You’ll Have To Look Inside Yourself To See It

The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao;
that is what gives her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were, the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 21, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking a lot about letting go of, or throwing away, our ideas of how we think the world should operate. The problems we are facing are only exacerbated by clinging to them. What Lao Tzu is offering to us is being one with the Tao. Being one with the Tao, or in harmony with the way things are, is all about returning to our common Source. Or, like Lao Tzu depicted it yesterday, drinking from the great Mother’s breasts.

Stop trying to grasp this. It is ungraspable. If we are going to accomplish this, we have to let the Master serve as an example. She doesn’t cling to ideas. She doesn’t grasp. She ungrasps. She lets the dark and unfathomable Tao, illuminate her.

I am going to keep my commentary brief today. Why? Because my posts lately have been overly long; though, I hope, illuminating. There isn’t anything really new to say today. We have been saying this all along.

We need to let go and let the Tao. If that sounds a whole lot like “let go and let God” good, that means you are getting it, somewhat. Not because the Tao is God. We covered that in a much earlier chapter. What is God, but our notions of how to make sense of it all? But, the Tao predates our notions of God. The Tao is before time and space. What are time and space but our notions of the way things are? Well, the Tao is before that, too. It is beyond is and is not. What is Lao Tzu trying to say here?

That we are still resisting. We still don’t understand that our ideas of what is, and is not, are holding us back from being in harmony with the Tao. Lao Tzu knows this is true; because he looks inside himself, and sees that it is true. Dare to let go of all these notions. Dare to look inside yourself and see. Let the Tao illuminate you. What do you see?

The I And The Others

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value?
Avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they are at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright; I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp; I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose; I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimlessly as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about things that we hold dear. Ideas, concepts, that Lao Tzu says we need to throw away. I went so far as to call them sacred cows. And, I want to make clear what I think Lao Tzu is trying to get across to us. What is it that he is wanting us to throw away? Perhaps it helps to realize what it is about any of these things that we are trying to hold on to and not wanting to let go of. And, Lao Tzu gives us a very good idea of just that in today’s chapter.

He begins by saying, “Stop thinking, and end your problems.” There it is, plain and simple. It isn’t so much holiness and wisdom, or morality and justice, or industry and profit, which need to be thrown away; as it is what we think those mean. All of our problems begin with the way we are thinking. Stop thinking, and you end your problems.

For the longest of times, when I got to today’s chapter, I always found myself treating it like it was somehow separate from all the other chapters. Almost like it didn’t belong. What is Lao Tzu doing here? Is he describing some crisis of faith, or a dark night of the soul? Is he suffering from a bout of depression?

How mistaken I was in my thinking. It is becoming much clearer to me now. What Lao Tzu is doing is continuing what he has been saying all along. Every one of these chapters is simply building on the last. He has identified the central problem. Yes, it is that we have forgotten the great Tao. Our body’s intelligence, our innate ability to connect intuitively with the Tao, is in decline; or worse, is virtually non-existent. It has to do with our minds, our cleverness and knowledge; and, it has to do with the withering of our hearts, through its obsessive desires.

That is what Lao Tzu is addressing today. It is time to take a step back. Maybe get alone with yourself. And do some serious soul searching. What difference is there really between yes and no? What difference does it make whether you are thought of as a success, or as a failure? Must you value what others value and avoid what others avoid? For Lao Tzu, the answer is, “How Ridiculous!”

That is the conclusion he is leading us to arrive at. He has already said it in so many ways. If we chase after money and security our hearts will never unclench. If we care about others approval, we will always be their prisoner. We need to be content to simply be ourselves. That means not comparing or competing. The respect we crave from others, begins with respecting ourselves.

Lao Tzu is letting us in on a little secret when he starts using that personal pronoun, I. We are measuring our own self worth by looking outwardly at others. Look at him compare and contrast: Other people are excited, as though they are at a parade. I alone don’ t care, I alone am expressionless. Notice the isolation that we bring on ourselves by comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. I am alone. Other people have what they need. I alone possess nothing. I alone drift about, like someone without a home. I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty. The isolation brings on a sense of misery. We are very much alone. And, we are become idiots.

Other people are bright and sharp and have a purpose. I alone am dark and dull and don’t know. The misery of our isolation is fully expressed as we feel ourselves drifting about like a wave on the ocean; and, blowing as aimlessly as the wind.

Things seem desperate. But, it is here, and only here, that we finally find who and what we really are. We have sunken as deeply as we can. We can go no further. And, Lao Tzu says, “Vive la difference.” Yes, I am different. I may never be like the others. I may never like what they like or succeed like they succeed. But, so what? I drink from the great Mother’s breasts.

I could leave it at that. Lao Tzu certainly did. But, I want to make sure that you understand the monumental shift that happened here. Lao Tzu has already told us that the idea that we are separate is an illusion. We are not separate. We are the whole. That is the eternal reality. In comparing and contrasting the I (which is separate) from all others, Lao Tzu is highlighting how alone, isolated, and separate we are feeling. We have each of us felt this. It is a very common experience. Interesting, because we think we are so very “different” from others. But, we have all felt the very same thing.

Yet, that is all an illusion. Yes, he celebrated our differences. Vive la difference. But he did not celebrate separateness. Instead, he expressly said how we are all connected to the one reality. And, that is the great Mother. She is our common Source. Drink from the great Mother’s breasts. After drifting about like a wave on the ocean, or blowing about as aimlessly as the wind, it is nice to return to the great Mother’s breasts. That is serenity.

Time To Clean Up This Mess. Things To Throw Away

Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.

If these three aren’t enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, I was comparing the shape my country is in, and I suppose the whole world falls into the same category, to facing the devastation of a tsunami. No one ever accused me of a lack of hyperbole in my writing. But I do think it is a serious matter that we have forgotten the great Tao. And, I think the consequences we are facing, and will continue to face, are much like the kind of desolation that a tsunami brings. We’ve ignored repeated warnings. I don’t think we can do much more than deal with the aftermath.

That means a whole lot of cleaning up. And as we are surveying the devastated landscape, there is going to be lots of things we will need to throw away. Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter addresses the problems of cleanup when we have been substituting so many things for the great Tao. Remember from yesterday, that we said that the Tao is natural and spontaneous. Because we have forgotten the Tao, we have substituted the unnatural and contrived. Things like goodness and piety. Cleverness and knowledge. Filial piety, and patriotism.

Those things are not just poor substitutes. What they really are, are symptoms of just how bad things have gotten. Today, Lao Tzu uses different words. Words like holiness and wisdom. Morality and justice. Industry and profit. We really hold these words as precious and dear to our hearts. They aren’t just words. They are ideas. Must we really throw them away?

Well, yes. Remember, we are cleaning up after our day of reckoning. No matter how dear, how cherished, these ideas may seem to us, they have outlived their usefulness. We may not like the idea of having to throw them all away. The cure may seem more terrible than the disease. But Lao Tzu has words of encouragement for us all.

We, as leaders, have a responsibility to the people. If we throw away holiness and wisdom, people will be a hundred times happier. That would be a start. Give people a jump start on picking up the pieces and beginning again their own pursuit of happiness.

It is time to begin trusting the people again. It was because our leaders didn’t trust the people that we got into the mess that we are in. It is time that we trust them to do the right thing. Not command that they do. That is why our tired and worn out ideas of morality and justice must go. They never really achieved their stated purpose of making the people moral and just, anyway. Throw out those ideas. And trust the people. They will do the right thing.

We all have our sacred cows. Those things we don’t want to sacrifice. Lao Tzu is certainly not pulling any punches as he lists them one by one: Holiness, wisdom, morality, justice. I may be in the minority when I admit that I have less of a problem giving those up than some of you might. But then we get to industry and profit. And the struggle is real. Oh, it is easy to get on a bandwagon when you like what you are hearing. But what happens when they start talking about your own sacred cows?

That is my dilemma. I face it every time I cycle back through to today’s chapter. But, I don’t want to allow my own misgivings to get in the way of the plain context of what Lao Tzu is telling us. Does it help that I admit I don’t know how to throw these away? The answer is it is a whole lot easier than I am making it out to be. I know they need to go. But how that plays out is something I haven’t got completely worked out in my mind. Which is intriguing to me, since I don’t feel the same necessity to explain myself with the other throwaways.

I am going to take a few steps back and then re-approach this from a different angle. The problem we have been dealing with is that we haven’t been properly understanding how the Universe works. We have been at odds with the Tao instead of in harmony with it. Because of our failure to be in harmony with the Tao, we clever humans have come up with a variety of systems to try to make sense of it all. And make it work for us through interference and manipulation. This has been a disaster. That is what Lao Tzu has been describing. The point he is making is that we need to get back to where we came from. The clever substitutes are not going to help us to do that. All they are is a hindrance. That is why they need to go. We need to throw them away.

Okay, that was better. But it still may not be enough. That is why Lao Tzu has one more thing for us to do. And this is the most important of them all. Can we do it? Can we stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course? Or will we continue to insist on interfering and manipulating? It isn’t enough just to exchange one set of interference and manipulation for another. We need to let go of our need to control. That is both the hardest and the easiest of tasks. It is hard because we so love to be in control. It is easy because the very idea that we can be in control is all an illusion. Think about that one for today.

This Time, Let’s Not Forget The Tao

When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.

When the body’s intelligence decline,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.

When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.

When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 18, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I saw a poll recently. I don’t usually care too much for polls. They are so easy to manipulate. And, the results don’t usually mean what we may be hoping they mean. But I did see a poll recently. And, in that poll, which I don’t have in front of me, so I am typing this from memory, bear with me; something like 60 percent of the people polled said that the number one problem in America is the government. After my blog post on yesterday’s chapter, you would think that would give me some reason to cheer. I mean, how can I doubt that at least 60 percent of the people think our government is our number one problem. I might be just a little bit frustrated that it isn’t much closer to 100 percent. And, then I have to think realistically and accept what must be true; and that is that a good number of those 60 percent are just frustrated that we just don’t have the right people in charge. I figure there are a whole lot of people that are upset over the recent takeover of the Senate by the Republicans. And, I am sure there are plenty of people that are upset because they don’t think the particular Republicans that are elected are going to do what they expect them to do. I wasn’t asked to take part in the poll. But just for the record, I think the number one problem with America is that we have a federal government. And, the number one problem with the world is that the U.S. has an imperialistic federal government.

But enough about the poll. Most people look at the situation in the world and think we are in a really bad way. Not everyone is going to agree on what exactly the problem is. But most people, at least I hope it is most people, would agree that things are not the way they should be. Much of the time I hear people complaining with words something along the lines of, “How did things get this bad? When did things get so bad? How did we go so wrong?”

I am so glad you asked. I think Lao Tzu has a lot to say about that in today’s chapter. In today’s chapter Lao Tzu identifies both the symptoms that something is wrong and why we developed the symptoms in the first place. He identifies problems within the individual, the family, and the country. And, he identifies the root of the problem.

The root of the problem is that the great Tao has been forgotten. You were wondering what our problem is? That is our problem. Lao Tzu has been devoting chapter after chapter to trying to explain what he means by the Tao. I am not going to try to explain it in one blog post. It is so much more than a few mere words can convey. For my newer followers, I would recommend looking back through my previous posts.

When the great Tao is forgotten, it is like the tip of an iceberg breaking off and falling into the ocean. Seems innocuous enough. Big splash, but not too bad. But the repercussions will be cataclysmic far, far away. Goodness and piety appear. What could be wrong with goodness and piety? Yes, seems innocuous enough. But, if there is one thing I have learned while going through the Tao Te Ching day after day, and learning about the Tao, it is that there is nothing innocuous about the way things seem or appear.

The great Tao has been forgotten! And, that has triggered a tsunami. That goodness and piety have appeared and that they seem innocuous enough, should raise all kinds of red flags for us. We need to sound the alarm. A tsunami is approaching fast. But we didn’t see the need to sound the alarm. We thought goodness and piety would suffice.

That is when the body’s intelligence declines. What does Lao Tzu mean by body’s intelligence? Does he mean we aren’t as smart as we once were? Close, but not quite. Body intelligence is our innate ability to intuitively connect with the Tao. But we have forgotten the great Tao. And soon, our body’s innate ability to intuitively know, declines.

But, just like how goodness and piety appear with the absence of the Tao, cleverness and knowledge step forth to fill in the gap created by our weakened intuition. These are more red flags. Is anyone paying any attention?

Oh, I understand. You are wondering what is really wrong with goodness and piety, cleverness and knowledge. Is it enough for you that they are poor substitutes for the real thing? The Tao is natural and spontaneous. These counterfeits are unnatural and contrived. Their appearance is a sign of real trouble ahead. But we still aren’t paying attention.

It starts with individuals. But it extends outward from there. Like that tsunami I was warning you about. Now, there is no peace in the family. Even if this tsunami stopped right here, it already has done plenty of damage. No peace in the family. Before the great Tao was forgotten, there was peace. Families looked after each other, loving and caring and nurturing. It was all natural and spontaneous. But, now that that Tao has been forgotten, there is no peace. That is why filial piety has begun. That word, piety, has already raised red flags; but now he has added the word, filial, to it. And that really spells disaster. What does filial mean? It means something done out of duty. What was once natural and spontaneous, is now unnatural and contrived. We will have the duties of parents to their children.. And, the duties of children to their parents. The duties of husbands to their wives. And don’t forget the duties of wives to their husbands. In the absence of peace in the family, you will hear a lot about duties.

Like I said, just having it affect families like that, should be enough. But it doesn’t stop there. I started out my blog post today by talking about a poll identifying the government as the number one problem in America. And, I said that most people are wondering how did things get this way. It starts out with individuals forgetting the great Tao. But the repercussions spread outward from there, far and wide. It affects families and communities. Even whole countries and the world.

And, when a country falls into chaos (wouldn’t that pretty much sum up our situation today?), patriotism is born. Yesterday, we were talking about how best to govern a country. The Master certainly never forgets the Tao. And, there is a natural and spontaneous trust that develops throughout the land. Patriotism is not natural. And, it isn’t spontaneous. It is contrived, just like the goodness and piety, the cleverness and knowledge, and the filial piety. It is contrived by people that have a will to power and the need to control. Perhaps you will love them. It is just as likely that you will fear or despise them. But by now the tsunami is doing its peak damage. Ravaging the whole countryside.

And to think, it all started with a little chunk of ice crumbling and falling into the ocean. That is the consequences of forgetting the great Tao. It perfectly describes the mess we are in today. And, the best we can hope for is that the waters will reside and we can begin the work of rebuilding the shattered lives, homes, and dreams. This time, let’s not forget the Tao.

But Can We Do Better?

When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing; we did it all by ourselves!’

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It is always interesting to get to today’s chapter for me. I have been going along chapter by chapter. Lao Tzu hasn’t been talking, really, about anything specifically libertarian. Before today’s chapter I think he has only mentioned once, anything about the art of governing. The purpose for me blogging is to introduce both philosophical Taoism and libertarian thinking to anyone that cares to read about it. And, while I have been a libertarian since I was introduced to the idea back in college (that would be thirty some odd years ago), I have only embraced philosophical Taoism in the last few years.

I say all that to say that I am still learning a lot about philosophical Taoism. As I have been cycling through the Tao Te Ching, I have gone from feeling like a fish out of water when discussing the many chapters dealing with the mystical Tao, to starting to really appreciate those chapters all the more. I always felt such relief when I would come to a chapter like today’s. It is like, “Now, I can talk about something I feel like I really do understand something about.”

So, what to make of today’s chapter. He begins by listing from best to worst the kinds of leaders that we might encounter as a people who are governed. Of particular interest to me is how the Master governs. I am sure that is just my over 30 years of bias toward what I understand as the ideal. It is nice, for me, that Lao Tzu feels the same. If he didn’t, I don’t think I ever would have traveled so far down this road with him. So, let’s look at this Master governing.

First of all, the people are hardly aware that he exists. He doesn’t talk, he acts. The Master doesn’t entice the people with flowery speech designed to impress, and probably deceive with the illusion of his power and authority. The Master doesn’t make a big show of himself, because it isn’t about him. He acts, but not with great pomp and circumstance. You wouldn’t spot him at photo-ops, or making the rounds of late-night talk shows. Or morning new shows or prime-time specials, for that matter. This kind of demonstrates how very far from the ideal we really are in this day and age.

The ideal is having a leader who leads by serving as an example. But he, or she, does so in such a way that you really don’t see the leader at all. What you see are the results. When his work is done the people can honestly say, “Amazing! We did it all by ourselves.”

Now, I know what you are thinking right now. This all sounds like some utopian dream. It is ridiculously idealistic. But I did say that it was the ideal. Did I not? What is wrong with a little dreaming? The question I think we should be asking ourselves is, “Do we really have to settle for anything less than this?”

I know, I know, I can’t point to even one historical example of anyone governing like this. I’d like to think that just means that my own limited knowledge of human history is, just that, limited. I certainly welcome anyone messaging me with an historical example. It would make my day. But even though I can’t. Even if it has never happened before. Does that mean it could never happen?

But, I’ll play Devil’s advocate for just a bit, and look at the alternatives. After all, Lao Tzu gives them to us. And we do have all of human history from which we could draw examples. We can all name leaders who were loved. And, plenty who were feared. And, especially those who were despised.

There have been plenty of examples of these. Perhaps we would be happy to settle for leaders that we love. They weren’t all that bad. No, enough of playing Devil’s advocate. Those leaders that are loved have been few and far between. And, I am not so sure that history isn’t painting them in a much better light than they would deserve credit for.

The bottom line is that if you don’t trust the people you make them untrustworthy. That is the only way to govern well. I don’t care how loved you are, or feared, or despised. If you don’t trust your own people, you have some serious issues that may never come to light, but they are there, nonetheless. And, we can do better. We must do better.

A Meditation To Help You Deal With Whatever Life Brings You

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings.
But contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the Universe
returns to the common Source.
Returning to the Source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the Source,
you stumble I confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you.
And when death comes, you are ready.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 16, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Two chapters ago, the one where Lao Tzu gave us a riddle, he told us that it is the essence of wisdom to realize where you come from. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu described the appearance of the ancient Masters as a way to talk about how profound and subtle their wisdom was. Today, Lao Tzu offers us a meditation to help us to realize where we come from, the Source. Saying that returning to it is serenity.

This is something that we can do on a daily basis. Take time each day, it can be in the morning or afternoon, the evening or the night. Whenever is a good time for you. Just do it. Empty your mind of all thoughts. How do we do that? Well, I have found the easiest way is not to try to empty my mind. But to let the thoughts come and go without lingering on them. Is your heart troubled? Acknowledge that your heart is troubled. But then let it be at peace.

For me, this daily practice isn’t something I do just once in the day. I do it throughout the day. I like to go outside and walk around in my backyard, smoking my pipe. I look at the ground, the trees, the sky (I especially like to look at the sky at night), and then I look out across my neighbor’s yard to the busy street and watch all the cars going by. The other seasons of the year I can see plenty of what might be called turmoil in the wee beasties crawling around on the ground, the squirrels and the birds in the trees. But now that it is Winter, most of the turmoil seems centered in the traffic on the street.

I want to ask them, “Where did you come from? Where are you going? And, why are you in such a hurry?” I could watch this turmoil for hours. But what Lao Tzu wants me to be contemplating is their return. Not to this street. But to the Source. Where they come from. Where they are returning. It is a common Source. We all come from it. We are all returning to it. That is what I want to contemplate. That is serenity. The returning.

Most of us spend a great deal of our time stumbling about in confusion and sorrow. Why do you think that is? Lao Tzu tells us that we need to realize where we come from, the Source. That is how to deal with whatever life brings you. And, as an added bonus, we will be prepared for death when that day comes.

I was chatting with my brother today. He was talking about the new year, and preparing to turn fifty years old. Talking about our Mom and Dad and how young they were when they died. We don’t want to die of cancer (like our Dad) or of Alzheimer’s (like our Mom). Yet, we need to be ready whenever that day arrives.

But, of course, we aren’t looking to hasten that day’s arrival. What are we going to do in the meantime? Contemplate our return to the Source. That returning is serenity. I naturally become tolerant. Not to be confused with the politically correct tolerance that the thought police want to force on us. Being tolerant naturally is so much better. Being disinterested. A much maligned term, disinterest. People don’t think you care. But that isn’t the case, at all. Now, I really can care. Because there isn’t anything in it for me. I don’t have a vested interest. That disinterest liberates me to really care.

And, I am amused, very easily amused. The darnedest things amuse me. It is because I have the key to unlock natural tolerance and disinterest within me. Like your grandmother, kindhearted. No, not that grandmother, your other one. And, dignified like a king. What is Lao Tzu talking about? Being immersed in the wonder of the Tao.

That is what contemplating our returning to the Source is all about. It is like being immersed. A baptism. Are you ready?

Being In The Present Moment, Ready For Anything

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it.
All we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful as someone
crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapeable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience
to wait till you mud settles
and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting.
She is present, and can welcome all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 15, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking about the essence of wisdom. In yesterday’s riddle, Lao Tzu introduced the art of subtlety. What is beyond all that we can conceive with our senses. To understand the way things are, we cannot rely on our senses, which can only tell us of being. To understand the eternally real, we must enter the realm of nothing, which is profound and subtle. And, that means understanding non-being and being work together. When we are only thinking of being we are being misled by our senses. I told you yesterday about the teas I have been drinking. They portray that subtlety that lies beyond what we can experience with our senses. In order to appreciate the teas, I can’t trust my senses to give me the complete picture. The color of the tea, the smell, the taste, they are all too subtle. But when my senses are rendered useless, I begin to appreciate a nuance that is beyond what my senses can reveal to me.

Today, Lao Tzu has another example of the profound and subtle. He refers to the ancient Masters, whose wisdom was unfathomable. He says there is no way to describe their wisdom. He can only describe their appearance. But notice, if you will, the way the profound and subtle nuance of their wisdom comes across in spite of the limitations of your senses.

In describing their appearance, Lao Tzu uses a series of metaphors, similes really. He paints pictures for us; and, because pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, maybe we will find he is saying a lot. What I want you to do is picture these paintings in your mind. Let your mind and your heart work together to understand what Lao Tzu is saying.

The first picture is of someone crossing an iced-over stream. Do you see this person? They want to get to the other side. They need to get to the other side. But an iced-over stream is treacherous. As this person crosses over, you can see the concern and caution etched on their face. And, the care with which they take each step. The ancient Masters were careful.

The second picture is of a warrior in enemy territory. Constantly on guard. Alert to any movement, even out of the corner of their eyes. Listening intently to any sound of broken twigs. Profoundly aware of every breath, and every step, they are taking. Each breath and step are magnified in their own ears. Stealth is important. This is enemy territory. They can’t be captured. Even the sound of their own beating heart threatens to betray them.

The third picture is of a guest. In this picture, in my own mind, I see a gracious host, being welcoming. Much like my gracious host that serves me tea each week. But Lao Tzu doesn’t want me focusing on the host. He wants my attention drawn to the guest. Yes, the host is attending their needs. But how is the guest behaving? They are showing appreciation. Demonstrating courtesy to the host who has invited them. Always conscious that they are an invited guest. They can be uninvited.

The fourth picture is of melting ice. Perhaps this alludes back to that iced-over stream from the first picture. But, talk about subtlety. A picture of melting ice? What does it show us? The fluid nature of the way things are. Left alone, that ice will melt down into a puddle of water. Is it ice we want? We need to change its environment. Perhaps what we really want is a glass of water.

The fifth picture is of a block of wood. Now we are really getting subtle. Here is a block of wood. What are you going to do with that? The answer is you can shape it into anything you want. The uncarved block of wood is a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. It speaks of beginnings and limitless potential.

The sixth picture is of a valley. Are you still picturing these in your mind? In my own mind, I see a beautiful valley surrounded by towering, snow-covered mountains. As the snow melts, streams of water run down to fill the valley and make it lush with green growth. The ancient Masters were receptive like that.

The seventh and last picture is of a glass of water. I knew that ice was melting for some reason. Nothing is as refreshing as a nice, tall, glass of clear water. Perhaps with a lemon wedge, and a few shavings from that melting ice over there.

I know those were some profound and subtle paintings. But what do they really mean? Lao Tzu wants to know whether we have the patience to wait until our mud settles, and the water is clear. Can we remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? That is the essence of wisdom which the ancient Masters had. If we want a life of ease, which by the way, is the point of the journey, then we need to understand a little of the essence of their wisdom. They didn’t seek fulfillment. They weren’t seeking. They weren’t expecting. They were just present. That is what all those pictures represent. Being in the present moment. And, they were ready for anything.

A Riddle To Begin Your New Year

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnameable.
It returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all form.
Image without an image.
Subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it, and there is no beginning.
Follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it.
At ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from;
this is the essence of wisdom.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 14, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Happy New Year to all my friends. And, here is riddle to begin your new year. Lao Tzu has been talking about the need to detach ourselves from all the things that prop up the illusion. Detachment will result in our being attached to reality. We were talking yesterday about the illusion that we are separate from the rest of the Universe. We feel alone. Lost. And, confused. We are looking for answers. Lao Tzu would say, in all the wrong places. That is the allure of that ladder he was talking about yesterday. We want a life of ease. And the ladder promises that.

But Lao Tzu has told us that the ladder’s promises are all an illusion. The life of ease it promises will always elude us. That life of ease isn’t something we can know. That is what today’s riddle is about. If you look for it, it can’t be seen If you listen for it, it can’t be heard. If you reach for it, it can’t be grasped.

While on that ladder you will find that above, it isn’t so bright. And below, it isn’t so dark. But most people feel trapped on that ladder. They don’t see a way out. What Lao Tzu is offering to us, whether we feel trapped on the ladder or not, is a big heaping dose of reality. The ladder is not the gateway to what you are seeking. What you are seeking is not something which can be found by seeking.

What Lao Tzu is talking about comes back to the reason he keeps talking about the importance of non-being. It all returns to the realm of nothing. It is why, in this past year, I have come to really find joy in the subtle. It is something I have discussed before with my friend who I meet each week for tea. All the teas he serves are so subtle. He worries that they are bland. No! They aren’t bland. They are subtle. And it is in that subtlety that I am able to appreciate all the nuance the tea has to offer. The foods that I eat. The activities that I enjoy. They all embrace that subtlety.

But that is coming from someone who has been off the ladder for a couple of years now. It is still yet hard for me to explain. It is something you can only appreciate as you experience it for yourself. As you approach it, you find it has no beginning. As you follow it, you find it has no end. No, you can’t know it. But good news! You can be it.

You can be at ease in your own life. No, it doesn’t have to be something far off in the distant future. You can experience it right now. Once you realize where you come from. That, my friends, is the essence of wisdom. And, it is something that Lao Tzu will talk about more and more as we continue this journey.

Not Another New Year’s Resolution

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope
is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self.
Then you can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

As I am reading through today’s chapter, another year is coming to a close. And, today’s chapter certainly seems appropriate for this time of reflecting on this past year and thinking of the coming new one. Was 2014 a success for you? Or, are you chalking it up as a failure? What are your hopes and fears about the coming year?

But, of course, Lao Tzu is quick to point out to us that success and failure, as well as hope and fear, are not grounded in reality. Have you been on a ladder going up or down in 2014? Are you wondering where on the ladder you will be in 2015? Lao Tzu warns us that the ladder is a dangerous place to be. It’s shaky up there. Perhaps, you might consider, as a new year’s resolution (if you are inclined to make those) to resolve to keep both your feet on the ground. That is where you will always keep your balance.

Both our hope of success and our fear of failure, Lao Tzu calls hollow. Hollow? Really? Can’t they be something much more substantial than that? No, he says, hope and fear are both phantoms. Which means they aren’t real. It is all in our imagination. The illusion. We imagine all sorts of things, both good and bad, when we are thinking of ourselves as separate, apart from the whole Universe.

Now, I understand this is all crazy talk. The idea that success and failure are equally dangerous. What could possibly be wrong with succeeding every so often? What danger is there in hoping that we will succeed in the coming year? Oh, we’d gladly give up fearing failure. Just let us hope for success.

But, we can’t have one without the other. We can’t hope for success without fearing failure. And so, some of you are going to say, “Well, fine then. I will just go on living my life just like I always have, hoping to make it further up that ladder.” And, always dogged by that fear that the rung I am on is not taking me where I want to go, fearing that one misstep and down I will go.

Some think the cost is a price they are willing to pay. But here is the problem. You keep paying the price and reaping the cost. All for an illusion. The ladder isn’t real. Those things you hope for, the things you fear, they aren’t real. Only the price you are paying is real.

There is a better way. It is a way to keep all things in balance with both feet on the ground. Stop seeing yourself as separate. That is the grand illusion. Like you are in some circus act. Look beyond your self as separate and see the way things really are. You and the whole world (the whole Universe, really) are one. See things that way and you won’t have anything to fear. Love the whole world as you love yourself. Then, as you care for all things, you are cared for, as well.

We talked before about this idea of the individual as containing the whole Universe within themselves. And, I want to reiterate that this isn’t forsaking the individual in favor of the collective. In a collective, the individual is only part. It isn’t individual vs. the collective. Nor, is it collective vs. the individual. The individual is the whole. We aren’t separate from the whole. We are the whole. It isn’t assimilation of the individual within the collective; but, it may be viewed as assimilating the collective within the individual.

And, it isn’t measured as success, or failure. It isn’t something to be hoped for, or feared. It is just the way things are. That is what I have faith in as another year ends and a new year begins.

A Sense of Balance, The Practice Of Moderation

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 12, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, once again, Lao Tzu is encouraging us to not be swayed by outward appearances. The key is balance and moderation. We need to see beyond the colors to the thing itself. Sounds without definition are a cacophony in our ears. And, our taste buds can be numbed by excess of flavors. Too much thinking only weakens our minds. Hunting and chasing after what we desire makes our hearts sick.

Observe the world, yes; but understand that a lot of what we see is all an illusion. Trust your inner vision. That will show you what is the eternal reality. Let things come and go without forming attachments to them. The sky is big and open. Sometimes clouds fill it. But, then they go on their way. Let your heart be open like that.