Tastes Great! And, It’s Filling!

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 were 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 aimless 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)

I made the mistake, on Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America of all days, of stirring up the rancor of some neocons, on my Facebook page. I had posted my link to the excellent Sheldon Richman article “Foreign Policy Comes Back to Haunt Us”; and then I had the audacity to talk about the conversation I had with a Muslim woman client of mine regarding U.S. foreign policy. A very enjoyable conversation, I might add. But, of course, I am the one who is in error. I should be proud to be an American, where I have the freedom to speak so freely against the policies of my own government. And, you know what? I am not proud to be an American. I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean. Perhaps someone who identifies as a proud American would care to enlighten me about what exactly it means to be a proud American. Now, that isn’t to say that I am not thankful, very thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day and every day that I can speak somewhat freely against the imperialistic foreign policy of the United States. I haven’t been rounded up and put into a FEMA camp, just yet. Though, if I am not on some government watch list, by now, I admit to being sorely disappointed. The whole business with the neocons did help me to identify more profoundly with Lao Tzu in today’s chapter.

While today’s chapter is easily the most misunderstood chapter in all the Tao Te Ching, one translator referred to it as, “One of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.”, I take great comfort in what Lao Tzu has to say in today’s chapter.

We have been talking for at least a couple of days about exactly what ails us, since we have forgotten the great Tao. And, yesterday, Lao Tzu began to share the cure for it. Throwing away systems we hold near and dear to us, are drastic measures to have to take. But, the diagnosis was grim, and not to be taken lightly. Lao Tzu ended yesterday’s chapter where today’s begins. If throwing these things away isn’t enough, just stay in the center of the circle and let all things take their course. And, I said, that means stop thinking and stop doing, stop interfering with the course of nature.

So, Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter with, “Stop thinking, and end your problems.” In its proper context, this statement is easily understood. You have to be reading this chapter, as if it is isolated from the rest of the Tao Te Ching, to call it a pathetic expression of loneliness based on a lack of appreciation. But, I suppose my neocon friends will say that I am both pathetic and unappreciative. Which is why I so strongly identify with Lao Tzu as he expresses, not loneliness, but intentional empathy.

Yes, it is a deeply personal chapter. Twelve times he uses the personal pronoun, I. Seven of those times he cries out, I am alone.

It is ridiculous, says Lao Tzu, to feel like you must value what others value and avoid what others avoid. Lao Tzu isn’t mocking me as I sometimes wish that I could simply agree with the majority instead of always feeling like a lone voice. I really need to stop thinking. That would put an end to my problems. As if there was any real difference between yes and no, between success and failure.

But I am simply not able (willing) to shut off my critical thinking skills. Other people are so excited! Why is it that I alone don’t care about these trivial matters that excite them so? Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I am expressionless, like an infant before it can smile.

It is also true, dare I say it, other people have what they need, I alone possess nothing. I am drifting about, alone, like someone who is homeless. I am like an idiot! My mind is so empty! (That is hyperbole; while I possess nothing, I have everything I need. Also, I am not anywhere near homeless. And, I really think I am far too clever for my own good.)

But, getting back to the chapter, Other people are bright, I alone am dark. Other people are sharp, I alone am dull. Other people have a purpose, I alone… Well, actually, I am not so unaware of my purpose. But this was never about me. And others do feel this kind of despondency. Like they alone don’t know what their purpose is. Drifting about like a wave on the ocean. Blowing as aimlessly as the wind.

Lao Tzu gets it. And, I get it. It is that intentional empathy we have been talking about. But, there is comfort to be had in today’s chapter. It is okay to feel like you are different from everyone else. It is okay to be different from ordinary people. To be extraordinary. That is why Lao Tzu tells us exactly what he does, as he resides in the center of the circle. He drinks from the Great Mother’s breasts. And that is what I am doing. And, what I encourage all of you to do. Mother’s milk is super good.

Drastic Times Call For Drastic Measures

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 in the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.

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

Yesterday’s chapter was a downer. I am not making any apologies for that. I liken it to going to a physician and being told the bad news first. Until we realize we are sick, we won’t be able to move toward health.

As a recap of yesterday’s chapter, especially for those who weren’t able to read it, Lao Tzu chronicled exactly what ails us as the great Tao has been forgotten. Being the clever and resourceful creatures we humans are, we have contrived all sorts of substitutes, crutches if you will, for our lost connection with the Tao. In individuals, these crutches are our cleverness and our knowledge. In families, it is our moral duties to each other. In our country, patriotism rears its ugly head. But Lao Tzu doesn’t leave us with only the dark and bleak diagnosis. There is a way to be healed. Today’s chapter, will go a long way toward healing us of our forgetfulness.

Because the great Tao has been forgotten, people are stumbling about in confusion and sorrow. But be of good cheer. The Tao is not lost, only our connection with it has been lost. What has been lost can be regained. Consider today’s chapter, the physician’s prescription. But, be forewarned: drastic times call for drastic measures.

We need to remember the forgotten Tao. And the sooner we do, the sooner our connection with the Tao will be restored. And that will result in a return to our natural state. Let there be no regrets for lost years. Some people suffer from a lifetime of regrets. But we need to leave the past in the past, where it belongs. The Tao is ever present. And realizing, once again, where we come from means being completely present.

All those crutches, the substitutes we have contrived to go on with our living with the Tao forgotten, have got to go. As Lao Tzu puts it, they need to be thrown away. The goodness and piety. The cleverness and knowledge. The filial piety. The patriotism. All of these are signs of the turmoil we are all suffering.

Today begins our road to recovery, a recovery of our connection to, and harmony with, the Tao.

Using the analogy of crutches, I think it is good to understand this. There is a time when crutches can be very useful. But there comes a time when the crutches need to be set aside. They are no longer an aid to your healing. They will only hinder further healing. That time is now. The crutches are not of any help to us. They never were.

Lao Tzu lists three pairs of substitutes for the Tao that we simply must be willing to throw away. I call them crutches because we have become dependent on these contrived and forced methods for living our lives. Holiness and wisdom. Morality and justice. Industry and profit. Some of these may be near and dear to a lot of my readers. The temptation to hold on to these things, rather than throwing them away, may be great. I can already hear some of you asking, “What is so wrong with holiness and wisdom, with morality and justice, or with industry and profit?” and, I sympathize. My answer is that there would be nothing wrong with them, if they flowed voluntarily from the core of our being. But, we all know that these things aren’t flowing voluntarily from the core of our being. We are stopped up. There is a blockage. Our connection with the Tao has been lost. These things are systems we have contrived to take the place of what we used to do effortlessly, spontaneously, and intuitively.

And some of you will no doubt agree with me that we have this blockage; but, can’t we wait to throw away the crutches until the blockage has been cured? The crutches seem useful to us, until we have the cure. If we were waiting on bones to be healed, I might agree with you. But our problem is much deeper than broken bones. The crutches don’t aid us to regain our lost connection with the Tao. They only serve to prevent us from regaining our lost connection. Throwing away the crutches is the cure.

We can’t wait for people to be a hundred times happier to throw away holiness and wisdom. People won’t be any happier until we throw away these crutches. We can’t wait for people to do the right thing before we throw away morality and justice. People won’t do the right thing as long as we have these false systems in place. And, we can’t wait for there to be no more thieves before we throw away industry and profit. The system of industry and profit we have contrived is directly responsible for the thieves. More on this later; bear with me, I will better explain exactly what is wrong with these things.

But first, trust me, the question isn’t, “Can we get away with anything less than throwing them all away?” The question is, “Will even this, be enough?”

I want to reiterate that the Tao has gone nowhere. It is still where it has always been, deep within the core of your being. And, as long as we insist on using these crutches, we will never get well. The only way to begin to remember what we have lost, the only way to realize where we come from, is to get rid of all the poor substitutes we have contrived to take its place.

Now, I really need to add this about Lao Tzu’s list of throwaways. I used to have a love/hate relationship with these things. All of us probably have. When I would get to this particular chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I would really wrestle with Lao Tzu over his throwaways. The struggle was real; for I both loved and hated these things, Lao Tzu said I needed to throw away.

It took a series of epiphanies for me to realize my problem, and our problem.

What I, what we, had done is put these things on a kind of pedestal. That is why they have become so hard to give up. Looking at them up there on that imaginary pedestal, it can be hard to see what is so wrong with them. Industry and profit took me an especially long time to be willing to throw away. My epiphany came when I realized (yes, there is that word, again) that these things are nothing more than ideas, intangibles. They aren’t real. What is holiness and wisdom? What is morality and justice? What is industry and profit? What are any of these things, apart from what we have been programmed to believe they are?

Because I had an especially hard time letting go of industry and profit, I will just talk about that pair. But, this exercise will work with any of them, believe me.

For some time now, I have considered myself something of an anti-capitalist capitalist. I want freed markets. So, I asked myself, “Can I work within our present system, this system of industry and profit, to get where I want to be? Because, let’s be clear, our present system of industry and profit is not a free market economy. It may or may not be fair to call it capitalism. But, I don’t have any real interest in debating that. To me, that is a great waste of time and energy. The question is, “Can I work within this present system to bring about a whole other reality? Once I started asking myself these kinds of honest questions, I didn’t find them all that hard to answer. Is there any doubt we have a real problem with thieves in our present system? And I am not referring to blue collar thieves, here. It is the white collar, very much sanctioned by the State, thieves to which I am referring. What is it going to take to be rid of these thieves?

Suddenly, the pedestals these throwaways have been on, crumble and fall away. No longer do I love them so much. Now, I understand just how much they need to go.

But, like I said earlier, that was never the question. The real question is, will this be enough?

And, Lao Tzu anticipates that question. He answers, if throwing these three things away isn’t enough, just stay in the center of the circle and let all things take their course.

That sounds entirely too simple; and, entirely too difficult. I have asked the question, “But, how?” so many times, that I am somewhat ashamed with myself. It really is simple. It is only difficult because we are approaching it from an entirely unnatural perspective. Just like when we were so reticent in our refusal to throw away the refuse. Staying in the center of the circle is simply staying connected to the Tao. Letting all things take their course requires that we practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. What makes it difficult is what we think we know. We want to hold on to our cleverness and our knowledge. And, our addiction to being in control. Our will to power, how swiftly we resort to the use of force, our desire to interfere. Stay in the center of the circle. Stop thinking. Stop doing. Let your mind empty and your core fill, to overflowing. Realize where you come from, and you won’t stumble about in confusion and sorrow, any longer.

Today’s Commentary Is A Huge Downer

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

When the body’s intelligence declines,
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)

Today’s chapter is something of a downer. We have been talking about being in harmony with the Tao – that always means things go well for us. But, what happens when we aren’t in harmony with the Tao? What happens when the great Tao is forgotten? Then things start to deteriorate fast.

A couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu said, “When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted, dignified as a king.” That sounds somehow strange to us, unnatural; but that is only because we haven’t been following the Tao for quite a long while now. What Lao Tzu was describing should, in reality, be our natural state. It is what happens, naturally, as we are immersed in the wonder of the Tao. We can deal with whatever life brings us.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu chronicles exactly what will happen, what is happening, because the Tao has been forgotten. Yes, it is a downer. People stumble about in confusion and sorrow. It becomes harder and harder to deal with the twists and turns in life. Instead of being in a natural state of contentment. We are in an unnatural state of turmoil. And, the way Lao Tzu describes it in today’s chapter, this turmoil is a contagion that spreads from individuals to families to whole countries.

I want to say it again. Harmony with the Tao is our natural state. Stumbling about in confusion and sorrow is completely unnatural. But, whatever else we humans may be, we are certainly resourceful creatures. We always find ways to try and adapt to our unnatural state of affairs. That is why, when the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear.

Now, goodness and piety don’t seem like such bad things, do they? That is what makes the trap so alluring. What is the problem with goodness and piety? What makes them a trap? It is because they are contrived. They don’t flow naturally, from the core of our being, as a product of our harmony with the way things are. In fact, they are poor substitutes for reliance on the Tao. Contrived, forced, unnatural. We, of course, have some idea what goodness and piety should be like. But, it isn’t always easy to be good and pious. It requires effort to try and be good and pious. But, with the right amount of effort on our own part, or the application of force from outside of us, we might just be able to put on a good show. And, ultimately, that is exactly what it is. A show. It is pretentious. But, with the great Tao forgotten, it is all we have left.

Lao Tzu first describes how this plays out in individuals. When the great Tao is forgotten, the body’s intelligence declines. Body’s intelligence refers to our body’s spontaneous and intuitive connection to the Tao. Before, we didn’t have to think about it. Our actions were effortless. They just flowed naturally from the core of our being. But, since we have forgotten the great Tao, our body’s intelligence has declined. And so, cleverness and knowledge step forth.

I hardly need to say that cleverness and knowledge are poor substitutes for the spontaneous and intuitive connection our bodies once had with the Tao. We will, no doubt, celebrate our mind’s ability to adapt. But we don’t really know all that we think we know. We merely delude ourselves. No matter how clever we think we are, no matter how much we think we know, we are only deceiving ourselves; and, things are only likely to get much worse before we ever get back on track.

How do things take a turn for the worse? Individuals aren’t islands unto themselves. They are a part of something greater, a family. But individuals who are messed up, mess up family life. And family life is important, make no mistake about it. That is why, when Lao Tzu was speaking, before, of the supreme good he said, “In family life, be completely present.” Being present is a state of oneness with the way things are. We need to be completely present in our family life. But how is that now possible? The great Tao has been forgotten. How can individuals be completely present when they have lost their spontaneous and intuitive connection with the Tao? All the cleverness and knowledge one can muster will never suffice. The confusion and sorrow, the turmoil in individuals spills over into families. Where is the harmony? Where is the peace? Family life, too, is naturally spontaneous and intuitive, or, at least it was. But with the peace lost, something will always rise to fill the vacuum which has been created. And, in families, that is filial piety.

Every time I add my commentary to today’s chapter, I always start with the assumption that filial piety is not a familiar term to our Western minds. Like the piety we spoke of earlier, it isn’t spontaneous, intuitive, or natural. It is contrived and forced. Filial piety refers to things which we do out of a moral sense of duty. We are talking about a father’s duty to provide for his children. A mother’s duty to nurture her children. A husband’s and wife’s duties to each other. And, a child’s duties to their parents. Some may argue that all of this is nothing more than family values. And, what can be wrong with family values? The answer, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with anything that flows spontaneously, intuitively, and naturally from the core of our beings. That would be voluntary. But these duties aren’t being done voluntarily. They are forced, contrived. And, just like with the goodness and piety we spoke of earlier, their actual purpose is all for appearances. It is nothing but a pretentious show. Just wait until cracks and fissures start to show in the facade that has been constructed around the family unit. You’ll see that there is still no peace in the family.

But we aren’t done yet. The family is the backbone of the entire country. When family life is ravaged by chaos, you can bet it won’t be long until the whole country falls into chaos. In yesterday’s chapter, we were talking about how important it is that our leaders trust the people. But when the great Tao has been forgotten, we no longer trust ourselves, let alone each other. We will end up seeking out leaders to control us, because we no longer believe we can control ourselves. Transferring control from self to something external to us is as much as admitting we are no longer humans. We belong in cages. So, we gladly walk in and close the doors behind us. Individuals are no longer championed. Now, the collective is all that matters. When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.

I have talked before about how loathsome a thing patriotism is to me. There is absolutely nothing natural about patriotism. It is entirely contrived and forced. Just try to imagine a presidential candidate that refused to wear a flag pin. Or, one that didn’t end every speech with “God bless America!” Like the moral sense of duty to one’s family, we have a moral sense of duty to our country. God and country! You hardly ever hear one without the other. Your country can do no wrong. You must support the troops. Nationalism inevitably leads to fascism. And the way so many of my “friends” on Facebook have been talking with regards to the Syrian refugees, fascism will be welcomed with great applause.

Today’s chapter ended up being a huge downer. But it all needed to be said. And now I am done.

One Step Toward Obtaining What I Want

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)

For those of my followers who are going through the Tao Te Ching with me for the first time, today’s chapter is almost an introduction to the art of governing, governing in a way that follows the Tao. Back in chapter eight he mentioned it for the first time when he said, “In governing, don’t try to control.” Short and sweet, it really said everything that Lao Tzu will go on to say about the art of governing. But, today, he begins expanding on this theme. How do you govern people without trying to control them? Some people think governing is all about trying to control. So, how does governing without trying to control even work? And, today’s chapter is only the beginning; as we continue, we will have chapter after chapter devoted to the art of governing. That is good news for me, since I was a libertarian, interested in limited government, for decades before I ever encountered Lao Tzu’s philosophy. I know I tend to start ranting when I get to chapters like today’s. It is one thing that I have been passionate about for a very long time. But, I hope to keep the ranting to a minimum, today. I have so many future chapters to look forward to. No need to get all worked up, today.

Murray Rothbard, among other libertarians, consider Lao Tzu to be the first libertarian. And, I readily admit it was how very libertarian the Tao Te Ching seemed to be to me, as I read it for the very first time, that drew me into philosophical Taoism.

Lao Tzu begins by listing four different types of leaders. He lists them from best to worst. The best is the one who governs in perfect harmony with the Tao. That would be when the Master governs. When he governs, people are hardly aware that he exists. He doesn’t talk, he acts. And, when his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it all by ourselves!”

That is certainly the ideal. And, I am certain there are those who will say, it is idealistic and unrealistic. It just can’t and won’t ever happen. Which is why, I suppose, Lao Tzu offers us the next three leaders in descending order.

Next best is a leader who is loved. If we can’t and won’t have the ideal leader, at least we can settle for one we can love. A leader who is loved can’t be all that bad, can they?

I guess that would depend on how universally loved dear leader is. I know people that love our current leader. I also know people who fear him. And, people who despise him.

The problem with a country that is trying to be a democracy is pleasing a majority at the expense of a minority doesn’t bode too well for the minority. Oh, but just wait until the present minority is able to sway enough voters to their side, then we’ll have the new majority pleased at the expense of the new minority. This is the constant game being played in politics in my country and all around the world. Where every new election we are told, when our candidate loses, just wait until the next election for your next chance for power.

I am always in the minority because I don’t want power. I just want to be left alone. And there has never been a majority that wanted that. Sorry, I won’t vote for evil, for your lesser evil is always someone’s greater.

It would be nice, I will concede, if we could clearly delineate between a leader who is loved, one who is feared, and one who is despised. But politics is never that clear. The reality has always been that while some will love you, others will fear you, and plenty will despise you. For my own part, I have cleared things up for myself as much as I can. I despise anyone who aspires to power, anyone who desires to control others. The only person fit for the position of leader over all the people wouldn’t aspire to the position in the first place.

I can see that this is getting dangerously close to a rant, and I really want to avoid that today.

So, getting back to today’s chapter, what does Lao Tzu have to say about what separates the leader who is loved, feared, or despised, from the Master when he governs?

It all comes down to trust. The Master trusts the people. And the people prove themselves to be trustworthy.

That is what sets the Master apart from everyone else. The rest, whether they are loved, or feared, or despised, don’t trust the people. And that is what ends up making the people untrustworthy.

Forget all the promises the candidates for office make. We know they are meaningless. They have such good intentions. Just ask them. They’ll tell you. But their motivation for running for office is always the same. They don’t trust us to govern ourselves. They need to control us. People can’t fend for themselves. They need me and my government to fend for them. They need the subsidies that I will offer them. They need me to lead their armed forces. They need me!

So, while having the Master govern may seem idealistic to some of you, I know that having the Master governing is the only acceptable form of governing for me. Forever in the minority, perhaps. But, Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”

I am happy to take that one step today.

Where Realization Comes From

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 in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kind-hearted 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)

Back, three chapters ago, we introduced the practice of intentional empathy. We were talking about how, because we have been programmed into seeing the self as self, we have been lulled to sleep. We aren’t conscious of the eternal reality. We don’t see the world as self. And, as long as we don’t see the world as self, we may be sympathetic to the suffering of other beings around us, but we can’t begin to experience empathy, identification with, the other beings around us. We have to wake up. We have to be conscious of the eternal reality. We have to see the world as self, in order to love the world as we do ourselves, and actually care for all things.

The question then, of course, is how do we come to realize the world and self are one, so we can practice this intentional empathy.

So, for the last two chapters, Lao Tzu talked about the need to realize there is no future, there is only now, the eternal present. And he said, it is the essence of wisdom to realize where you come from. How do we do this? Lao Tzu said that it requires patience to wait until our mud settles; and to remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself. Fulfillment isn’t something to be sought. You don’t seek it, you don’t expect it, for it isn’t some future thing. Just be in the present, and welcome all things.

Of course, none of this really answers the question, “How?” But today, Lao Tzu does finally answer the question, “How?”

Today’s chapter has become my constant meditation.

He says, “Empty your mind of all thoughts.” I know that immediately raises questions. How do I do this? I have tried and failed. What am I doing wrong? Those thoughts arise, don’t fight them, let them. But don’t ponder them. Let them come. And, let them go. Where people get defeated in meditation is they expend a whole lot of energy trying to meditate, instead of just meditating. I stopped worrying about random thoughts that would inevitably pop into my mind, trying to distract me. I quit giving them my attention. And they go. Let them. Let your heart be at peace. Gee, is it really that simple? Are our hearts troubled because we won’t let them be at peace? Those desires in your heart troubling you so, don’t have to, if you don’t let them. Just let go of them. Why are you holding on to them?

I have talked many times before about how I like to sit outside in my backyard, it faces one of the busiest streets in the town in which I live. This is where I go to practice my meditation. I return to this place over and over again, throughout my day. It is here that I watch the busy street. I watch the turmoil of beings. But, while I am observing the world around me, I trust my inner vision. I contemplate their return to our common Source.

What is this common Source? Lao Tzu first talked about the Source in chapter one. He said that we could trace back the manifestations of the Tao to the Source. The Source is where we come from.

This is where everything we have been talking about the last few days comes into sharp focus. It is where we wake up to the eternal reality. No more do we have to rely on impotent sympathy. Now we can practice intentional empathy. We can be present for all beings as we realize where we come from, our common Source. The One we share with all beings. The Source we come from and return to and come from and return to, over and over again throughout the eternal present in which we live.

Remember when Lao Tzu said the reason there is turmoil is because we see ourselves as separate, as selves? Why do the phantoms of fear and hope arise? It all has to do with the perspective we have been programmed to use. We compete with our fellow beings on that imaginary ladder of success and failure. Not realizing, when one fails, all fail. Stand with both feet on the ground. Or, do like I do, sit with both feet on the ground. Observe the turmoil of separate beings. You and they are all the same. But, each and every one of us returns to the common Source; it is where we come from, and where we go to. This is serenity. Not in some unknown future, but now.

Why are these beings in turmoil? Because they see themselves as separate. They appear to be stumbling in confusion and sorrow. But, whether they are aware of it or not, they are returning to the common Source. They will come to realize where they come from. Some maybe sooner than others; but, when all of eternity is bound up in the present moment, does that really matter?

When you realize where you come from, intentional empathy, spontaneously and intuitively, emerges. You naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. I am not patting myself on the back, when I say that I have become these things. For I tried to be these things, for years, without success. You can’t pat yourself on the back when you know that it happened without any effort on your part. And, I had absolutely nothing to do with this evolution in me. I just let it happen. I stopped trying. But, I also stopped resisting.

I became immersed in the wonder of the Tao. This is where I come from. And, it is where you come from, too. You, too, can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you will be ready.

There Is No Future. There Is Only Now.

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 your 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, the last two days, about the proverbial ladder of success. There is something I didn’t explicitly say about it, that needs saying. While I was focusing on the fact that we have been indoctrinated or programmed into believing in that ladder, I think there is a more important reason that Lao Tzu is concerned with it. What the ladder represents is a postponement of contentment, for some illusory future time. He would say, we can’t know the life of ease promised by that ladder, because we can’t know what the future holds. That is why he said, two chapters ago, standing with your two feet on the ground is the only way to always keep your balance. And, in yesterday’s chapter, you can’t know it, but you can be it. Don’t postpone being at ease in your own life. Live in the present! Be content, right now!

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues to talk about the essence of wisdom he was talking about in yesterday’s chapter. Remember, this wisdom comes in realizing where you come from. “Come” being a present-tense word.

He begins by talking about the unfathomable wisdom the ancient Masters had. They were profound and subtle. Their wisdom, he says, is beyond description. All he can describe is their appearance.

Thus, he launches into a description of their appearance by using another series of word-pictures, metaphors. The imagery shows us where they were coming from; and that, in turn, helps us to realize where we need to come from, in order to be at ease in our own lives.

This is all about living in the present moment. Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Being in the present moment means being attentive.

But being attentive is only the beginning. Fluid as melting ice. Shapeable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water. They were fully in the moment. Ready for whatever the moment would bring.

The question I have asked before is, “How can I be this fully in the present moment?”
And Lao Tzu asks us two questions which show us the way. “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The patience to wait; to remain unmoving.

Too often, I think, we get in too big a hurry, and try to hasten or rush the moment. We tell ourselves that waiting and remaining unmoving means the present moment will pass by. But that is a distortion of the eternal reality. The present moment is not the fleeting thing we may believe it to be. Eternity exists in the present moment. Waiting and remaining unmoving doesn’t take you out of the present moment and into the future. There is no such thing as future. Please realize that, if you realize nothing else of what Lao Tzu is teaching. There is no such thing as future. There is only now. This present moment. It is where you come from.

So, to realize where you come from is to be like the Master, who doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things. This was the essence of the wisdom of the ancient Masters, and it is the essence of wisdom for us, today.

Deciphering This Riddle Is The Essence Of Wisdom

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 forms,
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)

A riddle? Really? I never much cared for riddles. But today’s chapter is a riddle. So, let’s see what we can make of it.

We were talking, yesterday, about how we have been indoctrinated; actually, I think programmed is a better word for it. Since early on in our childhood, we have been told that there is this ladder; and if we want to succeed we need to get on it, and start climbing. Everyone has to climb that ladder. There is no other way. Yesterday, I said that the ladder is an illusion. It isn’t reality. But we are made to think that it is real. Success and failure are defined for us in very particular ways. And we are told that, of course, we want to succeed. Failure is not an attractive option. Lao Tzu exposed the ladder for the illusion that it is, saying we need to rethink our ideas of what constitutes success and failure. Success is as dangerous as failure. It doesn’t matter whether we are going up or down this imaginary ladder. Our position is shaky. We need to stand with both our feet on the ground.

Now, if we could recognize, right at the start, that the ladder was nothing but smoke and mirrors, an illusion, it would be easy to resist its allure. But it seems real to us. All our programming has been designed to deceive us into believing that that ladder is real. So, most of us will end up hoping to succeed and fearing failure while we attempt to climb that ladder.

Today’s chapter, a riddle, offers us the perspective of those who are on that ladder. First off, remember why we are there. What have we been promised? We have been promised that this ladder offers us a life of ease. We only need to work hard and climb higher and higher on that ladder.

But, having spent some time on the ladder, what is the reality? You look for that life of ease; but it can’t be seen. You listen for it; but it can’t be heard. You reach for it, and it can’t be grasped.

While on that ladder, I look above, up higher, where it should get brighter. But, what did I find? It isn’t bright. That should have told me something; but I wasn’t yet ready to realize the truth that was right there. Then, I dare to look below me; to stare into the abyss that I fear awaits me, if I made one wrong step. To my surprise, below me it isn’t dark. Now, right here, the sane move would be to climb back down off the ladder and stay off it, for good. But I wasn’t being very sane. You see, I was still going along with my programming. Just because reality wasn’t lining up with what I had been taught, wasn’t going to stop me from continuing on in my desperate quest for this life of ease, promised to all of us, who will just work hard, and go ever higher and higher on that ladder.

What I found on the ladder is that the life of ease, promised to us, is all an illusion. It is unknowable, seamless, unnameable. It seems to be there and then it is gone. It returns to the realm of nothing. I can’t say that it is formless, for it has a form. But it is a form that includes all forms. It is an image without an image. It is subtle. Yes, that is what it is, subtle. So subtle, that it is beyond all that we can conceive.

As I approach it, it has no beginning. If I try to follow it, it has no end. This is what life on the ladder is like. Trying to know that life of ease, we have been programmed to believe comes to us, if we will only climb high enough on that ladder. But you can’t know it! Should I let that reality sink in? Perhaps not. Lao Tzu doesn’t end that statement with an exclamation point like I did. Or, even a period. He promises, what we can’t know, we can be. You can be at ease in your own life. But you need to get off the ladder.

Where did you come from? Now you may think that this is a question of who our parents are? What is our country of origin? What is our economic status? But those are all questions that have us thinking about things in ways that only lead us back to that ladder. And, Lao Tzu isn’t interested in where we came from. The question is where you come from. And that is something that we must realize. It is the essence of wisdom to realize it. Realizing where you come from happens when we see the way things really are. When we no longer see the self as self, and, instead, see the world as self.

Realizing is both intuitive and spontaneous. And people want to know, how do we come to realize it? But you can’t know it! That point still remains true. I can’t tell you how to know, because you can’t know it. I can’t even tell you how I know it. Because I don’t know it, not in any way that can be explained.

All I can really say about it, for now, is that intuition and spontaneity aren’t things that can be contrived. They flow effortlessly. Like yin and yang. Intuition is very much yin. Why else is it often called woman’s intuition? But yin flows just as effortlessly in men, if we will let it. Spontaneity, on the other hand, is very much yang. And often we will talk about the spontaneous, some will say wild and crazy, things that men do. But, of course, women can be just as spontaneous. So, what can I do to hasten it? But there is nothing you can do. There is nothing to do. Just let it happen. Just be. Just breathe, and go with the flow.

A Conscious Choice: The Practice Of Intentional Empathy

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)

Since the attacks in Paris last Friday, it seems like very few are able to see through the illusion of fear and hate, to what is real about the world and about ourselves. I have seen countless posts filled with fear- and hate-mongering regarding how we should respond to the refugee crisis. A crisis that the U.S. government is largely responsible for, with its war-mongering all over the world. From Washington D.C. to various state capitols, the cries have been loud and strong to turn away the refugees. Shame on us!

If you are thinking that opening paragraph has nothing to do with today’s chapter, then, perhaps my commentary will explain exactly where I am coming from, and with which I believe Lao Tzu would agree.

The illusion is strong! We have been indoctrinated to believe the illusion for all of our lives. And Lao Tzu talks about just that, in today’s chapter, when he explains that success is as dangerous as failure and hope is as hollow as fear. But what is the reality? We’ll get to that.

First, what does he mean when he says that success is as dangerous as failure? We need to realize that we are suffering in the throes of a great illusion. That illusion is represented by the proverbial ladder of success. Well, that is what we like to call it, anyway. That ladder that stretches way up into the sky, promising success for any that dare to climb its rungs. What they won’t tell you is that that ladder doesn’t only offer a one-way trip. The reality is that that shadowy ladder, with all of its rungs, has people going both up and down. And all the time you are on that ladder, your position is shaky. Why shaky? Because it isn’t real. It is all an illusion. A lie. A distortion of reality. We must see the reality if we want to be free of the illusion. And the reality is that the only way to always keep your balance is to stand with both your feet on the ground.

Second, what does he mean when he says that hope is as hollow as fear? Hope and fear are very much tied to what we have been bamboozled into believing about what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. And it is here, that we will begin to get to the very present reality with regards to the refugee crisis. I just imagine that for refugees fleeing from their war-ravaged countries, their hopes and fears seem very much based on reality. They are fleeing because they are in fear for their very lives. And they are hopeful, oh so hopeful, that they will escape to some better future place. I believe their fears are well-grounded in reality. I have seen ample evidence for at least the last 60+ years that the U.S. government’s approach to foreign policy is to create instability all over the world. Why? To make the world dependent on us. Hey, folks, if you don’t want a supply of refugees, why not stop creating a demand for them. But, I don’t expect the powers that be to be paying any attention to little ol’ me.

The problem with my scenario that the hope and fear of these refugees is all based on reality is that what creates their hope and fear is all based on an illusion. The same is true for all of our own hopes and fears. They arise because our perspective on the world and on ourselves is entirely skewed.

We keep looking at ourselves and the world as separate. The world is the world; and me? Well, I am separate. I am just one little nobody that doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. My hope is that I can live my simple, ordinary life, completely separate from all this madness going on in the world around me. My fear is that this world is out to get me. That people I don’t know, who I never did any harm to, have it out for me. They look different from me. They talk different from me. They dress and act different from me. They believe different from me. They are different from me. And, because they are different from me, they are a threat to me.

But that is all an illusion. And a pretty hollow one, at that. Both my hopes and my fears are mere phantoms. They arise because I am thinking of myself as self, as separate from everyone and everything else.

But what would happen if I were to realize that my perspective is skewed? What if I no longer saw myself as self, as separate. What would I then have to fear?

What happens when our perspective is changed, when we see the eternal reality which unmasks the facade masquerading as reality for us all. Then I start to see the world as my self. What a difference a new and real perspective makes! When we have faith in the way things are, when we love the world as we love ourselves, then we can care for all things.

And those refugees no longer appear to be a threat to ourselves. Because, in reality, they are ourselves. What we have lost to the illusion is the ability to empathize. Oh, we may still sympathize. But empathy is not something that we can practice until we make a conscious choice to change our perspective. And I mean it when I say it has to be a conscious choice. We have been lulled to sleep; and, we need to wake up. Seeing, for maybe the first time in our lives, the way things actually are, to be able to actually love the world as our selves. Then we can start to practice the intentional empathy that will be necessary to create the kind of world in which we all will be happy to live.

Tapping Into The Infinite Inside

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 talking about tapping into the infinite Tao in the core of our being. And, once again, the Master is our example to follow. Remember back, in chapter seven, where Lao Tzu said, “The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.” Lao Tzu was explaining, there, how the Master taps into the infinite inside each and every one of us. Then, in chapter ten, he asked six rhetorical questions designed to show us the way back to our primal identity. One of those questions is particularly of interest as we look at today’s chapter: “Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?”

I said, in my commentary on that question, that our problem is with the desires we insist on holding on to. But, as today’s chapter points out, our problem with our desires is only one of many problems we have.

Today’s chapter tells us all we have to deal with, and then shows us what the Master does to tap into the infinite Tao.

We are a part of this world around us. And, because we are a part of this world, we must be observers of it. The key is to know how to practice being “detached from all things” as we go about observing it. That is, after all, what the Master does. What happens if we are plagued by attachment to things? Then, we are surrounded by a cacophony of sights, sounds, and tastes – “noise” – which ends up clouding our inner vision. Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Notice how each of these three refer to a singular sensory organ. It isn’t two eyes that get blinded, or two ears that get deafened, or all our taste buds that get rendered numb. Lao Tzu is speaking of the singular inner vision. That is what is clouded. That is what needs to be cleansed.

Of course, it isn’t just the outside stimuli that blunts our sharpness. Our mind betrays us. Thoughts weaken it. And, then, there are those pesky desires. They wither our heart.

How can we both be observers of the world and yet trust our inner vision? Detachment is the key to being what I will call a casual observers of the world. The casual observer is in the world; but, he is disinterested in it. He has no attachments to it. I want to be careful here, because detachment and disinterest will mean different things to different people. Some people, for instance, believe that the best way to practice Taoism is to be a recluse, a hermit, wholly cut off from the world and everyone and everything it contains. That is certainly one way to be detached from all things. But I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is getting at.

What Lao Tzu is asking of us is both much harder and much easier than adopting the life of a hermit. The Master certainly doesn’t separate himself from the rest of the world. Instead, he is smack dab in the middle of it. All of the hustle and bustle, a whirlwind of busyness, surrounds him. And he observes it. But he isn’t moved by it. He doesn’t let the colors, the sounds, and the flavors dazzle him. His constant practice is to rein in his mind from its wanderings. And, he lets go of desires before they can wither his heart.

Now, with his inner vision cleansed, he can trust his inner vision, and he does. Not being swayed by the cacophony surrounding him, he simply allows things to come and go, in a constant state of disinterest. He doesn’t struggle to hold on to fleeting things. And, he doesn’t reach out for things that haven’t yet arrived. His heart, because it isn’t withered, becomes as infinite as the Tao itself, open as the sky.

Detachment, disinterest, being observers, but trusting what we are on the inside. That is the way to tap into the infinite that we all have within us.

Just Holes And Empty Spaces?

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu introduced the concept of being and non-being; and, he has been talking about them ever since then. If you didn’t notice that, don’t feel too bad; he hasn’t actually mentioned the words being and non-being since chapter two, until today. Still, he has had a lot to say about the value in emptiness. And, Lao Tzu makes clear, in today’s chapter, that non-being and emptiness are virtually synonymous terms.

I remember, back in my commentary on chapter two, that I confessed a certain difficulty in trying to explain what non-being is. Being seems simple to explain. It is everything that is. But, is non-being simply everything that is not? I ended up taking three stabs at trying to explain what non-being is, in just a few words. One of those stabs was only talking about non-being as yin, with being as yang. That was really only an attempt to explain how they relate to each other. The second stab talked of non-being as mystery and being as the manifestations. But that was only a way of pointing out that non-being is very much a mystery to me. One of my stabs, I think I got pretty close to the heart of reality: Agreeing that being is everything that is, non-being is what is yet to be.

What I was getting at, is the potential in non-being. As Lao Tzu says in today’s chapter, “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” Therefore, non-being is important to us, because of its potential to be used by us.

And, that is why it is also so important to think of emptiness as a synonym of non-being. Whether we are thinking of the emptiness of a well that can never be used up, the eternal void filled with infinite possibilities, or a bellows empty yet infinitely capable; the more you use it, the more it produces. That emptiness is infinite in its potential for use.

And don’t think I don’t know the risk inherent in talking more about it. The more you talk of it, the less you understand. Yes, yes. I get that. But, still, there is so much that needs to be said.

There is much more to non-being than meets the eye. Well, duh. Just look at how Lao Tzu describes it today. Our eyes are on the spokes that join together in a wheel, the clay that was shaped into a pot, the wood that was hammered into a house. We can’t really see the emptiness that is created by the being we work with. That center hole? That emptiness inside? The inner space? It looks like nothing to our eyes. But that nothing is everything! Without it the wagon wouldn’t move, the pot wouldn’t be able to hold whatever we want, and the house wouldn’t be livable.

That isn’t to say that being isn’t important to us. After all, we have to work with something. But non-being is what we use. And that means we need to start looking at everything differently. Instead of only seeing what is, we need to see what is yet to be. What is before and after, above and beneath, being? If we are going to go with the flow of the Tao we better be cognizant of its ebb. There is a reason our Universe is filled with so much empty space. Whether we are talking about things we view with telescopes or microscopes, we tend to dismiss all the empty space we find, without giving it a second thought. But there is value in that emptiness. Out of that nothing springs everything.