In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about the almost inverse relationship between knowledge and understanding. As Lao Tzu put it, the more you know, the less you understand. The real dynamic that Lao Tzu was talking about is that there is big difference between knowledge and understanding. And, I promised today, Lao Tzu would better explain the differences between the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of the Tao. It is, of course, the practice of the Tao that gives us understanding.
The difference between the two is highlighted in the opening of today’s chapter. The pursuit of knowledge requires that you are always adding to it. Each day something more needs to be added. You never get to the point where there isn’t something more to add. On and on and on you go in your pursuit. But you never have enough. It is not, in and of itself, a satisfying pursuit. You always are left still lacking. What can we come to understand from this pursuit, other than the realization that we can never know enough?
But the practice of the Tao is nothing like this. For one thing, it isn’t a pursuit. You aren’t going after anything. You aren’t adding to anything. Instead, every day, something is dropped. Is it knowledge that we are dropping? Getting more ignorant with each passing day? No, it isn’t like that, either. Embracing not-knowing is not choosing to be ignorant. What it is, is knowing that we don’t know. That we can’t know. But, we can understand. And that is more important.
For Lao Tzu, understanding comes as we realize how not-knowing and not-doing are entwined together. We have talked a lot about not-doing, before. I am not going to try and say all of that again, today. I hope you have been following along as I have been taking a chapter each day. So you already understand that not-doing or doing nothing, isn’t really doing nothing. Instead, it is letting go of our need to control outcomes. Less and less do we need to force things. It is a daily practice. Each day we let go of our desire to make some action. Until we arrive at non-action. It is going with the flow of nature. Letting go of all resistance to the laws which govern our Universe. We work with them, rather than against them. And it is effortless. It just happens naturally. Intuitively. All that we do is not-contrived. Nothing is done, yet nothing is left undone.
This is something we can’t know. So, if you are scratching your head right now, trying to wrap your mind around this, stop it. It is something our minds can’t wrap around. Lao Tzu teased us yesterday with the Master arriving without leaving, seeing the light without looking, and achieving without doing a thing. Our minds just aren’t going to get this. But we can understand it. It is an intuitive thing. We are all intuitive. We just need to practice being intuitive.
We all know what intuition is. It is when you understand something, but when you stop to try and figure out why you understand it, you say, “I don’t know, I just do.” And we have heard a lot about a woman’s intuition, as if only women can have such a thing as intuition. How ridiculous! Still, maybe intuition is just a little more yin than it is yang. And yin, being a female kind of thing, we may all of us, both male and female, need to embrace a little more yin in our lives.
The whole point that Lao Tzu is making, not just in this chapter, but in the whole book, is that true mastery isn’t something that can be gained by adding to our knowledge. Even if we do so each and every day. The only way that true mastery can be gained is by letting things go their own way. Our interfering isn’t going to help. All that does, is make our lives more difficult. The way things are is the way things are. Resistance isn’t just futile. It is life-draining. Accepting, and yes, submitting, to the way things are, is the only way to understand what we can never really know: A life of contentment and ease are ours. The Tao has already done the giving. Now, all that is left for us is receiving.