Coming To Trust My Inner Vision

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)

A couple of chapters ago Lao Tzu talked of the need to cleanse our inner vision. Can you cleanse it until you see nothing but the light? Over time, through misuse or neglect, our inner vision can become unreliable, or so it would seem. Colors blind it. Sounds deafen it. Flavors numb it. Thoughts weaken it. Desires wither it. So much stimuli. Too much stimuli. Overwhelming it. Can we trust it?

Not with all that over-stimulation. Colors, sounds, flavors, thoughts, desires – what do they even mean? What useful purpose do they serve? Mostly, they just distract us from the eternally real. We have to learn to take a step back from all of that.

Who is the boss? Are you a slave? Or, are you the Master? Who is the Master of your mind, your heart, your inner vision? Are you a slave or are you free? A slave is captive to his thoughts and desires; they weaken and wither him. But, you can be the Master. You can free yourself, cleansing yourself, until you see nothing but the light.

What is the basic difference between the Master and the slave? The Master sets himself apart from the world. From his vantage point, he can observe it, without being misled by it. He can trust his inner vision. And he does. The slave appears hopelessly lost.

Things don’t have to be as they appear, though. I was once a slave to thoughts and desires. I still need, regularly, to take that step back, in order to keep my inner vision cleansed, to understand all things.

Allowing things to come and go as they will, without interfering or trying to cling to fleeting things. Allowing your heart to be as open as the sky. Letting in the light. Only the light.

What We Work With And What We Use

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)

We have been talking for the last few days about being on the wrong path; and how to get on the right path. Then, along comes today’s chapter. And we may wonder if Lao Tzu is switching gears, and why?

But the concepts of being and non-being are not new to us. At least, Lao Tzu has talked of them before. Back in chapter two he introduced them to us, as he introduced yin and yang. If we are going to practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing we need to understand the relationship between being and non-being. They create each other. That is what he said of them in chapter two. But there is more to being and non-being than that.

Today, Lao Tzu explains how we work with being, but non-being is what we use. He does so, using three different metaphors: a wagon wheel, a clay pot, and a wood house.

Being is what we work with. We join spokes together in a wheel. We shape clay into a pot. We hammer wood for a house. We understand what being is, and how to work with it. But if we are really going to put knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing into practice, we best understand non-being.

Non-being is that center hole in the wheel. It is the emptiness inside the pot. It is the inner space of the house. While we work with being, being is creating non-being. That center hole that makes the wagon move. That emptiness inside the pot that holds whatever we want. That inner space in our house that makes it livable.

Valuing emptiness is also not a new concept to us. It was in chapter three that Lao Tzu first introduced the value of emptiness. There he said that the Master leads by emptying people’s minds. He went on to say that the Master fills their cores. Emptying is always followed by filling. And filling, by emptying. In chapters five and six, Lao Tzu once again referred to the importance of emptiness, using two different metaphors. First, he talked about a bellows being empty yet infinitely capable. Then, he talked about the Great Mother being empty yet inexhaustible.

There it was that Lao Tzu told us to hold on to the center. That is where the emptiness always is. Find it in the center. Use it anyway you want. The emptiness, non-being, is what we use. That is the point Lao Tzu is making over and over again in this chapter. That center hole in the wheel will need to be filled to make the wagon move. The emptiness inside the pot will need to be filled with whatever you want to use it for. And the inner space in your house, is only livable once you are inside it.

There is value in emptiness. It is the emptiness, the nothing, the non-being, that creates value for everything around us, everything we work with. Hold on to the center. That emptiness inside. That is how we will come to practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. That is how to get off the crazy path we have been on for our whole lives, and follow the only path to serenity.

Why Must We Make Things So Difficult?

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)

In the preceding two chapters, Lao Tzu set before us two very different paths. The path we need to be on is the one that most people disdain: To be like water, being without doing, nourishing without trying, content with the lowest places, content to simply be yourself. People, instead, want to compare and compete with others. They never know when enough is enough. They keep on chasing after money and security, and caring about others approval. But this isn’t the path to serenity.

Today, Lao Tzu continues with six rhetorical questions. Six “Can yous?” These will seem impossible, if we make them so. They treat with our mind, our body, our heart, how we relate with those around us, and how we deal with the most vital matters. They conclude with a reminder from the previous chapter that we need to take a step back in order to understand all things.

Keeping to the original oneness, seems a tall order, indeed. How can I do that? My mind is prone to wandering. How do I keep it from wandering? You don’t. Sorry, I just had to be blunt. Your mind is going to wander. You can’t keep it from doing that. Are we already finished, even before we get started? No! Because there is something that we very well can do. And that is what Lao Tzu asks of us. Can you coax your mind back from its wandering? Sure you can! Don’t fret over your mind wandering. My mind wanders too. But don’t let that disturb you. Just coax it back. You’ll find yourself having to do so, over and over again. This isn’t a one-time thing. We only get defeated because we think this should be some once-and-for-all thing. It isn’t. Everyday and throughout the day I find my mind wandering. I gently coax it back. This is the only way to keep to the original oneness.

Now, on to the second. The one where just one word separates the impossible from the possible. We get all hung up here with a metaphor. How can I make my body as supple as a newborn child’s? It has been years, many years, since I was a newborn. Those days are far gone. But Lao Tzu didn’t ask us to make our bodies soft like a newborn’s. He asked if we could let it become. Remember, that newborn child’s suppleness is a metaphor. It isn’t intended to be taken literally. What Lao Tzu is really after is someone who will let themselves bend to the flow of the Tao. Newborns, indeed, have that kind of suppleness. But we can, too! If we will let it happen.

Even our hearts, our inner vision, can get sullied, over time. I think it is because we have allowed our minds to wander too far and too long without coaxing them back. Or, maybe we have allowed our bodies to become stiff and hard over the years, resisting, resisting the current of the Tao. After so long, our hearts become sullied. Our inner vision is so clouded. We need a good cleansing. But you can do that, too! Cleansed until you see nothing but the light. Nothing but the light.

We can do these things. Lao Tzu isn’t posing impossible-to-do actions for us. But it isn’t going to be easy. I hated to write that last sentence. Haven’t I been going on and on about a life of contentment and ease? Why can’t it be easy? The reason it isn’t easy is because we make it difficult. When we care about others approval. When we don’t know when enough is enough. It can be easy, too. If we will just let it be.

Consider the next “can you?”: Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? You most certainly can! I would venture to say that you don’t know the first thing about what loving and leading is, if you can’t do so without imposing your will. “Oh, but you don’t understand. I only want what’s best for them. I love them! They don’t know what’s good for them. I must make them.” You are making this very difficult. But it can be easy. If you will let it be.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? Now, it gets real. Can we do this? Must we interfere? Try to force a particular outcome? We are talking about the most vital matters, after all. Won’t Lao Tzu cut us some slack? But if we can’t do this with the most vital matters, how are we ever going to trust the Tao with the inconsequential ones. Whatever that means. The truth is we don’t have the control we think we do. We only think we do. That is why we interfere. That is why we resort to the use of force. That is why we try, how we try, to control. There is so much power in knowing that we don’t know. Knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing is the only way to deal with the most vital matters, and all the lesser ones, too.

It isn’t easy because we make it so difficult. It is the supreme virtue to behave like this. You have to be able to take a step back from your own mind to understand all things. You can do this, too. If only you will. Giving birth and nourishing. That is something the Tao does without trying. Having without possessing. Acting without expectations. Leading without needing to, or trying to, be in control. The doing can be effortless. That is doing not-doing. But it isn’t going to be easy, this supreme of virtues, if we make it difficult.

Know When Enough Is Enough

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)

Today’s chapter offers us the contrast to yesterday’s chapter. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu said the Tao is like water; and water is like the Tao. He talked about how it nourishes all things without trying; and it is content with the low places people disdain. Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us how to practice doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing. Today, he continues by talking about why people are not content with the low places. Why it is we disdain them.

The reason is clear. We think we know what we don’t know. What we don’t know is when enough is enough. Why do we keep on filling our bowl to the brim? Don’t we know it will only spill? Why do we keep sharpening our knives? Don’t we know they will blunt? Why do we continue to chase after money and security? And then wonder why it is that our hearts never unclench. And how we care about others approval. Where does that get us?

While yesterday Lao Tzu gave us a list of ways to be if we want to be content, today he lays out the ways we are, and why we will never be content. We don’t know when enough is enough. We never seem to know it. That is why our bowls spill. That is why our knives blunt, that is why our hearts never unclench, that is why we are prisoners in prisons we have built for ourselves.

If we are ever going to know true contentment, what Lao Tzu today calls serenity, there is only one path. What does “Do your work, then step back” mean? It is that all-important step back. The only path to serenity is to be serene. If you want to be serene, then be serene. If you want to be content, then be content. With what you have, with who you are. Do your work, and then stop. Take a step back. Know when enough is enough. Don’t keep filling, sharpening, chasing, caring… Those are not in keeping with the Tao. Know when enough is enough; and contentment, serenity, is yours.

Lao Tzu tells of two very different paths in these last two chapters: There is the one we are on; and then there is the other one. The one that people disdain.

Not Things To Do, But Ways To Be

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’s chapter is the first time that Lao Tzu compares the Tao to water (it won’t be the last). There is only one reason for Lao Tzu to do this. He is teaching us how to practice not-knowing and not-doing. The Tao is like water. If we want to follow the Tao, we will need to be like water, as well. But notice the specific qualities of water that make it like the Tao: It nourishes all things without trying to; that is doing not-doing. And, it is content with the low places that people disdain; it’s humility is knowing not-knowing. We will learn other things about water and the Tao as we go along on this journey through the Tao Te Ching; but today, that is enough. Everyone asks, so how do we put Lao Tzu’s teachings into practice? How do we practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing? The problem lies in thinking that we have to do something. We have to try to put these into practice. What do I have to do? What do I need to know?

But water doesn’t do or know anything. It just is. I always think of it as “being, rather than doing.” We are human beings, not human doings. There isn’t some special knowledge we need. Our so-called knowledge just hinders us. That is why we need to be humble enough to know that we don’t know. And “Taoism” isn’t something to be tried. We need to be like water. Not try to do what water does. Water nourishes all things without trying to. Think about that for a moment. What does water have to do in order to nourish us? We know that without it we will only last a few days. But its life-giving properties are just a matter of what it is, not what it does. It is the same with the Tao. It nourishes all things, not by what it does, but by what it is.

Okay, okay, but how am I to be like water? I will overlook the obvious connotation that you are still thinking you don’t know something you should know; or, that there is still something to do that you aren’t doing. Lao Tzu offers us six ways to be content simply being ourselves, like water is. Notice, these are not things to do. They are ways to be.

Let’s talk about your dwelling. I am not just meaning your physical dwelling here. I am talking about attitude. Live close to the ground. I would venture to say that this could be accomplished in a high-rise apartment, just as well as in a hobbit-hole. It is all about attitude. Are you living close to the ground? How connected to the Earth are you? You do realize you are made of the same stuff that makes up the Earth. Don’t lose your connection to that. Live close to it. Be like water.

And how many times have we heard the now, old adage: K.I.S.S., keep it simple, stupid. We are talking about our thinking. Do we over-think things? Or, do we keep it simple? If you want to be like water, keep to the simple.

In conflict, be fair and generous. Lao Tzu isn’t promising some Utopia, where there will never be conflict. He already said that evil is always going to be present. So how are we to be, when we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a conflict? Why not be fair and generous? I can already hear the whiners. “But they started it. Why can’t they be fair and generous?” But it isn’t about others. It never was about them. It is about your attitude. How will you be?

Why is there conflict, anyway? Someone is trying to maintain some kind of control. Which is why, in governing, Lao Tzu tells us to stop that. Don’t try to control. Don’t just read by this too quickly. This is very important. Why do we find it so hard to follow the Tao? Because we don’t want to admit that there are things that we have no business trying to control. We like to be in control. Most of us don’t like being controlled, but we sure enough like trying to be in control. Let it go. Your need to be in control. Don’t even try it.

This next one is one that we think we have heard far too often. Who hasn’t heard, concerning work, find something that you enjoy doing. I know that the majority of my readers are considerably younger than me; and you all are sick and tired of hearing this. After all, your own experience has been that as soon as you start doing what you enjoy doing, the same people that were telling you to follow that advice will be complaining, you don’t have a real job. Still, I have to say it. I worked for many years doing stuff that paid the bills, but I didn’t enjoy. It was not the way to be content. I learned how to be content with a simple, ordinary life; only after I stopped doing what I didn’t enjoy, and started doing what I did. I make a fraction of what I used to make. And I have never been happier. Would I be happy making a lot more? It isn’t about how much I am making. It is about being content with my simple, ordinary life. I am.

No list of ways of how to be would be complete, without a mention of how to be in family life. Families are important. Your family is important. Whatever role you are in in the family, and most of us have multiple and changing ones, if you want true contentment, be completely present. Just like the Tao is present for you. Be there, in the now. Your parents, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your whatever relations you have, you need to be present. Completely present. This isn’t about them. It is about you. This is how to be like water. To be content with simply being yourself.

The practice of knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing is being content simply being yourself. Don’t compare or compete. I promise you, be this, and everybody will respect you.

Let It Be Present For You

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)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins by reiterating that the Tao is infinite and eternal. Then, he explains what he means by that. But if you are anything like me, you are wondering, “Yes, but exactly what practical use is that to me?” After all, Lao Tzu has been insisting that the Tao is meant to be used. And, we can use it however we want. But, being reminded that the Tao is both infinite and eternal, just seems to further distance our finite, temporal selves from the Tao. And, Lao Tzu insists that this infinite, eternal Tao is within each one of us. But, how is that even possible? How can I, a finite and temporal vessel, ever hope to contain the infinite and eternal Tao?

Lao Tzu doesn’t intend to discourage us. The fact that the Tao is eternal, only means that it has no beginning, and thus no end. But the fact that it is infinite opens up all kinds of otherwise unexpected possibilities for us. The Tao isn’t limited by its own desires for itself. It has no desires for itself. Thus, it is present for all of us, in unlimited qualities and quantities.

It all comes back to our need to practice not-knowing and not-doing. What is it that we think we know? We know we are finite and temporal. It is that knowledge that seems to throw up an unassailable roadblock in our path. How can the infinite and eternal be contained within something that is finite and temporal? It can’t, obviously. And while that would immediately dash all hopes, wait, just a minute. What if we were to realize that we don’t know what we think we know? The reality that the Tao cannot be contained actually means that the potentials are unlimited. Because of what we think we know, we put our own limitations on the Tao. But the Tao is unlimited! It always has been. It always will be.

The Tao is present for us, and we can truly use it anyway we want. The possibilities are infinite. So, I can’t limit the Tao with my knowledge. I need to let it be infinite in me. And, that is where not-doing comes in. Because it is right here that we want to do something.

We need, right here, to follow the example of the Master. She is our example. Instead of following the urge to go on ahead, she stays behind. And what happens? By staying behind, she is ahead. We find ourselves forming attachments to people, places, things, even ideas. How else are we ever going to be one with them? But the Master shows us a better way, the only way. She is detached from all things. Things arise and she lets them come. They go, and she lets them. How can she be one with them? Our knowledge gets in the way, right here. We can’t begin to wrap our minds around this. So, stop trying! Just like the Tao has no desires for itself, the Master has let go of herself. Okay, this is just silly! How will I ever have happiness, fulfillment, if I don’t start with what I desire, and then set goals, and work toward achieving that end?

As I said in an earlier chapter, Lao Tzu’s teachings fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Either we let go of our so-called knowledge, or we stay in the same rut in which we have always been. The Master has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled. Forget what your knowledge tells you. What your family, your friends, your teachers, tell you. Let go of everything you think you know. And, let the Tao be infinite and eternal in you.

Lessons I Didn’t Learn In A Pool Hall

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)

Thinking back to yesterday’s chapter, and Lao Tzu’s radical solution to the problem of evil, I can’t help but mention the only criticism I have ever heard about Lao Tzu’s teachings: It is foolish, naive to do nothing about evil. We think we know better. We are so much more sophisticated. That is why Lao Tzu teaching us to practice not-knowing and not-doing flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Do we really know so much? Or do we only think we know? If we were to practice knowing not-knowing, we would learn so much more. And, if we would practice doing not-doing, our lives would take on an ease that is now foreign to us.

And, it doesn’t help their case, when the most recent critic of Lao Tzu’s teachings is none other than Lindsey Graham, senator from South Carolina, and yet another contender for president in 2016. This is the man that admittedly learned everything he needs to know about Iranians while growing up in his parent’s pool hall. If I have to choose between that kind of foreign policy experience, and Lao Tzu’s, Lao Tzu wins hands down. I would much rather know that I don’t know, than make a complete ass of myself flaunting my vast pool hall knowledge like that.

I really don’t have to single out Lindsey Graham, however. Regardless what rhetoric they will all be spewing in the weeks and months ahead, whoever will be elected president is going to continue to proclaim they have found evil and set about to do battle with it, just like we have always done.

Meanwhile, I need to move on to the present chapter. Lao Tzu, yesterday, informed us that the Tao gives birth to both good and evil. But that was really just the beginning. It actually gives birth to infinite worlds. To all things. Even to Lindsey Graham? Wait, don’t get distracted. Focus. Well, then, that is why the Tao is called the Great Mother. This is merely a name for the Tao. Great Mother, because it gives birth to all things. Infinite worlds.

Like a well, like the eternal void, like a bellows, the Great Mother; it is empty, yet inexhaustible. It is meant to be used. Go ahead, use it. No worries, you can never use it up. It is always present within you. You don’t have to go on some long journey, some pilgrimage, to find it. It is ever present within you. What? You thought the Tao was off in some remote corner of the Universe giving birth to infinite worlds? I have much better news than that. The eternal Tao is within you. And me. And all of us. It is present in all things. Giving birth. Nourishing. You can use it any way you want.

If only we will humble ourselves enough to know that we don’t know. To practice doing not-doing. To look within ourselves and find we have everything we need. Everything we will ever need.

Don’t Take Sides! Hold On To The Center

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)

Today’s chapter is another of my favorites. But I admit, I have a lot of favorites. It is our introduction to how to deal with the problem of evil. What I find so fascinating is how unapologetic Lao Tzu is. For many thousands of years we have been trying to deal with the problem of evil. It has been a subject for both religions and philosophies for as long as history records. And, with all of our trying to deal with it, we still find evil ever present. We haven’t been dealing very well. What Lao Tzu offers us is the one thing that no one seems willing to “try” with regard to evil.

We want to take sides. We always want to take sides. It seems ingrained in us. All the religions and philosophies that I have investigated make apologies for evil, while always insisting they are on the side of good. But no one admits what Lao Tzu unashamedly admits. Not only does the Tao not take sides, it actually gives birth to both good and evil. This is important. Having announced in the previous chapter that the Tao precedes God, it would seem to be up to the Tao to answer for itself. The Tao is the responsible party. God is off the hook. After all, God can’t be responsible, having come along later.

So, let’s put the Tao in the dock, so to speak. What does it have to say for itself? Seriously, if the Tao gives birth to both, it has a lot of explaining to do. But the Tao is unfazed by our pleas. Without any remorse, and with no offer of apologies: I gave birth to them both. I don’t take sides. Why do you?

That is a very good question. And somehow I suspect that the majority of us become almost apoplectic, when the question is turned back on us. Lao Tzu tells us how deal with it. And it won’t satisfy those who want to be in control. For Lao Tzu tells us that the way to deal with it, is to not deal with it. Don’t take sides! The Master doesn’t. And because the Master doesn’t, she is able to welcome both saint and sinner, alike. This is a radical idea! I admit it. I am not going to deny that evil exists. It has existed along with good for as long as, well, let’s just call it forever. But, can we admit that we can’t do anything about it? That is it in a nutshell. That you can’t do anything about something that so far precedes you, would seem to be self-evident. But still we want to try?

Why? And then Lao Tzu offers us just a little hint into our problem. Perhaps you have already figured out that good and evil have something of yin and yang in them. Lao Tzu tells us that the Tao is like a bellows. We know what a bellows is used for. A bellows is a mechanism which expands and contracts. It may be used to both take in air and let out air. The Tao is like that. How the Tao acts in our Universe is like that. Expansion and contraction follow each other, just like before and after. The Tao is the mechanism for that expansion and contraction. For both yin and yang.

Good and evil coexist. The Tao gives birth to them both. And what does the Tao do about them? The Tao is empty yet infinitely capable. Just like a bellows. The more you use it, the more it produces. And the more we fuss over and struggle with the way things are, the more we are going to have to fuss over and struggle with.

Don’t take sides! The way things are is the way things are. Deal with it, by not dealing with it; this is doing not-doing. Hold on to the center! Is this all he is going to say? For now, yes. We will return to the problem of evil, later. But for now, this is enough. For the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Things We Know and Things We Cannot Know

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)

Thank you, all of you, for coming along with me on this journey through the Tao Te Ching. The purpose of this journey is to realize the mystery of the eternal Tao. Lao Tzu has been laying the groundwork; now, he can begin talking about the mystery.

He first spoke of the Tao as the eternal reality, in chapter one. There, he identified our problem. A problem that must be circumvented, if we are ever going to realize the mystery. The problem is desire. As long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. It is only free from desire that we can realize the mystery. What can we do, then? We are going look at the manifestations and trace those manifestations back to the Source. Along the Way, we will learn how to be free from desire; and find ourselves back at the gateway to all understanding.

In chapter two, Lao Tzu addressed how someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao, the Master, overcomes the problem of duality. It was our introduction to yin and yang; the way the Tao achieves balance and harmony in our Universe.

Yesterday, in chapter three, we talked about the need to not tip the scales and a little bit about the need to practice doing not-doing. This doing not-doing is an expression of oneness and harmony with the Tao; making everything that we do effortless.

We have talked some of how the Tao acts in the Universe. But now, Lao Tzu begins using metaphorical language to talk about the mystery of the Tao. He can’t help but use metaphors to point at it. The eternal Tao is shrouded in darkness. We can’t begin to realize it yet. Sometimes, I find myself getting lost in the metaphors. It is something I need to guard against. Lao Tzu isn’t saying the Tao is a well. Just, that it is like a well. The Tao is a mystery. Thus, we have metaphors to describe it. But the metaphors show us how the Tao is manifest in our world; by tracing back the manifestations we will get to the Source.

By saying the Tao is like a well and like the eternal void, Lao Tzu is showing us something that is used, yet never used up, empty, yet filled with infinite possibilities. It isn’t easy to understand this. So, don’t worry that you have difficulties with it. We are still dealing with the problem of desire. Trying to wrap our minds around something that is eternal and infinite, when we are temporal and finite, isn’t going to be easy.

And Lao Tzu is using language that we are more familiar with using to describe God. Hidden, but always present. We want to understand more fully. The Tao isn’t hiding from us. It is present. We can’t see it, because all we can see when we look for it is darkness. This language intrigues us. The paradox of something that is eternally existent, infinite, and ever-present; yet, it is not God. The paradox of something that is both empty and filled. The Tao manifests itself in paradox. And we want to wrap our minds around that? Who gave birth to it? Who were your parents? If I know your parents, I know something of you. But, Lao Tzu can’t answer that question. It is older than God. Is that any help? While the Tao has no parent, it does have children. And those children, its manifestations, will tell us what we need to know. They will show us the Way.

Leave Those Scales Alone!

If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced us to both the concept of yin and yang (how the Tao acts in the Universe to achieve balance and harmony) and to the Master (our example for how to be in perfect harmony with the Tao). We have talked about the problem of desire. Until we are free of desire, we can’t realize the mystery of the Tao. Caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. We have begun our journey through the Tao Te Ching. It is a journey where we will trace back the manifestations of the Tao to the Source. Along the way, we will circumvent the problem of desire.

Today, Lao Tzu once again confronts the problem of desire. It is manifest whenever we over-do anything. Remember, the Tao is the great Equalizer. It always seeks to achieve balance. It acts in the world to adjust both excess and deficiency. Notice, Lao Tzu doesn’t say there is anything wrong with esteeming great men. Nor, is there is anything wrong with valuing possessions. The problem is desire. The problem is when things are done to excess. Desire causes us to do things to excess. And, that ultimately leads to deficiency.

Excess always leads to deficiency. I want to be careful to explain what I mean by excess and deficiency here. Excess doesn’t just mean a lot. It means too much. But, what is too much? And what is deficiency? Just having little of something doesn’t mean there isn’t enough; that there is a deficiency. Deficiency means too little, not enough. But what is not enough? It isn’t up to any of us to decide. Not me, and not you. Because we don’t know. We can’t know. That is why it is the Tao that decides that. The Tao does know. Where there is excess and deficiency, the Tao will do the adjusting. One of the things we are going to learn, on our journey, is to let go of our desire to be in control. To try to help (or hinder) the Tao in its adjustments.

Excess always leads to deficiency. That is why we need to be mindful to never tip the scales in anyone’s favor. If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. An excess of esteem results in a deficiency of esteem. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. An excess in value results in unleashing all sorts of unhealthy desires. This is why Lao Tzu said, yesterday, that the Master has, but doesn’t possess. The Master leaves those scales alone. She acts as if she possesses nothing. She doesn’t overvalue possessions.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the relationship of the Master with the Tao. Today, he talks about the Master’s relationship with the rest of us, the people. The Master is our example. He leads us to follow the Tao by following the Tao, showing us the way. This is teaching without words.

Remember, the problem we have is desire. The Master helps us to circumvent the problem of desire, first, by emptying our minds. Emptying our minds? What does that mean? The problem isn’t with what we know. It is with what we think we know. What we think we know strengthens our ambition. But ambition is desire. That is a problem. The Master wants to help us lose everything we think we know, everything we desire. That is why the Master weakens our ambition.

But, it doesn’t just involve emptying. Where there is emptying, there must also be filling. There is always balance. While our minds are emptying, our cores are filling. I have read quite a few translations where the word for cores is bellies. It means the same thing, but we tend to associate bellies with stomachs, and Lao Tzu means much more than a repository for food, here. Another word we could use for core would be heart. But we aren’t talking about the blood-pumping muscle in our bodies, either. What the Master is after, in filling our cores, is toughening our resolve. Our ambition needs weakening, because ambition is all about desire. Our resolve needs toughening because we need to learn to be content with what we already have. No desiring more. This creates confusion in those who think that they know. We will talk more of knowing not-knowing in the days and weeks ahead.

Today, Lao Tzu ends the chapter with the practice of not-doing. Wu-Wei, doing not-doing, is the central tenet of philosophical Taoism. It is also a mostly misunderstood concept. But we have to understand this; which is why we will continue to talk about it all along our journey. Today he says, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.” Resist the urge to interfere with the Tao. Resist doing when doing nothing is better. Wait on the Tao. Discern its flow. Then, go with that flow. Make all your actions effortless. It is the perfect balance of passive and active, yin and yang. Let things happen; instead of trying to force things to happen. Trying and forcing requires effort. What we are after is effortlessness. Everything will fall into place; if we will only let it.