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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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