Demystifying The Mystery

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)

Of all the chapters which delve into the mystery of the Tao, none are as mysterious as today’s chapter. What is this mysterious One to which the Tao gives birth? What is the Two? And, the Three? Is this some esoteric mystery that only a select few can know? Or, is it something that his initial readers would have immediately understood, but my westernized mind does not? I have even entertained the notion that Lao Tzu intends for it to be a mystery. But, only for a moment. Lao Tzu seems to want us to understand the mystery, as best as we can. I decided, some time ago that I needed help. I read through many different translations. I consulted quite a few commentaries. I never was satisfied. Finally, I decided that Lao Tzu was speaking plainly. This was just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. All the other pieces would help me to understand it, if I could just figure out how they all fit together. Eventually, I consulted the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on.

This is what Chuang Tzu had to say on the mysterious One. “At the beginning, there is Nothing. No existence. No names. Where One rises up, there is One, but it doesn’t have a form yet.” That helped me. Because that pointed me back to what Lao Tzu has been saying all along about non-being. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. It is not yet manifest, what it will be. I think the only way to describe it is to call it the non-manifestation of the Tao. It is a mystery.

And every creation story seems to start out with nothing. I don’t know how satisfying it is, but I am going with identifying the One as non-being, or nothing. The initial action of the Tao, then, is to give birth to nothing. What an inauspicious beginning! Why not light? No, we start out with nothing.

That makes things a whole lot easier, actually. Since Lao Tzu has already told us that non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang all over it. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being and being. That would be Wu and Yu in Chinese philosophy. What we have here is two very distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. And these aspects rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. Yes, I know we see the One rise up first. Giving precedes receiving; but only for an instant. Until what is given is received, nothing has been given. They work in concert together. That is why it is also correct to say that being gives birth to non-being. This is how yin and yang work. Spontaneous, and almost simultaneous.

Now that we have non-being and being, yin and yang, what is this mysterious Three? To answer that, I had to delve a little deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of flux, a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the motivating force that puts them into motion? This mystery Three is a third aspect of the Tao. The first being, wu. The second being, yu. The third is chi. I have seen chi defined as energy. Or, the life force. And, sometimes, as breath, or spirit. I think all of these are helpful. The Two, wu and yu, yin and yang, combine. And, like the splitting of an atom, produce chi. Once again, I see this as something that happens both spontaneously, and almost simultaneously. All three are merely aspects of the Tao.

The Tao gives birth to itself, in all its aspects. This can be more easily understood and accepted, once we understand and accept that the Tao is everything. I spent a great deal of time demystifying just the first third of today’s chapter. But all of that is necessary if we are to understand the next two-thirds. Once we have that, we can understand how the Three gives birth to all things.

All things stand with their back to the female and face the male. What an interesting position in which to find ourselves. Where is the balance, the harmony? The chi moves all things, so that male and female combine. And then, harmony is achieved.

So, why is it that ordinary men hate solitude? Yesterday, we were talking about extraordinary and ordinary individuals. Actually, the words we used were superior and average. But, they mean the same thing. It takes an extraordinary person to so value solitude, that you embrace your aloneness, and know how to make use of it. Let’s not forget how everything came into being. It started with One. Just One. Nothing, really. Embrace your oneness with the Tao, and with the whole Universe. We are all one with the Tao. The Tao is nothing, and everything. And, in the Tao, we are both nothing and everything. Ordinary people can’t tolerate being alone. They hate solitude. But, the Master understands. It is only in solitude that we come to realize that we are not alone. We are not separate. We only appear to be separate. We are all One with the Tao.

Submit To It To Embody It

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)

Yesterday, we talked about the retrogressive movement of the Tao. Why is it that the Tao wants to take us backwards, when all we want is to move forward? It really has a lot to do with what we want. Lao Tzu is leading us to let go of all of our desires, our wants. That is the way of the Tao, the way things are. It is the only way to be content. But this way seems foolish, weak, backwards. And you, of course, know why that is. It is because that is the way things are. We resist it. Most of us put up a life-long fight against the current of the Tao. We want so much. We want to advance. We want more. And, we are never satisfied. Yesterday, it dawned on me what accepting that the way things are is the way things are, really means. It means submitting to the Tao. It takes that act of submission. A sign of weakness, yes. But, it is only by submitting that we can come face to face with reality.

Today, Lao Tzu further explains the trouble that our desires cause us. And, why it is that the Tao evokes such stark and varied reactions from us all.

What we want is to go into the light, to go forward, we want a clear and direct path. Yet the path before us only seems to be getting darker. We don’t seem to be advancing at all; instead, losing ground. The path seems long and dreadful. Talk about frustrating our desires. But that is the way things are. The question before us is whether we will submit to this. That is always going to be the question. Will we submit? Or, will we continue to resist, to strive?

How do we reckon with the Tao? We can’t perceive it. It conceals itself from us, by being nameless. How can we know it? This path of life that we are on seems like it is going backwards. This is the tragedy of life. We keep looking forward for happiness, but it always appears still far off, beyond some distant horizon. The very idea that we should cease all of our desires and remain still, is anathema to us. Yet, that is exactly what we must do. Once, we stop desiring, once we stand still, the reversing movement of the Tao takes us back to the Source. That is where we will find true happiness, true contentment.

Yet, we still resist. It truly takes a superior person to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. I mean, you really have to hand it to them. They get it. Right from the start. I do wish that had been me. Most of us are merely average. We are going to wrestle with our doubts. And why not? The kind of power the Tao wields seems weak. Its purity seems tarnished. Its steadfastness seems changeable. Its clarity seems obscure. Of course, we have doubts.

Lao Tzu keeps insisting that we already have everything that we need. And we doubt it. But, in an odd way, the more that we get, the less it is that we have. Why is that? How can you have anything until you learn to appreciate it. The very fact that we are pursuing more of anything, shows that we don’t appreciate what we already have. Hence, the only way to be content is to appreciate that you already have everything. We think we can only become content once we have enough. And we never have enough. Our desires create a vicious cycle. The more we desire, the more we seek, the more we seek, the less we appreciate what we have, and that only makes us desire more.

You see, we have it all backwards. And that is why the Tao is always moving to reverse things. The way things are is another, cycle. Dare we call it a virtuous one? The less we desire, the less we seek, the less we seek, the more we appreciate what we already have, and that is true contentment. A contentment free of all desires, because it is only in being free of desires that we can be content. In being content, we always have enough.

To the fool, the greatest art will seem unsophisticated. The greatest love will seem indifferent. The greatest wisdom will seem childish. That is why the fool laughs out loud. And why wouldn’t they laugh? They always want and expect there to be something more.

And, where is the Tao? It is nowhere to be found. The fool dismisses it. The average person half believes it, half doubts it. Yet, it still nourishes and completes all things. Let’s begin to embody that.

A Retrogression

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)

This little chapter, nestled halfway through the Tao Te Ching, has always given me pause. Lao Tzu seems to be saying so much with so few words. I feel like I never give it its due. But then again, Lao Tzu is speaking of the mystery of the Tao. Anything that I can say isn’t really going to do it justice.

Still, I am going to try and keep my commentary brief today. Like I said, Lao Tzu says a whole lot here. And I think he intends to give us pause. We have been talking about submitting to the way things are. Though I don’t think I have used that word submitting before. I always have chosen to use the word accepting before. Submitting is a much stronger term. And I have resisted it. That, I now admit, is my bad.

Accepting that the way things are is the way things are, is submitting to the way things are. This is a whole new level of understanding for me. So, it may take me awhile to fully digest what I am going to do with this whole idea of submitting. More on that in the future. Maybe today’s chapter will help.

I decided to look more closely at the original text today. Usually, I am quite satisfied with Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Though I do often consult other translations, just to make sure I have a good understanding, before adding my commentary. But today, when I found today’s chapter before me, I knew I needed extra help. So, I went back to the source, the original Chinese characters. What Stephen Mitchell translates as return, in the original is reversing. What he translates as yielding, in the original is weakness. That isn’t to say there is anything wrong with the words, return and yielding. But it does help me to better understand what is meant by return and yielding.

But, let’s look at those opening lines, once again, inserting reversing and weakness. That might make things a little more interesting.

Reversing is the movement of the Tao. Weakness is the way of the Tao.

What Lao Tzu is saying, if I am understanding this, at all, is that while there is a time for advancing, the movement of the Tao is one of retrogression. Taking all things backwards, returning back to the Source. This makes perfect sense, when you consider that the Tao is always bringing about balance.

But the second half is even more telling. How is this retrogressive movement of the Tao accomplished. We are, of course, used to seeing things accomplished through the use of force, strength, power. It should come as no surprise that the Tao turns the tables here. The way, or character, of the Tao is one of weakness. It accomplishes everything it does, not through the use of force, but through yielding. It is through weakness, that it is strong. It is by eschewing power that it is truly powerful.

There are lessons for us in these few words, consider it something to chew on today.

Now, on to the second half of the chapter. Being and non-being. I don’t know why I let these two confound me so. It is only talking about the Tao. All things derive their being from the manifestation of the Tao. Being is the manifestation of the Tao.

But, what of non-being? Because non-being is pretty important. After all, there is no being without non-being. Non-being is the source of being. Yet, non-being is nothing. How do we solve this riddle? Non-being is simply the Tao in its eternal mystery. It is not yet manifest. When it is manifest, it is being.

So, being and non-being, represents the Tao in its entirety, both the manifestation of the Tao and the mystery of it. The Tao is always moving us backwards, balancing things out. It does this through manifesting weakness. That is its strength. Which brings me back to submitting to the way things are. Submission is weakness. That is why I never liked the sounds of that word. Yet, Lao Tzu is showing me something, here. Submitting may be more powerful than I ever imagined.

Time To Get In Shape

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 they 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 a stone.

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

The Tao is everything. I said that, yesterday. And, it is worth saying again, today. When the Tao is lost, it is our connectedness with everything that is lost. Then, things start to go horribly wrong; both, in our lives, and by way of extension, in our world.

Things are just so much better when we are in harmony with the Tao. Pristine is the way Lao Tzu describes it in the opening lines of today’s chapter. A clear and spacious sky. A solid and full Earth. All creatures flourishing together. And, everyone content with the way things are: endlessly repeating themselves, endlessly renewed. That is what being connected with the Tao, and thus everything, means.

But the picture changes drastically when we lose our connectedness with everything. Then, we start interfering with the Tao. Why? Well, we are lost and confused. Soon, that pristine picture of a beautiful world is replaced with a dystopian vision. The sky has become filthy. The Earth is become depleted. The equilibrium crumbles. Creatures become extinct.

It isn’t hard for us to figure out in what kind of world we find ourselves living now. We want that pristine vision. But our present reality is the dystopian one. We don’t like it, and we wonder what exactly can one lone individual do about it.

What is needed is individuals, like you and me, to regain our connectedness to the Tao. Then we can start making a real difference in our world. All it is going to take is compassion, understanding, and humility.

For Lao Tzu, that one lone individual is the Master, who views the parts with compassion because he understands the whole. He understands his connection with the whole. He sees how the parts have been severed from the whole. How they have lost their connectedness with the whole. He acts as a pattern for the world. Showing each separate part how to be reconnected to the whole. This takes making humility your constant practice. You can’t be interested in glittering like a jewel. Glittering jewels do attract attention to themselves. But that takes attention away from the whole. Being a pattern, is letting the Tao shape you into whatever you need to be. And, that always seems to end up making you as rugged and common as stone. Just like any other stone. Not very attractive. Not drawing attention to itself. Only drawing attention to the Tao. And that, my friends, is everything.

We need to get this settled, once and for all. Nature wins in the end. Oh, we can interfere with the Tao. Sadly, we all too often do. And, in the process, we mess up things quite badly. Still, nature does win in the end. Count on it.

It is Spring in the Ozarks; here, in south central Missouri, the trees and bushes have been in full bloom. And that has me thinking of gardening. I know I have told this story before, but it bears repeating, because it tells of how nature always wins in the end. It was years ago, back when I was a child. My family had a large garden in our backyard. I remember vividly how we took a plot of land that was covered in grass and turned it into a garden. We had to get rid of all the grass, battling with weeds for years. Along with that, we had many harvests of the one thing that Missouri soil seems to be rich with, rocks. How many tons of rocks we pulled out of that garden plot, is something I can’t begin to calculate. We plowed and tilled, year after year. And, I must admit, though it was never a secret to anyone, I despised working in that garden. It was the weeds and rocks that soured me. They never seemed to go away. Oh, we got lots of yummy vegetables, thanks to our efforts. But that was little consolation to me. I hated it. Which is why, now, I am happily gardening the lazy way, with a raised garden bed. Yay! No more rocks and weeds.

But, getting back to the story, we only had that garden until all us kids grew up and moved away. Then, my parents gave that garden back to nature. And, within a few short years, you would never know that a thriving garden had once been there. My Dad didn’t have to do anything to let nature return things to equilibrium. All he had to do was leave things alone. We had been battling with nature for years to have that garden. And nature put up quite the fight. And, in the end, nature won. That is my story. It just goes to show that every man-made thing is only going to last so long as nature allows it to last.

So don’t be discouraged by the dystopian vision you see all around you. Nature will win in the end. We really don’t need to worry about nature. Though, we maybe should worry for us humans. What, or who, are we really harming with our habitual interfering? Us. But that is why it takes individuals, like you, like me, who will act with compassion and understanding. Oh, and with humility, too. We need to be the pattern for the world of the way we want our world to be. Let the Tao take care of shaping you.

What Sets Apart The Master From The 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)

Just yesterday, we were talking about being free of desire and content with our simple, everyday lives. Lao Tzu said that would happen all by itself, if only powerful men and women would center themselves in the Tao. The reason he puts the onus on them is because it is they who hinder this. Their will to power is always running counter to the Tao. Their program incites desires. If we are going to be free of desires, if we are going to learn to be content with our simple, everyday lives, the powerful won’t be of any help to us.

So, knowing that, it seems like a tall order, indeed. It has been a daily challenge for me for some time now. I think I am making headway. But, I still find myself not quite rid of desires. That is why I encourage myself every day with the idea that it isn’t the destination, but the journey. The journey is something I take one day at a time. Some days are triumphs. Some days there are setbacks. But I cannot be discouraged. I have the rest of my life for this journey.

And, anyway, just as Lao Tzu reminded us, yesterday, we shouldn’t be striving to do anything. The Tao doesn’t strive. It doesn’t do anything, at all. And it still accomplishes everything. I just want to be more and more like the Tao with each passing day.

Today, Lao Tzu separates the Master from the ordinary person. Remember, the Master is simply anyone who is in harmony with the Tao. The ordinary person doesn’t get what the Master is about. The Master is centered within the Tao. How does the Master accomplish this centering? Without trying. Without striving. Without effort. That sounds, well, nigh impossible. How do you accomplish anything without trying to? Without striving to be your very best? Without putting some effort into it?

The Master has got a secret. He has learned how to tap into true power. How? By not trying to be powerful. That is so simple, so profound, that the ordinary person is confounded by it. Oh, the ordinary person wants power. They keep reaching for it. But they never can get enough.

This is key, friends. It is realizing the way things are is the way things are. Anything that you are reaching for, you will never get enough of. Why? Because anything you have to reach for is only an illusion. True power isn’t something to be taken. That is why you won’t see the Master trying to take it. True power isn’t taken, it is given. And, it is given freely. But only to those who aren’t reaching for it. Trying to be powerful is never the way to attain true power. True power is something that powerful men and women will never have. All they have is the illusion of power. How do I know their power isn’t actually real? Because they never have enough. True power isn’t like that. It never leaves you wanting more. Just like the Tao, it is inexhaustible. You will never need more.

Like I said, this is a secret. But it is only a secret to those who have blinded their own eyes. The Master taps into this secret power by not doing anything at all. Yet, the Master leaves nothing undone. The Master’s actions are effortless. There is never any striving. That is what Lao Tzu means by doing nothing. It is doing not-doing. Ordinary people can’t wrap their heads around this doing not-doing. They always must be doing something. They must always be busy, busy, busy. Always striving. Exhausting themselves with effort. And what does that get them? Well, look at the results. Look at all the things that are left undone. That is why the ordinary person is always complaining there are not enough hours in the day. Not enough days in the week. Time is a constant concern, because they never have enough.

We encounter ordinary people in every profession. They are everywhere. Many of them are kind. And, because they are kind, they occupy themselves with doing kind things. But, no matter how many kind things they do, and believe me they do plenty of kind things, there are still plenty of things that remain undone. And, you will find many ordinary people who are quite motivated to be just. Everywhere they turn, they are working to accomplish justice. Yet, no matter how many works of justice they perform, many more are left to be done. They never can do enough. Is Lao Tzu telling us that we shouldn’t waste our time being kind or just? That there is something wrong with being kind or just? If we can’t possibly get everything done through our random acts of kindness or our many works for justice, should we just resign ourselves to the hopelessness of our cause?

Don’t give into hopelessness just yet. There is a better way. One that actually works. And, for those of us who are kind and just, what are our motives really? I like to think the best of people. I just always have wanted to believe the very best of people. So I want to believe that we are kind and seek justice because we want the world to be filled with kindness and justice. That is certainly a much better motive than simply to be seen as kind or just. There is a huge difference between wanting to make the world a better place for everyone, and wanting to put on a good show for everyone.

Even so, as much as I want to make the world a better place for everyone, I also know that we have already been warned about trying to improve the world. Lao Tzu says the world is sacred. We need to be careful. Our efforts to improve it, may be interfering with the Tao. That is how things got messed up in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that we have a hopeless situation, either. We can, and should, be a pattern for how we want our world to be. That is what being in harmony with the Tao is all about. Being a pattern. Notice, that isn’t doing; it is being. Just like the Master doesn’t do anything. The Master is a pattern. And, all things do get done.

Oh, but just look at the moral person over there. They can see all that is wrong in the world and they know just how to fix things. So, they start applying their fixes; and, when no one responds, in other words, things don’t happen just like they wanted them to, they reveal their true nature: They roll up their sleeves and use force to accomplish their objectives. How very ordinary they are. They can’t get anywhere by reaching, so they turn to the use of force. True power never apples force. It never has to. Because unlike the illusion of power, it has nothing to prove. And, when the facade starts to crumble, more and more force is brought to bear.

This was a long chapter; so much was said, and my commentary is going long, as well. How do I bring this to a close? The Tao is everything. That is why it does nothing. When the Tao is lost, which means our connectedness to everything is lost, we seemingly can’t get away with doing nothing. That is why we start substituting other things for the missing Tao. We’ll try goodness. But goodness can be lost, too. So, we substitute morality. Because, if people can’t be good, naturally, we can always force them to be good. So, what happens when morality is lost? Then, all that is left is ritual. The Tao has been lost. Goodness has been lost. Even morality is lost. Goodness isn’t something that comes naturally to us, anymore. We aren’t even being forced to be good, anymore. But, we can put on a good show. That is what ritual is. A good show. An act. It is only the husk of the real thing, true faith. That, my friends, is the chaos that we are living today.

Everyone fears chaos. At least they fear the imaginary kind of chaos. But they seem quite satisfied with the very real chaos that they are living. I tell people there is a better way. But they are so filled with fears of the imaginary, they won’t turn their backs on what they have brought on themselves. Ordinary people can’t see beyond the surface, to the depths. They concern themselves with the flower, instead of the fruit. It is time, my friends. It is time to let go of desires, to have no will of your own. It is time to dwell in reality and let go of all illusions. You can be imagining far better things.

What The Powerful Will Never Do For You

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)

Yesterday, we were talking about the subtle perception of the way things are. The workings of the Tao are always a mystery to us. It never does do anything. Yet, while we can’t perceive its workings, we can perceive the results. Through it all things are done.

It is the its profound subtlety that confounds powerful men and women. The whole world can be transformed all by itself, in its natural rhythms. That is the way of the Tao, the way things are. Centering ourselves in the Tao means letting go of our need for control; and no longer interfering with the natural rhythms of our world.

So, as I am constantly being reminded that the 2016 presidential campaign is well underway in the United States, the trillion dollar question is, “Can powerful men and women do this? Can they center themselves in the Tao? Just imagine it. Powerful men and women forgoing their need to control, no longer interfering with the natural rhythms of our world.

Scores of the powerful are going to announce their intentions to run for the highest office in the free world. They are going to tell us exactly what they think we want to hear. And about half the voting population are probably going to fall for the lies. And no matter who gets elected, things are going to go on much the same way they have been. That is good news for those that can’t wait for the next campaign. Not such good news for the rest of us.

That last paragraph surely outs me as skeptical that powerful men and women are ever going to center themselves in the Tao. Instead of asking the question, “Can they?” I think a more important question is, “Why would we ever expect them to?” Powerful men and women have their own agenda. And that runs counter to the Tao. They are consumed by their own will to power. The danger with asking, “Can they?”, is that it holds out some glimmer of hope that if we just get the right people in power, then things will change. That is what political campaigns are all about. Whether they are offering the phantom of hope or fear, it is all just phantoms. Far removed is the reality of the corrupting influence of power. The Tao operates on an entirely different plane. When you are relying on power, you aren’t relying on the Tao.

Power doesn’t make it easier to rely on the Tao. It makes it harder. So, while Lao Tzu makes grand promises about how things would be if the powerful could or even would, the reality is that it doesn’t have to be up to them. We can not and should not be reliant on the whims of the powerful. Each new election only offers us the same old hopes and fears. And everything remains the same. Stop waiting on others to do it. You have everything you need complete in you. That is the Tao in you. Center yourself in that reality. Let go of all desires, one desire at a time, until you are free of all desires. That is the path to true contentment. A contentment with your own simple, everyday life. In harmony with the way things are.

We truly make this much harder than it actually is. We keep waiting on the powerful to do it. But they will never do it. All they desire is to maintain their power. And, even after we have let go of waiting for the right people to get into power, we still think there is something that we must do. Something, surely, must have to be done. But, Lao Tzu points us in an entirely different direction. Instead of moving toward action, Lao Tzu points us toward inaction. What do you mean? Do we do nothing? But if we do nothing, how is anything ever going to get done? Well, how does the Tao accomplish all things without doing a thing? That is a mystery, my friends. All I can show you is the results. All things do get done. Just, minus the striving, the efforts. Doing not-doing. Inactive action. It is effortless action. Stop your striving. Give up your need to control. Let go of all your desires. Only when there is no desire, will your heart be at peace.

The Mystery Which Is The Subtle Perception

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)

We have been devoting the last few days to perceptions. Trying to perceive the imperceptible Tao. Discovering our senses are not going to be of any value to us in our pursuit of the Tao. And, finally, finding peace in our hearts; once we perceive the universal harmony. Today, once again Lao Tzu is back on perceptions. The subtle perception of the way things are. That word, subtle, is important. There is probably nothing more subtle than the way things are. Subtle just means that it is so slight as to be difficult to detect or describe. Yes, that is always the problem we have when trying to describe the mystery of the Tao. That is what we have been talking about for days now. The Tao will always be imperceptible to us. Words pointing to it seem monotonous and without flavor.

Still, Lao Tzu insists that there is something to perceive. Yesterday, he described it as the universal harmony. Today, he is talking about the very same thing. The way things are is universal harmony. We only need to perceive it. But it is so very subtle. That is why he helps us to perceive it, using, what else, yin and yang, to describe it for us. Shrinking and expanding. Getting rid of something and allowing it to flourish. Taking and giving. These aren’t opposites. They are complements, if we can only perceive that.

The way things are is the way of nature. It is all of nature’s laws. And it is cyclical. Just like day follows night, taking follows giving. I am going to admit something that isn’t going to come as a huge shock to anyone. I can be very impatient. When I want to shrink something. I want it shrunk right now. I don’t want to wait. And, I certainly don’t want to first allow it to expand. And the very idea that I will gladly stand by and wait for something I want to be rid of to flourish, first, is anathema to me.

Yet, I am learning. I am beginning to understand my need to give up my need to control. I am beginning to let the Tao’s mysterious workings remain a mystery to me; and content myself with simply seeing the results. We all know that the soft overcomes the hard and the slow overcomes the fast. We all know it; because we have all seen the results over and over again. There is simply no denying it. Yet, why it is that this is the way things are? That remains a mystery.

I like a good mystery. But generally, I like to see how it all comes out in the end. Sometimes, I am left dissatisfied with the results. I feel that need to force a more satisfying conclusion into being. But that isn’t how things work. My impatience, notwithstanding, nature’s way is the best way. Though most of its mysteries remain, well, a mystery. And that is how we should be in our own workings. If we want to be like the Tao, our workings need to be a mystery as well. What does this mean? What are we really trying to prove? Is what we are doing designed to impress someone? If we work with nature, rather than resisting it, our workings will largely be a mystery. Let that be the case. Don’t worry about it. Just do your work and then step back. The Tao will manifest itself.

Perceiving The Universal Harmony

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)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu talks of danger and great pain. But he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time speaking of such things. Oh, they exist. They always exist. But Lao Tzu shows us a way to find peace in our hearts, even in their midst. How is this peace to be found?

It is in centering ourselves in the Tao, that we can go wherever we wish, without danger. And we have been talking about that centering for some days now. How do we do it? The Tao is imperceptible. How can we begin to center ourselves in it?

To assist us, Lao Tzu explains why it is that the Tao is imperceptible to us. It is because the Tao isn’t like music to our ears. Or, the smell of good cooking. Those things are delightful to us. They make us stop and enjoy them. But the Tao isn’t like that. You can’t perceive the Tao like that. Words that point to it offer nothing to our senses. It is tasteless. When you look or listen for it, there is nothing there. That is the very definition of imperceptible.

But there is something that can be perceived. No, not the Tao. But, you can perceive the universal harmony. That is a manifestation of the Tao. That, we can perceive. Though it, too, is something that is beyond our sensory perception.

Lao Tzu promises you can perceive it, even in the midst of great pain. Though I don’t believe that translates to “you can only perceive it in the midst of great pain.” I believe, too, that it can be perceived in the midst of the greatest joy. But those are just two extremes. And I don’t want to suggest that it can only be perceived in the extremes. Our lives are filled, not just with ups and down, but plenty of plateaus as well. And, you can perceive the universal harmony there, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can perceive the universal harmony; if, you will make way for it to reveal itself to you. That is that vanishing in the Tao we were talking about yesterday. When you stop seeing yourself as separate, and see the whole world as yourself; then, you have vanished and the Tao is revealed.

Just A Molecule Of Water

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 on to 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)

Today’s chapter reads like an ode to the Tao, as Lao Tzu sings its praises. He has talked many times before of its greatness and its humility. Also, comparing it with water has been a recurring theme. But this isn’t just an ode to the Tao. Really, it is a continuation of what Lao Tzu was saying in yesterday’s chapter. It is about centering ourselves in the Tao and embracing our own death. It is about getting to know and master ourselves, in relation with the Tao.

We are to be like the Tao. Just like the Tao is like water, we need to be like water. The words that Lao Tzu uses to describe the Tao speak a lot of its greatness and its humility. Water is an apt metaphor for that greatness and humility. But we have talked already about its greatness and humility. What really stands out to me, as I read through today’s chapter, is the effortlessness of it all.

Everything the Tao accomplishes, it does so effortlessly. If we are to be like the Tao, it is that effortlessness that we really need to put into practice. It flows everywhere, effortlessly. It merges with all things, effortlessly. And, all things vanish into it, effortlessly. Yesterday, we were talking about embracing death with our whole heart. That would seem to require great effort. After all, we fear that death is final. That we are going to lose ourselves in that death. Never to be seen or heard from again. Isn’t that what vanishing means?

So, we resist the very notion of vanishing. Which is why it is so difficult to embrace our own deaths. We let hopes and fears muddle our thinking. We have already talked before about what hopes and fears are. Just phantoms that arise because we are thinking of ourselves. We certainly won’t vanish as long as we entertain those notions. But what does resisting get us? The way things are is the way things are. Yes, I will continue to maintain this truth. We just don’t get it. Perhaps we don’t want to get it. We don’t understand; and we fear what we don’t understand.

But, the whole point of the Tao Te Ching is to teach us the virtue of the way things are. We need to recognize our fear of vanishing as the phantom it is. All things end in the Tao. That is the way things are. Vanishing (death) is part of it. We have built up layer after layer of illusion in the hope that we can endure. That is what we embrace. That is how we have been conditioned to act in the world. But reality has a way of coming in, like a flood, and washing away all our carefully crafted illusions. This can bring dismay.

But, all those illusions must go. Displaced by reality. The sooner we realize this, the better for us all. Let the Tao merge inside you, as it merges inside all things. Let your self vanish in the Tao, as all things vanish in the Tao. Until nothing but the Tao endures.

Is this the end? Death seems like that. So final. But, just look around you. Look at nature. Pick up on all the natural rhythms of the circle of life around you. Is death really final? All things vanish. But just wait. There they are back again. It is all cyclical. And the circle continues. Will you stay in the center?

We keep coming back to being like water. Lao Tzu keeps talking about all rivers flowing into the sea. What does it mean to be a molecule of water in a vast ocean of water? Do we lose our identification as we vanish into that vast ocean? No, we are more than just a part of the ocean. We are complete, in and of ourselves. Yes, we are surrounded by other molecules of water. But that ocean would not be complete without each and every one of us.

You Can Endure This

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 33, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Comparatively speaking, it is easy to know and master others. What is difficult is knowing and mastering ourselves. But then, there is all the difference in the world between intelligence and strength, and true wisdom and true power. If we want this life of ease that Lao Tzu keeps talking about, it is truth, reality, that we are after; and no amount of intelligence and strength is going to help.

Did you get that? It isn’t intelligence and strength that is required of you. All that intelligence and strength do for you is help you to know and master others. And sadly, most people are perfectly content with just that. But I think better of you, my friends. I don’t think you are content with that. I think you are after true riches. And that means knowing and mastering yourself.

Others. It’s us versus them. You are either with us or against us. When we use the tools of intelligence and strength we see ourselves as separate from others and others as separate from ourselves. But that isn’t the truth, reality. It is an illusion. When we see ourselves as separate from others we have deluded ourselves. We don’t know ourselves. And we can’t begin to master ourselves. Our intelligence and strength only serve to feed our delusions.

We want to truly know ourselves and truly master ourselves. That means we need to see past the delusion that we are separate from others. The reality that we seek is an understanding that we are all one in the Tao. It isn’t enough to mentally assent to this truth. We need to realize it. That is a process, not an event.

Realization is something that is revealed to you as you peel away the layers of falsehood. Throughout our lives we have built up these layers to convince ourselves, and others, that we are something very different from what we are. We have come to believe the lie. But truth will set you free.

Peeling away layers of falsehood. Sounds kind of painful, doesn’t it? It can be. We never think we are ready to be confronted with the truth about ourselves and others. Peeling away these layers is death. A death to the delusions we have long cherished. But the Tao is ever-present with us all along our way. You already have everything you need. You don’t need more intelligence, more strength, more money, more of anything. You have everything you need in the Tao.

So, stay in the center of the circle. Remember, it is in the center of the circle that you find the Tao. Stay there. And, embrace that peeling away of the layers, that death, with your whole heart. You can endure it. You will endure it. Forever.