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.
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.
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.
Heaven and earth do not operate with any sort of benevolence; they deal with all things as straw dogs. The sages do not operate with any sort of benevolence; they deal with the people as straw dogs.
Perhaps the space between heaven and earth could be compared to a bellows?
Emptying the bellows does not exhaust its use; moving the bellows again will blow forth more air. But speaking too much can quickly lead to exhaustion; guard your energy to keep it free for more useful things.
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 5 (trans. Legge / Davis )
Addressing the straw dog in the room
This is a great example of why I read multiple translations. Legge refers to them as “dogs of grass” which is befuddling. LeGuin (and most others) refer to them as “straw dogs” or “strawdogs.” But some, like Mitchell, omit the idea all together. It’s a ~choice~ to be sure, but I think it’s justifiable in a sense. To explain that, I need to tell you what straw dogs are.
Straw dogs are bunches of straw (dried grass), twisted and formed into a dog-shaped figure. Some sources that I’ve seen on Google make it sound like it’s a small, hand-held figure. Others appear to be life-size, or maybe even enormous. Maybe there’s a variety of ways they’ve been made over the centuries, too.
But, surely Lao Tzu isn’t saying “make people feel special then thrown them away when you don’t need them”! A popular way to read this line is that the treatment of the straw dog isn’t based on any affection or despise. In other words, the egg shells in the trash can aren’t there because you hate them; they’re there because that’s where they go.
And this is why I can see where Mitchell is coming from: without the cultural knowledge of a straw dog, it’s hard to translate the sentence without digressing into a, well, a commentary like this. Still, I am unsure if Mitchell’s translation adequately captures the meaning with that omission. Turns out translating an old text from a different culture is pretty tough!
A practical guide to people
It’s no secret to say that people enjoy affection and kindness, and dislike anger and sadness. And, we already know that although affection and kindness are nice, they aren’t universally applicable. There are times where it is obviously inappropriate, but it can also be in a nuanced situation where you’re needing to set some important boundaries with a friend. So, how do you decide what to do the next time your friend comes around and starts talking about a traumatic experience of theirs that’s triggering for you?
Well, honestly, it’s hard to say because it depends on the specific context: does the friend need support right now? If so, it might make sense to accept the pain to try and help. The point is that we can’t hypothesize the exact conditions of every possible situation to answer what the correct action is, but what we can do is develop a useful way to think about these situations. So, a tool to use to find the right answer.
And that is to treat people like straw dogs: do not treat people according to your feelings about them, treat them according to what is appropriate in that moment. (Note: you are among the people you need to consider your actions towards!) Don’t lavish someone in praise because you like them, lavish them in praise because they did something praiseworthy. Don’t chase a fascist out of the bar because they make you angry, do it because they pose a material threat to vulnerable groups. And don’t use someone’s honest mistake to justify punishing them because you harbor a grudge.
Truth be told, there’s a decent chance that this won’t fundamentally change the the majority of decisions you make. You’re smart, you think about things beyond feelings. Even when we’re making emotional decisions, we still think about other stuff.
While the decisions you make may be similar, what happens following the decision will be different. For example: dispassionately giving your annoying coworker constructive, thoughtful, and kindly worded feedback; instead of the by-the-book, cold, corporatespeak. I don’t know about you, but those taste different in my mouth.
Of course, some times anger and perhaps even physical interventions are necessary. The Tao Te Ching doesn’t shy away from those, either. But it’s important to make those decisions with a clear mind, instead of in a moment of passion.
Yeah, but what if it was like a bellows?
We’re in that space between heaven and earth. And we see life around us in a perpetual state of simultaneous decay and renewal, and death begets more life. These bellows can just keep on going, possibly forever. Straw dogs or not, there’s an incredible number of people around you; and people constantly change and grow. Those bellows keep on churning.
But also shush
With these commentaries, I’m not taking this advice. Thinking about and talking about the Tao are ultimately distractions from the Tao. There’s really not much to be said, because it’s about a way to live and act. However, talking and thinking about a new idea are integral to the process of understanding it. Even more important to that process is knowing when it’s time to let go of thinking and talking.
Right now, we’re learning and reflecting. Some words and thinking are necessary. But we can’t hold onto them forever.
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?
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.
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.
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.
We all are trapped in our ideologies, at least to an extent. But we can, at least, put in a good faith effort to be aware of when we’re speaking from reality or ideology. Even if we can only figure it out 5% of the time, the cumulative effect of a 5% cultural shift would be tidal.
Where Legge goes wrong, and you can go right
It may seem like an innocent error, but his translation of the first line of this chapter demonstrates his limited understanding of the ideas in the text.
The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel
– Legge’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, chapter 4
This line is reasonable as a simile, but it’s missing the point: the Tao is not like the emptiness of a vessel. It is not a simile or metaphor, the Tao is the emptiness of a vessel. This matters because the Tao is all things, including the absence of things. This is because the thing and the void it creates are inseparable.
Remember, Lao Tzu has a sense of humor! After explaining the Tao is all things, he’s expanding our understanding by pointedly stating that the Tao is also no-things. A void is defined/created by the absence of matter, and matter is defined/created by the absence of a void.
A lump of ceramic without a void cannot be a mug, and neither can a void without boundaries. There is a reciprocity in everything. The Tao is this, this is the Tao.
The path forward
I want you to work towards not intellectualizing these concepts. I know it’s so tempting. Do think about them, please. And maybe an intellectual approach is part of your process toward not intellectualizing, that’s ok too. The Tao Te Ching’s difficulty comes from its simplicity. Challenge its claims, test them in your life, and figure out what it means to you. Do all of these things. Just don’t get stuck in intellectualizations. Take Lao Tzu to mean what he says. He’s playful and silly, but never insincere.
In no time at all, you’ll be deeper in your understanding than Legge!
Ihaven’t shown you Legge’s unadulterated translation yet, and for good reason. But maybe I could be more transparent about my process. And in doing so, demonstrate why you can’t just trust one translation.
Here is Legge’s original translation, without any influence from me:
Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.
Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.
He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.
Maybe I have a bad brain, but I cannot make any sense of that. Anyway, let me show you my massaged translation plus further explanation of what I’m doing and how.
Chapter 3: duality in governance
Do not hold the wealthy and famous in esteem, and the people will not form rivalries among themselves;
Do not horde riches and treasure, and the people will not become thieves.
Do not flaunt wealth and desire, and the people will be clear-headed.
The Master leads by emptying their minds, filling their core, weakening their ambitions, and strengthening their resolve.
The Master tirelessly helps people forget what they know and let go of their desires; and confuses those that presume they are intelligent
Practice not-doing, and everything gets done.
– Lao Tzu, Chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching (translated by Legge/Davis)
There! Hopefully that’s more comprehensible. Before we get to the commentary, let me explain my translation methods. I don’t read Ancient Chinese, so I’m definitely not going back to the original source material. Instead, I am using a collection of existing translations to observe the myriad of ways a given stanza/line/word is translated to find better ways to phrase it. I personally hold Mitchell and Le Guin’s translations in high regard, but I’m typically working with about 5 or so different translations.
My goal is not literal accuracy to the original script (like Legge, though he failed in his goal), it is to capture the ideas in a way that so-called “Western” people alive today could hope to make some sense of it.
Opposites create each other
Just as we saw in chapter 2, opposing concepts literally create each other. They are interdependent. And so, much in the same way that it works in your personal life, so too these concepts can be applied to governance. This is general leadership advice, too, and not just for heads of state. As leaders in our own domains of life, we have important choices to make. Typically; we are taught to hold the powerful in esteem.
How to make thieves
At any given moment, there are leagues of people on social media lauding the likes of Elon Musk (of the apartheid emerald mine, knocking up his own step-daughter Musks) for being extremely wealthy. I suppose they think of their veneration as a type of prayer, hoping that they too will be rewarded with fame and riches. And the societal emphasis on material gain only encourages this kind of behavior. I think Lao Tzu was probably talking about petty crime when he mentioned thieves, but the same applies to the mega-rich. There is no such thing as a “good” billionaire, because they made their money by exploiting other peoples’ labor. They stole their wealth from the people that did the work. Jeff Bezos himself acknowledged it after he drifted weightless of a minute. In other words, they’re thieves.
And so many people, in chasing this illusion of wealth and fame, dedicate their lives to the hustle, the accumulation of wealth and material pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy material pleasures, too! There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in life. But it’s very easy for this to become an obsession, because that is what we are encouraged to do from every angle. The “American Dream” is material gain. Wealth. Fame.
Have you ever met a famous or wealthy person that has a better life because of their wealth and fame? Of course, those without resources need resources to have a chance at health and happiness. I’m talking about excess compared to enough.
You ever look at those fawning pseudo-news articles about the habits/routines of wealthy and famous people? They dedicate a large portion of their days to trying to feel ok. They do intense workouts, strict diets, expensive massages, and so on, for hours a day. I don’t think they’d do all that work if they were actually happy from their excessive wealth and power. What would *you* do if you had all the money in the world? I like to think I’d sit on a beach, and I have noticed that none of the mega-rich seem to be able to do that. Funny thing is, that you don’t have to have any money to sit on a beach in the first place.
Back to leadership: as leaders, we must discourage this kind of thinking. We can’t, and don’t want to, control other people. But when we make decisions, those decisions have implications. Do you praise your eldest child’s achievements in baseball, or do you praise your eldest child for their dedication and focus? Which is a more important life lesson: being a second base player, or learning how to apply yourself to mastering a skill? Because what you praise is what you will enforce, and encourage others to pursue.
What about this metaphysical stuff about filling cores?
Nothing metaphysical happening here, it’s metaphorical. So, typically that line is translated as filling “bellies,” which is both literal and metaphorical. Mitchell goes with “cores” here, and I like that one more because it invites you to contemplate the metaphor instead of risking someone only reading it literally.
Showing off wealth and fame is pointless when people go hungry. Not only is it pointless, but it makes people agitated. I don’t know if I need to convince you of this point, given the state of inequality in contemporary America.
But filling the core goes beyond a good meal, it is also emotional and spiritual fulfillment. There is no end to learning, knowing, thinking, or yearning; so trying to fulfill people this way is going to be unsuccessful. Let them navigate that on their own, when possible, and instead focus on their wellbeing.
Is Taoism anti-intellectual?
We’ll see this come up several times: Lao Tzu seemingly disparaging intellect and intelligence. I don’t understand him to be speaking out against intelligence itself, but the value we place upon it. This is both at the personal and societal level.
Intelligence, when practical, is useful and important. But an over-reliance on intelligence is the path to misery. So continue to learn and grow, but not out of lust of knowledge but because it serves a purpose. Intellect unto is useless until it’s tied to action.
Intelligence is a myth
To make matters worse, it’s seemingly impossible to define human intelligence. Any and all IQ-type tests only reveal how well the person takes the test, and those tests are written by people in a particular place with particular values and standards. The tools to measure “intelligence” mimic the societal values of the people that made it.
Let me put it to you this way, using an intentionally gross example: based on IQ tests, I am in one of those upper percentiles. I have a masters’ degree, and I’m about to finish my PhD. The point is that I have a collection indicators, based on our societies’ standards, of “intelligence.” On the flip side, consider someone that failed out of high school and has a below-average IQ. They work with their hands, repairing cars. They lack societal standards of intelligence.
Both of us can function in day-to-day life. Both of us share the same depth of emotion and profundity of experience. We both have passions, and derive meaning from connecting with and helping those around us. It’s pretty hard to find a difference so far, isn’t it?
Your car breaks down, though. It’s not as simple as a flat tire, dead battery, blown fuse, or any of the myriad of simple fixes. It’s a problem with your transmission. Even if you put me in the same shop with the other guy so we had access to the same tools, one of us is going to fix your car and the other is going to ruin it. That’s because I don’t know shit about fixing a transmission, engineering, maintenance, or how to use those tools. Hell, I’d probably sooner injure myself than fix the car.
You get my point, yes? Intelligence is too slippery to base your life or society on it.
What about “intellect”?
Thinking, thinking, thinking. So much thinking. Thinking about what is, what is not, what could be, what was, and so on. Every time we think, we imbue ourself onto the situation. Of course we do! It’s our experience, after all. Thinking–intellectualizing–has its place, but we live in the real world, not the world of ideas. It’s terribly easy to get lost in the intellectual world. It’s normal, too. Imagining the future is important. But often times we emotionally react to our imagination of how the future might be. And even worse, we map our imagined of future onto the present. Even if what we imagined comes to pass, we are not experiencing it in the present. And, we risk mistaking our imagined future with the real present. But more on that later…
If the first chapter is the preface and summation of Taoism, then this chapter is perhaps the most important introduction to Taoist theory in a way that is a bit more appreciable to newcomers.
People have an idea of beauty, which in turn creates ugliness; people have an idea of goodness, which in turn creates evilness.
In the same way, existence and non-existence create each other; Difficulty and ease are related in the same way; And so too are long and short; High and low. Individual notes have no meaning by themselves but are harmonious in relation to each other; and before and after only exist together.
The Master completes tasks without doing anything, and teaches without talking.
The world is full of life, events, and things; But the Master claims no ownership yet has everything; They do their work with no expectations of reward. And when the work is done, they let it go.
This is what makes accomplishments eternal.
There’s a lot to say here. Lao Tzu bats us back and forth like a cat playing with a toy. The front half over-explains examples of mutually-arising phenomena, then pivots into something that sounds impossible: working without doing? No ownership but “having” everything? Moving on from the work you did makes for an eternal accomplishment? We’ll get through this!
The Master is you
The “Master” (others have translated it as “Sage” or even just “Wise one”) may sound special or even maybe a little mystical. Who is this Master? What makes them special?
When Lao Tzu is talking about the “Master,” he’s talking about someone who has fully incorporated Taoist philosophy as a way of life and seeing the world. Anyone can be a Master. I think we’re used to hearing terms like “Master” applied to studied, hard-worn old men. Someone with the years of experience to become a “Master.” But that’s not true: mastering Taoism is simple, and living it even more so. The hard part is ejecting all of the attempts to intellectualize these concepts.
Rigidity of thought
I’m an American, and a scientist to boot. I am rewarded at every turn to endlessly intellectualize things, make them abstract and universal. These skills have their place, but it is not so useful as a way of life because not everything can be solved by intellectualization.
There is no formula or debate that will solve the climate crisis. There is no statistical model that will dismantle racism. No PowerPoint presentation, regardless of the number of snazzy transitions between slides, will overthrow the chains of capitalism. That’s not to say that intellect has no role in solving the world’s problems, but it is simply one tool among many. It is important to know which tool to use for which task and when.
People prone to intellectualization (or any one tool), such as myself, tend to have a hard time wielding other tools. This can get to the point where intellect may seem like the only tool. The same could be said of spirituality, feelings, or any other ways of thinking. Humans are relatively simple, in that once we find a successful tool/tactic/approach, we tend to prefer to use it every time. It is energy efficient, or at least it seems that way.
But sometimes we expend so much energy trying to make the circumstances fit our tools that we end up working not only harder, but in vain. It’s far easier to have a dreary 3-hour meeting every month about solving homelessness in our community than actually addressing homelessness. The meetings will go on forever, but are easy. Actually solving the problem is hard, but once it’s done it is done.
What we consider to be beautiful is subjective. Take a look around you, think about the art you see and the music you hear. Look at people on a date in a fancy restaurant. Look at people on a date at a goth bar. There is no one definitive notion of beauty. In fact, I may find something beautiful and you find it ugly. As such, ugliness is subjective.
But not only are these concepts subjective, but they are also describing a relationship and only exist together. If you could only eat your favorite dish from now until forever, how long do you think you would describe each meal as delicious? Perhaps for a while at first! But then you’d probably get bored with it, and maybe even hate it. More time passes, and you learn to accept that every meal you eat is identical. It becomes neither delicious, nor worthy of scorn. It simply is.
When there is no variation from the established norm, there is no concept of better or worse. How could things be better or worse when they’re all the same?
And so food is delicious or disgusting in relation to the norm. The same for beauty, length, height, and the rest. I think this is fairly intuitive and part of our cultural consciousness. But Lao Tzu pushes us to think beyond that, and consider the implications.
A different approach
What the Master does sounds like magic, in a way. Completing tasks without doing work? It’s a sudden shift in focus, but this flows from discussions of mutually-arising phenomena; and our first glimpse of Lao Tzu’s wry sense of humor.
It’s not that “completing tasks without doing anything” is supposed to make sense. It’s a puzzle! Part of the value of presenting it as a puzzle is that when you solve it, it is more personal than simply being told. In a sense, I am doing you a disservice by sharing this commentary. But also know that this is my commentary. You will develop your own relationship to the text, and very likely form different opinions than I present here.
Anyway. Like I said last time: there are no contradictory statements in the Tao Te Ching. Statements appear contradictory because of our perspective and understanding, not because they actually are irreconcilable. Let’s recall that the first half of this chapter is all about how comparing things creates distinctions between them; and also that for every good comparison (“beautiful”), a negative one also arises (“ugly”). It is not simply a matter of finding “good” chores, because everything contains both good and bad.
Instead, stop appraising your tasks and just do them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like going to the grocery store if there’s nothing to eat for dinner; what matters is that you get something to eat. Do not intellectualize your enjoyable tasks because you will look forward to them and grieve when they are over. Instead, work when you need to work and eat when you need to eat. Play when you need to play, and sleep when you need to sleep.
In the end, the results are exactly the same, but the first scenario has all sorts of suffering associated with it. Much of suffering, perhaps all suffering, ultimately stems from a refusal to accept reality as it is.
This doesn’t solve all problems
That is not to say that with the right perspective, a broken arm is painless. Of course not. But by accepting a broken arm, there is no need to grieve the social function you’ll miss while recovering, or how hard it will be to get around with a cast on, and so forth. These things will happen regardless of your opinion of them; they occur because of the material conditions of the present. They simply are, and you can’t change the present, only how you react to it. Or, more specifically, how to not react to it.
Being in the present, without appraising reality but living in it, means we can focus on what is important. It doesn’t matter if I love hammers and hate saws, what matters is that I need a screwdriver to get this particular job done. And when it’s done, just the like the process of doing the job itself, I stay focused on what I am doing in the present. Having completed my task, I simply move on.
Taoism as a coping mechanism
None of us can hope to live in a world free of suffering, pain, or disappointment. That’s not me being a pessimist; it’s a prediction based on the whole weight of human experience. And as Lao Tzu notes in the first half of the chapter, the only way to shield yourself from ugliness is to also shield yourself from beauty. That sounds miserable to me. Could you imagine?
Instead of attempting to deny ourselves joy as part of an effort to minimize suffering, what if we learn skills to accept and cope with suffering?
It’s sort of an inversion of stoicism: the stoics of antiquity believed that they best way to deal with the bad parts of life was to simply ignore them. They practiced increased rigidity in the face of difficulty. There is some logic to this, too. Rigidity, as a property of a thing, helps maintain its form in the face out outside forces. I can’t bend a rock, for example.
But there is a limit to the benefits of rigidity: when a stone is flexed it does not bend, but it will break. And when it breaks, it shatters in a spectacular fashion as it releases all of the kinetic force at once.
Taoism, instead, posits that maximum flexibility is the better path. It means giving up a rigid form to become unfazed by external forces.
Ok, now I’m getting ahead of myself. Stick with this, because it only keeps getting more interesting!
Hi. In this post, I’ll share the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, and offer a commentary on it. Over time, I intend to post all 81 chapters. My goal is to help other people try to make sense of a text that can seem cryptic at times but with the right perspective, it starts to unfold and become perfectly comprehensible.
Because of copyright concerns, I’ll be sharing chapters from my least favorite translation, Legge (1868). However, I will re-interpret Legge’s stodgy and dubious translations as needed.
I think of this chapter as a sort of preface for the whole text. Making sense of it is crucial to understanding the rest of the text, though we can’t expect ourselves to understand it on our first read. Between the radically different cultural contexts between us and the text, but also its radical ideas.
As Le Guin notes in her superb version of the Tao Te Ching, this chapter defies adequate translation because the whole book is in this one chapter. So it is both preface and summation, all at once. If it overwhelms you, that’s ok.
The tao (way/path) that can be followed is not the enduring and unchanging Way. The tao (name) that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging Name.
Reality is unnamed, and consistent. Names create differentiation, inconsistency.
The dispassionate person sees wonder and consistency. The seeking person sees differentiation, inconsistency.
Whether seen through dispassionate or seeking eyes, The wonder of the universe is present. This is the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the most profound is the gateway to all that is subtle and wonderful
“Tao” is a difficult word to translate because it carries so many meanings and implications. I believe it was Alan Watts that said that “Tao” essentially means “the way things are.” It is a term to describe reality, reality as it actually is without our intellectualizations and differentiations.
As humans, we can never be without out intellect. Similarly, our minds are designed to seek differentiations, patterns, and perceptual boundaries. We can never hope to stop these process, nor should we even try. If we succeeded, we would cease to be human. There is nothing wrong with being human!
What Lao Tzu tasks us with, then, is to understand the difference between what is and what we think is. But the first lines are a clear proclamation: we will fail to see things as they really are, even if we devote our entire lives to this goal. This is because we are humans, bounded by our limitations and our language. But in working towards this goal, we will be closer to experiencing reality and thus better equipped to experience it and accept it.
Reality, actual reality (the Tao), is ineffable. Describing the ineffable reality in words is impossible because living in reality is an experience, not a topic of discussion. It also serves as a warning: this book contains no answers because the book only has words at its disposal to communicate these ideas. But through these 81 chapters, taken together, we can begin to peel away some of the layers.
Think of it this way: can you, in words alone, describe a color in such a way that accurately captures the exact hue? Of course not. One might get close through specific shades (“goldenrod”), but even within that is endless variation. The name of the color that can be named is not a substitute for the color itself.
In this opening chapter, Lao Tzu invites us to explore and live in the wonderful mystery that is reality because it is present whether we admire it or not. If we can learn to live in reality, we can learn to cope with difficulties with far greater ease. Ultimately, we will lead happier lives; aware of the wonderful, consistent, ever-changing, ever-flowing experience that is living in reality.
This is a playful, silly book. Lao Tzu had quite the sense of humor. It’s also a very literal book, but it takes some effort to understand how Lao Tzu is speaking to see the bluntness of it. In fact, that’s sort of the whole thing: the concepts are so painfully simple that most of the effort is placed in learning to see the simplicity of them, free from intellectualizations.
There’s no magic, no mysticism, and nothing supernatural. It is a philosophy of reality and existence, not ideas or fantasy. As such, it doesn’t matter what your religious convictions are because they are irrelevant to Taoism. Taoism has something for everyone to share in, freely.
It can be a confusing text because it seems to go all over the place, and maybe even make contrary statements. So let me posit this: there are no contradictory statements in this text; the contradictions exist in our ideas. If you feel a contradiction, it represents a challenge to make sense of it.
But we’ll work on this together, and over time we’ll figure it out.
Above, in this the ~15 second TikTok, famed movie and TV director David Lynch kinda sums up the whole philosophy of Taoism. No really, I’m being serious! I don’t know if he intended to do that–I don’t know the context of the video any more than what’s presented above. But he did it!
Ok, let me back up a bit. I’ve put the punchline before the horse or something. In 571 BCE, Lao Tzu (if he existed at all) was born. He never ran a school, but he had many students. As the story goes, after working as a librarian/scribe for the local feudal lord for a while, he got fed up and decided to head to the untamed wilds to the west. On his way out of town, as he was riding a water buffalo, a guard stopped him and asked that Lao Tzu write down his teachings, to preserve them. He did, and that text has more or less survived since then. I think he probably got off the water buffalo to write them down.
What he wrote is often referred to as the “Tao Te Ching,” and is the founding text of Taoist philosophy. A lot of other writings have expanded on (and at times, perverted) the ideas presented in the Tao Te Ching. To make matters more confusing, over time Taoism evolved into a religion despite Lao Tzu and and the few other foundational Taoist texts’ clear hostility towards religion.
When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend upon authority.
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 72
This isn’t unique to Taoism, of course. The teachings of Jesus barely resemble Christianity, for example. It’s hard to imagine Jesus walking by a megachurch and thinking “nice!” or spotting a cop with a cross hanging around his neck and thinking “now you’re getting it!”
When I tell people about my interest in Taoism, I tell them I’m interested in the philosophy and not the religion. It feels like an important distinction to make, because I think most people in America have a very specific idea of what “religion” is, and nothing in the Tao Te Ching or so-called primordial Taoism resembles religion.
Recently, I learned that contemporary scholarship claims that there is no difference between the philosophy and the religion, in terms of how Taoism is practiced both presently and historically. This made me uncomfortable. Save a few minutes where I renounced my strictly materialist views to try and please a suitor (a true low for me), I have never prescribed to religious or spiritualist thinking.
The good news is that my definition of religion was wrong, and highly based on my understanding of religion in America, Europe, and the Middle East. Turns out the concept is bigger than what goes on in my tiny corner of reality. Who would have thought! Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
Primordial Taoism has beliefs, texts, and ethics that relate humanity to spiritual elements. I don’t know if that’s enough to call it a religion, but I don’t think I really care anymore if it is or isn’t. I still say that I’m interested in the philosophy because I think most people I interact with have the same limited understanding of what “religion” means.
The elements I’m considering as spiritual probably aren’t even actually spiritual, because there’s no god or supernatural force that humans are trying to emulate. But it does point to something greater: the whole of existence. As a Taoist, I am encouraged to seek truth in all things, a truth deeper than the surface. Taoism contains few, if any, answers. Instead it is a framework that you are entrusted with.
That’s probably enough of history and dithering about labels for now. Let’s get to the substance of the matter, eh? From here on out, when I say “Taoism,” I’m referring to primordial Taoism. I don’t know anything about Taoist rituals, alchemy or longevity; all that stuff came later and is clearly at odds with the original texts.
Taoism is a fundamentally materialist philosophy. It’s hard to summarize it in any meaningful way, since the Tao Te Ching is only 81 short poems (or at least poetic prose), each often only a couple of stanzas. You can read it in an hour, and ponder over it forever. So instead of summarizing, I’m going to highlight a few points that are key to me. When you read the Tao Te Ching, you might latch onto something else.
Key point #1: Taoism is an early example of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. More specifically, Taoism serves as a reminder that the signs and symbols that we prescribe to the world are not real. Look at the picture below. What’s in the center of the frame?
If you said “a tree,” that’s very good! If you said “an orange-brown pixel,” then you’re pedantic. But, consider this: there is no such thing as a tree. I’m not being metaphysical or playing a shell game here. You swing an axe in that direction and you’ll hit it. What Taoism says, though, is that “tree” is a label that we affix to part of reality. We’re taught in school that a tree consists of roots, a trunk, branches, leaves, bark and so on. Cognitively and linguistically, we separate “tree” from its environment, and time. The tree pictured above is different now than when that picture was taken. It might even be dead or chopped down. You know that saying about how you can’t step in the same river twice? That’s Lao Tzu. And it’s not only that the river has changed, but so have you. Nothing is static; the only constant is change.
But there’s a problem with this label: can a tree exist without its environment? If we plucked a tree from the ground and placed it in an empty void, it would promptly die. And more importantly, trees don’t spontaneously pop into existence. They grow in an environment. They grow from seeds, in soil with nutrients, water, sunlight, time, and so many other factors.
It is our convention to differentiate “tree” from “not tree.” We choose where to draw the boundaries. But, sadly, reality does not conform to our cognition. A tree is the result of so many interconnected systems and circumstances; it cannot exist without them. The label we affix to this interwoven and temporally sensitive event-object is useful, helpful, and even necessary to navigate the world. But that doesn’t make it true.
In short, Taoism tasks us to not confuse the sign for what it signifies. A tree is not really a tree. Everything on earth, and the universe, is literally interconnected and interdependent. We choose where to draw boundaries, but that doesn’t make those boundaries real.
Now, don’t get me wrong; there’s no moralizing going on. You aren’t a bad person if you look at a tree and think “hm, yes, a tree.” The reason it’s important to think about this stuff is because often times, and arguably always, the root of our suffering is in confusing our ideas with reality. There’s a lot to say about that, which I’ll explore in later posts.
Key point #2: Wei wu wei. That’s the romanization of the original Chinese. A lot of times, it’s rendered that way because it’s an incredibly tricky concept to translate, especially across temporal and cultural gulfs. I’ll riff on a few different ways to translate it.
“Do not doing” is perhaps the most literal way to translate it. I think you can see the problem. Rendered that way, it’s cryptic as hell. Am I supposed to not do anything? If so: nice, because there are some dishes in the sink I’d love to be philosophically opposed to scrubbing. Sadly, Lao Tzu won’t help me get out of chores (except he totally does, but not how you’d expect–more on that later).
“Action through inaction” starts to maybe sound like something, but again we’re told seemingly conflicting things. Throw a ball without throwing it? Huh? How can an action occur by not acting? Is everything the result of happenstance? I think Lao Tzu would say yes, but that’s missing some crucial conceptual framework. Taoism isn’t a tool to excuse the horribleness of the world, or just sitting around hoping things turn out ok.
Here’s how I’ve come to understand it: “go with the flow.” “Doing” carries a lot of semantic weight. When I do something, like vigorously scrubbing the remnants of homemade pizza sauce from a supposedly non-stick pan, there is intention there. I’m imposing my will on myself and my environment. If I can instead act without doing, then it’s a lot easier to act. Still kind of confusing, huh? But surely you’ve experienced wei wu wei before!
Have you ever gotten so focused on the task at hand that you lose sense of time and self? You’re so focused on what you’re doing, that when you look at the clock, you are surprised by what it says? That’s wei wu wei! That’s acting without intention. Water flows downhill. That’s what it does. Lao Tzu wants us to spend less time acting and more time doing. Less time dreading doing the dishes and instead just do the damned dishes. And when they’re done, stop doing them and stop thinking about it. Don’t plan the future in excruciating detail, don’t dwell on the past. Live where you are, the only place you can be, the present!
Speaking of, I’ll be right back.
Ok, where were we? Ah yes. Don’t fret about what you need to do, just do it. Trust yourself, trust that you’re capable, trust that you’ll recognize when you aren’t, and trust that you’ll make good decisions in the moment. Stay in the moment! There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.
Key point #3: Radical acceptance. My hopes, dreams, wishes, gripes, desires, and so on, are mine to cope with. They might play out the way I want, or they might not. Often times, I don’t have control over the determining factors. What if, when I set a goal, I focus on accepting how it turns out, regardless if it’s something I want or not?
I was in the best shape of my life going into the COVID pandemic. I felt great. Now that we’re on year 2 (or is it 300?) of the pandemic with no end in sight, I am not. In the past, I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment about my physique (thanks, dad!), even though it was always totally fine. Right now, I’m farther from the physique I want than I’ve been in over a decade, but it barely causes me any suffering. Why?
Because I can’t control all the circumstances that lead to this. And it is the way it is, regardless of how I feel about it. My suffering was not from my physique, it was from my idea of how my physique should be.
And isn’t that a bit presumptuous? “Should be” according to whom? My father, I suppose, along with cultural messaging about ideal physiques and so on. But, ok go with me on this one: fuck all that nonsense.
Worrying about my physique has only ever made it harder to do something about it. Too much wei, not enough wu wei. By accepting my current reality, and not placing morals or values upon it, I can act with a clearer mind. I know what I need to do, so I don’t need to think or plan about it, only do it. Along the way, I’ll stumble and that’s ok. Circumstances will change along the way, too, and that’s ok. Whatever happens, if I focus myself on accepting it then I am empowered to make useful choices in that moment that are unclouded by my expectations. If I stay in the planning, worrying, judging mindset, it’s a lot harder to accept changes. And here’s the thing: everything, including me, is constantly and always changing. Literally. So how can I make an ironclad plan, or expect a certain outcome? I can’t predict the future.
Key point #4: Let’s bring it back around to water. Water is one of the primary metaphors of Taoism. Water is amazing, David Lynch! But why? Water is perfectly yielding, meaning it simply takes the shape of its surroundings. I can break a stick or splinter a rock. I can’t really do anything similar to water, because it doesn’t resist my actions at all. And yet despite being totally yielding, water is incredibly powerful; even aside from the whole “sustaining life as we know it” part. Water carved the Grand Canyon. No intention, just action.
Being soft and yielding is an important concept of Taoism. Rigid things, when placed under stress, break. You can’t un-break a stick, but if you forcibly separate a body of water, it will return to its original form without any damage done. This is why water is the ideal. There’s no expectation to ever achieve that ideal–we’re only 70% water, so how could we be exactly like water? Also, it’s only a metaphor.
The more flexible something is, the harder it is to break. If I am a rigid person, outside forces can and will break me. Maybe not irreparably, but certainly in the moment. If I build up my hopes to get a certain job, when I get that insultingly impersonal copy and pasted email saying “while we were impressed by your credentials…”, it can hurt a lot. If I free myself of the rigidity of expectation, I become impossible to break. If I accept that I did what I had domain over: wrote my resume, applied to the job, and interviewed well; then I have already done all I can. The rest is out of my control, so why suffer for it? By accepting reality as much as I can, I minimize my suffering and start going with the flow.
All of what you’ve read above is me pointing at the moon. By that, I mean I used words, symbols, and ideas to indicate something real and true. But none of what I’ve said or even can say will contain the truth. A picture of the moon is not the moon, but it points to it. It gives you some idea of the moon. Lao Tzu said that the Tao that can be named is not the Tao. Nothing anyone has ever written, or likely ever will write, will accurately capture the concept. How can our communication–an expression of our limited ability to perceive and make sense of reality–ever truly express something actually real?
Eagle-eyed readers will note that I have not attempted to define Tao yet, so I’ll give you this as a parting thought: Tao simply means “the way things are.” Taoism is about grounding yourself more firmly in reality, and appreciating that our language, concepts, and society and so on are all important and useful things, but they are ultimately predicated on our limited and painfully human perceptual and cognitive abilities. If we aren’t careful, we’ll start thinking trees exist because we have named them as such, and not the other way around.
I think he was talking about something else when he said this, but I’ll close with a Frank Zappa lyric that fits nicely.