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.

      leave or let go of
     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


  1. A wise and excellent post, especially at the end. Unfortunately it's one of those "easy to see, hard to do" philosophies. Reality it seems is factored by importance, time, and need. I remember once thinking (as I sat security-guarding the steering wheel plant), that a steering wheel is one of the hardest, most "real" things I can touch. And in one hundred years, that wheel would be a pile of rust and dust. Heck, the wheel I was using then probably is now! Or think about the names on headstones. The farther back in time you go, the more you lose the reality behind the name. You have to work really hard to put reality to a century + old gravestone.

    1. What great examples, CW, of the impermanence of everything and the inevitability of change. When I lived in Paris, my apartment was near a very small, very old cemetery. Located at the corner of a busy intersection, it was always so quiet within the tall walls. I would sometimes go in there and just walk around or sit, looking at the faded names and dates on the centuries old stones. Definitely puts things in perspective!

  2. It is all too easy in this world of sensory overload to become distracted and to chase after everything except inner peace. Galen, you've inspired me to reflect upon my own habits as this year winds down, and to consider how I might bring focus to my "belly."
    Blessings to you!

    1. So true, Martha. Our world today is full of stimulation. I get migraines from certain visual triggers, and I find that I can hardly go to movies anymore because of the flashing, fast moving cinematic techniques. I also find it hard to enjoy music at a small club because even in that intimate space the speakers are so loud it makes my ears ring. It seems like we are living in a world desperate to avoid at all costs stillness or silence. Glad you found inspiration in this chapter.

  3. What a wonderful title for a book. I really like the understanding that you express here: "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 non attachment." Easier said than done, but so wise! And this letting go relates to every minute doesn't it? Those are great, end of the year questions. I'll have to ponder on these.

    1. Yes, Sandra, every minute. MUCH easier said than done. I confess I was just looking at the news when your comment popped up. Ha! Perfect timing and thanks for reminding me of what I just said. The news is off now.

  4. I do love to read your thoughts on learning this Chinese Philosophy. I do like to look back and reflect on the past year and what I have learned from my experiences. I keep a journal which helps me remember the precious moments.
    In our religion we believe that everyone every born into the world has the LIght of Christ which is our inner guide in making choices of life. Some call it our conscience. We have the agency to choose good over evil and other such choices. This light guides to the good and if we ignore it too the bad. Anyway, just thought I would share. Thanks for your stretching my thoughts today! Blessings~

    1. Thanks for sharing some perspective from your faith tradition. Isn't it fascinating that the basic principles from all faith traditions are so similar?!

  5. I too tried to avoid the news this year. I too failed :) They are so good at writing news and headlines that draw us in to an alternative reality. Did a lot of internal work in 2016, Galen, and except for a brief period and a free netflix trial run haha I was pretty much focused on the internal path. Of course, we are here in December which means time to be pulled in every which direction in the external world :)

    1. I would love to hear more about your internal work this year, Vishnu. Really. What a challenging time to try to stay focused on that path. The razor's edge for sure.


Your comment is valuable and valued. Comment moderation is enabled to block spam, so please excuse the delay until your comment appears on the blog.