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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.

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