All posts by Chuck Gullion

libertariantaoist is a blogger living in the Missouri Ozarks. He enjoys tutoring children and sitting outside in his backyard smoking his pipe while observing nature. He blogs a chapter each day from Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" (81 chapters in all); and adds his own commentary, interpreting current events from his own unique libertarian and taoist perspective.

It Is Transformative

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,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you.
And when death comes, you are ready.

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

I recently had a Skype conversation with my daughter, Abigail, who is living in Melbourne, Australia. Without going into any of the details of our conversation, the basic gist of the conversation revolved around the need to learn how to be detached from all things. In that conversation I found myself being libertariantaoist, more so than Dad. I had my most recent blog posts on my mind and I was quoting from them. And today’s chapter, I would like to dedicate to my daughter. I hope she will read it.

As I begin reading this chapter, it seems like Lao Tzu is instructing us in the art of meditation. I can almost hear in the background, a solitary bell, chiming every couple of seconds; and my breathing in and out, slows with my heart beat to keep pace with the chime of the bell.

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

Most of us don’t make the time to practice meditation because, perhaps, we have tried it before. But it didn’t work. It seemed rigid. Forced. The antithesis of what we were trying to achieve. At least that is my own excuse for not practicing any formal meditation techniques.

I am not nay saying it. If it works for you, by all means use it to your own benefit.

Trying to empty my mind of all thoughts, just never has worked for me. That required effort. And I was seeking effortless action. And that really is the point of meditation. I am certain any practioner would tell me so. It isn’t supposed to be rigid, or forced. It really is supposed to be effortless action in practice. I really shouldn’t get hung up on methods.

But today’s chapter is a meditation. When Lao Tzu says empty your mind of all thoughts, he isn’t asking you to force anything. You simply let the thoughts come and go, and don’t hold on to them. Why are our minds so full? Because we won’t let go of those pesky thoughts. And thinking that we don’t want to think isn’t going to help. I know, I have tried.

Let your heart be at peace. Lao Tzu seems to have the radical notion that the reason our hearts are in turmoil is because we won’t let them be at peace. I know, right? But, Lao Tzu is right. And this requires no effort either. What requires effort is holding onto the things that are troubling our hearts.

What am I getting at? Detachment from all things.

Lao Tzu tells us to watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. We get so caught up in the turmoil. But that isn’t what Lao Tzu wants us contemplating. Let that turmoil come and go. Don’t hold onto it. Contemplate this, instead: Each separate being in the Universe returns to the common Source. It is in returning to the Source that we find serenity.

A couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu told us that the essence of wisdom was realizing where you have come from. That is what I want to contemplate, today, and everyday. That is where serenity is to be found.

Beings stumble about in confusion and sorrow because they don’t realize where they come from. They are out of harmony with the Tao. They are out of touch with the common Source. But the Tao is right there where it always has been.

It is the classic struggle; not between good and evil, but between the way things seem to be vs. the way things really are. The way things really are hasn’t changed. The turmoil is caused by the attraction of the illusion, the way things seem to be.

But, when you realize where you come from, that is transformative. Your whole perspective is changed. It is as if you are teleported to an entirely different plane of existence. Welcome to what is real.
This is detachment. It is the detachment I was trying to explain to my daughter. Detachment from the way things seem to be. So what does detachment mean? It is what you naturally become when you are in harmony with the way things are. You naturally become: Tolerant. Disinterested. Amused. Kindhearted as a grandmother. Dignified as a king. It means, Abigail, you are really free to love.

You are immersed in the wonder of the Tao. And in this plane of existence, you can deal with whatever life brings you. Even when death comes. Even then, you will be ready.

Wait for it, wait for it

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)

I don’t want to be guilty of over esteeming the great men and women that have gone before us. But I do think there is something to be gained from esteeming them. That is why you will see me reblogging great quotes from them on my tumblr blog. Lao Tzu certainly thought there were lessons that we could learn from observing them. And he waxes poetic in describing their appearance.

It is hardly necessary for me to repeat what you can very well read in the quote above. But I too want to be as clear as a glass of water today. This isn’t just an exercise in hailing the greatness of the ancient Masters. What we are trying to do is to observe and to emulate them.

And that is a tall order. In your life you will encounter iced-over streams that will need to be crossed. You will need to be careful, or you won’t make it across. As the power of the State continues to grow, we always find ourselves in enemy territory. After all, we who value liberty, above all else, are the enemy of the State. So, we need to be alert to the situation.

But let us always seek to practice the art of being courteous. Especially while online, when our supposed anonymity often loosens our inhibitions. And we need to know when and how to yield. That is being fluid like melting ice. Just think of that melting ice; and water, a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. Yielding isn’t a sign of weakness. It is the strongest among us who know when and how to yield.

Another favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s is that of the uncarved block of wood. This is the state he wants us all to be in. Able to be shaped by the Tao, into whatever is required of our place in the Universe. Are you receptive to that? If we really want to be perfectly in harmony with the way things are, like the Master, nothing less is required of us.

Where we fail to be in harmony with the Tao, it is always due to a lack of patience. We must have patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear. Wait for it. Wait for it. Remain unmoving. The right action will arise all by itself. If we just wait for it.

Does that seem too hard? I know. I too, can get frustrated while waiting at a drive thru for my order. We have been trained from birth to seek fulfillment. To expect that our efforts will be rewarded. How strange is the Way of the Master. She doesn’t seek fulfillment. She doesn’t seek anything. She expects nothing. She merely lives in the present moment, and welcomes whatever comes her way.

Her Way is strange. But I want to be just like her.

It 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 form.
Image without an image.
Subtle, beyond all conception.

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

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

Today’s chapter sounds like something of a riddle as we read through it. It is a continuation of yesterday’s chapter in which Lao Tzu warns us to stay off the ladder. And, it hearkens back to the first chapter where we are first introduced to the mysterious Tao.

You will be happy, I hope, to know that I am not going to try and go through it line by line and unravel the mystery. I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu intends for us to do.

But I do welcome the opportunity to continue where we left off yesterday. The question before us is, if we are supposed to avoid climbing the ladder, how are we ever going to know ease in our own lives? That is, after all, the lure of the ladder. If you will just climb that ladder and keep on climbing, you may eventually get to that elusive top rung where you will find ease. That is the lure. That is the promise. But Lao Tzu tells us it is all an illusion.

So what then? In this chapter Lao Tzu offers us this riddle. And the conclusion of the riddle is that you can never know it. At least that is the case, if you are pursuing it on that ladder.

But Lao Tzu does offer us a better way. You knew he would, right?

What you can’t know, you can be. And here is how. And this is the essence of wisdom: Just realize where you come from.

Now, how to explain that one? How do I put it into words? There came a time in my life. I can’t quite pinpoint the exact time and date. I just know that there came a time when I quit looking for it. I quit listening for it. I quit grasping at it. I think that it was when I recognized that reality was where I spotted paradox. Anytime I found that things were not what they seemed to be, then I realized that I had stumbled across what was real, hiding there, behind the mask of the illusion.

Is it still elusive? Oh, definitely. I get distracted by the illusion all the time. But I have learned something along my journey. And though I get distracted and wander off on side paths from time to time, I always return to the Source of reality. The Source of all being and non-being. My Source. Your Source.

I am living in the present moment. The only real moment. Things come and things go. I work with them as they do. I know where I have come from. I know where I am going. And the life of ease that I could never know, is who I am become.

Keeping Your Balance Amid Dangers And Phantoms

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)

Such grand words fill today’s chapter: Success. Failure. Hope, Fear. Faith. Love. Only Lao Tzu could say so much in so few words. And I couldn’t possibly do one of them justice with my little post today…

And yet, here I am. There is something I think we can take away from the chapter today. Or I would just bid you all well, and leave it at that. But here goes…

When Lao Tzu warns us that success and failure are equally dangerous, he does tell us exactly why that is. It is that ladder. We all have spent time going up and down a ladder before. We understand how shaky our position is while going up or going down. The danger of a ladder in today’s chapter is contrasted with the ease with which we can maintain our balance when we stand with both feet on the ground.

What Lao Tzu seems to be telling us is that he wants us to stay grounded in reality, rather than pursuing the illusion that the ladder represents for us. Once I mount that ladder, and with each step I take, either up or down, I have left behind what is real, the ground beneath my feet. And am now seeking an illusion. I hope for success and I fear failure. Every step made on that ladder, I have those twin phantoms dogging me.

That is what he calls both hope and fear, phantoms. They both are hollow. Just wisps. They aren’t grounded in reality. They are nothing more than illusions. Which arise from thinking of the self. When I am merely focused on my self, that is when I entertain both hopes and fears. I want to succeed. I don’t want to fail.

Instead of being dogged on the ladder, Lao Tzu offers us a better way. He tells us that when we don’t see the self as self, we will have nothing to fear. But that sounds like a tall order, indeed. How do I shift my focus from me to the world, like he says?

To see the world as your self requires seeing beyond the illusion to what is real. And that means having faith in the way things are. We get distracted by that ladder. By the hope of success. By the fear of failure. But when we keep both feet firmly on the ground of reality we can see the ladder for what it is. Trust the ground you are standing on. Have faith that the way things are is the way things are.

As you look at the ground on which you are standing your focus has already changed from your self. Then you can look at the world with love and compassion. Because that is what is real. And that is where you are needed. Not that ladder. The illusory success or failure, hope or fear, melts away. It was ephemeral, after all.

The world is now your focus. Now you can care for all things. Grounded in reality. Instead of chasing dreams of what may or may not ever happen. You are living in the present moment. One moment at a time.

There is so much more that could be said. But I have said enough for today. That is the nice thing about taking this one chapter at a time. We will keep returning to these opportunities to explore things further, another day.

Trusting Your Inner Vision

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)

We were talking, yesterday, about how being and non-being work together. If you think that what you can observe with your five senses is all there is to reality, you are really missing out. Yes, we work with being. But it is non-being, which is created by being, that we actually use.

I know I keep bringing up reality vs. illusion, the way things are vs. the way things seem to be, but it is important. Our five senses do a fine job of giving us part of the picture. But only part. There is so much more than what meets the eye. So much more than what our ears can hear.

And the illusion that there is nothing more than what we can discover using our own powers of observation is a strangely powerful one. And it isn’t just powerful. It is also deadening.

This is the point of today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu warns us that colors blind the eye, sounds deafen the ear, flavors numb the taste, thoughts weaken the mind, and desires wither the heart.

When we rely too much on our five senses, it weakens our mind’s ability to perceive reality. When desires are inflamed by the dazzling array of colors, sounds, and tastes, our hearts are prone to withering.

Eyes which are blind, ears that cannot hear, a tongue that is numb – these are useless to us. We must be on our guard against relying too much on them.

And Lao Tzu offers us a better way. The Master, he tells us, observes the world, but is not enthralled by it. He trusts his inner vision to show him what is real. Because he is not captivated by all that is going on around him, he can allow things to come and go, without letting it weaken his mind. His heart is open as the sky. The very opposite of a heart withered by desires.

On this path, desires are let go, our inner vision is cleansed, and we are able to trust our inner vision to show us what is, indeed, real.

Don’t Fear The Nothing

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)

Today, Lao Tzu returns to how being and non-being work together to hold together the fabric of the Universe. It gives us another opportunity to try to wrap our minds around what non-being is. Being and non-being go together. They create each other. They are how the Tao achieves balance in the Universe, like yin and yang.

Lao Tzu uses three ordinary things, things he was familiar with in his time. And things that his readers would immediately recognize in order to illustrate this point. Let’s look at them one at a time.

First, the wagon wheel. He begins by talking about being. We join spokes together in a wheel. Those spokes are what we work with to make the wheel. But it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. Without that center hole, the spokes in the wheel would be of no use. It is that hole that Lao Tzu wants to highlight for us. It is the center hole that we actually use to move the wheel.

Second, Lao Tzu draws our attention to a pot. We work with our hands to shape clay into a pot. But, it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever it is we want to put inside the pot. So once again, Lao Tzu highlights the emptiness inside the pot. That is what we ultimately use.

Third, the house that we build by hammering wood. But it is the inner space in the house that makes it livable. Without that space, it isn’t a house. It is that space inside that we use.

Now, I can already hear you all arguing with me that without those spokes the wheel wouldn’t turn either. Without that clay there wouldn’t be a pot. Without hammering the wood for the house, there wouldn’t be a house. And I don’t think Lao Tzu would argue with you. That isn’t his point.

What he is trying to get us to understand is the relationship between being and non-being. That hole, that emptiness, that inner space may not be all that is important. But they are of vital importance. Just as vital as the being that we work with to create that hole, that emptiness, that inner space.

I don’t intend to read more into the chapter than what he is saying. We work with being. So being is important. That is what we work with. But non-being is equally important. That is what we ultimately will use.

To me, it makes the classic question of whether a glass is half full or half empty, a very silly question, indeed. It doesn’t make you an optimist or a pessimist to choose which one it is. The realist looks at the glass and determines its use. If you are filling it up, it is half full. But if you are emptying it out, it is half empty. Either way, the glass is being used for its purpose. And isn’t that the point?

This Is The Supreme Virtue

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from you own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading, and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

-Lao Tzu-

(Tao Te Ching, chapter ten, translation by Stephen MItchell)

If we want to be in perfect harmony with the way things are, we must learn to be content with the way things are. And that isn’t going to be easy. It isn’t going to be easy, because we are so easily distracted by the illusion, how things seem to be. Reality is hidden from us. What we see all around us, what we hear, everything we can detect with our senses, is a huge distraction from what is real.

When we tune into the news we hear about passenger planes with hundreds of people on board, being shot down out of the sky. What is it that makes humans do such things to their fellow humans? I don’t think I have any answers today. All I have is questions. Why? Why?

Can you coax you mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness? With so many distractions our minds do tend to wander. But as long as our minds are wandering, they can’t know peace. We must find a way to keep our minds fixed with unity of purpose.

Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s? Lao Tzu loves the metaphor of the newborn child. Their bodies so soft and supple. It speaks of fullness of life and vitality.

Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? Lao Tzu has told us before that the Tao that we are searching for is to be found by looking inside ourselves for it. But over time, our inner vision has become clouded. What can we see when we look inside ourselves? We have heard it said before that the world around us is a reflection of the world in our minds. With all that is going on in the world today, our minds are murky places, indeed.

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? The will to power is strong among us. We like the illusion of being in control. When I first got into libertarian thinking, which was back in college, too many years ago, I would come home and have long talks with my dad. He said there was really only one problem with the way I was thinking. And that was that people just couldn’t be trusted to do what is right on their own. They must be controlled. Because they couldn’t be trusted. I asked if he could be trusted. Oh yes, he would do the right thing without needing to be controlled. And there were plenty of other people that could be as well. But not enough. Not enough. And that is still what is holding us back today. Too many people believing too many people can’t be trusted. Oh, but we are supposed to trust those holding onto the illusion of power over others. But those are just the people I don’t trust. The ones with a monopoly on violence.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? That need to be in control. How can I be expected to just let events take their course? And it is vital matters we are talking about here. How can we not seek to try to control events when we are speaking of the most vital of matters. All I can tell you is that there came a moment in my life, and that moment has repeated itself over and over again since then, when I realized that the most vital matters happen with or without my consent. The sun rises and sets each day, a most vital matter, and I can do nothing about it. If I can’t control that most vital of matters, then maybe, just maybe less vital matters can get along without my intervention as well. Maybe, just maybe it is better, indeed, when I don’t try to interfere. And just let nature take its course.

Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? What it all comes down to is that we have entrenched our own minds so deeply in the illusion that we can be in control, that we can impose our own will, that we don’t understand the reality at all. To understand the way things are and to be content with the way things are, requires that we take a step back from our murky thinking. And no, that isn’t an easy thing to do. For the illusion screams out for attention everywhere we turn.

But it is just because it isn’t easy, in fact, it is the most difficult thing to achieve, that Lao Tzu calls what is required of us the supreme virtue. Giving birth and nourishing. Having without possessing. Acting without expectations. Leading, without needing to, or trying to, control.

The Only Path To Serenity

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

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

Today might be a good time for me to remind my readers that when Lao Tzu originally wrote the Tao Te Ching, he did not divide it into chapters. He wrote it as one continuous stream. Later, editors came along and divided it into chapters. I like it divided up into chapters because it makes it easier for me to take a chapter every day. But there are times, and today is one of those times, where Lao Tzu started a thought in one part that gets continued after the chapter division. Lao Tzu didn’t intend for this break. And it is important that we keep in mind what he has already said as we continue with each new chapter.

So it was that yesterday, Lao Tzu started talking about the need to be content. And he continues talking about that in today’s chapter. I do recommend that you look back at the previous chapter for context. But just to keep it all within context I want to begin by quoting the last line of yesterday’s chapter.

“When you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Today, Lao Tzu tells us that the only path to serenity is to learn how to be content.

Why do we have such a problem with being content? Maybe one of our bigger problems is that we don’t ever seem to know when enough is enough. We are quite confident that if we ever had enough, then we would be content. But when is enough, enough? Can you truly be content with enough?

We have all filled our bowl to the brim before. And we knew better, even as we did so. But, life has a way of reteaching us lessons that we never really learned before. And so, the bowl spills.

I don’t know whether I am the least bit qualified to talk about how to know when you have sharpened your blade enough. I don’t think there is a sharp blade, anywhere to be found in my house. I am really good at dulling them. And I am generally adept at making do with a dull blade.

But I do know that sharpening a blade requires a certain skill. You need to know when to stop. Just like filling a bowl too full. You can keep sharpening and keep sharpening, and only end up blunting it.

Bottom line, there comes a time when it is time to drink what is in the bowl. If you have filled it to the brim, you haven’t actually prepared it for its purpose. And now some of it is wasted. That blade you have been sharpening, is to be used for some purpose. You have something to cut or to slice. Know when to be content with the blade’s sharpness, and you will find it is perfectly prepared for exactly its purpose.

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. This one right here is a biggie. Here is one most all of us can relate to. A heart that never unclenches. What a price to pay for money and security. Learning how to be content living within our means. Not always needing more, more.

Being content with simply being ourselves, with occupying whatever low place in which we find ourselves, doesn’t mean we will always occupy that low place. The Tao does have a way of lifting up the humble. But that will never happen until we know when enough, is enough.

And I know of no surer way of staying in a rut, than when you care what other people think of you. Needing their approval. We all want other people to like us. We want to be respected. But when is enough, enough? That cage just seems to get smaller and smaller the longer we insist on staying in it.

Lao Tzu is sharing with us the only path to serenity. The willingness to do our work and then step back. We have done all that needed to be done. It has been enough. All that remains is to be content.

When you are content to be simply yourself

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

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

Lao Tzu uses a variety of different metaphors to tell us of the Tao. But none, more than water. How is the Tao like water, and what can we learn from water as a metaphor for the Tao?

Without having to try, water nourishes all things. That “not having to try” is significant. It is the practice of non-action, which many sadly interpret as passivity. But Lao Tzu isn’t promoting passivity. Far from passivity, water is just being what it is. It doesn’t have to try. It doesn’t have to do. It just is. Everything about water flows (pun intended) from the essence of its being. And that is certainly a property of the Tao.

And Lao Tzu doesn’t intend for us to content ourselves with just agreeing with this idea. Yes, water and the Tao behave according to their natures. But what is that to me? No, Lao Tzu is wanting us to draw a lesson for how to live our own lives. The art of living is all about all of our actions being effortless. Just like water. Just like the Tao. We will have much more to say about this in the coming days and weeks as we go through the Tao Te Ching a chapter at a time.

Another property of water that makes it like the Tao, is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is another property that we will return to again and again. But Lao Tzu is talking about the reality that water is humble. Water is humble? Well, it always seeks out the low places. It is a strange thing indeed to find water running uphill. You know something is amiss when you find that happening.

Whole volumes could be written (and they probably have been) on why people disdain low places. Oh, to be content. Being content with the way things are. Remember, the way things are is likely to be very different from the way things seem to be. I am not talking about being content with the way things seem to be. But knowing the difference between the two, between the truth and the lie, between reality and illusion, between the way things are and the way things only seem to be, that, is liberating. That is something that makes you free to pursue your own happiness to your heart’s content. And being content beats being miserable, any day.

And being content, is what this chapter, and indeed, the whole Tao Te Ching is all about.

So to help us along our journey, and to really give us much more practical advice on how to learn the art of living, or the art of being content, Lao Tzu gives us the rest of the chapter. These one-liners are short and pithy. And they pack a punch.

Are you interested in finding contentment? Or will you disdain what Lao Tzu has to offer?

In dwelling, live close to the ground. I envision a hobbit hole.

In thinking, keep to the simple. Why must we make things so very complicated? It always starts with how we are thinking.

In conflict, be fair and generous. Those are some of the most important words you are ever going to read. If people were fair and generous, there wouldn’t be any conflict.

In governing, don’t try to control. Lao Tzu will have a whole lot to say about the art of governing. But everything he will have to say, he says in a nutshell, right there. Don’t try to control. There. That solved everything.

In work, do what you enjoy. It isn’t like we haven’t heard this in so many words over and over again. If the work that you do is a drudgery for you, you will never be content. You really must make changes. I know how difficult this can be. I spent a good deal of my adult life with my work as drudgery. And that is no way to live.

In family life, be completely present. This isn’t talking about quality time vs. quantity time. Just in case you were thinking that was where he was going. It isn’t about making sure that you spend a little quality time each day with your children, parents. It is about being completely, one hundred percent, present with your family. But it isn’t about time at all. It is about presence. Be completely present.

I think I understand why it is that people disdain the low places. It is because we want respect. We want other people to respect us. We want to respect ourselves. And somehow, we have the mistaken notion that by being content with the low places, we can’t possibly be respected by others, let alone ourselves.

That is what drives us to compare and compete. But Lao Tzu has a very interesting prescription for just what ails us: Learn to be content with simply being yourself.

 

Why does it seem paradoxical? Reality vs. Illusion

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 seven, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

There are two things about philosophical Taoism that I want to talk about today. The first being, that Lao Tzu once again refers to the Tao as infinite and eternal. And the second being, the idea of paradox as a way of distinguishing reality from illusion, or how things are vs. how things seem to be. Both of these ideas are something that Lao Tzu will be coming back to again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching; so don’t be dismayed if we only scratch the surface today.

First, the Tao, as infinite and eternal. Because we have our own ideas of what it means to be infinite, and what it means to be eternal, I think it is a good idea to take a bit of time defining terms. And Lao Tzu provides us with all the help we need.

Why is the Tao eternal? It can never die, because it was never born. We tend to think of eternal as referring to time. But something that was never born and will never die is not in the realm of time, at all. It is outside, or beyond, time. And that is what we need to understand about eternal when referring to the Tao.

And the Tao is infinite. When we think of infinite we think of, well, not finite. That is what infinite means. But look at how Lao Tzu explains why the Tao is infinite. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself.

We have desires. But the Tao has no desires. The Tao just is. Our desires cause us all kinds of grief. Lao Tzu has already told us that our desires trap us. So, of course, we want to be free. If only there was a way for the infinite, eternal Tao to free us. Well, I have good news. Because the Tao is eternal and infinite, it is present for all beings. And it is in that being present that we are set free from desires.

Which brings me to the paradox. We tend to think of ourselves, and all of nature as having a definite beginning and a definite end. We see ourselves bound by the framework of time. After all, we were born. And we will die.

Also, we see ourselves as being finite creatures. We do it all the time, looking at ourselves as small and insignificant, finite beings in the vast ocean of the cosmos. Just tiny specks on a tiny speck in a remote corner of a mediocre galaxy.

But Lao Tzu invites us to see beyond this illusion (of how things appear to be). Just like we said yesterday. The Tao only appears to be hidden from us. That infinite, eternal reality actually is present for all beings inside each of us.

I know we need to flesh this out; and I promise we will begin to do just that, with the help of the Master, shortly. But right now I want this to sink in. I am not talking about religion. This is philosophy. If religion aids you in your journey, then definitely use it. If religion hinders you, then I think you know what you need to do.

But I am not talking about religion. I am talking about how bound we seem to be by the framework of time and space. But all that seems to be is just an illusion. The reality is beyond all of that. We are infinite and eternal. That is reality. That is the paradox. That is what we keep bumping up against. Because we seem to be finite. We keep encountering the limits we put on ourselves as finite beings.

And this paradox is all the more vivid for us as we behold the Master. Why is the Master ahead? Because she stays behind. Why is she one with all things? Because she is detached from all things. Why is she perfectly fulfilled? Because she has let go of herself. She has let go of all of the constraints of time and space. She is beyond time and space. Beyond good and evil. Beyond beautiful and ugly.

And who is this Master? The Master is any of us. Just any one of us, and all of us, living in perfect harmony with the way things are. Perhaps, we are not ready to let go of the limitations we have put on ourselves. Maybe I am not, quite yet. But I know that the only reason I keep getting bogged down in the illusion, is because I still keep acting like the way things seem to be is the way things actually are.

And I know better.