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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Way Things Seem to Be and the Way They Truly Are
I said it was all very simple, yesterday. We need to turn back with the Tao. We need to practice the way of yielding. We know we want to be in harmony with the Tao, because all things are born of being. But, this “being” is born of non-being. I said it is simple. But, that doesn’t mean it is easy.
It isn’t easy because our perception of the way things are is skewed. This is something of which I am constantly reminding myself. And, when opportunity allows it, I tell others, too. Your perception of reality is not reality. Our perceptions are limited to the things we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. But reality transcends what we can perceive with our senses. Sometimes we simply can’t trust what we perceive with our senses.
Hence, the importance of today’s chapter.
What happens when we hear of the Tao? Oh, to the extent it agrees with what we perceive of the world around us, we might readily believe it. But, then there are those nagging doubts, considering the way things seem to be, when they don’t line up with it.
It takes a superior person, Lao Tzu insists, a wise and virtuous person, to hear of the Tao, and immediately begin to embody it. Most of us, conditioned by years of perceiving the way things seem to be, only half believe it, and half doubt it. Don’t beat yourself up over this, I fell into this category, too. It has taken me longer than I care to admit to fully embrace it, let alone embody it. And, while Lao Tzu calls out the fool for laughing out loud when they hear of the Tao, that response does serve a certain purpose. It wouldn’t be the Tao, if they didn’t laugh.
We have been enjoined to turn back, to return to harmony with the Tao. And, yielding is the way.
What follows is what is said regarding the way things are. But, pay special attention to that word “seems”, because it is our perception of the way things are, which is the problem.
We are on the path into the light. “But, it seems dark.” So? Of course, it is dark. You expected it to be light? We are on a journey into the light. If it was light already, the journey would already be at its conclusion. Keep walking.
“But, the path forward seems to go back.” Well, of course, it seems to go back. The Tao’s movement is one of turning back. Stay on the path.
“Yeah, but, the direct path seems long.” Wait a minute. First, you were complaining that it seemed to turn back. Now, you are complaining that it is taking too long? You sound like a child asking if we are there yet, when we just got started. Follow the Tao, wherever it leads.
My friends, true power will seem weak, true purity will seem tarnished, true steadfastness will seem changeable, true clarity will seem obscure; because, your perceptions of power, and purity, and steadfastness, and clarity, all need to be overhauled. The way we have been doing things for, oh, so very long now, has got to change. We can’t continue to look at things the way we have been. Our perceptions are skewed. We can’t trust them.
I am just going to come out and say it. The greatest art is unsophisticated. The greatest love is indifferent. The greatest wisdom is childish. Our problem is that we think there is something wrong with the unsophisticated, the indifferent, the childish. They don’t meet our expectations. Our expectations are that art should be sophisticated, that love should show the “proper” concern and care, that wisdom be filled with gravitas. But, what if we are wrong? What if our perceptions of things, and our expectations for things, have always been wrong?
The fool laughs out loud. Why? Because the Tao is nowhere to be found. We are so busy looking for it in all the wrong places. Why can’t we find it? It is nowhere to be found; yet, it nourishes and completes all things. You can, of course, go on half believing and half doubting. But, I think better things of you. I think you are going to immediately begin to embody it.