green grass

Tao Te Ching, ch 7: useful absence

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If emptiness is so useful, how far can we push that thought process? What other useful absences can we observe? This chapter is a bit perplexing but when we break it down, we can find some surprisingly simple ideas.

Heaven is eternal and so is earth.
The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure
is because they were not born
and can thus live forever.

Therefore, the master puts themself last,
and yet are found in the foremost places;
the master is detached,
and yet united with all things.

Because the master has no personal goals,
they are fulfilled completely.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 7; trans Legge/Davis

A side of cosmology

The cosmology (theory of existence) of the Tao Te Ching is rooted in the best knowledge available at the time: stuff always changes, but there’s always a planet, and there’s always a sky. Those things can be endlessly reconfigured, modified, or otherwise changed; but they do exist. For most intents and purposes, that’s functionally true: without those things, there’s no humans to wonder about it in the first place. (And if you’re willing to be even lightly interpretive; it’s reasonable to say that while our planet didn’t always exist as we recognize it now, its antecedents did. And those antecedents were contrasting elements as well. Space is mostly a void, and matter is mostly substantive.)

That’s a bit perplexing: literally everything changes all the time, but there’s always a planet and always the sky. What is the exception to this otherwise universal rule? They were not born, so they cannot die. All of their attributes can and do change, but they themselves endure. This is because they are a dichotomy: substance (earth) and void (heaven). And we quite literally live between the two, right on the cusp.

In other words: everything exists framed within a dichotomy. There is an absence of purity.

aerial photography of water beside forest during golden hour
Photo by Sindre Strøm on

Practical advice

Given that existing within dichotomies is a fundamental part of reality, how can an individual utilize this to navigate the world? And to what end?

The secret, as always, is to accept that everything contains both aspects of its dichotomies. And when we fully apply this logic, some counterintuitive results emerge.

Did you catch that?

First, let’s note something critical here: we are first told two examples of how the master behaves, then told the advice. Perhaps these examples are meant to pique our interest. At the very least, it’s poetic!

The true path to fulfillment

The advice itself is that the path to fulfillment is not hard work, money, connections, skill, education, or anything like that. The real path is to give up all your personal goals.

Hang on–don’t let cynicism set in. Keep all your passions, hobbies, joys, pains, and the rest. You only need to get rid of the goals. Don’t pick up a camera to take great pictures, pick up a camera to take pictures. Don’t do unpleasant things because you must, do them so they are done.

Goals are expectations of certain outcomes. And when we’re even the slightest bit realistic, it’s obvious that the amount of direct control we each have over our goals is almost zero. Or at least, that’s my experience. I can work towards and influence outcomes but I cannot control them. And oftentimes even if I get what I thought I wanted, I discover unforeseen problems. In other words, goals are a surefire way to be disappointed. So what happens if we jettison goals?

When applied, what might we observe?

Instead of trying to be first, you can just do your own thing. Wherever you land is where you are. When you’re focused on the task at hand, and living in the moment itself, you can make clear-minded decisions to the best of your ability. And ironically, because you are not thinking of a specific outcome, you are better at making decisions. No intention, just action.

And instead of trying to build connections with people, animals, plants, and the world as a whole; you can observe that all of these things are connected, so there’s nothing to force.

Pay attention to what’s around you. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Have a little faith in your ability to make good decisions in the moment. We all have our challenges, but on the whole we are all capable decision makers in the right context. The Tao Te Ching gives us tools to be in that “right context” more often.

woman sitting on wheelchair while touching her cat
Photo by Marcus Aurelius on

Next time

Chapter 8 goes further into the life advice, and takes a more philosophical/generalizable approach instead of piecemeal advice. It’s one of my favorite chapters! I’m excited to share it with you.

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