the sick mind

To know without knowing is best.
Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness
is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.
They’re sick of sickness,
so they’re well.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

What you know without knowing you know it is the right kind of knowledge. Any other kind (conviction, theory, dogmatic belief, opinion) isn’t the right kind, and if you don’t know that, you’ll lose the Way. This chapter is an example of exactly what Lao Tzu was talking about in the last one–obscure clarity, well-concealed jade.

This is something I often think about, and it’s led me to always have a somewhat conflicted relationship with philosophy. I think I’ve discussed this sometime during these reflections, but I’ll say it again.

So much of philosophy is used to justify the terrible things we do. We give reasons for why we enslaved or continue to enslave, justifications for why war is necessary and even good and proper. So many words are spent to convince ourselves that our worst attributes and inclinations are the only way to do things.

Plato’s Republic, for example, is a handbook on how to create a fascist state, but we read it as a great treatise on governance and philosophy.

So I’m always coming back to these simple thoughts. Like how we know it’s wrong to hurt others, physically or emotionally, because it feels terrible to do that. It obviously feels terrible when it’s done to you, but even behaving this way gives us a visceral, negative reaction.

Even when I yell at my cat, I feel bad about it. I feel that I’m doing damage. That my impatience is on reason to lash out. It disgusts me, my own anger.

My anger is no justification to assault another creature. My impatience is not an excuse for my behavior.

There are so many things we know simply from experiencing life. We know what action is pro-social and anti-social. It’s simple, because we have a biological response to either one. When someone smiles, it makes us smile. When someone laughs, it makes us laugh. When someone attacks another person, we’re repulsed, angered. We become almost physically ill at seeing another person endure pain.

Think of any movie that shows acts of torture.

It’s pretty terrible, even just to view its re-enactment.

And yet we get lost in words, in theories, in philosophizing, in justifying.

We know what is pro-social and anti-social, and that’s really the only justification necessary.

It’s better to see people fed than to see them starve. It’s better to know that all people have access to medical assistance than to know that they may suffer because of its absence. It’s better to welcome a stranger than it is to shout at them, to send them away in fear.

These are things we know without teaching. Things we know from just being.

This is simple stuff. It’s barely even worth saying it, and yet it must be said, because there’s so much noise in our lives. So many voices shouting that we must fight and hurt.

Be better. It’s simple.

Be kind.

being obscure

My words are so easy to understand,
so easy to follow,

and yet nobody in the world
understands or follows them.

Words come from an ancestry,
deeds from a mastery:
when these are unknown, so am I.

In my obscurity
is my value.
That’s why the wise
wear their jade under common clothes.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

What’s hidden shines bright. This poem calls back to previous ones. Previous images. Even to the very first poem in the text.

There’s power in what’s hidden. In what’s dim. In what’s modest. In what’s relaxed and moderate.

The Tao is a deep pool, and sometimes the answers are where the sunlight no longer reaches.

Sometimes the brightest jewels are hidden under the coarsest garments.

We use metaphors to get at the unexplainable, but we act to demonstrate the Tao.

using mystery

The expert in warfare says:
Rather than dare make the attack
I’d take the attack;
rather than dare advance an inch
I’d retreat a foot.

It’s called marching without marching,
rolling up your sleeves without flexing your muscles,
being armed without weapons,
giving the attacker no opponent.
Nothing’s worse than attacking what yields.
To attack what yields is to throw away the prize.

So, when matched armies meet,
the one who comes to grief
is the true victor.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

A piece of sound tactical advice (practiced by the martial arts, such as Akido, and yb underground resistance and guerilla forces), which leads to profound moral warning. The prize thrown away by the aggressor is cmopassion. The yielder, the griever, the mourner, keeps that prize. The game is loser take all.

Be like water.

When someone throws a punch at you, it’s better to retreat then lean into it.

This is also why it’s never worth your time to debate with Nazis or white supremacists. All they want to do is inflict violence upon you. It’s not a different point of view: it’s a call to violence, to genocide. What they want is to tear you down, and so the best thing to do is to ignore them utterly.

Which is different from retreat. But if you don’t even bother engaging with white supremacists, their power remains in a niche community. The more we engage with white supremacists on the national stage, the more it legitimizes them as an ideological point of view.

They’re not. They’re an embodiment of violence waiting to be unleashed.

It used to be pretty uncivilized to be racist in public, but now it’s become somewhat normalized, and it becomes normalized because we allow these people to debate on the national stage. By even including these kinds of calls to violence in a debate elevates them to the same level as ideology.

Because a debate implies that these are two things that might be true and/or useful. When you try to debate the untolerably cruel, you’re telling your audience that this is a point of view, and it’s one worth engaging with.

White supremacy is not a worldview. It is a call to violence.

heaven’s lead

The best captain doesn’t rush in front.
The fiercest fighter doesn’t bluster.
The big winner isn’t competing.
The best boss takes a low footing.
This is the power of noncompetition
This is the right use of ability.
To follow heaven’s lead
has always been the best way.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

We have nothing to prove to one another. There’s nothing worth bragging about, and so there’s nothing worth losing. When we are confident in our abilities or even just trusting of our abilities, there’s nothing to lose because you know what you have and what you gained.

It’s those who most need competition that you should be cautious around.

This reminds me of all the many literary competitions that exist. Assuming such a thing even made sense in a practical or ideological way, it would still be a silly thing to bother with.

Art is not a competition. Life is not a competition.

I’ve participated in several literary competitions in the past and I’ve never won, and while it bothered me at the time, it doesn’t now, and hasn’t for a long time. There are countless reasons why I didn’t win those competitions, but the simplest explanation is that I didn’t write work worth praising.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever been involved in the arts. It’s interesting to me how far I’ve come in just the last year. While I have a bunch of novels I wrote in the past couple years, I very much doubt I’ll ever publish any of them, since what I’m writing now is just so much better than what I was writing two years ago, five years ago.

I gave up on literary competitions for a lot of reasons, though none of them were the belief that my work was unworthy. I’ve always liked what I write! But it just became a silly thing to do. Even setting aside my ideological and moral issues with literary competitions, there really is no reason to pin works against one another.

Art has value, even when most people don’t like it. Even when no people like it.

Self expression is valuable in and of itself, and so there’s no reason to even compare it to another work to try to determine which is better.

Art is made to provoke thought or emotion.

If you’re doing that, you’re succeeding, in a general sense.

The same can be said of just about everything. It makes sense to compete in sports, but does it matter if you win or lose?

I don’t think so.

Humility is strength, because it comes from an understanding of who and what you are. The humble are less easily shaken than the vain or the gloryseekers.

So just love what you do, and keep doing what you do.

We don’t need an audience or attendants or awards. We just need to be.

three treasures

Everybody says my was is great
but improbable.

All greatness
is improbable.
What’s probable
is tedious and petty.

I have three treasures.
I keep and treasure them.

The first, mercy,
the second, moderation,
the third, modesty.
If you’re merciful you can be brave,
if you’re moderate you can be generous,
and if you don’t presume to lead
you can lead the high and mighty.

But to be brave without compassion,
or generous without self-restraint,
or to take the lead,
is fatal.

Compassion wins the battle
and holds the fort;
it is the bulwark set
around those heaven helps.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The first two verses of this chapter are a joy to me.

The three final verses are closely connected in thought to the next two chapters, which may be read as a single meditation on mercy, moderation, and modesty, on the use of strength, on victory and defeat.

Lao Tzu does this often in the Tao Te Ching, as we’ve already seen. Sequences of poems come as almost a single thought, and then the text wanders on to new topics, new ideas, or reiterates previous ideas in new ways.

The first two stanzas are Lao Tzu dealing with his own critics. With his own optimism and childlike hopefulness.

Because these are two things intrinsic to the Tao Te Ching. Optimism and hope, even when it seems like naivety.

What’s a life worth without hope?

I’m certainly not an optimist, but I try to remain hopeful, difficult as it is. I think hope is important. In creating a new future, we must first imagine one that’s better than today. This is why we need artists and holy fools. You can’t imagine a better tomorrow without hope, without a certain fiendish level of optimism.

We are victims of history and we must carry history with us, but history is also a burden that keeps us from rising out of our present day calamities.

So try to be hopeful today.

Think about mercy, compassion, and moderation.

The sun is shining, though it’s cold. And I think that’s as good a metaphor for those first two stanzas as I’m likely to get.


Lakes and rivers are lords of the hundred valleys.
Why? Because they’ll go lower.
So they’re the lords of the hundred valleys.

Just so, a wise soul,
wanting to be above other people,
talks to them from below
and to guide them
follows them.

And so the wise soul
predominates without dominating,
and leads without misleading.
And people don’t get tired
of enjoying and praising
one who, not competing,
has in all the world
no competitor.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Taoism is about the dirt and the sand and the earth. It’s not a mode of thinking that brings you to the clouds and above, to the moon and stars. Lao Tzu wants you down in the dirt, getting your hands dirty. It’s the kind of teaching where a farmer or a fisher may be a better teacher than a scholar at the university.

In a lot of ways, it almost makes sense for Lao Tzu to disparage the scholars and intellectuals of his time. To him, true wisdom doesn’t come from books and scholarship. It comes from simplicity. From living and breathing in the world. From being a part of nature and understanding your insignificance in the face of so much beauty.

The Tao is not found in books. It’s not found in schools.

It’s found in the simple beauty of planting a seed. In listening to the river run.

And so a leader, or a wise soul, is one who can show you the world with new eyes and ears.

one power

Once upon a time
those who ruled according to the Way
didn’t use it to make people knowing
but to keep them unknowing.

People get hard to manage
when they know too much.
Whoever rules by intellect
is a curse upon the land.
Whoever rules by ignorance
is a blessing on it.
To understand these things
is to have a pattern and a model,
and to understand a pattern and a model,
is mysterious power.

Mysterious power
goes deep.
It reaches far.
It follows things back,
clear back to the great oneness.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Where shall we find a ruler wise enough to know what to teach and what to withhold? “Once upon a time,” maybe in the days of myth and legend, as a pattern, a model, an ideal?

The knowledge and the ignorance or unknowing  Lao Tzu speaks of may or may not refer to what we think of as education. In the last stanza, by power he evidently does not mean political power at all, but something vastly different, a unity with the power of the Tao itself.

This is a mystical statement about government–and in our minds those two realms are worlds apart. I cannot make the leap between them. I can only ponder it.

I like the last paragraph of her commentary, because this is the feeling I have about many of the poems in the Tao. There’s less for me to explicate, but more for me to consider. Even this poem, it’s impossible for me to tell you its value, or how you should take it.

It’s just something to consider. You may reject it–and this is an easy one to reject, given its seemingly undemocratic view towards knowledge and/or education–but I still think it’s worth considering. Especially the second half of the poem.

Lao Tzu goes from something seemingly clear and concrete and uses it to transition into something that’s hard to grasp. Hard to even contemplate, in many ways. But that’s what these quiet moments are for. Read this, then take a walk. Do some mindless chores around your home. Exercise, if you have the time or inclination, and let these thoughts about mysterious power roll around in your head.

It does lead me to believe that Lao Tzu is not recommending that people remain uneducated or stupid. The text is strange for a lot of reasons, and opaque for even more. But one of the strangest qualities is the lengths Lao Tzu goes to describe what a leader should be, while advocating for anarchism in other poems. Many more deal with power than they do with anarchism, but I think they’re both important together. His attention to power, and the power people can wield and what they tend to use it for, leads, I think, into his discussion of anarchism.

Because of the corrupting aspect of the kind of power humans desire, he believes it’s better to keep power out of the hands of individuals. Rather, the public should be empowered, and hold influence over any individual. Including the leader.

Lao Tzu, then, seems to be discussing three things through the Tao Te Ching in relation to power:

  • The ideal leader
  • The typical human leader
  • The need for a powerless leader

mindful of little things

It’s easy to keep hold of what hasn’t stirred,
easy to plan what hasn’t occurred.
It’s easy to shatter delicate things,
easy to scatter little things.
Do things before they happen.
Get them straight before they get mixed up.

The tree you can’t reach your arms around
grew from a tiny seedling.
The nine-story tower rises
from a heap of clay.
The ten-thousand-mile journey
begins beneath your foot.

Do, and do wrong;
hold on, and lose.
Not doing, the wise soul
doesn’t do it wrong,
and not holding on,
doesn’t lose it.
(In all their undertakings,
its just as they’re almost finished
that people go wrong.
mind the end as the beginning,
then it won’t go wrong.)

That’s why the wise
want not to want,
care nothing for hard-won treasures,
learn not to be learned,
turn back to what people overlooked.
They go along with things as they are,
but don’t presume to act.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

As the title says, this is a reminder of all the little things. This poem and the previous poem highlight this fact by illustrating how important the small moments and little details are. When a small detail goes awry, it can lead to large mistakes. And so it’s not to stress over the little things, but to be aware of them. To be just as careful with little things as you are with what seems grand and important.

The last two lines of this poem cover an idea that I think about a lot, and probably it’s because it comes up often in the Tao Te Ching. To accept the world as it is. To move along with it.

That doesn’t mean you just allow terrible things to happen. Accepting that something is happening or is reality is not the same as embracing it. It also doesn’t mean you won’t seek a solution.

But you can only solve a problem once you understand and accept what it is. Nothing can happen if you deny the world in front of you.

We’re seeing a great deal of this in US politics right now. The Democrats are playing a game against someone who’s already thrown the game away and is carving a new gameboard into the wall.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Be mindful of the little things. Take care with every action. With every word that passes your lips.

Take care, take care, take care.

consider beginnings

Do without doing.
Act without action.
Savor the flavorless.
Treat the small as large,
the few as many.

Meet injury
with the power of goodness.

Study the hard while it’s easy.
Do big things while they’re small.
The hardest jobs in the world start out easy,
the great affairs of the world start small.

So the wise soul,
by never dealing with great things,
gets great things done.

Now, since taking things too lightly makes them worthless,
and taking things too easy makes them hard,
the wise soul,
by treating the easy as hard,
doesn’t find anything hard.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In a sense, Lao Tzu is telling you to cut things off at the pass.

All of the biggest problems in the world begin small. Pick any example and it starts with one or a few people. Even the slave trade began small. When the Dutch found out they could get away with it and make profit, it erupted.

Had someone stepped in while it was still small, world history might be different.

A more recent example is the War in Iraq. The moment the Democrats found out that it was started under false pretences, they should have begun impeachment processes. Or, even before that, they should have demanded actual proof instead of undisclosed opinions from undisclosed experts. Trusting the opinion of anonymous intelligence officials should always cast a fair amount of doubt on any given topic, and yet here we are all over again.

Donald Trump should have been stopped long before he got anywhere near the presidency, but now that he’s there, he should have immediately been brought up on impeachment charges for, like, a dozen different offences.

This partly shows how worthless the Democrats are and have always been, but it also exemplifies this poem.

By not dealing with problems when they’re small and easy to manage, we allow them to fester, bloom, and take root all over the place. And now the problem is large and difficult to deal with.

It’s like a weed in your garden. When there’s one, it’s a simple and easy problem. But if you let it grow and proliferate, it may ruin your whole garden.

No one will remember all the tiny victories, and that’s fine. Because you took care of problems when they were small, they’re hardly worth mentioning. And it’s better to win a thousand such tiny victories than force the whole world to fight for one large victory.

the gift of the way

The way is the hearth and home
of the ten thousand things.
Good souls treasure it,
lost souls find shelter in it.

Fine words are for sale,
fine deeds go cheap;
even worthless people can get them.

So, at the coronation of the Son of Heaven
when the Three Ministers take office,
you might race out in a four-horse chariot
to offer a jade screen:
but wouldn’t it be better to sit still
and let the Way be your offering?

Why was the Way honored
in the old days?
Wasn’t it said:
Seek, you’ll find it.
Hide, it will shelter you.
So it was honored under heaven.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

I think the line of thought throughout the poem has to do with true reward as opposed to dishonorable gain, true giving as opposed to fake goods.

There is no greater gift in all the world than showing someone the Way. It’s a simple gift, but it has deep currents. It’s something that has always existed, yet few find it without being shown.

The best you can offer someone is gentle kindness, simplicity, and stillness. A smile and an open hand.

There is nothing greater.