A Conscious Choice: The Practice Of Intentional Empathy

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)

Since the attacks in Paris last Friday, it seems like very few are able to see through the illusion of fear and hate, to what is real about the world and about ourselves. I have seen countless posts filled with fear- and hate-mongering regarding how we should respond to the refugee crisis. A crisis that the U.S. government is largely responsible for, with its war-mongering all over the world. From Washington D.C. to various state capitols, the cries have been loud and strong to turn away the refugees. Shame on us!

If you are thinking that opening paragraph has nothing to do with today’s chapter, then, perhaps my commentary will explain exactly where I am coming from, and with which I believe Lao Tzu would agree.

The illusion is strong! We have been indoctrinated to believe the illusion for all of our lives. And Lao Tzu talks about just that, in today’s chapter, when he explains that success is as dangerous as failure and hope is as hollow as fear. But what is the reality? We’ll get to that.

First, what does he mean when he says that success is as dangerous as failure? We need to realize that we are suffering in the throes of a great illusion. That illusion is represented by the proverbial ladder of success. Well, that is what we like to call it, anyway. That ladder that stretches way up into the sky, promising success for any that dare to climb its rungs. What they won’t tell you is that that ladder doesn’t only offer a one-way trip. The reality is that that shadowy ladder, with all of its rungs, has people going both up and down. And all the time you are on that ladder, your position is shaky. Why shaky? Because it isn’t real. It is all an illusion. A lie. A distortion of reality. We must see the reality if we want to be free of the illusion. And the reality is that the only way to always keep your balance is to stand with both your feet on the ground.

Second, what does he mean when he says that hope is as hollow as fear? Hope and fear are very much tied to what we have been bamboozled into believing about what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. And it is here, that we will begin to get to the very present reality with regards to the refugee crisis. I just imagine that for refugees fleeing from their war-ravaged countries, their hopes and fears seem very much based on reality. They are fleeing because they are in fear for their very lives. And they are hopeful, oh so hopeful, that they will escape to some better future place. I believe their fears are well-grounded in reality. I have seen ample evidence for at least the last 60+ years that the U.S. government’s approach to foreign policy is to create instability all over the world. Why? To make the world dependent on us. Hey, folks, if you don’t want a supply of refugees, why not stop creating a demand for them. But, I don’t expect the powers that be to be paying any attention to little ol’ me.

The problem with my scenario that the hope and fear of these refugees is all based on reality is that what creates their hope and fear is all based on an illusion. The same is true for all of our own hopes and fears. They arise because our perspective on the world and on ourselves is entirely skewed.

We keep looking at ourselves and the world as separate. The world is the world; and me? Well, I am separate. I am just one little nobody that doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. My hope is that I can live my simple, ordinary life, completely separate from all this madness going on in the world around me. My fear is that this world is out to get me. That people I don’t know, who I never did any harm to, have it out for me. They look different from me. They talk different from me. They dress and act different from me. They believe different from me. They are different from me. And, because they are different from me, they are a threat to me.

But that is all an illusion. And a pretty hollow one, at that. Both my hopes and my fears are mere phantoms. They arise because I am thinking of myself as self, as separate from everyone and everything else.

But what would happen if I were to realize that my perspective is skewed? What if I no longer saw myself as self, as separate. What would I then have to fear?

What happens when our perspective is changed, when we see the eternal reality which unmasks the facade masquerading as reality for us all. Then I start to see the world as my self. What a difference a new and real perspective makes! When we have faith in the way things are, when we love the world as we love ourselves, then we can care for all things.

And those refugees no longer appear to be a threat to ourselves. Because, in reality, they are ourselves. What we have lost to the illusion is the ability to empathize. Oh, we may still sympathize. But empathy is not something that we can practice until we make a conscious choice to change our perspective. And I mean it when I say it has to be a conscious choice. We have been lulled to sleep; and, we need to wake up. Seeing, for maybe the first time in our lives, the way things actually are, to be able to actually love the world as our selves. Then we can start to practice the intentional empathy that will be necessary to create the kind of world in which we all will be happy to live.

Tapping Into The Infinite Inside

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

-Lao Tzu-

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 12, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, once again, Lao Tzu is talking about tapping into the infinite Tao in the core of our being. And, once again, the Master is our example to follow. Remember back, in chapter seven, where Lao Tzu said, “The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.” Lao Tzu was explaining, there, how the Master taps into the infinite inside each and every one of us. Then, in chapter ten, he asked six rhetorical questions designed to show us the way back to our primal identity. One of those questions is particularly of interest as we look at today’s chapter: “Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?”

I said, in my commentary on that question, that our problem is with the desires we insist on holding on to. But, as today’s chapter points out, our problem with our desires is only one of many problems we have.

Today’s chapter tells us all we have to deal with, and then shows us what the Master does to tap into the infinite Tao.

We are a part of this world around us. And, because we are a part of this world, we must be observers of it. The key is to know how to practice being “detached from all things” as we go about observing it. That is, after all, what the Master does. What happens if we are plagued by attachment to things? Then, we are surrounded by a cacophony of sights, sounds, and tastes – “noise” – which ends up clouding our inner vision. Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Notice how each of these three refer to a singular sensory organ. It isn’t two eyes that get blinded, or two ears that get deafened, or all our taste buds that get rendered numb. Lao Tzu is speaking of the singular inner vision. That is what is clouded. That is what needs to be cleansed.

Of course, it isn’t just the outside stimuli that blunts our sharpness. Our mind betrays us. Thoughts weaken it. And, then, there are those pesky desires. They wither our heart.

How can we both be observers of the world and yet trust our inner vision? Detachment is the key to being what I will call a casual observers of the world. The casual observer is in the world; but, he is disinterested in it. He has no attachments to it. I want to be careful here, because detachment and disinterest will mean different things to different people. Some people, for instance, believe that the best way to practice Taoism is to be a recluse, a hermit, wholly cut off from the world and everyone and everything it contains. That is certainly one way to be detached from all things. But I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is getting at.

What Lao Tzu is asking of us is both much harder and much easier than adopting the life of a hermit. The Master certainly doesn’t separate himself from the rest of the world. Instead, he is smack dab in the middle of it. All of the hustle and bustle, a whirlwind of busyness, surrounds him. And he observes it. But he isn’t moved by it. He doesn’t let the colors, the sounds, and the flavors dazzle him. His constant practice is to rein in his mind from its wanderings. And, he lets go of desires before they can wither his heart.

Now, with his inner vision cleansed, he can trust his inner vision, and he does. Not being swayed by the cacophony surrounding him, he simply allows things to come and go, in a constant state of disinterest. He doesn’t struggle to hold on to fleeting things. And, he doesn’t reach out for things that haven’t yet arrived. His heart, because it isn’t withered, becomes as infinite as the Tao itself, open as the sky.

Detachment, disinterest, being observers, but trusting what we are on the inside. That is the way to tap into the infinite that we all have within us.

Just Holes And Empty Spaces?

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu introduced the concept of being and non-being; and, he has been talking about them ever since then. If you didn’t notice that, don’t feel too bad; he hasn’t actually mentioned the words being and non-being since chapter two, until today. Still, he has had a lot to say about the value in emptiness. And, Lao Tzu makes clear, in today’s chapter, that non-being and emptiness are virtually synonymous terms.

I remember, back in my commentary on chapter two, that I confessed a certain difficulty in trying to explain what non-being is. Being seems simple to explain. It is everything that is. But, is non-being simply everything that is not? I ended up taking three stabs at trying to explain what non-being is, in just a few words. One of those stabs was only talking about non-being as yin, with being as yang. That was really only an attempt to explain how they relate to each other. The second stab talked of non-being as mystery and being as the manifestations. But that was only a way of pointing out that non-being is very much a mystery to me. One of my stabs, I think I got pretty close to the heart of reality: Agreeing that being is everything that is, non-being is what is yet to be.

What I was getting at, is the potential in non-being. As Lao Tzu says in today’s chapter, “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” Therefore, non-being is important to us, because of its potential to be used by us.

And, that is why it is also so important to think of emptiness as a synonym of non-being. Whether we are thinking of the emptiness of a well that can never be used up, the eternal void filled with infinite possibilities, or a bellows empty yet infinitely capable; the more you use it, the more it produces. That emptiness is infinite in its potential for use.

And don’t think I don’t know the risk inherent in talking more about it. The more you talk of it, the less you understand. Yes, yes. I get that. But, still, there is so much that needs to be said.

There is much more to non-being than meets the eye. Well, duh. Just look at how Lao Tzu describes it today. Our eyes are on the spokes that join together in a wheel, the clay that was shaped into a pot, the wood that was hammered into a house. We can’t really see the emptiness that is created by the being we work with. That center hole? That emptiness inside? The inner space? It looks like nothing to our eyes. But that nothing is everything! Without it the wagon wouldn’t move, the pot wouldn’t be able to hold whatever we want, and the house wouldn’t be livable.

That isn’t to say that being isn’t important to us. After all, we have to work with something. But non-being is what we use. And that means we need to start looking at everything differently. Instead of only seeing what is, we need to see what is yet to be. What is before and after, above and beneath, being? If we are going to go with the flow of the Tao we better be cognizant of its ebb. There is a reason our Universe is filled with so much empty space. Whether we are talking about things we view with telescopes or microscopes, we tend to dismiss all the empty space we find, without giving it a second thought. But there is value in that emptiness. Out of that nothing springs everything.

Being What We Have Always Been

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

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

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 10, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been talking about the Te in the Tao Te Ching, the supreme good, the only path to serenity, the supreme virtue. And, today, he asks us six rhetorical questions to show us how to practice this supreme virtue.

They all have to do with returning to our primal identity, when we are one with the Tao. They deal with mind and body and “spirit”.

The first question reminds us that if we want to keep to the original oneness we must be able and willing to coax our minds back from its wanderings. We all know how prone to wandering our minds can be. Notice the question isn’t, can you keep your mind from wandering. That would probably fall into the category of impossible. Your mind likes to wander. Don’t let that bother you, so much. So it roams. But you are the master of your mind; so, be the master. Gently coax it back. You and the Tao are one.

The second question is where Lao Tzu introduces another of his favorite metaphors for talking about the Tao. The suppleness of the body of a newborn child is a metaphor. Please don’t think Lao Tzu expects us to go back to being newborn children. The question isn’t, can we make our bodies that supple. The question is, can we let it happen. Having recalled your mind from its wandering, and being, once again, one with the Tao, is going to have a certain effect on your body, if you will let it. But this shouldn’t be taken as something physical. Suppleness, here, isn’t a physical attribute. It is speaking of a body that acts intuitively, spontaneously, without resistance.

The third question relates to “spirit” which I put in quotes only because I don’t mean the term like so many people mean the term, spirit. Cleansing your inner vision until you see nothing but the light seems like a very tall order. For one thing, what exactly is my inner vision? And, how do I go about cleansing it? I do believe our inner vision is all about our connection with the Tao in the core of our being. Why is it so dark in there? What has so clouded that inner vision? I am thinking it is our desires which is the culprit. Our desire to be in control, to interfere, to get ahead, to be above. We have all sorts of desires that cloud our inner vision because they run counter to the Tao. So, how do I cleanse myself? By letting go of those desires. That is easier said than done, I am well aware. But, we can do this. If we only will.

After reining in our minds, making our bodies pliable, and cleansing our inner vision, now in questions four, five and six, Lao Tzu shows us exactly what it means to be in harmony with the Tao.

The fourth question asks about whether or not we can love and lead others without imposing our will. Of course, we can. But, will we?

The fifth question asks us to deal with even the most vital matters by letting events take their course. He isn’t going easy on us. These are the most vital matters. How can I just let events take their course? But a better question to be asking ourselves is, how can we not.

The sixth question hearkens back to that wayward mind that we all regret is so prone to wandering. But Lao Tzu isn’t concerned, at all, with its wandering. What he is more concerned with is our firm reliance on its storehouse of knowledge for our own understanding. And he has talked about this before. The practice of knowing not-knowing. Can you take that step back from your own mind? The mantra “Question everything” doesn’t just apply to everything that others think and say. The sooner you realize that you don’t know, what you think you know, the better it will be for you. It is the only way to gain real understanding of all things.

In some ways, I don’t like chapters like today’s. It seems to make it so very hard to do. But then I remember, it isn’t about doing, it is about being. And being, unlike doing, is effortless. It is simply a return to our primal identity. It is what we have always been. Giving birth and nourishing, having, without possessing. Acting without any expectations. Leading without trying to be in control. Okay, I admit it, it sounds very hard to do. And, I suppose, that makes perfect sense, since it is the supreme virtue. So, don’t try to do it. Yes, you heard me. Don’t try. Don’t do. Just be. When you give up trying, you will find just how effortless being becomes.

When It Is Time To Take A Step Back

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

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

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Up until yesterday, Lao Tzu had spent several days explaining the infinite nature of the Tao. Yesterday, he didn’t mention infinity; but, I hope, as we talked about the supreme good as being content to simply be yourself, that you were still thinking about how the infinite Tao enables us to practice this virtue. As we have said before, infinity is intimately related to yin and yang. The only way for something that is empty to be inexhaustible is if emptying is followed by filling. That is why Lao Tzu has insisted, all along, that the more we use the Tao, the more it produces.

Since, yesterday, Lao Tzu offered us six ways to practice the supreme good, today, he follows with four ways we show we are not at all content to simply be ourselves.

Empty should be enough. Isn’t that what he has been saying for the last several chapters? But that doesn’t make any sense to us. How can something that is empty be of any use to us? So, we take that bowl and start filling it. That doesn’t seem to be so bad of an idea. After all, that is the point of the bowl, to be filled. But we don’t know when to stop. When enough is enough. We fill it to the brim. Why do we do this? We know exactly what is going to happen. It has happened over and over again to us. But we ignore the eternal reality. And we display shock and outrage when it spills.

How sharp is sharp enough? What is this willful ignorance of the way things are? That blade can only take so much sharpening. When you insist on taking it just a little further, trying to get just a bit more out of it than was ever necessary, you only end up blunting that which you were trying to sharpen.

Are the metaphors of bowls and knives not making it all too clear for you? Lao Tzu shows that it is all about how we think.

Why is it your heart will never unclench? Or, to put it in modern terms, why is heart disease the number one killer among us? Why do we keep chasing after money and security? Exactly how full does your bowl have to be? What is it going to take for you to be content? The answer may surprise you. For, as Lao Tzu sees it, as long as you insist your bowl isn’t full enough, it never will be. True contentment would have been satisfied with an empty bowl.

Remember, yesterday, when Lao Tzu said that not comparing and competing was crucial to being content to simply be yourself? Today, Lao Tzu explains exactly why that is. As long as we care about other people’s approval, we will be their prisoner. Prisoners, by definition, are not free. They aren’t free to be themselves; and they won’t be, as long as they remain prisoners. And, if you aren’t free to be yourself, you can’t be content to simply be yourself.

But there is a solution to this madness. It is the only path to serenity, the practice of the supreme good. Know when to stop. Know when enough is enough. Do your work, then step back. Step back. Be willing to take that step back, instead of always insisting that you march ever onwards. That step back is everything. It means freedom.

The Way Of Virtue

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

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

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

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu brings the supreme good into the discussion. What is the supreme good? This might be a good time to go over something I haven’t mentioned in awhile. We have been talking about the Tao of the Tao Te Ching. Tao is usually translated Way. But what does Te mean, and Ching? When Lao Tzu talks of the supreme good, that is a reference to Te, which is usually translated Virtue. Ching means book. So, Tao Te Ching, is roughly Way of Virtue Book. Sometimes he is talking about the way and sometimes he is talking about virtue. Today, he shows how they are intertwined.

To do this he, for the very first time, uses what will become his favorite go to metaphor, water. Water demonstrates how to be content to simply be yourself. That is why he will return to water, over and over again, saying, be like this. It nourishes all things, not by trying to but by being what it is. It is content with the low places. Its humility isn’t something contrived. It is just one of water’s natural attributes. It naturally seeks out the lowest places. The supreme good, virtue, is being content to simply be yourself, not comparing yourself to, or competing with, others. It is being in harmony with the Tao.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers us six ways to practice the virtue he is talking about. It is how, in our lives, we can be in harmony with the Tao.

The first way is in our dwelling. He tells us to live close to the ground. I don’t think he is talking about the proximity of our house to the ground. Yes, a house is a dwelling. But dwelling here, is a verb. It isn’t where we live but how we live our lives. How connected to the Earth are we? We need a close connection to the ground.

The second way is in our thinking. Keep it simple. We have this tendency to make our lives so very complicated; and it all begins with how we think. Don’t over-think things. Don’t complicate things. Being in harmony with the Tao is really quite simple.

The third way is when in conflict. This might surprise a few people, but Lao Tzu isn’t promising some Utopia, free from conflict. Conflicts will happen. While we might wish they could always be avoided, what is more important is how we are when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict. What is the supreme good? Be fair and generous in conflict. Does that mean allowing ourselves to be run roughshod over? I don’t think so. But, as I told my own children plenty of times as they were growing up, we can’t control what others do, we can only control our own choices. Choose to be fair. Choose to be generous. This is virtue. This is harmony with the Tao. To go back to the analogy of water, be willing to take the lower place.

The fourth way is the art of governing. This is Lao Tzu’s first words on the art of governing. They won’t be his last. The virtue is quite simple. Don’t try to control. Give up that need to always be in control.

The fifth way is in our work. Do what you enjoy. Seriously, guys, if you are miserable at your work, find some way out of that misery. Start doing something you enjoy, at least on the side. Life is too short to spend a third of it, miserable.

The sixth way is in our family life. No matter how you define family, and whatever roles you are going to play throughout your life, whether parent, spouse, child, sibling, the virtue in family life is being completely present. Don’t half ass it! Your time, whether as a child, as a sibling, as a spouse, or as a parent, is far too short not to invest yourself fully in your family life.

These are all virtues. They are the supreme good. And though they are virtues, they aren’t something too great for us all to achieve. Stop comparing and competing with others. Just be content to simply be yourself. Respect yourself, and everybody will respect you.


Can We, Will We, Let Go?

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Beginning in chapter one, and continuing through to today’s chapter, Lao Tzu has emphasized the eternal and infinite nature of the Tao. The Tao is the way things are in our Universe. You could say it is the origin of the universal laws that govern us. It is the eternal reality, the Great Mother that gives birth to infinite worlds. Whenever we speak of these things we are pointing at the mystery. But, in our present state, caught in desire, it isn’t possible for us to realize fully this mystery. Lao Tzu takes some stabs at it. Like when he says that it is used but never used up, that it is filled with infinite possibilities, or that it is empty yet infinitely capable. He relies on metaphors to describe it; saying, it is like a well, or like the eternal void, or like a bellows. But he admitted, right at the beginning, that language, itself, is limiting in trying to tell of the Tao. It is so much more, infinitely more, than anything he can say about it. The truth is that the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Instead of talking about it, Lao Tzu wants us to experience using it. He promises us that the more we use it, the more it will produce. And, though hidden, it is always present within us. We can use it any way we want.

If Lao Tzu was reluctant to try and tell of the Tao, to even name that which he says is unnameable, I admit I am more so. Talking of its manifestations is so much simpler. They are easy to observe, and because they have the same source as the mystery, we can trace them back to their Source.

Nevertheless, if we are going to experience using the Tao in any way we want, there are some things about its mystery that we will need to understand better. That is where we are with today’s chapter.

For some reason, I don’t find the eternal nature of the Tao that difficult to understand. Why is it eternal? Quite simple, really. Earlier, Lao Tzu teased us by saying, “I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.” Older than God? That is as much as admitting what he goes on to admit, today. “It was never born; thus it can never die.” What does eternal mean? It means it has no beginning and no end. The Tao is always present. Go back as far in time as you want, the Tao is present. And, though the Universe, and everything it contains, were to some day pass away into nothingness, the Tao would still be present. I may be fooling myself, but I think I get what eternal means.

But then there is the infinite nature of the Tao. Lao Tzu has already described it in a few different ways. It was when he was using three different metaphors to say what it is like. Eternity and infinity are bound together. They relate profoundly to each other. He talks about how it can’t be used up. That is infinite, or unending, supply. And, he says it is empty yet inexhaustible. But how can something that is empty be inexhaustible? What kind of reality is this, where empty doesn’t mean exhausted? What he is doing, here, is encouraging us to use it. Go ahead, don’t be shy. You can’t use it up. It will just produce more. Though it is empty, its supply won’t run dry. I said, yesterday, that I think filling must accompany emptying. I think what is really happening is non-being is creating being. Out of nothing, comes all things.

But where he really points at the mystery of the infinite nature of the Tao is when, in today’s chapter, he says that it is infinite because it has no desires for itself.

No desires. Desires are our problem. Lao Tzu made that clear in chapter one. We are dogged by desires; desires to be in control, to interfere, to think we know, to want to compete. We have all kinds of desires that keep us from realizing the mystery of the Tao. And yet, the Tao is always present within us. The Tao, that eternal, infinite Tao, is not hampered by its own desires. It is present for all beings. Ready to be used, however we want.

So, how do we use it? This is where it is helpful that we have the example of the Master to show us the way. Our desires make us want to always try to get ahead. And, try as we might, we never seem to get ahead. But, the Master is willing to stay behind; and that is why she is ahead. Our desires cause us to form attachments – to people, places, things, ideas…. And, in spite of our attachments, do we ever really become one with any of them? Indeed, we do not. The Master shows us the better way. She is detached from all things. And, because of that, she is one with them. We cling desperately to our selves. Hoping in vain for fulfillment. And, once again, the Master shows us just how to be perfectly fulfilled. But will we let go? Will we let go of our hopes, our fears, our desires, of our selves?

Out Of Emptiness, Infinity; The Always Present

The Tao is called the Great Mother;
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 6, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Beginning in chapter four, Lao Tzu started using the word infinite to describe the manifestations of the Tao. It is used but never used up. It is filled with infinite possibilities. And, it is empty yet infinitely capable. I want to try to gain a better understanding of what exactly Lao Tzu means by that word, infinite, in talking about the Tao. In today’s and tomorrow’s commentaries, we will be exploring infinity to its limits. Just kidding, it wouldn’t be infinity if there were any limits. But, seriously, we will be stretching the limits of our ability to understand infinity.

Today, that will involve the use of the word, empty, to describe the Tao; which Lao Tzu, for the very first time, refers to as the Great Mother.

We think we have a good understanding of what the word, empty, means. We think of it when we are trying to decide if our glass is half full or half empty. Or, when the gas gauge on our car is nearing, or on, E; and, we wonder how long we dare continue running on empty.

When Lao Tzu says the Great Mother is empty yet inexhaustible, our ears perk up.

I’ll be honest, here. I had a great mother. And, that empty yet inexhaustible description could easily be used to describe her. Throughout my childhood, my mother simply did it all. She was always up well before all us kids. And, only went to bed, long after us. This is actually pure conjecture on my part. I don’t actually have any evidence that the woman ever actually slept. Early in my childhood she was home, taking care of keeping the household running like clockwork. We were all well-fed, well-clothed, and well-loved. Only once my youngest sibling had reached the age of eight, did she venture to work outside the home, and that in the family business. Still, it was like nothing much had changed at home. We were still well-fed, well-clothed, and well-loved. As I got older, I could sense that there were times that she was running on empty. But she never complained. She just kept doing her thing, seemingly inexhaustible. I say all that about my mother, only to say that I get exactly what Lao Tzu means when he calls the Tao, the Great Mother.

It gives birth to infinite worlds. There is that word, infinite, once again. Infinite possibilities, infinite capabilities, infinite worlds. The eternal reality is infinite. There is no end to the possibilities, no end to its capabilities, and no end to the ways you can use it.

When we think about infinity, we probably mostly think of there being no end to it. But, Lao Tzu has two different ways he wants us to think of that word, infinite. He hinted at one of these ways before he first mentioned the word, infinite. In chapter three, he talked about emptying and filling. How can something that is empty, yet be inexhaustible? I have a strong suspicion that there is some filling going on. Otherwise, emptiness has no meaning. The more you use it, the more it produces. But the more you talk of it, the less you understand. Sounds like infinity to me. But there is another way to look at it.

Lao Tzu, back in chapter four, said the Tao is hidden but always present. I didn’t spend much time talking about that then. That was because, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu reveals its hiding place. Where is it hidden? It is always present within you. You could almost say that it is hidden in plain sight. Almost, but not quite. For we are talking about the core of our being now. And many of us aren’t really aware that we have a core. Lao Tzu first mentioned that, back in chapter three. He said, there, that the Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores. And that emptying and filling is fundamental to understanding infinity. But we also need to realize the Tao’s presence.

It is always present within you. Always present. What a difference it will make in your life when you realize this. The infinite Tao is always present within you. Realize this, and the next line will blow your mind. You can use it any way you want.

Something To Hold On To

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows;
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 5, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu correctly identified exactly what our problem is. We have this desire to always take sides. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” I said in my commentary, that day, “The Tao…doesn’t differentiate between things in this way.” If I was getting a little ahead of myself, Lao Tzu has caught back up with me today, saying, “The Tao doesn’t take sides…” Maybe we need to learn how to let go of our competitive desires. We’ll have to talk later about not-competing competing.

How best can we understand how yin and yang work together to maintain balance? I sometimes find myself thinking of it like a math equation. When you are working on one of those, whatever you do to one side of the equation, must be done to the other side of the equation. This is elementary math. We all know this. If you fail to keep things equal on both sides of the equation, you are doomed to get the wrong answer.

If math isn’t your thing, then we will just have to fall back on what Lao Tzu has been saying all along. The Tao doesn’t take sides, it gives birth to both of them. What we call beautiful or ugly. And, what we call good or bad. What is really astounding is how unapologetic Lao Tzu is, when he says that the Tao is the Source of both good and evil.

Because our tendency is to want to choose between sides, we have been picking good over evil, or, at least, claiming we are on the side of good, for eons. Religions and philosophies have arisen all over the world and throughout history trying to deal with the so-called problem of evil. Who has ever been so unapologetic in claiming to be just as responsible for evil, as they are good?

And, we may be thinking that this is just so messed up. Why doesn’t the Tao take sides? Why won’t it pick good over evil? We could sure use a whole lot less evil in our world, right? What is the Tao about, anyway? Good is so obviously good. And evil is, well, evil. We’d sure like to see the Tao fighting the good fight with us. Then, we could vanquish evil, once and for all.

But, in our desire to take sides, we let go of the center. And we completely misunderstand the way things are. Why do some things become ugly? Because we see other things as beautiful. And why do some things become bad? Because we see other things as good.

These labels are all mere human constructs. The Tao is the source of all particular things. And, it doesn’t differentiate between them in this way. The Master, understanding the way things are, doesn’t take sides either. She welcomes both saint and sinner. Notice, here, how it gets personified. Good and evil are personified into saint and sinner. Why is that? Because we are never content to think of good and evil in the abstract. We want to make it concrete. Evil can’t be impersonal. We have to make it personal. “This is evil” soon becomes “He is evil”. So, we end up manufacturing enemies out of our brothers and sisters. It is us vs. them. I am good. Therefore, they are evil. But both saints and sinners are in need of welcoming. Why? Because we are all one in the Tao. We both came from the same Source.

I am certain that someone is going to suggest that I am calling evil good, and good evil. But, I am doing nothing of the sort. I am not taking sides, at all. There is no good and evil.

Lao Tzu knows this won’t satisfy anyone; so, he will return to the problem of evil later on. There, we will learn exactly how we can see evil become powerless; there, we will see it disappear all by itself.

Right now, we need to talk about something that seems totally unrelated to this discussion on taking sides. So, you can bet it has everything to do with it.

“The Tao is like a bellows…” Yesterday, Lao Tzu started using metaphors to tell what the Tao is like. The Tao is shrouded in darkness, it is a mystery; he can’t exactly tell us what it is. But, it is possible to show us what it does. When he was comparing the Tao to a well, or to the eternal void, he was explaining how it can be used without being used up; how, it can be both empty and filled with infinite possibilities.

Comparing the Tao to a bellows, serves much the same purpose. Like a bellows, it is empty, yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces. As a simple bellows is used, it expands and contracts; that is the operation of yang and yin. The bellows doesn’t differentiate between the air it takes inside and the air it expels outside. See, it doesn’t choose sides either. All it does is expand and contract. And expand and contract again. That is our picture, today, for how the Tao is manifest in our world.

Do we really need to talk more of it? But the more we talk of it, the less we will understand. Lao Tzu leaves us with one final word. That center we so carelessly let go of while taking sides, is our anchor to the way things are. Hold on to it.

It Is Older Than God

The Tao is like a well;
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void;
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced the mystery of the Tao. Trying to tell about it, or even giving it a name, leaves us with more questions than answers. It is shrouded in darkness within darkness. How can we understand it? We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. He promised us, it wouldn’t be easy. Not until we are free from desire will we ever realize the mystery. But, even with that caveat, he did offer to tell us about its manifestations. These, we can observe, and trace back to the Source of the mystery.

In the last two chapters, Lao Tzu, true to his word, spent his time pointing out how it is that the Tao is manifest in our Universe. He talked about how yin and yang complement each other, always bringing about balance. And, he talked about how the Master, one who is in perfect harmony with the Tao, works with, rather than against, yin and yang to go with the flow of the Tao.

Today, he returns to talking about the mystery. It is the first time, though it won’t be the last, that he is using a specific metaphor to tell us what the Tao is like.

It is like a well. That is a familiar image. A well is something that is meant to be used. And, we hope, never used up. The Tao is like that. What? The Tao is a deep hole in the ground? Don’t take these metaphors literally. The picture of the well is just a beginning. Don’t dwell on that image. The point is, the Tao is used, but never used up. What Lao Tzu is getting at is that the Tao is infinite.

He does that again, when he compares the Tao to the eternal void. It is like that, too. When we think of a void, eternal or otherwise, we probably conjure up images of space, vast and empty. I am not up on all the latest things that astrophysicists think they know about our Universe; but, I think it is safe to say that there is a whole lot more of nothing, than there is something, in our Universe.

What Lao Tzu is informing us of, in today’s chapter, is that the Tao is able to make use of that nothingness. And, this, in ways that are beyond anything we can conceive. The Tao, that vast emptiness, is filled with infinite possibilities.

Infinity. There is something that fascinates us. We think of ourselves as finite. And, therefore, infinity is something of a mystery to us, much like the Tao. We will be talking about infinity for the next few days. Lao Tzu has a unique way of explaining infinity to us. It will involve yin and yang, of course. There will be emptying and filling. But because we will be discussing it in greater length in the days ahead, I am going to leave off discussing it further, today.

Lao Tzu has something else he wants to share with us about the Tao. The Tao is hidden, but it is always present. Now hold on there. Used, but never used up. Empty, yet filled. Hidden, but always present. What exactly is the Tao? I said, earlier, when talking about the mystery of the Tao, we are left with more questions than answers. This kind of language is the kind I have seen reserved for God. What is this Tao? Is it God? Where did it come from?

Lao Tzu anticipates our questions. But, will we be satisfied with his answer? His answer is, “I don’t know.” That is the one answer no one seems willing to offer to life’s greatest questions. When the six year old, I am tutoring, asks me questions I don’t know the answer to, I always try to find out a satisfactory answer for her. Sometimes, “I don’t know, perhaps, you will be the one to figure it out”, will have to suffice.

But Lao Tzu’s “I don’t know” is more telling. “I don’t know who gave birth to it.” You see, we want to know about its origin, already. But we have just begun our journey. If we are going to be able to return to the Source, we will need to spend the time necessary to trace back those manifestations.

So, Lao Tzu, with tongue in cheek, gives us a tantalizing hint at just how far back we will have to go. “It is older than God.”