All right, so that is a little joke in the headline, yes? Need I explain it? The ancient Chinese text emphasizing peace, stillness, patience, emptying the Self, the unity of opposites, being rather than doing, or at least being completely there in the doing? Squeezing that into one’s week?
Funny, maybe a little bit? Tiny smile?
I laugh in order not to cry. Or rage.
Dear Tao, help me in my laughter.
It is the tail end of a week that has seen renewedly breathtaking revelations of an ex-president’s overt and relentless attempt at a coup, followed by rapid-fire Supreme Court decisions that on successive days 1) declared open season on gun violence victims by approving open carry across all 50 states of our union, and 2) ruled on a case that will amount to the outlawing of all abortions in probably half the United States almost immediately.
The devastating symbolism of the court’s one-two punch: force women to bring every last zygote fully to term—so they can send them off to school years later as fresh slaughter for an armed-to-the-teeth citizenry.
And now it is on to 2024, when there is a good chance the Republican Party will seize control of both the presidency and Congress and waste not one minute in proposing to outlaw abortion nationwide.
So, what happens if the Democratic Party resorts to filibustering that bill? None other than Senator Mitch McConnell will lead the charge to overturn the filibuster.
You read it here first.
The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.
The “Tao Te Ching” was written some 2,500 years ago as a series of 81 aphoristic pronouncements, usually falling between 5-15 lines each. It set out to guide readers in solving the basic riddle of existence: What are we to do, and how are we to do it?
Those foundational questions had long been at the core of Taoism as a religious and philosophical system, which predated the “Tao Te Ching” by a few hundred years and has served millions of adherents ever since.
In a powerful sense, the Tao offers guidance on how one fights for the good, whomever the opponent is and whatever venue the fight takes place in.
China remains its epicenter, but Taoism claims followers around the world, and Taoist principles have long infiltrated the spiritual conversation and practices across a broad swath of American life. (Titles ranging from “The Tao of Physics” to “The Tao of Pooh” illustrate as much.)
The “Tao Te Ching” (roughly meaning “The Way of Integrity”) itself is generally attributed to a sage named Lao-Tsu, whose historical existence has always been a subject of debate.
Rather like the Bible, it has been translated innumerable times and is very possibly a compendium of multiple authors of the time and the subsequent translators at whose mercy every ancient author toiled.
Like most all Eastern religions, Taoism deep-dives and delights in contradiction and reconciliation, followed by yet more contradiction that calls the previous reconciliation into question. All in the service of encouraging an awakening that leads one ever back to a life of simplicity, personal humility, kindness, and openness to the flux of existence.
“Don’t push the river—it flows by itself.” That’s about as Taoist a line as you’ll ever find. And that river, flowing endlessly through time, being itself and nothing more, is as good a definition of the “eternal Tao” as there is.
As for the reconciling of opposites (the “yin and yang”) that is a major goal of Taoism, it is hard-won, rarely landing students anywhere near whatever expectations they may have had.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
Note that darkness within darkness doesn’t lead one to the light—at least not right away. It gets one only to the gate of mystery.
“Abide there,” the Tao suggests. “Cool your heels awhile. Check out the view. Be still.” (That’s from the Andrew Hidas translation, 2022…)
And it is the stillness, the observation, the examination and acceptance of all that is as the Tao works itself out through eternity, that ultimately leads one to the clear thought and whatever clear action emerges from it.
At first glance, the peace-and-patience ethos of the “Tao Te Ching” might appear to be too passive for social/political activism. So much for first glances.
In truth, the Tao is not about passivity, but about right action that may well involve inaction, and springs from clarity of mind. That clarity comes only from seeing things as they are, uncluttered by passions that becloud rather than reveal, muddle rather than inform:
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
In a powerful sense, the “Tao Te Ching” offers guidance on how one fights for the good, whomever the opponent is and whatever venue the fight takes place in.
Rather than aggressively going after an opponent, a follower of the Tao simply waits for them (whether the opponent is within one’s own self, or external) to tip their hand, lose their clarity of mind and become reckless and unbalanced. Then, as in the martial arts that are also deeply rooted in Eastern wisdom, it’s simply a matter of letting them fall:
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.
So: what relevance might this have for the state of things in 2022, in a nation with civil war drums seeming to gain volume daily, a minority party nationally headed to an almost certain electoral triumph later this year, and a Supreme Court hand-picked and jammed into place based on ruthless and amoral political maneuverings, and whose views on many key issues are demonstrably out of step with the majority of the population whose welfare and rights it is supposed to watchdog?
For one thing, it suggests playing the long game—just as the currently triumphant autocratic wing of the Republican Party, rife with Second Amendment fetishists, anti-abortion activists and 2020 election deniers, has been doing so successfully in recent decades.
By now, it’s hard to imagine that they have not overshot, that policies so clearly out of step with the majority of U.S. public opinion will not come back to haunt them in the future.
In my orbit, women in particular are sounding the most grievous lamentations about the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, which has opened the floodgates for individual states—all dominated by white male legislators—to dig the knife in ever deeper with abortion restrictions that don’t even grant exceptions for rape or incest.
It takes no great imagination to conjure 12- and 13-year-old girls raped by a father, a neighbor, an uncle, a minister, forced to carry and birth the baby that results. This will happen as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, and the consequences for those children and families will be too harrowing and long-lasting for words.
Understandably enough, much of the response to this has been rage. Some energetic venting is no doubt unavoidable and even necessary in the short term, but soon it will be time to get strategic, still—and busy.
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Given the state of the economy on which so much electoral sentiment hinges, the fall of the radical right’s agenda may not happen in this next election or the one thereafter. But ultimately, the Tao suggests that the mendacity running through the gun-toting, freedom-denying, radicalized elements of what is still a minority party will serve to undermine it.
Why? Because if the Tao stands for anything, it is that nothing based in anger, rage, grasping and constriction can long survive its own boil. Self-immolation is all part of the eternal flux, the heave and ho, the karmic circle that draws clarity and equilibrium back to itself—in due time.
It’s understandable if that currently strikes many readers as wishful thinking. I have my own doubts and periods of despair.
But I well remember the disconsolation in California following the failure there of Proposition 8, the same sex marriage initiative, in 2008. If such a basic right could not win there, in the bluest bastion of blue state politics, then…
A mere seven years later, on the heels of a notable public shift nationwide toward approval or at least benign uncaring on the issue of gay marriage, the Supreme Court made it the law of the land.
Are we in danger now of going back even on that landmark decision? I thought so at first, but now I am doubtful.
Buried and largely lost within the avalanche of vitriol following the overturn of Roe was a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh that took pains to emphasize the decision “does not mean the overruling” of the precedents that legalized same sex marriage and contraception before that—“and does not threaten or cast doubt on those precedents.”
A small but important silver lining there? I suspect so. There are still bridges too far—as many duty-bound, staunchly Republican officeholders and officials across the land have been showing us all through the recent January 6 hearings.
Meanwhile, the long view, which may feel like all there is to hold onto at the moment, but is no less powerful for that:
The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the right and to the left.
The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.
It fulfills its purpose silently and makes no claim.
It nourishes the ten thousand things,
And yet is not their lord.
It has no aim; it is very small.
The ten thousand things return to it,
Yet it is not their lord.
It is very great.
It does not show greatness,
And is therefore really great.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Drop by Michele Dalla Torre, Trento, Tennessee https://www.flickr.com/photos/micheledallatorre/
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Pond by Sven Read, Munich, Germany https://unsplash.com/@starburst1977
Rain by Aftab Uzzaman, Thames, New Zealand https://www.flickr.com/photos/aftab/
Andrew, love your application of the Tao to the division we see in USA. I see it as a manifestation of the more eternal battle between the 2 parts of who we are – our eternal Tao nature and our ego selves.
I believe the only path to enlightenment is through what we call “nature” and that nature is the only true manifestation of what people think of as “God” or “Tao”. Everything else is a creation of the human mind.
The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching translate as “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Upfront, we are being told that the Tao is beyond human comprehension and labeling. The Tao is eternal, infinite, and impossible to describe in words. Yet it brings forth all of life and is expressed in each of us.
The essential teaching of this 25 century year old writing is to “be like nature”. You can get in touch with your own Tao nature by observing the “nature” within all living things and within yourself. Feel that spirit or essence which beats your heart, grows your toenails and nurtures you from conception to birth, through years of life, old age, death, and then decomposing of our physical selves, while doing the same for hummingbirds, bees, fish, elephants, flowers, grass and trees. This is the part of each of us that is infinite and eternal and where we all intersect.
Lao Tzu teaches that the sage lets go of ego concerns and operates from this place within which is the Tao. This is what is meant by “living beyond the cares of men”. The “cares of men” or “ego self” relate to the sense of self that is separate from the Tao. The ego focuses on our personal short-term self-interest rather than long-term benefits of the whole (our planet, all species, and future generations) and ignores our place in the much bigger picture.
The ego cares more about itself and other humans in its tribe (family, religion, nationality, skin color, sports teams) and much less about impacts on others, especially small systemic negative impacts that take a long-term perspective and concern to acknowledge.
The ego manifests in thirst for money (beyond one’s needs), self-importance, dishonesty, disrespect for the environment, unsustainable consumption of resources, desire for weapons, and other ways that are not in harmony with the Tao. The ego is like a cancer that survives by attacking its host. The Tao or nature is never dishonest, selfish or wasteful.
I believe the only hope for humanity is an evolution of our species from ego-dominated thinking to a more Tao-inspired consciousness.
Fred, I’d categorized this post under “Religion” and “Politics/Culture,” but your description of the titanic battle the ego wages to maintain control of one’s life—and what a losing battle it inevitably winds up being—reminds me just how brilliant Taoism’s psychological diagnoses and remedies are as well. Thanks for filling in so much more of the picture of Taoism and giving it a more depthful dimension. Much appreciated!
I’ve tried in my life, with much imperfection, to embrace the tenets of the Tao since I read it in my early 20s. You and Fred helped clarify and confirm the growing feeling I have had, over the last few years especially, that there is nothing else left to do but to “let go.” That I can often do: my general way of looking at things allows for it. The struggle is sorting the difference between enlightened awareness, which I trust will lead to right action and intention, and head buried in the sand. And, we are living in knee jerk times. Hard not to live a reactive life. I do agree entirely with Fred that “…the only hope for humanity is an evolution of species from ego-dominated thinking to a more Tao-inspired consciousness.” Amen. I must say that as I look around the world today, the notion of that occurring any time soon (ever?) seems much less hopeful than when I read those wise words in my 20s. But I guess that’s the darkness within darkness, isn’t it?
Thanks for this, Dennis. I think that knife edge you reference between letting go and burying one’s head in the sand is the conundrum that dogs all people who are spiritually inclined. I’m not sure who faces the bigger hurdle: those who come from a spiritual orientation and wonder how—or whether at all—to apply that to social action, or those who come from social action backgrounds and are wondering what—if anything—that has to do with spiritual life. Both those poles may well reject the other as irrelevant or even stupid and of no consequence. I’ve known plenty of self-professed spiritual seekers influenced by Eastern religions in particular who do a kind of version of Timothy Leary’s “Tune in, turn on, drop out” and just let the world and all its woes just pass them by, blissed as can be. They’re like religious fundamentalists but from the other end of the spectrum, taking all the talk about life as illusion and time being unreal literally, so they just can’t be bothered with others’ suffering, voting in elections or similar passing trivialities. Just watch the river flow, Baby…
But from the other side, the self-righteous social activists, certain of their convictions, disdaining nuance, and the most highly skilled at pointing fingers, having left humility, self-doubt and kindness at the door they walked through on their way to changing the world.
And yet there are certainties we know in our bones, yes? Primary example among them: Trump is a mentally ill, highly skilled conman who has captivated nearly half our nation and led them astray into a cult-like devotion, and it is a clear and present danger to our democracy. Am I lacking humility and self-doubt in thinking so with such conviction? Hmmfff…
I think the key here is simple: know what you know about Trump—and whatever else is among the highest of your high convictions—but still practice toward his followers and the world at large compassion, kindness, generosity, humility, understanding, patience, forgiveness—all the virtues of the Tao, of the Sermon on the Mount, all the sacred texts that have so much to say about right comportment in a fallen world.
Easy to write, hard to DO right day after day, but there we go again with the darkness within darkness…And even deeper into the conundrum: practice all those virtues toward Trump himself??
I needed this blog!
Haha, glad we were here in your hour of need, my man!
This post has given me more optimism than most anything else I’ve read in the past couple of weeks. Not that I’m all that optimistic, but it’s at least something to hang on to. I was asked recently if I thought our current mess or the mess in the late 60s was worse. I remember the 60s – I was 15 in 1969, old enough to have seen the coverage of Vietnam and race riots, but not old enough to understand much beyond thinking I might be in a Vietnamese rice paddy in late summer of 72. But even as the splits got wider over the next few years I had this feeling that our democratic system would sort it out. I don’t really feel that way now, seeing all the shenanigans that Republicans have been going with in redistricting and election laws. So I’ll take even a little optimism to drag me back a bit.
And generally (and I’m no student of Taoism) this post made me think of the Bible verse “Be still and know that I am God”, and I thought that maybe there is some essence of Taoism in it if you shorten it to “Be still and know”.
Harry, your sense of things pretty much mirrors my own. I too snag whatever optimism I can find (which is one among several reasons I write in the first place), but on the whole, I have to fight (or just let be) a sense of dread at the place we are in today. Seems to me the split in the ’60s was hugely propelled by the war and race, the latter still very much with us today, but the system itself held. Looking back on it now, that was largely because we had a responsible Republican Party interested in actual governance rather than bomb-throwing nihilism and democracy subversion. The landscape today looks so very different, and rather than being chastened by January 6 (as the entire country was with Nixon’s resignation), a not insignificant portion of the population—including legislators in positions of influence and power—is emboldened and may be perfectly happy if it happens again.
And yet…hope (accompanied by whatever work we can commence on behalf of the good)) springs eternal, as it must. Thanks for contributing to this discussion; I appreciate it.