lying low

The polity of greatness
runs downhill like a river to the sea,
joining with everything,
woman to everything.

By stillness the woman
may always dominate the man,
lying quiet beneath him.

So a great country
submitting to small ones, dominates them;
so small countries,
submitting to a great one, dominate it.

Lie low to be on top,
be on top by lying low.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

An interesting thought. Unfortunately, we don’t often see such things in the world so it’s hard to judge the validity of such an idea. As is often the case, even cultural imperialism is done by way of violence.

But it reminds me of an older definition of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation did not originally mean the same thing as what it does now. The appropriation of culture was done by the minority culture. They took images and symbols of the majority, of the imperialist and appropriated them for their own use.

You see this all over the place. Literally all over the world. During the Soviet era, many Eastern Bloc architects and artists subverted the strict Soviet guidelines by appropriating them and coding in new meanings by subtly throwing in their own cultural heritage.

An interesting example of something like this is Irish Dance, which has been done with straight arms and a stiff upper body. This is not how it was originally done, but something that developed to duck the censors and policemen who had outlawed their culture. When the policemen walked past the pub and peeked inside, it looked like everyone was just standing around.

Or the way the Irish sneaked swans into their verses and iconography.

And so it happened that the populations seemed to give into the force of their oppressor while fighting subtly and continuously for freedom.

Most of them gained freedom.

And so this poem takes on an interesting light when you look at it this way. How submission is not the same as losing. How domineering over another state or culture only blossoms resistance and creativity.

For every tyrant, there is art. For every oppressed people, there is hope. As long as they have art, they can have hope. As long as they seem to bow their heads when the tyrants walk past, they can survive. All the while weaving dissent and their own cultural history into the fabric of the imperialists.

staying put

Rule a big country
the way you cook a small fish.

If you keep control by following the Way,
troubled spirits won’t act up.
They won’t lose their immaterial strength,
but they won’t harm people with it,
nor will wise souls come to harm.
And so, neither harming the other,
these powers will come together in unity.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Thomas Jefferson would have liked the first stanza.

“Troubled spirits” are kwei, ghosts, not bad in themselves but dangerous if they possess you. Waley reads the second stanza as a warning to believers in Realpolitik: a ruler “possesses” by power harms both the people and his own soul. Taking it as counsel to the individual, it might mean that wise souls neither indulge nor repress the troubled spirits that may haunt them; rather, they let those spiritual energies be part of the power they find along the way.

I like that reading of the poem. It strikes me as feeling true, or at least consistent with much of the Tao Te Ching.

I really love the first stanza. I find it both funny and charming. The simplicity of it is kind of absurd but also feels right. A small fish is a delicate thing and needs to be cooked carefully, almost tenderly.

Lao Tzu connects the exertion of force, or violence, to spiritual problems. While I tend to shy away from such comparisons, since I don’t find them especially useful, there’s no denying that the choice to exert force over another does something to the way you see the world. When you begin to see violence as a means to an end, you begin to refuse a very human part of yourself.

It makes sense for a spiritualist to connect this kind of troubling behavior to spirits, but I think saying that possession is responsible is a bit silly, or at least a bit too convenient.

We choose and we act. Our actions and choices have consequences, even if the only immediate consequence is that we’re more likely to choose that choice again. To make that action again. And if that action is violent or anti-social, we begin to walk a path where such actions are easier and more readily made by us.

That’s not the path we want to walk along.

So think about choices today. How simple choices can decide much more than we might expect, since a choice is the first step down a path. No matter which path it is, every choice we make along that path either strengthens our resolve to follow or turn away from that path.

When you choose to be kind, to be charitable, you are making a prosocial choice. Kindness and charity will become habitual the more you make that choice.

When you choose violence, in all its varying manifestations, you are choosing something antisocial, and begin to walk a path that makes violence more common and easier in your life.

So be kind. Do one nice thing today, even if it’s just smiling at someone or buying a stranger a cup of coffee. Listen more than you speak today. Learn instead of attempting to teach.

staying on the way

In looking after your life and following the way,
gather spirit.
Gather spirit early,
and so redouble power,
and so become invulnerable.

Invulnerable, unlimited,
you can do what you like with material things.
But only if you hold to the Mother of things
will you do it for long.
Have deep roots, a strong trunk.
Live long by looking long.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In a sense, Lao Tzu is saying that once you’re firmly entrenched in the Tao, little will be able to knock you off the way or lead you astray. You can go out and live without worry so much about the Tao, because the Tao has become deeply a part of you. Almost like a habit, but stronger.

You will live a long and happy life when you follow the way, when you hold to the Tao. And little will disturb you or discomfort you as you travel through life.

It’s a beautiful and simple idea.

living with change

When the government’s dull and confused,
the people are placid.
When the government’s sharp and keen,
the people are discontented.
Alas! misery lies under happiness,
and happiness sits on misery, alas!
Who knows where it will end?
Nothing is certain.

The normal changes into the monstrous,
the fortunate into the unfortunate,
and our bewilderment
goes on and on.

And so the wise
shape without cutting,
square without sawing,
true without forcing.
They are the light that does not shine.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

In the first verse, the words “dull and confused” and “sharp and keen” are, as Waley points out, the words used in chapter 20 to describe the Taoist and non-Taoist.

In the last verse most translators say the Taoist is square but doesn’t cut, shines but doesn’t dazzle. Waley says that this misses the point. The point is that Taoists gain theirs ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine–an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.

As Le Guin, and Waley, say, this poem pulls previous images into it to say something new about leadership and power.

This is an interesting poem to consider as an american in 2017. Since I would say our government is confused, but exciting. As in: there is literally something new to deal with every day. Sometimes several new things every day. So I don’t know what Tao Tzu would think of a sharp and confused government. The only way to interpret such a government, I think, is as one working against its citizenry.

So Lao Tzu would probably see such a government as bizarre. Why would it exist? Why would people allow it to exist?

For all the use of the Tao Te Ching, I don’t think it’s equipped to answer why people would agree to cede their rights and agency to a few people.

But I doubt any text is.

I do think the Tao Te Ching is equipped to deal with the fallout of such a decision, which is why I’ve been spending my days with it.

This is an opportunity to imagine the kind of government we do want. The kind of country we want to be. Since we’re mired in what we don’t want, what we fear, what we resent.

Let’s plan something new. Bring in new faces.

Of course, the DNC is picking the same faces, planning on doing the same things, which is a recipe for 8 years of GOP mandate.

But that’s their problem to deal with.

Let’s create something new.

being simple

Run the country by doing what’s expected.
Win the war by doing the unexpected.
Control the world by doing nothing.
How do I know that?
By this.

The more restrictions and prohibitions in the world,
the poorer people get.
The more experts the country has
the more of a mess it’s in.
The more ingenious the skillfull are,
the more monstrous their inventions.
The louder the call for law and order,
the more the thieves and con men multiply.

So a wise leader might say:

I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves.
I love to be quiet, and the people themselves find justice.
I don’t do business, and the people prosper on their own.
I don’t have wants, and the people themselves are uncut wood.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

A strong political statement of the central idea of wu wei, not doing, inaction.

My “monstrous” is literally “new.” New is strange, and stare is uncanny. New is bad. Lao Tzu is deeply and firmly against changing things, particularly in the name of progress. He would make an Iowa farmer look flighty. I don’t think he is exactly anti-intellectual, but he considers most uses of the intellect to be pernicious, and all plans for improving things to be disastrous. Yet he’s not a pessimist. No pessimist would say that people are able to look after themselves, be just, and prosper on their own. No anarchist can be a pessimist.

Uncut wood–here liked to the human soul–the uncut, uncarved, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial.

I find myself both disagreeing and nodding my head in vigorous approval of what Lao Tzu’s saying here. The last stanza is a clear and beautiful and hopeful presentation of anarchism.

The second stanza is where he seems to be against intellectual progress, and it’s hard for me to take that seriously, since I believe quite strongly in technology–even if I see how most of it is used for malicious uses–and intellectual growth.

I think Lao Tzu is a bit less anti-intellectual than this poems makes him out to be, since he encourages one to be like a child: open and ever-curious.

I mean, that is what intellectual growth looks like.

I imagine this has a much more important political context in the time that he lived. Like any humans who has ever humaned, Lao Tzu is reacting to his time and place in history, in the world.

Oddly, I think it may apply today more than ever. Though maybe that’s not true, as there have always been worthless experts, foolish intellectuals, malicious power-seekers.

I think this applies especially to the current state of world politics.

We are seeing the active refusal of experts and facts. We’re ignoring, in a very active way, the world we live in and the context history has left us, or that we have helped forge.

US belligerence to Russia right now can be seen as a lot of experts actively ignoring what made them experts in the chase for influence and site views. We have experts endlessly shuffling the papers, trying to obfuscate the fact that Trump is a homegrown american political force. While Russia very well could have assisted in getting him elected, it’s absurd to believe that Russia’s plan would be to trust such a reckless and exploitable wreck of a robber baron to defeat seasoned political professionals.

That Trump won is not because of Putin masterminding some impossible situation into being. It’s because we created Trump out of excrement, flapping lips, and the left over hide of Joe McCarthy and Winston Churchill.

Someone will balk at the Churchill comparison, but the man was a megalomaniac and a fascist who only opposed Hitler because Hitler was going about totalitarianism in a decidedly unBritish way, and was managing to launch itself past British superiority. Churchill was a petty, bitter old man with an incredible sense of entitlement, and incredible access to power based on the accident of his geography and the family he was born to. He raked his opponents through the mud while reacting to any opposition to his policies as a personal attack. He saw military might as the only thing that really mattered, and let the poor and suffering die while he refused the very real threats upon their lives.

The biggest difference between Churchill and Trump is one of wit and manners.

They are exactly the kind of leaders we should try to avoid. Violent, petty men, so awash in their own egos that they see any differing opinion as a declaration of war. A war they’re willing to play as dirty and as recklessly as possible to get their way.

While we have more information available to us than any generation of humans to ever live, we know so little. Knowing history becomes a radical act. A radical protest.

Our experts in the West have led us into disastrous wars, crippled the livelihoods of millions, and used ideology (capitalism) as a hammer and sickle to smash the citizenry into a pulp to be slurped up by industrialists.

I love technology. Love the potential it offers. Yet what do we do with it?

We spy on our citizens and the citizens of every nation. We create more and more sophisticated weapons. We solidify rather than tear down systems of oppression and violence. We make war palatable to people by cloaking it in automation. We cripple people’s ability to survive in an economy that, on paper, is constantly improving.

If the US economy is doing so well, why do we have so many impoverished workers? Why are people avoiding the hospitals, not because they think doctors are liars, but because they can’t afford even basic medication or medical assistance?

We are the wealthiest we’ve ever been, and yet we hoard this wealth, this intelligence. We hoard it while our brothers and sisters starve in the street, leaving their children to steal from other suffering citizens, just so maybe they can eat or feed their families.

I don’t think this is an incorrect way to read this poem. It may even be close to what Lao Tzu meant when he wrote it 2,500 years ago.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing if that’s even remotely true, since we’re not even sure if Lao Tzu was a person. But the striking way this poem applies to us today makes me believe China may have had similar problems at that time. Especially when you consider he may have been a contemporary of Confucius, another influential Chinese thinker who advocated totalitarian tactics.

A very different way of seeing the world, that. And so I would not be surprised if men like Confucius are the kind of men Lao Tzu’s speaking about in this poem.

Of course, once again, that’s all conjecture.

Even so, you don’t need to accept every word said here to still think there’s use in what’s being said. And I think the first and third stanzas are powerful and valid ways of thinking. But it’s the third that I’m attached to, and the one I hold onto. The rest, as far as I’m concerned, are worth thinking about, but maybe only that.

mysteries of power

Who knows
doesn’t talk.
Who talks
doesn’t know.
Closing the openings,
shutting doors,

blunting edge,
loosing bond,
dimming light,
be one with the dust of the way.
So you come to the deep sameness.

Then you can’t be controlled by love
or by rejection.
You can’t be controlled by profit
or by loss.
You can’t be controlled by praise
or humiliation.
Then you have honor under heaven.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

A poem full of what should now be familiar as Taoist statements. Paradoxes. Oblique phrases wrapped in simplicity.

But it really is this simple. Those who talk all the time reveal very little knowledge. Those who move and shake and can’t stop speaking blunt your own sensibilities, loosen your own sense of control, and dim your life. I think often of social media as a contrast to what the Tao asks of us. The deluge of information blunts our ability to respond, to react. It blurs our ability to see what matters. It makes us slave to praise, to social reinforcements. It makes our fear of rejection, of humiliation, our anxieties about loss and money all run amok.

There is a fight going on within our nation, and I wish I could use less aggressive terms for it.

Perhaps just using the word conflict is enough. But there is a conflict in our nation, and most are clinging to social media to remain part of the conversation, to make sure we have the most relevant up to date hot takes to pepper their status updates with.

But when you live in the forest, it’s hard to see anything but thousands of different trees. Sometimes you need to walk up the hill to see that these are not thousands of distinct trees, but one forest.

This will bring you more peace and serenity, as well as making you more effective.

By all means, remain connected, but make sure to take a step back at least once a day, and try to synthesize all the information you’re receiving. Try to fit it together. Because everything is connected. Especially in politics. Most of the issues stem from a few sources, though they lead to myriad problems.

Find the sources. Focus your energy there.


the sign of the mysterious

Being full of power
is like being a baby.
Scorpions don’t sting,
tigers don’t attack,
eagles don’t strike.
Soft bones, weak muscles,
but a firm grasp.
Ignorant of the intercourse
or man and woman,
yet the baby penis is erect.
True and perfect energy!
All day long screaming and crying,
but never getting hoarse.
True and perfect harmony!

You know harmony
is to know what’s eternal.
To know what’s eternal
is enlightenment.
Increase of life is full of portent:
the strong hearts exhausts the vital breath.
The full-grown is on the edge of age.
Not the Way.
What’s not the Way soon dies.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

As a model for the Taoist, the baby is in many ways ideal: totally unaltruistic, not interested in politics, business, or the proprieties, weak, soft and able to scream placidly for hours without wearing itself out (its parents are another matter). The baby’s unawareness of poisonous insects and carnivorous beasts means that such dangers simply do not exist for it. (Again, its parents are a different case.)

As a metaphor of the Tao, the baby embodies the eternal beginning, the ever-springing source. “We come, trailing clouds of glory,” Wordsworth says; and Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” No Peter Pan-ish refusal to grow up is involved, no hunt for the fountain of youth. What is eternal is forever young, never grows old. But we are not eternal.

It is in this sense that I understand how the natural, inevitable cycle of youth, growth, mature vigor, age, and decay can be “not the Way.” The Way is more than the cycle of any individual life. We rise, flourish, fail. The Way never fails. We are waves. It is the sea.

I can say nothing better than that about this, or about the Tao.

And so I think I’ll leave it at that.

some rules

Well planted is not uprooted,
well kept is not lost.
The offerings of the generations
to the ancestors will not cease.

To follow the way yourself is real power.
To follow it in the family is abundant power.
To follow it in the community is steady power.
To follow it in the whole country is lasting power.
To follow it in the world is universal power.

So in myself I see what self is,
in my household I see what family is,
in my town I see what community is,
in my nations I see what a country is,
in the world I see what is under heaven.

How do I know the world is so?
By this.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Here we see how the Tao is like a seed. It grows from the self to the family, the community, and on and on. The connection between self-improvement and communal improvement becomes demonstrated.

This is how the Tao creates a better world. It would be nice if we could just turn the world into a utopia overnight, but the Tao Te Ching shows that this is a gradual and evolving process. We must make small influences. If enough of them come together, it creates a ripple through the community, and that ripple becomes a wave over a nation.

This is something that I’ve been driving at in these reflections on the Way. The first half of the Tao Te Ching seems often concerned with power. With self mastery, with personal improvement, and then the power wielded by authorities, by leaders. Here we see how the world changes through you. Because your actions influence those around you, it makes sense for change to happen on a personal level. Following the way makes you a teacher, a leader, and it’s through following the Tao that others see this demonstrated.

When you act in accordance with the Tao, people will follow you. It will first be those who are closest to you. Your family. And then, as they follow the Tao, you will all become teachers and leaders, thereby shifting a community.

If only following the Tao were so simple! We wouldn’t have any problems at all.

And it is, of course, complicated by the somewhat difficult simplicity of the Tao. We are asked to be still, quiet, patient, to act without acting. We are asked to be happy, to find contentment.

It seems so simple! And yet, we are humans in a world gone made with desire and anxiety. I imagine it’s never been harder to be a Taoist than right now, with so much in your daily life to distract you, to fill you with pain and anxiety.

Since the election, there’s been a real focus on civil engagement, and I think this is the perfect time for the Tao to be highlighted. For it asks that we change our community. That we reimagine the world, and then create it, for the Tao is a generative process, a creative source.

And so I’m excited by what I see these days, and it’s what keeps bringing me back to the Tao Te Ching, to Lao Tzu.


If my mind’s modest,
I walk the great way.
is all I fear.

The great way is low and plain,
but people like shortcuts over the mountains.

The palace is full of splendor
and the fields are full of weeds
and the granaries are full of nothing.

People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
carrying weapons,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
shameless thieves.
Surely their way
isn’t the way.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

So much for capitalism.

That sort of sums up a lot of Taoism, really.

Stay on the low road and enjoy the beauty of the mountains, the rivers, the plains, the valleys.

back to the beginning

The beginning of everything
is the mother of everything.
Truly to know the mother
is to know her children,
and truly to know the children
is to turn back to the mother.
The body comes to its ending
but there is nothing to fear.

Close the openings,
shut the doors,
and to the end of life
nothing will trouble you.
Open the openings,
be busy with business,
and to the end of life
nothing can help you.

Insight sees the insignificant.
Strength knows how to yield.
Use the way’s light, return to its insight,
and so keep from going too far.
That’s how to practice what’s forever.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

This chapter on the themes of return and centering make circles within itself and throughout the book, returning to phrases from other poems, turning them round the center. A center which is everywhere, a circle whose circumference is infinite…

Find stillness and peace in your life. Then you will hear Tao, will feel it. An infinite mother, and we are her finite children. All the world, all the universe, is her finite child.

The question becomes: how does this apply to my life? How do I read the Tao Te Ching and make that matter? Should it matter? Does it matter?

My answer to all of them is sort of a shrug. It only matters to the degree that you want it to matter.

That being said, ways that I have been trying to make an active step in my life over the last couple months is to turn away from the parts of my life that are mostly just noise. For me, that largely means disconnecting myself from the bubble that is internet discourse. Of course, this sort of sounds absurd when I’m writing this online, and you readers probably only stumbled across this post because it gets shared and published on my facebook and twitter pages automatically.

And there are times when I still pop my head into facebook and twitter. Though I tend to keep these to under a minute. Partly because when you’re not swimming in that stream of constant information and feedback, it becomes monstrously difficult to even parse what’s happening in anyone’s life.

And I think, for me, that’s why it’s been so useful to largely disconnect from those spaces. It wasn’t good for me. Studies keep showing that it’s generally not good for any human to spend a lot of time on any social media, as it seems to increase anxiety and depression. That’s not to say it’s an incorrect behavior or even one that I think you’re foolish to persist in, but for me, personally, I’ve seen the positive effects of not existing in that continual deluge of constant information.

Other things I’ve been trying to do: be less passive with my time. Chelsea and I have a bad habit of just turning on netflix and then opening up our laptops while we let our screens dictate our evenings. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to stop. There are still too many nights when we do exactly that. But we’re trying to be better.

Part of it is just being more selective with what we watch. Not just turning something on as a background distraction, but choosing to watch things–even silly, frivolous things–that we actually want to watch and experience. The biggest factor there is closing our laptops and watching the show or movie together.

That’s not a solution either, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The more fruitful and important step is to do things with our time that adds value to our lives. For me, that’s been drawing fictional maps and writing and even playing videogames, which is something I’ve always loved but have not done very much in the last decade. For Chelsea, that’s been building furniture and various other DIY projects, but also, interestingly, learning more about make up.

When you hear that someone’s really into make up, it sounds frivolous or stupid or vain. But I think that’s a shallow way to look at anything. Any single activity, to the uninitiated or uninterested, appears to be a waste of time. But make up is a creative process. It’s not something I’ve often thought about, but it’s been interesting to see Chelsea progress at it. She never used to care about make up or things of that nature, but she’s found a value in it. A creative outlet that also has helped her self-esteem, and made her feel more confident.

And it would be easy to read what I just said and think to yourself, Her vanity makes her feel better about herself? But I think that’s a demeaning way to look at it, or at least a vile depiction of what gives one confidence and value.

It’s not vanity for Chelsea, but personal value. It’s something she’s always felt deficient at (make up application, not her own appearance), and so becoming more confident and better at this activity as made her just simply feel better. Her face is becoming a canvas for her, and she’s learning a lot about her own face, and about her own creativity.

I find it really interesting as a sort of sideline observer. Like any burgeoning interest, she’s enthusiastic and experimental. Not all experiments are successful, but learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does work.

I think these things are, in a way, outward expressions of the Tao. Living intentionally, and with balance. Finding pleasure and joy and enrichment in your life.

These are political things, too. Learning and growing are acts of resistance. Finding value is an act of resistance. Persistence is an act of resistance. Our protest may be small in scope, but it’s a first step. To live intentionally, to live with calmness and clarity is a radical step. And it is a first step. A starting point.

So remember that resistance to authority is more than carrying a sign or sharing information on facebook, or even living every moment as a political struggle. These simple actions build into greater actions. Being a kind and thoughtful member of your community–whether that community is geographical or ideological–is a radical step.

And these are parts of what we’re doing. The listing of acts of kindness are, I think, a trivialization of what’s needed, because kindness isn’t a performance. It’s a demonstration. To care for those around you is a radical act during a time of great selfishness and tyranny. And so that’s part of living intentionally for us. To remember that the world is greater than our lives, and that our simple actions can be like seeds that blossom into greater actions, or even just bear fruits of kindness in the behavior of others.