Skip to content

Thinking Outside The Box

December 14, 2010

Tao Te Ching 7 

Heaven and Earth last forever.

Why do heaven and Earth last forever?

They are unborn, So ever living.

The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.

He is detached, thus at one with all.

Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

                 The seventh passage of the Tao Te Ching is essentially an affirmation of some of the things that have already been mentioned. However, I have discovered that this substantiation bears repeating because it might not be a particularly simple concept to grasp. While I could easily have dismissed this passage as Lao Tzu being a little redundant, I believe that expounding on the subject would probably suit me – along with anyone else that reads this – a little better.

                I’ve noticed that a great deal of the people in the world love mystery and see both Heaven (the spiritual world) and Earth (the physical world) as among the greatest mysteries of all. Both scientists and laymen are constantly exploring the ‘origins’ of Heaven and Earth, trying to discover how these things came to be and, in some cases, trying to disprove the existence of the former. Was there a really ‘big bang?’ Did a Supreme Being create all that is around us? Are we an experiment by aliens?

                The Taoist, though he or she may love mysteries and other curiosities, does not look to place such limitations on Heaven and Earth by attempting to define their existences in finite terms. To the Taoist, these things simply exist, always have existed, and always will exist. They are far too vast and enduring for the Taoist to consider being so arrogant and presumptive as to attempt to characterize Heaven and Earth in any kind of conceivable terms. Heaven and Earth simply are, as they always have been, and always shall be.

                The Taoist (or “sage”) attempts not to classify or label Heaven and Earth but simply to exist between them as harmoniously as possible by emulating them to the best of his or her ability. By not competing, not contrasting, not assigning labels, and not seeking conflict, the Taoist remains uninvolved in secular movements and “drama” and thus, through neutrality, remains involved in all things because he or she can see the ten-thousand things for what they truly are. By not choosing to seek advantage or “take a side,” the Taoist is afforded a comfortable place in all disputes by not having to be declared a ‘winner’ or ‘loser.’ By doing things that lack selfish motivation, the Taoist recognizes his or her own accomplishments and savors them without concerns for gains, losses, or appreciation from others. Content in having done something, the Taoist moves on to the next thing with a peaceful heart.

                It is difficult for many to comprehend that some things – like Heaven and Earth – just exist and do not need to be understood, defined, broken-down, and explained. As well, it seems that many people consider it “impossible” to remain uninvolved in situations that don’t truly relate to them or to do things without some measure of gain or display of approval or gratitude for having done it. It is, of course, nothing more than conditioning to feel that detachment from things is wrong; society is determined that we people should believe that we are completely dependent on one-another in all aspects of life and that any person who contentedly exists on his or her own is ‘antisocial’ and resultantly ‘has problems.’ We are conditioned to believe that we are all involved in everything, that nobody should be left-out (even if they wish to be, because they clearly ‘have problems’ and require an ‘intervention’), and that all living things are bound-by-carbon as human science understands it.

                Don’t misinterpret my words: there is nothing wrong with enjoying the company of others or receiving some manner of praise or thankfulness for one’s efforts. However, the Taoist understands and accepts that these things are not guaranteed and acknowledges that such things are not necessary to find contentment in life. The Taoist is not hurt by social rejection because he or she did not see acceptance as a necessity for happiness. The Taoist does not refuse to do things because he or she did not receive consent, veneration, or thanks the last time these things were done. Like Heaven and Earth, the Taoist simply is and simply does.


Igniting A Taoist Moment

December 14, 2010

               Although I’ve read the Tao Te Ching over fifty times, I still find that sometimes life will throw me a “Tao Moment,” a brief instant of lucidity when I will realize the wisdom of Lao Tzu at the very moment that it is revealed to me by life. In these very small moments I am truly happy, for not only has the philosophy of Taoism been shown to me in my everyday existence so plainly that I can see and feel it as it happens, but also because I usually find these instances to be smack in the middle of something else that I was already enjoying – or preparing to enjoy.

                Today I had a “Tao Moment,” though it would be quite appropriate to also recognize it as a “Pooh Moment” with a tip-of-my-cap to writer A. A. Milne. He had written something in the ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ that has been largely recognized as a great statement of Taoist thought, and while I had previously appreciated the sentiment of his words, today was the first time that I can recall ever realizing the words and feeling them at the same time. It was nothing shy of fantastic, a kind of moment that will live in my memories for a very long time and certainly worthy of a deviation from my ordinary writing to share.

                I was in the process of writing my thoughts on the seventh verse of the Tao Te Ching when I had noticed something in my wife’s Sims 3 video game: one of her Sims (simulated people) had incense burning to help her have a better mood. This had motivated me to light a vanilla-scented candle that was sitting on my desk, something I had not done in a lengthy spell. While I am not a great fanatic of scented candles, I have always found the subtle aroma of vanilla in the air to have a comforting, calming, and soothing effect on me (and judging by my moods lately, it’s something I should be doing much more often).

                After removing the protective dust-cap from the small jar that held the candle, I struck a wooden match and leaned my hand toward the candle when suddenly the scent had reached my nose and instantly I was happier than I could have imagined. It was not the aroma of vanilla that had brought my senses to life and a smile to my face, but the unmistakable odor of phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate, the two chemicals that react in combustion when a ‘strike-anywhere’ match is ignited. The smoke was pungent, it burned the inside of my nostrils, and I loved every moment of it.

                Why? I think A. A. Milne described it best:

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best — ” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

— Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner

                Pooh was absolutely correct. The word is ‘anticipation,’ that magical feeling that one gets right before they get something that they really want, which is oftentimes better than actually having the thing you wanted. For me, the scent of vanilla in the air would be relaxing and peaceful, a delightful respite from the miseries I’ve been dealing with from unemployment and trying to get by on my wife’s part-time income and my sparse and sporadic royalty payments. Once I had remembered the therapeutic value of the vanilla-scented candle, I couldn’t wait to have the aroma wafting in my nose and reminding me that peace could be found anywhere and anytime if one approached life with the proper mindset. However, it was the delicious stench of the struck match that had given me greater pleasure, even as the vanilla candle continues to burn.

                Having things get better in life is one thing, but knowing they’re about to get better is just as rewarding, if not more so.

American Politics and the Taoist Mind

December 12, 2010

I was recently asked by a friend about my intolerance of American Politics and my refusal to engage in the voting process. While my friend made the effort to encourage me to “get involved” by attempting to persuade me with impassioned rhetoric (which I’ll address in a few moments), they ultimately suggested that I was “not doing my part” in demonstrating my lack of interest by refraining from casting a ballot in any given election. In his opinion, I was lacking in the performance of “my patriotic duty” and “contributing to the downfall of our great nation” (I am paraphrasing a little here as I cannot recite his phrases word-for-word, but I am suggesting as accurately as possible the tone of his words).

                Before I go any further, I’d like to explain where I am coming from on this and why I am addressing American politics specifically instead of offering opinions on the greater variety of governments around the globe. Though I am sure that virtually every form of governance around the globe would provide numerous frustrations for the Taoist mind, I personally lack the necessary knowledge or experiences to comment with any accuracy or justification on any political climate outside the borders of the United States of America. I have not studied the governments of other nations extensively nor have I lived under the rule of any other nation, so I do not feel that I could adequately explain why I would also be abstaining from involvement in other governments as well, though I am confident enough in my limited knowledge of foreign political entities to be assured that they would hold just as little value to me as the American government does.

                The Tao Te Ching offers many statements on how a ruling body – be it a monarchy, empire, theocracy, or otherwise – should govern the people. The text is written to specifically address a Feudal Monarchy, as that was the type of government that Lao Tzu had worked for in being a record keeper for the Zhou Dynasty. However, the suggestions of his text would prove applicable to any governing body, though it would be easy to assert at this time that few ruling entities would care to hear anything of practices of fairness, justice, and encouraging the people to strive further on their own with the smallest amount of government interaction or interference possible. In fact, most politicians are far too busy trying to convince their constituents of how desperately they need their government to ever consider just administrating the laws of the land without pride, prejudice, or – most importantly – greed.

                The Taoist mind would much prefer to be left alone by those that seek the power and profit of politics. To the Taoist, most politicians and monarchs are far too self-serving, superficial, and ambitious to be worth anything to society as a whole. In the American political climate, any candidate that could actually earn a Taoist’s endorsement would probably not see much hope of election, even at the lowest levels of government, because that person would probably lack the necessary biases and prejudices to win the favor of any measurable accumulated votes. The candidate would likely remain neutral on most social issues and abstain from voting on those issues unless they had already received a majority approval to one side of the issue from the people they represented. Campaigning would be virtually impossible for such a candidate, as they could offer nothing but honest representation of the people as a platform of election, and would be largely ignored for not engaging in the aggressive and misleading campaign tactics that have become the status quo for American politics. For the Taoist mind, American politics is a territory that is better to be left ignored as much as possible, as it has strayed about as far from its intended function as it could.

                Here are a couple of the statements that were made to me in our discussion and how I feel they should be addressed:

  1. “If you don’t vote, then you have no business complaining about how the government performs.” I could not possibly disagree more with this sentiment. First, the United States of America was founded on a fundamental principle that ‘free speech’ and ‘questioning the government’ were essential rights of the people and wholly endorsed by the legislation that established the country. To that end, refusing to actively engage in the electoral process would afford a person the same rights as the voting person by virtue of exercising a right not to vote for someone or something he or she doesn’t believe in. The idea behind such a statement was actually a political one: it was nothing more than an effort to get more people to vote in elections. Beyond that, I don’t think you could possibly be more “un-American” than to suggest that a person should remain silent on government affairs simply because they chose not to lend endorsement to one of a limited number of people that all fail to represent the people without bias or personal desire.
  2. “As a citizen, you have a patriotic duty to your locality, county, state, and/or country to vote.” I must have missed the portion of the United States Constitution and its Amendments that established voting in political elections as ‘compulsory.’ I’ll reiterate that refusing to vote when no worthwhile candidates are on the ballot is supported by the idea of a free-thinking society. Moreover, the very concept of ‘patriotism’ has already been recognized by Lao Tzu and Taoism as a state of mind created to draw support for a government that gives a person no other reason to support it. ‘Loving your country because it is where you live’ is nothing more than a marketing tactic to garner backing for a government that is otherwise failing to win the favor of the people.

I find it to be amusing in some aspects and disgusting in others that the general perception among most Americans is that ‘politicians cannot be trusted,’ that ‘all politicians are liars,’ and that the elected government is nothing more than a collection of ‘crooks,’ yet there is virtually no effort being made to remedy the overall lack of faith in the system or the people that perpetuate it. It only serves to prove that most people would rather not be bothered with fixing something that is obviously flawed and, all-too-frequently, will ‘choose the lesser of two evils’ instead of rejecting the clear and undeniable evil and demanding something better.

To the Taoist mind, modern politics are not anything but frustrating and far too transparent in the perpetual efforts to mislead and manipulate a populace that doesn’t want to be bothered thinking for itself. For as much as many people might like to tell me that the polarity of a ‘two-party system’ reflects Taoism much like the Yin and Yang do, until a system of complete balance is established in which both parties have equal representation in the government at all times, I cannot endorse the bipolar nature of the system at all. So long as the governments of the United States of America propagate a ‘house-divided’ approach to administration of the nation, all of its states, commonwealths, counties, and localities, it is such that the Taoist mind cannot truly embrace it. The Taoist mind is conditioned to recognize that all things can and should exist in non-conflicting harmony rather than in vehement opposition of one-another. In this, it is clear to the Taoist that practicing non-action is far better than committing to an action that selects one wrong above another.

What Comes Around, Goes Around…

December 10, 2010

Tao Te Ching 6

The valley spirit never dies;

It is the woman, primal mother.

Her gateway is the root of heaven and Earth.

It is like a veil barely seen.

Use it; it will never fail.


                The Tao Te Ching recognizes the “valley spirit” as “the woman” and the “primal mother,” suggesting it is the source of all things. The valley, which is where things grow and prosper because they have settled where gravity has taken them, conformed to what life has offered them, and grown in harmony with life instead of in opposition to it. According to the Tao, valleys are the places of the greatest growth and fertility because they are where the rain waters settle, recognizing water as something that simply flows wherever nature and gravity send it.

                The “root of heaven and Earth” states that all things – both material and spiritual – are born of the valley spirit, which does not die because it was never born. The valley spirit simply is a source of all things, a means of identifying that life as we know it is forever birthed by the congregation of all elements that eventually find their way back to the valley. Flowing water eventually becomes still water, which evaporates and becomes clouds, later to become rain that will fall into the valley and flow once more.

                To see the world from its origin, the valley spirit, is to recognize how everything is related through small cycles of existence, understanding that nothing ever truly ‘disappears’ from the world, but merely takes on another form before eventually returning to what it once was before. “Like a veil barely seen” means that we look at the ten thousand things as individual components of a much greater masterpiece that is the Tao and that, should we persist in seeing all things as only temporary manifestations of their perpetuated cycle, we can appreciate things more deeply by seeing them with less permanence.

                Things come and go, but the Taoist knows that what is lost will, in some way, return. In this, we learn not to cling too tightly to things because all things are in transitional states and will eventually cease to be what they are and become something else. However, it is also to recognize that what ceases to be what it is will eventually become something similar again if one allows themselves to see where it goes.

Give and Take

August 2, 2010

Tao Te Ching 5

                Heaven and Earth are impartial;

                They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.

                The wise are impartial;

                They see the people as straw dogs.

                The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.

                The shape changes but not the form;

                The more it moves, the more it yields.

                More words count less.

                Hold fast to the center.

To understand this passage of the Tao Te Ching, one must first know what a ‘straw dog’ is. A ‘straw dog’ is a valueless object used in ceremonies in ancient China. It was made solely for a ceremony and then discarded afterward, yet it was an imperative part of the ceremony. It held value only for the ceremony and was then later tossed into the street as worthless.

Heaven and Earth, representing the spiritual world and the physical world respectively, are said to see ‘the ten thousand things’ as straw dogs, thus suggesting that life sees every little component of being as being neither loved nor hated but simply existing. Every one of ‘the ten thousand things’ comes and goes, existing for a time to fulfill a purpose in a grander scheme before fading into oblivion. In this, wise people see other people – and themselves as well – as being nothing more than people, existing for a time and eventually fading into oblivion as well. In Taoist principle, no person or thing is worthy of our love or hate by virtue of his, her, or its existence alone.

This verse also presents the value of “give and take” as an essential element in the scheme of reality by comparing it to a bellows. It moves in opposition and complement to itself and the forces around it, acknowledging that every action results in both assertion and assent. The balance of life recognizes that for one thing to move forward, another must move backward; and still other things must move aside. In doing this, all things are affected by the movement of one thing, and that one thing will eventually be affected by the movements of other things that it created in moving itself.

The principle being addressed in this verse is summarized in the closing two lines: “More words count less. Hold fast to the center.” To identify and address every small thing is to miss the greater relationship that all the small things have. By remaining neutral and impartial, thus at the center of all things, we are able to see everything equally as straw dogs. Everything has its own value, but that value is fleeting and temporary, as are all things between heaven and earth.


February 24, 2010

Tao Te Ching 4

                The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled. Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things! Blunt the sharpness, Untangle the knot, Soften the glare, Merge with dust. Oh, hidden deep but ever present! I do not know from whence it comes. It is the forefather of the gods.

                The beauty of the Tao is that it is too vast to ever completely comprehend, too old to establish a time it began, and stunningly simple. We humans are, by nature and schooling, conditioned to seek hidden meanings, distrust what is before us, divide and classify everything, and essentially complicate the most simple of things.

                The Tao teaches us to take a step back and see everything just as it is without comparison or bias. Moreover, the Tao encourages us to understand and accept that we are each part of something so infinite and immense that no one person could ever possible grasp it all, but each should endeavor to comprehend all of it that they can. The Tao is in everything and the source of all things, good and bad alike. The balance of Tao leads us to recognize that along with the natural universe, the Tao is also the source of all unnatural things.

                Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I doubt that he recognized the Taoist philosophy he evoked in those words: all things are only temporary. With patient resolve, we can overcome or endure the storms of life. It is, by our nature and upbringing, the curse of mankind to remain perpetually locked into cycles of drama, complication, doubt, and negativity. We become lost to the emotions of the moment, believing and fearing that the horrors of the ten thousand things will last forever. That simply isn’t true, unless you insist upon it being that way.

                The follower of Tao knows that all things are in a constant state of change, that the universe is unruly and random, and that to allow yourself to be negatively affected by forces beyond your control is folly. Keep things simple, accept that the world and life are neutral to your desires, and that no matter how much you open your mind, you’ll never understand it all.

                We don’t need to understand everything. We need only understand and accept ourselves, and contentment can become a constant.


February 23, 2010

Tao Te Ching 3

                Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling. Not collecting treasures prevents stealing. Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.

                The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.

                If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.

                If nothing is done, then all will be well.

                There are any number of completely useless and worthless emotions, and among the worst of them is jealousy. It is perhaps only human nature or common conditioning for people to admire what others have and want the same or better. Most people struggle with envy at one time or another (or, in some cases, constantly), and this can sometimes lead to harsh feelings or unethical acts. While I can’t argue that this is an all-too-frequent problem for mankind, I have something of an advantage in this lesson of Tao: I’m not really the “jealous type.”

                The lesson here suggests that to prevent greed and resentment, it is the rulers of mankind that should completely devalue everything. It is the wisdom of this verse that people should not accumulate wealth and precious items, that exceptional effort should never be lauded or rewarded, and that the values of things should never be appraised or compared. An idealistic view of the world, to be certain, but we can safely assume that it just isn’t going to happen. Avarice and materialism are too deeply ingrained in the minds of modern people for even a respectable portion of the world populace to agree to global equalization. So what is a follower of Tao to do?

                Simply-stated, you can’t change the ten-thousand things, but you can change the value that you, the individual, place upon them. While some things are considered valuable and will continue to hold such worth, while trends will come and go and people will pour ridiculous amounts of money into maintaining a presence in the herds, and while there will always be those that would rather have what they don’t have then what they do, it is the follower of Tao that can temper his or her own desires. For one that knows Tao, concepts such as fashion, privilege, equality, and social acceptance are a complete waste of time.

                It is perhaps the most fruitless and frustrating of endeavors to crave what another has. Life is too chaotic and people are too selfish for there to ever be any true sense of absolute equality in the world. To believe yourself deserving of what another possesses is unrealistic: we can’t all have everything. Of course, it can also be safely mentioned that with each ‘advantage’ also comes relative disadvantages, drawbacks that a jealous person is usually blind to. In jealousy, most people only see the positive side of something they don’t have, ignoring or unaware of the problems that usually accompany the thing they don’t have. Rather than appreciating the situation they’re in and the things that they do have, jealous people are generally very focused on watching others and measuring them against themselves.

                The world, life, the universe, mankind, society as a whole, nobody and nothing owes anyone anything other than what life hands you. To say that it’s “unfair” that someone else has more than you or “has it better” than you is doing nothing but handing your own happiness to forces that are out of your control. Let’s face it: you can’t make the rest of the world be what you want it to be. Ultimately, the only thing you can change and control is yourself.

                The third verse of the Tao Te Ching asserts a very valid point: if you give something value, then someone else is going to want it. It’s ludicrous to ever think that the world is ever going to stop appraising every little thing, so the follower of Tao is left with no alternative but to refuse to recognize or appreciate the values that society places on the ten thousand things. To the follower of Tao, a gold brick is as much a shiny paperweight as it is a block of instant wealth. Cutting-edge fashions are a complete waste of money if the fabric is of poor quality and doesn’t last. Someone with a better-paying job just has more money, and while money is very useful in the modern world, it would become absolutely useless altogether if we all had the same amount. Aside from that, it would take less than a minute before someone figured out how to get some money away from someone else, and the whole cycle would start over again.

                There is nothing wrong with wanting things and wanting to advance or ease your place in the world, but it is completely pointless to be jealous of another for having something you want. It’s better to be patient, bide your time, work toward your goals without comparing them to others, and ignoring what others have.