Tao Te Ching, ch 4: fulfilling emptiness

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In previous chapters, we’ve explored duality and its implications in grounded, comprehensible situations. In the first chapter, we got a warning: the Tao that can be named is not the Tao. Now all these things are crashing together, as we explore the duality of the Tao more directly… which necessitates a seemingly abstract text.

If that sounds a little “woo-woo” to you, resist that feeling. Remember, the concept of the Tao is beyond the scope of what can be captured in words. So if we try to use words to describe the Tao in such a way that’s closer to describing to capturing its essence, we’re going to end up with some odd language.

And if you’re suspicious of the idea of a concept that can’t be described, I get that and think that’s valid. But I think it’s a little less outlandish than it may first seem: your subjective experience, right this very second, is too big to be captured in words alone. And I mean truly captured, every detail. Your posture. How hungry you are. Behaviors shaped from past experiences. The air temperature… and so on. To try to use language to express every detail of just your tiny little perspective in this huge universe for a single moment; how could we accurately describe something as big and small as reality itself?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.


The Tao is empty;
It is used, but never depleted.
Deep and unfathomable, it is the ancestor of
the ten thousand things!

Blunt points, unravel complications;
dim brightness, dissolve bonds.

How quiet and still the Tao is!
It could endure forever.

Who gave birth to it?
The Tao might be older than the gods.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 4 (translated by Legge/Davis)

First, let’s define a concept. “The ten thousand things” refers to all of the kinds of things; specifically tangible things. Trees, plates, houses, dogs, and so on. In my head, I like to imagine someone sitting down to make an exhaustive list of all kinds of things. They get maybe about one thousand in, and then realize how not-fun this project is so they just declare “yup, ten thousand! Everyone, I checked, and there are ten thousand things.” Because, who would dare try to prove them wrong?

high angle view of lying down on grass
Try to get into this headspace: no thoughts, only exist. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Turn your thinker off

This is one of those times where I need to remind you to not intellectualize this, at least not until you understand it. That’s what that section in the middle is talking about: just chill, don’t think about it too hard. Dull that point. Just listen to understand. Let go of what you think you know (temporarily) to be able to learn this lesson. Again, nothing wrong with having a keen intellect, it’s just that these concepts are too simple to approach in an intellectual way.

The Tao is, in a sense, the fundamental essence of reality. It is “the way things are.” It might be older than the gods, whom supposedly are eternal. For gods to exist, they had to exist in something. That something is probably the Tao.

To put it in a less metaphysical context: what came before the Big Bang? I think Lao Tzu would assert the Tao was probably there. I’m not claiming that the Tao a scientific concept. I mean that whatever it was, that the Tao probably contains/is that too. The Tao is a concept, and a thing, and and all things, and the thing that all things exist both within and without.

Qualified claims

You notice those qualifiers in the text? The Tao might be older than the gods. It could endure. We’ll see more things like this, and that bit of humility is a major feature of the Tao Te Ching. Because we’re attempting to describe reality, we need to think and speak clearly about the boundaries of our knowledge, and separate claims from observations. This also means that the Tao Te Ching is ready to embrace learning and new observations. We cannot expect or hope to shape the Tao in any way, it simply is. If tomorrow we figure out that all of reality is a hologram and we’re in a simulation; the Tao Te Ching, and every word in it, still makes sense and still applies. There is no theology or doctrine to upset. Instead, the Tao Te Ching is a guide to deal with the ever-changing present.

man people woman relaxation
A dramatic reenactment of me, trying to be present in the moment without changing how I think. (Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com)

Why embrace the Tao?

So, when people talk about embracing or studying the Tao, they’re practicing something pretty similar to radical acceptance. Studying reality as it truly is (as opposed to what we intellectualize about it) is a wildly grounding and centering experience.

I used to struggle with this idea a lot, acceptance, because it sounded like inaction. It took me a long time to realize that acceptance is not only useful for my emotional wellbeing, but also in figuring out how to solve problems. By first focusing on accepting the problem, I allowed myself to feel my feelings, while also increasing my understanding of the problem itself. Through understanding comes increased agency and power.

To put it crudely, embracing the Tao is sobering. I think more clearly, I am more connected to my emotions, and it’s hard to upset me.

With this new found sobriety and power, how do we know how to act? Well, I’m glad I asked because that is what the next chapter begins to address.

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