Tag Archives: emptiness

Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence"

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence"

It’s easy to think that over-stimulation is a side-effect of modern life, but it was obviously a concern some 2600 years ago, too, when Lao Tzu (or whoever was truly responsible) wrote this verse. But I think that today overstimulation is actually changing the way we think, remember and solve problems. We are moving away from a tradition of learning a small number of subjects very deeply to being shallow experts on any number of topics. The instant and universal availability of information (at least in the first world) is changing how we relate to that information. Instead of keeping in our minds a deep and thorough understanding of a topic, we are becoming masters at quick retrieval of answers from external sources. Where we once learned how to do something, now we learn how to find out how to do something. Once the information is retrieved and used, it is often tossed aside.

This is not entirely a bad thing, as the spread of access to knowledge democratizes and liberalizes the world, but there are very bad aspects to it. Often, the best solutions to problems come from having a fundamental understanding of a subject and through that understanding finding novel synergies with other subjects. Being able to quickly locate and assimilate a piece of knowledge does not provide the same problem solving tools.

Likewise, problem solving and creative think require a bored mind. Consider again the balance of potential and benefit. If there is no emptiness in the mind, no new creative thought can be cultivated. And many of us, myself included, have a real problem with overstimulating the brain. We fill every moment of our lives with entertainment or information or obligation to the point where we can no longer focus. Racing and hunting madden the mind.

Even now, as I collect my thoughts and write this, I have four other tabs open in my web browser. One is my e-mail. One bounces back and forth between a couple of social sites each time my mind wanders from this writing for a moment. The other two have pages loaded up that I’m using while writing this (like this translation of the Tao Te Ching). Likewise, I have iTunes open with Phase Selector Sound’s “Disassemble Dub” pumping in my ears. In the periphery of my vision I see my dog and my wife to my right, a pile of books and papers I need to clean up to my left. All of this competes for my attention even as I am typing this sentence (though, to be fair, the music actually helps by drowning out other distractions in the room).

My current line of work certainly doesn’t help. Being presented with all of the news in America as soon as it happens, getting all of the spin from every side, every fact and error all at once has made me hyper-informed but also almost completely desensitized to human suffering. By the time that regular people are starting to get a handle on a story, it’s already old news to me, replaced by countless other stories. Perspective gets lost in the process, sometimes.

Over-sharpen a blade, and it quickly dulls. Over-stimulate the senses, and they lose their sensitivity. You lose the beauty of a particular color when all of them are competing for your attention. You lose the emotional impact of an album when you’re listening to a thousand different albums on shuffle.

So take a moment to stop, to savor moments of quiet or even boredom. Take time to do nothing. Give your mind and senses the contrast needed to fully appreciate and process the information with which you present them. That will make the information that much more meaningful and useful.

Is my difficulty concentrating on one task the result of developing an over-stimulated mind? Am I on a constant endorphin withdrawal, always in need of another small spike? The wise person chooses to recognize and let go of that need for over-stimulation. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.


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Revenge of the Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11

It’s taken pretty much three months to decompress from school and build motivation for posting again, which I did not anticipate, but I am finally ready to get back to it. Next week I will get back on track with weekly Thursday posts discussing specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching, but I wanted to go ahead and jump back in today with chapter eleven.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Taoism is a philosophy of balance and rhythm. Taoist thought seeks to give form in simple terms to the duality of all things in the natural world, giving us a perspective from which to view the world that will, hopefully, allow us to live our lives more content and free of stress. The most fundamental of these dualities is that of emptiness and substance, the two states that govern our lives in ways we don’t often consider.

Emptiness is usefulness. It is potential. But potential is there to be used, to be defined by and balanced out by substance. I had a friend several years ago that once told me he would almost rather sit at home and think about all the things he could go out and do than to actually go out and do any of them. In his mind, once he committed to one activity, he had eliminated all of his other options. That may be true, but what benefit was realized from sitting on the potential use of time? None that I can see. He could have realized so much benefit from that time, but he chose to live out of balance.

Conversely, substance, filling up that emptiness, realizes benefit. But in order for that to be the case, there must be some emptiness to be filled. Another friend is quite the opposite of the one mentioned previously. This friend has all of his time filled. He is always rushing about, spreading himself thin across a thousand obligations. If an opportunity arises for some activity that he would enjoy or benefit from, he cannot take it, for he has no empty space to fill. I think again on an earlier chapter of the Tao Te Ching that said it’s better to stop short than to fill to the brim. Overfilling leads to spilling, to waste and unhappiness.

Using potential in a beneficial way is the real challenge, at least for me. I, like so many others, often waste a lot of time with meaningless distractions that do not add much benefit to my life. Take Facebook, for example: it is a useful tool for keeping up with many of the people I care about, but if I opted to take much of the time I spend on there and actually go and spend time with those people, the interaction would be much more rewarding, the relationships much stronger and more fulfilling. In a sense, tools like Facebook allow us to maintain the potential – in this case potentially strong relationships – at the expense of the actual benefit. Would I not find it more enjoyable to have a smaller number of strong relationships than a large number of potential relationships?

But that’s just one example. I could harp on video games, television and a myriad of other things that I often spend too much time on. That’s not to say that I should eliminate those things from my life; I am a firm believer in the benefit of leisure activities and passive entertainment. But it is important to find balance and to make sure that I am using my time in the way that makes the best use of that potential in terms of what give me that more fulfilling, stress-free life that I seek.

That is ultimately what I get from this chapter of the Tao Te Ching: balance potential and benefit and you can be happier. Use potential, but use it wisely and always with an eye on returning to that state of potential to keep the cycle moving.

(Side note: While writing this, I was listening to first Charlie Byrd and then to Christoph Heeman and Andreas Martin. These are great things to listen to while writing.)


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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 10

Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
Can you avoid separation?
Attending fully and becoming supple,
Can you be as a newborn babe?
Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
Can you be without stain?
Loving all men and ruling the country,
Can you be without cleverness?
Opening and closing the gates of heaven,
Can you play the role of woman?
Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?

Giving birth and nourishing,
Bearing yet not possessing,
Working yet not taking credit,
Leading yet not dominating,
This is the Primal Virtue.

When I read this chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I think again on water, detachment and emptiness. I discussed before my thoughts on what it means to live like water, but there is yet another way not described there in which water is like the Tao: the tighter one tries to grasp it, the less one finds oneself holding in the end. Likewise, the harder one strives to cling to the Tao in concept, the further one finds oneself from it. Like water, we should find equilibrium naturally, rather than trying to force it.

When we try to make ourselves balanced, we ultimately run the risk of unbalancing ourselves by putting rules and codes into place for our lives. Rather, we should look instead to what gives us the deepest, most sustainable happiness and call that our balance. When trying to make ourselves malleable, we ultimately lose site of the fact that it is the newborn’s lack of experience that makes it so supple. When we focus on trying to bring structure to the ineffable Tao, we ultimately cloud our vision, distract our thoughts.

Instead, we should let go of our preconceived notions, let go of our limited perspective. The goal is effortless action, doing without doing. Rather than forcing our balance, we should let it coalesce naturally by seeking contentment. Rather than try to define the Tao, we should experience it by virtue of our simply being. We should lead not through cunning and deceit by through example of action. We must embrace the emptiness to be filled, embrace the valley spirit to give birth to and nourish good works in our lives.

This goes back to the concept of detachment, of removing oneself from one’s things, both physical and mental. This also extends to our works. The most successful work is done not in search of credit, and removing ourselves from the work allows it to be done completely and correctly. It lets the work stand on its own. In the end, it is enough that something is done without having to say “I did this.” Likewise, the most successful leadership is virtually invisible and ends with the team saying to one another, “Look what we’ve accomplished” without thought of being lead to the goal.


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Thurs..er Saturday(?) Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 6

Gads! Thursday Tao is two days late. Mea culpa!

The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and Earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.

In Taoist teachings, the ultimate duality is yin yang. Yin yang represents the duality of all things, emptiness and form, and in all things aspects of both yin and yang can be found. Again, what is a sound without quiet? What is an island without water? Emptiness gives rise to form and vice versa.

What is a valley but the space between two hills? The valley is the emptiness as defined by the substance around it. Simultaneously, the distinction of two mountains comes only with the vacancy between them. The valley is the fertile land that supports life, that accepts the flow of the stream and shelters those within its wide and low bounds. The empty spaces allow for life to thrive.

Likewise, emptiness of mind cultivates healthy thought. Emptiness of bias cultivates truer seeing. Emptiness of desire allows needs to be met and contentment to be achieved. Emptiness gives rise to not-doing, to natural, rather than forced progression. Emptiness can never be exhausted; it is always there if we want it. Allow for emptiness within the self, and you allow for life to thrive within the self.

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