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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 1

When I was in high school, I was introduced to Taoism through Benjamin Hoff’s excellent pair of books, Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet, and my perspective on many things in life shifted. Ever since, I have tried (with variable success) to keep myself in a Taoist mindset. I have felt somewhat distanced from the path of late, however. I am out of balance, and I feel like I need to spend some time reflecting to get back in tune.

Thus, I am going to spend some time each week writing about a chapter of the Tao Te Ching. I will be using Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s beautiful translation, now available in a convenient, if bare, small size. I miss the artwork in this new edition, but I can carry it in my bag wherever I go. I don’t know if the older, larger version is still available, but it makes a great gift.

(Caveat: This may seem awfully esoteric or even pretentious if you are not familiar with the basics of Taoist philosophy. I plan to write a more general post on the subject soon, probably before the next chapter reflection.)

Chapter 1

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

The Tao is ineffable. Try as we might, we cannot describe it. We cannot define it in solid terms. It is nothing and everything. When we try to describe the Tao, to “tell” it, what we are doing is really just describing manifestations of it. When we use examples — the laws of physics, the reaction of a frightened rabbit to my approach, the sharp smell of ozone just before a rain — these are manifestations of the mystery, not the mystery itself. When we desire, when we actively seek knowledge of the Tao, we see the manifestations. Only by removing desire, only by seeking without seeking, might we see the path.

So what is the point of writing about it? If I seek to rediscover the Tao, am I not just blinding myself with the manifestations? Am I not trying to ascribe meaning to singular instances, instead of seeing the universal aspect? Perhaps, but the manifestations spring from the mystery itself. To see and understand them does not mean seeing and understanding the universal truths, but it brings you closer.

What does this mean for practical, every day living? Nothing much. This is more of a primer for the text that follows. This is a managing of the readers’ expectations by the author. This chapter sets the groundwork for the rest of the book: what follows will not be the truth laid bare. It cannot be, simply because the Tao cannot be told. Instead, the path will be revealed through the manifestations, through the stories and lessons.

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