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January 13, 2011

Tao Te Ching 12

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.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.

He lets go of that and chooses this.

At first, this seemed to be an affirmation of things already mentioned in the Tao Te Ching. However, after giving the twelfth verse a reading from a broader perspective, it carries a different message.

This passage of Lao Tzu’s ancient text teaches us that life – and other people – will present and offer a variety of things to tempt us. Whether these things are materials that we really don’t need, ideas that really don’t matter, or rules that are not really necessary, we are advised to remain guarded by the persuasiveness of others to involve ourselves in things that hold no real bearing on our lives. A wise person remains loyal to his instincts and his knowledge of what is real and what is worthy of his interest, thus choosing to give little or no value to things that deserve nothing more.

I can think of no better example of this than the constant interest some manifest in the fashion trends of celebrities. As they are frequently in the public eye, celebrities are often solicited by fashion designers to wear their creations, allowing the purchasing public to see the garments as well as giving the appearance of having that celebrity’s endorsement. At the same time exists another industry – the media – with specialized publications and programs that are dedicated to what celebrities do in their private lives, what they wear, where they eat and shop, and what is happening in their romantic lives. Celebrity news is a multibillion-dollar business where not only are the fashions and activities of famous people reported but also criticized and sensationalized in order to spurn greater interest from the purchasing public and increase sales. Billions and billions of dollars are spent every year so that people can know what famous people are doing when they aren’t doing the things they are famous for.

Why?

What real bearing do Blake Lively’s “Red Carpet Fashion Choices” have on anyone else? What difference does it make to anyone else where Angelina Jolie buys her shoes or what brand of jeans Hayden Panettiere prefers? The answer is that none of these things really matter to anyone except those that have been convinced that these things should matter to them. Many people are taught from an early age to idolize the famous and to aspire to be like them, even though the odds of any one person attaining the same degree of renown as an established celebrity are miniscule. However, there is money to be made in the fabricated ‘need’ to know everything there is to know about celebrities, so there is also another industry that is dedicated solely to convincing people to be interested in things they would not otherwise care about (it’s called “marketing”).

For the Taoist, these types of things are unimportant, though they are sometimes amusing. They create apprehension, frustration, anticipation, and expenses that are just not necessary for contentment or harmonious living. Taoists do not concern themselves with nonsensical notions such as “being in fashion” or what the current state of an actor’s marriage is. They do not see a need to wear the same clothing as a favorite musician nor do they seek to hold a professional athlete in any higher regard than the woman that sells them fresh vegetables.

The twelfth passage of the Tao Te Ching serves to remind us that we need only stay true to what we know to be real and of actual value and not to be swayed by those that would stand to profit from creating interests for us where none exist. By placing value on unimportant things, we develop unnecessary desires and perform imprudent acts in order to acquire those unimportant things. The Taoist chooses to remain focused only on things that really matter and thus continues to know peace in his heart.

The Myths of Inner Peace (and Taoists)

January 10, 2011

This is a subject that has rattled around in my mind for a very long time and, after some interesting conversations over the past few weeks, I felt that it was finally time for me to sit down and share my perspectives on the matter.

I’ll begin by saying that I’ve read numerous books throughout the years regarding ‘inner peace,’ most of which were “how-to” guides aimed at helping people reduce stress by avoiding conflict, creating a harmonious ‘personal space,’ meditating, exercising or practicing ‘motion therapies,’ and offering a variety of ‘attitude adjustments.’ I found that some of the suggestions I’ve read were rather good and productive, others struck me as being in opposition of attaining any kind of personal serenity because they were simply unrealistic, and there were even a few that were simply incomprehensible because the author either lacked clarity or was sharing a “vision” of what they perceived personal tranquility to be. While I might not agree with some of the things I’ve read, I’ll maintain enough respect for those other writers and their points of view to not name them or identify their works either positively or negatively, as I strongly believe that my outlook on things will not be appropriate for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that it should be arbitrarily discredited by everyone.

The definitions of “inner peace” are varied – as they should be – because every individual will find their own version of what “inner peace” truly is to them. For the purpose of clarity in this writing, I’ll go with a very basic definition of “the lack of internal conflict,” because I believe it is probably the most consistent trait of a majority of people’s definitions. Recognizing that “inner peace” will have a different meaning for each person, it is perhaps easier to identify what inner peace isn’t.

Taoists, like many others that ascribe to similar philosophies, are often saddled with certain stereotypes about their convictions regarding inner peace and how they pursue it in their daily lives. The misconceptions are usually born of a lack of understanding, but these misnomers are sometimes what might steer some people away from Taoism altogether, so I’ve decided to address some of the more ‘popular’ fallacies about Taoists and inner peace.

People seeking inner peace avoid all conflicts. This might actually be true for some, but it’s an unrealistic approach for those seeking inner peace. Remembering that, for our purposes, inner peace is a ‘lack of internal conflict’ does not mean that conflict of any form should be avoided at any cost. Some might try to accomplish this, but that will only make the quest for inner peace more difficult. Conflict is inevitable in the modern world; it cannot be avoided altogether by any person that interacts with at least one other person. The Taoist knows this and accepts that some conflicts will arise throughout their journey in life. In fact, most Taoists would prefer to meet the conflict head-on, deal with it and resolve it (if possible), and proceed on with their journey.

Inner peace can only be accomplished under certain circumstances. This is both true and false. The circumstances for each person will be different, even if only minutely in some cases, so there is no definitive ‘standard’ that assures inner peace for any two people. Some find that inner peace is more easily maintained in an immaculately clean home while others enjoy a messy home that frees them from the stresses of having to clean all the time. Some prefer scented candles or incense while others might like the cleanest air possible. Some find peace in solitude and silence while others prefer certain sounds or the company of others. It changes from person-to-person, so establishing that there is a specific criterion of circumstance for everyone is impossible.

Taoists and those seeking inner peace listen only to relaxing music. Another misleading notion that unfortunately has permeated the collective perception of Taoists, Buddhists, and others like them is that only certain types of music promote an air of inner peace. Whether it’s traditional Asian music, new wave, adult-contemporary, or even recorded sounds of serene nature settings, there’s a delusion that cranking up the stereo and blasting fast-paced, aggressive music is counterproductive to attaining and maintaining inner peace. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I have times when I thoroughly enjoy some relaxing musical pieces, there are also times when up-tempo songs also fill me with an invigorating feeling that allows me to do more active things in better harmony with myself. I love a broad variety of musical genres, each having its own time and place to satisfy my desires and help me enjoy life.

Taoists have no emotions and are completely withdrawn from the rest of society. Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard this from a couple of people and I literally stood silent in disbelief for almost a full minute. Needless to say, this is simply untrue. The perception that Taoists lack emotion probably stems from their frequent lack of showing upset at the little misfortunes that life is known to present to anyone at any given time. However, this is mostly because of two things:

1)      The Taoist knows that misfortune is inevitable and part of being human and having a body. Anyone that ventures forth in life with any kind of expectations as to what may happen throughout the course of the day will somehow, somewhere, and at some time experience misfortune.

2)      Misfortune is only a temporary condition or occurrence. Taoists know better than to see most misfortunes with any kind of severity because if it doesn’t maim or kill you, it is completely recoverable.

Taoists can never get married. How’s that? Again, this was something that was related to me that left me stupefied for a moment. Perhaps I missed this somewhere in the Tao Te Ching and won’t my wife certainly be surprised. Another unfortunate misnomer about Taoism, Taoists most-assuredly can and often do get married, have a partner in life, and enjoy many years of companionship with another person.

Inner Peace is a myth because everyone has conflicts within themselves. Inner Peace is NOT a myth and internal conflicts are not a condition of existence. To be sure, most people are presented with situations or circumstances that are troubling in one aspect or another, but that does not mean that inner peace is unattainable or that the conflicts of the world are of significance or consequence to any one person. Inner peace is an acquired state of mind that recognizes that conflicts – both internal and external – will arise from time-to-time. However, conflicts can be resolved and sanctity can be restored.

Taoists are committed to non-violence and kindness no matter what. While these traits might seem ideal and admirable, I wouldn’t suggest testing this erroneous theory. It would be only a misguided, delusional, or abjectly foolish person to believe that any and every Taoist in the world is going to accept a physical assault without defending themselves or attempting to escape and it’s not very likely that they’ll be thanking you for the beating afterward. Living in harmony with life doesn’t equate to throwing one’s head into an oncoming fist with grace and gratefulness.

Taoists meditate and practice Tai Chi Chuan. This is nothing more than a stereotyped presumption. Some meditate and some don’t. Some enjoy Tai Chi and some don’t. Some sing while they work in a garden. Some ride bicycles and some go bowling. Some just go through their days without subjecting themselves to any specific routine, ritual, or exercise. It varies from one to the next.

It’s important to keep one’s mind open when exploring Taoism, which includes dismissing any preconceived notions of what inner peace and Taoism are. The world is full of wondrous variety, a wide array of people and things that Taoists love to explore and experience and so, too, Taoism is filled with a diverse range of people and things.

To those that wish to explore Taoism or want to develop their sense of inner peace (or both), I suggest that you enter into the endeavor with a truly open mind – an “empty canvas,” if you will – and allow yourself to see, hear, learn, and understand all that is being offered to you. It’s an endless journey well worth making.

Looking For Space – A Song About Learning The Tao

January 4, 2011

Over the past few years, I’ve discovered a variety of musical pieces and collections of music that are loosely aimed at Taoists. I say “loosely” because almost all of these artistic endeavors seem to embrace two similarities:

  1. They are solely instrumental works (having no lyrics), and:
  2. They are ‘catch-all Asian meditative tunes’ that tend to encompass the relaxation aspect of any form of ancient Oriental philosophy that embraces peace and tranquility, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and so on.

I’ll be addressing my disagreement with the second similarity in greater depth in another journal entry entitled “The Myths of Inner Peace,” so for the moment, let’s just say that not everything about Taoism and Taoist thought is ‘peaceful’ and ‘meditative’ and therefore the music shouldn’t be limited to such either.

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not suggesting that the Black-Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga should be writing and performing Taoist songs. However, I also don’t believe that Taoist musical selections should be limited to pan pipes, acoustic guitars, and soft-toned techno-rhythms. There are songs that have been recorded that – intentionally or not (mostly not) – have a decidedly-Taoist aspect to them in their lyrics. From time-to-time, I’m going to examine these songs and share them here, beginning with this blog post.

My first music selection for consideration is John Denver’s 1976 release “Looking For Space” from the album Windsong. Denver described the song to Billboard magazine as follows: “It’s about looking for the definition of who you are, by finding out where you are, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.” Though I could find nothing in my research about the artist having anything to do with Taoism, even his description of the song carries heavy overtones of the learning the philosophy of Tao.

I don’t necessarily see this song as being representative of ‘living the Tao’ so much as I see it as an excellent piece about learning the Tao, especially considering the world we live in today. I’ll post the lyrics in their entirety first, then break them down and explain how I see them afterward. The chorus will be in bold print to remove redundancy.

If you’d like to listen to the song while reading, click HERE.

Looking For Space

On the road of experience and trying to find my own way,

Sometimes I wish that I could fly away.

When I think that I’m moving, suddenly things stand still,

And I’m afraid ’cause I think they always will.

And I’m looking for space,

And to find out who I am,

And I’m looking to know and understand.

It’s a sweet, sweet dream;

Sometimes I’m almost there.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle,

And sometimes I’m deep in despair.

All alone in the universe, sometimes that’s how it seems,

I get lost in the sadness and the screams.

Then I look in the center, suddenly everything’s clear,

I find myself in the sunshine and my dreams.

And I’m looking for space,

And to find out who I am,

And I’m looking to know and understand.

It’s a sweet, sweet dream;

Sometimes I’m almost there.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle,

And sometimes I’m deep in despair.

On the road of experience, join in the living day.

If there’s an answer, it’s just that it’s just that way.

When you’re looking for space,

And to find out who you are;

When you’re looking to try and reach the stars.

It’s a sweet, sweet, sweet dream;

Sometimes I’m almost there.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle,

And sometimes I’m deep in despair.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle

Like an eagle… I go flying…

High…

Free.

I do believe that this song is an exceptional piece for the modern person that wants to learn more about the Tao and inner peace. Now I’ll explain why:

On the road of experience and trying to find my own way,

Sometimes I wish that I could fly away.

When I think that I’m moving, suddenly things stand still,

And I’m afraid ’cause I think they always will.

 I know this sentiment all-too-well and have heard so many people express this outlook on life far too often. When we look at the world around us and our lives, it’s very easy to get emotionally wrapped-up in everything and just want to ‘escape’ from the turmoil that surrounds us. Life is a chaotic series of cycles and humans are, by conditioning, creatures of habit that tend to make and repeat the cycles of their lives. Not only do many people believe that they want to ‘fly away,’ but they also believe that things will never change or improve. The Taoist knows better of this, and recognizes that some changes in life must be made by one’s self by first accepting that he or she is the reason the changes have not yet occurred on their own.

All alone in the universe, sometimes that’s how it seems,

I get lost in the sadness and the screams.

Then I look in the center, suddenly everything’s clear,

I find myself in the sunshine and my dreams.

 Being emotionally-bound to one’s circumstances can make it exceptionally difficult to see things objectively. We are conditioned to recognize the negative aspects of our existence and dwell on them as reasons for us to not be happy (there are literally hundreds of industries that profit from human miseries). We are taught to believe that we should act in certain ways, have certain things in our lives, maintain ourselves to appear within prescribed boundaries, and fit various molds. Looking impartially at what is expected of us, it can become obvious that most of the social standards we are expected to conform to actually have no real value other than compliance with another’s principles and a fabricated need to ‘fit in.’ Knowing that we are all unique individuals should be the first reminder that social standards cannot be unilaterally applied. Taking a brief step back from the social circus and remembering that happiness and contentment come from within, we can achieve these things in any circumstances.

 On the road of experience, join in the living day.

If there’s an answer, it’s just that it’s just that way.

 Mr. Denver does an excellent job in summarizing what we should be doing and offering explanation as to why life isn’t always so kind to us. We should be living every moment of every day rather than wasting our days worrying about what we don’t have. Life has so much to offer to those that choose to be completely present in the moment and see what is happening around them. Of course life isn’t always going to give us what we want, but that’s just life being life. People and the entirety of the universe are just too chaotic for any one of us to reasonably expect that everything will go exactly as we’d hoped with any kind of regularity. Misfortune is a condition of existence for any person that has been taught to see a difference between good and bad. The instant that a person identifies something as favorable or beneficial, they have immediately assured that misfortune will find them because it is unreasonable to assume that a beneficial thing will always be present and accessible. A wise person accepts misfortune with benefit because they understand that in order for one to exist, its opposite must also exist.

 Chorus:

And I’m looking for space,

And to find out who I am,

And I’m looking to know and understand.

It’s a sweet, sweet dream;

Sometimes I’m almost there.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle,

And sometimes I’m deep in despair.

 In learning the Tao, we are first-and-foremost learning ourselves. To live in harmony with life requires that we know ourselves well-enough to be changeable to our environments and circumstances. For the purposes of this interpretation, ‘looking for space’ means that we are looking for the opportunity to step back from the chaotic world around us and take the time to look inward at ourselves. Whether it’s a ‘moment of reflection’ or ‘meditation’ or ‘self-examination’ (call it what you like), to better exist in the world and learn the Tao, we need to take the time to understand ourselves first. The polarity of our existences – good and bad, right and wrong, fat and thin, ugly and pretty, etc. – places us in a position of constant emotional back-and-forth. At the very core of learning to accept other things as they are in life is the essential step of genuine self-acceptance.

Learning the Tao is a lifelong process, a journey, and the Taoist knows that there is never a destination but points where we pause. In learning the Tao, we never really “arrive” at any place in body, mind, or spirit – it’s the persistent travelling through life and existence in harmony with all things.

It’s a sweet, sweet dream, and sometimes we’re almost there.

————————————————————————————–

NOTE: I hold the highest regard for proprietary rights and copyrights. If you have enjoyed the song, I urge you to purchase the music legally to ensure that the appropriate parties receive their royalty entitlements.

The digital download of this song is available for just $0.99 from Amazon by clicking the link below.

PURCHASE “LOOKING FOR SPACE” BY JOHN DENVER FROM AMAZON.COM

Additional Note: The link provided is a “free link,” meaning that the author of this blog receives no payment whatsoever from your purchase of the song.

This and That

January 3, 2011

Tao Te Ching 11

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore benefit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

 

Simply-stated, this is a lesson in Yin and Yang. In very brief terms, Lao Tzu offers examples of how single objects manifest two properties within themselves: the form and the space within the form. Without the form, the space inside is impractical, as there is nothing to hold things or keep things out of what the form holds. At the same time, it is the space within the form that makes it useful. A solid clay jug has no practical value because nothing can be held within it. A house with no doors or windows is worthless because a person cannot get inside to make use of the space and be protected from the things outside the house. A wheel serves no purpose if there is no hole in the center for an axle that it can spin on.

The more that we look at the things in life, the more we can see that objects have two properties – the form and the usefulness of what is inside the form. Even a cellular phone can be analyzed and appreciated the same way, as the plastic body, screen, and buttons can do nothing without the circuitry inside. Likewise, the electronics within the cell phone hold no value without buttons to direct them, a screen to allow the user to see what is happening, or the plastic body to protect the sensitive circuits from elements and impacts that would destroy them.

The lesson to be found here is that not everything in Yin and Yang, the balance of all things, work in opposition of one another. For many things, Yin and Yang work in complement to each other while maintaining the balance and need for one another. They are two different things, Yin and Yang, but wholly dependent upon each other in order to have usefulness and benefit.

A simple, brief passage from Lao Tzu that requires little more than a brief explanation here. When you look at the Ten-thousand Things, look at the other Ten-thousand Things that make those things useful.

Drink Deep

January 1, 2011

Tao Te Ching 10

Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,

Can you avoid separation?

Attending fully and becoming supple,

Can you be as a newborn babe?

Washing and cleansing the primal vision,

Can you be without stain?

Loving all men and ruling the country,

Can you be without cleverness?

Opening and closing the gates of heaven,

Can you play the role of woman?

Understanding and being open to all things,

Are you able to do nothing?

Giving birth and nourishing,

Bearing yet not possessing,

Working yet not taking credit,

Leading yet not dominating,

This is the Primal Virtue.

                In the 1711 Alexander Pope work An Essay on Criticism, line 215 states:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

The same cautionary statement is reflected in the tenth verse of the Tao Te Ching. One of the greatest challenges in learning the Tao is maintaining the proper perspectives when you realize that you’ve actually learned things. It is the conditioned nature of most people to take a little knowledge and proceed forward as though they have learned all that is needed to adequately manage applying that knowledge to life, often with calamitous results. However, as Mr. Pope suggests, gaining complete knowledge will allow a person to refrain from reckless mistakes.

Lao Tzu knew this long before Alexander Pope was even born, identifying that as people open their minds and gain greater understanding of life, Heaven and Earth, and the Tao, they must temper their learning with the realization that they are still students and should use what they have learned only as a guide to help them keep learning. To gain knowledge, enlightenment, and understanding is a gift and a tool, not a weapon or means by which to gain advantage over others.

There is great temptation that comes with greater knowledge and understanding, the appeal of applying what one has learned to advance one’s self further in the world. This is perfectly acceptable so long as one recognizes that by learning and comprehending more, one has already advanced themselves without having to do so at the expense of others. The temptation is take a smattering of wisdom and surge forth into the world seeking places and situations where that wisdom could be used to one’s benefit. However, the Taoist recognizes that wisdom gained is best used when it is stored and remembered for when a relevant situation presents itself. Life will certainly see to it that those situations do occur; one needs only be patient.

Verse Ten of the Tao Te Ching is a reminder that as we learn the Way, we must also remember to use that learning to be better students of the Way. To see ourselves as masters of the Way is to show that we have learned nothing at all.

Extremes

December 26, 2010

Tao Te Ching 9

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

                The ninth verse of the Tao Te Ching expounds more on the principle of simplicity by cautioning us against the perils of taking things to extremes. Never has there been a better time to examine this passage, for much of modern society is conditioned to believe that “more is better.” The need to have more if not the most, to have better if not the best, and to accumulate wealth and gain power have become the status quo of ‘success’ in most modern cultures (and have been for quite some time in many places). What many people fail to recognize is that such things come with their own drawbacks and vulnerabilities, making the want or need to exceed what is necessary as dangerous as it might be rewarding. To clarify, I’ll examine this verse line-by-line.

  • Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Literally-speaking, filling a cup all the way to the brim makes the cup virtually unmanageable. A person would need to move very slowly and carefully to avoid spilling whatever filled the cup, thus delaying their movements or causing them to stop altogether to avoid spilling the contents. Filling the cup only to a point where it can adequately handled without significant risk of spillage makes more sense and is more practical. It’s the same with our everyday lives. When we overwhelm our days with activities and responsibilities, something is bound to get slighted, mismanaged, or outright destroyed because we placed ‘too much on our plate.’ It is clearly better to keep our lives controllably simple by not overburdening ourselves.

  • Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Literally-speaking, sharpening a blade is accomplished by finely shaving metal from the flat surface to bring about a keen edge. Sharpening the blade too often will take away too much metal, making the edge very thin and resulting in the blade dulling more quickly because there is less metal to retain the edge. Similarly, we are prone to taking things so far in our lives that we often risk instability or weakness in order to attain some greater advantage or reward. In driving faster to get somewhere more quickly, we remove some of the safety of travel by giving ourselves – and others as well – less time to react to perilous instances on the road.

  • Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Greed begets greed. When one person has a great deal of something, eventually someone else will want what the first person has. When a person accumulates too much of something, they make themselves targets from greater numbers of people that want to take it from them. Wearing fine clothes and driving an expensive car while visiting extravagant restaurants and boutiques makes a person a prime target for robbery. When we seek to live in excess, we become the objective of those that have less and want more. Everyone who gains and amasses wealth has done so by taking it from another.

  • Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Fittingly, this follows the line about ‘amassing stores of gold and jade’ because it follows much of the same premise. When one person seeks to have more than others and to wield power over others, resentment and jealousy will inevitably surface. Rebellion or greed will grow and the person who has the most or maintains authority over others will soon find themselves in a very unpopular and possibly hazardous position. It is better to have enough for yourself and to allow others to live in peace than take freedom and wealth from others.

  • Retire when the work is done.

              This is the way of heaven.

The last two lines of this verse summarize the first four statements by urging us to elect the simplest paths as heaven would do. By not seeking the best or the most, pushing things too far, trying to extract every possible advantage from what we do, or taking from others to appease our own avarice, we can simply do what it is that needs to be done and often be left unmolested by others that seek to gain for themselves. This also makes it much easier to avoid having others take advantage of us, because we are not so blinded by our own greed that we fail to identify when we are being victimized by another’s.

                Again, Lao Tzu presents us with another lesson in simplicity by defining some of the pitfalls of greed and overindulgence. In looking at our everyday lives, we can often find many instances in which we might willingly slight another for our own gains, but to refrain from doing so also makes us much less vulnerable to those that would prey upon us in the same fashion.

Simple Rules for Life, Part One

December 18, 2010

Tao Te Ching 8

The highest good is like water.

Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.

It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

In dwelling, be close to the land.

In meditation, go deep in the heart.

In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.

In speech, be true.

In ruling, be just.

In daily life, be competent.

In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.

                I’m now heading into a section of the Tao Te Ching that I have been looking forward to writing about. Not only do the next few sections offer direct advice for how to handle everyday life, but these verses also help to keep me centered and are among those that I believe would make excellent signs for around the house, office, or anywhere else that people tend to forget the basics of existence.

                I love the eighth verse of the Tao Te Ching because it’s almost like a ‘slap-in-the-face’ in offering succinct directions. Short, sweet, and to-the-point, this segment of Lao Tzu’s writings echo sentiments that many people today consider to be absolutes of appropriate, decent, and acceptable behaviors. Not bad for twenty-six-hundred year-old Chinese philosophy when you consider that almost any Moral Compass that predates the ‘Sexual Revolution’ is usually considered “antiquated” and “irrelevant.”

                The first lesson of this verse is the value of humility, the greatness of smallness, and the undeniable beauty of “going with the flow.” Comparing the “highest good” to water, we learn that in following gravity and practicing non-resistance, we can be like Tao. To follow where each day takes us as harmoniously as possible, to not consider ourselves above certain things, allows us to find contentment in even the worst of places and most horrid of experiences. Acceptance of what life hands you is much easier on the heart, mind, and soul than opposing every single thing you dislike.

                The wording of the eighth verse basically says all that needs to be said without much translation, so I’ll attempt to elaborate as minimally as possible so that the straightforwardness of the passage isn’t lost in interpretation. However, it becomes apparent to me that applying such simplistic ideals to modern life might require a little more clarification.

                Keep your life simple, commit fully to whatever you do, do not assert yourself with others, be honest, be fair, do what is necessary and do it to the best of your ability, pay attention to life around you and be sure that you’re choosing the best time and place to do things. If you avoid taking sides, you also avoid the pressures and negativity that come with bias.

                Pretty simple, right? Maybe not.

                Keeping life simple is not always the easiest thing in the modern world. There are so many entities in life that would rather not allow people to keep things basic, find cures instead of treatments, and remain unaffected by “drama.” Looking around today, it’s easy to see that the media is determined not only to give you information, but also to tell you how you should feel about it. Generating emotions stirs passions and keeps people interested and involved in things that don’t actually have a thing to do with them. Moreover, if you show a lack of emotion or interest in things that others believe are important, you are immediately given the negative label of “antisocial” and made to feel ‘wrong’ for remaining above the sensationalism. It’s easy to understand that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would mean nothing to a Sherpa on the southern side of the Himalaya Mountains, but let some corn farmer in Iowa show equal disinterest as the Sherpa and he would find himself branded with any number of disapproving and hurtful characterizations. Living simply outside of the dramas that others embrace is not always the painless decision that it should be because there’s so much to be gained by involving others.

                Committing fully to your tasks is also sometimes challenging because there is an incredible market out there for things that allow people to do a dozen things at once. The actual need for “multi-tasking” in daily life is not nearly as great as we are led to believe, but since there are products that help people engage in a bevy of activities simultaneously, it helps the marketers and developers to convince us of how busy we are and how much easier they can make it for us. Presented with a person that is not so busy, these people are confounded by the simplicity and will endeavor to remind the simple person that they should be busier. They’ll use phrases like “get more done faster” to convince you that without their product or service, you won’t accomplish as much as you could. Dedicating yourself to doing one thing at a time and doing it well annoys people that have something to sell and those that have already fallen prey to the need to be very busy.

                Many people find it difficult to maintain conversations with others without somehow asserting themselves on the other parties. Try as we may to claim the higher ground of being non-judgmental, we all have our opinions and have been conditioned to share them and, whenever possible, attempt to convince others to agree with us. Again, society’s conviction to see everyone be codependent generates a desire in most people to seek acceptance from others, and the end result is that people tend to assert themselves onto others – subtly or aggressively – in the hope of finding like-minded people or creating them. To be truly unbiased and non-critical doesn’t usually make for brilliant conversation.

                Being honest with others is unfortunately something that much of society is taught not to do. With concerns about offending other people with our words, most people these days find themselves functioning with a limited vocabulary filled with ‘acceptable responses’ and ‘positive comments.’ While it is certainly nice and pleasant to have everyone speaking in lingo that is certain not to cause offense, it’s also misleading and presents its own stressors on people. Biting your tongue and saying only things that you are sure won’t hurt another’s feelings is a form of dishonesty and will only lead to greater lies and hurt feelings when the truth actually does come out, which it seems always happens. Why not just speak the truth from the outset – as gently as possible – and allow others to know your real thoughts and feelings on things? While most people don’t like to be insulted or judged, they like being lied-to even less.

                Being just and fair when making decisions involving others is often a great moral dilemma for many, as it requires a person to set aside personal biases, beliefs, opinions, and pressure from others to ‘take a side’ rather than remain neutral. Fairness and justice demand balance and logic in thinking, which also suggests that one must be able to suspend emotional weights and refuse both compassion and prejudice. As much as we would all like to believe that our decisions regarding others are fair, the truth is that most people apply methods other than reason and common sense in making determinations. Some are unnecessarily harsh and others generously kind, but the frequency of impartial decisions regarding others is much less than most people think.

                Committing yourself completely to what you do from day to day is another area in which most people are lacking. We tend to prioritize things – or someone else does it for us – and resultantly some of the things we do get more of our focus and concentrated efforts while other things are either given cursory attention or ignored outright. Giving our full dedication to one thing, completing it, and then moving on is a prospect that many people find to be completely unrealistic and often even laughable. We live in the age of the multi-talented, too-busy-to-slow-down modern world where we are convinced that doing one thing at a time and doing it well is not nearly as important as the number of tasks we can attend simultaneously with passing effort.

                Prioritizing things as we do, we often fail to recognize that we might not be choosing the right time or place to do them. For example, shaving, applying cosmetics, eating, and talking on cellular phones are all things that should not be done while driving a car down a road, yet people find themselves so busy and poorly scheduled in life that they believe that these things could not happen at any other time. If we take an extra few minutes here and there to do things when and where they should happen, we might actually find that other tasks become much easier – and safer – as well.

                Lastly, many people find themselves standing on one side or another of a divisive issue. Whether the topic is politics, religion, social causes, a sports competition, or a matter at the office, the bi-polar nature of society suggests that if a person isn’t taking one position that they must be taking a contrary position. Even when a person chooses to remain uninvolved and neutral, they are often expected or pressured to ‘choose a side’ or criticized for their aloof attitudes. I have had a few people in my life accuse me of cowardice in concealing my ‘true beliefs’ because I presented a glib detachment and objectivity when challenged for an opinion on something. Maintaining my stance and even explaining it as plainly as possible did little or nothing to sway them, thus affirming the ‘one-way-or-the-other’ mentality that has become so prevalent in society.

                One thing that I have learned about the eighth verse of the Tao Te Ching is that despite its simplicity, many people seem unable to grasp the very basic principles presented in such a straightforward fashion. I don’t know that my lengthy expounding is really going to be of any help to anyone else, but I can hope that others might see this verse with the same clarity as I have.