I believe in the power of art, and that it is worth our support. Artists see things the rest of us miss, say things that we sometimes didn’t even know needed to be said, and shine much needed light into some pretty dark places. They are valuable members of society, and I’m not usually able to support them as much as I would like. Money that I didn’t expect to have recently appeared in my account, and that has given me an opportunity to, as they say, put my money where my mouth is. As part of my decision to use my stimulus money to support the arts, I asked some local authors to choose one of their works, autograph it, and sell it to me. The choice of which book to offer and how much to charge was left entirely up to them.
I had authors refuse to accept any money and tell me to use what I would have given them to buy a book from someone else. Some quoted me a discounted price. Some quoted me the retail price, and a couple offered to mail me the book and refused to let me cover the cost of the postage.
One spread out all five of his books and asked me to choose. When I repeated that it was his decision which one to sell me as well as how much to ask for the book, he picked one and said, “That will be $60.00.” He signed it, I wrote him a check, and he handed me what was obviously a used copy of one of his books.
It’s been an interesting exercise so far; one thing I’ve been reminded of is that how a person receives a gift says very little about the giver and quite a lot about the recipient. I had people tell me to act as their agent to support someone else’s efforts, people graciously accept the gift as it was given, and one person who saw an opportunity to unload a used book at a high price.
It’s good for me to do this kind of thing when I can. I’m learning that as a giver, I am handing over the decision about how to respond to the recipient, and I need to truly let go. Also, I’m trying to learn that as a receiver my best response is to say “thank you,” and accept the gift in the spirit it’s being given. I’m still working on that part. I sometimes see a gift as assigning some kind of obligation to me to reciprocate, which misses the point completely and, more importantly, deprives the giver of something they had set out to do. It’s funny how I sometimes make it more difficult for people to be kind to me. Not impossible, you understand. Just awkward.
For the last year, the prospect of contracting COVID-19 scared me. I stayed at home, masked up, ate in, sanitized, used curbside grocery shopping, modified holidays until they were almost unrecognizable, and generally hunkered down to ride it out. I got used to the new routines and stayed very faithful to them, partly out of concern for others, and partly out of self-preservation. I watched the pandemic roll across the globe, and I was afraid. For myself, for my aged parents, for my children and their children, and for all of us.
On Friday we will get our second round of Moderna, and join the growing group of people who have taken an important step toward beating back the pandemic. We’re beginning to talk about seeing friends, visiting our children and my parents, going into a grocery, a bookstore, a restaurant.
And I’m afraid.
I’m an introvert and have usually been at least a little uncomfortable in groups. My private nature has made hunkering down a relatively small adjustment, and I mostly worried in a general sense about the essential workers, and wondered at the risks the more (daring, reckless, stupid — pick your descriptor) among the rest of us were willing to accept. The thought of stepping back into the world scares the hell out of me.
One of our friends asked us to join him and his wife to celebrate her birthday yesterday. It was just the four of us, they have been as careful as we have been, we were out on their porch, they are fully vaccinated, and we have already had the first round. It was a relatively short visit, no birthday hugs, and all four of us were very careful. I spent a good portion of the morning worrying about the lunch visit. While it was really good to make contact, limited as it was, with good friends, it was hard. That very small step was difficult.
It took a little while to settle into the quarantine routine; I wonder about letting go of it. It’s become comfortable. I think about picking up where I left off a year ago, and it seems so very risky, like I’m consciously deciding to put myself and those around me at risk.
Life is risk. I know this. I know I’ll figure out how to adjust to whatever the new parameters and expectations are. Learning how to minimize risk in the post-quarantine environment is going to be a challenge for all of us, and scary for some, including me.
Wish me luck, y’all.
Frankie brought a mole to our front door the other day. More specifically, she brought what John Cleese would call an “ex-mole.” She had spent time playing with her catch, throwing it in the air and snatching it back off the ground before it could burrow to safety, dashing about the yard like a mad thing with it in her mouth, until finally the mole wouldn’t play any more. Then she offered it to us, much like a cat does a mouse, if the cat weighed 60 pounds and the mouse was as large as, say, a mole. When we declined the gift, she took it away and buried it somewhere. We think.
Before Frankie, we wished there were no moles in our yard. We complained about the hills and ridges. Now we have holes and furrows. So, according to the law of averages, nothing has changed. This is b. s., of course, because everything has changed. The yard is still difficult to navigate around the hazards and looks a little like a mine field, if the mines were very small and more annoying than dangerous. But, we wanted the moles gone, and Frankie is obliging us.
Be careful what you wish for.
On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz, is an excellent work of non-fiction with a premise that intrigued me from the first time I heard about it.
Ms. Horowitz has written previously about dogs and how their sense of the world differs from ours, and On Looking is a natural outgrowth of that concept. In it, she takes a dozen walks, sometimes around the block where she lives, sometimes in other locations, but each time with a different person (plus once with her dog and once, at the end of the book, by herself). What each person sees is different; from her nineteen month old son to the geologist, the illustrator, the social worker and advocate for the blind who is blind herself, the president of the Project for Public Spaces, and others, she experiences her surroundings differently in every chapter.
Things she has seen but not seen, buildings she has passed a hundred times without going in or even knowing what work was being done inside, sounds pointed out by both the audio specialist and the blind social worker, the activities and clues about the presence of animal life identified by the animal behavior researcher who specializes in urban wildlife; every walk is a chance to expand her understanding of the world she moves through daily. Each unfolds at a different pace and includes unexpected pauses to examine, listen to, or feel some aspect of the environment.
The appearance of a flock of birds in flight leads to an explanation of the three rules that govern much of animal group movement, from birds to fish to insects:
Don’t bump into others.
Follow the one in front of you.
Keep up with those beside you.
Computer models programming a group of discrete points on the monitor to follow these three rules result, when the dots are set in motion, in a display that looks remarkably like birds in flight. There are interesting parallels at work in Horowitz’s book; from the rules governing the movement of animal groups to the sophisticated micro signals smoothing out the movement of people using the sidewalks of a major city, both of which function to allow large groups to move smoothly in the same specific area.
I also wondered, and still do, how much of human group behavior can be explained by the three rules, and how much conflict results when one or a group of us ignores or sabotages them. Stepping outside the rules is also how progress is often made, of course, so there’s that.
The book left me more sensitive, at least temporarily, to the nuances of the world around me and how much more there is to experience than I usually let in as I move through the day. I know the unconscious screening process we all use helps keep us both safe and sane, given the staggering amount of info there is out there. Still, it’s good to now and then be reminded of the existence of those filters so we can bypass them for a moment or two. It can surprise us and refresh the world, or at least our view of it.
On my morning walk today at the community center, I saw a man and his son next to the ball field with a puppy on a leash. The boy and his puppy went into the fenced-in ball field to play and were soon running madly around the outfield. I could hear the boy’s laughter from the far side of the trail’s loop.
By my second time around the loop, there were a dozen kids and four or five men out on the field, with several families watching from the bleachers. Little League practice, the first of the season.
After a year of pandemic fear and upheaval, coupled with one of the nastiest political seasons I can remember, the sights and sounds of that March morning were reassuring, heartwarming, and generally good for my soul. But it was more than that, seeing those folks going about the rituals of spring, living their lives while Frankie and I watched from under the pines. It was something I sorely needed.
It was balance.
As the owner of a 10 month old 60 pound puppy with inexhaustible energy, a daily walk of a couple of miles or so is an act of self-preservation. There are a couple of walking trails close to the house, and we alternate between them, more or less.
The county where I live has a leash law for all dogs. One of the regulars at the closer of the two trails lives across the street from the trail’s parking lot and has two dogs. He uses the trail almost every day, and one of his dogs is always on a leash. The other one is never on a leash and he spends much of his time calling him to come back from whatever side trip the dog has taken.
The other trail has a regular who describes her dog as a brat, but only rarely has him on a leash. She spends a lot of time off-trail up in the woods surrounding the park, so it’s seldom an immediate issue. This morning in another part of the trail a young woman I hadn’t seen before was walking her dog off-leash. Daisy (the dog) came up to us and was doing the standard dog greeting ritual with Frankie, my dog, with the woman saying, “Daisy, Daisy! Come here!” interspersed with “Sorry, sorry.” When Daisy eventually agreed to return to her she headed toward a parked car, waving goodbye with the hand that had been holding Daisy’s leash the whole time. I’m not sure why she brought the leash along for the walk.
Although things are getting better, thank goodness, I still see a distressing number of people out in public unmasked. Almost as bothersome and equally dangerous are those who wear their masks below nose level. I mean, we’re trying to get a global pandemic under some kind of control here, and besides, we are our brothers’ keepers.
In most areas of my life I’m a rule follower; there are a few exceptions, which I won’t go into here for obvious reasons. If it weren’t for those exceptions, I would find it intolerable that there are people in my immediate sphere who are flagrantly disregarding rules that are there for the common good. It would be easy to step onto the pedestal of self-righteous judgment. I can’t do that because of the obvious hypocrisy.
I do wish they’d keep their dogs on a leash.
And just wear the damn mask.
It’s an interesting mix, exploring the Tao Te Ching and training/being trained by a new puppy at the same time.
After several dogless years, I started scanning the websites of the area animal shelters. I was looking for a medium size dog and beyond that had nothing specific in mind. The shelter one county over had a new litter of unknown parentage; abandoned by their mother at a couple weeks, they were found under an outbuilding. We settled on Ramona and renamed her Frankie, after the dog in my Boone series, taking her home at about seven weeks.
On the recommendation of the shelter staff, we submitted a swab to find out just what we had. It turns out she’s a bowolamore (my word): in descending order, boxer, wolf, Labrador, and seven more breeds. Frankie began growing at breakneck speed. As I write this she’s 10 months old and 60 pounds.
She’s a beauty, as you can see. Also very intelligent, according to several friends who are dog owners. These same people have said to me, “Just get through the first six months and you’ll be fine.” “The first eight months are the hardest; just make it through them . . . .” “Everyone knows that they really start testing you at nine months or so.” I’m putting less and less stock in their pronouncements and trying to meet Frankie as an individual as opposed to a member of a category.
The author Frances McDonald says that even in a tamed animal there is a part that is essentially unavailable to us; the animal exists as its own being. Frankie and I are living that truth as we learn about each other. The teachings of Lao Tzu: that kindness is greater than rules of conduct, that trying to control everything is fruitless, that we should confront the difficult while it is still easy, and balance, always balance, apply directly to working with Frankie (and lots of other things as well). As I said, an interesting mix.
We have good days and bad days, and the Tao says it would be foolish to expect anything else. Actually it says not to expect, period, but to recognize that bad arises from good, and vice versa, and acknowledging both is necessary. Live the present in all its facets. Frankie is much better at that than I am, but I’m learning. As I’m teaching her, she’s teaching me. As it should be.
A daily exercise, reading and reacting to several translations of randomly selected verses from the Tao. Starting on January 1, 2021. I’ll be adding a verse each day to this post until March 22, give or take.
In one translation, Hogan says use all you want; there is more than we’ll ever need. In another, Star says it is empty, yet fills every vessel. Hidden, but it fills every corner.
Evocative, to say the least. Also to say the most, which I guess is the point.
One thing all the translations I have looked at make clear from the beginning: Don’t try to pin it down. If you can define it, you’re leaving something out. I find that at once refreshing, frustrating, and liberating.
Celebrate the mystery. You might as well.
In Hogan’s translation, he says don’t worry about the score, just do what you have to do. Star’s translation says honor is founded on disgrace and disgrace is rooted in honor, so both should be avoided.
Fame and misfortune are both fleeting and depend on other people, who are doubtless wrestling their own demons and so are hardly objective. Making the opinion of others the measure of my worth is a snare I find myself in over and over. You would think that having to disentangle myself would teach me a lesson, but evidently I need to learn some things more than once.
If one has lost the Way, there is still integrity. If that is lost, there is kindness. If kindness is lost, there is still justice. If justice is lost, all that is left is rules of conduct.
We spend much of our time, energy, and resources creating, codifying, and enforcing rules of conduct, which in this list is set as the lowest bar. It’s the most easily quantified, so there is that advantage.
In Star’s translation, he says that when men rely on rules for guidance, ignorance abounds.
Maybe following the rules is the least we can do.
Star’s translation says that if you need rules to be kind and just, if you “act” virtuous, this is a sure sign that virtue is absent.
MacDonald says that talk of patriotism is a sure sign that the country is falling into chaos. The same theme shows up in all four translations, whether the example is country or family. Talking about it, labeling it, be it patriotism or family loyalty, is seen as a substitute for the real thing.
The teenagers I used to work with who were truly dangerous individuals never talked about it. And everyone knew they were the real thing. Those guys knew that if you had it there was no reason to advertise it.
Just do the right thing, the kind thing, the just thing. Don’t talk about it or make rules about it.
In their translations, Hogan says the greatest beauty is invisible, and Mitchell says that the greatest art seems unsophisticated. What at first glance seems contradictory is apparently a glimpse into the great unknown.
Star’s translation says that Tao is always becoming what we have need for it to become. If it couldn’t do this, it would not be Tao.
I find myself hearing that last bit as both mystifying and reassuring – another seeming contradiction. I’m not sure whether I need to look deeper into that or just roll with it, although I’m leaning toward the latter.
In Mitchell’s translation, it says that when the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals the lower the results. Watching the strength of the addictive nature of power play out in real time is very difficult, though not surprising. The lure of power may be the most potent drug there is.
Star’s translation says that good fortune hides within bad fortune. In light of today’s events, I hope that good fortune comes out of hiding. For me and for many people I know, a touch of good fortune would be most welcome. It’s something to hang on to, even though the Tao isn’t much in favor of hanging on to anything.
It’s funny; this exercise was supposed to be a respite from the day-to-day, an exploration of more universal themes. Today’s randomly selected verse was so clearly aligned with the unfolding events as to make the thought of respite irrelevant.
Get rid of sanctity and morality, Hogan’s translation says. His reading, like the others, points to the basic goodness of people. We all know, on some level, what is right and good and moral, and those who take it upon themselves to instruct us in those things more often than not just get in the way. We have a harder time rediscovering love on our own, which is the only true way to get to it, if someone is whispering in our ear or shouting from a platform about what it’s supposed to look like and sound like and feel like. The teens I once worked with were barely functional (much less successful) in “normal” environments, frequently crashing into one set of rules or another. Almost without exception, though, when the situation was genuinely important they not only knew what was necessary and right, they did it without instruction or argument. Remarkable, really.
Also from Hogan: Do your work as best you can. Don’t think about what you get for it. Stay focused.
Just stay at the center of the circle, says Mitchell. On my good days I have a sense of where the center is, and on my better days I can spend some time there.
Star’s translation says give without conditions and people will prosper. The singer Dolly Parton gives in large measure on a regular basis, from books for children to fire relief to medical research, and undoubtedly much more that we don’t know about. She doesn’t lack for money as a result of this, and is seen as a shining light not only by those touched directly by her giving, but by those who hear about it and are similarly inspired. There is a saying in the Christian tradition: Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return a hundredfold. There are many real-life examples of the value and rightness of giving without strings attached.
Hogan says a wise leader keeps quiet and people do the right thing on their own.
Mitchell: If you want to be a great leader, stop trying to control.
We don’t need leaders to tell us what’s good. Most folks are doing their best, frequently in difficult circumstances. Changing the world a little bit at a time. We could let ourselves recognize and celebrate that more often, and help it grow and spread. Casting our bread, so to speak.
Star: Wealth is the fruit of generosity.
Possession for its own sake leads to misery; the more you have, the more you have to lose, and the harder you have to work to protect your pile of stuff. Accumulating beyond what it takes to sustain is a burden we not only accept but ask for, sacrifice for, believe will bring happiness and security. This is false. Being generous creates the kind of wealth that cannot be stolen and does not need to be guarded, because it cannot be measured or possessed, only experienced.
Mitchell: When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
Hogan: Doing the right thing is like water. It’s good for all living things and flows without thinking where it’s going.
It’s that last part that struck home on this reading. It is difficult to act without an agenda, whether open or hidden, but if we can do the right thing without worrying about whether it ripples out or stays close, damages or enhances our reputation, gets us blame or credit, inspires others or goes unnoticed, then it’s more genuine. There are so many unintended consequences in this life that trying to figure out all the ramifications of our actions is fruitless, and, more importantly, misses the point. Star, in his translation, said when acting we should remember that timing is everything. I’ve heard that’s true of comedy. It only makes sense that it’s also true in a larger context.
Star: We recognize beauty because there is ugliness, virtue because of sin.
Things exist together; difficult and easy, high and low, life and death. Seeing that the existence of one depends on the existence of its opposite runs counter to wishful thinking of all types, and means, among other things, that as long as there are kind people there will also be unkind, as long as there are privileged there will be those without privilege, and so on. Terms that assign value exist only and always because their opposite also exists. I think one thing we can understand from this is that we don’t give in order to achieve a certain end or receive something in return; rather, we give because we have something available to us that we can give. Later, we will be in a position to receive. We experience joy knowing that sorrow will certainly come to us, and experience sorrow knowing that joy is its companion and will show up in due course. Whatever we are experiencing, it won’t last.
Gia-Fu Feng: Creating, yet not possessing. Working, yet not taking credit. Work is done, then forgotten.
Do the job, and move on to the next one. Let the thing that is leaving, leave. A skill I’m still trying to master.
Hogan: Don’t spend too much time thinking about stupid shit. Why should you care about things that worry others?
Watching other people rush around, appearing to have goals and purposes, can make us feel like guests, like we don’t belong in this world. There is an advantage, though, in having that kind of vantage point. The wind and waves only appear to be aimless; they have direction and intention, it’s just not obvious from our viewpoint. Getting tied to things or places makes some things difficult to see. It doesn’t mean they’re not there. Being adrift on the sea of faith, for example, opens us up to truths from multiple perspectives.
Star: Should I fear darkness when that light is shining everywhere? Nonsense!
Star: Tao is eternal; it brings all things to completion without their even knowing it.
McDonald: Because it doesn’t seek greatness, it is able to accomplish great things.
It’s certainly the case that often the person out in front who is receiving all the attention is not the person who is actually getting the job done. Those who shun the spotlight are sometimes the ones who deserve the most credit. Without them, the people seeking the spotlight would have no accomplishments to display. The invisible ones are the key to much that is done for the benefit of us all. In the current pandemic sweeping the globe, those previously invisible are lauded as heroes, when by and large, they are all just doing their job. More difficult and dangerous due to the virus, but they’ve kept things running for a long time without being noticed. The fact that they do their work with no fanfare, no public recognition, is a measure of how great they truly are.
McDonald: Know the honorable, but do not shun the disgraced; embrace the world as it is.
Recognizing both light and dark, honorable and disgraced, idealism and reality, allows us to glimpse the whole world. Several of the translations refer to the Uncarved Block, reality before it is divided into “useful” tools. The Uncarved Block carries limitless possibilities. Detaching pieces of it means you have something useful, but imposes limitations on what you can see and experience. Quite a high price, if you think about it that way.
Star: When the opposing forces unite within, there comes a power abundant in its giving, unerring in its effect, flowing through everything.
Mitchell: If you accept the world, the Tao will be luminous inside you.
Star: No greater curse than desire; no greater fault than selfishness
Much of our time is spent trying to satisfy desires of one kind or another. The structure of our society has encouraged a competition among us to accumulate more, larger, “better” stuff and more elaborate experiences. Many of us buy into this world view, which leads to envy, selfishness, desire, and a host of other ills we carry with us as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Laying aside all desires is certainly out of reach for most, including me. I have luxuries it would be difficult for me to leave behind. It doesn’t follow that I shouldn’t, but the act of leaving them behind also means a setting aside of the desire to immediately replace them with something else equally unnecessary. A life without desire is frightening to contemplate.
Mitchell: There is no greater illusion than fear.
Star: A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.
Hogan: If you are rigid and unyielding you might as well be dead.
The young people I worked with some years ago would frequently back themselves into a corner by being stubborn. A sometimes dangerous and always unfortunate situation resulted when the staff who were charged with caring for and working with these teenagers behaved in a similar fashion.
Many times conflicts between individuals or groups reach an impasse when both sides take the position that they will change as soon as the other side does. This rigidity makes compromise impossible and a solution elusive.
Pierre, a man we hired to fell some trees close to our house, once told me, “Never climb a tree that won’t bend.”
Star: Now if one is fearless but has no love, abundant but has no moderation, rises up but has no humility, surely he is doomed.
Hogan: If you want to get ahead, show people compassion. It’s the most powerful force in the universe.
Compassion for those we like and respect is easy; for those outside that circle, not so much. It helps me to remember that just because I think I know the reasons someone is acting or believing in a certain way, that doesn’t make it so. People are much richer, deeper, and more complex than we think they are, and the same thing is true of ourselves. Taking an honest look inward (or at least as honest as we can manage) can help foster compassion for self, which makes compassion for others possible, if not always easy.
Star: Love vanquishes all attackers.
Star: Be tranquil like the rain of spring.
Hogan: If you stay calm, the world will sort itself out around you.
Staying calm is a rare and precious skill in any circumstance, and especially so in difficult times, when the cacophony of voices around us are insisting that we do the opposite. I have read that we are hard-wired to pay more attention to signals that indicate danger than those which indicate the lack of danger. If true, knowing that about people impacts news programs, magazine editorial content, political campaigns, deciding which verses to use as the basis for next Sunday’s sermon, and so on. Telling us we must not remain calm is good sales technique, but believing it is a poor approach to long-term health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual.
Mitchell: The Master allows things to happen. She steps out of the way and lets the Tao speak for itself.
The fact that Mitchell translates the Master as female in this verse is refreshing, to say the least.
Hogan says that verse 42 boils down to “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
Reap what you sow, cast your bread on the water and it will return to you a hundredfold, sow the wind and reap the whirlwind, what goes around comes around, instant karma’s gonna get you, the list goes on. Almost everyone is familiar with this lesson from the Tao. It is remarkable how many folks think they are exempt from this basic law of human interaction. There is always give and take, and we can’t opt out of that basic truth. The interplay of yin and yang fills the universe, says Star, who goes on to say:
Only at the still point, between the breathing in and the breathing out, can one capture perfect harmony.
The presence of Tao doesn’t mean that evil ceases to exist, only that it loses its power.
Certainly a different way to consider what to do about the existence of evil in the world; the conventional wisdom, and the mantra used in many cases to encourage a group’s willingness to fight, is that evil must be eradicated. Acceptance of the requirement that if there is good there must by definition also be evil and that, rather than eliminating it, we should act in a way that robs it of its power turns the whole concept on its head. This might be a good and necessary thing to do.
Star: It’s not that they (dark spirits) have no power, it’s that their power can’t harm anyone.
Star says that Tao is everywhere; to see it in a person, see it as a person. In a family, see it as a family. In the world, see it as the world.
A while back our minister told the story of a Sufi mystic who was talking to someone who told him he saw God in everything he looked at: trees, flowers, people, and so on. The Sufi’s reply? “I never see anything but God.”
I find it comforting to think that Tao is everywhere, around us and in us, ready for us to choose to recognize its presence. That it dwells in the realm beyond language doesn’t make it inaccessible, just impossible to pin down or categorize.
Mitchell: Let the Tao be present in your life and you will become genuine. Let it be present in the universe, and the universe will sing.
Mitchell: We work with being, but non-being is what we use.
In our modern day quest for information and stimulus we risk losing appreciation of silence, emptiness, the pause between phrases. Two people who know and respect each other can sit in silence without distress. Silence in a piece of music helps us appreciate what led up to it, and the player’s decision about how long to hold the silence says as much as the notes that precede or follow it. The space between trees that allows a view of the mountain beyond or the river’s path leading away is as necessary as any other component but usually goes unnoticed unless it is so vast that it dominates (like the Grand Canyon). While the examples in this verse are physical – the hollow in the cup, the hole at the center of the wheel, the space inside a room – I thought immediately of music and poetry. In the practice of Tai Chi the twinned concepts of full and empty speak to the same idea.
Gia-Fu Feng: Benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.
Star: When a thing has existence alone, it is mere dead weight.
Mitchell: When they think that they know the answers, people ae difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.
One of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Church is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are more interested in questions than answers, and so as a rule do not dictate a view or explanation to be accepted and followed by all. The thing that keeps it from being a “believe whatever you want” approach is the word responsible. The expectation is that having a theology includes doing the work to make sure it is honest and coherent; nobody checks your work, but the belief is that honesty and coherence leads to a fuller, richer life in all its aspects. More than a little Taoism in there.
Star says that at every moment Te (energy, vitality) seeks Tao (the Way). This is the impulse that leads all things back home.
Star: The most yielding thing in the world will overcome the most rigid.
Think water wearing away stone, or a seed lodged in a rock crevice that germinates and eventually splits the rock in two. Or Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and the destruction of the giant statue by wind and weathering. Use of force is a blunt instrument, effective in the short term but clumsy and unsustainable.
Star again: Rare indeed are those who are still. Rare indeed are those who are silent.
Star: Tao is the great wealth of those who are awake, the great protector of those still sleeping.
The Way is there, waiting for us to come around, waiting for us to recognize it. There is no punishment meted out to those who don’t get it; we all fail to get it at one time or another. If we are dealing with someone wicked, we should continue to be the person we are and not change in reaction to their deeds; we should show them our deeds instead. If Tao is protecting them, then who are we to sit in judgment? If we are right with Tao, as Hogan puts it, we are wealthy. It would be a mistake to turn away from that. Better to share it with those who are able to accept it, and be patient with those who aren’t.
Star again: Within, within. This is where the world’s treasure has always been.
Hogan: When you have nothing to say, you may as well keep your mouth shut.
Open yourself, Mitchell says. To use insight fully, we must open ourselves to it. With loss, to be open to it allows us to experience it fully.
The only way to move on from something, whether good or bad, is to go ahead and experience it. Hanging on to good times, we run the risk of self-parody as well as missing out on the present. Hanging on to bad times only means that we experience the negative again and again while the present is continually reinventing itself all around us. We should let things be what they are and not try to force them into sticking around after they’re done.
Mitchell: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place.
Gia-Fu Feng: Knowing ignorance is strength. Ignoring knowledge is sickness.
The contrast is not between strength and weakness, but between strength and sickness. The Tao does not advocate the pursuit of knowledge in order to demonstrate cleverness or superiority, but it does say that if you don’t know the things that need to be known, the results will be terrible. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says that people who know the least are the most self-assured and confident of their knowledge, has led people, some in positions of great responsibility, to produce all manner of disastrous results.
McDonald says that only by recognizing that you have an illness can you move to seek a cure. The idea promoted in recovery groups that you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired has ancient roots, as it turns out.
Gia-Fu Feng says that self-righteousness, boasting, bragging are unnecessary luggage and do not bring happiness.
Trying to consider what value Lao-Tsu, or Jesus, or any of the great teachers would find in social media as it exists today is an interesting thought experiment. For that matter if, as Star says in his translation, self-promoting is something that must be left behind, there is much more in our daily lives than just social media that needs examination.
Mitchell: To be in accord with Tao, just do your job, then let go.
Hogan says, This is how Tao works: It doesn’t push itself, and it always succeeds. It can’t be rushed; it’s always on time.
Bravery mixed with passion will get you killed; bravery mixed with calm preserves life.
Good fortune and bad fortune both tether men to this world, in Star’s translation. The best course of action is to be, as much as possible, in harmony with Tao and not worry about future outcomes or grand plans. These things are unknowable anyway, so dwelling on them gains nothing.
Mitchell says that all streams flow to the sea because it is lower; humility gives it power.
Hogan: If you want to teach people, don’t talk down to them. If you want to lead them, find out where they want to go.
In my career I worked with teens in treatment centers and alternative schools, and most of them had been talked down to for so long they assumed I would too. It took a while to get past that, but no teaching was possible through that barrier. Convincing those young people that I was not only able, but willing, to treat them with respect opened more doors than anything else I did.
Also Mitchell, speaking of the Master: because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her. It takes two to make a contest of any kind, whether it’s to accomplish something or to win an argument. Refusal to compete is a great source of power, even though it is seldom seen in that way.
Serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. Mother of the Universe. For lack of a better name, I call it Tao.
Like Mitchell’s translation above, the other translations I have at hand all say that this source, this way, is beyond language. Tao is the name they give it, but they all acknowledge the inadequacy of spoken or written language in the face of it.
I find this recognition that the most important stuff is beyond naming very comforting.
Mitchell says that humanity follows the earth. Earth follows the universe. The universe follows the Tao. The Tao follows only itself.
Star says those who know do not talk and those who talk do not know.
Hogan: If you get right with Tao, you won’t be worried about praise or scorn, about winning or losing, about honor or disgrace. That’s the way to be.
When I think about how much of everyday life is centered around these dichotomies it emphasizes how difficult it would be to step away from all of it. Likes on social media, reviews on books I’ve written, competitions of all kinds requiring a winner and a loser, the emphasis on reputation, all of this stands in opposition to Tao. It all comes down to desire, of course, which is the major impediment to embracing Tao.
Hogan: People waste time and energy trying to be strong or beautiful, and their strength and beauty fade. They’ve lost touch with Tao.
The pressure to become and remain strong and beautiful is relentless, and thus we lose the wisdom and perspective of the old among us. Fighting the natural order of birth, growth, maturity, and death, trying to hold on to a phase of life that is slipping farther and farther away, is not only misguided but fruitless. We could celebrate the important perspective that comes from having seen life from multiple points of view. Disregarding that robs us of the present, which is all there really is.
Star: A full life — this is your blessing. A gentle heart — this is your strength.
Star: The best warrior fights without anger. He puts himself below and brings out the highest in his men.
McDonald: The best leaders become servants of their people.
Having been raised in the Christian tradition, when I read this verse I immediately thought of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. There is both power and value in humility and modesty, a lesson that has to be relearned over and over again. Leaders who make themselves the focus instead of the goal make everyone’s job more difficult and confusing. They also carve a path that does not lead to attainment of the goal, whatever it is. It leads instead to their feet, and then there is nowhere else to go.
From Star’s translation: . . . to Heaven and Earth all are the same; the high, the low, the great, the small — all are given light, all get a place to rest.
Mitchell goes on to say the Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.
It is we who divide people into acceptable and unacceptable. The Tao makes no such distinction. All are the same for Tao. According to Hogan, if you keep using Tao, it works better. Mitchell says the more you talk about it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.
Mitchell: Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Gia-Fu Feng says that mastering others requires force; mastering the self needs strength.
It is very easy (and very common) to confuse force with strength. Force always implies movement, while strength can be still. Sturdy, a friend of mine once called it. “Not everyone can be forceful,” she said. “We can all be sturdy.” Maybe she was a Taoist. I never thought to ask.
McDonald says that those who know they have enough are truly wealthy. Again, stillness. There is no need to run around chasing after stuff; be content with what you have and you will be rich.
Just take a moment and consider how wealthy you actually are. Not possession wealth. The other kind. The enduring kind. The kind you have to be still to notice.
Star: Let them be content in their homes and joyful in the way they live.
Lao Tzu is thinking about, dreaming about, a small village and an unhurried life. In his village, machinery to speed things up would go unused, and weapons would remain in storage, out of sight. I wonder what he would make of the level of frenetic activity that characterizes much of our lives, and our pride in the quantity and ferocity of our armaments.
Mitchell: People enjoy their food, take pleasure in being with their families, delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
Star again: The people must take death seriously and not waste their lives in distant lands.
Home, family, community. These are the important things.
Confront the difficult while it is still easy, says Mitchell in his translation.
Hogan: Get the job done before it becomes a chore.
In Star’s translation, he says: Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way for much ease brings many difficulties.
In today’s world, and my guess is also in the times that came before, the lure of the quick and easy way is so seductive as to be almost impossible to resist. Accepting that things, especially great things, have an element of difficulty in them and confronting this head on instead of trying to sidestep it is, again from Star, the sure way to end up with no difficulties at all
Learn how to stand still if you want to go places.
You can go far if you don’t have anything to carry.
These are both from Hogan’s translation of verse 22. It’s hard to imagine laying down all the stuff I carry. The notion is very attractive but seems impossible, and I think that’s because much of my self-definition is bound up in the baggage I’m carrying around. Not a particularly good thing to admit, but as I typed it there was the ring of truth in the words, and I knew I was on to something.
The question that naturally arises is, after we lay down our baggage, our burdens, all the false shame and false pride, the minimizations and exaggerations and outright lies we have been telling ourselves, what then?
As Mitchell’s translation says, if you want to become full, let yourself be empty.
In his translation Star talks about women in colorful gowns, men carrying well-crafted swords, and overflowing food and drink, while the fields grow barren and the granaries are empty.
The lure of material wealth is a strong addiction in our society, as it has been for others in the past. “The one with the most toys wins” is a point of view shared by all too many. There are those among us who could not possibly use their wealth in a dozen lifetimes and continue to accumulate more and more. The fact that when one of them gives back in some significant way it is big news is an indicator of how prevalent greed is. Star says it’s like thieves boasting after a looting and is contrary to Tao.
Hogan puts it a little more bluntly: They’re nothing but gangsters and crooks, he says. That’s not what Tao’s about.
In Star’s translation, Lao Tzu says his teachings are easy to understand and to practice, but those who follow his ways are rare.
For me the interesting thing about this verse is that Lao Tzu doesn’t speak of people following him. He is not important; the teachings are. The ego trap is so deadly and seductive that a person leading a movement has to take care not to make himself or herself the focus. I’m reminded of the old civil rights slogan, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
From Star again: Those who follow my ways . . . . even if they wear the clothes of a beggar they carry a priceless gem within.
Hogan says to be light on your feet, you need a steady mind. If your body is active, your mind should be relaxed.
There is a concept in Taoist Tai Chi: Equal and opposite. Intention in one direction by the left hand is balanced by intention in the other direction by the right. If you’re reaching up, you should also be reaching down. And so on.
The notion of equal and opposite, of balance, of light and dark, is a recurrent theme in the Tao Te Ching. Hogan’s translation sees this, as does McDonald’s:
Heaviness is the basis of lightness. Stillness is the standard of activity.
Mitchell; What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.
In Star’s translation, he says giving and receiving are one. This is called the very heart of all that is true.
I think this is a beautiful way to look at both giving and receiving; recognizing that they are one, that they always and only co-exist not only makes either one easier, but shows them both to be the obvious thing to do, the very heart.
Hogan: Create something without holding on to it. Do the work without expecting credit for it. That’s the secret.
Holding on and expecting credit are deeply woven into the fabric of our society. To operate without doing either would be a challenging way to live, but I can see the possibility of liberation there. Much of the Tao Te Ching involves deciding to lay aside the things that bind you, whether they are material things or not. A person such as myself, raised and steeped in Western tradition and values, could see this as a rejection of a lifetime of teachings. Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s a recognition of the lack of importance of possession.
Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao.
Hogan: Tao doesn’t have a name. Names are for ordinary things.
Stop wanting stuff; it keeps you from seeing what’s real. When you want stuff, all you see are things. Those two sentences mean the same thing. Figure them out, and you’ve got it made.
The first time I read the Tao Te Ching and it began by saying the name that can be named is not the Name, I knew I was on to something. I’ve believed for a long time that there are things that are beyond language, and to see that same thesis as the starting point of one of the most well-known spiritual works around was thrilling. I’m still working on what ripples out from that spiritual framework. It’s rich and layered and, Lao Tzu would probably say, simple in the extreme.
McDonald: Mystery and reality emerge from the same source.
Mitchell: Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?
Patience is seldom extolled as a virtue; the addiction to immediate action, right or wrong, is powerful. Those who act are seen as perceptive, strong leaders, even when their actions turn out to be wrong or even dangerous. A delay in acting can, however, lead to better, more consequential results.
Star says the masters, mysterious and profound, are deliberate as one crossing a mountain stream, watchful as one surrounded by danger, reverent as if receiving an honored guest, selfless like a melting block of ice, pure as uncarved wood, accepting as an open valley.
Such rich imagery.
Star: If one doesn’t trust himself, how can he trust anyone else?
The basis of how we feel about others lies in how we feel about ourselves. This shows up in other religions as well; Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and there is a version of the Golden Rule in almost every religious practice. A song occasionally sung by the choir at the church I attend is based on these readings, and is a powerful piece of music. When I think of the admonition, “love your neighbor as yourself,” my first thought is that’s exactly what we all do to a greater or lesser degree. If we feel anger or contempt toward others, it’s a safe bet that we also feel that way about ourselves. Love and acceptance of self is a first step, easier for some than others.
Hogan: When a Master takes charge, hardly anybody notices.
This is the opposite of ego-driven leadership.
The last verse in the Tao Te Ching.
Star: Those who have virtue do not look for faults. Those who look for faults have no virtue.
Criticism and fault-finding is all the rage right now, and counter to the central message of Tao. Finding fault with self, other individuals, and groups is common and makes for attention-grabbing headlines in the various types of media, but has no power to move us forward, no guidance for those of us seeking a better way of doing and seeing.
Kindness and generosity are key. Star again, speaking of the Sage: By giving to others he gains more and more. By serving others he receives everything.
All things go as Tao goes; all things move as the wind blows
McDonald: If you want something to return to the source, you must first allow it to spread out.
Travelers on a spiritual path sometimes see interesting possibilities off to one side or another. A path that refuses the possibility of exploration or questioning runs the risk of losing travelers it otherwise would not.
Star: The gentle outlast the strong; the obscure outlast the obvious.
Acceptance of obscurity means, among other things, that no energy is wasted on maintaining a public face, and no concern for ego has a chance to interfere with the task at hand.
McDonald: To understand the small is called clarity.
It isn’t easy to allow ourselves to see the small, apparently inconsequential things and events swirling around us. Slowing down, taking a real breath, allowing things to reveal themselves, is the only way. This kind of thing can’t be forced.
Hogan: It takes insight to see subtlety. It takes strength to yield gently to force.
Star: Only the inner light . . . can guide us back home.
From Star’s translation: The treasure of life is missed by those who hold on and gained by those who let go.
It’s easy to find this truth in other spiritual teachings; the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle comes immediately to mind, as does the Buddha’s caution against desire. I wonder if Lao Tzu meant this in a broader sense, encompassing all the non-material things that possess us: reputation, desire for recognition, and so on, although the surface reading of the verse has more to do with government and its tendency to meddle in people’s lives.
Weapons are the bearers of bad news, says McDonald’s translation, and all people should detest them.
Calling them bearers of bad news seems to be quite an understatement. My limited experience with a weapon being used has become a marker in my life. The phrase bad news doesn’t begin to cover it.
Hogan’s take is more forceful: Weapons are terrible things. If you want to get right with Tao, reject weapons.
He goes on to say that the Master recognizes what he has in common with his enemies and tries to avoid conflict. I am reminded of the words of a mystic who, when asked how we should treat others, replied that there are no others.
Star: One who is proud of victory and delights in the misfortune of others will never gain a thing in this world.
Star: Don’t limit the view of yourself. Don’t despise the conditions of your birth.
Many of the young people I worked with during my career were self-limiting to an extreme level. I believe that most people, certainly myself as one example, impose limits on themselves that are unnecessarily harsh. While it’s not true that one can be whatever one wants (there are physical limits, age limits, etc.) it is the case that we sell ourselves and each other short on a regular basis.
McDonald: The Master knows herself but is not arrogant. She loves herself but also loves others.
Hogan: Every act of violence backfires.
In my own experience, Adkisson, whose purpose was to break the church if not destroy it completely, succeeded only in making it stronger and drawing the rest of the community into a web of support. Oppressive regimes do not generally eliminate the opposition, merely drive it underground, where it becomes more agile and dangerous than before.
McDonald: When the battle is over arrogance is the new enemy.
Victors who think they have won something do not take into account that every push results in a push back, whether immediate or delayed, and succumbing to arrogance makes seeing that next to impossible.
Mitchell: The Master .. . understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.
Star: A knower of Truth does what is called for and then stops.
Star: All things are born of the existent world. The existent world is born of the nothingness of Tao.
I have to confess, this one baffles me. Unless it’s reminding us of the essential mystery of Tao and the futility of trying to understand it as we understand the world, I’ve got nothing.
Maybe that’s the point.
Mitchell: Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?
Our minister once told the story of a Sufi who was talking with someone who said, “I see God in everything.” To which the Sufi replied, “I never see anything but God.”
McDonald: When Heaven gives and takes away, can you be content with the outcome?
Those who pray, asking for intercession or drawing attention to themselves, demonstrate their lack of contentment for all to hear. Meister Eckart once said that if the only prayer one ever said was, “Thank you,” it would be enough.
Star: As your wisdom reaches the four corners of the world, can you keep the innocence of the beginner?
In the Christian tradition, one of the main goals is to become as little children.
There is much more commonality among the great teachings than is generally pointed out.
Mitchell: When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.
We come from nothing and return to nothing. Tao arises from nothing to encompass everything. Becoming one with Tao opens us to seeing the great dance of everything, from nothing to flourishing to nothing again. Tao is the constant.
Star: Be still. Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.
Intangible and evasive.
Verse 21 says the greatest virtue comes from following the Tao, even though it’s intangible and evasive. Or maybe because it’s that.
Star: From the first moment to the present, the Name has been sounding. It is the gate through which the universe enters.
He asks rhetorically how he could come to know this, and replies that the very Name has told him, the one that is sounding here and now.
Mitchell: Those who are good the Master treats as good. Those who aren’t good she also treats as good. She trusts people who are trustworthy and also people who are not.
Evidently we should treat people in a way that reflects who we are, not who they are.
McDonald: The highest good is not to seek to do good, but to allow yourself to become it.
Don’t try to make it happen. Allow it to happen.
Star; Where there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within . . .
Our conscience, the still small voice, our moral compass, all are heard only if we shut up and listen.
Hogan: If people’s lives suck, and they look forward to death, what good does it do to threaten to kill them?
Often a gang member from an inner city in the US will be quoted as saying he doesn’t expect to make it to 30, or 25, or some other arbitrary number. Likewise, the teens I worked with in treatment centers saw little joy and fulfillment in either their present circumstance or anywhere in their future.
With that world outlook, what punishment can authorities hold over them that would be meaningful enough to persuade them to change?
A young person who has had the hope crushed out of them by whatever means is a sad commentary on our society, and a very difficult student. The most heartbreaking aspect is that they do not see the other side of the coin, that having no fear of death can be a liberation.
Mitchell: If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.
Mitchell: Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
I have spent much of my life as a prisoner, then, and have some personal understanding of how difficult it is to break out. The fact that it’s a prison of my own construction doesn’t make escape any easier. Quite the opposite.
Star: Complete the task at hand; be selfless in your actions.
This is the way of heaven. This is the way to heaven.
Gia-Fu Feng: (Tao) cannot be seen, it cannot be heard, and yet it cannot be exhausted.
Most people look for deeper meaning than is obvious, whether through Christianity, one of the other major religions, or more secular pursuits. There is a need to believe that there is more than meets the eye. There is comfort and the possibility of renewal there.
Star: Let the world pass as it may.
Star: I hear that one who lives by his own truth is not like this
He walks without making footprints in this world
He dwells in that place where death cannot enter
Living by our own truth means first that we discover what that truth is. Not an insignificant endeavor, that. At best I feel that I have seen glimpses of truth, and that is not insignificant, either. Maybe that’s how truth arrives – in glimpses.
Mitchell: He holds back nothing from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.
Star: The farther one goes, the less one knows.
Mitchell: Without opening your door, you can open your heart to the world.
There is no value in going from place to place looking for answers, seeking wisdom. All that is within us already.
Mitchell again: The more you know, the less you understand.
Hogan: When you defend yourself without any show of force, you give your opponent nothing to fight.
When two forces oppose each other, the winner is the one most reluctant to fight.
Again I think of the teens I used to work with, how the truly dangerous among them never bothered advertising the fact, and never picked a fight. It meant, among other things, that the most dangerous were also the most peaceful.
The point of this verse is different, of course. Lao Tzu does not call on us to be dangerous, only to fight with reluctance when necessary, and to only fight when there is no option.
Mitchell says in his translation that the victory will go to the one who knows how to yield.
Mitchell: A great man thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.
This strikes me as one of the fundamental teachings of Lao Tzu; fact that good and evil, low and high, light and dark, always coexist, whether it’s in the nation or in the person, is a basic in Taoism. Rather than deny it, it is best to recognize it. To deny it is to deny reality.
Hogan: Power flows down to every level of existence like a river to the ocean.
If you want to get ahead, lay low and bide your time.
Again, as in other verses, the admonition is against self-promotion. Do your job. Just do that.
Hogan: Be strong, but pay no attention to hollow praise. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t make a scene.
McDonald: the great view the small as their source, and the high takes the low as their foundation. Their greatest asset becomes their humility.
One of the most common traps I warned educators about when I was doing staff training was the trap of ego. Thinking the conflict was about them personally and that therefore they had to “win” it caused many problems and made the situation, whatever it was, more difficult to resolve.
Stepping back, making it about the solution instead of the individuals and who carries the blame, is the quickest route to resolution.
Star: What honor can there be without humility?
Mitchell: Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.
There is also no end to the blame for someone who always blames themselves. This habit creates a spiral that is almost impossible to escape from, and can lead to self-loathing.
Star: One with true virtue always seeks a way to give. One who lacks true virtue always seeks a way to get.
To do battle against the drumbeat of a consumer society that says, over and over, that getting is good, is a worthy endeavor and takes much strength and courage.
McDonald: Too much wealth causes crime.
Hogan: Desire messes with your heart. The world messes with your mind.
Desire is a natural feeling exacerbated by the tendency, also natural, to compare our lot in life to that of others. No matter who we are or how wealthy we are in material things, there is always someone who has more, or has something that exists as a singular unit and thus can’t belong to more than one person. Desire, envy, jealousy, all tear at the heart and stand in the way of peace.
Star: He holds to what is deep and not what lies on the surface.
Probably the most quoted passage from the Tao Te Ching. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
There’s a lot more here besides that:
Give as much care to the end as to the beginning.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
The Master simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things.
McDonald: Tao is nameless.
Naming is necessary for order, but naming can not order all things. Knowing when to stop naming, you can avoid the pitfalls it brings.
The drive to attach names to things is very strong; the difficulty arises when it is assumed that because you have named something you have explained it. I think this is what is meant by knowing when to stop naming so that pitfalls can be avoided. Star says in his translation that every word can become a trap. Recognition that the Tao is beyond names and explanations sidesteps the trap. We can say what it is like, but not what it is.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.
Nothing is softer or more yielding than water. Yet, given time, it can erode even the hardest stone.
The martial artist Bruce Lee made this truth the cornerstone of his discipline. “Be like water,” he said.
Star: Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard and the yielding triumphs over the rigid. Why then so little faith?
It seems paradoxical that the weakest can overcome the strong, but the great teachers say this. The meek shall inherit the earth, Jesus said.
Important truths show up over and over, no matter what teaching you follow.
If you overvalue possessions, people will begin to steal.
Star: Putting a value on status will cause people to compete.
A movie called, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” from several years back begins with a small African tribe leading an idyllic life, with few possessions and much sharing and generosity. A passing airplane pilot throws out an empty Coke bottle, which is found and brought to the village. It is a marvel, used for everything from making music to pounding roots for food. The fact that there is only one almost immediately begins to sow anger and discontent among the villagers, leading to fights and angry feelings. The village leader decides that the bottle is evil and only crazy gods would sow so much trouble in his tribe, so he undertakes a journey to the edge of the earth to throw the bottle away. The movie goes on from there, and is a wise and funny film.
Hogan: Stop doing stuff all the time, and watch what happens.
Hogan: Everybody has Tao in them. They just have to use it.
One of the things I found in working with young people was that even in the angriest, most damaged, most hopeless among them there was something that wanted to figure things out, to be competent, to get it right. I believe this relates to what the translators are talking about here.
McDonald: Use it effortlessly.
Mitchell: Empty yet inexhaustible.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
Hogan: Want to take over the world? Think again. The world’s a holy place. You can’t just fuck around with it.
Mitchell’s translation tracks so closely with Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible; it’s another example of how the important truths show up in one form or another in all the major religions and teachings.
My initial reaction to Hogan’s translation was that it should be on every desk at the UN and on the official desk of every world leader.
The middle section of Hogan’s quote is the important part. The world is a holy place.
Star: One who gives with the secret hope of getting is merely engaged in business.
This is one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. To give freely is a fine thing and unfortunately a somewhat unusual one. Not everything is or should be transactional.
Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course.
Hogan: They don’t worry about what they can’t control. That’s why they’re always satisfied.
Star: Having no claims to life, they cannot be claimed by death.
Letting go, one of the more difficult concepts to master, is central to Tao. It show up in verse after verse, stated in different ways, always with the message that freedom comes with releasing.
Mitchell: You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.
Gia-Fu Feng: Look, it cannot be seen-it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard-it is beyond sound.
McDonald: Approach it and you will not see a beginning; follow it and there will be no end.
Hogan: You can’t hold on to Tao, no matter how hard you grab. But it’s there. It’s in you, and it’s all around you. Remember that.
Star: Beyond the senses lies the great Unity—invisible, inaudible, intangible.
Tao is beyond our comprehension, and yet is in and around us always. The trick is to recognize and remember that, and leave it at that. It can’t be defined.
Tao takes energy from where it is, and sends it where it needs to be.
All of the translations talk about how the way of Tao runs counter to the ways of men. Men take from what is already lacking and give to what is already abundant; this is especially true of material wealth. Tao is the opposite, taking from what does not need, and giving to what does.
McDonald: Who is able to give to the need from their excesses? Only someone who is following the way of the Tao.
Hogan: If you get right with Tao, nothing is impossible. If you get right with Tao, there’s no limit to what you can do.
Getting right with Tao. That’s the key.
It’s not zero-sum. It never has been. The notion that there must be a winner and a loser is applicable in sporting events and other contests, which have strict rules and time limits and operate on the premise that the result will provide a designated winner. Beyond that, in the more important sense, the idea that there must be a winner and a loser is not only wrong but dangerous.
Zero-sum works as a concept only if you assume there will be no progress, new inventions, new collaborations, synergistic applications, scientific discoveries, or increased efficiency. In short, you must assume a static universe, which is the complete opposite of reality. Everything changes. That is the normal state. Zero-sum assumes the opposite, confining itself to a short-term view. This is so limiting as to make it a useless framework from which to make decisions.
Historical evidence does not support zero-sum. Calculations based on the assumption that things will not change lead to conclusions like the 1890s study that postulated a coming crisis for London, England based on the limits of how much horse manure could be removed from city streets each day. Looking 50 years into the future and assuming no new inventions (the automobile, in this example) leads to ludicrous conclusions.
It doesn’t take more than a casual look at much of what passes for discussion of the issues and problems we are grappling with at present to see that quite a bit of it is based on a zero-sum model. If I win, you lose, and vice versa. Therefore I can’t cooperate with you because that potentially makes me a loser. This is a dangerous road to travel; it can lead to stereotyping, cheating, and denigration of the “opponent” or, in the more extreme cases, the “enemy.”
We have been accomplishing more with the same amount of energy, producing more food from the same amount of land, using raw materials in a more efficient way than before, and supporting an increasing population on a planet of finite size. The pocket computers (mistakenly referred to as phones; they are so much more) that we carry are several orders of magnitude more powerful and efficient than the ones that were used by NASA to accomplish the moon landing and safe return 50 years ago. The internet has changed and is changing the world in ways we are only beginning to suspect, much less understand. The list goes on, and includes progress in music, education, philosophy, and other areas of human endeavor. We understand things in a way that would have been inconceivable not too long ago. This is the norm; zero-sum is not. This is not to say that we should not keep addressing problems. There are plenty of those around that need our attention. We should not assume that the way things are now is the way things will be next decade, next year, or even next week. If we assume that we will certainly be wrong. We can and should act to nudge things in a direction that benefits not only ourselves but our fellow humans. That’s what we do, after all. We change the world, all of us, every day, just a little. And we are our brother’s keeper, just as our brother is ours.
I’ve been puzzling over the political madness sweeping the country, and I think part of what is driving this intensity of emotion and defense of position is that there is something inside us, each of us, that longs to be a part of a much larger tribe, one that connects us to a bigger group, a more significant movement, a more meaningful purpose.
We already belong to a number of tribes, either by birth or by choice: family, circle of friends, sports fans, community organizations, regional heritage, religious groups, and so on. We have a need to belong to something bigger than anything we can already claim membership in, and a national political contest is an opportunity to join an enormous group. A lot of political campaigning is essentially the candidates and their group saying, “Come join us; be a part of our tribe! We’re the best one, the one that cares about you, that will fight for you . . . .” and so on.
One unfortunate thing about this is that for there to be an “us” there must also be an “other,” and creating an “other” too often results in stereotyping, refusal to see common ground, and, significantly, a glossing over of differences within the “us.” It makes conversation across groups difficult, if not impossible.
Even those who claim a fair amount of enlightenment and tolerance find ways to denigrate and marginalize people who disagree with them, who haven’t seen the light, and that too is unfortunate. I have friends all along the political spectrum, and, without exception, each believes that they and theirs are in the right and those “others” are refusing to see reality, misguided at best and pure evil at worst. It’s both fascinating and scary to watch. As one who has experienced firsthand an attack on my tribe by an extremist, I know how easily rhetoric can spur some individuals to action. We should take care what we say; words can easily become deeds. We are seeing that play out right now, and some of it scares the hell out of me.