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)
Today’s chapter is one of my favorite ones in the Tao Te Ching, because this chapter set me free from the limits of my finite and temporal reality. That was a pretty bold thing for me to say. I may have to get quite personal to explain myself. And, sorry, but it will be a little longer, too.
Lao Tzu has been giving us meat to chew on in the last few chapters. It seems like long ago, now, but it was only back in chapter twelve, that Lao Tzu talked about observing the world, but trusting your inner vision. Allowing things to come and go, with your heart as open as the sky. In chapter thirteen Lao Tzu said that both success and failure are equally dangerous; and, that hope and fear, being mere phantoms, are equally hollow. It isn’t just dangerous to seek fulfillment and contentment on the proverbial ladder. By seeking it, we will never find it. Those phantoms arise because we think of the self as self, as separate. When you see the world as your self, you won’t have anything to fear, and a whole world to love. In chapter fourteen, Lao Tzu used a riddle to teach us the essence of wisdom. Realize where you come from, you will be at ease in your own life. In chapter fifteen, yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu described the appearance of the ancient Masters to show us the essence of their wisdom. They were always present. Today, I am going to show how all of these chapters led me to this one.
How did I realize where I come from? How did I come to practice what I call “intentional empathy”? It is kind of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” moment for me. I had been mulling over what Lao Tzu had been teaching on the practice of being always present, on realizing where I come from. And, I was thinking a lot about what it means to see the world as self, instead of continuing to see my self as separate from the world.
And, while I was mulling these things over in my mind, I read today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu said, “Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace.” That led me out into my back yard, my happy place.
I don’t call it “my happy place” because it is the only place where I am happy. I am actually, a quite happy person, all of the time, and wherever I find myself. But, my back yard is a special place I like to go, none the less. It is the place I like to go, whenever it is time to empty my mind of all thoughts and let my heart be at peace. I like to walk out in my back yard. I have a very well worn path. And, I like to sit out there and look at the world around me. All of nature. It is spring time in the Ozarks. If you don’t know where the Ozarks are, that might not be such a bad thing. The more we keep it a secret, the quieter it will stay.
I sit out in my garden, a favorite activity of mine. I planted this week. My garden is now full of tomato plants, pepper plants, strawberry plants, impatiens, and I have spaghetti squash seeds I planted, too. I am super-excited about my garden. It is a wonderful place. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, I go there to empty my mind of all thoughts and let my heart be at peace. Those were Lao Tzu’s instructions, weren’t they? How do I do that? Well, I will try to be as clear as a glass of water in explaining my meditation practice.
First of all, I don’t try to empty my mind of all thoughts, or make my heart be at peace. It is deliberate, but it isn’t forced. I go outside deliberately. I let things come and go as they will, from there.
I was out there today, of course. It kind of goes without saying. I am out there every day, several times a day. Here are some things I observed while I was out there. I looked around at the vast and empty blue sky, and the trees, the sunshine, the grass, and the flowers, not just my impatiens, but all the flowering “weeds” in my yard. I watched bees going from flower to flower. I have several different flowering weeds in my yard. It is one reason I am loath to have to mow my yard. I like taller grass. I like to see all the different colors. The yellows, the whites, the blues. My impatiens are purple, pink and red. I listen to the insects, the birds, dogs barking a few yards over, a distant lawn mower. I watch and listen to cars going by. My backyard faces one of the busiest roads in my small town. Always plenty of traffic (for a small town). I saw foot traffic, too. One guy walking by rather fast while looking at his smart phone. Was he texting, or surfing the web? I don’t know. His coming and going took seconds. I saw four others walk by on the other side of the road. They, too, were walking fast, almost marching, single file. It was kind of cute.
I said all that to say I was observing the world. That was something Lao Tzu told us all to do. Observe the world; but trust your inner vision. All the while, I am letting thoughts come and go. I am allowing my mind to empty. I have watched the turmoil of beings. All those beings I observed. Moving along at a fast pace. Even the bees seemed in a hurry, today. Each of them separate beings. Places to go, people to see, more flowers to pollinate. That is what I observe.
But that isn’t what I contemplated. What I contemplated, was their return. Not to my backyard, but to our common Source. Contemplation is a deeper thing than mere fleeting thoughts. My mind is emptying, remember? Contemplation of their, of my, return to our common Source, lets my heart be at peace. Returning to the Source is serenity.
The realization that all separate beings in the universe have a common Source to return to, realizing where I come from, where you come from, where all beings come from, has me seeing the whole world as self. I find, out there in my backyard, intentional empathy. Once again, this isn’t a forced thing. The empathy is intentional. But I didn’t try to empathize. I don’t actually think that is even possible.
Empathy is different from sympathy in that way. Sympathy is something that is forced. And, it can easily be manipulated. But that isn’t the way it is with empathy. Empathy flows naturally.
Oh, I could contemplate why so many beings are stumbling about in confusion and sorrow. But, then again, Lao Tzu has already told us why we do just that. It is because we don’t realize the Source. With that settled, it is much better to contemplate our return to the Source. To realize where we come from.
Because when you do, and I know this is true, practically speaking, since I have experienced it for myself, time and time again – you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. That, my friends, is what intentional empathy looks like.
Hey, I know tolerance has taken on a whole lot of negative connotations in recent years. But, I think that is because the kind of tolerance many of us feel is being forced down our throats is just that, forced. That isn’t the kind of tolerance, Lao Tzu is referring to, here. When you realize where you come from, our common Source, you develop intentional empathy. And no amount of forced sympathy will ever produce the kinds of results that the practice of intentional empathy produces naturally.
For, it isn’t just a forced tolerance that sympathy requires of us. It won’t tolerate you being disinterested. It wants you interested. It will look askance at your amusement toward all the things that just don’t matter, that matter so much to those who want your sympathy. What are you laughing at? What’s so funny?
What’s so funny? Why am I laughing? Because I am immersed in the wonder of the Tao. And, I can deal with whatever life happens to bring my way. Even if it is death, I am ready.
Well, there you have it. A very personal account from a very private person. Did realizing where I come from, or developing intentional empathy come first? I think they happened simultaneously spontaneously.
And that will have to suffice for today’s chapter. I am getting ready to go back to my happy place again. Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will talk about another one of my favorite things, the art of governing. You did know I am libertariantaoist, didn’t you?