Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.
If you don’t realize the Source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 16, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Back in chapter twelve, Lao Tzu said to observe the world, but trust your inner vision. Allow things to come and go; let your heart be open like the sky. In chapter thirteen, he said to see the world as your self. To have faith in the way things are. To love the world as you love yourself. This, I call, intentional empathy. Today, I want to talk more about that intentional empathy.
In the last couple of chapters Lao Tzu has talked about the need to be present. It is when you just realize where you come from that you experience ease in your life, right here, right now. This is very much tied into that intentional empathy I was speaking of, earlier. He describes what intentional empathy looks like in today’s chapter. It may not be what you were expecting it to be. But, then again, expecting isn’t something that brings fulfillment.
Today has been full of turmoil; for me, and everyone around me. I had been told yesterday, by my landlord, to expect the roofers to show up after 8am today. I thought this would be great. They had a half-day of work, and if they got it done in the morning, it wouldn’t interfere with my son’s sleep schedule (he works nights; so he sleeps, afternoon through evening). But, by the time I left for tutoring, just before 10am, they still were not here. Sometime, shortly before I returned home, a little bit after 1pm, the roofers arrived; and the turmoil had begun. My son, who had not been sleeping all morning, expecting the roofers any moment, had finally given up on them, and quickly went to sleep. Only to be immediately awakened by their arrival. It really isn’t possible to sleep, when people are working on the roof over your bed. Go figure. So, I get home, and get to deal with the fallout. Unhappy son makes the turmoil all the more tumultuous. Memo to self: There is no such thing as a half-day roof job. The roofers worked for a good part of the afternoon. Job is not done. Power in the house goes out when some driver apparently managed to take out three utility poles, just a few blocks away. It has already been out for over two hours, as I am typing this. No power means, no air conditioning, no fans, no internet, but at least the battery on my computer was fully charged when the power went out. I am able to stand here and type away. Though it is hot and stuffy in here. Son still cannot sleep. Bedroom too hot. He leaves the house. I promise to text him when power is restored.
Turmoil. But Lao Tzu doesn’t want me contemplating the turmoil. He tells me to empty my mind of all thoughts. To let my heart be at peace. Yeah, right. How am I supposed to do that? Notice that Lao Tzu didn’t say to try and empty your mind. Good. Because my efforts aren’t going anywhere. I remember something Lao Tzu said earlier. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores. Ah, yes. Emptying and filling are tied together.
All that turmoil surrounding me is outer turmoil. I don’t have to let it become inner turmoil. I am to watch the turmoil of beings, but don’t get caught up in that turmoil. Don’t internalize it. Let it remain external to me. On the inside of me, I am contemplating their return to the Source.
Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. That becomes my meditation. I remember when Lao Tzu first talked about the Source, back in chapter one. The Source is where we come from. It is where each and every one of us returns. We experience turmoil now, because we see ourselves as separate. But each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. This is serenity. The end of turmoil.
If you don’t realize the Source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. This is turmoil. We all experience it, whenever we fail to realize the Source. Yes, even I experience it. I can just as easily get caught up in the turmoil as any other being in the Universe. But I don’t have to. And neither do you.
And this brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about; before the power went out, and the turmoil got jacked up a few extra notches. I said I wanted to talk some more about intentional empathy.
For you see, I am an empathetic person. I am not patting myself on the back, here. I am just pointing out that for whatever reason, the universe wired me a certain way. And I am an empathetic person. But I have found that empathy can be manifest in different ways. Long before I had ever read the Tao Te Ching, before I had even heard of Lao Tzu or philosophical Taoism, I was an empathetic person. And here was how it was manifest: When I found myself in tumultuous circumstances, like when a family member or friend was suffering, I would internalize their suffering, I would make it my own suffering, and try and find some way to alleviate their suffering. I would interfere and try to control and try to fix things. I had single parenthood thrust upon me. That brought out a lot of “mothering” in me. I was very mothering; or you could say smothering. But I was empathetic. You could say, I put the pathetic in empathetic. But, I really just wanted to help. If you had a problem, I wanted to fix it.
The problem with this kind of empathy is that there are a whole lot of things that are simply beyond anyone’s control. Many problems, dare I say, most of them, can’t be fixed. At least, I couldn’t fix them. But that didn’t stop me. I could exhaust myself and everyone else with my efforts. And no one was better off for my efforts; least of all the people I was trying to help. Not that I let a little thing like that stop me. For I was an empathetic person; and I only wanted to help.
Thankfully, there are other ways for empathy to be manifest. And when I am speaking of intentional empathy, I hope you let it be manifest in a different way than I did for a good many years.
Lao Tzu described something, back in chapter thirteen, that I called intentional empathy. I didn’t coin that term; but I am using it as my term for what Lao Tzu describes. He warned us, in that chapter, about the twin phantoms of hope and fear. These are phantoms that arise because we are thinking of the self as self. Which I take to mean, seeing ourselves as separate. For, when we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear?
I got further corroboration for my premise, when he went on to say, “See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self, then you can care for all things.”
I call that intentional empathy. But I expected (there is that word again) to get a whole lot of flack from those who want to speak of life as if it is split along certain dualistic lines. “There you go, sacrificing the individual to the collective.” And, I immediately parried by saying, “This isn’t sacrificing self to the world. It is realizing your self and the world are one. That isn’t self-sacrificing. It raises self to a whole new level of awareness and importance. When you realize you are the world, then your every act is an act of caring, of intentional empathy.”
I really want us to move beyond the individualist/collectivist mindset. We are all individual and unique beings; and yes, separate. That is what Lao Tzu says in today’s chapter, “Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source.” But notice, here, that he doesn’t want us to contemplate our separateness. He is wanting us to contemplate our return to the common Source. It is in contemplating that each of us returns to the Source that I experience serenity, right here and right now. But that serenity isn’t just mine. It is shared by all. You might ask, well, then, how is it shared? And that is where that intentional empathy comes in. Not the kind that I had been prone to manifest for years before. A very different kind of intentional empathy. This is how Lao Tzu describes it. “When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.” This is how this intentional empathy is manifest (shared) with all beings, as you realize where you come from.
That is the whole point of not internalizing the turmoil that is going on all around you. It is emptying your mind of all thoughts and letting your heart be at peace. When you realize this, when you immerse yourself in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you. I like this kind of empathy so much more than the kind of empathy I used to manifest. It is so much easier, for one thing. It requires no effort. It just flows naturally. I used to have to try to be tolerant. Do you know how difficult it is to try to be tolerant? Why sure you do. But it doesn’t have to be difficult. And, this kind of intentional empathy is not just one part of the life of ease, that Lao Tzu says is ours, if we will let it be. It is the whole of it. It is the whole of your life; and that means it prepares you for death. We will have to talk more about this another time. I have already gone overly-long. But the power is restored; and our fear of death is but a phantom that arises because we are thinking of the self as self, instead of the world as self. We will only be ready for death, once we have learned how to fully live, having overcome our fear of it.