Tag Archives: reflection

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 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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Thursday Tao: Catch-up Continued / Chapter 9

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.

Balance and moderation are key concepts in Taoism. Overindulgence in anything — physical or mental — leads to disaster, whereas taking all things in moderation leads to satisfaction and flexibility. Fill to the brim, and you have no more room. The slightest jostle will cause a spill. Sharpen a blade too much and the keen edge will be so thin that it cannot endure use. Sharpening just enough gives you a longer-lasting tool. Hoard wealth or power, and your enemies multiply. Sure, having more of a good thing can feel like a good deal in the short term, but it often means having a shorter time to enjoy it. Having enough and knowing it is a wonderful feeling, and it leads to longer satisfaction and enjoyment.

I struggle with balance in my own life. I overindulge in foods that are bad for me and do not get enough exercise. This causes me to be less healthy and less happy. I am trying to change that, though. I also find that I struggle to live by balanced beliefs, to not let certain belief systems monopolize my life. For many years I was straightedge, abstaining from drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or doing drugs. These were not choices about moderating my intake, but eliminating it altogether. For the many reasons I had at the time, I thought that total abstinence was the best route to take. In truth, though, I was living my life out of balance. Despite my efforts to make these things personal choices, they affected my relationships and at times even caused unnecessary disharmony. In trying to stick to rigid codes of behavior that were not at the base right for me, I sometimes externalized my negative feelings toward others who did not live by those same rules.

Eventually I decided to live a more balanced life. I wanted to stop depriving myself of some of life’s simple pleasures — the complex taste of rich stout for one — for the sake of adhering to some arbitrary code of conduct. Now, I might drink a beer or two once every couple of weeks, but I never get buzzed, much less drunk. I have yet to smoke a pipe or a cigar, but I would like to try it, at least. If I like it, it will be a rare indulgence. I still choose to avoid drugs, because I am not interested in dulling my senses in that way, but I understand it when certain friends decide to get tight. I reserve the judgments I may have cast in previous years. I’ve tried to get more in line with the idea of life being for living. When I am on my deathbed, I will not think back and be happy about all of the things that I deprived myself of in life. It’s much more likely that I will think about the things I did or did not yet get to do.

Still, I have much to work on when it comes to balance and moderation. I am trying to get to know and cherish that feeling of enough. It is hard, especially for an American. Here, even in midst of a grinding recession, the idea of over-consumption is still king. Here, too, the idea of moral absolutes and inflexible rules of living are encountered every day. It can be difficult, but simplicity, balance, and moderation are the virtues to which I aspire.

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Thursday Tao: Update / Chapter 8

School and life have conspired to make me miss not one but two weeks worth of my weekly Tao Te Ching project.  This disappoints me, but I have to prioritize my work. Unfortunately, that means that my blog gets pushed aside when school gets to be more demanding. That said, I am going to try to catch up this week, picking up where I left off: Chapter 8.

The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.

Like many young people, I went out and got a tattoo almost as soon as I could legally, and like many people in the late nineties and early aughts I chose to get kanji in place of English words. I thought it looked more artistic, and I was getting a tattoo that reflected a Chinese concept anyway. People often ask me what they mean, and literally the one on my right arm means “to live,” while the one on my left means “water.” This was my approximation of the phrase “to live as water.” Of course, like many kanji tattoos, the translation is clunky at best, but I at least am satisfied to know that my characters mean exactly what I thought they meant.

But what does that mean, to live as water? As chapter eight describes, water exhibits the qualities we should most desire to emulate. Without striving, water fulfills its role, even if that role is to flow in the lowest of places. Likewise, we seek to achieve contentment, even if fortunes bring us to poverty and low status. Without striving: that is a hard concept for many Americans, because it is so easy to confuse it with having a lack of action or direction. But that is not the case. Water flows where it will flow, but it when it meets obstacles, it does not push and work to force those obstacles out of the way. Instead it parts and flows around them, wearing them away over time. But when water meets an obstacle with which it cannot contend — a dam, for example — it does not struggle and rage against the obstacle. Instead, it simply stays where it is. That is a contentment we could seek for ourselves: the contentment of knowing when something is beyond our control and accepting it and accepting our position in light of it. Effortless being is to live like water.

There are differing translations of the rest of this chapter. In the translation above, we get simple, straightforward maxims: live simply, think deeply, be kind, true and just, act accordingly to your moment. And if we follow these maxims, and if we strive to be like water, we do not fight against the nature of life but live in accordance with it, and thus we live a life less problematic.

Simple enough, right? Perhaps in thought, but putting these ideas to daily use is more difficult than it should be. Our whole American lifestyle is built around complicating our lives with activities and things, about filling every waking moment with a flood of information and entertainment. Trying to live simply — in the mental or physical sense — goes against the grain of our society. Trying to take a moment to think deeply, rather than know the surface of everything at all times, goes against the momentum of our always-on information channels. Succeeding in American business often means not being gentle and kind, not being honest and not being just.

And what of competence? In our culture, we’re told to strive for perfection, but perfection is the enemy of good. We often sacrifice being good at something while waiting for an unattainable perfection. I do this all the time: I hesitate to write, because I don’t want to put something out that isn’t perfect. But my hesitation means less practice writing, which means less chance of being good at it, perfection be damned. Perfection is the unattainable. Perfection is the phantasm quality we envy in others — the skill, the wealth, the charisma — that we want for ourselves. It is a phantasm quality because the reality never matches the vision we have in our heads. As long as we hold ourselves up to unrealistic expectations, we will find fault in ourselves. When we stop, however, we find contentment and happiness with ourselves. No fight, no blame.

It can be difficult to have these qualities in American society, but we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to immediately be the wise sage. The first step to finding our contentment is letting go of our dreams of perfection and instead looking for happiness within the lives we have. We can nurture that happiness by being the goodness we want to see, by being kind and just and true, being thoughtful and modest and appreciating the good in our lives.


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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 7

Heaven and Earth last forever.
Why do heaven and Earth last forever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

Last week I visited the subject of emptiness as it pertains to the Taoist lifestyle (or at least my interpretation of it), and this week extends that idea somewhat to the concept of detachment. Consider the non-intelligent machine of the universe. It is not a mind. It has no emotions or thoughts or desires. It simply is, and because it simply is, it is eternal, without beginning or end. Constantly changing, but constant nonetheless. It wants nothing, so all needs are fulfilled.

What lesson can we take from this aspect of the universe? Should we be mindless automatons? Is ignorance bliss? Well, sort of, but perhaps the more important idea is that we should recognize that our attachments bring with them both positive and negative aspects. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. For everything that we desire, for every attachment we create or maintain, there is a cost, be it physical, mental, or emotional. So we must consider the cost versus the result. Is the newfound anxiety and stress worth the fulfillment of this desire? Or will I be happier if I forget about it and move on? And we must weigh the end benefits of our various desires against one another. Will the cost I pay to fulfill this desire bring me more happiness applied to a different desire? Is either desire worth the cost at all, really?

This does not necessarily mean depriving ourselves. It is more about learning to let go and choosing to maximize happiness and contentment. It is about finding balance. Becoming overly attached to some idea or some desire leads to losing other things that we care for. It can be dangerous, when it comes to things like drugs or alcohol, or it can lead to financial ruin when our attachment and desire outstrips our sense. Over devotion to an activity or idea can cost us our relationships, our careers, life experiences, or more. If we pull back, if we stop putting our immediate desires first, we can then choose to focus our energy on those aspects of our lives that give us real fulfillment. Often we will find that the cost associated with an attachment simply isn’t worth it.

In real world terms, what does this mean? For me, it means looking critically at my life and choices and desires, big and small. For example, I have an attachment to saving money. I am pessimistic when it comes to monetary matters, and if I let myself get too wrapped up with the idea, I wouldn’t enjoy the money that I work for each week. Just this week, for my wife’s birthday we went out to celebrate with a nice meal. Having a good time was going to bring me more fulfillment than being stubborn with my money. We splurged and had one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Could we do this every week? No. Getting too attached to that desire would lead to financial ruin. Getting too attached to my desire to save money leads to a loss of life experiences. Striking a balance is the key to more happiness for me. The more balance we can find, the more we can meet our various desires.


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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5

Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.

When I was in high school, I had one of those quintessentially teenage moments while sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris during the Easter midnight mass, looking out over the lights of Paris — one of those moments where you get a real grasp of the enormity of the world. There, below me, were two million people that I would never know. Two million people who have lives I’ll never touch, who are each the center of their own little universe. As far as they were concerned, I did not exist.

What is two million people? It’s nothing, really. There are some seven billion people in the world. These two million people make up less than one half of one tenth of one percent of the entire world’s population. Yet, were these two million people or the city in which they live suddenly wiped from existence, the effect would be felt the world over. But it matters not to the world who these people are as individuals. No one is important in the grand scheme of things.

The world, the universe, they are impartial to us individuals. Yes, we are each important in our own spheres of influence, but the world will move on with or without us. That is actually a pretty good feeling when you get used to the idea. There is a lot of stress in the idea that one needs to change the world when really all we need to worry about is our lives, our own little spheres of influence. That’s not to say that we should be apathetic about global issues, but rather that if we want to effect more happiness in the world, we should focus on what we can do in our own circles.

There’s something we can learn, too, from the world about being impartial. In many things, it is best to to approach things as being equal. Take science, for example. Being partial to a particular outcome ruins your experiment. Or consider dealing with people at work: if you play favorites, you not only disrespect members of your team, but you also set yourself up for stressful, uncomfortable situations. Or consider being confronted with new ideas. Does it benefit you more to be open and willing to accept a new idea if properly founded and defended, or to stay with your current beliefs, even in the face of new information? The world is impartial, and if we are learning from it, we should be as well.

Now consider that the space between heaven and earth is the mind. When we empty ourselves of predispositions, of bias, we can change and adapt, and the more the mind flexes, the more it produces. The opposite holds true for our mouths when we get caught up in the illusion of our own self-importance. Open the mind, close the mouth, stay humble.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

The third chapter of the Tao Te Ching is one where the translation and the level of abstraction one reads it with can have a profound impact on the lesson one takes from it. Taken literally, it prescribes a system of rule that cleaves to the socialist/communist (little “s” and little “c” intended) ideal of equal social class for all with a lack of private property, wherein the people are satisfied because their needs are met and their lives are comfortable. Abstract it out, and it becomes less about rule and more about coexisting harmoniously with your community by applying the principles of rule to interpersonal behavior. That’s all fine and good, but in my mind, the real lesson is a personal lesson, buried in the poetry and metaphor. I am going to take this line by line.

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling. On the surface, this advises us to treat people as equals to one another to prevent jealousy and infighting, but the principle applies to more than just people. Apply it to sensations or ideas, and it takes on new meaning. Reconsider the concept of duality presented in chapter two, that opposite concepts define one another’s existence. Now consider that contentedness comes from acceptance. If I experience pain, I can still be content, for without pain I would know no pleasure. That does not mean that I will actively enjoy pain, but simply that I can be content with its existence, content with the fact that I will experience it. I can come to this point more easily by not exalting pleasure, by not putting the things I actively enjoy on an emotional pedestal. To exalt the “good” sensation or concept, I create inner turmoil whenever I am not experiencing that sensation or concept. By treating opposite concepts as equals, I prevent the inner turmoil and increase contentedness.

Not collecting treasures prevents stealing. Again, on the surface it is the Marxist ideal: if everyone has a chicken, then no one will steal a chicken. Eliminate private property (meaning eliminate unequal access to goods and services), and you eliminate the motivation for theft: greed. But let us shift this idea from the societal to the personal. To be truly content is to be free of desire, but to be free of desire does not mean to lead an ascetic life of self-denial. Instead, to be free of desire means to satiate one’s needs and accept that that is all that is needed. To be free of desire also means to stop attaching emotional value to material goods. As Carl at CenterTao notes, theft is not necessarily the act of taking, but the feeling of loss we experience when something is taken from us. By eliminating attachments, or more accurately by accepting impermanence, we make it so that we can never be the victim of theft. To collect treasures — in the mind or in the physical world — is to build desire and create greed and to make oneself vulnerable to theft. Learning satisfaction leads to a more contented life.

Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart. Ignorance is bliss? One might get that idea from this phrasing, but I think it is more about the elimination of desire. Rather than “out of sight, out of mind,” I look at this as the reverse: out of mind, out of sight. My take on this line ties in closely with the previous line. To prevent envy or greed, we must not see desirable things, not by hiding them, but by no longer desiring them. This goes directly to separating want from need, recognizing those things we think we want that ultimately only cause us unhappiness because we do not have them. For example, back when I was collecting music equipment, I spent too much time desiring equipment I didn’t have. I would save for it until I could afford it. But the equipment would not satisfy me, and I would be on the next thing. Meanwhile, no music was being made. If I had separated my needs from my desires, I could have been content to make music with what I had until I really needed something else.

The rest of chapter reinforces these ideas and brings it back to the concept of non-action. The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones. Satiate needs, humble oneself, eliminate desire and strengthen resolve. If one governs oneself in this manner, harmony or contentedness can be achieved. If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere. Remove yourself from having just one perspective and eliminate your desire, and those who would take advantage of you through guile and playing upon greed or envy will have no means of getting to you.

If nothing is done, then all will be well. This goes back to practicing no-action. Think of a person walking from one room to the next. The doorway is six feet to his right. The person who lives by these principles will walk six feet to the right to go through the doorway. The person who does not live by these principles will instead walk up to the wall and decry the fact that there is no opening. He will look at the doorway and say, “If only I had a doorway like that!” He might leave and get some tools and come back and start cutting himself a doorway. What follows? If one creates contentment by changing one’s perspective, then it will be a lasting contentment that requires no doing. If one tries instead to create contentment by doing, then one may find that action leads to more action and never to actual happiness.


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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 2

I mentioned before that Taoism shifted my perspective on many aspects of life. What I mean by that is that Taoism is not a set of rules but a way of looking at the world. Like with skepticism, Taoism is an approach, a means of pulling truth or meaning from the world that is presented to us. And through this meaning, we can adapt to have lives with less stress and more happiness.

One Taoist perspective that is important to leading a happier life is the understanding of the duality of all things. This is introduced in chapter two of the Tao Te Ching:

Chapter 2

Under heaven, all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short complement each other;
high and low rest upon each other;
voice and sound harmonize each other;
front and back follow one another.

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
creating, yet not possessing,
working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.

The first stanzas of this chapter are very straightforward. Everything is tied inextricably with its opposite. The opposite in many ways defines the object or concept in question. What would we know of beauty if we had not ugliness with which to compare it? What is good if there is no evil? Consider the (not very good) movie The Invention of Lying, wherein there is no concept of truth because there has never been a lie. When Ricky Gervais tries to tell his friends that he’s told a lie, he struggles to even find the words to explain just what he’s done. To know of one thing, we must know of its opposite or its absence.

The dual nature of the ten thousand things is in my estimation one of the Big Truths in the world. Coming to grips with this idea can set your perspective on end. Suddenly, that which is ugly no longer offends, because we know that it is natural and necessary, that it gives us beauty. A bitter taste can bring a smile to the Taoist’s lips, because bitterness gives us sweetness. Extending this concept to emotions is difficult, but it is perhaps where the concept has the most benefit. “It’s better to have loved and lost…” may be a trite cliche, but there is truth there. Heartbreak is easier to bear when you consider the joy that you’ve had and will have again. And if you realize that there was not much joy in the relationship to begin with, perhaps you’ll also realize that your heart does not ache as sorely as you originally thought.

The last stanza of the chapter might at first seem more abstract, and it covers a couple of ideas. The first two stanzas introduced the duality of nature, and the last stanza first introduces the concept of wu wei. Wu wei is a difficult concept to articulate, but it is summed up in the phrase “doing without doing,” or, perhaps more clearly, “effortless action without force.” The idea here is not to literally do nothing, but instead it is to act when the time is right or following the path of least resistance. Consider the water flowing around stones in the stream: it does not push the stones out of the way, instead flowing around them, wearing them away over time. The water removes its obstacle without doing.

The stanza goes on to talk about “teaching no-talking,” but what this really means is teaching by example. Obviously, it does not mean to never discuss Taoist or other concepts, or else the Tao Te Ching wouldn’t exist itself. But it does mean to put the concepts into practice, rather than simply talking about them. Showing is better than telling, experience is better than the story of experience, and action is better than the result of the action.

Accept the duality of nature. Do without doing. Teach without talking. Taoism is pretty simple.

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