Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11

I started to write a post about my martial arts class yesterday, and then realized the next chapter in our Tao Te Ching chapter series is Chapter 11, which is directly relevant to what I wanted to write about. Synchronicity–gotta love it!

Chapter 11 is a favorite one for many folks. It talks about the overlooked essential value of emptiness by giving examples of common things.

For example, when clay is shaped into a bowl, we admire the beauty of the form, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the bowl useful.

In my home, I have a lot of original tilework around the doors and windows in the kitchen and bathroom. It’s lovely, but it is the space inside the windows and doors that make them useful. One commentary I read said that in the part of ancient China where the Tao Te Ching originated, homes were often carved out of cliffsides. So rather than enclosing space to build a home, they literally created space to make a home. I love that.

The chapter concludes by observing that form is what we value, but emptiness is what we use.

While the examples given are of tangible things, the same principle holds true in other contexts. Two people can’t have a dialogue, for example, if one of them does all the talking, not allowing space for the other person to speak. If my mind is full of judgments and opinions, there is no space for new ideas, or for another person’s opinion. If my heart is full of fear and hatred, there is no room for compassion and forgiveness. If my spirit is clogged with beliefs, there is no space to listen for divine guidance.

Let me go back to my martial arts class to describe this another way. In class we worked with a partner to practice “push hands.” In this exercise, the partners face each other with their forearms gently touching. They move slowly, staying relaxed, trying to sense through touch where their partners might be off balance or unguarded, sensing an opening. The teacher kept telling us not to struggle to occupy the space already occupied by our partner, but rather to seek the empty space and move into it, thereby neutralizing our partner’s force.

When the teacher was instructing me, he pointed to my partner’s arm and said, “He is already here. Don’t go there. Go where he isn’t. Grow into that empty space like a tree.” By filling the empty space, my partner had nowhere to go. Hmm, hard to describe. You sorta had to be there.

Over and over in martial arts we are taught not to try to combat force through muscular strength, but to maneuver around force in such a way that the incoming force defeats itself. The emptiness is what “wins” although we don’t practice in terms of winning and losing, but rather in terms of having a “conversation” with our partners about directing energy. We practice every day to release the energy-blocking tension in our bodies, to create space for the energy to move freely through us. In the vocabulary of this chapter, the emptiness is what is useful.

So as you move through your day today, consider the usefulness of space, both external space around you, and internal space in your heart and mind.

The moment you are not, enlightenment is. With emptiness, the matter is settled. ~Osho


  1. Thank you for the reminder to consider the internal space in our hearts and minds--
    "If my mind is full of judgements and opinions, there is no space for new ideas...if my heart is full of fears and hatred, there is no room for compassion and forgiveness..."

    And I must say your martial arts class sounds fascinating.

    1. Hi, Polly. Thanks for your comment. My martial arts class IS fascinating. I really love it. Always so much to learn, and the folks there are great.

  2. I love this concept, Galen. We should get out of our own way in order to embrace the Other instead of our own egos.

    1. Well said, Martha. And to take it one step further, when we embrace the "Other" we find out there isn't one! There is only "Us." Maybe not even that. There is only "One."

  3. Loving your blog! I try to explain that tai chi thing all the time. Force against force is nowhere. If you are already encountering resistance, you have to find another way. It's not about pushing through. It's not yang v. yang. And creating space has been a big thing in rehabilitating my shoulder. As soon as I feel it tense, Stop and create space. Physical and mental. Thanks for sharing these intersections!

    1. Hey, Jessica! Thanks for the kind words and your added perspective. Hope your shoulder will be well enough soon to see you in class again!


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