It’s important when reading the Tao de Ching to remember that it’s original intention was that of a practice manual, not of a dogmatic or reverential text, although revering Tao has been and remains a mode of worship for over 2500 years in the form of Taoism (or, more commonly, Daoism). As a therapist, I am exploring the book as a tool or means to decrease psychic suffering and increase peaceful and joyful engagement in the world. However, to do so means understanding the text to the extent that it’s possible, but more so, getting a sense of “Tao” and how to integrate this great concept into life. Therefore, since our my means of communication in this blog is necessarily constricted to words (and occasionally videos and images), a little scholarly exploration is necessary just to unpack the meaning of the “Way” and how to use it.
The Tao de Ching, roughly translated as the Book of the Way, was written approximately 500 years before the birth of Christ by a Chinese sage who went by the name of Lao-tzu. It is often referred to for the knowledge it imparts of a respectful and yielding recognition of the Way. Like the proverbial “finger pointing at the moon”, the Tao de Ching attempts through words to show us the unnamable – a the natural flow of the universe and the “is-ness” of experience, as well as a mode of being in the world that works with, rather than against. A short book, almost a booklet, of 81 stanzas, it takes about 2 hours to read, yet it has a deep and eternal wisdom.
There are numerous translations of this ancient text. Some are scholarly and perplexing, others less so. My favorite version is that of Stephen Mitchell, who did not translate directly from Chinese, but instead read and interpreted numerous versions with the desire to “get into the head” of Lao-tzu, and give us a meaningful and useful translation in which the language does not encumber the message. There are no footnotes and translation asides, only a few short notes in the rear. Freed from the struggle of figuring out what the text means semantically, we can concentrate our energy on just figuring out what it means for us and how to use it.
Ever-present in the Tao-de-Ching is the underlying concept of Wei-Wu-Wei, or doing-not doing. This is not to be mistaken with passivity. It is strength in flexibility. ” A good athlete”, says Mitchell, “can enter a state of body awareness in which the right movement or the right stroke happens effortlessly,without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action, the purest and most effective form of action – the game plays the game”. In Wei-Wu-Wei, “The doer has wholeheartedly vanished into the deed”. As Robert Pirsig illustrated in ZAMM, it is being completely absorbed in Quality in the maintenance of an old motorcycle. Surrendering to the Tao and trusting in the “intelligence of the Universe” is to allow what is, and to use it without waste and without force, simultaneously with Yin-receptiveness and Yang-creativity.
Mitchell characterizes a Tao master as someone in perfect harmony with what is. And, as hopeful forbearing for the practicioner, he declares to have met such masters. “Resist nothing”,was the directive spoken to Eckhardt Tolle at the moment of his awakening. That phrase underlies the essence of of all spiritual awareness and is the Grace of God. But must we be blessed with Grace to achieve the Tao? Must we too have a spiritual awakening, or can we, through practice, live within the Way? Zen masters have done so, we have all seen groups of elders doing so in their early morning outdoor practice of Tai-Chi. Bruce Lee attributed the perfection of his art to dedication to Tao. Do we not see the Tao flow through all that is great in human endeavor?
I certainly believe that a beginning to follow the Way is simply a matter of being willing, and that even small doses can yield big improvements. I am far from being a Tao mistress, I am a mere beginner. So, in a series of 81 short reflections mirroring each of the stanzas, I hope to illustrate my quest to understand this masterpiece, as well to integrate it into life. I am convinced that attempting to live a life in accordance with the Tao, in the “center” is on that can reduce frustration, defensiveness and disappointment and cultivate peace, meaning and satisfaction. Therefore, please join me as I explore and share my reflections on small but great Tao de Ching.