Getting In The Zone

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. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated doing nothing; though doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds think it means. Because it is so important to philosophical Taoism, I want to spend a little time explaining what Wu Wei means.

This is a concept that permeates all of 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 is it that not doing can result in all things being done?

To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the most obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor of Wu Wei is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. And, the soft overcomes the hard, the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

Water is an apt metaphor. But it isn’t the only way that Wu-Wei can be exemplified. He also says that something with no substance enters where there is no space. That only intensifies the mystery. But it does show the value of Wu Wei.

Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, in this context. Water still nourishes, even if it doesn’t have to work at it. And the soft and gentle does overcome the hardest thing. Overcoming without having to try to overcome sounds really good to me. I want to be able to put Wu Wei to work for me.

So, what is Lao Tzu getting at? I think he is defining a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a completely natural, not-contrived way. We want to be in harmony with the Tao. That has certainly been Lao Tzu’s theme, all along.

I want to better understand what Wu Wei means. Because I have already decided that doing nothing doesn’t cut it. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without” and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “serve as”, “govern”, or “effort”. The most common translations for Wu Wei are “non-action” like Stephen Mitchell is translating it here. But it can also be translated; without action, without effort, or without control. Notice how all of these words have been used over and over again by Stephen Mitchell in his translation. He really gets it right.

The other way that we see it presented is in the paradox Wei Wu Wei, which could then be translated as acting without acting, or doing without doing. Here, we can plainly see that there is something to do. We are getting closer, but we aren’t quite there.

To better understand Wu Wei, let’s consider some less commonly referenced senses of it. For instance, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort.” In this case, Wu means “without” and Wei means “effort” and now we are really getting somewhere. For “effortless action” is probably the best way of explaining it. Instead of thinking that you should be doing nothing, something that leaves us thinking we should, well, just do nothing, think of all your actions being effortless.

What we want to do is practice Wei Wu Wei. And Wei Wu Wei is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. How do we achieve this state of being? It isn’t as hard as we might make it out to be. It really is the most natural way to be. What is unnatural is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. It really is a lot like being like water, just going with the flow.

And we actually are in this state of being all of the time. We just don’t realize it while we are. I am certain that you can think back on it, after the fact. A time that things just flowed and you lost track of time. You became one with the world and what you did just happened so naturally. You were in the zone. But the moment you actively began to think about being in the zone, when you became aware of that, things started breaking down. Then our minds got into the action and we started exerting effort to maintain this state of being. Nope! That isn’t how it works.

That is why we only seem to be able to reflect back on it, after the fact. While we are in the zone, we aren’t thinking, we aren’t doing, but things are getting done. This is the state of being where all our actions are without effort. So, Wei Wu Wei is something that is beyond the realm of thinking. It is on a whole other level than acting by thinking. I know we have been taught all along to think before we act. But this state of being is a whole other dimension. We don’t think. It isn’t goal-driven. It isn’t something driven by our desires.

We have all experienced those moments. I know we have, because we are human beings not human doings. We have gotten a bit confused on that point; but that truth remains the truth. And obviously, we would like to string more of those moments together. But that would seem impossible. We can’t do it consciously, anyway.

So, that is where Lao Tzu finds it necessary to bring in the Master to show us the way. Teaching without words. Performing without actions. That is the Master’s way. As long as we are trying to make it happen, we are exerting effort. So, that isn’t the way. Effortless really means without effort. So, what can we do? Let the Tao be your guide. Be an observer of nature. Nature isn’t in any hurry. But it does have a pace to it. Pick up on that. Get yourself in tune with the waves of motion in the Universe. It isn’t in any hurry; but all things do get done. Pick up on those natural rhythms, the flow. Everything acts according to its nature. Even you. Just go with that flow. When you are in the zone you won’t even be aware that you are. But what does that matter? Don’t think about it. Just go with it.

It All Started With A Big Bang

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)

This mysterious chapter used to catch me by surprise as I journeyed through the Tao Te Ching. My early attempts at trying to demystify it were, to be generous with myself, a little less than adequate. But after several cycles through the Tao Te Ching, and a lot of research, I finally feel like I have a passing understanding of what it is that Lao Tzu is saying. I was determined; and that helped. I consulted multiple translations, including the original. I looked into the writings of the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on. But simply getting familiar with the whole of the Tao Te Ching, has helped me the most. Context rules! What was this mysterious One to which the Tao gave birth? What was the Two? And, the Three? Was this some esoteric mystery that only a select few could know? Was it something that his immediate readers would readily understand, but my westernized mind could not? Here are some things that I needed to remind myself of. Lao Tzu isn’t writing to confuse us. He is writing to enlighten us. He wants us to understand the mystery of the Tao, as best we can.

So, let’s look at the context first. This isn’t a few isolated words. We have the whole of his writings before us. When I begin to think of the Tao as the Source, as the great Mother, who gives birth to all things, I have a starting point. Then, I consider what Lao Tzu said about the Tao just a couple chapters ago. All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. We are talking about giving birth. First the Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. And, Three gives birth to all things. And I keep reminding myself that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. The One, the Two, and the Three must be very much related to the Tao. So far, so good.

Now, let’s look at how Chuang Tzu expands on what Lao Tzu has said. “At the beginning, there is Nothing. No existence. No names. Where One rises up, there is One, but it doesn’t have a form yet.” When I read that, a light bulb went on in my head. That got me thinking about being and non-being as aspects of the Tao. And it especially got me thinking of non-being, that pesky nothingness, that is the key to everything. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. I think of it as pre-manifestation of the Tao. It isn’t yet manifest. It is the Tao as mystery. Being is so much easier to understand. Being is the Tao manifest. Non-being gives birth to it. Out of nothing comes something!

And interestingly, every Creation myth, I am familiar with, seems to start out with nothing. And, so we get back to today’s chapter where the Tao gives birth to One. Chuang Tzu identifies that One as Nothing. Non-being seems to fit. It seems a rather inauspicious beginning, but the initial action of the Tao is to give birth to nothing, non-being. Other creation myths start out with the nothing and then add light. But Lao Tzu takes us back to the birth of nothing. It would be an even less auspicious start if we didn’t already know that that nothing, non-being, is what gives birth to being. No wonder we had to start with nothing. Nothing but the Tao, that is.

Understanding what the One must be, helps us to understand what the Two is. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang written all over it. The One gives birth to Two: non-being and being. That would be Wu and Yu in Chinese philosophy. What we have here is two very distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. And these aspects of the Tao rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. The One rises up first, yes; just like giving precedes receiving. But until what is given has been received nothing has been given. So, almost simultaneously, we have being being birthed by non-being. This is how yin and yang work.

Now that we have the Two, yin and yang, what is the Three that gives birth to all things. I said earlier that we have to remember that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. When Lao Tzu talks of being and non-being he is talking about the Tao. So, too, when he is talking about the Three. But we need something more than just to say that the Tao gives birth to the Tao over and over again. To understand the mysterious Three I had to delve a little bit deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the prime mover? What initiates the motion? Obviously it is the Tao; but we have been describing different aspects of the Tao. First, there is Wu, non-being. Second, there is Yu, being. And third, there is Chi.

Chi could be translated as energy. Or, the life force. I have also seen it described as breath or spirit. All of these are helpful for understanding what Chi is. Chi is what gets the ball rolling, so to speak. It puts everything into motion. The Two, Wu and Yu, being and non-being, combine; and, like the splitting of an atom, they give birth to Chi. Once again, I would say that this is both spontaneous and almost simultaneous. I don’t think it is really helpful to try and think of the passage of time between the Tao giving birth to non-being, non-being giving birth to being, and non-being and being giving birth to Chi. They are all aspects of the Tao. And together they make a big bang.

In all respects, the Tao gives birth to itself. That is the beginning. That is the beginning of all things. It is your beginning. It is my beginning. The Three give birth to all things. And that brings us to the next part of today’s chapter. All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. Say what? It helps to remember yin and yang here. Lao Tzu is actually saying what he just said in reverse order. He starts out with all things. Why do they have their backs to the female? Female, we know is yin. But the back is yin, too. I only recently came to understand this. They stand facing the male. We know male is yang. And the front is also yang. Yin facing yin and yang facing yang. That isn’t going to work. Thankfully, Chi, gets things turned around where male and female, yin and yang combine to achieve harmony.

And, we are back to the solitary One. Lao Tzu says, ordinary men hate solitude; but the Master makes use of it. We don’t want to be merely ordinary. We need to embrace our aloneness. We need to realize the power of One. We need to realize that we are one with the whole Universe.

Give Your Doubts A Rest, And Believe

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us about both the movement and the way of the Tao. The movement is a reversing. Instead of going forwards, we go backwards. Instead of advancing, we retreat. The Tao is always bringing us back to the Source. The way in which it does this is through yielding, weakness. It doesn’t use force, it doesn’t do anything; it does nothing, yet through it all things are accomplished. Because this is the movement and way of the Tao, we need to submit to the way things are, to its movement, in order to embody the Tao. And submission is not very easy for us. It is our own desires that make it difficult for us. We want to go forward, not back. We want to appear strong, not weak. We want to be in control, not let the current of the Tao direct us. So we resist. Because of our many wants, our desires.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explains just the kind of troubles our desires cause us. And, why it is the Tao evokes such different reactions in people.

What we want is a path that goes into the light; one that goes forward; and one that is clear and direct. But the path before us seems only to get darker; we don’t seem to be advancing, at all; instead, we appear to be losing ground. The path seems long and dreadful. Talk about something that frustrates our desires! But this is our dilemma. It is the way things are versus the way things appear to be. We are frustrated because the way things are, appear to be something very different.

This Tao which is the way of the Universe, seems beyond our reckoning. We can’t perceive it. It conceals itself from us. It is nameless. How can we know it? This path of life that we are on seems like it is going backwards. But we want to go forwards, damn it! This is the tragedy of life. We keep looking forward for happiness. But it always appears still far off, beyond some distant horizon. No matter how far we advance, it never gets any closer. And, the idea that maybe that happiness we seek is but an illusion, that going forward won’t get us any closer to it, that true happiness is being content with who and what and where you are, right now, just seems foolish.

It truly takes a superior person to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. A round of applause is really due them. Because they got it, right at the start. How I wish that could have been me! I am merely average. I think most of us are. We all wrestle with our doubts. And why wouldn’t we? The kind of power that the Tao wields seems like weakness. Its purity seems tarnished. Its steadfastness seems changeable. Its clarity seems obscure. Of course we have doubts. The way things are is not the way things appear to be.

Lao Tzu keeps on insisting we already have everything we need. And we doubt that. We aren’t content. We desire more. But, the more we get, the less we seem to have. Our cravings are unquenchable. We never learned how to appreciate what we already have. We always want more. When is enough, enough? We tell ourselves that we will be satisfied with just this much more. But even then, we aren’t. The only way to be content is to appreciate that you already have everything. As long as we insist we don’t have enough, we will never have enough.

Our desires create a vicious cycle: The more we desire, the more we seek; the more we seek, the less we appreciate what we have; the less we appreciate what we have, the more we desire; it goes on and on and on. We have it all backwards. Which explains why it is the Tao is always moving to reverse things. And, this is a way of yielding, of weakness: The less we desire, the less we seek, the less we seek, the more we appreciate what we already have, and the more we appreciate what we have, the more content we are. True contentment is freedom from desire. We already have everything we need.

To the fool, the greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. That is why the fool laughs out loud. Of course, the fool laughs. They always want and expect there to be something more.

And where is the Tao? Nowhere to be found! The fool dismisses it. The average person half believes it and half doubts it. And right in our midst, the Tao keeps on nourishing and completing all things. Don’t you think it is time to give your doubts a rest and begin to embody the Tao?

Go Back, 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)

There are four words that are the focus of today’s brief chapter. They are: return, yielding, being, and non-being.

Return is the movement of the Tao. Lao Tzu has talked a lot about returning to the Source. But return as movement could use some explaining. I looked up the original Chinese for the word which Stephen Mitchell translates, return. In the original, Lao Tzu has reversing. Return as a retrograde movement helps to make sense of what Lao Tzu is saying. It is better to retreat a yard than to advance an inch, is another way that Lao Tzu has expressed himself. It will often be the case that the Tao is going to be wanting to take us away from where we want to go. We want to put the car in drive but instead we need to go in reverse. Of course, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to us, since Lao Tzu has often talked about returning to our primal selves, to be like a newborn child. Which direction should I go? Ultimately, if we are going to return to the Source, and that is where the Tao is taking us all, we will need to understand the movement of the Tao is taking us back.

Yielding is the way of the Tao. I looked up the original Chinese for that word, yielding, as well; and was a little surprised when it translated as weakness. The way of the Tao is yielding. The way of the Tao is weakness. I don’t know why this surprised me. For, Lao Tzu has had a whole lot to say about those with the will to power, and none of it was anything good. Where we have come to expect that everything that must be done, is to be done through the exercise of power, of strength, through force, and sometimes violence; Lao Tzu turns the tables on those who think they know. It is through weakness that the Tao achieves everything that it achieves. We don’t push forward, we go back. We yield. Submission is even a good word here, though I have never much liked that word. Perhaps, for the very reason that it is an act of weakness. But it really shouldn’t have surprised me. The Master doesn’t try to be powerful. He or she simply submits to the way things are. Isn’t that really what accepting that the way things are is the way things are, really means?

Being and non-being are two concepts that Lao Tzu has spoken of quite a bit; and still, trying to understand them gives me unnecessary trouble. I say, unnecessary, because Lao Tzu is always quite good about explaining exactly what he is meaning, if only we have eyes to see it. Context is always key. And what has he been talking about? Well, the Tao, obviously. He talked about reversing as the movement of the Tao. And, weakness as the way of the Tao. Now, he is still talking about the Tao; as he talks about the two aspects of the Tao: Being and Non-Being. All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. It is the Tao that gives birth to all things. Being is the manifestation of the Tao. Non-Being is the mystery of the Tao. Mystery and manifestations arise from the same Source.

We Are The World

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)

Lao Tzu has promised before that if powerful men and women could center themselves in the Tao, and stay centered, that the world would be transformed, all by itself, into a paradise. The world, in harmony with the Tao is truly a beautiful thing: Clear and spacious skies; the Earth, solid and full; all creatures flourishing together, content with the way they are, endlessly repeating themselves, endlessly renewed. This brings to mind the word, pristine; which actually is a word that is sneered at by some. I think I understand why some sneer. It is because they fear that those who are using that word are wanting to interfere with their own livelihood. But hold on there. Lao Tzu isn’t preaching the virtue of interfering. He is advocating not interfering.

Let us be clear on this point. Lao Tzu has identified humanity as one of the four great powers. The Tao being the greatest. The Universe following the Tao. The Earth following the Universe. And humanity following the Earth. Humanity is great as it follows the Earth. Our world is sacred. Sometimes, we get it in our heads that we can somehow improve on it. But that is great folly. It can’t be improved. When we interfere, when we tamper with it, when we treat it as an object, we lose!

The sky, that would otherwise be clear and spacious, becomes filthy. The Earth, that would otherwise be solid and full, becomes depleted. When we interfere with the Tao, the equilibrium, that the Tao is always maintaining, crumbles. Creatures, that would otherwise flourish, become extinct.

Humanity is one of the four great powers. We have the power to do great good: We can be a pattern for the world. But we also have the power to do great harm: When we fail to stay centered in the Tao. When we try to improve the world. When we interfere with the Tao.

That is the problem that Lao Tzu has been talking about when he discusses the so-called powerful men and women who insist on trying to control. Again and again, Lao Tzu has instructed would-be leaders in the art of governing. Don’t try to control. Give up your desire for power. Leave people alone. Left to themselves, they will do the right thing. When you use force, it always rebounds on you. No matter how good your intentions, you only achieve the opposite of what you hoped to achieve.

I know there are some out there that think we need to force people to do the right thing. They agree only partly with Lao Tzu. They want the world to be pristine, but they don’t trust that people will follow the Tao, if they aren’t forced to do so. They think they can see the speck in others’ eyes; but they don’t notice the log in their own. They are blinded by their will to power. And they are the ones that can’t be trusted.

We can’t begin to view the parts with compassion until we understand the whole. That is why it is so vital that we understand that we are not just individual parts separate from the whole. We are the world. And until we understand and accept this, we can’t begin to see the world return to harmony and balance.

My friends, that takes humility. If pride is a very human attribute, then humility is even more so. We can’t allow ourselves to be swallowed up by pride: trying to glitter like a jewel. We must give up our desire to outshine all others. Instead, we need to be shaped by the Tao, into something as rugged and common as stone. That takes humility. It takes humility to accept that we can’t make the world pristine again. But we can stop interfering with the Tao. We can let it make the world pristine again. Let the Tao shape you and each of the individual parts into what we need to be. Be content with the way you are. Let yourself be endlessly repeated and endlessly renewed. As you let the Tao do its work in you, you are a pattern for the whole world.

All They Left Us With Is The Husk

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)

I ended yesterday’s commentary saying that this was a good time to bring in the Master, as our example. We really need to learn how to master ourselves and our desires. Today, Lao Tzu comes through, beginning today’s chapter talking about the Master. You will recall that yesterday we were talking about how difficult it is for so-called powerful men and women to center themselves in the Tao. What makes things so difficult for them is explained in today’s chapter.

What does it mean to be truly powerful? The Master doesn’t try to be powerful; thus, he is truly powerful. That “not-trying” is the essential ingredient in the Master’s power. Ordinary men and women keep reaching for power, and they never do have enough. The powerful men and women that Lao Tzu has been talking about in the preceding chapters simply can’t pass muster for true power. They reach for it. They try to be powerful. But they never can get enough. They are merely ordinary. Nothing extraordinary about them.

Which is why, it always amazes me, the uproar, when one of these truly ordinary men or women fall from their imaginary pedestals. What did we really expect of such ordinary people? Too much, I guess.

Notice, too, how these ordinary men and women are always doing things, yet they leave so many more things to be done. Meanwhile, the Master, does nothing; at least that is how it appears, his workings are a mystery to us; yet, he leaves nothing undone. The Master is one with the Tao. That is the source of his power. He works with the Tao, which does nothing, and all things are done.

We talked yesterday about how our good intentions are never good. That the end never justifies the means. The so-called powerful among us, mere ordinary men and women that they are, often have very good intentions. They do what they do out of kindness, or a desire for justice; maybe it is morality that motivates them. But, as we have said before, we should be content to let our workings remain a mystery. All that really matters are the results. And what are the results? For the kind, when they do something, something remains undone. For the just, when they do something, many things are left to be done. And then there is the moral person. Perhaps, these are the worst of all. When they do something, and no one responds, they roll up their sleeves and use force.

Oh, they will justify their use of force. Because with them, the end always justifies whatever means. They know better than we do how to live our own lives. It is for our own good. We can’t be trusted to do the right thing, after all. It sure is a good thing we have them to make us do the right thing.

The problem of course, with all of these merely ordinary men and women who try to be powerful, who reach for it and never can get enough, is that they have lost any connection with the Tao. If they could center themselves in the Tao, the world be transformed. But then they wouldn’t be the ordinary men and women that they have proven themselves to be.

When the Tao is lost, we rely on goodness. When goodness is lost, we hope morality will save us all. When morality is lost, there is only ritual left. And ritual is only the husk of true faith. That, my friends, is the chaos that we should be fearing. The one we are experiencing, right now. The State, with its plethora of ordinary men and women in power over us, aren’t doing anything to ward off chaos. They have unleashed it upon us.

They have conditioned us to fear anarchy. “Why, that would be chaos!” But the fact remains that we are already experiencing chaos; and anarchy, would be a welcome respite from it. Why? Because the State is a much more formidable enemy than any one individual ever could hope to be. If an individual wants to use force against me, I like my odds. If the State wants to use force against me, well, the odds are never in our favor.

But all of this is why the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. That husk offers us nothing. Nothing. The so-called powerful who rule over us have nothing to offer us; and we shouldn’t be relying on them. It is time to look within ourselves. We need to delve deeper. We need to regain our lost connection with the Tao. Tap into that power source instead of reaching for the illusion of power. Have no will of your own. Let go of all illusions. Dwell in reality.

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)

Yesterday, we were talking about why it is that the Tao is so impossible to perceive. As long as we are caught in desire we will never realize the mystery. Even the manifestations of the Tao, the universal harmony, the subtle perception of the way things are, can be difficult for us to see. Why? Because it isn’t something that can be seen with our eyes. Our senses aren’t of any use to us. The way things are, the universal harmony that can be perceived even amid great pain, is so subtle; you have to be able to quiet your heart and your mind. You have to find peace in your heart in order to be able to perceive that subtlety.

How subtle is it? The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. Its workings always remain a mystery. All we can see, if we are looking for it, are the results. This is what confounds powerful men and women.

Lao Tzu said this a few chapters back. If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao the whole world would be transformed into a paradise. Today, he echos this idea. But he changes the words slightly. No longer is it about staying centered. Now it is a question of if they could center themselves in the Tao in the first place.

The real reason that powerful men and women, and indeed all of us, have such trouble is that problem of desire. People need to be content with their simple, everyday lives. That is what brings about harmony. Freedom from desire.

Desires enflame us. Our passions rule us. And as long as they do, there can be no peace. Peace is our highest value. Who can be content when the peace has been shattered? No decent person. Powerful men and women, if we were to give them the benefit of the doubt, may have the best of intentions. But those good intentions, however noble, are not good. The end never justifies the means. No matter what good you are hoping to accomplish, by interfering with the way things are, the universal harmony, the Tao as the great equalizer, the bringer of balance and harmony, you will always only make things much worse.

Our problem really is desire. All kinds of desire. The desire to do good, as well as the desire to do harm. Both end up doing great harm. For we are at a state of war with the Tao. Turmoil, pain, and suffering are the direct results of this war. We must quiet our minds and our hearts. We must rid ourselves of desire. Then, all things can return to a state of peace.

Lao Tzu often brings up the Master right about now. And, tomorrow’s chapter, which continues where today’s leaves off, begins with the Master. I don’t won’t to get ahead of myself, but the idea of the Master is a good one. We need to master our desires, master ourselves. That is the path to freedom. That is the path to peace.

The Reason You Think I Don’t Care

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)

For today’s commentary, I think it would be helpful to remind my readers of what Lao Tzu said, way back in chapter one: The eternal Tao is not something that can be told. The eternally real is unnameable. It is a mystery. And we cannot begin to realize the mystery as long as we are caught in desire. We have to be free of desire in order to realize the mystery. Caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations. Obviously, we would prefer to be free from desire; but there is good news for those of us, including myself, still caught in desire. Both the mystery and the manifestations arise from the same Source. And that means that we can trace the manifestations back to the Source. That has been the point of our journey, all along.

What we have been doing is tracing back the manifestations. Remember, the eternal Tao, itself, is imperceptible. Our focus is on the manifestations. Those, we can perceive. And so, over the last several days, we have been talking about what we can perceive. Yesterday, we were reminded that this isn’t about what we can perceive with our senses. Our sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, aren’t of any use to us. At least as far as perceiving the manifestations of the Tao are concerned.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu said that we can perceive the universal harmony, even amid great pain. But only after we have found peace in our hearts. There is turmoil all around us. There is pain. There is suffering. And, as long as our focus is on that pain and suffering, on trying to do something about that pain and suffering, because who doesn’t want to do something to ease that pain and suffering, to shrink it, to get rid of it entirely, we will never find that peace in our hearts. We won’t be centered in the Tao. There will always be danger all around us, and we will always be in danger.

However, if we can maintain disinterest, I know that sounds cold and heartless but bear with me, if we can, like the stoics, be unmoved by that pain and suffering, we can avoid danger. We can go where we wish without danger. And I promise you, The pain and suffering, the turmoil, will be taken care of.

Now, I know that this is not an easy thing to read. And, even less easy to put into practice. Who wants to stand around and do nothing? We want to do something. We want to interfere. Every fiber of our being cries out for justice. Lao Tzu’s words are hard, cruel.

Where is the universal harmony in the midst of pain and suffering? My friends, pain and suffering are not the manifestation of universal harmony. They are evidence that things are completely out of balance. The mysterious, eternal Tao is working to bring about balance and harmony in the Universe. And things will return to a state of balance and harmony, but we have to stop interfering. We have to give up our need to be in control. Our interest in helping. We have to let the Tao do its work in us, as well in all beings. Even in the midst of that pain and suffering, the universal harmony can be perceived, if we will only be at peace with the Tao. That is really so much better than being at war with it. Because it is that state of war that has gotten us all, in the mess we are in.

Perceiving the universal harmony is not easy. It is downright impossible if we won’t quiet our hearts and minds. But we can perceive it. Though it is subtle. Oh, so subtle. Remember, it isn’t something you can pick up on with your senses. But, if you are quiet, you can perceive it. It is perceived in the way things are. That the soft overcomes the hard. That the slow overcomes the fast. We don’t understand how this can be. We just know it is true. We know it intuitively. But it remains a mystery.

So, when we want to shrink something, we must first allow it to expand. When we want to get rid of something, we must first allow it to flourish. Oh, how we rebel at this. But this is how things are. This is how the Tao works. First, it expands; then, it shrinks. First, it flourishes; then, we are rid of it. We have to let it expand first. We have to let it flourish first. We must wait on the Tao. We can’t take anything, without first allowing it to be given.

Does that make you want to scream out in frustration? I know I have done my own share of screaming out in frustration. Nature is terribly slow; especially when we are wanting to rush it. But we must find a way to work with nature, rather than against it. The soft does overcome the hard. The slow does overcome the fast.

And people will look at you and accuse you of not caring about all the pain and suffering. Why aren’t you doing something? Don’t you care? How can you maintain this disinterest? People are suffering. Do something? Why won’t you do something?

Can we be satisfied to let our workings remain a mystery, and just show people the results? Must we satisfy their craving to see what we are doing? Will it ease our own conscience?

This is tough, my friends. I deal with this all of the time in my own life. You can’t be in this world and not be tempted to be moved by the suffering. You see it all around you. And it comes close to home, as well. Your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children. They don’t understand you. It is one thing to ignore the suffering of those at a distance from you; but how could you ignore the plight of your own dear loved ones? How, indeed?

I am not ignoring, by the way. But what I am doing to ease your suffering isn’t something that you can perceive with your senses. And I know, for you, that is as much as doing nothing to relieve your pain. But I know the way things are. And I know that your suffering is drawing to a conclusion. You can’t see that, I know. It seems to be only getting worse. But that just means that it will soon be over. How do I know this? I don’t know. It remains a mystery to me. Just as it is for you. But I can’t ease your suffering any other way than to allow it to take its course.

Ouch! But that is the reason you think I don’t care. It is because I can’t.

Where Peace Is To Be Found

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 word, danger, keeps popping up. Back in chapter 29, Lao Tzu said there is a time for being safe and a time for being in danger. 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 that if we know when to stop, we can avoid danger. It was in that chapter that Lao Tzu reiterated that the Tao is not something that can be perceived. Now, here, in chapter 35, Lao Tzu once again enjoins us to be centered in the Tao. Then we can go wherever we wish, without danger.

Clearly, danger is something that can be avoided. And the times we are in danger, rather than being safe, have little to do with where we we may go. Avoiding danger, isn’t a matter of avoiding the places where there is danger. Actually, when we are centered in the Tao, we will some times find ourselves in the midst of great pain. Being centered in the Tao means being led by our intuition and going wherever our intuition leads us. We want to be available to all and ready to make use of whatever life happens to bring our way. So, some times we ourselves, or others around us (just an extension of ourselves) will be in pain. The danger is that we will be moved by the pain to try and interfere with what the Tao is accomplishing. If we want to avoid danger, we must perceive the universal harmony, even in the midst of the greatest suffering.

Today, I want to talk about perceiving the universal harmony, because while the Tao isn’t something that can be perceived, the universal harmony (the manifestation of the Tao) is something that can be perceived. But how?

We perceive the universal harmony when we find peace in our hearts. Peace? But what about all the turmoil, the pain, that is all around us? And that is where we focus. We focus on the pain, the suffering, the turmoil of beings. There is a lot of that to observe. But don’t contemplate that. Contemplate their return. To the Source. What are you contemplating?

Don’t let the turmoil be a distraction to you. What you want to focus on is your heart. Find the peace. Be serene. Stay serene. I know that music or the smell of good cooking is something that makes people stop and enjoy. And that is great. Enjoy listening to that music. Enjoy the smells. But words that point to the Tao aren’t like that. They seem monotonous and without flavor. We are so led by our senses. But the Tao isn’t something we can perceive with our senses. And the universal harmony can’t be perceived by our senses, either. When you look for it, there is nothing to see. When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.

It isn’t something outside of us that we are after. It is a matter of the heart. Look for it there. Find that peace, that serenity, in your own heart. The Tao contains uncountable galaxies. And it is there, in your heart. In your heart, you will perceive the universal harmony. When you use it, it is inexhaustible.

The Greatest Vanishing Act

The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu returns to the great themes which have resonated throughout his Tao Te Ching: The greatness and humility of the Tao. How it flows everywhere and pours itself into its work. How it nourishes. How it is hidden. And how all things end in it. The way in which Lao Tzu sings the praises of the great Tao, sound very much like an ode. But it is much more than an ode. It is really a continuation of what he was saying in yesterday’s chapter: About our need to center ourselves in the Tao, and about embracing our own death. It is about our relationship with the Tao as we come to know and master ourselves.

As we center ourselves in the Tao, we become one with the Tao. As the Tao is like water, we, too, become like water. Water, as we have said before, is Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor for the Tao. Just like water, the Tao flows everywhere, and all things are born from it. Yet, just like water, the Tao doesn’t create them. Just like water, it pours itself into its work; yet, it makes no claim on them. Just like water, the Tao nourishes infinite worlds; yet it doesn’t hold on to them. The Tao is like a vast ocean of water. And we are like all the rivers and streams that flow into that ocean.

We all merge into the Tao and the Tao merges into all things. It is hidden in the hearts of all beings. That it is hidden, Lao Tzu says, shows its humility. But, since all things vanish into it, until it alone endures, is what makes it great. That it isn’t even aware of its greatness is what makes it truly great.

Yes, we could talk on and on about the humility and greatness of the Tao. But let’s not miss out on the other thing that Lao Tzu would have us understand, today. Yesterday, we were talking about embracing death with our whole heart. We talked of how we fear death. The finality of it. Losing our sense of self. Today, Lao Tzu describes this death as a great vanishing act.

A vanishing act is a staple with magicians, illusionists, the world over. How do they do it? We are always amazed by these feats. But they aren’t going to reveal their secrets to us. And they always end up reappearing before the conclusion of the show, anyway. But the vanishing act that Lao Tzu describes is one from where we never expect to return. All things vanish into the Tao. All things end in the Tao. Like rivers flow into the sea. All things vanish into it, and it alone endures. That vanishing is the death that we were told to embrace with our whole hearts, just yesterday.

And I spent some time thinking about this vanishing, this death to myself as separate. And that got me thinking about what it means to know and master ourselves. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said that required true wisdom and true power. He also said that when you realize you have enough, you have the true riches. And I realized how right he was. Knowing and mastering myself is to be known and mastered by the Tao. Our goal is to be lived by the Tao. That is the only way to truly be ourselves.

We have been programmed into thinking that death is final. In spite of the fact that magicians always reappear before the conclusion of their show, we think they will vanish, for good. In spite of the fact that we can see the circle of life all around us as we observe the Earth in its natural rhythms; and we can see that death is but one part of the life cycle; and there is no concluding part, it just keeps endlessly repeating; we still think that death is the end of us.

What does Lao Tzu mean by this vanishing act? What has become of us, when the Tao alone endures? What does it mean to be a molecule of water in a vast ocean of water? Water, the Tao is like water, we need to be like water, too. That is what it always comes back to, for me. All rivers flow into the sea. That is where they end. But are there no more rivers, then? Do we lose our own identity, when like a molecule of water, we vanish into that vast ocean of water? No! We are more than just a part of that ocean. We are complete, in and of ourselves. In some ways, we are more complete than we have ever been. Yes, we are surrounded by other molecules of water. But that ocean would not be complete without each and every one of us.

I don’t fear death because I know what always follows death. I see it every Spring as I witness death give way to rebirth. The circle of life continues endlessly. What do I have to fear, as I reside in the center of it? Now, I know that some of you might take issue with being compared to a molecule of water surrounded by a whole lot of other molecules of water; but it is just a metaphor for how complete we are in the Tao. “But I don’t want to be just like everything else?” Oh, but you already are. That is the way things are. You aren’t separate. You never were. That was all an illusion. Embrace the death of that illusion. Let the very idea of your separateness vanish in the Tao. Then, you can truly be yourself; as you always were and always will be.