Asking The Vital Questions

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter begins with some rhetorical questions.

The first one seems easy enough to answer. Which is more important, fame or integrity? That is a soft ball question if ever there was one. Obviously, integrity is more important than fame. While there are, no doubt, those who think fame is more important, for their actions betray them, we all know better, don’t we?

And, the second one is much the same as the first. Which is more valuable, money or happiness? Of course, we don’t want to have to choose between the two. Just like we don’t wish to choose between fame and integrity. We want both, if we can have it. What good is cake if you can’t eat it, too? But, we know, in our heart of hearts, the proper answer to these questions. So, in the hope our actions won’t betray us, we’ll say, “Oh, happiness, of course. I’d rather be happy though penniless, than have all the money in the world and still yet be miserable.”

Soft ball questions. But, if that is so, why, then, do our actions betray us? Perhaps, we should take these questions a little more seriously, after all. Instead, we meander through life without looking inside ourselves, and peering into the darkness. And because we never spend any time looking deep within ourselves, we always end up looking outside ourselves for fulfillment and happiness.

So, hold on, right there. Let’s go back and reconsider these questions, once again. Choosing between fame and integrity is choosing between an outward thing and an inward thing. Which is more important? The answer should still be the same. But at least now, we are being honest with ourselves. Choosing to look inside ourselves for fulfillment, rather than outside of ourselves.

The choice between money and happiness is also a choice between an outward thing and an inward thing. We simply can’t base our happiness on anything outside of ourselves. Like, how much money we have. Or, whether or not our outward circumstances are how we would like them to be. It is a truth we all think we know, but many fail to realize; we don’t have all that much control over our outward circumstances. I can’t control others. I best get to work on controlling myself. That is problem enough.

The real zinger of all the questions Lao Tzu is asking today is question number three. After what we perceived to be soft balls, we never saw this one coming. Which is more destructive, success or failure? That could have us hemming and hawing for a good long time, as we vacillate between the two choices. Which is more destructive? We might think that depends on the circumstances.

The circumstances? Do you mean the outward circumstances we have already had to admit we have little control over?

Oops.

But this isn’t the first time Lao Tzu has talked about success and failure. It was way back in chapter 13, where he talked about the infamous ladder (of success?). There, he said that success is as dangerous as failure. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether you go up or down that ladder, your position is shaky. If you want to always keep your balance, stand with both your feet on the ground.

Success and failure are equally destructive for the same reason they are equally dangerous. And, for the same reason that we know better than to choose fame and money over integrity and happiness. They are focused on something outside ourselves. A ladder? Really, a ladder? If we look to others for fulfillment, we will never know true fulfillment. If our happiness depends on money, we will never be happy with ourselves. Why? Because deep down inside, we know better. We are betraying what we are in the core of our being. And that heart sickness won’t be ignored.

I am tempted to say it is time to grow up. To quit acting like little children who act like they never get their way. But then I realized that it was adults who programmed their little ones to see things that way. Our problems stem more from us acting like adults, than children. Lao Tzu has already told us we need to return to our primal identity, and be like newborns.

One thing is certain; we need to stop looking outside ourselves for answers, and start looking inside. Be content with what you have. This has absolutely nothing to do with your outward circumstances. I have had more and I have had less. And it never made any difference in whether or not I was content. Don’t let it make any difference. You do have a choice in this. No, you can’t control your outward circumstances. But you can control your self. Choose to be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. It sure beats whining and complaining about the way things appear to be. The whole world belongs to you. You just don’t know it. It takes realizing there is nothing lacking, for you to get that the whole world belongs to you. But once you get that, there will be nothing that is impossible for you.

Doing Things The Master’s Way

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

Teaching without words,
performing without actions;
that is the Master’s way.

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

Today’s chapter is about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the value of non-action. I have been getting a bunch of new followers of late; so, it is time once again to take this opportunity to explain what Lao Tzu means by non-action.

Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated as doing nothing. But since doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds have come to think it means, I think we need to do better.

Wu Wei is a concept that permeates throughout the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. This is a great mystery. How can this be? How can doing nothing result in all things being done?

To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor, to explain Wu Wei, is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. Perhaps he is thinking of water when he says, “The soft overcomes the hard” and “The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.”

As apt a metaphor water is, there are other ways Wu Wei can be exemplified. When he says, “That which has no substance enters where there is no space” it amplifies the mystery. But it also goes a long way toward explaining it. It shows the value of Wu Wei.

Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, is it? Water, after all, still nourishes. It just doesn’t have to work at it. The softest and gentlest thing overcomes the hardest thing. But it is overcoming without exerting any effort to overcome.

What Lao Tzu is getting at is a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a perfectly natural, not contrived way. So, not doing or doing nothing isn’t about what we do or don’t do, it is about what we are.

Lao Tzu is extolling the virtue of doing nothing, the value of non-action, which, again, is Wu Wei, in the original Chinese. Let’s look a little more closely at what the Chinese words mean. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without”; and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “govern”, or “effort”. So, we could translate Wu Wei as “without doing”, “without acting”, “without governing” (my personal favorite), or “without effort”. In the past, I have tended to go with “without effort” as my default. Then, I looked at some less commonly referenced senses of Wu Wei; for example, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort” to arrive at “effortless action”, and be even more precise.

But, given all the ways that Wei can be translated, and just because I like that it can be translated “govern”, I have decided that translating Wu Wei “without controlling” is an even better way to convey Lao Tzu’s meaning. Looking back over how many times Lao Tzu has told would-be leaders to let go of their need to control, I think I am spot on.

I am feeling quite satisfied with myself at this point; but wait, there is more to this than all of that.

Sometimes, when Lao Tzu speaks of Wu Wei, he presents it in the form of a paradox, Wei Wu Wei, which is often translated “doing not-doing”. The paradox actually explains the state of being in which we need to be. It is “harmony with the Tao”. Doing without doing, or governing without governing, is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. We have given up our need to be in control, our will to power; and, thus, we don’t “try” to do anything. We merely go with the flow.

That leads to the one question I have asked my own self far too many times to count. How do we achieve this state of being? I hope my friends aren’t nearly as slow to catch on as I was. The whole idea of achieving, goal-setting, is kind of completely missing the whole point. What do we do? We do nothing. Duh. It is about being yourself. And doing what comes naturally. Doing what comes naturally sounds easy enough, right? Shouldn’t take a whole lot of effort. What wouldn’t be easy, what is completely unnatural, is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. Now, we really are seeing the value of non-action. It takes something which has no substance to enter where there is no space.

But Lao Tzu offers us the example of the Master to show us the way. The Master teaches without words, and performs without actions. The Master’s way should be our way, too. As long as we are trying to make things happen, we are exerting effort, we are trying to control. That isn’t the Master’s way, so stop it! Instead, be an observer of nature. Notice, nature isn’t in any hurry, yet all things do get done. There is a flow to it, a rhythm. Pick up on that rhythm. Get attuned to it. Everything acts according to its nature. Even us. Become one with your nature, with the Tao flowing through you.

Making Use Of Solitude

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

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

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

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

Today’s chapter is certainly shrouded in mystery. What is the One, the Two, and the Three?

First off, there is a whole lot of giving birth going on. The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. And, so on and so forth. What is this One, Two, and Three, and what does them giving birth to each other have to do with anything? Well, remember that Lao Tzu has already said, and on more than one occasion, the Tao is the great Mother, giving birth to all things. So, the One, Two, and Three are all very much related to the Tao. I think calling them each aspects of the Tao is probably right thinking on this.

Now, I reserve the right to be completely wrong in my interpretation of this mystery. I am relying mostly on Stephen Mitchell’s translation, and considering what Lao Tzu has been saying all along for the purpose of context. I don’t claim to be fluent in the original Chinese text. But, I have consulted enough interpretations to be relatively confident that my interpretation isn’t far from the mark. So, I have that going for me.

One thing to be noted is that in each case, the One, the Two, and the Three are all followed by a verb phrase (gives birth) that makes the subject singular. In other words, neither Two, nor Three, refer to more than one. The first stanza could read, The Tao gives birth to the First. The First gives birth to the Second. The Second gives birth to the Third. The Third gives birth to all things. But I don’t know whether changing the cardinal numbers into ordinal numbers helps, or only confuses things more.

I don’t mean to confuse anyone. But I do have my own interpretation of what the One, Two, and Three are.

One refers to non-being. Two refers to being. And, Three refers to Chi. Non-being and being we have talked about before. It was just a couple chapters ago that Lao Tzu said, “All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. That makes me pretty confident that non-being and being are good interpretations for the One and the Two. Chi is something altogether different though. We haven’t talked about it before. In Chinese medicine, Chi is a reference to the life-force that flows through all beings. The Tao, itself, flows through all beings, so Chi is just another name for, or aspect of, the Tao.

An alternate interpretation would be, One refers to the Tao. So, the Tao gives birth to itself, first. Then the Two refer to both non-being and being, yin and yang. And the three would be the addition of chi with non-being and being. That takes care of the first stanza.

The second stanza is about the relationship of all things with yin and yang. The second stanza directly relates to a question I posed, yesterday, in my commentary: Where is the balance? All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. If Lao Tzu seems to be over-emphasizing yin, perhaps, it is because there already is such an over-emphasis on yang. The first line of this stanza confirms it. All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. Yin is being ignored in this picture. If harmony is to be achieved, male and female are going to have to combine. Then, there will be balance.

Okay, now that we have covered the first stanza, which talked about the three; and the second stanza, which talked about the two; all that is left is to talk about the third stanza, which talks about the one.

In my commentary on chapter 38, I asked the question, “Why would I want to be ordinary?” In that chapter, Lao Tzu had compared the Master with an ordinary man. Today, he returns to talking about ordinary men; saying, they hate solitude. But, the Master makes use of it. Instead of hating solitude, the Master embraces his aloneness. It is in solitude, in aloneness, he realizes he is one with the whole Universe.

There is my takeaway from today’s chapter. If I don’t want to be merely ordinary, if I want to be like the Master, I need to embrace my aloneness and realize I am one with the whole Universe.

The Telltale Sign: Separating Illusion From Reality

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

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

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

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

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. I was thinking about that after posting yesterday’s chapter on the movement and way of the Tao. Where is the balance? That is the self-doubt that creeps into my consciousness every time I post a chapter like yesterday’s, where Lao Tzu told us that the movement of the Tao is a reversing, a going backwards, a return. And, that the way of the Tao is one of yielding, of weakness, of submission. Sometimes, I think Lao Tzu leans pretty heavily on the yin side of the equation. Where is the yang in all of this? As much as I want to be that superior man who hears of the Tao and immediately begins to embody it, I still find myself being an average man, who sometimes only half believes it. Worse yet, I tend to get a bit puffed up, when my commentary is met with scorn, with laughter. It starts making me feel like maybe I am not nearly so average, after all; well, at least, I am not fool enough to laugh out loud. Truth be told, it is easy to preach detachment, disinterest, and indifference. It is quite another thing to consistently practice such things.

We want to be able to look back and see that we are making progress. We want to be able to look forward and see that we are getting closer to our goal. But what happens when the path we are on is sending us confusing signals, when things are not what they appear to be? The path into the light seems dark. The path forward seems to go back. The direct path seems long. Talk about frustrating! We can’t trust our senses to give us reliable information on this path, my friends. When we seem to be going back, we might actually be going forward. That reversing movement of the Tao undoes things that need undoing. It brings balance and order and harmony. But that isn’t the way things seem to be.

And that weakness? Yes, I am talking about the way of the Tao. It only seems weak. But in reality, it is true power. What seems tarnished is true purity. What seems changeable is true steadfastness. What seems obscure is true clarity. Here, we are differentiating between the way things are and the way things seem to be. There are things that are truly weak, truly tarnished, truly changeable, and truly obscure. We need to realize the differences between them. Things aren’t always what they appear to be.

How do we realize those differences between the eternally real and the illusion? Is there a dead giveaway, a telltale sign that the way things seem to be is only an illusion? That there is an eternal reality before and beyond what your eyes and ears are showing you? I think there is; but it isn’t something that mere words can explain. I think it is something you have to experience for yourself, as you center yourself in the Tao. That was the problem Lao Tzu addressed back in chapter one. Anything I can say about the Tao is not the eternal Tao. It is a mystery that can’t be realized as long as we are caught in desire.

But I notice it when the greatest art seems unsophisticated, when the greatest love seems indifferent, when the greatest wisdom seems childish. For me, that is my giveaway, my telltale sign. For I know better. Show me indifference, disinterest, and detachment and I will say, that shows me what is real. I think the illusion tries too hard. That’s it. The amount of effort put into trying to pull off the illusion, gives it away as the illusion it is.

So, call it childish, if you want. Call it weak. Go ahead, laugh out loud. You will say to me, where is the Tao in all of this? Because it seems nowhere to be found. Yet, without effort, without making a big show of itself, it nourishes and completes all things. And that, my friends, is how I know it is real.

Let Yourself Go Backwards, Let Yourself Be Weak

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

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

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

We have been talking about centering ourselves in the Tao; and, with today’s chapter, we are in the center of the Tao Te Ching. It is really just that simple. Don’t let the size of today’s chapter fool you, these four lines pack a punch. Four lines, four words. Let’s take them one by one.

Return is the movement of the Tao. We have talked, before, about the Tao always being on the move. The great Tao flows everywhere. It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things. If we want to go with the flow of the Tao, we need to follow it; as it moves, as it returns, to the origin of all things, our common Source. All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea. In the original Chinese, the word that Stephen Mitchell translates as return, is a reversing, a retrograde movement. That means it tends to flow backwards. It is a direction contrary to the way we might expect things to go. Perhaps, that is why we sometimes have such trouble centering ourselves in the Tao, and staying centered. We want to go forward, while it seems to insist on going backwards. It confounds those who think that they know. That is why it is so important to practice knowing not-knowing. 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.

Yielding is the way of the Tao. Yielding is letting. That is something Lao Tzu has been encouraging us to practice, for as long as he has told us to practice doing not-doing. In the original Chinese, that word “yielding” is a sign of weakness, of submission. So often, the powers that be, so enthralled by their desire for control, their will to power, thrive on the use of force, which Lao Tzu calls violence. That runs counter to the Tao. The way of the Tao is weakness. If you want to truly be powerful don’t try to be powerful. Be weak. That is the way of the Tao. Thus, it is truly powerful. Let your weakness be your strength. Let things run their course. Only shape events as they come. Don’t force. Let.

All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. I have to talk about these two together. They have been hard to separate since Lao Tzu introduced us to the concept of being and non-being back in chapter two. There, he was talking about yin and yang, another pair that complement each other. They create each other, they support each other, they define each other, they depend on each other, and they follow each other. In chapter eleven, he said, being is what we work with, but non-being is what we use. That gives us quite the clue into what he is saying to us today. He has been talking about the Tao in today’s chapter. Its movement, its way. Now we have two very distinct aspects of the Tao, being and non-being, the manifestations and the mystery. Both arise from the same source. That source, to which we all return. The Tao gives birth to all things. How many times has he said that to us? And today, he says, all things are born of being. Every being is a manifestation of the Tao.

But how is this manifest? That is the mystery. Being is born of non-being. Non-being, the mystery aspect of the Tao, the very aspect we can never realize as long as we are caught in desire. Which is why it is so important that we understand the movement of the Tao, and its way. Yang, being, is what we work with; but yin, non-being, is what we use.

Can You Please Just Stop It?

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

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

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

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

Is Lao Tzu beginning to sound like a broken record? This is at least the third time (really, I have lost count) he has talked about what harmony with the Tao looks like in our world. It is beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world like this? A clear and spacious sky, a solid and full earth, all creatures flourishing together, everyone content with the way things are, as they endlessly repeat themselves and are endlessly renewed. But we have very different ideas for how to achieve this kind of world, now don’t we?

And when we look around at our world, and the sky appears filthy, the earth depleted, the equilibrium crumbled, and creatures becoming extinct, it is oh so tempting to want to do something about it. To not want to do something is tantamount to not caring, to being a denier that there is anything at all wrong; when it is oh, so very clear, that things are really quite wrong.

We want to do something, because to do nothing is scorned and ridiculed. Perhaps, my friends should go back to the previous chapter, and see what Lao Tzu had to say about the virtue of doing nothing. For let’s be real clear on this point. The problem isn’t that we have done nothing. The problem is that we have been interfering with the Tao, for a very long time. And we just keep interfering and interfering and interfering. Ask any “so-called” expert, and they will tell you their solution is to interfere more. We haven’t interfered enough. People haven’t responded like we know they should. It is time to roll up our sleeves and apply some force.

Friends, that isn’t going to work out so well for us. For every force there is a counter force. Violence, even (especially) well intentioned violence, always rebounds upon oneself.

If we want a return to harmony, we best stop trying to make changes on the outside, and start looking deep within ourselves. The problem isn’t external to us. The problem is internal. It is a matter of the heart. We have lost our connection with the Tao. And no amount of force is going change that. That will only continue to run counter to the Tao.

Lao Tzu has a different way of saying this same thing today. He says, if we really want to view the parts with compassion, like we say we do, we need to understand the whole. That means understanding how to go with the flow of the Tao in all this. Nature, left to itself, endlessly repeats itself and is endlessly renewed. That is not an invitation to impose your will so that nature will be left alone. All your efforts to impose your will, fall into the category of using force to achieve your agenda. Understand that isn’t how to go with the flow of the Tao. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. To tap into the true power, you are going to have to stop trying to be powerful. Instead, let your constant practice be humility. Seriously, you need to think less of yourself. We have a huge ego problem. We are so busy trying to glitter like a jewel, how can we ever be shaped by the Tao into something as rugged and common as stone?

And yet, that is exactly what it is going to take. I recently posted an article by Sheldon Richman on the conspiracy of fear-mongering, where he posed the question, “What will it take to change this perverse system that thrives on power, war, and fear?” Excellent question, Sheldon. And pretty relevant to my chapter today. Sheldon isn’t looking to our leaders to wake up, I am sure. No, it is going to take each of us, individuals, looking deep within ourselves, and being humble enough to center ourselves in the Tao, once again.

Why Would I Want To Be Ordinary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday’s chapter ended with the line, “When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” That led me to do a little word play: Know desire, no peace. No desire, Know peace. Lao Tzu has made it quite clear that it is our desire that gets in the way of us realizing the mystery of the way things are. One desire that stands out as, perhaps, the most troublesome one of them all is the will to power. It is why Lao Tzu returns time and again to reprimanding powerful men and women for their need to control, to interfere, to use force to accomplish the things they want to accomplish. The use of force runs counter to the Tao, because for every force there is a counter force. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself. That is the way nature works. If you want to be truly powerful, don’t try to be powerful. If you keep reaching for power, you will never have enough. If powerful men and women would (or could) humble themselves to the point of letting go of their desire to be in control, their will to power, and let things simply run their course, the whole world would be transformed all by itself, in its natural rhythms. There is a time for being ahead and a time for being behind, a time for being above and a time for being beneath. How little we seem to pay attention to what time it is!

I recently got a series of anonymous messages trying to convince me to “wake up” and realize I have plenty to fear. My anonymous messenger agreed with me that the Tao does nothing; but then parted ways with me by insisting, we must do something. Today’s chapter arrives right on schedule for me.

Must we really do something? The Master doesn’t. He does nothing, at all. Yet, he leaves nothing undone. This, of course, corresponds with yesterday’s chapter, in which Lao Tzu said, “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.” I said, then, by centering ourselves in the Tao, we can simply ride the wave as all things are done. That is the Master’s secret. It is because he doesn’t try to be powerful, he doesn’t try to be in control, he doesn’t interfere with the Tao, he doesn’t try and force a particular outcome, he does nothing, that nothing is left undone. That is tapping into true power.

I want to be like the Master. So, when someone tells me that I must do something, I think, “Why would I want to be ordinary?” Ordinary men, you see them everywhere, but especially in seats of power, are always doing things. Busy, busy, busy. Yet, look at all the things that are left to be done. Perhaps, they will get to them tomorrow. No, tomorrow, they are busy doing things again, and still leaving many more to be done. Being ordinary just doesn’t have the same appeal to me as being like the Master. I would rather get to the end of my day, and find that nothing is left undone; than get to the end of my day, having many more things left to be done.

This desire to do something, afflicts people with the best of intentions. See that kind person over there? They are doing something. How good, how kind. Yet, something remains undone. And, look over there at that just person. They are doing something too. Oh, but they leave many things to be done. Don’t misunderstand what Lao Tzu is saying here. He isn’t saying there is anything wrong with practicing acts of kindness and justice. He is talking about the will to power, the desire to control, to interfere, to use force. This becomes clear, when the moral person does something.

Observe what happens when no one responds. Now, we get to see what is really motivating these doers of something. And, sadly, our world is full of examples of this. When no one responds, they roll up their sleeves and use more force. You see, I don’t really think that every one in seats of power have evil intentions. I just know that their good intentions don’t mean squat. Not when they won’t trust people and leave them alone. Not when they readily resort to force. Not when they are always reaching for more power, because they never have enough.

Our problem is simple. The Tao has been lost. For a time, there was goodness. But, then that was lost. So, for a time, there was morality. But, then that was lost. Now, there is only ritual, the husk of true faith. And, now, there is chaos.

Understanding our problem is our lost connection with the Tao, there is really only one thing to be done. We need to look deeper within ourselves. Scratching at the surface won’t suffice. Pay no attention to the flower, and attend to the fruit. Give up our will to power, and let all illusions go; dwell in the eternal reality.

Know Desire, No Peace. No Desire, Know Peace.

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

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

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

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

For the last several days Lao Tzu has been talking about centering ourselves in the Tao. He talked about how we can perceive the universal harmony, and find peace in our hearts, even in the midst of great pain. But, he also explained that the Tao isn’t something which can be perceived with our senses. It is far too subtle to be perceived in that way. Still, we can center ourselves in the Tao, and remain centered in it. It is a matter of sticking your head so far up your philosophical ass, wait, sorry, that was just the way that a certain anonymous messenger described it for me. What it actually is, is navel-gazing, no wait, that was also a description the same anonymous messenger came up with to describe my process. Seriously, now, it is finding your own true self inside of yourself, in your heart, the core of your being. There, you find the Tao. There you center yourself, trusting what you know in your heart to be true.

Lao Tzu has strongly encouraged us to center ourselves in the Tao. Today’s chapter is the second time he has referenced what would happen if only powerful men and women could do so. And yes, it would be totally cool if they would, if they could. The whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.

There is a reason that Lao Tzu keeps coming back to this wishful thinking about powerful men and women. It is because they have it within themselves to do the most good or the most harm. Because they have such power, whether they are going with the flow of the Tao or counter to it, it makes quite an impact on all of us.

It is interesting to note the difference it makes in our lives. Now, understand first, the Tao never DOES anything, yet through it all things are done. That is why centering ourselves in the Tao is so important. You don’t have to DO anything. You just have to BE centered in the Tao. And, because the Tao is simply the way things are, the order, emerging out of chaos, in our Universe, we merely have to ride the wave. All things are done, with only effortless action coming from us.

Powerful men and women, are loath to humble themselves to the point of not-doing. They can’t maintain their power by doing nothing. So, they choose instead to interfere, to force issues, in an effort to try and control. Which is my diagnosis for why the world is in desperate need of being transformed, why it is in the shape that it is in. It is because those that could interfere with the Tao, have interfered with the Tao. And it is one fine mess they have made of things. If they would stop interfering, if they would humble themselves, and center themselves in the Tao, the whole world would be transformed, naturally. Everyone would be content. There would be harmony, and freedom from desire; in other words, peace.

Yes, it is still freedom from desire that is necessary for us to know peace. Lao Tzu has been talking about this since chapter 1, where he said you will never realize the mystery as long as you are caught in desire. The powerful among us are certainly caught in desire. And they want us ensnared in the web of lies and distortions which they cleverly weave. Don’t be like flies caught in the spider’s web. To know peace, there must be no desire.

Trust What You Know In Your Heart To Be True

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

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

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

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used the example of someone who is centered in the Tao, one who perceives the universal harmony, even amid great pain, because she has found peace in her heart. Because of this, this person, can go where she wishes, without danger. I offered reason to be skeptical of this bold claim. After all, the Tao isn’t something which can be perceived with our senses. How can we perceive it? Lao Tzu explained that it is to be perceived by looking for it within our own hearts. Once you start using it, you will find it is inexhaustible.

Today, we are still talking about this subtle perception of the way things are. Today, he returns to talking about it in terms of yin and yang. Showing how the Tao is manifest in our world. Our minds are not reliable in understanding these things. But, if we will look in our hearts, we will know, intuitively and spontaneously, the truth of these things.

How difficult we make things, when we try and control, when we interfere with the natural order, when we won’t simply let things take their own course. When we want to shrink something, can we be content with allowing it to expand? When we want to get rid of something, can we be content with allowing it to flourish? When we want to take something, can we be content with allowing it to be given? It isn’t just a matter of patience; though we do need to be patient. It is a matter of trusting the Tao. Trusting what we know in our hearts to be true.

We don’t really understand why these things are the way they are. It is a mystery. But, we know that the soft overcomes that which is hard, and the slow overcomes that which is fast.

Just like the workings of the Tao are a mystery, we must be content with letting our own workings remain a mystery. Being centered in the Tao, and remaining centered, when it seems that everything and everyone is trying to pull us out of the center of the circle, to do something, anything, is not easy. Your loved ones will speak all manner of evil about you. They won’t like how detached you are, how disinterested, and your seeming indifference to their pain and suffering.

They don’t understand that expansion always precedes contraction, the way of yin and yang. So, when they see evil expanding, they can’t see that contraction will follow, naturally. They will insist we forcibly try to contract it. “Let it run its course? Let it flourish, it will go away all by itself?” This kind of thinking cannot be allowed.

But if we will be content to let yin and yang be yin and yang, if we will let the way things are be the way things are, people will see the results.

You Have To Use It To Perceive It

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

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

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

That is a pretty bold promise with which Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter. Being able to go wherever I wish without danger? Should I be skeptical? I can immediately think of a list of places I don’t dare travel to, alone. Places which, especially after dark, are not safe places. I don’t know whether I am feeling too certain about testing this hypothesis. But this isn’t the first time that word “danger” has popped up. Let’s go back to what Lao Tzu has said before, regarding danger. Back in chapter 29, Lao Tzu said, there is a time for being safe and a time for being in danger. He said, then, we need to see things as they are, without trying to control them. We need to let them go their own way, and reside at the center of the circle. Then, in chapter 32, Lao Tzu said, if we know when to stop, we can avoid danger. It was in that chapter, Lao Tzu reiterated, the Tao is not something which can be perceived. Now, once again, in today’s chapter he enjoins us to be centered in the Tao; and promises, we can go wherever we wish, without danger. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Clearly, danger is something that can be avoided. And, the times we find ourselves in danger, instead of being safe, have little to do with where we may go. Avoiding danger isn’t a matter of avoiding dangerous places. For, if we are centered in the Tao, we can go wherever we wish, without danger. So, if our surroundings, if our outward circumstances, aren’t what qualify as a danger to us, what determines whether or not we are in danger? That is an important question to be asking, because Lao Tzu followed up his bold promise, with the caveat that we might yet be in the midst of great pain. You could say, the promise of going wherever we wish without danger was particularly predicated by being in the midst of great pain. How can we be danger-free even in the midst of great pain? This will only be the case, if we perceive the universal harmony, and have found peace in our hearts.

Perceiving the universal harmony is another way of saying what we have been talking about for the last several days. It is not being moved by hope or by fear, those phantoms that arise because we are thinking of the self as self. Instead, we perceive the universal harmony, we see the eternal reality at play in our Universe. We understand and accept that the way things are is the way things are. We see the whole world as an extension of our very selves. Our enemies, if we even call them that, are not demons, but our fellow human beings, just like us. All wanting the same things. We can live at peace with all beings, because we have found peace in the core of our being. Much, the same, as it is in the core of all beings.

Now, that sounds all well, and good. But maybe it is a bit naive, too. The way things are may be the way things are. But the way things seem to be are certainly a far cry from what we may wish them to be. Given that set of circumstances, can I really go wherever I wish without danger? How exactly am I supposed to perceive this universal harmony with all the talk about terrorists, and mass-shootings? I guess that is what Lao Tzu means by being in the midst of great pain. All around us, there is pain, suffering, madness…. Can we really perceive the universal harmony, and find peace in our hearts, even in the midst of all this pain?

Well, that was the promise. And I don’t think things are really all that different from Lao Tzu’s day. I don’t think if Lao Tzu were alive today, he would be of a different opinion regarding the Tao. But, let’s be real here. Perceiving the universal harmony is a whole lot like perceiving the Tao. And, Lao Tzu has already told us, the Tao can’t be perceived.

Music or the smell of good cooking may make people stop and enjoy. But words that point to the Tao seem monotonous and without flavor. He is talking, here, about perceiving the universal harmony, so pay attention. Your senses are not going to be of any use to you. Looking for it won’t work. There isn’t anything to see. Listening for it won’t work. There isn’t anything to hear. Clearly, perceiving the universal harmony isn’t something to be done with our senses. All around us there may be great pain. So, it isn’t a matter of having just the right set of circumstances, either. So, how do we perceive it?

You perceive it by knowing that it is there. Though you can’t see it. Though you can’t hear it. Still, you know, in your heart, the very core of your being, it is right there. So, you don’t wait around for it to display itself for all the world to see and hear. That isn’t going to happen. You just start using it. And you keep on using it. And using it. And using it. It is inexhaustible. You just keep using it.

Friends, I don’t know how to make it any plainer. You simply have to trust the Tao. Be centered in it. Don’t try to control things. Just let them go their own way. The Tao remains the same. Even in the midst of great pain. Especially in the midst of great pain. The Tao remains the same. It is there to be used. It is inexhaustible. Use it however you want. Go wherever you want. Without danger. Be at peace.