Be completely empty. Be perfectly serene. The ten thousand things arise together; in their arising is their return. Now they flower, and flowering sink homeward, returning to the root. The return to the root is… More
Look at it: nothing to see.
Call it colorless.
Listen to it: nothing to hear.
Call it soundless.
Reach for it: nothing to hold.
Call it intangible.
it merges into oneness,
not bright above,
not dark below.
Never, oh! never
can it be named.
It reverts, it returns
Call it the form of the unformed,
the image of no image.
Call it unthinkable thought.
Face it: no face.
Follow it: no end.
Holding fast to the Way,
we can live in the present.
Mindful of the ancient beginnings,
we hold the thread of the Tao.
How does one define the Tao?
I suppose this is it. I have shockingly little to say about this poem, except that it’s an important one. It’s full of the paradoxes and contradictions inherent to the Tao, to humanity. Within there, it encompasses so much.
And I think your affinity to the Tao will be found in the emotional resonance of this poem. If it makes you feel nothing, it’s not because you’re wrong or missing out, or because the Tao is inconsequential.
It may just be that this way of thinking, of living isn’t for you. If you find nothing here, it may be because there’s nothing for you to find.
But if you find something here. If this resonates with you. If you feel the poem physically, emotionally, than you may be coming home. Home to a way of thinking and living that you never knew existed.
To be in favor or disgrace
is to live in fear.
To take the body seriously
is to admit one can suffer.
What does that mean,
to be in favor or disgrace
is to live in fear?
we fear to lose it,
fear to win it.
So to be in favor or disgrace
is to live in fear.
What does that mean
to take the body seriously
is to admit one can suffer?
I suffer because I’m a body;
if I weren’t a body,
how could I suffer?
So people who set their bodily good
before the public good
could be entrusted with the commonwealth,
and people who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.
Lao Tzu talks about power often in the Tao Te Ching. What separated him and continues to separate the Tao from most reasons for power is that the Tao states that power is a result of virtue, whereas nearly every other ideology and religion tends to see power itself as the virtue.
Might is right and so on. Manifest Destiny, the Divine Right of Kings, patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism–all of these ideas state that power is the virtue. Often times it’s tied to genetics, which is another way of saying that they see power as innate. They are born with power and so it is right for them to use power.
The Tao subverts this. Power is not a right. It is a gift. A gift given by the commonwealthy. That is to say, one who governs is given power by the people she governs. She doesn’t impose power upon them, but is allowed to govern because she has proven herself capable, gifted, whatever.
A leader, here, is one who sees the commonwealth in the same way one sees their own body. To understand that the body can and will suffer. To understand that praise and applause are not goals, but results of proper action. If someone simply chases praise, they are unfit to govern. Probably they’re unfit to do a lot of other things, too.
This is the most prescriptive poem we’ve come across thus far in the Tao Te Ching and, like other prescriptive poems we’ll see, it has to do with leadership. Lao Tzu seems especially concerned with what makes a good leader, which makes sense, given the time period this was written.
But it’s something we should consider now. It’s partly why I decided to do these daily meditations on the Tao. We’re days away from a new president in my country, and I think we should consider the man we’ve elected and what his assumption of power will mean.
It would be hard to say that Lao Tzu would approve.
The five colors
blind our eyes.
The five notes
deafen our ears.
The five flavors
dull our taste.
Racing, chasing, hunting,
drives people crazy.
Trying to get rich
ties people in knots.
So the wise soul
watches with the inner
not the outward eye,
letting that go,
Often, the Tao asks us to look inward. To know ourselves, and then master ourselves. Mastery, here, is not stoicism. The point is not to retreat from pleasure and so on. Not to live like a spartan. The point, I think, is to teach ourselves that we don’t need all that.
Since we’ve been married, Chelsea’s gotten very into Marie Kondo and minimalism as a lifestyle.
The point of these things isn’t to live with very little. That’s an outcome of the lifestyle’s philosophy. But the point is to understand what you have and what you need, and to rid yourself of the excess. I’ve never read any Marie Kondo, but Chelsea tells me that she often talks about the value of objects. Whether that value is determined by sentiment or utility, it doesn’t matter. Kondo asks people to only keep the things that give them joy. So while it might be nice to have thirty coats (I love coats), do I really value all of them? Or do I have them just because I want them? Maybe I really only need two or four of the coats. Not because they’re the most practical (though that’d likely be part of it) but because I actually enjoy owning them.
Going through this process, Chelsea’s removed about half the clothing she once owned. And it’s not because she was relentlessly cutting back, but because she realized how many things she owned that she actually didn’t want or care about.
I think of that when I read this poem of the Tao Te Ching. The point isn’t to restrict yourself. The point is to discover what you value in your own life, and to shift yourself towards them.
It’s not about removal or restriction: it’s about self-discovery.
And the Tao is a process and the process is demonstrated in the Tao Te Ching. So this comes early, telling us to know ourselves, to discover what we value, and to keep it, while letting go of all the things that are noise, clutter.
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
From Le Guin’s commentary:
One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny. He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, on of those communicative truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pot.
I’d never really thought of it this way, and it kind of stuns me to silence, to be honest.
I recommend you read that poem again, then read it again before you go to sleep.
The utility of absence and the absence of utility is where this is leading my own thoughts, but it may lead me in newer directions as the day goes on.
The truth and beauty in humor.
Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you center your energy,
be soft, tender,
and so learn to be a baby?
Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?
Opening, closing the Gate of Heaven,
can you be like a bird with her nestings?
Piercing bright through the cosmos,
can you know by not knowing?
To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.
Much of this poem seems concerned with what probably looks like meditative techniques. I don’t think that’s an incorrect way of looking at this. And it leads into the final stanza. This poem asks if we can consider existence. Can we examine and meditate on the world without losing ourselves, without becoming unstable? If we can, we may be ready for the final stanza.
The last stanza repeats ideas presented in previous poems, and this is the first repetition. It will happen again. I’ve mentioned previously how the Tao Te Ching, in my view, is not a prescriptive text, which is maybe what makes the repetitions interesting. Think of it like a refrain, or a theme in the symphony. It’ll come back with slight variations or identically, and it brings a cohesiveness to the text. All the meanderings and mystical language becomes grounded in these little paradoxes, which tell you to lead without lead, to teach without doing.
Inaction means something specific in this text, and it doesn’t mean to simply do nothing. At least that’s never how I’ve read it. To me, it’s always been more of a passive form of leadership.
This idea exists in the business world, incidentally. Someone who guides employees is considered a leader, while someone who simply makes demands on employees is considered a boss, with the term being pejorative.
This idea exists in many religions, too. The idea that leadership comes through demonstration and not by the exertion of force. You teach, not by sitting someone down and lecturing them, but in demonstrating.
The Tao asks that we consider our actions. Not only the action itself, but also where it leads and what the ramifications are. For every step we take in one direction is a step away from any other direction, and so it’s worth considering what those steps mean and where they lead us.
So can we know without knowing? Can we act without acting?
The paradox exists there for a reason, and I think the reason is to make us consider more. To meditate on ways to act. To be like water.
But I think a clearer example is in that last stanza. To bear without owning. To lead without ruling. Especially since this poem ends with a statement about power.
So to me it’s always been a matter of force and exertion.
Inaction, then, has more to do with force. If you exert force upon your pupils, are you really teaching them what you think you’re teaching them? If you exert force upon those you have authority over, are you really leading them?
Brim-fill the bowl,
it’ll spill over.
Keep sharpening the blade,
you’ll soon blunt it.
Nobody can protect
a house full of gold and jade.
Wealth, status, pride,
are their own ruin.
To do good, work well, and lie low
is the way of the blessing.
Last night, Chelsea made palak paneer, which is pretty labor intensive. Or, not labor, but it is time consuming and requires a lot of focus and exactitude, at least for a first try. Most of the process was making the paneer, which is more like performing a chemistry project from high school than it is like cooking.
It came out well, though there were a few missteps. I mean, this is normal the first time you make any recipe, especially when it involves ingredients you’ve never made or cooked with before. And paneer is a bizarre little thing to make and then use.
Despite some of our mistakes, it was great. More than that, it felt great to make it. The process of cooking is always enjoyable to me, even when it fails. It was also just fun, since Chelsea was the head chef last night. Typically, I do all the cooking, but it was fun to be an assistant in the kitchen.
And reading this poem of the Tao Te Ching this morning reminds me of last night. The joy of simply working well. Finding the pleasure in simplicity and doing new things. In working methodically and doing that well.
And I think that’s the point of this poem: to remind you to take care and be intentional with all your actions, regardless how small or seemingly insignificant. Whether it’s washing the dishes, cooking, or even just posting on social media.
is like water.
It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.
For a house,
the good thing is level ground.
depth is good.
The good of giving is magnanimity;
of speaking, honesty;
of government, order.
The good work is skill,
and of action, timing.
so no blame.
Here are Le Guin’s comments on this section:
A clear stream of water runs through this book, from poem to poem, wearing down the indestructible, finding the way around everything that obstructs the way. Good drinking water.
I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching for nearly half my life, and so it probably isn’t super surprising that I, too, have a bit of a water fixation.
Of course, that’s likely just a function of being human or any species that requires water for survival.
And thinking about water and its importance is nothing new. Thinkers throughout history have discussed water as more than simply an element or necessity for existence. This is especially true in East Asian philosophy. Why that might be, I have no idea. And likely it’s just as common in western thought, but I’ve never read much of the Greeks or Romans or Germans or French or even English, so this could be coming from a place of plain, old fashioned ignorance.
But I’ve been thinking about water for a long time, and have even been applying it for a lot of aspects of my life, in a very practical way.
I used to play baseball and I used to be a pitcher. While pitching requires a lot of physical exactitude, it’s much more of a thinking position. It’s not enough to just throw the ball to the catcher. You need to throw the ball past the batter, without them touching it (at least this is how I always thought of it, since I was more of a power/strikeout pitcher). This requires incredible precision and mechanics. While I could only ever hit the mid-80s in terms of speed (which is a lot or a little, depending on your level of play), the batter was prepared for this speed, even if it was on the higher end of the spectrum. And for those unfamiliar, a pitcher goes, essentially, from standing still, to launching themselves forward and hurling a tiny ball 60ft into a catcher’s mitt. The trick to the whole thing is creating momentum where none exists.
When you start at the full windup, you get to take a slight step back to give you a bit of a rocking movement to work with. That same leg you step back with is the one you raise high (if you’re me, low if you’re lame), and then, at that peak of potential energy, you reach back with the ball, and you connect your throwing hand to the heel of your raised foot. When you launch that foot forward to plant into the dirt of the mound, your arm swings round, gaining momentum, which means power, which means speed.
And, if you’re really great, that hand is hidden from the batter till just before the moment of release so they don’t get to track the ball through its entire range of motion, which makes it easier to hit.
I’m a normal sized human, but I have long arms and legs, which gave me an advantage, in terms of building momentum. I could swing my limbs through the air and crash it down, launching the ball at a pretty good speed. And so I could overpower the batter or at least surprise them. Even though I wasn’t the fastest pitcher around (or even on my team), I threw more strikeouts than just about anyone in the league, at least per innings pitched. In a seven inning game, I once struck out 13 batters, which means a strikeout accounted for nearly 2/3rds of the outs that game.
I was always thinking of water when I pitched. So much of pitching is quieting your brain, shutting out all other thoughts. And I did this by focusing on water. Existing as a waterfall trapped in a well. Finding a stillness and calmness that could be transformed into a tidal wave in just a moment.
I’ve always thought of movement as being closely tied to water, but it applies to so many other areas, as well. Including strategy games like Chess or persuasive essays or even just congenial argumentation. Your goal is to be fluid, adaptable, almost shapeless until the moment requires a shape. And then you fill it robustly.
A lot of these ideas, for me, come from being a little kid obsessed with martial arts movies. I spent hours and hours watching Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee move in ways that were exhilarating and mind-altering to me. I didn’t know humans could move like that, and so I’d sneak down after I was meant to be asleep and try to catch a few more hours of that beautiful watery movement.
Then I’d practice doing what they did. I studied those movies and those movements. I wanted to be that awesome when I grew up.
Of course, I’m sort of a sedentary beast these days, but I still long for those youthful days when I was teaching myself to fly.
Water has always been something at the front of my thoughts (along with dust, but that’s a different discussion), and maybe that’s why I felt home when I first read the Tao Te Ching. It was like coming home. Articulating ideas and images that I always knew where out there, but didn’t have the language for.
Water is formless, until it’s given a form. Water carves through mountain and the bones of the earth. Water creates and destroys. But above all else, water is always water. It never loses itself, even as it changes.
Be like water, my friends.