If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 36, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
My commentary the last few days has been brief. I’d like to think short and sweet. But I’ll just leave it at brief. We have been talking about the imperceptible Tao and what we can perceive. Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about going wherever you wish, without danger. The key, Lao Tzu tells us, is in being centered in the Tao and perceiving the universal harmony even amid great pain. That is the way to find peace in our hearts.
And I get it. I really do get it. I have found that peace. But that doesn’t really go far enough, does it? The fact that my heart is at peace when there is so much pain and suffering all around me. It seems almost selfish of me to content myself with my own peace.
And Lao Tzu comes along with today’s chapter, to show me how to better make use of the inexhaustible Tao. Even if my heart is at peace. There is still so much pain and suffering. Naturally, I want to do something about that. I’d like to shrink it; or better yet, I’d like to get rid of it entirely.
And this is where Lao Tzu shares what he calls the subtle perception of the way things are. See, we are still talking about what can be perceived. And a lot of that, is ever so subtle. But that is the eternal reality. It is ever so subtle. In perceiving the universal harmony, let us not think for a moment that it is only about our own hearts. No, it concerns more than just little ol’ me. It concerns everything and everybody. It concerns how we can effectively deal with what is the hard and fast reality for people all over the world.
One thing we never want to hear is that if we want to shrink something we must first allow it to expand. Or worse, if we want to get rid of something we must first allow it to flourish. No, we don’t much care for the way things are when we are seeing people in the midst of pain and suffering.
Still, not liking it, doesn’t change things. If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. We must see this. We must understand this. No matter how subtle it appears to be. No matter how clouded our vision, or muddled our thinking may be. We must see how things work in our Universe.
There are laws which must be obeyed. Call them laws of nature or laws of physics. I call them the way things are. That, you simply can’t successfully work against. Oh, maybe for a time you might appear to thwart nature. But nature always wins in the end. Always.
Does that seem hard and cruel to you? Am I saying that pain and suffering are something that we must simply allow to expand and flourish? Actually, what I think Lao Tzu is getting at is helping us to work with the Tao, instead at cross purposes with it. That the pain and suffering may just be a consequence of failing to work with the Tao.
But we have lost our way. And finding our way back is a process. And a slow and painful process, it might have to be. We can’t overcome the hard by being hard. We have to perceive the universal harmony. We have to perceive the way things are. It is the soft that overcomes the hard. It is the slow that overcomes the fast.
Does this all seem very mysterious? Just mumbo jumbo? Sure, the Tao is a mystery. And its ways are largely a mystery. That is its imperceptibility. But we can see it manifestations. We can perceive its results. That is why Lao Tzu encourages us to let our own workings remain a mystery. Just like the Tao. Just show people the results.