What If You Didn’t Have To Explain Your Actions?

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
That is the Master’s way.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, I shied away from trying to explain the mystical language that Lao Tzu was using to express how all things get birthed and how all things achieve harmony. I had a friend who has been “into” Taoism much longer than I, try to help me to better understand the mystical language that Lao Tzu was using. Thanks, John. I promise that the next time I get around to that chapter again, to delve back into the mystical; and what you said to me will be a big help.

Today’s chapter is a bit easier for me to decipher. Lao Tzu paints two pictures for us. Both are referring to the Tao. It is the Tao that is the gentlest thing in the world which overcomes the hardest thing in the world. And it is the Tao which has no substance and enters where there is no space.

And these two illustrations are what Lao Tzu uses to show the value of non-action. We have talked a lot about the value of non-action. It is a fundamental principle of the Tao. How does the gentlest thing overcome the hardest thing? By not-doing.

Too often, we see force being met with more force. The events in Ferguson are the ones closest to home for me, that illustrate that point. I have already talked previously about the events in Ferguson. By now, I am sure you are very much aware of that situation. So, I have no intention of rehashing that. Knowing what you do about that situation, you can see that is the exact opposite of the way of the Tao.

Sometimes I like to play what I call the “What If?” game. It is a mental exercise where I wonder how events would have transpired differently if certain actions had not been taken. Generally, hindsight is 20-20. And it is easy for me to say, “What if the police had not responded to the peaceful protestors with overwhelming, militarized force? But at the same time, I doubt the powers that be are learning that kind of lesson from the situation in Ferguson. Somehow, I suspect they are only preparing for further escalation of force, the next time the opportunity arises.

But I am running off on a tangent. Let’s get back on today’s chapter. And the value of non-action. Wu-wei, which is the principle of non-action is fundamental to Taoism. Often the best solution is not to act at all. Or, when action is needed, to do as little as possible. I think of the Tao like the Invisible Hand of the free market. I am opposed to interfering with that invisible hand. Most things in the world correct themselves, given time. But we get impatient, don’t we? We get in a hurry. The Tao will take too long. But when we interfere, we only make things worse. Sadly, for the powers that be, that only emboldens them in their efforts to further interfere. Now the mess is even bigger. They must interfere even more.

Now I know, that when some hear of this principle of non-action, they think it is speaking of passivity, or surrender. But that is all an illusion, used to masquerade the truth. People with power need excuses to wield power. If there aren’t ready excuses, they’ll manufacture some.

Non-action isn’t passivity or surrender. It is the patience to wait for the outcome. The Tao has things under control. The Universe only seems to be chaotic and without order. That is the illusion. But the reality is that we do live in an ordered Universe, governed by universal laws. When things are chaotic, it is only because we have been interfering with the natural order. Left to itself, the Tao always balances things out.

We simply must trust that the Tao has things under control; and is governing the Universe towards harmony. I can’t stress this enough. Problems we perceive as demanding our attention are often merely phases on the way to a good outcome, and in no need of our meddling. The law of unintended consequences comes to mind right here. How can we be sure that we are contributing to a solution when we don’t even know what would happen if we left things alone?

I know that someone is thinking about situations where we need to take action, and quickly. Like, for instance, to save lives or to avoid a disaster. While I am not going to deny that very real possibility, I am also wary of that excuse; since the powers that be will always use that excuse to justify everything that they do. Just look at what went down in Ferguson. The police can justify their militarization with the need to be prepared for the very worst that could happen. And then they set out to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ultimately, we humans have a tendency to regard ourselves a bit too highly. It is nothing short of hubris if we think that nothing would happen, at least nothing good, without our intervention. And that hubris, pride, will likely be our undoing.

But Lao Tzu doesn’t only paint us a picture that illustrates the value of non-action. He also talks about teaching without words. Perhaps that is why he likes to paint these mental images for us. Lao Tzu has said before that the more we speak the less we know. We speak because we have to explain our actions. We have to defend our actions because if we had only avoided those actions, we wouldn’t have to defend them.

This is not the way of the Master, who teaches without words. How can the Master teach without words? Because the Master performs without actions. By letting the Tao do the work, there is nothing that needs to be said. You can see the results without any explanation being necessary.

What If It Were As Easy As One, Two, Three

The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine
all things achieve harmony.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness,
realizing he is one with the whole Universe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In the past, when trying to interpret the meaning behind this mystical language, I have tried to pinpoint exactly what is the One and the Two and the Three. And I have never felt any satisfaction in my efforts. Today, I want to approach it in a whole different way. Maybe Lao Tzu doesn’t intend for us to try to figure out what he means by the One, Two, and Three. Maybe, if I just embrace my solitude, my oneness, I can learn to make use of it; and realizing that, I, too, can become one with the whole Universe.

Because, that is, after all, the reason for the journey. Maybe, it is as easy as one, two, three. And look at how it all multiplies. The Tao, always giving birth to more and more and more.

But there can be no multiplying as long as we only embrace one side of who we really are. That does seem to be the reason that Lao Tzu points out that all things have their backs to the female. Just like yin and yang are always in balance in the Universe. Male and female must combine, if we are to achieve harmony.

And no, I don’t think Lao Tzu is referring only to sexual union in this picture of how all things achieve harmony. It is in embracing both my masculine and feminine sides that harmony can be achieved.

Yes, maybe it is as easy as one, two, three. Maybe it is that elementary. Ordinary men hate solitude. But we don’t want to be merely ordinary, do we? If, in my aloneness, I only stand facing the male, I can not make perfect use of my solitude. But when I allow both male and female to combine in a warm embrace, then, and only then, I see that I am not alone in the Universe, but one with the whole Universe.

It’s No Wonder We Are Filled With Doubts

When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.

Thus it is said;
The path into the light seems dark.
The path forward seems to go back.
The direct path seems long.
True power seems weak.
True purity seems tarnished.
True steadfastness seems changeable.
True clarity seems obscure.
The greatest art seems unsophisticated.
The greatest love seems indifferent.
The greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet, it nourishes and completes all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, I want to start with the end of the chapter which is the whole point of what Lao Tzu is trying to get across to us. He says, “The Tao is nowhere to be found. Yet, it nourishes and completes all things.”

Now this isn’t anything really new. Lao Tzu has been saying it all along. But it is something that presents a challenge for us. The question is, do we believe it? And how we answer that question says a lot about us to Lao Tzu.

It certainly isn’t politically correct. So prepare to be insulted. But Lao Tzu just calls them like he sees them. To Lao Tzu it takes a superior individual to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. On the other hand, the fool, probably because he finds all things foolish, laughs out loud when he hears of the Tao. That is just par for the course, as far as Lao Tzu is concerned. It wouldn’t be the Tao if he didn’t laugh.

These are two very different responses. And yet, for Lao Tzu, they only serve to demonstrate the reality of the Tao.

But then there is the majority of us. The average, or typical person. I have to put myself in this category. It would be oh so wonderful to be able to claim that I am a superior kind of guy. But I am not foolish enough to think so much of me. And just because I strive to be no respecter of persons, I am going to lump all the rest of you in this category, too. Oh, I am sure there are some of you who are truly superior. Please bear with me. The fools are still laughing. Pay no attention to them.

But for those of us that are average, I think Lao Tzu has a whole lot of help for us today.

The help is in understanding how to separate the truth from fiction., reality from what is merely illusion. the way things actually are, from how things appear to be.

I think this is especially important in light of current events in Ferguson, Missouri. And, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, and myriad other places around the world. Because if we can’t take these words and use them right now, in the world where we live, then we all might as well just join those who are laughing.

For there is a reason that when we hear of the Tao, we half believe it, and half doubt it. And that reason is because the Tao is nowhere to be found. If you are looking for scientific proof in this blog post, it will be sorely lacking. I don’t like comparing the Tao to God. I know of a lot of people that do. But I am really not one of them. Yet, like faith in God, belief in the Tao, requires something of us that we are never going to get using the scientific method. So, again, like faith in God, it is okay that we have a mixture of belief and doubt.

But what does Lao Tzu offer to us today, to help us along our journey? Yes, I have been getting to that. Behold, this list that he offers us of reality vs. the illusion.

He says the path into the light seems dark. That is a stark distinction between the reality and the illusion. The reality is that we are walking a path into the light. And the illusion? It seems dark. He says the path forward seems to go back. Once again, we seem to be going back, when we are in fact going forward. And, he says, the direct path seems long.

It is what is vs. what seems to be. And it is a very good reason to be full of doubts. To Lao Tzu, it would take a superior person not to be full of doubts. Oh, to simply embody the Tao. That is what I want. But if that is going to be, I have to be able to distinguish the truth from the lie, reality from illusion, the way things are from how things seem to be.

And so must we all. Or, we could simply join the fools in their laughter.

True power seems weak. True purity seems tarnished. True steadfastness seems changeable. True clarity seems obscure.

Once again, it is all about paradox. When we encounter paradox we have a choice. We will either see the reality for what it truly is, or we will fall for the illusion.

The greatest art seems unsophisticated. The greatest love seems indifferent. The greatest wisdom seems childish.

And the Tao? It is still nowhere to be found. Oh, but it is still there. Nourishing and completing all things. Whether or not we believe it. Even amid the laughter of fools. Whether you embody it or doubt it.

Just Four Lines…

Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 40, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Nestled in the middle of the Tao Te Ching we find these four lines. Seemingly insignificant, but I think they pack a real punch. Lao Tzu has been talking about centering ourselves in the Tao. And, being in harmony with the Tao. And he takes just this few lines to tell us how to go about that.

We have said before that the way things are is the way things are. And I have been careful to explain that all this means is that there is an operating principle behind the Universe. By realizing this operating principle and becoming one with it, we too, accord with the Tao.

Can you sense the movement of the Tao in the Universe? Sure you can. It is all about return. The most eloquent illustration of this movement is represented in the various natural cycles that we can observe repeating themselves throughout the course of our lives on planet Earth.

We see it every day as the Earth revolves around the Sun. I recently watched the first episode of the updated version of Cosmos. In it, Neal Degrasse Tyson was reminding us that it wasn’t that long ago that the powers that be wholeheartedly believed that the Earth was the center of our Universe, and the Sun revolved around the Earth. For a time, as a child I believed the Sun was standing still. The Earth and all the planets in our solar system were revolving around it, but the Sun was just sitting there. But thankfully, I didn’t stay a child.

Now, I know that the Sun is on the move, as well; orbiting (I think that would be the word for it) around our galaxy. Where is it taking us? Somehow, I think if enough time passed, back around to where we are right now. It is in that way that the Earth every year completes its orbit around the sun. Rotation of the Earth on its axis is what gives us night and day, endlessly repeating themselves. The tilt on its axis, as it revolves around the Sun, gives us our four seasons. Because I take a chapter each day in the Tao Te Ching, that is 81 chapters in all, I get to return to this chapter again with each new season of the year.

But that is just one example of the return that we can see on display. We also can look at the cycles of the Moon as it revolves around us. And we can see it in the cycle of life on our planet. There is birth, growth, death, and decay; followed by rebirth, and so on and on. Once again, endless repeating, endlessly renewed. Return is the movement of the Tao.

And yielding is the way of the Tao. Yielding is a powerful word. More powerful than I think we usually give it credit for being. I used to only think of yielding as slowing down and letting others have the right of way. That is certainly an important part; but if we leave it at just that, I don’t think we have begun to scratch the surface of what Lao Tzu means by yielding as the way of the Tao.

It wasn’t until I started out trying to grow my own food in my small garden that I began to understand a much deeper and more satisfying meaning for yielding. When I plant small seeds in fertile soil, and the Sun and rain nourish that seed, I see a yielding of a whole new sort. Plants grow, first small, then bigger and bigger. And soon my plants are yielding a harvest that has multiplied my few small seeds, a hundred fold. Yielding is the way of the Tao.

And so, Lao Tzu tells us a whole lot about the Tao in just a couple lines. The Tao is about returning and yielding. But that is only the first two lines. There are still two more. And now Lao Tzu talks about being and non-being. He has likened the Tao, the great Mother of the Universe, the Source of all being and non-being. Having said that we can identify the Tao in its movement (return) and in its way (yielding), now he tells us how the Tao makes all things happen in the Universe.

It is in the interaction of being and non-being. Like yin and yang, these opposites are in their own dance throughout the Universe. All things are born of being. And being is born of non-being. But that only talks of birth. And birth is only one part of the cycle of life. That tells me there is much more to being and non-being than I can even imagine. In an earlier chapter, Lao Tzu likens being to everything that we can experience with our senses. It is what we work with.

But non-being, is a much more difficult concept to grasp. Sometimes I try to think of non-being as nothing. But that seems to negate its true power. Without non-being there can be no being. Non-being is infinitely important to us, even though it is beyond our ability to grasp or understand.

I sometimes think of it as an expression of the Tao. It certainly represents the mysterious nature of the Tao. Thinking back on that episode of Cosmos, I think of how certain we have been in ages past, that we had all the answers. And how wrong we were. Now, we seem to be gaining new knowledge and understanding almost in an exponential manner. Yet, we know, we are still just scratching the surface of all that might yet be known.

The Tao is truly infinite.

Earliest Known Environmental Impact Study?

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way things are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel,
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as stone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 39, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been talking a lot about the world. He has said that it is sacred and can’t be improved upon. He has said that if the powerful could center themselves in the Tao, and stay centered, the world would transform itself into a paradise. In today’s chapter he describes that paradise, of a world that is in harmony with the Tao.

It is quite the beautiful picture. This is the kind of world we all want to live in. And, it is the kind of world that the Tao, while maintaining a state of equilibrium, has provided for all of us.

Unfortunately, Lao Tzu can’t just present the beautiful picture. He also has to tell us the kind of world that we will have when we aren’t in harmony with the Tao. When humans interfere with the natural order. When we can’t let nature sort itself out, naturally. I want to be careful here. I don’t think Lao Tzu intends for us to look at this chapter and see hopelessness and despair.

He didn’t say, “Since man interferes with the Tao…” He said, “When man interferes with the Tao…” And that is an important distinction. We humans are fully capable of being in harmony with the Tao. We can cooperate with Nature instead of being antagonistic toward it.

Lao Tzu particularly takes to task the powerful over this because he rightly understands that it is the powerful that can use their power to do the most good, or the most harm. As we said yesterday, this isn’t a job for the merely ordinary. It takes the extraordinary to see and understand the way things are and work in cooperation with the laws of nature to achieve all that we want to achieve.

The Master is one who is extraordinary. Because he understands the whole, he is able to view each individual part with compassion. He makes it his constant practice to be humble. Pride, hubris, a particularly human trait, is what causes people to think they can improve on the natural order.

If we truly want to be extraordinary, we will need to keep our pride subdued.. Being centered in the Tao, being in harmony with the Tao, means allowing ourselves to be shaped by the Tao, into something as rugged and common as stone. No, we won’t glitter like a jewel. But we’ll certainly like the looks of our world a whole lot more.

Not Content With Being Merely Ordinary?

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues identifying the paradox that separates the eternal reality of the way things are from what is only mere illusion. As I have said before, whenever we encounter paradox, we are faced with a choice, between holding onto the illusion and accepting what is reality. It is the ability to let go of the illusion and, instead, dwell in reality that separates the truly extraordinary person from one who is merely ordinary.

Throughout this chapter Lao Tzu compares the Master with the merely ordinary. Keep in mind, that even though I call the Master extraordinary, this person could be anyone of us, and even all of us. We don’t have to settle for being merely ordinary. The Master is simply someone who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. And any of us can dwell in the center of the Tao.

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful. There it is again, that word, powerful. Lao Tzu refers to the powerful repeatedly in the Tao Te Ching. If only they could (or would) heed his words. And why don’t they? It seems that the most likely reason is that they are merely ordinary. They keep reaching for power. And they never have enough. Lao Tzu tells us, stop trying to be powerful and you will be truly powerful. That is the paradox. As long as we are reaching and grasping for it, we never will have enough.

And the paradox stretches on throughout the chapter. The Master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. While the ordinary person is always doing things, yet many more are left undone. I was thinking of this yesterday when I kept seeing posts on tumblr from people who felt truly powerless in the face of the tragedy which is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. We want to do something. We are always looking for something to do.

I am not knocking wanting to do something. It is a very natural response when faced with the kinds of tragedies we see on constant display throughout the world. But please understand the paradox; because when you see and understand the paradox, you too, can leave nothing undone.

Kind people want to do something. Yet, something always remains undone. Just people want to do something and leave many things to be done. And moral people, they are the most determined of all; when they do something, and no one responds, they’ll roll up their sleeves and use force.

This, to me, is why it can never be a good idea for there to be a monopoly on the use of force. It is why I am always skeptical when people in uniforms, and wearing badges, want to tell other people what to do. They believe they have the moral authority to apply force whenever things don’t go their way. And sadly, the people that wield that kind of authority are some of the most ordinary people. And people die.

I know that we have reached the point in the narrative of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri where the aggressor is going to be portrayed as a good, kind, just, and moral guy. And the victim? Well, he will be vilified. You know, he probably robbed that convenience store, don’t you? Yeah, he was a thug.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying we should fall for the narrative. We are, after all trying to separate illusion from reality. The question on my mind is why it matters? We live in the United States of America. And the last time I checked, the accused were supposed to be afforded due process. And even if Michael Brown was the vile person some will come to believe, it would seem to me, that being ordinary is not enough for the good, kind, just, and moral, to be. But because there is a monopoly on the use of force, being ordinary is enough. There isn’t any competition. And the ordinary can go on being ordinary.

But Lao Tzu didn’t write this chapter for those that are content to be merely ordinary. He writes it for those that would be extraordinary. That is where our journey is taking each of us. But still, we need to see the illusion for what it is. Or we will never let it go, and dwell in reality.

We can see it so very clearly when the Tao is lost. It is in what is left when the Tao is lost. There is goodness. Until that is lost. Then morality. Until that is lost. Finally, there is only ritual. And that is only the husk of true faith. And, it is the beginning of chaos. But things didn’t have to spiral out of control like this.

The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are, the natural order of the Universe. But we have exchanged what is real for what is only illusion. We fear the depths, and keep to the surface. Instead of seeking out the fruit, we delight ourselves with only the flower. And we are willful in our disregard for what is true.

How merely ordinary of us. And how very different is the Way of the Master.

If we want to be extraordinary, we will need to concern ourselves with what the extraordinary concern themselves. Those depths we have irrationally feared. The fruit which offers us so much more than the simple delights of mere flowers. And we can’t have a will of our own. As long as we are holding onto our own will, we can’t begin to embrace the Tao. We must let all illusions go. We must dwell in reality.

When Desires Are Inflamed, There Can Be No Peace

The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be
transformed by itself,
in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire
all things are at peace.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 37, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is almost a copy of an earlier chapter in the Tao Te Ching (chapter 32). I say, almost, because there are subtle differences that are very important to note.

We have been talking about the way things are. The Tao is just the name that Lao Tzu has given for the organizing principle of the Universe (the Way things are). In talking about the Tao, I have referred to it, and its ways, as mysterious. In chapter 32, Lao Tzu says the Tao, though it contains uncountable galaxies, is so small that it can’t be perceived. Today, he says the Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. This is simply Lao Tzu’s way of confirming the mysterious nature of the Tao.

But just because it is mysterious, that doesn’t mean we can’t see its manifestations and follow it; going with the flow, so to speak. But it can be difficult. Particularly for some people. Refer back once again to chapter 32, “If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace and the law would be written in their hearts.”

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu once again begins with “If powerful men and women…” but notice the subtle shift as he continues, “…could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.”

In chapter 32, Lao Tzu ponders the question if powerful men and women can stay centered. And by this chapter, he is asking if powerful men and women can even center themselves. This is a subtle difference; but I think it is still significant. Either way, the result is much the same: peace and harmony.

Because, you see, I believe that Lao Tzu is absolutely right. The Tao, though it does nothing at all, accomplishes all things perfectly. The whole world is capable of being transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People are fully capable of being content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony and free of desire.

The bugaboo always comes down to what powerful men and women are going to do. Lao Tzu promises that if they could center themselves in the Tao, and stay centered, the world would transform itself, into a paradise. So what exactly is holding us back?

That was a rhetorical question. The answer is obviously, the powerful; who only want to hold onto their power. Because, if you have been actually picturing the world that Lao Tzu is describing, then you know that it is a place that has no need or use for them. And that just won’t do.

Which is why we see so much unrest in the world today. And I mean all over the world. I have been particularly interested in the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, lately; because I happen to live in Missouri, just a little over 3 hours drive away from Ferguson. My children’s mother grew up in Hazelwood, right next to Ferguson. She actually worked at the McDonalds that the police closed down the other night. So, unlike so many other places that I could be talking about right now, Ferguson seems very close to home for me.

And I think to myself that I am just about certain that the people of Ferguson would very much like to be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. But that can not be, because the powerful have other plans.

Let us never forget how this all got started. Two young men had the audacity to walk down the middle of a street. Jaywalking!?! Well, that is certainly something that demands attention. And attention it got. From the powers that be. I don’t know for sure what all happened after that. All I can say with certainty is that a police officer, sworn to serve and protect, pulled out a gun and fired it multiple times at one of the young men. That man is dead, after committing the crime of jaywalking. And that incident has inflamed all kinds of desires.

And this is where Lao Tzu gets really sad. Because it is freedom from desires that he is after. But no, it will be awhile now, before the people of Ferguson experience any freedom from desires. They desire justice. The police desire control. And things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they ever get better. Because only when there is no desire, are all things at peace.

The Subtle Perception Of The Eternal Reality

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.

This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 36, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu promised us that the Tao would prove to be inexhaustible when it was put to use. He even went so far as to say that when you are centered in the Tao you can go wherever you wish, without danger. That is quite the claim. And it is one that I simply ignored yesterday as I wrote my commentary on the chapter.

But I can’t let a claim like that simply go ignored. He was talking about perceiving the universal harmony even in the midst of great pain, because you have found peace in your heart. It is as if he means that peace in our hearts will manifest itself everywhere we go.

I was talking yesterday about using the Tao to relieve the pain and suffering that we encounter in the world around us. And today, I want to expand on that. How do we go about using the Tao to relieve suffering? Is it really possible that the peace we have found in our own hearts can manifest itself everywhere we go?

I hinted at the answer yesterday when I said that we can use the Tao to see, truly see, the way things are. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu talks about what he calls the subtle perception of the way things are. And when you are wanting to use the Tao to relieve pain and suffering, it is a good idea to start with both understanding and accepting that the way things are is the way things are.

I know I have been over this before, but for my newer followers, I think it is important to explain this concept. When I say that the way things are is the way things are, I am talking about the eternal reality. I don’t want anyone to think that we should just ignore all the bad that is going on in the world; because “the way things are is just the way things are.” And there isn’t anything that can be done about it. That isn’t what Lao Tzu is saying at all. What he is saying is that if we want to shrink something or get rid of it entirely, we have to understand the eternal reality behind it. You can’t just take something. You must first allow it to be given.

We want to work with the Tao, rather than at cross purposes with it. If we are pushing when it is pulling we won’t accomplish the good we aim to do. There are laws of nature at work in the Universe. If we want to succeed, we best understand and accept them. For they continue to operate whether or not we do.

And I know this all seems paradoxical: If you want to shrink something, first let it expand. If you want to get rid of something, first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, first let it be given. The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast.

Yes, it all seems paradoxical. And I have covered this before, as well. Whenever we encounter paradox, know that we are encountering the difference between the eternal reality and illusion.

Please, let no one say that I am saying we need to let pain and suffering expand and flourish if we want to be rid of it. Because I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that if we want to relieve pain and suffering, and I know that we do; then we need to understand that when we encounter the hard and the fast, we can best overcome it, not by being harder and faster, but by being soft and slow.

The Tao is mysterious. And the Tao works in mysterious ways. Does that sound like a cop out? I hope not. It is simply truth. And just like the Tao, our workings need to remain a mystery. But, oh the results you will have to show.

Especially In The Midst Of Great Pain

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it,
there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it,
there is nothing to hear.
When you use it,
it is inexhaustible.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

What is the appeal of philosophical Taoism? That seems like a legitimate question.

The Tao isn’t something that we experience with our senses. That much is certain. Your eyes can afford you all the beauty of nature surrounding you. But you will never find the Tao by looking for it. Your ears know how to appreciate the delightful sounds of music. But if you listen for the Tao, there is nothing to hear. With our noses we can take in all the aroma of good cooking. But we can’t sniff out the Tao. And that good cooking that we have been smelling, tastes as wonderful as our noses hinted at. Meanwhile, words that point to the Tao, seem monotonous and without flavor. So what is the appeal? Well, it sure isn’t to our senses.

And yet, and yet, Lao Tzu says the Tao is something that can be perceived. When we are centered in the Tao, we can perceive the universal harmony. To me it is like something that you will never perceive by trying to perceive it. The Tao kind of sneaks up on you. You realize it when you aren’t expecting to. Maybe only when you aren’t expecting to.

You are just going about your day, just like any other day. But today is different from any other day. And you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly it is that makes today different. You just know that it all makes sense to you. Though your senses might be telling you a completely different thing.

I know when I am centered in the Tao. And I know when I have strayed from the center of the Tao. It isn’t that the world looks, or sounds, or smells, or tastes, or feels any different. But when, in spite of the pain and suffering that I and others around me may be experiencing, I can perceive the universal harmony, and I have peace in my heart; then I know I am centered in the Tao.

It is then that I can put the Tao to good use. It is then that the appeal of philosophical Taoism makes perfect sense to me. In perfect harmony with the Tao, I can use the Tao to see, truly see, the way things are. I can use the Tao to relieve the pain and suffering of all those around me.

There is a lot of pain and suffering. And that is the appeal of philosophical Taoism to me. Because as we use it, we find it to be inexhaustible.

Greatness Is To Be Found In Humility

The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold onto them.
Since it is merged with all things,
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it,
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It is tempting to read through this chapter quickly, and say, “Well, all of this is just fine; but what does it have to do with me?” I continue to remind myself that Lao Tzu wrote this for me. He is giving me lessons that I need to be learning along the way.

So while he seems to be talking about the Tao, I know that he is telling me, “Given this, how will you then live your life?”

He says the Tao is great. But he also tells us how it is that the Tao is great. And this, my friends, is a lesson of supreme importance for us today.

I remember when I first read through this chapter, I thought it sounded kind of pantheist. But now as I read through these lines I can’t help but think this isn’t like any god we have ever heard of before.

The great Tao flows everywhere. Okay, so far so good. The Tao is always on the move. But it isn’t ever not everywhere.

And while all things are born from it, it doesn’t create them. Now that is something I wasn’t expecting. It isn’t claiming to be the Creator? It gives birth to all things; but makes no claim of supremacy over them. We owe it nothing in return? No worship, or adoration, or allegiance? Very interesting.

It doesn’t make any claim for itself. No matter how much it pours itself into its work. This goes back to it flowing everywhere. The flowing and the pouring are the same thing. The Tao is certainly hard at work. But it really makes no claim? Because, that seems to leave all of us, how shall I put it, free?

It nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t hold onto them. Giving birth to all things isn’t enough. All things require nourishing as well. Yet… That is a big yet. Yet, it leaves us be.

And now we get to the kicker. Having flowed everywhere, having given birth to all things, having nourished infinite worlds, it is thoroughly merged with all things, and hidden in their hearts. Where is this great Tao? It is everywhere, in everything; but so merged with all things that we can’t perceive it. That, my friends, is why it can be called humble. And that humility is everything.

For you see, all things vanish into it; and it alone endures. Therefore, it can also be called great.

Because the Tao is everything and everywhere, the Tao is great. Because the Tao makes no claim to greatness, and instead, seeks the lowliest of places, it is humble. The Tao is so humble that it isn’t even aware of its greatness. That is what makes it truly great.

And that, my friends is the lesson to be learned. Because, like I said at the very beginning, this isn’t really about the Tao, at all. It is about each one of us, vanishing in the Tao. We, too, can be great without being aware of our greatness. And that comes about as we go about everything we do in that same spirit of humility.