The Way bears them; power nurtures them; their own being shapes them; their own energy completes them. And not one of the ten thousand things fails to hold the Way sacred or to obey its… More
Studying and learning daily you grow larger.
Following the Way daily you shrink.
You get smaller and smaller.
So you arrive at not doing.
You do nothing and nothing’s not done.
To run things,
don’t fuss with them.
Nobody who fusses
is fit to run things.
It seems as if Lao Tzu is advocating for ignorance here, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a difficulty of the simplicity of the language.
We grow larger as we learn because the world broadens for us. Once you begin learning, there are so many things to learn!
The distinction, I think–or at least this is how I read it–is that much of what we learn is fruitless for us. Or rather, much of what we learn is ideology. We learn patriotism, capitalism, and how to fit into the gears of the machine that is the capitalist world.
And so much of what we learn can be seen as a learning how to dehumanize us.
It’s something I’ve always struggled with when it comes to most philosophy. For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have argued for the necessity of war and slavery and abuse. They’ve made arguments that brush off the extreme human cost of civilization’s policies. And yet, any child understands what cruelty is, and why it’s better to be kind than to be cruel.
And so we teach ourselves to be cruel.
The Tao offers a different way.
And though I don’t know if this is what Lao Tzu means in this poem, it makes sense to me in this manner.
The goal is not to become ignorant. It’s to understand what teachings matter, which ones are valuable.
You don’t have to go out the door
to know what goes on in the world.
You don’t have to look out the window
to see the way of heaven.
The farther you go,
the less you know.
So the wise soul
doesn’t go, but knows;
doesn’t look, but sees;
doesn’t do, but gets it done.
We have a tendency to mythologize travel and experiences gained doing so. But Lao Tzu makes a case against the necessity of traveling the world in order to understand it.
It’s worth noting, here, the differences between the current world and the ancient one. Travel now is much easier, which may actually do less for opening our eyes to the world than it would have even a few decades ago.
I disagree, here, with Lao Tzu. I think travel is absolutely essential to understanding who we are. I don’t mean that in a personal sense, but in the sense of our species. I think our humanness depends on our ability to understand the world beyond our culutres, and even beyond our experiences.
Lao Tzu makes the latter point. That to know a people is to know all people. I think that makes sense, in a general way. The act of travel changes nothing. And if you’re uncurious at home, you’ll likely remain so abroad. If you think travel will teach you more about yourself, you’re sure to be disappointed as well.
Trading skies won’t change who you are. It’ll just make you aware of yourself in a new context.
Sometimes that’s important, but I don’t really think it is.
It’s silly for me to sit here and advocate for not traveling, since I’ve spent so many years traveling and enjoying it. But traveling taught me nothing about myself that I couldn’t have learned from staying home. It did, however, teach me about nationalism, about patriotism, about jingoism. Those are lessons worth learning, and I think stepping outside of your home country tells you far more about your country than anything else.
I was thinking about patriotism just this morning, and what a silly, violent notion it is.
But, yes, so I think travel is essential to one type of learning. But it is less likely to change your personality or who you are as a human. Those lessons can come right in your own town.
I also think it’s true that the farther you go, the less you know. Or rather, you become aware of how ignorant you are of so many things. The world opens up but not necessarily to you. You look at new cultures and find resistance because they are not yours. They did not shape you.
How you react to that is interesting.
But sometimes the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. And endless chasm of knowing and unknowing.
So travel. Travel wide and far. But also look inward, to yourself. Come to know who you are.
Knowledge is a form of resistance, and the Tao Te Ching is, I think, fundamentally a text of resistance. Of change. Of creating new ways.
And the first step is often understanding who you are. You cannot change the world if you don’t first change yourself.
When the world’s on the Way,
they use horses to haul manure.
When the world gets off the Way,
they breed warhorses on the common.
The greatest evil: wanting more.
The worst luck: discontent.
Greed’s the curse of life.
To know enough’s enough
is enough to know.
I love that last stanza. Its simplicity and brevity and veracity.
This is similar to the previous couple poems, where contentment is seen as a higher value. Power and wealth are not necessarily bad or improper, but the desire for power and wealth is an inherently destructive force in your life and the lives of those around you.
When we stop following the Tao, we seek violence and wealth, and we will find ourselves forever unsatisfied. Nothing will calm the greed that poisons us. The want within us. The absence eating away at us.
And so know when you have what you need, and let that be enough for you.
This can apply to all things in life, from the trivial to the profound: know what you need and be satisfied with receiving that.
This will lead to contentment, and contentment is peace, happiness.
Let it enfold you.
What’s perfectly whole seems flawed,
but you can use it forever.
What’s perfectly full seems empty,
but you can’t use it up.
True straightness looks crooked.
Great skill looks clumsy.
Real eloquence seems to stammer.
To be comfortable in the cold, keep moving;
to be comfortable in the heat, hold still;
to be comfortable in the world, stay calm and clear.
More balance and harmony of disparate images and ideas, and then it ends in clear and simple statements that are hard to argue with. Movement will keep you warm in the cold, stillness will keep you cool in the heat, and calmness and clarity will make life more pleasant in the world.
I think this is what draws me continually back to the Tao and this text. The simplicity. The stillness. The calmness. And the clarity.
I know some will read this and find it opaque, but, as I’ve said many times, it all fits so easily into me. These words, the simple language used. Perhaps it’s because life is sometimes so complicated that I want to reduce it down to its fundamental parts. Perhaps it’s a sort of utopic idealisation.
But I think it’s something more. Something even simpler. It’s a comfort to simplify and clarify your life and intentions. Things become muddled and complicated because we lack clarity, vision, sincerity, and calmness. The world is such an anxious realm. Overflowing with anxiety and nervousness. It’s easy to get sucked in and believe that the neurosis of modern life is a necessity rather than a symptom of the disease created by humanity’s disharmony with the earth.
And so I often want to get back to this simplicity, this clarity, this sincerity, this humor, and find the Way through the anxiety and restlessness that is a plague incubated and spread by us.
Be calm. Be still. Find clarity.
Consider this for today.
Which is nearer,
name or self?
Which is dearer,
self or worth?
Which gives more pain,
loss or gain?
All you grasp will be thrown away.
All you hoard will be utterly lost.
Contentment keeps disgrace away.
Restraint keeps you out of danger
so you can go on for a long, long time.
These are not such strange questions or ideas. They exist in just about every ideology. These are questions about what we value in life and what we wish to have. Do we want a long life of contentment, or do we want a life of acquisition?
The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but it seems that they often are.
And so it’s not strange that the Tao Te Ching would ask these questions or even make a value judgment against personal fortune. It’s a commonly held belief across cultures, I think, that those with great monetary wealth are often lacking in some other way. Typically, we’d say this is a spiritual lack, but I tend to shy away from such statements. And so I think that contentment is perhaps the better word here.
Because that’s often at the heart of these poems: the search for contentment. To be content with being an outsider, an idiosyncratic thinker. We lead and teach through demonstration. We shun or at least do not strive for wealth or fame or recognition. Rather, the Tao asks us to find peace, harmony with ourselves. Often the way to get there is by stepping into the rhythm of the world, following the Way, listening to the Tao that is all things.
Wealth is what you make it, and it needn’t be money. But if all you seek is recognition, wealth, power, you will find it fleeting, never satiating, and absent once our lives extinguish.
What’s softest in the world
rushes and runs
over what’s hardest in the world.
So I know the good in not doing.
The wordless teaching,
the profit in not doing–
not many people understand it.
Be still. Be permanent. Be nothing. Be everything.
The world was once a quiet place. A chaotic place.
The Way bears one.
The one bears two.
The two bear three.
The three bear the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things
carry yin on their shoulders
and hold in their arms the yang,
whose interplay of energy
orphans, widowers, outcasts.
Yet that’s what kings and rulers call themselves.
Whatever you lose, you’ve won.
Whatever you win, you’ve lost.
What others teach, I say too:
violence and aggression
My teaching rests on that.
This is the first time the text mentions the yin and yang, but these are fundamental principles, and why so much of the text pushes opposites against one another. To do one thing is to do another.
The poem begins with a mini cosmology that leads into the interplay of yin and yang. It’s something that feels true, and mimics, to a degree, what we know of physics. With the universe beginning from a single point and spreading. Energy rushing out from this point worked as a binding and destructive force, creating and dismantling the universe as it expanded.
It might be useful to have the yin and yang nearer the start of the text, but I like it’s place here, about halfway through. It forces us to wrestle with the paradoxes and interplay of oppositional forces throughout the Tao Te Ching without giving us a definition. When you give something difficult or complex a definition, it makes it too easy for us to rely on the definition without actually grappling with the meaning. So here we are at the halfway point and we’re only now being given a definition to a fundamental aspect of the Tao.
The poem ends, once more, with a statement of pacifism. Perhaps the most powerful and direct that the text has to offer.
I think it’s worth considering the structure of this poem. We begin with the universe, we move to the power structures of humanity, and we end with pacifism.
Consider this today.