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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 13

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”

What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.

Most philosophies on life that I have encountered share one major tenet: lose the self to gain what is sought. For religions based in the search for salvation, losing the self is a means of securing a place in heaven. In Matthew 10:39, for example, Jesus says, “He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”* In other words, if a believer lives his life for himself, he forsakes eternal life, but he gains salvation by living for Jesus. The word Islam itself actually means self-surrender to the Will of God. Looking past the self to live for God is the ultimate form of devotion in these ways of life.

But what does it mean for an atheist Taoist to surrender oneself humbly? I seek no salvation, no forgiveness for the ineffable sin of simply being, but I do seek something through the Way: effortless living. That is, in a nutshell, the ultimate goal of taking the lessons of the Tao Te Ching to heart. Some might call it enlightenment, but it is really just living in perfect rhythm and harmony with the life that moves around you. It is working with the current, even if it takes you to unexpected places, rather than exhausting yourself fighting against it and risk drowning.

Consider again the Pale Blue Dot. In relative terms, we are infinitesimal specks, fleeting notions of substance. We are essentially nothing. Accepting that, embracing it, can completely change the way you look at the world and at yourself. For if we are nothing, then what is a bit of misfortune in our lives? What is fortune, for that matter? What is embarrassment or disgrace? When you take the long view, all things become equal, and subjectivity disappears. No longer do you fight against that tumultuous current, for what does it matter if it brings you fortune or ruin? They’re both part of life, and rather than gnash your teeth in despair or preen in self-congratulation it is more useful to simply say, “This is what is happening now, but it may not be what happens in the future. I’ll be fine either way.”

* If you’re going to read the Christian Bible, go with the King James version. It is pure poetry, even to an atheist like myself.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the gods.

From the grandest star to the meanest insect, everything that is ages and dies. The passage of time and the natural laws of the universe can be stopped by no man. That which is sharp will be dulled. That which shines brightly will dim. Everything returns to dust sooner or later. This is an immutable truth about our reality. This law has existed before we ever dreamed of gods, before even there was an Earth on which to dream. Whence comes this law is unknowable and unimportant. It is enough to know that it simply is.

Sometimes religious people ask me if, being an atheist, I am scared of death. No, I tell them. I have accepted that I — like everything that came before me and (presumably) everything that will come after — will die. And when I die, I do not expect to continue my existence in any form whatsoever. The matter that makes up my body will return to the Earth and, ultimately, to the universe, but when my synapses stop firing, my consciousness — that which makes me me — will no longer exist. That’s just how it goes. I am not afraid of it, but it does make consider that while I exist, I want to be happy, to enjoy my existence.

Consider the photograph above, “The Pale Blue Dot.” Taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 some 3.7 billion miles from home, it shows us Earth as we never see it (can you find it?). It gives us a perspective we usually do not get. In 1994, Carl Sagan gave us his thoughts on this photograph, a stirring and profound reminder that in the grand scheme of things, we live on but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” He went on to say, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Now consider that this same sentiment applies just as much to our lives, to our time. Our universe has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions of years after we are gone. Each of our lives is a hint of a moment in the lifetime of the universe. What point is there, then, but to seek happiness in the brief time that we have, to bring happiness to those we care about?

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