It Isn’t About The Others. It Is About You.

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)

Previously, in the Tao Te Ching we have talked about success and failure. Lao Tzu asked the rhetorical question, “Of the two, which is more dangerous?” And, he talked about the problem of being on the proverbial ladder of success; saying, “We are always in danger, as long as both our feet aren’t squarely on the ground.” We are nearing the end of the Tao Te Ching, now; and, as these chapters draw to a close, it is a good idea to come to the understanding that we are going to fail, a whole lot more than we care to imagine. Failure isn’t optionial. We are going to fail. Now, don’t get down. Failure isn’t the end of the world. It is just a fact of life. You will also succeed much more often than you can imagine.

But today’s chapter is more about failure than success. Or, maybe it would best be described as how to turn failure into success. The key is in how we choose to view failure. Lao Tzu wants us to view our many failures as opportunities. For example, we now know how not to do whatever we just failed at. There are certainly plenty of lessons to learn. But that isn’t what interests Lao Tzu in today’s chapter.

When Lao Tzu is talking about failure and opportunity. He is talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution between two parties. That theme comes through more clearly in the original, I think, than Stephen Mitchell’s translation, but we can still see it in the translation we have before us.

Lao Tzu sees failure as an opportunity because it gives you one of two very different paths to take when it comes to dealing with the other party to the contract. He begins with the failure being your own. But he also will cover the opportunity you have when the failure is the other party’s.

First, the opportunity you have when the failure is your own. You could, because it is so very tempting, go down the path of blaming someone else. That, we should not be surprised to learn, is not the path that Lao Tzu would have us walk. You start walking down that path and there will be no end to the blame.

There is a better way. When we fail, we are at a crossroads. One path is the path of blame. But there is another path to take. And that is the path of fulfilling all of your obligations. Correcting all of your own mistakes. Doing whatever needs to be done.

The way I saw this expressed in other translations of today’s chapter was as a contract between two parties. Every contract has two sides. There is the side where you have what you are obligated to do. And the side where you will find what the other party is obligated to do. This is the best illustration of what Lao Tzu is referring to in today’s chapter.

You have contractually obligated yourself. And, you have failed. Now, what do you do? This is where you correct your mistakes to the very best of your ability. Those obligations still need to be fulfilled. Do what you need to do in order to fulfill those obligations. That seems fair enough. And, though it is going to be difficult, you still need to do it. It is the right thing to do. So far, so good.

But there is more to this failure thing than that. Because there are two sides to that contract. What if the failure is not your own? What if the other party to the contract is the one who has failed? Even that other person’s failure is an opportunity for you. Obviously, we hope the other party will behave the way we know to behave when the failure was our own. But the failure is theirs not ours. And now the shoe is on the other foot. That is when Lao Tzu tells us that we are once again at a crossroads. This is when Lao Tzu tells us to choose the right path. If the failure is the other party’s, make no demands of them.

That is right. Demand nothing of them. That is where we leave it to the Tao to balance things out. We take care of our obligations. And, we leave it to the Tao to balance things out, demanding nothing of the other party.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on television. But, I think that the whole world would be transformed if, one by one, we each would put this into practice in our own lives. Stop saying, “But what about the others?” It isn’t about the others. It is about you. Fulfill your obligations. Trust the Tao. Demand nothing of the others.

When You Encounter The Paradox, You Have Found The Truth.

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu brings together a couple different concepts that we have been talking about the last few days. The first, is that to be soft and yielding is to be truly living. If you are hard and inflexible, you may be alive; but you are not truly living. You are, instead, among the dieing. The second, is that everyone knows this is true. But knowing is not enough. You have to progress beyond mere knowing and start putting these teachings into practice. Few seem able to do this. It requires that further step of realization.

And, Lao Tzu returns to one of his favorite metaphors: which is water. There are many things about water that Lao Tzu points at to illustrate what he is teaching. Today, he begins by talking about how soft and yielding it is. We all know this. If you push your hand into a pool of water, the water yields to your hand without any effort. Water is soft and yielding.

As we observe the flow of water at a beach, along a river, even a drainage ditch, we will see water in its natural element, doing what water does. It flows effortlessly. Because it is soft and yielding, whether we are talking about the ebb and flow of the tide of an ocean or the current of a stream, water moves effortlessly along its course. Where it encounters obstacles, like rocks or other debris, it usually just moves around those. At least that is how it appears, superficially. But if we look beyond the superficial, we begin to see what is actually taking place. That soft and yielding water is making an impact on everything it touches. How much of an impact, depends on how long the water is touching that something it is encountering.

For instance, push your hand into that pool of water. The water immediately gives way to your hand. But your hand is immediately impacted by the touch of the water. Your hand gets wet. Keep your hand in the water long enough and your hand will start to wrinkle up because of its exposure to the water. If we go back to a stream of water, we can see the effect the water has on the rocks and debris it encounters. It immediately begins to dissolve the hard and inflexible. Oh, it appears to go around it, but it is actually busy gnawing away at it, too Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. But even the most hard and inflexible thing will dissolve because of its encounters with water.

Like we said earlier, we already know this is true. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. We know it; yet, we often fail to realize exactly what this means. How do we put these teachings into practice?

It might help to remember that we aren’t talking about water. The water is just a metaphor. I only mention this because I know that I sometimes get lost in the wonder of the metaphor. And like Lao Tzu has said before, we are then merely enjoying the flower; without tasting the fruit. There is some fruit here. We need to look beyond the flower. And begin to appreciate the fruit.

So, what is the fruit? Ah, that is where we need to look to the Master. The Master doesn’t merely know these things. He puts them into practice: by realizing them. Soft and yielding. Remaining serene, even in the midst of sorrow.

In the midst of sorrow, what is our most basic instinct? HELP! We either want help or want to be of help. For our purposes today, let’s say that the sorrow we are in the midst of is not our own, but some others. Perhaps someone we love, though it doesn’t have to be. It could be a perfect stranger. But we want to help. We don’t like it when someone is in sorrow. It touches us deep down inside. To our very heart. We want to help. And just when we want to try and help, we find we are not being at all helpful.

This is where this all starts to sound paradoxical. You know what I mean. When a statement seems like it is self-contradictory, but it just might be true anyway. Well, that is what Lao Tzu assures us. True words seem paradoxical. I want to help, but as long as I want to help, I am not much of a help. The Master has learned how to protect his own heart from the evil of having good intentions. What? Having good intentions is evil? Good intentions are some of the most evil things that can enter your heart. You’re wanting to help. That is a good intention. A really good intention. Pat yourself on the back. Good job, you. Now, that the self-congratulation is over, let’s take a look at the truth. It will seem paradoxical. But it is still true.

Your good intentions are going to motivate you to interfere. To try to make things better. After all, who likes sorrow? Sorrow isn’t good, is it? Why not try to make that person happy? That is what good intentions do. Oh, we aren’t wanting evil for this person. We only want to make them happy. So, we are going to circumvent the process. We are going to take matters into our own hands. Kind of like grabbing that bow. Remember that one yesterday? Our good intentions are evil. There, I said it. Do you really want to be people’s greatest help? Stop trying to help them. Give up helping.

I know, I know, this sounds paradoxical. And maybe cold. Uncaring. At the very least, indifferent. So, most people are not going to put this into practice. But indifference is so much better than good intentions. That is the Master’s way. Let’s get back to him. He remains serene even in the midst of sorrow. That serenity will seem like indifference, too. And, you know why? Because it is. It is that indifference that keeps evil from entering his heart. He has given up helping. He is indifferent, yes. But, watch what happens. Because he hasn’t allowed evil to enter his heart, because he isn’t trying to help, to interfere, to make that person or persons happy, he is now their greatest help.

Paradox, indeed.


Leave That Bow Alone! Be The Best That Humans Can Be.

As it acts in the world,
the Tao is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she
is better than anyone else.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about living, as being flexible; and dieing, as being inflexible. That was a good introduction for today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu begins by talking about the bending of a bow. The bending of a bow. That is the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses to point at how the Tao acts in the world. It is about how things are in the natural, living world. As the string on a bow is pulled, the top bends down and the bottom bends up. This is easy for us to picture in our mind, even if we have never actually handled a bow previously.

Lao Tzu tells us this metaphor represents how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, naturally. And through nature, perfect balance is achieved. The Tao takes from what is too much – that is, excess. And gives to what isn’t enough – that is, deficiency.

I want you to notice in this first stanza that the Tao is being represented as an impersonal force of nature. What is too much, not who has too much. What isn’t enough, not who doesn’t have enough. I think it is important for us to understand this precision. It is both natural and impersonal. It isn’t anything personal. The Tao is merely balancing the ledger books. Where in the short term there may be excess and deficiency, in the long run there is perfect balance. No excess. No deficiency. That is the way of the Tao. Everything is constantly changing. The bow is constantly moving.

Now, we humans, being persons, like to make things personal. And that is where we always end up coming into conflict with the Tao. The problem is we want to be in control. And we are ever ready to use force to both get and maintain that control. It is all about power. People don’t like not being in control. They want to believe they have the power. The Tao is an impersonal force of nature. It is a what. People don’t want a what in power. They want a who. And they would prefer that who to be them. Even if their seeming power is an illusion, that is okay, as long as they believe strongly enough in the illusion.

I think that is an important thing for us to understand, as well. It is something about all us humans of which we need to ever be mindful. I am not saying it is human nature; as in, it is the sum total of all that makes us human. But it is a very real part of our nature as humans. It is something that we need to guard against. Lao Tzu has a very high opinion of us humans. He lists us as one of the four great powers. Pretty significant, that. Still, we are only one of four great powers. And the other three are more significant. That is something for us to try to remember as we struggle to keep ourselves from thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.

So, given our tendency to try to control, is it any wonder that some will use force to protect their power? And inevitably, that will mean working against the direction of the Tao. Now, first of all, let’s take a look at those who have good intentions. That is how they always snag us, isn’t it? With their good intentions. The pace of nature is too slow. They just want to help the Tao along. They want to grab hold of that bow and pull with the Tao. Just faster and further. It is very important for us to understand that this isn’t going to help things at all. The Tao, and the Tao alone, knows how to bend the bow. All our efforts to bend the bow, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are not going to result in bringing things into balance any faster. They are only going to result in a tug-of-war. And guess who loses that one?

I wanted to first talk about those who promise they have good intentions because no one ever announces they have evil intentions. No one is ever going to say, “Hey, you know what? We want to take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.” No one will ever own up to those kinds of intentions. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Whether your intentions are good or evil, the results are going to be the same. When you try to control, when you use force to protect your power, you go against the direction of the Tao. That is the only way that it could be. Going with the flow means not being in control. It means not using force. The very fact that you are trying to be in control and are using force puts you counter to the Tao. No matter your intentions. And the results are the very opposite of what the Tao would otherwise achieve. Instead of excess and deficiency being adjusted, it is expanded. That is why we continually hear that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This just empowers the “Do-gooders” more in their efforts. And the more empowered they are, the greater the problem, they aren’t solving, becomes.

This is where the Master comes in. The Master, here, is a real leader. Not one of our elected officials. Because they are all about power and control and the use of force, they’ll never get it. But the Master gets it. We can learn a lot from the Master. Until we all become like the Master. She can keep on giving because there is no end to her wealth. Friends, this is not referring to money. We are talking about leaving the bending of the bow to the Tao here. And learning from the Master. There is no end to her wealth of wisdom. That is why she can just keep on giving.

She acts without expectation. Just let that one sink in. Acting, expecting nothing in return. She succeeds without taking credit. Hmmmmm. She doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Wow! Do these seem like superhuman traits? They aren’t. Remember earlier when I was talking about our tendency as humans to want to be in control? To want to believe we have the power? Those are certainly human traits. But so are these traits of the Master. Consider them our better angels. Certainly we can be the worst that humans can be. But we can also be the best that humans can be.


Are We The Living Or the Dieing?

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead they are brittle and dry.

Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu talks about disciples of death and disciples of life. He has told us before that death is a natural and inevitable part of the life cycle. We shouldn’t fear it. Being afraid of dieing holds us back from truly living our lives. Not being afraid, frees you to live your life to its fullest.

We are all born soft and supple. That is how Lao Tzu describes the beginning of life. We are born that way. Plants are born that way. Indeed, all beings start out that way. Being soft and supple, tender and pliant; those are the attributes of living. Lao Tzu wants us to always be soft and yielding. This is what he means by being a disciple of life. And, as long as we remain soft and yielding we will always be alive.

It is our fear of dieing that makes us stiff and hard, brittle and dry. We fear it, so we become it. Even while we are very much alive, we have taken on the attributes of death. By being stiff and inflexible, we have become disciples of death. And, our fear becomes our reality.

I hope you understand that to the extent Lao Tzu is picturing physical attributes he is speaking metaphorically. If we see these only as physical attributes, we are merely concerning ourselves with the flower and not the fruit. We need to see beyond the surface and begin to plumb the depths.

How sad it is that the still living have become as if they were already dead. They were once so flexible. Able to go with the flow of the Universe. Letting things come and go as they will. What a shame it is to cease yielding. To become rigid. To try to hold on to fleeting things.

We are still needing to transition from merely knowing these truths to actually realizing them. Disciples of death will never realize these truths. They will die before their time. Only disciples of life will come to realize these truths. Living their lives to their fullest.

More On The Difference Between Knowing And Realizing

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 75, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we talked about the difference between knowing that all things change and realizing it. The difference between knowing and realizing is both profound and subtle. And, it is all the difference in the world. We talked about how to know when we have made the shift between merely knowing and actual realizing. But we didn’t talk much about how to make that transition. The reason for that is because putting these teachings into practice is so profound and subtle. It involves all that we have been talking about all along. The not-knowing knowing. The not-doing doing. The not-competing competing. Lao Tzu teaches without a teaching; meaning, he points at the truth, hints at it, over and over again; but he can never just come out and tell it to us plainly. Why is that? He answered that question in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” That may be frustrating to us. But it is the way things are. If we are going to transition from merely knowing to actual realizing, it doesn’t require knowledge or doing or competing. It requires letting things come and go as they will. As long as we are interfering, as long as we are trying to be in control, we are never going make that transition. We need to let go. And that, my friends, can be the hardest thing of all.

As hard as that is for each and every one of us, you can probably imagine how very difficult it would be for the people in power: our rulers. They, more than anyone else, think they have all the answers. You can’t teach them anything. For they already know. They are the ones that can’t resist doing something. They must always be interfering with the natural order and attempting to control outcomes. And, for them, the urge to compete is most acute. As soon as one election is done they immediately begin competing in the next.

That is what today’s chapter is all about. It is the people vs. the rulers. Let us for a moment, give our rulers the benefit of the doubt; and say that they know when taxes are too high the people go hungry. And while we are at it, let us also assume that they know when the government is too intrusive, the people lose their spirit.

The problem is that merely knowing this doesn’t matter at all. It certainly doesn’t change their behavior. They need to make the transition from merely knowing to actual realizing. Because only then, will it start making a difference in how they govern.

I am just going to be honest here. I don’t hold out a shred of hope that our rulers are going to voluntarily transition from merely knowing to actually realizing. My blog isn’t for them. It is for the rest of us. Those of us that are going to have to pick up the pieces after the system inevitably comes crashing down all around us. It is we, the people, that will have to not just know, but realize these truths.

We already think we know that when taxes are too high, people go hungry. But let’s make sure that we aren’t just giving mental assent to this. People talk a decent game about taxes. I don’t know of anyone that wants their taxes to be too high. We understand that money that is taken from us, is money that we could be better spending, on ourselves and others. That is why the only taxes that anyone seems to be in favor of raising are the taxes levied on “the wealthy.” I put that in scare quotes for what I hope are obvious reasons. Many people think (mistakenly) that because “the wealthy” can afford it, no one is going to go hungry due to these taxes. So, they have already betrayed that they don’t really know when taxes are too high, people go hungry. Please, don’t send me messages here about people needing to pay their “fair” share. I put that word, fair, in scare quotes for very obvious reasons as well. The reality is that it doesn’t matter whose taxes are too high. When taxes are too high, people are going to go hungry. Why? Besides the obvious, because that is the way things are, there is what I already said earlier. Money that is taken in taxes is money that could be better (more efficiently) spent by the persons that earned that money, both for themselves and for others. There is no better example of a people who are suffering from a delusion than those that think that the government can and will provide better than we can for ourselves. Go ahead, send me your list of things that the government can provide better than we can provide for ourselves. I think it is good to confront your delusion and get made well.

Speaking of delusions, here is another one: If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. This is the line that propagandists have been feeding us for a very long time. They keep intruding on our freedom, insisting that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. But I, for one, am not fully knowledgeable of all that is contained within the ever-expanding U.S. Criminal Code. The truth is that I may have plenty of things that I want hidden from the prying eyes of our rulers. Things that I don’t know have been deemed unlawful. Ignorance of the law, I have been told, is no defense. Common sense informs me that where there is no victim, there is no crime. But our prisons in the United States are filled to overflowing with “criminals” where there was no victim. So common sense isn’t going to help me to steer clear of the eye of Sauron. Ordinary people, like me, are waking up to this truth more and more each day. That is why we are losing our spirit. The government is too intrusive.

We need to transition from merely knowing to actually realizing. When those of us, that are called upon to be leaders of a better tomorrow, act for the people’s benefit, it will be because we trust them; and leave them alone.

The Difference Between Knowing And Realizing

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future is like trying
to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about how being at ease in your own life is a natural consequence of the Tao always being at ease. This ease comes as we, like the Tao, practice not-competing competing. As Lao Tzu has explained before, this non-competing competing is best portrayed by children at play. This is the way of the Universe, the way things are. Lao Tzu portrays this all-encompassing Law at work as a giant net spread over the whole Universe. Nothing escapes the breadth of that net.

Today, Lao Tzu follows up with another Law of the Universe: That all things change. Things are in a constant state of flux. Hence, we will often talk about going with the flow. It isn’t enough just to acknowledge that all things change, however. We all know that all things change. But that knowledge alone doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference in our lives. We have to go one step further. We must realize this Law is always in effect in our Universe, and over every aspect of our lives. So, if there is a difference between knowing and realizing, how do I know when I am realizing?

Quite simply, you move from merely knowing to realizing, when it is making a difference in your life. Lao Tzu explains that when you realize this, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. As long as we are still trying to hold on to things, we are still only giving mental assent to this Law; and, instead of going with the flow, allowing things to come and go, we are working against the current of the Tao.

The most extreme example of this working against the current of the Tao is our fear of dying. Death. That would be the ultimate change. And we fear it. We desperately try to postpone it. The Tao gives us subtle reminders each and every day that death is inevitable. We see it in nature. We experience the reality of it most profoundly when we suffer the death of a loved one. Death is a natural part of the life cycle. And, we need not fear it, because death is not the end. Why do fear death? I think it is just proof that we haven’t yet realized the truth. Oh, we know it. We know that we are going to die. But until we go that extra step and come to realize it, we don’t really know anything.

And, just like realizing that all things change, liberates us to let go of everything that would hold us back; no longer being afraid of dying, means that there will be nothing we can’t achieve. That sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

So, let go of this need you think you have to be in control. You are safely encompassed within the net of the Tao. There is nothing to fear. You won’t slip away. Just go with the flow. Stop resisting this natural law. Lao Tzu likens our attempts at controlling outcomes to taking the master carpenter’s place. The master carpenter knows what they are doing. You, on the other hand, don’t. If you keep trying to wield those tools, you are only going to end up hurting yourself.

Where No One Slips Through The Cracks

The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 73, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been quite insistent that his teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Easy, that is, if we don’t let our own knowledge or our own efforts get in the way. Today, Lao Tzu explains why this is so.

He tells us it is because the Tao, itself, is always at ease. And, because the Tao is always at ease, it puts all beings at ease. Was that a leap? While you “get” that the Tao is always at ease, do you have trouble accepting that you, too, can be at ease in your own life?

How does the Tao being always at ease, put us at ease, too? It is because that is the way things are. It overcomes by not-competing. It answers without a word having to be spoken. It is always present, never needing to be summoned, or looked for. It accomplishes everything while doing nothing. This is the way of the Tao. This is the way things are.

Do you still doubt? Why is it that the way things are is the way things are? Because the Tao is like a net, covering the whole Universe. You doubt because you see that its meshes are wide. But look again. Nothing slips through.

Do You Know What Is Awesome?

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend on authority.

Therefore the Master steps back,
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 72, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

With all the talk in the last couple of chapters about the need to know that we don’t know, you might begin to think that we shouldn’t be trusting our own selves. But that would be missing Lao Tzu’s point entirely. Lao Tzu most definitely wants us to trust ourselves. He wants us looking inside ourselves for answers; instead of looking outside of ourselves. The point of knowing that we don’t know hasn’t been for us to seek out a teacher, so much as it has been for us to take the necessary step of approaching our own inner selves with humility. You can’t really know what you are going to find in there. Knowing that I don’t know, means being humble enough to look deeply inside my own heart; and experiencing first hand, the awe of discovering what is inside my own heart.

In our day and age, people like to throw that word “awe” around in a way that has sorely cheapened it. When I think of all the things I have heard called awesome, and yes, I have been just as guilty as anyone else, I begin to think that just about everything is awesome. But, if everything is awesome, then nothing is awesome.

And that is the point of what Lao Tzu is addressing today. People have lost their sense of awe. For the record, let’s just remember what that word “awe” means. It is a strong feeling of fear, dread, even terror; it invokes respect, veneration, and wonder. This could be inspired by authority; or by the sacred or sublime.

Awe, as you can see, should be a very powerful word. And if we have any sense, we understand that. That is why the exclamation, “That ice cream was awesome,” just doesn’t make any sense at all. There are things that we should approach with fear, dread, and wonder. If that ice cream makes you feel that way, perhaps it isn’t really safe for your consumption.

When you have lost your sense of awe, religion seems an obvious place to turn for the awe-inspiring. That is certainly how Lao Tzu saw it. We are not knocking religion here, so please don’t get your panties in a twist. What we are talking about is people who have lost their sense of awe. And, because they don’t have the sense to understand that the answers are inside themselves, they are going to start looking outside themselves. Religion offers us that. I am not saying it doesn’t offer other things as well, many of which are beneficial. But, we aren’t talking about those other things today; so, stay focused.

We are talking about having sense, or not having sense, when it comes to awe. The real problem is that people are no longer trusting themselves. That is what causes people to start looking outside themselves. That is why people begin to depend on some outside authority.

And, that is why Lao Tzu says that the Master takes a step back. He doesn’t want there to be any confusion. Because confusion is exactly what we are suffering from, when we no longer trust ourselves. The Master doesn’t want the people to be confused. So, he takes a step back.

I do this all the time with the little girl that I tutor. We have been moving along at a brisk pace and things seem to be going along just fine. Until, all of a sudden, I see it. That look of wonder in her eyes. Oh, who am I kidding? That isn’t wonder. That is confusion. It is time to take a step back. We need to go back. Something hadn’t “clicked.” I missed that moment somewhere along the way. Oh well, we will just retrace our steps back, and I take a different approach. That means I am going to teach it in a different way from the way I was teaching it, since the way I was teaching it had just led to her present confusion. Or, maybe it was that awesome ice cream she was eating a little while ago. Either way, I retrace my steps and show her a new way to look at it. There really wasn’t anything new to learn. Just the same old thing. We are just reenforcing what she already knew. Okay. Yes. That’s better. Now her eyes have changed expressions. Now, she is comprehending.

You Know Nothing

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First, realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus, she is truly whole.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 71, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been explaining to us how to put his teachings into practice. Yesterday, he told us that means we have to quit trying to practice them. Instead of trying, or doing, we simply need to be. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, he told us that we need to quit thinking that we can possibly know or understand the meaning of his teachings. Once again, he recommended, not-knowing knowing. And, by that, he means knowing that we don’t know. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues on this theme of not-knowing.

“I know, I know…” These were the words that I uttered to my father anytime he was trying to teach or show me how to do something. I frustrated my father greatly with my presuming to know anything he wanted to teach me. Why would he get frustrated? Because, by uttering those words, and by believing they were true, I short-circuited any possibility that I would learn. How could I learn? I already knew.

I did, in fact learn a variety of lessons from my father. But only later in life. While I was still young, I was, pretty much, a hopeless cause. But, late in my father’s life, I came to appreciate what was probably the most valuable lesson he had taught me: My presuming to know was a disease. I was sick, beyond belief. I wish I could say I learned the lesson much earlier. I sometimes bang myself on my head, wishing I had never uttered the words, “I know, I know,” to my father.

If you want to know the most profound and helpful words you will ever utter to someone who is trying to teach you, they are “I don’t know.” There it is. Yesterday, I called that our launching point. That is why, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins by saying not-knowing is true knowledge. Knowing that we don’t know. Get that settled first. Then you can proceed to learn.

The Master gets this. That is why she has healed herself of all that presumption, all that thinking she already knows. She is her own physician. And, you and I, too, can be our own physician here. We need to start practicing saying, “I don’t know.” Go ahead, say it, “I don’t know.” That, my friends, is the wisdom that we will need, if we are ever going to put into practice Lao Tzu’s teachings. If we are going to learn the art of simplicity, patience, and compassion, we will simply have to begin with a big heaping portion of humility. Otherwise, we are going to be sick for many years still to come.

Matters Of The Heart

My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?

If you want to know me, look inside your heart.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 70, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Back a few chapters, Lao Tzu told us that it took looking inside ourselves for his teaching to make sense. And, that when we put his teachings into practice, we would find their roots go deep. It was in that chapter that he said he had only three things to teach: simplicity, patience and compassion. These, he said, were our three greatest treasures.

Yesterday, he warned us about the danger of destroying those treasures. Today, he explains how easy it is understand and put into practice these teachings. But he offers us a few caveats.

They are easy to understand. But you aren’t going to grasp them with your intellect.

They are easy to put into practice. But if you try to practice them, you are going to fail.

Wait, Lao Tzu. This isn’t sounding so easy.

All that education I have filled my mind with isn’t going to help me with this? Maybe the ancient Masters were onto something when they didn’t try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know. And Lao Tzu further warns us that his teachings are older than the world. How could we expect to grasp their meaning?

If I am going to understand the art of simplicity, patience, and compassion, I have to practice not-knowing knowing. Which means, instead of relying on my knowledge, I need to know that I don’t know. That is the launching point.

As for my efforts at putting these teachings into practice, he has the perfect solution when all my efforts are only going to fail. That is, practice not-doing doing. This is the effortless action that he has talked about so much. It isn’t doing at all. It is simply, being. Don’t do. Just be.

Easy, right? Well, as easy as we let it be. Our problem, excuse me, my problem, is that my intellect gets in the way. That, and my own stubborn will to try. Those are the only reasons it is so hard. Because I make it so hard. I can know the essence of Lao Tzu’s teachings. But I am going to have to look inside my own heart to find it.