She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.
Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking a lot about the Tao. Usually, with words that may seem monotonous and without flavor. The reason that words pointing to it are like that is because we are talking about something that Lao Tzu has already warned us is imperceptible to our human senses. You can look for it and there isn’t anything to see. You can listen for it and there won’t be anything to hear. That does present us with a difficulty, since our goal is to center ourselves in it. And why wouldn’t that be the goal? Lao Tzu has promised such wonderful things if powerful men and women can only center themselves, and stay centered, in the Tao.
And today’s chapter is a continuation of those wonderful promises. Center yourself in the Tao and you can where wherever you wish, without danger. But if the Tao is imperceptible to our senses, how exactly are we to center ourselves in it? Have we been on a wild goose chase? A fool’s errand, all along?
I’d certainly like to think not. The key, I think, is to understand that we can’t employ our senses in order to accomplish what it is we are trying to accomplish. Music or the smell of good cooking, those are things that our senses can enjoy to great benefit. But the Tao isn’t like that. And the words that we use, including the ones that Lao Tzu uses, are not meant to lead us along by our senses. They have just the opposite effect. Dulling our senses would seem to be the goal.
No, if we are going to center ourselves in the Tao, and I certainly believe we can, since I believe I do, we need to understand that while the Tao is imperceptible, there are things that we can perceive. What we are differentiating is the mystery from the manifestations. The mystery is imperceptible. Lao Tzu told us our problem in the very first chapter. We are caught in desires. Our desires, which have us pursuing things that our senses make perceptible, prevent us from realizing the mystery of the Tao.
I like music and the smell of good cooking as much as anyone else. But there isn’t any mystery in that. I also enjoy the palette of colors that my eyes get to enjoy, while surveying our beautiful world and universe. Is there any help here? What Lao Tzu says of the person who is centered in the Tao is that they perceive the universal harmony. Perceiving the universal harmony is not really something that we use our physical senses to achieve. With our senses we may perceive pain. That is certainly something we can sense. But perceiving the universal harmony goes deeper than even great pain that we might feel. It is a “seeing” which is beyond anything that our eyes can see. It is beyond anything that our physical senses can perceive.
But it can be perceived. I know this. Because I perceive it. And, I am convinced that you perceive it too. You just know that the way things are is the way things are. This isn’t acquiescence to something horrible, like pain. This is accepting, embracing, something that is a whole lot greater than the greatest pain that we can experience. And, what it produces in us, is something that is beyond all value. We are talking about finding peace in our hearts.
This is huge! Because it isn’t something external to us. That would require that we use our physical senses to acquire knowledge of it. No, it is internal. And, it was always there, that peace. It was there all along. In my heart. In your heart. Just waiting to be found. Once you find that, what danger are you going to encounter that is going to take that away from you? You fear that there is? But Lao Tzu has good news for all of us. Why it is that we can go where we wish without danger? Because we are talking about being centered in the Tao; and, when you use it, it is inexhaustible.