childhood to become something. Something that we don’t apparently think we are right now. What do you want to be when you grow up? What is going to become of you? If it isn’t our parents and family or well-meaning friends putting us under stress, we will manage to do it all by ourselves. I want to become whole. I want to become straight. I want to become full. Perhaps, what you are seeking is some kind of rebirth. Whatever it is that you want to be given, you must first give it all up.

What does Lao Tzu mean? How can I become whole by being content to be partial? How can I become straight by being content with being crooked? How can I become full if I am content to be empty? What Lao Tzu is teaching us is to let go of our ambitions. We, of course, balk at this. I don’t want to let go of my ambitions. I want to become something great. How can I become something great without ambition? It isn’t easy to let go of that ambition, is it? It is almost like dieing. Maybe it is exactly like dieing. But, if we want to be reborn that is exactly what we will need to let happen. You have to be willing to give everything up.

Bear with me now, it is going to get better, I promise. Let’s look at what Lao Tzu is getting at as he uses the example of the Master. He says that the Master resides in the Tao. Yes, we are still talking about that. That is our example. That is what Lao Tzu is instructing us to do. The Master doesn’t put himself on display, yet people see his light. He has nothing to prove, so people can trust him. He doesn’t have any goal in mind, and that is why everything he does succeeds.

And now, we may be even more confused. What does Lao Tzu mean? Well, here it is. It has to do with that residing in the Tao. What Lao Tzu is telling us is that these aren’t empty phrases. It is only in being lived by the Tao that we can truly be ourselves. So, let’s take another look at what we want to become in that light.

You want to become whole. Good. Content yourself with being partial. And let the Tao complete you. You want to become straight. Content yourself with being crooked. And let the Tao even out all that isn’t straight within you. You want to become full. Then content yourself with being empty. You will find that the Tao is everything that you need.

Yes, it is a kind of dieing. But that is what it is going to take if you are going to be reborn. You must give everything up. Reside in the Tao. Be lived by the Tao. That is how to be your true self. Please don’t dismiss this as some hokie religion. What Lao Tzu is teaching us is how everything in the Universe works. The Tao is simply the guiding and unifying principle of everything in the Universe. You let the Tao live in you by letting yourself be who you are. You resist the Tao by trying to become something other than who you are. But, it is really funny how things work out. If you give up trying to become, and are content to be, you will become so much more than what you are. That is being lived by the Tao.

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