white paper cup on top of gray marble surface

Tao Te Ching, ch. 6: empty, always empty

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Last post, I wrote about straw dogs and bellows to discuss practicality and utility. This chapter is a bit more perplexing in its brevity as it discusses emptiness.

The spirit of emptiness cannot be exhausted.
It is the Great Mother,
Because it gives birth to Heaven and Earth.

It is difficult to see,
but it is always present.
Use it, it cannot be consumed.
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 6; trans. Legge / Davis

Remember that less is more

I think this chapter is an object lesson in the potency of emptiness: we’ve been told just enough to set us on a path to think about emptiness, and then intentionally set adrift. How do I know it’s intentional? Simple: none of the other chapters have been this short yet; and you’ll see as we go forward that this one is more or less uniquely short. I think the Tao Te Ching is written a bit like jazz: it’s sometimes more about what you don’t do than what you do.

The play-by-play

My commentary will be brief, too, in honor of the point of the chapter. You can’t exhaust emptiness, because there’s nothing to exhaust. You can’t make it more empty. And without emptiness (or nothingness, if you prefer) there can’t be somethingness. The absence of a thing is nothing, and the absence of nothing is a thing.

You may feel some tension between my assertions that 1) you can’t use up emptiness and 2) the absence of emptiness is a thing. Couldn’t you just fill up emptiness with stuff, and use it up that way? Not really, no. Emptiness is emptiness, it isn’t stuff. A cup’s empty part can be filled, but that is emptiness being displaced and moved, not destroyed. If I pour water into a glass from a pitcher, the displaced emptiness moved from the cup to the pitcher.

Using emptiness is difficult because it’s hard to appreciate and notice. It’s a lot easier to notice the addition of a new thing into your environment than to notice an absence. We are so keyed to noticing what’s around us (for good reason; see: attaining food, water, shelter, etc) that it’s difficult to notice the openings and gaps.

Something from nothing?

No, at least not literally. No one is out here creating matter or energy from a void. But let me tell you a story about a metaphorical box to demonstrate how to use emptiness.

Put me in a box!

One of the biggest challenges creative-types face in our respective work is emptiness. When the painter looks at a blank canvas, the question is “what do I do with this?” And the answer is, effectively, “Anything you want!” But let’s give them a starting point: they want to paint a portrait of their cat. This is a watershed moment of great potential, but no direction. This openness is not useful; it’s even stifling.

We must learn to use emptiness; and much like the emptiness of a cup is useful because it has boundaries, so too the painter will construct boundaries around this emptiness. They decide to use acrylic paints, and to work in a low-contrast, cool color palette. Why? Because it creates boundaries. Not every style or technique is suitable to these parameters.

Now that the artist has erected boundaries in this emptiness, they now have to make creative decisions: how to artistically portray their cat in acrylic with a low-contrast, cool color palette?

And just like that, our painter went from “I want to paint my cat but I have no ideas” to actively working on painting the cat. Such is the use of emptiness.

Heaven and Earth

As a final, parting note: don’t think too hard about “Heaven and Earth.” Lao Tzu was definitely not talking about anything similar to typical American theology. “Heaven and Earth” just means the ground we’re on, and the universe we’re in.

Until the eternal next time, spend some time with the void.

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