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Don’t Take This Personally

Know the male,
yet keep to the female;
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.

Know the white,
yet keep to the black;
be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
the Tao will be strong inside you
and there will be nothing you can’t do.

Know the personal,
yet keep to the impersonal;
accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self.

The world is formed from the void,
like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
yet keeps to to the block;
thus she can use all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 28, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking, over the last few days, about how our relationship with the Earth governs our lives. Today’s chapter, also, is about our relationship with the world in which we live. Once again, yin and yang play a vital role in enabling us to follow the Earth in its natural rhythms. Yin and yang interact together to create balance and harmony in our Universe; and so, in our world. By understanding this, we can be lived by the Tao and find all things falling into place as we do what comes naturally.

Over and over again, Lao Tzu tells us, “Know the yang, yet keep to the yin.” Male, white, personal – these are all yang. Female, black, impersonal – these are all yin. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: One isn’t good, while the other is bad. It is balance between yin and yang that Lao Tzu is wanting. This is the only way to achieve balance and harmony in ourselves, our lives, our world, our Universe. You don’t want to be one, while avoiding the other.

Knowing the yang, while keeping to the yin, is how to receive the world in our arms, be a pattern for the world, and come to accept the world as it really is. That is what we have been talking about doing. When we have this balance of yin and yang, the Tao never leaves us, and is strong and luminous inside of us.

Luminous is a very interesting word. For the last couple of days, Lao Tzu has been talking about the interaction of light with heavy. In that case, the light he was referring to wasn’t the luminous variety. Embodying the light, took into account how it relates to the heavy. But today, we are back to talking about the luminous kind of light. This is about enlightenment. And, once again, we see how yin and yang complement each other.

When we allow yin and yang to complement each other in our lives we become like a little child. That little child is a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. It is a metaphor, not just of the innocence of the little child, but of that child’s unlimited potential. There is nothing that little child can’t be. It has all the potential in the Universe bound up within it, just bursting at the seams waiting to be let out.

When female and male are combined, you get a little child. We understand that in a physical sense. But Lao Tzu is speaking metaphorically here. He is wanting us to return to our primal selves, to be like a little child.

This is how to interact in our world. By being like a little child. Receive the world in your arms. Be a pattern for the world. And, finally, accept the world as it is. This is how we go about returning to our primal selves. This is the path of enlightenment.

We understand the complementary relationship between female and male, so we understand how to produce a little child. We understand how black and white work together to be a pattern. The familiar yin yang symbol shows the balance of black and white flowing and interacting together. But when we start trying to understand the interaction between the impersonal and personal, things may start to get a little harder. I am sure you have heard many times, “Now, don’t take this personally.” How am I not to take it personally? You have either harmed me or are getting ready to. Of course, I am going to take it personally. How do we know the personal, yet keep to the impersonal?

That seems to be the most difficult thing of them all. And, probably because it is more difficult, the reward is that much greater. When we accept the world as it is, is when the Tao becomes luminous inside of us. But Lao Tzu doesn’t leave us without any help to understand.

After talking about that little child, nothing more personal than a little child, he goes on to talking about an uncarved block of wood. And the chapter takes a strange turn from the personal to the impersonal. He says this world in which we live was formed from the void. The void, yet another impersonal thing. It is just like utensils are formed from that block of wood. Utensils are something that we use personally. The uncarved block of wood, is impersonal. The Master, knows the potential contained within that uncarved block of wood. She knows the utensils. Yet, she keeps to the block. She never loses sight of it. Even when she is looking at and using the utensils, she is keeping before her that uncarved block. And, that is how she can use all things – both personally and impersonally.

Return to your primal self, allow the Tao to be luminous inside you, accept the world as it is. Tomorrow, we are going to talk further about the importance of accepting the world as it is. I don’t usually give a preview for tomorrow. But these chapter divisions are sometimes messy. And Lao Tzu isn’t finished with this topic.


They Travel In Pairs: The Master And The Apprentice

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.

-Lao Tzu- (Tao Te Ching, chapter 27, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu started talking about how to be a good traveler. It was there, that he introduced the idea of the heavy being the root of the light. Yesterday, his emphasis was on the importance of the heavy. But, yin and yang being what they are, today, we are going to talk about embodying the light. How do we embody the light? By understanding the great secret: good and bad need each other.

Traveler? Artist? Scientist? These aren’t just random vocations Lao Tzu is pulling out of thin air. We are all fellow travelers, artists, and scientists. He could have just as easily referred to the generic “human” here. But, he is using these metaphors to illustrate a point. We are going to be good at some things and bad at others. It is the human condition. But, it is essential that we be good at these things. Otherwise, we will be lost.

So, the good traveler is a metaphor for our need to let go of fixed plans, and not to be so intent on arriving. The good artist is a metaphor for our need to be guided by our intuition. The good scientist is a metaphor for opening our mind to the way things really are.

Obviously, we can be bad at these things. And, often we are. We carefully make our travel plans, intent on arriving; because it is the destination, and not the journey, that interests us. But Lao Tzu would have us understand that it is the journey and not the destination that is of prime importance. The journey is everything. The destination? Who knows what the future holds. We need to be available to all; and ready for whatever situation. There is no other way to go with the flow than that. You need to learn to trust your intuition. And, you can never learn to trust your intuition until you start, well, trusting your intuition. We all have these fixed concepts and preconceived notions through countless years of, well, call it what you want: brainwashing, indoctrination. We have become so inured to the way things seem to be. Can we open ourselves to the way things actually are?

When Lao Tzu is talking about being good or bad, he is talking about the relationship between the master and the apprentice, the teacher and the student. In your travels, you are going to encounter all sorts of different situations and people. Many are going to be much better at some things than you are. And, many will be worse.

This highlights the importance of following your intuition. What is it we have been saying about being open to the Tao and doing what comes naturally? Everything falls into place. The Master is available to all. And never has to reject anyone. Whatever situation he finds himself in, he never lets a thing go to waste. That is embodying the light.

Lao Tzu wants us to embody the light in order to be available to everyone that we encounter. What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? Every master (or teacher) needs an apprentice (or student). And, where would the apprentice (or student) be, without the master (or teacher)? Sometimes, I find myself being one, and sometimes I am the other. That all depends on the situation and the people I encounter. I have found it so, in my own life, that whenever I was particularly bad at something, someone that was particularly good at it, came along. How fortuitous! I also believe I have fortuitously come along to help out when someone else has been particularly bad at something that I am good at.

That is how yin and yang works. The ebb and flow of nature’s way. It just goes to show us how important it is to not be bound by fixed plans and concepts. To not be so intent on arriving that we aren’t available to help, or be helped. It takes a mind that is open to the way things really are. That means being attuned to our intuition and going where it leads us.

Lao Tzu calls this the great secret. There isn’t any shortage of people who are good and people who are bad. There is only a shortage of people who are following their intuition and making themselves available. It isn’t a question of intelligence. It is a question of embodying the light. Understand this, so you won’t get lost.

Don’t Be A Fool

The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.

Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.

Why should the lord of the country
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 26, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu identified humans as one of the four great powers. So, we are great. At least we have the potential to be great. That all depends on our relationship with the other great powers. Specifically, it is our relationship, subordinate to the Earth, that is of interest to me. It provides us with a necessary healthy balance. Our greatness is tempered by our respect of the Earth. If we are going to be great, we need to follow the Earth. The Earth isn’t ours to exploit. We need to be picking up on its natural rhythms. It is far greater than us. We depend on its richness and goodness for our very survival. I think we have largely forgotten that. Or, lost sight of it. And that has been our great folly.

Today, Lao Tzu continues to refer to the greatness of humanity. He says we are all lords of the country. So, how should we behave in a way that is fitting for lords? We keep coming back to that word balance. It is balance that has Lao Tzu returning, once again, to the familiar imagery of yin and yang, to show us the way.

We have covered yin and yang and their complementary relationship, extensively. Going all the way back to chapter two, we find that they create each other, they support each other, they define each other, they depend on each other, and they follow each other.

Today, Lao Tzu talks about the relationship of heavy and light, the unmoved and movement. How these interact is how we are to interact in the Earth that is our home.

We have a root, an anchor. Not to weigh us down, but to allow us to thrive. Even, and especially, when the greatest storms of life are raging. Lao Tzu doesn’t want us flitting about like fools, being blown to and fro. He doesn’t want us to lose touch with our root, with our home. It is thus that the Master is able to travel all day, enjoying the splendid views. She never loses touch with her root, with her home. Thus, she is able always, even when life is chaotic, to stay serenely in herself.

So, we have the example of the Master. And what are supposed to do when we have an example? We are supposed to follow it. What is it that moves you and me? What do we allow to move us? Is it restlessness? That is the danger. Being blown about by every wind that comes along. That, Lao Tzu admonishes, is foolishness. If we let restlessness move us, we will lose touch with who we are.

I think we can point to any problem we are facing in our world today; and see that at its root, people have lost touch with who they are. And we know this is true. That is why we say things like, “It wasn’t always this way. When and how did things go so horribly wrong?”

So, what do we do? I think we need to get reconnected with the Earth. Get in tune with its natural rhythms. We can find ourselves again. We can return to who we have always been. We can be serene, even in the midst of all the chaos, by holding onto our anchor and always staying connected to our root.

Following The Earth

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.

The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.

Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 25, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

How exactly do I go about offering commentary on a chapter like this one? To begin with, I am going to borrow heavily from all the previous chapters. This chapter rehashes so much of what he has already said. But there is something more at work here. Lao Tzu is still trying to lead us to understanding. How do we open ourselves to the Tao? How do we follow it? As this chapter reveals, it has a whole lot to do with our relationship with the Earth.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu goes back to talking about the mysterious Tao. This is like the early chapters of the Tao Te Ching. We go way back, back to the very beginning, before the Universe was born. No humans. No Earth. No Universe. Just the Tao. It is without form; yet, it is perfect. Complete without need of anything. It is serene, in that moment and every moment. It is empty; yet within that emptiness is contained everything. It is solitary. It is everything there is. There isn’t anything except for it. It never changes. No matter what changes, it remains the same. It is infinite. It lacks nothing, desires nothing. It is eternally present. Before space and time. Beyond is and is not. It is the great mother of the Universe. It is the source of all being and non-being, of everything that is and everything that is not. Lao Tzu has already told us that it is nameless, the eternal Tao. But we have to call it something; and so we do.

The Tao is ubiquitous; and, it is liquid. It is ever-flowing through all things. Always on the move, both inside and outside; and it always returns to itself, the Origin.

Obviously, the Tao is great. When we consider the four great powers, we list them from greatest to least. So, we start with the Tao. And why not? It is the beginning of everything. The Universe follows after the Tao. It, too, is great. Then comes the Earth, following after the Universe. It, too, is great.

Then comes humans. How do we get to be so great? By following the Earth. We follow the Earth. That is how we follow the Tao. The Earth follows the Tao by following the Universe. The Universe follows the Tao. And the Tao follows only itself. So it is, we return once again to the Source.

Working Against Nature

He who stands on tiptoe
doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can’t know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can’t empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 24, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about how to express ourselves completely. Lao Tzu told us to be like the forces of nature, to open ourselves to the Tao, and then, to trust our natural responses. When we follow nature’s way, everything falls into place.

How very different are things as they are described in today’s chapter. This is not doing what comes naturally. It just isn’t natural to stand on tiptoes. And it isn’t natural to rush ahead. By acting against nature we only bring trouble on ourselves. There is a world of difference between letting your light shine and trying to shine your light. We are so afraid of what everybody thinks of us. We want to be the one in control. We begin to think the only way to have any control is to have power over others. Instead of doing things nature’s way, letting our light shine, we aren’t satisfied with that, we reach out for more. That is that standing on tiptoes, rushing ahead, trying to shine our own light. What we are really about is outshining everyone else. I can’t be satisfied with just letting my own light shine. It has to be brighter. The brightest. Do you even know who you are? This constant need to define yourself, to make yourself seem better than anyone else. No matter how great your power over others, you have failed to empower yourself. Nothing you create endures, because you insist on clinging to your own work. Hey, look at me, see what I have done?

So very out of accord with the Tao. If you want to be in accord with the Tao, stop grasping, stop clinging, stop trying… Just do your job; and then, let it go.

Like The Forces of Nature

Express yourself completely.
Then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
When it blows, there is only wind.
When it rains, there is only rain.
When the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

If you open yourself to the Tao,
you are at one with the Tao,
and you can embody it completely.
If you open yourself to insight,
you are at one with insight
and you can use it completely.
If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Open yourself to the Tao.
Then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu didn’t want us dismissing what the ancient Masters had to teach us as nothing but empty phrases. He has been talking about residing in the Tao. That, to truly be yourself, you must be lived by the Tao. What he is wanting, for each one of us, is that we will truly be ourselves, a full expression of ourselves. We don’t think we are, yet, what we need to become. We think the challenge before us is to become something very different from what we are. But Lao Tzu insists that it isn’t becoming that is the challenge. It is being, simply being, what we already are. Can we be content to simply be ourselves?

Today, we are continuing on with how to embrace being ourselves. He tells us we need to express ourselves completely. It is the full expression of who and what we are that is the challenge. We never feel like we do that, do we? We always hold something back. Never fully expressing ourselves. Yet, only by fully expressing ourselves are we going to ever truly be ourselves. It is only after we have fully expressed ourselves, holding nothing back, that it is then time to keep quiet and let the Tao live in and through us.

This expression of ourselves is natural. Lao Tzu gives us the examples of the forces of nature and tells us to be like that. Let the wind blow. It is only wind. Let it blow. And when it is raining, let it rain. Let it keep raining until it is time for the clouds to pass and the sun to shine through again.

Being willing to fully express yourself, the real you, without holding anything back, is the beginning of everything the Tao wants to accomplish in you. It is that full expression of who and what we are which opens ourselves to the Tao. That is what makes us one with the Tao, in perfect harmony with the way things are. Having fully expressed ourselves, now we can fully embody the Tao.

What is holding you back from fully expressing yourself? What are you afraid of? Are you hoping, first, to get some new insight? But you already have everything you need. Just open yourself to it. Be one with it. Then you can use it completely.

Still scared? I understand. I am scared too. That is why we hold back. We are afraid we will lose everything. Who among us isn’t scared of experiencing loss? But loss isn’t something we can avoid. It will happen over and over again in our lives. We need to accept that reality. And the only way to accept it, completely, is to open ourselves to it, allowing ourselves to become one with it.

So, what are you afraid of? Open yourself to the Tao. You can do this. And having done it, you can trust your natural responses. No matter what you may think to the contrary. No matter what you have been told. You can trust you. And, as you do take that monumental step of trusting yourself, you will find everything falling into place. That is what it means to be in harmony with the way things are, to go with the flow, to do what comes naturally to you, to be at one with the Tao.

Not Just Empty Phrases

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
‘If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you be truly yourself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 22, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The problem in today’s chapter is in what we want to become. Lao Tzu tells us, over and over again, no matter what it is we want to become, we are going to have to learn, first, to be content with what we already are. Let yourself be what you already are. Stop trying to become something else. Content yourself with being. Let the Tao take care of the becoming.

The Master is our example. Did the Master start out as the Master? No way. The Master started out the same way we all do. The Master, no doubt, had ambitions too. The Master wanted to become something else entirely from what he was. But, what sets the Master apart is that he learned to reside in the Tao. He contented himself with being lived by the Tao. And the Master realized something along the way. He, like all the ancient Masters, realized that it is only in giving everything up that you gain everything.

The Tao is what brings balance and harmony in our Universe; and, in our lives, if we will only let it. I think we are afraid to just be ourselves. To truly be ourselves. I know I have been. And those fears still bother me. It is scary to be different. To be alone. But what is perhaps even scarier is that we aren’t really all that different, or that alone. We are all much more alike than we are different. That is why we compare and compete with others. We fear both our sameness and our differences.

Still, what we are, and what we will become, is something we need to leave to the Tao. This is the only path to wholeness. The only way to truly be, and become, yourself.

The Truth Isn’t Out There, It’s Inside You

The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao.
That is what gives her her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were.
The Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 21, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about a casual observer, looking at the way things seem to be. To that casual observer, Lao Tzu appears like he is all alone, and very foolish indeed. Being different makes you stand out. That is the appeal of conforming to what you perceive everybody else is doing. That is why we value what other people value and avoid what others avoid. But Lao Tzu embraced what made him different. He was content to simply be himself and drink from the great Mother’s breasts. Yesterday’s, was a very personal chapter for Lao Tzu; one where he opened himself up to be observed by all. That made it unique. It wasn’t an easy chapter to digest. It isn’t easy to be put under the microscope and judged by others’ standards. Especially, if your observer is only seeing the way things seem to be, and not able to realize the way things actually are.

Today, Lao Tzu points our eyes back at the way things are. It is the ungraspable, dark, and unfathomable Tao that the Master always keeps her mind at one with. That is what makes her radiant. Of course, that leads us to the obvious question of how can this be?

You can’t grasp something that is ungraspable. That goes without saying. So, how can you be one with it? Good question. And here is the answer: Stop trying to grasp it. Give up your grasp on whatever preconceived notions you have. Stop clinging to your own ideas. As you let go of all those things, the Tao remains. It alone remains with you.

There again, how can something so deep and dark make someone radiant? We get messed up here trying to make ourselves radiant. And all we have to work with is something that is deep and dark. It is seemingly impossible to get radiance from this. And, it is. Because we aren’t supposed to be making any of this happen. But there is something we can do. Stop trying. Take that step back. And let the Tao do what it does. Actually, it doesn’t do anything at all. Yet, through it, all things get done. And, the Master is made radiant.

The Tao, so mysterious. Before time and space, these constructs which we use to try and explain the wonders of the Universe, there is the Tao. Always. It is beyond is and is not. That is what makes it so mysterious. Because we can’t seem to get beyond the realm of is and is not, before time and space. This is something we can’t know. We must be content not to know; and instead, to simply be.

Today, he returned to talking about the Master. That took the spotlight off of him. But Lao Tzu wasn’t completely out of the picture. At the conclusion of the chapter, he answers the obvious question that the casual observer still must ask: How do I (Lao Tzu) know this is true? Well, Lao Tzu answers, I look inside myself and see. If you want to see the way things are, instead of the way things seem to be, that is the place you, too, need to be looking. We keep telling ourselves the truth is out there, somewhere. But it isn’t out there, it is inside you.

Things Are Not What They Appear To Be

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the need to do some Spring cleaning. There are things that we need to throw away. Things that we have substituted for simply following the great Tao. I promised, at the end of the chapter, that if we stay in the center of the circle, balance and harmony will return. Because, all around us is chaos, we need that return to balance and harmony.

Lao Tzu has spent the last few chapters talking about the turmoil in the world. Both the reasons for it, and its cure. In today’s chapter, we have what one translator of it referred to as, “one of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.” Even I, have found this chapter disturbing and seemingly uncharacteristic of Lao Tzu. I have previously characterized it as Lao Tzu’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” believing he was suffering from a serious bout of depression.

It has only been after reading over and over again through the Tao Te Ching, over many months, now years, that I have come to appreciate what Lao Tzu is doing in today’s chapter. Hopefully, I can make sense of it in today’s commentary.

I think the place to begin is with this: Things are not what they appear to be.

What has always thrown me in reading this chapter is how often Lao Tzu uses the personal pronoun, I. I count a total number of twelve times that Lao Tzu uses that personal pronoun. And, seven of those times, he is saying I am alone. Yes, it does begin to sound pathetic. If we were to isolate this chapter from the rest of the Tao Te Ching, I would agree. This is a despairing man. And, I am not suggesting that the translator I mentioned earlier wasn’t trying, desperately trying, to put all of this into context with the rest of the Tao Te Ching. I just think he made the same mistake that I made to begin with. He couldn’t reconcile it; just like I couldn’t reconcile it. And that was that. But I can’t give up on this.

There are clues to Lao Tzu’s intent throughout the chapter. They are to be found in all of his comparing and contrasting himself with other people. This chapter seems to be full of all the differences between himself and others. At the very end, he even comes right out and says it, “I am different from ordinary people.” The whole chapter’s theme seems to be, at best, a celebration of difference. I have even previously entitled commentary on today’s chapter “Vive La Difference” so yes, it is there. But, hold on there. There is more here than just that.

Let’s look again at the first stanza. “Stop thinking, and end your problems….” Here Lao Tzu is talking in the second person. We have the pronoun you. What really is the difference between yes and no, between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? And Lao Tzu’s “answer” to the question? “How ridiculous.”

That “How ridiculous” may be the most important thing he says. But I still want to reconcile this with the rest of the Tao Te Ching, and I have my work cut out for me. Lao Tzu has already insisted, back in chapter eight, that we need to be content to simply be ourselves, and not compare or compete with others. And that is exactly what makes this chapter seem so contrary. Because it seems, comparing and competing with others is exactly what Lao Tzu is doing. That is why I said to you, “Things are not what they appear to be.”

What has Lao Tzu been talking about the last few chapters? The turmoil of beings. Our trust issues. Forgetting about the great Tao. The need to throw away the substitutes and return to the center of the circle.

And, I began to wonder, who exactly is talking in this chapter? Is it Lao Tzu? Does he really feel all alone? And I started to understand. What Lao Tzu is describing, for us, is the way things seem to be. We have talked about this before. The Tao is the way things are. The way things seem to be is not the way things are. What Lao Tzu is doing is setting up an observer, one who sees things the way they appear to be.

To the observer, Lao Tzu appears very much alone; while other people, seem to have their act together. But remember, friends, when everyone is running toward a cliff, and you alone are going the other direction, you will be seen as the insane one.

That “running toward a cliff” is an apt metaphor for the chaos we are experiencing in our world today. The whole world is in turmoil, chaos seems in ascendancy. But, what if you took a step back? What if you remembered the great Tao? What if you returned to the center of the circle; and stayed there, no matter what every one around you was saying and doing? Would it make any difference? Maybe not to the multitudes that value what others value and avoid what others avoid. But, how ridiculous is that? To the casual observer, you are a fool, an idiot. But, you just stay right where you are, drinking from the Great Mother’s breasts. I dare you to do it.

Time For Some Spring Cleaning

Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.

If these three aren’t enough,
just stay in the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

For the last couple of days we have been talking about the reason we have trust issues. It is because we have forgotten the great Tao. Having forgotten, we lose our intuitive connection with the Tao; and then, things that used to come naturally to us, become forced and contrived, as we strive to live our lives. We can’t trust our selves. We can’t trust the people around us. Even members of our own families. Our friends seem like enemies. The reality is we have become our own enemy. This is chaos. We talked about the sense of duty that arises as we try to perform our roles. Like the roles of parents and children. I said, yesterday, that in the midst of all this chaos, there was really only one thing to do. That is to take a step back. Remember where it is that we came from. See how far we have wandered from the Tao. And start all over again. Today’s chapter is telling us how to do just that. It is time for some Spring cleaning. It is time for throwing out all the things that are going to hold us back; and doing, once again, what comes naturally.

Lao Tzu promises us that if we throw these things away, people will be a hundred times happier. They will do the right thing. And, there won’t be any thieves. This almost sounds too good to be true. But the very reason that it sounds far-fetched, just goes to show us how far we have wandered. When a whole country, or in our case, the whole world, is in the midst of chaos, it is understandable that we would balk about these throwaways. Because it means giving up control. And control is one thing we crave when life is chaotic. Giving up your need to control, both your self and others, is tough. But that is only because it is so very important. Holiness and wisdom don’t make people happy. But giving up our need to control will. Morality and justice don’t make people do the right thing. But, we are scared. Because we no longer trust people to do the right thing. But we can’t make people do the right thing. No matter how much control we try to exert over their lives. It is hard, so hard, to believe that throwing out morality and justice can do anything but make things a whole lot worse. But we have to do it. We need to return to trusting the Tao, again. Even industry and profit are means of control. We may have the best of intentions. We don’t want to promote idleness. But, why is it that people are not content with their simple, ordinary lives? Industry and profit, however well-intentioned, are not ridding us of thieves.

The solutions we have contrived to try to solve the problems that we have created for ourselves aren’t going to work. They can only be solved by returning to the Source, the great Tao. We need to start trusting again. And that trust begins with realizing that the way things are is the way things are. The way things seem to be is only an illusion. An illusion that we have created as we have wandered away from the Source. So, we need to begin by throwing away everything that props up that illusion. And then we need to, once again, return to the center of the circle. The center of the circle is that place where we learn not to meddle in the affairs of others. We begin to let all things take their own course. And staying in the center of the circle, balance and harmony return.