What Does Infinite Even Mean?

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

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-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we really started to try wrapping our minds around the infinite. It wasn’t an easy thing, was it? Today, we are going to expand on the eternal and infinite nature of the Tao. Eternal seems to be the easier of the two. Why is it eternal? Because it was never born. Thus, it can never die. I don’t know why this is easier for me to wrap my mind around. It just is. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Because the Tao has no beginning, it has no end.

But what of its infinite nature? That is a lot harder to wrap my mind around. Thankfully, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu helps us with that. Why is it infinite? And here, Lao Tzu’s answer is not like anything that I ever imagined. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself. Thus, it is present for all beings. In all my attempts to explain infinite, all I could ever come up with is what it is not. It is not finite. But that isn’t really helpful at all. Lao Tzu frees me of my limitations by changing how I look at the thing.

Being infinite is having no desires for itself. Being infinite is being present for all beings. Of course, this isn’t anything that Lao Tzu hasn’t already said about the Tao. But it still is important for us to understand, if we are ever going to realize the mystery. And, we will.

Having no desires for itself. Being present for all beings. It would be nice if we could have some way of fleshing that out. And once again, Lao Tzu doesn’t let us down. Here is the Master. The Master is the one who is one with the Tao. In harmonious accord with it. The Master will flesh this infiniteness out for us.

The Master is going to be helpful to us because any of us can be the Master. We keep talking about the Tao as eternal and infinite; and it seems so beyond anything related to any of us. How can I put the Tao to use in temporary, finite me? Because that is what I am. I am limited by space and time. The Tao is limitless. How can the Tao in me, be of any use to me? The Master shows us how.

Lao Tzu uses the Master to illustrate for us what is the eternal reality as opposed to the illusion we spend most of our lives experiencing. I look at myself and I see myself as bounded by space and time. But Lao Tzu says the eternal and infinite is always present within me. All that remains for me is to realize that paradox and accept the reality.

The Master is ahead because she stays behind. That is paradox. Because she is detached from all things, she is one with them. That is paradox. She is perfectly fulfilled because she has let go of herself. That is paradox.

Bounded by space and time I fear that I will always be behind. I will always be attached to things. I will never be perfectly fulfilled. But the Master doesn’t fret that she is always behind. She gladly stays behind and that is why she is ahead. Her focus was never on getting ahead. She simply stayed behind.

This is good news for all of us. Are you behind? Good. You are right where you need to be. Now stay there. That is how the Master is ahead. Why am I so attached to things? What does this attachment accomplish in my life? The Master has let go of all things. She is completely detached from them. This only sounds difficult because you don’t realize how strong a position you are in when you consciously choose to stay behind. All these things you have been so attached to? They are only means you have been holding onto in order to get ahead. But once we have given up that, the attachment to things is loosened.

Remember, we are fleshing out the eternal and infinite nature of the Tao. It is eternal because it was never born; and thus, will never die. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself; and is therefore, present for all beings. The Master stays behind. The Master is detached from all things. All desires melt away. The Master is perfectly fulfilled because she has let go of every thing, even her own self.

What can the Tao do for you? What will perfect fulfillment look like for you? I can’t begin to describe it for you. There are infinite ways that it might play out in your life. A life of detachment? Whether or not that sounds good to you, may just be a measure of how attached to things you are. Perhaps, it just sounds like a pipe dream.

We are so bound by space and time that we find it difficult to embrace the eternal reality, which is the infinite and eternal Tao, always present within us. The illusion of our limits is a whole lot easier for us to see and believe. But the Tao is infinite and eternal; and it is always present within us. That is the reality, if only we can realize the mystery.

What Are Its Limits?

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 6, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu says the eternal Tao is called the Great Mother. Here we have yet another metaphor to point at the mystery, which is the eternal reality, that Lao Tzu calls the Tao. He has already said it is like a well and like the eternal void. He has said it is like a bellows. And, it is called the Great Mother. Why is it called the Great Mother? Because, though it is empty, like the eternal void; like a bellows, it is inexhaustible. Yes, we are continuing and expanding on this theme of infinite usefulness. The Tao gives birth to infinite worlds.

Right here, we might be tempted to think that the Tao is off in some far corner of the Cosmos, a nursery for stars. The language of those first few lines certainly paints that picture for us. But Lao Tzu has much better news for us than that. The Tao isn’t distant from us, an infinite number of light years away, at all. It is always present within each and every one of us.

It is infinitely present within each and every being in the Universe. That is the Tao, the Great Mother, giving birth to infinite worlds. Beginning with your own world. Today, I want you to begin to realize that we don’t have to travel to some distant galaxy. We don’t even have to go on some pilgrimage to some remote corner of our own world. The Tao is present within you, right where you are. The Tao is present in every member of your family. The Tao is present in your neighbors and your friends. The Tao is even present in people you mistakenly consider your enemies. The Tao is present in all of nature. In all creatures great and small. The Tao is present in the smallest microbe and the largest thing you can imagine.

I am belaboring the point, I know. But I want you to get a firm grasp on this. The Tao is present, always present, within you. And you can use it anyway you want. Lao Tzu doesn’t tell us how to use it. He doesn’t start listing off ways it can be used. He doesn’t tell us to use it for this, but not for that. He says we can use it any way we want.

What is the takeaway from this chapter? The Tao, the Great Mother, the eternal reality, is always right where you need it to be. Though it is empty, it is inexhaustible. Really let this sink in. It is infinitely capable of giving birth to infinite worlds. What limits are you going to put on that? Lao Tzu doesn’t put any. Are you going to? You can’t say, “No, I am not worthy. I am not good enough.” For the Tao doesn’t take sides. It is beyond good and evil. Both sinner and saint are welcome to use it. Is there anything the Tao can’t do in and through you?

The Philosophy Of An Ent

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:
It is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 5, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Wow! Lao Tzu has so much to say in so few words. When I figure out his secret, you all will be the first to know. Today we are going to tackle the concept of good and evil. And we are going to continue to describe what the Tao is like. Before we tackle good and evil, I want to continue what we started yesterday, talking about what the Tao is like.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu likened it to a well and the eternal void. I said the takeaway from that chapter was the infinite usefulness of the Tao. Today’s chapter continues talking about that infinite usefulness, when he says the Tao is like a bellows. It is empty (just like a void); yet, it is infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces. That is infinite usefulness. We may not understand yet, how to use it. But don’t worry, that will come. For now, let’s simply accept that it is like a bellows.

And now for the concept of good and evil. I want to be careful right here, the more I talk about this, the less I understand. Unfortunately for you, my readers, that translates into confusion. I don’t want to confuse you on this. The less I talk, the better for all of us.

Lao Tzu says the Tao doesn’t take sides. It gives birth to both good and evil. Lao Tzu actually already talked about good and bad, back in chapter 2. He warned us, then, to be careful about naming anything as good. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other. The Tao gives birth to them both.

I find this very interesting because humans have been discussing and debating this idea of good and evil for millenia now. People like to ponder what kind of role God has in this whole good and evil thing. In the Bible there is a little story about a tree in a garden whose fruit was supposed to grant the eater the knowledge of good and evil. This goes way back in our history. People contemplate how an all powerful God can be good. Or, if God is only good but not all-powerful.

Lao Tzu dispensed with the question of God in yesterday’s chapter. The Tao precedes God and the Tao is beyond good and evil. We humans are going to continue to discuss and debate good and evil. I suppose it is just our lot as humans. But Lao Tzu has already warned us, that isn’t fruitful. (Yes, the pun is intended)

Anyway, Lao Tzu, of course, has an entirely different way for us to look at things. Instead of taking sides. Instead of saying, this is good. And that? That is evil. He doesn’t want us taking sides at all. The Master, he says, welcomes both saints and sinners. Lao Tzu wants us to hold on to the center.

I am going to keep this brief today. There is plenty more to say. But Lao Tzu is going to keep coming back to this problem of good and evil, over and over again, throughout the Tao Te Ching. He understands it is in our nature to ponder this question over and over again. Never being fully satisfied, no matter how much we continue to ponder it. I am going to accept the wisdom of one ent by the name of Treebeard (see J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Two Towers). He said, “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…. And, there are some things, of course, whose side I am altogether not on….”

What Is Older Than God? It’s A Mystery To Me.

The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden, but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins talking about the mystery, which is the eternal Tao. Keep in mind that anything that can be said of it is not the eternal Tao. We will have to be content with telling what it is like. It is not a well. It is like a well. It is not the eternal void. It is like the eternal void. It is important to keep this distinction in mind because Lao Tzu is going to paint various pictures with his words to tell us what it is like. It is the closest that he can come to identifying the mystery of the eternal reality, the Tao.

It is like a well. If it was a well, we would have a hard time believing that it could never be used up. But that is the mystery of the Tao. While it is like a well, which is available to be used; unlike a well, it can never be used up. When describing it as like the eternal void, we can see that that void is filled with infinite possibilities; where as an actual void is just a vast emptiness.

It is this infinite usefulness that is the mystery. All particular things that we could name are finite. They have a definite beginning and a definite end. The Tao isn’t like anything that we could name. It is hidden, but always present. In describing the Tao, Lao Tzu says it is older than God. Who gave birth to it? I don’t know.

The actual answer to the question is that it has no beginning and no end. Often, this kind of language is reserved for something like a God. But Lao Tzu is quite clear on this point. The Tao was around well before any conception of God.

The Tao is eternal. It is the Source of the natural laws which govern the Universe. Any God of which we can conceive, follows the Tao; and is subject to the laws that govern the Universe.

We are talking about the mystery now. And I keep having to remind myself that anything that we can say about it is going to fall far short of the mark. When we get back to talking about the manifestations, we will be on firmer ground. The manifestations are readily available for all to see. They are manifest in all of nature.

For today, the takeaway is the infinite usefulness of the Tao. It may be hidden, shrouded in mystery and darkness, but it is always present for us to use. Like a well. Infinite possibilities await us every step of the way we take, along this journey through the eternal void.

Everything But The Practice Of Not-Doing

If you over esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.

He helps people
lose everything they know,
everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything
will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Everything Lao Tzu writes, he writes for the benefit of people. He is writing for those who wish to be leaders of the people. He gives us ways of leading people in ways that will most benefit them. In doing this, he takes what he has learned from the observation of nature. All of nature, yes; but human nature in particular. Lao Tzu understands human nature so well, because he has observed it inside himself. Lao Tzu understands that if you want to be a good and effective leader, you too, must understand human nature. By understanding how humans interact with nature. By understanding how humans interact with each other. If you want to understand human nature, you must, first, understand yourself. Sometimes, perhaps it is because we are only human, we don’t do a very good job of interacting with nature and each other. Sometimes, we do things that harm nature and harm each other. This is because we fail to understand the laws of nature and the laws of human nature. The purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to help us to understand those laws of nature and of human nature. By understanding them, we can lead by serving as an example of how to live our lives in such a way that we work with nature, instead of against nature. And to work with our fellow human beings, rather than at odds with them. The Tao is the Way. Nothing more and nothing less. We will learn how to be at one with or in accord with the Tao. Which is the Way of the Universe.

Today’s lesson begins with the need for the practice of moderation. We, as humans, sometimes over do things. We need to practice moderation. And when we don’t, there are consequences. One of the things that we over do is we over esteem great men. Esteem is a good thing. But only in moderation. When we over esteem we make other people powerless. Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it is because we are setting the bar too high. Maybe it is because we are stirring up anger and resentment. Whether it produces hopelessness and despair, anger and resentment, or any number of other desires, we render the people powerless.

Another thing we often over do is overvalue possessions. Obviously, possessions have value. Everything has some value to us. And value isn’t a bad thing. But when we over value, we, once again, stir up desires. I am sure that there are plenty of reasons that we could come up with for why people begin to steal. For some, it is no doubt the thrill. For many, no doubt, it is true need. And for a good many, it is desire, covetousness, for what others have. Moderation is important here. By placing too high a value on possessions, we stir a desire in people’s hearts to have more and more and more possessions. If people feel powerless, in other words, they don’t believe they can earn things on their own, they will turn to stealing. This is human nature. This is what we have to work with as leaders.

Plenty of people think that the best solution for this is to lock up a whole bunch of people. After all, stealing is wrong. We’ll just build more and bigger prisons and we’ll deal with the problem. But Lao Tzu has, I think, a much better solution. First, he identifies stealing, not as the problem, but as a symptom of a much greater problem. People are resorting to stealing because they feel powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. Prisons only address the symptom without dealing with the root of the problem.

So, how does the Master deal with the root of the problem? Remember, the root of the problem is two-pronged. People are powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. It is a problem of both heart and mind. The mind is obsessed and the heart is sick and weak. Lao Tzu says the Master leads by using a two-pronged approach. Emptying the people’s minds (weakening their ambition) and filling their cores (toughening their resolve).

First, the Master works to empty the people’s minds of all their obsessions. He helps people lose everything they know. Everything that they desire. This is a weakening of ambition. This is not an easy task. People are full of pride. They are not always amenable to being helped. The Master’s ways are confusing to those who think they already know. When we only want to cut off branches instead of dealing with the root, we won’t succeed.

Even so, emptying or weakening is not enough. If you send the people away only emptied, they will only find ways to fill themselves up again. The root is two-pronged. We must deal with both prongs. After emptying and weakening, it is time for filling and toughening. But the Master doesn’t fill their minds, he fills their cores. I said earlier that this isn’t just an issue with the mind. It is also a condition of the heart. The mind has been dealt with, but the heart is still sick. The very core of our beings must be filled. This is a toughening of our resolve.

The difference between ambition and resolve is as great as the difference between our minds and our hearts. Ambition is directed outwardly. It is about fulfilling desires. Resolve, on the other hand, is an inner discipline. It has little, if anything, to do with what is going on outside of us. The Master set about the task of weakening our ambition because he understands that as long as we are looking outside of ourselves at great men and women, at our neighbors, at what they have and we don’t, we are going to be miserable. The Master wants our gaze turned inwardly. Not at how small and weak and inconsequential we are, but at our strengths, our talents, our value. Our focus had been on what we didn’t have. Now it is on all that we do have. All that we are.

That was a whole lot to cover in just one chapter; and yet, Lao Tzu leaves us with one more thing at the end. “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.“ In many ways, this just sums up the whole chapter. And in many more ways it is the sum total of the whole of the Tao Te Ching. I am not going to say anything more about the practice of not-doing, today. My reason for this is that I have already made this post plenty long. That and the reality that the practice of not-doing is what we are going to be talking about a lot of the time in the next several weeks. For today, let’s just give it the same mention that Lao Tzu gives it. Continue along with me on this journey. We will learn how to practice not-doing. And, we will see everything fall into place.

You Can’t Have One Without The Other

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore, the Master acts
without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has, but doesn’t possess;
she acts, but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins to expand on what he said yesterday about naming and talking about things. Naming is the origin of all particular things; but none of those things are the eternal reality. What is eternally real can’t be named. We are differentiating the manifestations from the mystery. The manifestations are what we can see. The mystery can’t even be talked about.

Lao Tzu is talking about being and non-being creating each other. When people see some things as beautiful or good other things become ugly or bad. This is not to say that being is beautiful and good and non-being is ugly and bad. It is to understand that being and non-being are two sides to the same thing. You can’t have the one without having the other. This is represented in Taoist philosophy with the familiar yin yang symbol. The Tao always balances things out.

Difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, before and after. There will never be one without the other. Being and non-being are dependent on each other. They support and define and follow each other. They are a creative force.

Of course, when you think about naming something beautiful and good, and realize that by doing so you are also allowing for the ugly and the bad; it shows us how powerful, naming a thing really is.

The Master, who Lao Tzu introduces to us for the first time in today’s chapter, understands this eternal reality. That is why she acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. If this seems strange to you, I only point out to you that we are talking about the mystery of the eternal reality. Don’t worry that it isn’t easy to understand what the Master is about right now. We will come to understand her better as we progress in our journey. Just watch her. Listen to her. And don’t try to complicate things by trying to understand her right now.

Things arise and she lets them come. They disappear and she lets them go. This is really a simple explanation of accepting that the way things are is the way things are. Things are going to arise, whether or not I allow it to happen. And things are going to disappear, with or without my consent. We are going to learn a lot from the Master. She doesn’t force anything. And she doesn’t try to hold on to anything. That is having without possessing. And, acting without expecting. What the Master does lasts forever. Why? Because when her work is done, she forgets about it. Like I said, we have plenty we can learn from the Master. Or maybe unlearn would be a better word to use. We don’t tend to think that anything that we do will last, if we don’t work at making it last. But letting things come and go without desire, that is what this journey is all about.

Here We Go Again

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Free from desire,
you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire,
you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same Source.
This Source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

-Lao Tzu-

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today we begin again the journey through the Tao Te Ching. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu introduces the Tao. He starts out by saying that anything that can be told about it is really not the eternal Tao. Even the act of naming it, leaves us far from the mark. What is eternally real is unnameable. That seems like a discouraging way to start the journey. But Lao Tzu isn’t trying to discourage us. He is trying to inform us of what we are dealing with in undertaking this journey.

In a later chapter, Lao Tzu will say that he only calls this eternal reality, the Tao, for lack of a better name. He is going to point at it. He will talk about it using lots of metaphors. The eternal Tao is shrouded in mystery and darkness. Whenever we talk about the eternal Tao we will be referring to it as mystery. It will be as if we are peering at it through darkness within darkness.

But, in the Tao Te Ching we won’t just be talking about the mystery of the eternal Tao. We will also spend a great deal of our time talking about its manifestations. This is good news; because this means there will be plenty of practical advice on how to go about the art of living, which is the practice of true contentment.

So, don’t be discouraged right from the start. Be encouraged. We have an 81 day journey before us, and I always find it a rewarding one, even after making this journey again and again.

Let’s take a closer look at what Lao Tzu says we can know about the Tao in today’s chapter. The eternal Tao is unnameable. Yet, we dare to name it. Why? Because naming is the origin of all particular things. And if we are going to get down to particulars, we will need to start naming things.

Our goal is to be free from desire. Because free from desire we will realize the mystery. Now, I am going to be particularly honest here. I have been at this for awhile; and I have still not rid myself of all desires. I am further along in my journey than I was the last time I started chapter one. But I still have a long way to go. Still, as I advance in freedom, I am beginning to realize the mystery which is the eternal Tao. I think of it as just scratching the surface still. Something like only seeing the tip of the iceberg. But I see no reason why I won’t get more free as I go through the journey again.

As long as we are caught in desire, all we are able to see are its manifestations. That is why we will spend a great deal of time talking about them. Mystery and manifestations. They arise from the same Source. We want to realize the mystery, but for now we will settle for seeing the manifestations.

The Source. That is really where our journey is taking us. And that is darkness. Darkness within darkness. That is very mysterious language, indeed. But, I always like a good mystery. So, I am not discouraged. After all, there really is a point to this journey. This peering into darkness within darkness. And that is that this Source, this darkness, is the gateway to all understanding.

If we are going to be able to understand all things. The eternal reality behind all the workings of the Universe. The way things are. Then that Source is our destination. Come along with me. Always feel free to send me messages asking me questions. And enjoy our journey together.

One Last Thing

True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others, the happier he is.
The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is.

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 81, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter finishes up the Tao Te Ching. Tomorrow, we will begin the journey all over again with chapter one. Today, Lao Tzu has one final thing to say about the art of living, the practice of true contentment.

Yesterday, I asked the question, “How can we be content?” If our country was governed wisely, we would be. But can we be content when our country is not governed wisely? True contentment, Lao Tzu reminds us, is not dependent on our external circumstances. The art of living, the practice of true contentment, involves each of us setting our own internal “thermostat” in such a way that all the chaos and turmoil going on around us does not change our inner temperament.

We haven’t been particularly eloquent as we have been going through these chapters. But that is okay. Eloquent words aren’t true. And, true words aren’t eloquent. We haven’t been trying to prove some point as we have been going along on this journey. Wisdom just is. It is self-evident. It is the eternal reality. The way things are. If you want to be content, it starts with choosing to be content. Regardless of your outward circumstances. You just realize that the way things are is the way things are, and you can live with that. No, it is more than that. It isn’t merely passively living. It is thriving. It is actively being.

Okay, I choose to be content. But how do I go about practicing true contentment? When Lao Tzu says that the Master has no possessions. We might balk at the idea that we have to give up anything. But it isn’t about giving up anything. It is about not having to have anything. If your contentment depends on you having possessions, you won’t be content. Possessions don’t foster contentment. There is no such thing as enough.

Because he isn’t “possessed” by his possessions, the more he does for others, the happier he is. And the more he gives to others, the wealthier he is. If doing for others or giving to others sounds like a sacrifice to you, then you need to adjust your inner thermostat. Your possessions are getting the better of you. You have to have them. That is why you aren’t happy. And that is why, regardless of how much you have, you aren’t wealthy. Happiness and wealth are not measured by what you have. They are measured by what you don’t have to have.

Finally, in understanding the Tao, the eternal reality behind all that happens in our world, realize this: The Tao nourishes by not forcing. The Tao isn’t aggressive. But it isn’t passive either. The Tao just is. Every being in our world is nourished by it, naturally. You don’t have to be in control. You don’t have to dominate, to lead. You lead by serving as an example. You lead by serving.

How Can We Be Content?

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time
inventing labor-saving devices.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are winding things down on our latest journey through the Tao Te Ching. Tomorrow, we will have the last chapter. But don’t worry I will be starting the cycle all over again with chapter one on Monday. I point this out to new followers on tumblr because I always look forward to starting over again with fresh and new thoughts as we journey together through another cycle.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We have today’s chapter to talk about. It is another of my favorite chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Be forewarned. That usually means that I am going to have plenty to say. In today’s chapter, the topic is, how can we be content?

Lao Tzu begins the chapter by saying that if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. That seems a simple enough prescription. Lao Tzu has had lots to say about how to govern wisely, throughout the Tao Te Ching. And, the point of philosophical Taoism is being content.

After I finished my tutoring today, I spent hours sitting outside in my backyard, enjoying the beautiful Autumn weather in the Ozarks. I certainly hope that wherever in the world all of you are living, you were able to enjoy your day as well.

I was sitting in the shade of a walnut tree, smoking my pipe, and thinking about today’s chapter. Thinking about what it means to be content. Wondering why we aren’t. Should we just blame the government for our lack of contentment. Or, is it possible, in fact, likely, that we would do much better learning how to be content in whatever state we are in. Regardless of whether your country is governed wisely.

Lao Tzu has had lots to say about contentment, throughout the Tao Te Ching. And every time he brings it up, he has insisted that it doesn’t have to depend on what our outward circumstances are. Contentment is an inward thing. That is why, as I was sitting out in my yard, I knew I was content.

There is a whole lot going on in our world with which we have every reason to be discontent. If there are any governments out there in the world which are governing wisely, I would sure like one of my followers to send me a message informing me of this magical place. I certainly don’t have any personal experience or knowledge of that. My own country hasn’t been governed wisely for as long as I have been living. And in looking back over history that predates me, this has been an ongoing thing for a very long time.

Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, doesn’t tell us how to be content when our country is not governed wisely. So, I am going to rely a lot on what he has said previously. Today, after his opening sentence, he paints an idyllic picture of what contentment looks like. But in looking at that picture, I can imagine that a lot of my readers are going to raise all sorts of objections to his idea of what contentment is.

Let’s take a brief look at this picture and see how we might overcome the objections. First off, Lao Tzu says that content inhabitants will enjoy the labor of their hands and won’t waste time inventing labor-saving devices. The immediate objection to this idea of contentment that comes to my mind is what is wrong with labor-saving devices? I for one, take full advantage of every labor-saving device that I can put to use. Anything that cuts down the labor of my hands, is okay by me. I happen to love leisure. Hence, I enjoyed being able to spend hours sitting out in the shade this afternoon. Quite frankly, I cannot even imagine being content without all the wonderful labor-saving inventions that have been devised by discontent people.

That is quite an objection. And I hope you noticed how I played with the words content and discontent in pointing out the objection. Discontentment can actually be a good thing. It can lead to innovation. And, innovation tends to be a good thing. But hold on there for just one moment. Yes, there is a positive side to discontentment. But there is a negative side as well. And what Lao Tzu is addressing is very different.

I think the problem we are having with this idyllic picture is that we are taking it far too literally. This might be Lao Tzu’s ideal. And maybe it isn’t yours. But what I really want you to consider is the possibility that your real problem with the picture is that you are not content. I wouldn’t be content with not having labor-saving devices. I wouldn’t be content to just sit at home all day and never travel. Of course you wouldn’t. You aren’t content. That is the point Lao Tzu is trying to make. If our country was governed wisely, we would be content. We might even be surprised to find out we were content to work with our hands. And not always be reaching for some labor-saving device. We might not be so restless that we couldn’t stand to be in our own home, our own back yards, for hours on end; for days, weeks, months, years, a life time.

Just think of being so discontent that you have an arsenal of weapons and can’t stand not to use them. Do you even enjoy food any longer? How about the time you spend with your families? Is that a nightmare, as well? I know, I didn’t have to ask.

I think it has been awhile since I have invoked the image of Tolkien’s Shire. But, for me, that is my idyllic picture of a life of contentment. Tolkien’s stories of hobbits are pure fiction. But that isn’t going to stop me from living my life of contentment in my own way. Good food. Good beer. The finest weed, north of the South-Farthing. Family, friends, and neighbors all enjoying each other’s company. And my own little garden that I get to work in with my own two hands. The roosters crowing. The dogs barking. That is the life. I can be content to die of old age having lived such a life of contentment.

And the nice thing about my own idyllic picture, is that it doesn’t really matter what the government is doing at all. Oh, I wish my country was being governed wisely. But it isn’t. And that isn’t likely to change in my lifetime. That could be depressing, if I choose to let it. But I don’t. I practice my own personal anarchism. I live my life as free from the State as I possibly can. I treat everyone I meet like I would like to be treated. I engage in voluntary and free trade with all; and have entangling alliances with no one. I obey laws that I would naturally be inclined to obey. And ignore laws that go against nature.

I am content. Oh, there are times when I am discontent; and that motivates me to change something. And, then I do. And, I am content again. I sat out in my yard for quite awhile today. Then, a friend came over and we visited for awhile. Once he left, I was content to sit down at my labor-saving device known as a computer and type up this blog post. Now that I am finshed, I am going to head back out into my back yard. There is still sunshine to enjoy. And after that a starry night.

When Adults Behave Like Children

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore, the Master
fulfills her obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

As I have mentioned before, I have been tutoring a little girl, who is now 5, for the last two years. Today’s chapter reminds me of conversations that I have had with her a lot. She is a strong-willed little girl. I like strong wills. She reminds me a lot of my own daughter who was also strong-willed. One thing this little girl does not like is failure. She doesn’t like to make mistakes. And doesn’t like it when I correct her. She is, of course, wanting to please her parents, who are very interested in making sure she gets a good education from an early age. That is where my services came in. But, I do know she is really feeling the pressure to succeed. And sometimes, perhaps a lot of the time, I want to help to ease that pressure. There is no reason for a 5 year old to be getting stressed out about school. So, when she gets stressed, she gets upset. Mad. That is how she would put it. “I am so mad at you right now, Chuck.” Yes, I hear that quite frequently when I point out that she has made a mistake and I want her to get it right.

My mantra to her, that thankfully always puts a smile on her face, is to tell her that instead of getting upset or mad when she makes a mistake, she needs to put on a smile. Because making mistakes means you are getting ready to learn something. If she always knew the correct answers when I asked her something, if she always knew how to solve any problem I gave her, she would learn nothing. You can only learn by making mistakes. And learning from them. That is why I come to see her every day, five days a week. So she can make mistakes and I can help her to correct them.

I recount this little anecdote, not because I want to treat my readers as children, but because I don’t want you to behave like children. We are adults. And we still make mistakes. All the time. When we are adults we need to behave like adults when we fail. We need to recognize that failure is an opportunity. It is understandable when children throw temper tantrums. We don’t let them get away with throwing temper tantrums; but we understand why they do it. They are children. They are immature. They don’t understand. But adults? They’re different.

Throwing a temper tantrum is trying to find someone else to blame for your failure. You start down that road and there is no end to the blame. It is childish behavior. That little girl that I tutor gets mad at me. It is my fault that she failed. Perhaps, it is my fault. Perhaps, I need to correct how I went about explaining something to her. I, being an adult, am willing to admit my mistakes when they are pointed out; and correct them. But, some adults act like little five year olds when they fail. We have a lot of them in Washington D.C. You can recognize them when you see them pointing the finger of blame at someone else. “It was the previous guy’s fault. It isn’t my fault.” Yeah, grow up.

Failure is an opportunity. How very differently adults behave, when they fail. The Master is our example of how adults are supposed to behave. We are talking about contractual obligations here. You have made a commitment to do such and such in exchange for this or that. And something goes wrong on your end. Horribly wrong. Now is not the time to be pointing the finger of blame. Now is your opportunity to behave like an adult. Fulfill your obligations. Correct your own mistakes. Do whatever needs to be done. Fulfill your obligations. And don’t be making demands of others. Don’t act like a little child. Be an adult.