Thursday, December 1, 2016
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12
I just read an article called The Case Against Reality. It’s about a professor of cognitive science who says that the world we perceive through our senses is nothing like reality.
Decades ago, in my know-it-all youth, I wrote in some philosophy paper, “We participate in creating the reality we perceive.” Most of us have figured that out to some degree by now. But according to this guy, it’s not so much that we participate in creating the reality we perceive, but that there is no reality to perceive. Mind-blowing.
And it is also pretty much what Lao Tzu said 2,500 years ago in Chapter 12. The focus of this chapter is how our senses and desires lead us astray, away from the natural energy flow of the universe, away from our innate wisdom.
It begins by observing the distraction of our sensory input.
The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen the ear
The five flavors dull the taste
Sensory experience blocks or overwhelms true seeing, true hearing, true tasting, in other words true understanding. True understanding is beyond senses, even beyond thought.
Desire, like sensory experience, can also distract us.
Chasing after things [described in terms of hunting] maddens the heart
Rare [costly or hard to get] things hinder right action
These two lines are similar to these lines from Chapter 3:
Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace
Chapter 12 next brings in a character becoming familiar to us, the sage.
Thus the sage is guided by his belly and not by his eyes
This line again echoes Chapter 3:
Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly
As we saw then, the reference to the belly doesn’t mean the digestive system, but rather the belly or the dantian as the energy center of our being. Being guided by the belly rather than the eyes means to listen to our inner wisdom rather than our senses and desires.
And now the last line, which is only five characters but lends itself to many meanings.
去 leave or let go of
取 hold or choose
Various translations generally frame this line in terms of this and that–letting that go and choosing this. This could mean making choices about things in a detached way. It could also mean choosing inner guidance over sensory distraction.
But here is another way to look at this line. In classical Chinese, the last two characters when combined can mean ordinary or casually. So you could understand the last line to mean, instead of choosing, that the sage casually lets everything go, or allows things to come and go in their natural rhythm. This is the essence of nonattachment.
Isn’t that cool? One of the things I have so loved about contemplating the original Chinese of the Tao Te Ching is all the little treasures revealed in the mystery of this ancient poetry.
Anyway, we’re all thinking now, so what does this mean for us in the last month of 2016? We might look back over this year and consider what has caught our attention. What has distracted us? What desires or thoughts or emotions have captured our energy? When have we been guided by our “eyes” rather than our “bellies”?
This is easy to answer for me. I have been hooked by the endless news cycles and distracted by counting the number of times I have heard someone say “unprecedented.” Even as I recognized that I was becoming a bit (!) obsessed, it was hard to break away. It’s very challenging to hear, much less heed, inner guidance when willingly jumping into the maelstrom of sensory and emotional overload.
No judgment. Just observation. Our practice is on the razor’s edge, and this year has kept me on the razor’s edge a lot! I call myself home by remembering:
Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
~A Course in Miracles