On the Day After, the Same Old Same Old

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 45, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

On the Day After, the Same Old Same Old

I am now writing this on the day after the election. Feeling a bit hungover. Though I consumed nary an adult beverage last night. Last night I did, however, stay up way past my bedtime. Numb. I was not expecting this outcome. As I said in my post, yesterday, I had no expectations going into this election. At least no good ones.

My sister messaged me to say I must be happy that Trump won. “Happy? Why would I be happy that Trump won? I didn’t want Trump to win.” But, you really didn’t want Hillary to win. That was certainly true enough. But, I had assumed she would. I already was going over the nightmare scenarios in my mind. They included mushroom clouds. I never expected Trump would win. Never underestimate the peasants with pitchforks.

It was never about Trump. I knew that was the case; though, Hillary desperately wanted to make it about Trump. She, the poster child for the Establishment. And, I had, more or less, convinced myself that she had succeeded in making it about Trump; and, in the end, she would prevail. I kept railing against Hillary. Never considering Trump would so decisively win. I certainly didn’t vote for him. But, in my state of Missouri, which went something close to 2 to 1 for Trump over Clinton, and Gary Johnson only getting three percent of the vote, my vote would have made absolutely no difference. As Sheldon Richman posted on his own blog, it is the same old same old. “The good news: the losers lost. The bad news: the winners won.”

Numbness has now given way to calm. Is this what true perfection looks like? It seems imperfect. Is this what true fullness feels like? It seems empty. Why does true straightness appear so crooked? Why does true wisdom appear to be folly? How artless it all is! Or, is it?

I have taken to reassuring friends of mine, who need reassuring, things are not going to be as bad as you are thinking they will be. Just allow things to happen. Only as events come, should you shape them. Then, step out of the way. Let the Tao speak for itself! This is true art. Perfectly itself. Fully present.

Does What Tomorrow Will Bring Really Matter?

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Does What Tomorrow Will Bring Really Matter?

(I am writing this on the eve of the election. But, I know it isn’t going to post until after the election is over. I suppose I could make some predictions about the election, and see how I do. But, the problem with that idea is I don’t have any real expectations going into the election. Oh, I once thought Gary Johnson might actually win in his own home state of New Mexico. Maybe win one or two other small states. Deny both Hillary and Trump the 270 electoral college votes needed to win outright. Send it to the House to decide who will be the next President. My, wouldn’t that be hilarious? But, tonight, as I am writing this, I don’t have that expectation. Really, all that I expect to come out of the election is that we all will lose. The whole world will lose.)

But, since I am not going to make any serious predictions about the election, I will, instead, consider today’s chapter.

The questions Lao Tzu asks in the beginning – fame or integrity, money or happiness, success or failure – they are all, of course, rhetorical. And, you might even call them “trick” questions. What Lao Tzu is actually doing, in asking these questions, is probing deeper. Am I looking outside myself, to others, for fulfillment? Does my happiness somehow depend on money? Can I be content with what I already have? Can I rejoice in the way things are?

Take all the time you need to consider these questions. They are that important. So, don’t treat them lightly.

I believe, on this eve before the election, that if we could somehow realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world would belong to us. And then, does what tomorrow will bring really matter?

The Value of Non-Action

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)

The Value of Non-Action

The essence of philosophical Taoism is that nature is a far better teacher than those who rely on eloquent words to teach us. This is why Lao Tzu, so often, points to nature and uses forces of nature as metaphors for how to be in harmony with the way things are.

In today’s chapter, he explains how the way things are in nature, the gentlest (or softest) thing in the world overcomes the hardest, and that which has no substance (or form) enters where there is no space, shows the value of non-action, the practice of wu wei.

The practice of wu wei, or wei wu wei, is doing without doing; and, it is one of the fundamental tenets of philosophical Taoism. It is joined by knowing without knowing, and competing without competing. But wei wu wei is the greatest, and the foundation for the other virtues. It is also a much misunderstood concept.

Much misunderstood, and much maligned. “What do you mean you are going to do nothing?” Actually, I mean just that. But, probably “that” doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean being lazy. It doesn’t mean not doing your work. And, it certainly doesn’t mean nothing gets done. On the contrary, when the Tao, or the Master “does nothing”, all things get done. What it does mean is acting the way nature does, effortlessly. And, it means not forcing, not trying to control, not intervening, not interfering, not dominating. It could probably be best described as going with the flow.

And, that, should be considered superior to striving against it. Which is why wei wu wei, doing without doing, is actually the most natural way to be.

But, how can this be taught using words? Performing without actions? It seems a paradox. Or nonsensical. So it is, that the Master’s way is to teach, not with words, but by example. Pointing at the way nature accomplishes everything, without trying. It just is what it is. And, we can just be what we are, too.

Can We Yet Realize This Mystery?

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)

Can We Yet Realize This Mystery?

Today’s chapter is shrouded in mystery, but maybe we can spend a little bit of time unraveling the mystery. For that I am relying on research I have been making for as long as I have been reading through this work. But, I am reluctant to share this, simply because I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on ancient Chinese cosmology. I am certainly not offering what I would consider the one and only explanation on what Lao Tzu is trying to convey with today’s chapter. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will encourage you to do your own research, come to your own conclusions. If anyone out there has any questions or comments, I am happy to be in dialog with you about this.

What is this mysterious One, and Two, and Three? Mystery is a good place to start. Remembering back to chapter one, Lao Tzu talked about the mystery of the Tao, which we can only realize upon being free from desire. So long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations. But, and this is important, both the mystery and the manifestations arise from the same source, called darkness.

The first line in today’s chapter, “The Tao gives birth to One” could well be translated, “The Tao gives birth to the Tao (or itself).” But, I would prefer to say that the mystery of the Tao gives birth to the manifestation of the Tao. That is One.

“One gives birth to Two.” Another translation says “the one divided into the two”. Either way, that is yin and yang, how the Tao is manifest.

“Two gives birth to Three” or, as another translation says it, “the two became three.” This third, according to multiple sources I found, is “Chi” the life force which flows through all things, in Chinese cosmology.

The Three, yin, yang, and chi, give birth to all things.

Okay, not so bad. It seems a reasonable enough explanation. But what about this next stanza?

All things, the all things the Three gave birth to, have their backs to the female (yin) and stand facing the male (yang). But, it is when male and female (yang and yin) combine, that all things achieve harmony.

Once again, this seems reasonable enough to explain things. Lao Tzu has been talking about the dualistic nature of things, and our problems with it, since chapter two. You can’t just have one without the other. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be harmony.

The third stanza seems somehow out of place. I have read from various sources, that this part of the chapter actually belongs after chapter thirty-nine. But, I don’t want to start cutting and pasting. Let’s just leave it right where it is and let it stand alone.

The merely ordinary, hate solitude.

Here, we may need to understand better what Lao Tzu means by ordinary and solitude. We all may sometimes wish to be left alone, but that isn’t what Lao Tzu means. Solitude means a state of aloneness. A state in which you don’t just feel alone, you are alone. There is no one else, nothing else. Just you, one, with the universe. That terrifies the merely ordinary. Darkness within darkness. No sound, except your own breathing, your own heart beating. But the Master makes use of it, embraces it. Being one with the whole universe, the process only begins again, the One becomes Two, the Two becomes Three, the Three give birth to all things.

 

A Confirmation of the Wisdom of the Wise

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)

A Confirmation of the Wisdom of the Wise

What makes the superior person, superior? What makes the average person, average? What makes the foolish person, foolish? Beware of those who think of themselves as superior; more often than not, they are found to be fools.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.

This is what trips up everyone, but the truly wise. The truly wise perceive how it nourishes and completes all things. And so, immediately begin to embody it. They aren’t swayed by appearances, by the way things seem to be. They look into the depths, rather than stopping at the surface. Instead of being mesmerized by the flower, they partake of the fruit.

The average person can half-believe. But, why is this path so dark? Why do I seem to be going backwards? Why is this taking so long? It seems weak. It seems tarnished. It seems changeable. It just isn’t clear enough. Why is it so obscure? See how doubt seeps in?

To the fool, the greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. No wonder they laugh out loud.

And, that laughter may add to the doubts the average person entertains. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the laughter of the fool a confirmation of the wisdom of the wise. And, believe.

The Origins of What is in What is Not

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)

The Origins of What is in What is Not

We have said before that the best way to explain being and non-being, is to call being “what is”, and non-being “what is not”. In today’s shortest chapter in the Tao Te Ching, nestled in the middle of Lao Tzu’s book on the way of wisdom, we have Lao Tzu explaining the movement and way of the Tao; and how that is expressed through the relationship between non-being and being, yin and yang.

If we are going to be centered, and remain centered in the Tao, today’s lesson is important to understand. “What is” has come about through “what is not”. The Tao is always flowing, and that flowing (much to our chagrin, maybe) is a retrograde motion. The Tao is always returning, always turning us back to the Source, our origin in the what is not. And, the way in which it moves is always yielding, giving way.

This is why those who seek ever more power resist the Tao so much. It isn’t their way. Still, it must be our way. If we want to go forward, we must be willing to go back. If we want to go on through, we must learn how to yield. To be content with what is, learn how to be content with what is not.

Harmony or Interference

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)

Harmony or Interference

We all must know of Hamlet’s soliloquy, penned by William Shakespeare:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. — Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! — Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
But, I am not so sure Hamlet was pondering the correct question, “To be, or not to be?” No, I think I have a far, far better question, “To do, or not to do?” For the answer to my question makes all the difference in whether we have a world in harmony with the Tao, or not.

Lao Tzu has painted a beautiful picture for us, in describing what harmony with the Tao would mean in our world. He has repeated himself several times, now. Only a fool would not choose harmony. And, Lao Tzu has also made abundantly clear what is required of those of us who want to be in harmony with the Tao. Given the choice between doing and not doing, you must not do. If you want to BE in harmony with the Tao, don’t interfere, don’t intervene, don’t try to control, don’t dominate events, don’t try to force things. Because, then, you will NOT BE in harmony with the Tao.

When we interfere – well, Lao Tzu paints a graphic picture of the results, then, too. We can already see it all around us. This is what “doing” gets us.

The powerful among us, being the ordinary souls they are (see yesterday’s chapter for that), just don’t get it. They are so enslaved to their own will to power, they just keep doing, and doing, and doing. And, we are all made far, far worse because of it.

We need to be like the Master. We need to understand the whole. Then, and only then, can we truly view the parts with the compassion they so desperately need. Our constant practice must be humility. There is nothing quite like humility to keep you from doing.

Don’t be so prone to wanting to glitter like a jewel. Let yourself be shaped by the Tao. Oh, you may not end up being “pretty”, I am rather certain you will end up something a bit more useful than something to sit on a shelf, or in a vault somewhere. The Tao will shape you into something rugged, something common as a stone.

Now, wait just a doggone minute! That sounds a lot like “ordinary” to me. Didn’t we just talk, yesterday, about the merely ordinary, and we had nothing good to say about it? Oh, good, I am glad I have your attention. What Lao Tzu is doing, here, as only he can, is explaining what being extraordinary looks like. Oh, you will seem ordinary, there is nothing more ordinary looking than a common stone. But, what you will be on the inside is something “the powerful” will never be – truly extraordinary.

Somebody Save Us From the Merely Ordinary

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)

Somebody Save Us From the Merely Ordinary!

Somebody save us from the merely ordinary!

We have been talking, for days now, about how the powerful refuse to center themselves in the Tao, and remain centered in it. How sweet it would be if they would, if they could, be like the Master. Not trying to be powerful, and deriving true power for themselves (and the rest of us) because of it. Doing nothing, like the Tao, and leaving nothing undone.

Alas, they are merely ordinary. They never have enough power, so they always keep reaching for more. And, they always have to be doing something; intervening, interfering, forcing things, trying to dominate, trying to control. No matter how many things they do, they always leave many more undone. “Keep electing us, we still have plenty left to do.”

Some of the ordinary are kind, or just, or moral. And, sometimes they really do have the best of intentions. But, when they do something the results are always, how shall I phrase this – less than optimal. Something is always left undone. Sometimes, many things. And, when no one responds to their “good deeds” they always roll up their sleeves and apply even more force.

This is the problem when the Tao is lost, or simply ignored. Goodness may appear for a time, until it is shown to be lacking in the “effectiveness” department. Then morality rears its ugly head for awhile. But, finally, things devolve until all we have left is ritual. Why, again, are we still doing the things we are doing. These things that have been proven, time and time again, not to work? Oh, that is just the way we have always done things.

That, is the cause of the chaos in which we presently find ourselves. This is why I stated the obvious right in the beginning. “Somebody save us from the merely ordinary!” Guess who that somebody has to be. Don’t look to the ordinary to suddenly become extraordinary. It is going to take each of us, becoming a master at centering our own selves in the Tao, to extricate ourselves from this present danger.

Masters concern themselves with the depths, not the surface; with the fruit, not the flower. Masters have no will of their own. They simply dwell in reality. They have let go of all illusions.

The Goal is Freedom (From Desire)

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)

The Goal is Freedom (From Desire)

Hmmmmmm. This chapter seems vaguely familiar. Like maybe we had a chapter, very much like this, just a few short chapters ago. No, you aren’t losing your mind. It was back in chapter 32 that Lao Tzu talked of powerful men and women remaining centered in the Tao. All things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace…

However, there are some subtle differences in today’s chapter. Lao Tzu isn’t merely repeating himself. In chapter 32, he pondered whether the powerful could remain centered in the Tao. In today’s chapter, he wonders if they could center themselves in it, in the first place.

This speaks to my frustration, and probably the frustration of a lot of my libertarian followers. Remember, yesterday, when we were talking about letting things expand which we want to shrink, and letting things flourish which we want to get rid of. I can think of one thing I would like to shrink, if not get rid of entirely. And, letting it expand and flourish – well, my patience is being tried.

Can powerful men and women center themselves in the Tao? That isn’t a rhetorical question. Let’s consider this. Why would they want to? The Tao never does anything. And, how exactly is that supposed to result in the powerful getting more and more powerful. That is their reason for being, after all. If you aren’t willing to humble yourself, the Tao isn’t exactly on friendly terms with you. Oh, don’t get me wrong, here. It isn’t that the Tao is out to get you. The Tao isn’t like that. Vengeance? It knows nothing of that. But, when you aren’t humble, when you seek to apply force, when you want to dominate events, when you want to control things, you place yourself at odds with the Tao. You are swimming against the current, my friends.

Centering yourself in the Tao means letting the world be transformed, all by itself, in its natural rhythms. The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. It doesn’t need any of your “help”. Here, I am thinking of Henry David Thoreau saying, “Government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.” But, as many of you are all too aware, powerful men and women, who set up governments to, you know, govern us, are never content to get out of the way, to let nature take its course.

And that is a damn shame, really. Because if they would, people would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.

You want peace? Of course, you do. Because you are sane. But those in power don’t find any profit in peace. And so they won’t allow for it. They are always stirring “stuff” up, wherever they can, all around the world.

We desire peace. They desire war. But, where there is no desire, all things are at peace.

The Way Things Are

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)

The Way Things Are

Yesterday, we talked about the peace to be found when we perceive the universal harmony. Today, Lao Tzu talks about the subtle perception of the way things are. Let’s be honest, here. The way things are absolutely sucks – if you are looking to force things, or trying to control.

To be told, when you want to shrink something, that you must first allow it to expand. Or, when you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish. Or, when you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. Actually, these are the kinds of lessons we didn’t want to learn when we were children. I imagine quite a few people, who are old enough to be adults, still whining, as if they were children. “But, I don’t want to have to wait for it. I want it, now. Now!”

But that isn’t the way things work in our universe. Contrary to the way things may seem to be. And we know this is true. We have seen it demonstrated in nature over and over again. The soft overcomes the hard. It isn’t the other way around. The slow overcomes the fast. But, it is subtle. Oh, so subtle. The way nature works is still largely a mystery. And, a mystery, it will remain. We need to work like that. Let your own workings remain a mystery. Just show people the results.