I’ve Got To Be Me

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
‘If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you be truly yourself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 22, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

How difficult we make our lives. Striving, always striving, to become. Instead of being content to simply be exactly who and what we are. We see ourselves as partial, crooked, empty… We want to become whole, straight, and full. And so we strive to become. Never once realizing that we can’t become until we first are. To be transformed I must first be what I am. If I want to be reborn, I must first die. If I want to be given everything, I must first give everything up.

These aren’t empty phrases. You have to be content to be partial. You have to be content to be crooked. You have to be content to be empty. You have to reside in the Tao and be lived by the Tao. Give everything up. Your hopes, your dreams. Give it all up to the Tao. Let yourself die. Be lived by the Tao.

The Master, as always, is our example. By residing in the Tao he lets himself be lived by the Tao. It is because he doesn’t display himself that people can see his light. It is because he has nothing to prove that people can trust his words. It is because he doesn’t know who he is that people recognize themselves in him. It is because he has no goal in mind that everything he does succeeds.

But we are so goal-oriented. We want to become. What will I become? And what can I do to achieve my goals? What can I do to hasten my becoming?

But who, among us, is willing to die to ourselves? Who is willing to give it all up? To be partial? To be crooked? To be empty? To be lived by the Tao?

And yet, this is the only way we can truly be ourselves. Be, just be, and leave the becoming to the Tao.

Before And Beyond

The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao.
That is what gives her her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were.
The Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 21, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday’s was a very personal experience for us. Lao Tzu shared what it is like to be alone, to be different from everyone else. Having chosen not to value what others value and avoid what others avoid, you find yourself in the center of the circle, drinking from the Great Mother’s breasts. Today, he returns to talking about the Master. She, too, stays in the center of the circle. She keeps her mind always at one with the Tao. And it makes her radiant.

And we wonder, even after the very personal revelation from Lao Tzu, yesterday, how can this be? Since the Tao is ungraspable, how can her mind be at one with it? Since the Tao is dark and unfathomable, how can it make her radiant?

It is important for us to understand this. Because we, too, need to be one with the Tao. And, we want to have that radiance, too! But how?

Today’s chapter doesn’t do anything to make the Tao more graspable. It leaves the Tao just as shrouded in darkness and mystery as it always has been. We have these ideas. Ideas about how we think the Universe should be. We’ll talk about time and space, what is and what is not. We could talk about these ideas for hours on end; and still cling to these ideas long after their usefulness has passed.

This isn’t helpful. We will never be able to grasp the ungraspable. If we truly want to be one with the Tao, we will have to let the ungraspable grasp us. Stop clinging to ideas. The Master doesn’t cling to them. She understands that the Tao is before time and space were. Our ideas of time and space aren’t going to help us. But they do hinder us. It is dark and unfathomable. You can’t fathom what is unfathomable. So stop trying. Let it go. Let it be. All our ideas about what is and what is not, we have to get beyond. Let it go. Let it be. That is the only way to the Tao.

The Tao is both before and beyond. It precedes everything we think we know and is far beyond it, as well. How can I know this is true? Isn’t that the question everyone should be asking. For Lao Tzu, it is a simple matter of looking, not out and around, but inside myself. You want answers? That is where the answers are to be found. Look inside yourself and you will see.

Dust In The Wind

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

After spending the last few days talking about the turmoil in the world, both the reasons for it, and what to do about it, we now come to one of the most difficult chapters to understand in all the Tao Te Ching. One translator referred to it as, “One of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.” I can certainly appreciate that sentiment. I find the tone of the chapter both disturbing and wholly uncharacteristic of Lao Tzu. Is he recalling some “dark night of the soul” or suffering through a bout of depression? It seems out of place with the rest of what he has written thus far. Twelve times, Lao Tzu uses the personal pronoun, I. And seven of those times, he is saying “I am alone.” Over and over again he violates his own instructions not to compare and contrast ourselves with others. To be content with our simple, ordinary lives. What is up with Lao Tzu? And what, if anything, does it have to do with what he has been saying all along?

Context, context. That is so very important. But I struggled to find the context for the longest of times. Just when I, too, was ready to concur with the translator I mentioned in the last paragraph, I had what I can only describe as an epiphany of sorts. Lao Tzu wasn’t being pathetic. Lao Tzu was being sympathetic.

Lao Tzu, by adopting the first person, is expressing sympathy with our situation. Remember, our instructions the last few days. All around us there is chaos. Why? Because the great Tao has been forgotten. Observe the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return to our common Source. Throw away all the poor substitutes for the forgotten Tao, and return to and stay in the center of the circle. Now, let’s just say that we decide to follow Lao Tzu’s advice. Where does that put us? All alone. I saw a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis, earlier, that seems appropriate right here. I am going to paraphrase, since I don’t have the quote in front of me. “When everyone is running toward a cliff, and you alone are going in the other direction, you will be seen as the insane one.” And, that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

Lao Tzu is sympathetic. He understands that we are going to feel alone. That we will be alone. That is why he says, those seven times, “I am alone.” That is why he compares and contrasts between the one that is following this very solitary path and all the rest. It is hard to feel like you are alone. Truly alone. Other people are so excited. Why is it that I don’t care? Other people have everything they need. I alone have nothing. I am just drifting about, without a home. My mind is so empty. I am an idiot. Do you ever feel like this? I know I have.

Other people are bright, sharp, and have a purpose. I alone am dark, dull, and drift about like a wave on the ocean. I blow as aimlessly as the wind. Cue “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas. This doesn’t seem like an enviable place to be. No wonder we might start talking to ourselves. And thinking and thinking and thinking. Gee, if we could just stop thinking. That would end all our problems. What difference is there between yes and no? What difference between success and failure? Do I really have to value what others value and avoid what others avoid? How ridiculous!

How ridiculous, indeed. Probably the most important thing he says in the whole chapter. You are going to feel alone. You will be alone. But you are not really alone. Lao Tzu is sympathetic to your plight. It is like he is there right beside you. And this is what he observes while alone in the center of the circle: Sure, I am different. And it is okay to be different. Because it is here, alone, that I can drink from the Great Mother’s breasts. Here, in the center of the circle. With the Great Mother, the Source of all beings, having given birth to us, and now nourishing us.

But Won’t That Lead To Anarchy?

Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.

If these three aren’t enough,
just stay in the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Over the course of the last couple of days we have been talking about the importance of trust. Why trust matters. And, why we have trust issues. The reason is because we have forgotten the great Tao. Having forgotten, we have lost our intuitive connection with the Tao. Things that once came naturally to us, that just flowed from the core of our being, now have to be forced, contrived. We have to strive to live our lives. We can’t trust our own selves. We don’t trust the people around us. Members of our family, friends, now are like enemies to us. The truth is that we have become an enemy to ourselves. This is a state of chaos. You can see it in individuals, in families, in whole countries. Forcing and contriving to perform duties. To keep up appearances, for the sake of appearances. I said, yesterday, that we simply must remember the Tao. That is the only way to stop the downward spiral.

We have to remember where it is we come from. Where we all come from. We need to return to the Source. We have wandered far. But it isn’t too late. We begin by taking a step back. How do we do that? Today, Lao Tzu offers us the way. Drastic times call for drastic measures. All those contrived duties, the ones we have substituted for the great Tao, have to go.

I know these seem extreme. But if we really want people to be happy, and by people, I mean you and me, we need to take the danger seriously. Are people happy now? No! They aren’t content with their lives. But they would be a hundred times happier if we would throw away holiness and wisdom. What are holiness and wisdom? They are the substitutes that have replaced the great Tao. Remember that vacuum we were talking about yesterday? The vacuum created by our forgetting the great Tao has been filled with all sorts of substitutes. Like the contrived duties we perform to keep up appearances. Holiness and wisdom serve a purpose; but it is a purpose that was created by our lack of trust in the Tao. We forgot the great Tao. Holiness and wisdom are poor substitutes for the Tao. Throw them away. Trust the Tao.

Do we really want people to do the right thing? Don’t you really want to be able to trust again? To trust that people will do the right thing? You will never trust, until you throw away all the measures that betray your lack of trust. Morality and justice are those measures. We tell people how they should live their own lives. And punish those that don’t follow an ever-expanding code of ethics. We don’t trust people to do the right thing. And as long as we don’t, they prove to not be trustworthy. Self-fulfilling prophecies. We need to begin to trust again. Throw out morality and justice. “But won’t that lead to anarchy?” It isn’t anarchy that you fear. It is chaos. But we already are in a state of chaos. And, isn’t it interesting that people that want to control you always use fear to try to control you. Oh, they use hope, too. They fill you with hope that morality and justice will save us all. But hope and fear, as we have already said, are just phantoms. They aren’t real. Neither the fear of anarchy, nor the hope that we can keep doing things the way we have always done them, and things will be different. Morality and justice have got to go. Throw them away. Trust the Tao.

I’ll be honest. I never quite minded when Lao Tzu said we needed to throw away holiness and wisdom, morality and justice. I guess it was just so obvious to me that these weren’t working. Holiness and wisdom don’t make people happy. Morality and justice don’t make people do the right thing. It is obvious to me. Blatantly so. The only reason people balk at this is because they don’t have the imagination to think there could be any other way. Still, I knew Lao Tzu was stepping on toes with these throwaways. That was okay, though; they weren’t my toes. But then we come to the last pair of throwaways: Industry and profit. And all of a sudden, my toes started feeling the pinch. It wasn’t so obvious to me that industry and profit should be thrown away.

Perhaps, some of my readers don’t understand my problem. Perhaps, some see how obvious it is that industry and profit must go, but aren’t so sure about holiness and wisdom, or morality and justice. It just goes to show that we can all learn a lot from each other. Some things are always going to be harder to throw away than others. And, ultimately, I came to an understanding about this. Industry and profit must be thrown away for the same reasons that holiness and wisdom and morality and justice must be thrown away.

They ain’t nothing like the real thing. Why do we have thieves? Why can’t people be trusted? Are industry and profit serving some purpose which eliminates the possibility of thieves? No! No more than holiness and wisdom, or morality and justice. But, if we will dare to throw them all away, people will be a hundred times happier, they will do the right thing, and there won’t be any thieves. If this sounds too good to be true, it just goes to show how very far we have wandered.

How did Lao Tzu describe the situation, yesterday? He said the whole country was in a state of chaos. I think that we can say that is true all over the world. And chaos breeds fear. We don’t like it when things are spiraling out of control. I said, yesterday, that the State thrives on this. It gives the State ever-increasing power. Because the State promises to bring things back under control. Their control. But the Universe is forever out of control. The way things are is a constant state of flux. That means trying to control is never the answer. We need to give up our desire to be in control. Holiness and wisdom won’t make people happy. But giving up our desire to control, will. Morality and justice won’t make people do the right thing. But our lack of trust isn’t going to be solved by trying to control others. We need to stop being scared. We need to trust people to do the right thing. Because we can’t make them. Even industry and profit are means of control. Throw them away! We may have the best of intentions. Isn’t that all these are? The best of intentions. But they aren’t ridding us of the chaos in our lives.

The solutions we have contrived to try to solve the problems that we have created for ourselves, aren’t going to work. The only way to solve these problems is to return to the Source, the great Tao. We need to start trusting again. And that trust begins with realizing that the way things are is the way things are. All the chaos, the turmoil of beings, is but an illusion. We need to begin by throwing away everything that props up that illusion. Then, we need to return, once again, to the center of the circle. That place where we don’t meddle and interfere with the Tao. We let all things take their course. We stay in the center of the circle. All things are in a constant state of flux. That is the way things are. But as we stay in the center of the circle, balance and harmony return.

Vacuums Suck!

When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.

When the body’s intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.

When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.

When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 18, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the need to trust. Trust matters. It matters that leaders trust the people they are wanting to lead. It matters that nobody trusts anybody anymore. When we don’t trust, we make the people we don’t trust, untrustworthy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trust matters because it is tied into our relationship with the Tao.

Why don’t we trust? It isn’t because people are untrustworthy. People being untrustworthy is merely the effect of our lack of trust. We have this tendency to confuse cause and effect. We want to pin our lack of trust on other people. But the root cause is within each of us. We don’t trust, because we have forgotten the Tao.

It is all about our relationship with the Tao. Do we trust the Tao? Do we trust in the way things are? When we forget the Tao, trust is the root cause. Lawyers, especially, but others as well, make a great deal of money off our lack of trust. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to remember the Tao. We need to renew our trust in the Tao, and by extension, in all beings the Tao flows through. Trusting is harmony with the Tao. Trust is a manifestation of harmony with the Tao. To not trust all beings is to not trust the Tao. A lack of trust means living your life in denial of the way things are.

Today, Lao Tzu addresses the downward spiral that takes place after the great Tao is forgotten. And it is all about the vacuum that is created when we no longer trust. Vacuums suck. And where there is a vacuum, plenty of things are going to rush to fill that vacuum.

The first things that Lao Tzu says fill that vacuum, created by forgetting the Tao, are goodness and piety. Now you might wonder what exactly is so wrong about goodness and piety?

Goodness and piety don’t sound that bad, do they? But here is the problem: They are not natural. They don’t flow naturally from trust in the Tao and the way things are. They don’t flow from a trust of all beings. They are contrived. And so, run counter to the Tao. They aren’t based on trust. They are based on a lack of trust. They are duties. They are what is required of you. The law says we must be good and pious. This goodness and piety are what is expected of you, not something that flows naturally from the core of your being. They are born out of a sense of duty.

The best way to explain how goodness and piety are contrived duties is to explain how forgetting the Tao affects individuals, families, and the whole country.

Lao Tzu talks about individuals first. He refers to the lack of trust as the decline of the body’s intelligence. What does he mean by body’s intelligence? I think what he means is an individual’s natural connection with the Tao. That is our body’s intelligence. It is our intuition. How, as we are in harmony with the Tao, we just naturally go with the flow, doing what comes naturally. What comes naturally is effortless. And, it is good. You can trust that it is going to be good and right.

But, forgetting the Tao affects individuals in a dramatic way. Things that used to come easily to us, that just flowed naturally from the core of our beings, don’t any more. We are in decline. Our intuition just isn’t what it used to be anymore. Once again, that creates a vacuum. And vacuums suck. In to fill that vacuum, come cleverness and knowledge. I don’t think I need to tell you that the problem with cleverness and knowledge is the same as the problem with goodness and piety. They don’t flow naturally out of the core of our beings. That natural intuition has been forgotten. Now we have poor substitutes to try and fulfill our sense of duty to be good and pious. For the individual, that requires cleverness and knowledge. The only thing that is wrong with this picture is that it is all contrived. We, as individuals, need to remember the great Tao. That is the way to gain back our natural connection with the Tao. Our body’s intelligence. Our intuition. Cleverness and knowledge are simply not up to the challenge.

So, forgetting the Tao affects individuals. But it affects families too. All those individuals in the family trying to make do with their cleverness and knowledge. It creates tension. Is it any wonder that there is no peace in the family? Family is important. It always has been; and it always will be. Peace in families is a beautiful thing. It is the natural thing. Parents and children working together in love, naturally. It doesn’t get any better than that. But the great Tao has been forgotten. And what once came naturally, now has to be done out of a sense of duty. Nobody is clever enough for this task. You don’t and, indeed, can’t know enough to fill the vacuum. The peace and harmony of the familial home has been lost. Filial piety begins, in an attempt to fill the vacuum.

Filial piety is not going to be a familiar term to many of my readers; so I will explain what is meant by this term. Like the goodness and piety that Lao Tzu first talked of, it is born out of a sense of duty. The duty of husbands and wives to each other. The duties of parents to their children. The duties of children to their parents. Things that once flowed, and should flow, naturally, are now contrived. They don’t happen effortlessly, as they could, if we remembered the Tao. No, it is work! We now talk of obligations. Nobody trusts anybody. Husbands and wives aren’t trusted. Parents aren’t trusted. Children aren’t trusted. Siblings aren’t trusted. Nobody is trusted. We actually have to resort to lawyers! Lawyers! To deal with the lack of peace in families.

I am sure that my distaste for lawyers has not been missed here. But you have to understand that I went through this family crisis of trust for myself. I was aghast that lawyers made so much money over matters that should have and could have been dealt with by simply trusting.

That happened over a dozen years ago, long before I encountered Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching. My kids and I survived the ordeal. And I am thankful for how things worked out in the end. But, to be honest, it was an end, not worked out by the lawyers, but by the three of us, over the course of many years, rebuilding trust.

So, it doesn’t just affect individuals and families, it affects the whole country, when the great Tao is forgotten. Remember, that goodness and piety that we are trying to manufacture with our cleverness and knowledge, our filial piety? By the time it reaches the magnitude of the whole country we are talking about total chaos. And the State thrives on chaos.

Individuals and families that are intuitively going with the flow of the Tao are never a good thing for the health of the State. The State thrives on the chaos of individuals and families at war with themselves and each other. War is the health of the State. The vacuum that is created in the country by the great Tao being forgotten gives birth to patriotism.

In my country, we just had yet another excuse to show our sense of duty to our country, our patriotism, by celebrating yet another contrived “holiday” Flag Day, this past Sunday. But I am not big on patriotism. I feel no sense of duty to my country, that manufactures enemies all over the globe. I don’t and won’t pledge allegiance to that flag. The very idea of dying for my country and honoring those who have, makes no sense to me. Wars make a select few very rich, indeed. But at what cost? It isn’t a cost that the billionaires profiting from it, bear. But they seek to keep me, and you, all of us, in line, by telling us it is our patriotic duty to support unending wars.

I am not buying it. And neither should you. Instead, we need, we desperately need, to remember the great Tao. It is the only way to bring an end to this chaos. To return peace to our families. To once again have our body’s intelligence in harmony with the way things are. Effortlessly going with the flow. In everything we do.

Trust Matters

When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!’

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu gives us a declining scale of governing. He begins at the top and then works his way down to the bottom. Lao Tzu gives most of his attention to the leader at the top. That is the kind of leader everybody should want.

What strikes me as odd is that I think most people would be happy to have a leader who is loved. And why not? Haven’t we been told that love is the highest power? There is no greater power than love. We write about it in songs and poems. Books and movies delight in great love stories. We expect love to triumph in the end. We are promised that it will. So, why wouldn’t a leader who is loved be at the top?

Where is this leader where people are hardly aware that he exists? He only seems hard to imagine because we lack imagination. I don’t know of any songs or poems about him. I have never read a book or watched a movie that told of such a one as this. It seems the best our imaginations can produce is a leader who is loved.

One step down is a leader who is feared. We have seen plenty of examples of this kind of leader. And for many people, this is the only kind of leader they have experienced. Sad. But what is more sad is that there isn’t much difference between the one who is loved and the one who is feared. In my country, our leaders, at least in regards to foreign policy, have an attitude that you will either love us or fear us. Wasn’t that what the Bush doctrine was all about? You’re either for us or against us. You either support us or you are our enemy. How quickly a relationship can downgrade! From loved to feared to despised.

Yes, the very worst. A leader who is despised. Not so very far removed from the one who is loved, really. It could be, and has been, the very same leader. Some love him. Some fear him. Some despise him. Same leader. Eliciting such different reactions. Why is that? How can it be?

Lao Tzu considered it a matter of trust. But not the trust you might have thought. It isn’t about whether the people trust their leaders. It is about whether the leaders trust the people. If leaders trusted the people, they would find them trustworthy. But they don’t trust the people. It matters little whether the people love them, fear them, or despise them. They don’t trust the people; and that lack of trust only serves to make the people untrustworthy.

That is why there is such a lack of trust in all of our relationships today. Nobody trusts anybody. A simple handshake used to be all it took to form a contract between two parties. Your word was your bond. People trusted people. If you were untrustworthy it was considered a shame. On yourself. On your family. Your reputation depended on your trustworthiness. And your reputation was everything. It was your livelihood. Now we have to involve lawyers in every little thing. Nobody trusts anybody. Anti-trust is a very lucrative business for lawyers. So, it is no surprise, at all, that most of our leaders are lawyers. They have built their livelihood on a lack of trust. They don’t trust us. They have made us untrustworthy. There was money to be made in that.

But, let’s not forget that top-ranked leader Lao Tzu spoke of. The Master. The one that the people are hardly aware that exists. There is a reason why people are hardly aware of his existence. It is because he isn’t involved in self-promotion. He isn’t a big talker. Not one for photo-ops. He spends his time empowering the people. That’s right, he trusts us. And, oh, what a difference it makes!

Not wasting time talking, he acts. And when his work is done, who gets the credit? Not him. He doesn’t call a press conference to gloat about all the wonderful things he has accomplished. He never draws attention to himself. Because it was never about him. He is a leader. A real leader. The leader we should all want to have. Because when his work is done it is because we did it. He led. We followed. It is amazing what people who are trusted can do. It is, as if we did it all by ourselves.

Now, I know that this leader sounds too good to be true. Who has ever heard of such a one as this? You really need to work a little more on your imagination. Those kinds of leaders are all around us. They just don’t get the attention that the leaders we love or fear or despise get. Remember, they aren’t attention seekers. But your community has them. Your neighborhood. They are the unsung heroes. The ones that motivate and empower others to be the very best that they can be. I am not suggesting we seek them out to give them some long overdue recognition. I am merely suggesting we realize the truth. We can have leaders like the one that Lao Tzu raved about. We already do. And it might just be you.

Immersed In The Wonder Of The Tao

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

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the Source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

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

Back in chapter twelve, Lao Tzu began talking about all the things that distract us. The clutter of our lives. The turmoil. He said then, “Colors blind the eye, sounds deafen the ear, flavors numb the taste, thoughts weaken the mind, desires wither the heart.” We are in this world full of distractions. And, as tempting as it might be, we can’t separate ourselves from the world. We and the world are one. We aren’t separate. But, what can we do? Lao Tzu said, “The Master observes the world, but trusts his inner vision.” Today’s chapter shows us how to do just this. To observe the turmoil of beings, but instead of being caught up in all the confusion, trust your inner vision, contemplate their return to the Source.

In chapter fourteen, Lao Tzu talked more about this. Referring to how to be at ease in your own life, he said that looking and listening and reaching was not the way to realize it. If you want to be at ease in your own life, you have to realize where you come from. That is the essence of wisdom.

Something I didn’t really say then, though I should have, is that Lao Tzu didn’t say “realize where you came from.” Where you came from is not nearly as important as where you come from. Where you came from speaks of all the things that separate us from one another. In what country were you born? Who is your family? What is your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your social and economic class? All of these are distinctions which separate us from the whole. They divide us. They set us apart, establishing what makes us different from all the rest.

That is not to say that we are not all individuals, unique in the Universe. It is only to say that where we came from does not help to bring us together. Oh, we will congregate with those who are like us. But it is always us versus them. There are always the others. Those who are different from us. We live our lives as separate from all the others. But thinking of ourselves as separate makes living an unending competition, with winners and losers. We hope for success. We fear failure. Why do we hope and fear? These phantoms only arise because we are thinking of ourselves as separate from all the others. (See chapter 13).

Lao Tzu wants us to see the world as ourselves. That is the only way to realize this life of ease. Today’s chapter helps us to realize this wisdom.

I like to sit outside in my backyard. I do so every day. It is my own special place. Now, you would think that this is a quiet place, wholly undisturbed by all the turmoil of the world going on around me. Actually, my backyard faces one of the busiest streets in the town in which I live. There are always cars going by. People walking by on the sidewalk. Our local library is just across the street. The local college campus is within walking distance, a block or two away. Lots of traffic, both cars and pedestrians, lots of turmoil. Could I have picked a worse spot for emptying my mind of all thoughts and letting my heart be at peace? Actually, I think Lao Tzu would agree that I couldn’t have picked a much better spot. How do I do it? This emptying of my mind of all thoughts. How can my heart be at peace?

This is what I do. I observe the world around me. I don’t set about trying to empty my mind of all thoughts. I simply don’t worry about them. I don’t dwell on them. They come, they go. I don’t give them my mind’s attention. My mind ceases to fill up with thoughts and, instead, empties. I observe the world around me. I see all the turmoil of beings. But I don’t let that turmoil steal my heart’s peace. I don’t contemplate the turmoil of beings. I contemplate their return to the Source.

Remember, it is the essence of wisdom to realize where you come from. I have already said that is more important than where you came from. Where you come from is the very same place where I come from. Where each separate being in the Universe comes from. We all have this in common. It is what makes us one. It is the essence of wisdom to realize this. As long as I am thinking of myself as separate, I can’t realize this. As long as I think of all the others as separate, I can’t realize this. That is why, as I observe the world and all the turmoil of beings, I don’t contemplate the turmoil. I contemplate their return to the common Source. The Source we all return to. This is how I let my heart be at peace. This is serenity. Now. In this present moment. The only moment we live. I am always returning to the Source. Always returning. Each separate being is always returning. Every moment.

Does my mind sometimes wander? Sure it does. All the time. But I don’t beat myself up over that. I gently coax my mind back from its wandering. I return to contemplating, in this present moment. We are all returning to the Source.

You must realize the Source! Your Source. Our common source. Are you stumbling about in confusion and sorrow? You have been too focused on the turmoil. You and the turmoil have become one. You must separate yourself, not from the world, not from all other beings, but from the turmoil. Observe the turmoil, but don’t contemplate the turmoil; don’t let the turmoil suck you in. Contemplate the return of all beings, including yourself, to the Source. When you realize where you come from, serenity is yours, now. That life of ease.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu described the appearance of the ancient Masters. Today, he describes your appearance; when you realize where you come from. It is what you naturally become. Tolerant. Disinterested. Amused. Kind-hearted. Dignified. I could have been any of those things if I worked hard enough at it. But this isn’t something that involves working. And it is so much better that it just comes naturally. I have naturally become all those things. I am not patting myself on the back here. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t work to be any of those things. No credit is due me. It is just what I have become. It just happened naturally.

It just happened naturally as I became immersed in the wonder of the Tao. Now, in this present moment, I can welcome all things. My mud has settled. The right action arises all by itself. I can deal with whatever life brings me. What will life bring me? I am not seeking fulfillment. I am not expecting anything. I just go with the flow. Letting things come and go. Will it be death? Even then, I am ready.

First, Wait Until The Mud Settles

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful as someone
crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapeable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience
to wait till your mud settles
and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 15, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, I was explaining how impossible it is for me to tell you how to realize this life of ease that Lao Tzu has been talking about. It is a wisdom that is so profound, so subtle; it is unfathomable, and there is no way to describe it. Lao Tzu says the same thing today, when speaking of the ancient Masters. Since he can’t describe their wisdom, he chooses, instead, to describe their appearance. Like someone crossing an iced-over stream. Like a warrior in enemy territory. Like a guest. Like melting ice. Like a block of wood. Like a valley. Like a glass of water.

Is this helpful? It is, if we understand the attitude, the mindset of these ancient Masters. They were careful and alert. They were courteous. They were fluid and shapeable. They were receptive. And, they were clear. Always clear. What can we learn from this example?

Do you have the patience to be like them? Isn’t that word, patience, really the one best word to describe them? They had the patience to wait until their mud settled; and the water was clear again. That is a metaphor that I am sure most of us are familiar with. You step into a pool of water and instantly the mud is stirred up. If you stop and wait, the mud will settle back down. The water will become clear again. The ancient Masters were always clear. They waited for the way to be clear.

It isn’t an instantaneous thing. I know, in our fast-paced world, we are used to pulling up to place our orders, and then immediately pulling to the next window, expecting our order to be waiting. But mud doesn’t settle that quickly. We can’t expect it to be that way. We must have the patience to wait for the way to be clear. We need to be willing to remain unmoving until the right action arises all by itself.

There is an order to the Universe. It isn’t without laws. Once the mud settles, the right action will arise. You just have to wait. You have to be patient. You have to remain unmoving. We keep talking about going with the flow. Well, this is what going with the flow means. It means there is a time to wait and a time to move. Sometimes, we get things all out of whack. We wait when we should move and move when we should wait.

Why do we do that? How do things get so out of whack? Another metaphor comes to my mind. Perhaps it is apt. Ever put your cart before your horse?

We seek fulfillment. We have great expectations, big plans for some, as of yet, unrealized future. That, I think, is putting the cart before the horse.

The Master, on the other hand, doesn’t seek fulfillment. She doesn’t seek. She doesn’t expect. She lives wholly in the present. Waiting for the mud to settle. Waiting for the way to be clear. And when the right action arises, she moves. She can welcome all things. Because she is ready for whatever happens. Things don’t have to be just so… Things just have to be the way they are.

Realizing This Is The Essence Of Wisdom

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnameable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

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

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

Today’s chapter is a riddle. What else would we expect? Lao Tzu, in the opening chapter, said that the eternal Tao is a mystery to us. The “gateway to all understanding” is shrouded in “darkness within darkness.” But Lao Tzu always explains his riddles. We were talking, yesterday, about success and failure, that illusory ladder, and the twin phantoms of hope and fear. What we want is that illusory life of ease. That is the reason we get on that ladder, isn’t it?

Today, Lao Tzu explains why it is that the ladder is an illusion. Just don’t forget why it is we are tempted to climb that ladder. We want to be at ease in our own life. So, the ladder beckons. We look for it, but it can’t be seen. We listen for it, but it can’t be heard. We reach for it, but it can’t be grasped. How are we ever going to realize our life of ease?

Wherever we look and listen and reach, like the phantom it is, a vapor, it is gone before it really ever existed. Above and below, it is neither bright, nor dark. I never can quite put my fingers on it. It is nameless and always returns to the nothingness from which it came.
Subtle, so subtle, beyond anything conceivable.

You can’t approach it or follow it. It has no beginning and no end. Bottom line: You can’t know it. That would seem to dash all hopes. And if it does, good. Because all hopes were but phantoms all along. Now that your hopes are dashed, here is the good news. Knowing that we don’t know, indeed can’t know, we are now exactly where we need to be. For what you can’t know, you can be. That ease is yours. You won’t find it on that ladder. That isn’t to say that some don’t find money and fame on that ladder. But money and fame are not ease. Ease is contentment with the way things are. Not something that is dependent on what that ladder offers.

So, how do we do it? How do we practice this contentment, this ease? You know already what I am going to say. You don’t do anything. You do nothing. Instead of doing something, you must realize where you come from. We aren’t talking about what country you were born. What family. What gender, or race, or ethnicity. Where you come from goes back a lot further than that. And it is the essence of wisdom to realize this. You have to realize your Source. The Source that gives birth to and nourishes all things. Realize this and you will be at ease in your own life. Content with the way things are.

But how do I realize this? Remember above, where Lao Tzu said that it is a form that includes all forms and an image without an image? I can’t tell you how you will come to realize it. I can’t even tell you how I came to realize it. I just know that it happened while I was practicing knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. And I can’t tell you how to practice, even those things. Stop doing! Stop interfering with the Tao. Stop forcing things. Do your work, and then step back. Get a feel for the current of the Tao. Go with that flow. Relax. Enjoy. Be content. Be at ease. It isn’t because you aren’t smart enough. But you may still have lots to unlearn. Wisdom comes where it isn’t expected. Expect nothing; have everything you ever need.

What Are We Afraid Of?

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope
is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self,
then you can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is another one of those seminal chapters in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu will be returning to these notions of success and failure, notions he calls equally dangerous, again and again. And, today we are introduced to the twin phantoms of hope and fear.

Regarding success and failure, we are talking about what we are led to believe are the very foundations of how we are to live in our world. There is that all familiar ladder of success. We call it the ladder of success because that is what we hope it is. Interestingly, Lao Tzu correctly identifies it merely as the ladder. You can go both up and down it. Failure looms just as probable as we navigate its rungs. That is what we fear. So we don’t like to talk about that. Can’t we just talk about going up? Failure is not an option we want to think on.

But the ladder is an illusion. Success (going up) is just as dangerous as failure (going down). Either way, our position is always shaky. We have left the realm of what is real. The solid ground beneath our feet. With both feet on that solid ground of reality we can always keep our balance. If we are climbing the ladder, it matters little which direction we think we are going. Because that ladder, with all of its rungs, is all an illusion. That is why, Lao Tzu, in an earlier chapter, told us that in dwelling we need to keep close to the ground. Be down to Earth. Humble. Keep it real.

So, why do we fall for the illusion? Besides the fact that we are taught to, programmed to, from early in our lives. The reason we succumb to the illusion is because we are thinking of the self as self, or separate. It is hollow. Our hopes and fears. Equally hollow. They are phantoms. We hope to succeed. We fear failure. We could just as easily fear success and hope for failure. And we often do. Especially when we are perceiving, not only ourselves as separate, but others as separate from us. We are in some great competition with the others. The ones that we must get ahead of or be left far behind. What are you really hoping for? And what is it you really fear?

Lao Tzu wants us to perceive things from a different vantage point. Instead of perceiving ourselves and others from an illusory position on the ladder, why not, instead, perceive things as they really are, from our position with both feet on the ground. Life isn’t supposed to be some competition involving winners and losers. We are not really separate from all the others. We are all one, all connected in the Tao. Now, what do we have to fear?

When you see the world as your self, there is nothing to fear. You can have faith in the way things actually are, instead of hoping in the ladder. When you love the world as you love your self, you can care for all things.