I was stocking lettuce at TJs about five years ago when a guy I worked with quoted the Dao de Jing. That random bit of wisdom stuck in my head. It made so much sense. A few days later I bought a copy and I’ve (seriously) been a better person ever since.
The Dao de Ching (or Tao te Ching or the Book of the Way) is about 5,000 years old and was written by a “guy” named Lau Tzu. As Lau Tzu just means “old master,” it’s possible this short, 81 chapter text was written by a few different people and over many years. It’s been transcribed and translated a zillion times and from what I’ve seen, no two versions are quite the same, but each one gives off a beautifully austere lucidity.
In a woefully incomplete nutshell, the Dao de Ching tells us that in addition to being humans encumbered with human nature, naturally inclined to control and alter our world, we also belong to the universe with its universal nature — both in a new-agey touchy-feely sense and in a nuts and bolts, immutable laws-of-physics sense. If we work to get a little closer to seeing the universal nature of life, we can enjoy and experience life while we’re alive.
So. Many. Versions.
I started with Stephen Mitchell’s New English Version and it’s still my favorite. He stresses his is not a direct translation but a “poetic interpretation.” It has a lovely cadence and a Zen-like simplicity (before writing his version, he’d undertook a fourteen years of Zen training).
While his version is the one I continually return to, the lines here are my own interpretations, gleaned from four different versions (links below) including a version translated by John C. H. Wu that prints the original Chinese characters on facing pages. I don’t read Chinese, but having the original text makes the book feel super legit, like I’m some kind of scholar over here.
Here are five passages that offer a mini dive into the Dao de Ching. If you want to read the whole thing, it’ll take you about an hour. Each of the 81 “chapters” is in verse and average just a single page each. I obviously believe it’ll be an hour well spent.
From Chapter 2
When you say something is beautiful, other things become ugly.
When you say something is good, other things become bad.
Passing value judgement is what we do. Without even thinking about it. Maybe it’s evolutionary. Eons ago, we learned this bush makes tasty berries while the berries on that bush killed a guy last week. This bush is good, that bush is bad. Sleeping here is safe. When someone slept over there last week they got eaten. Here, good. There, bad.
We paint these binary evaluations on everything. It’s just easier that way. Pollution degrades the environment ⇒ Cars make pollution ⇒ Cars are bad. Consumer culture is mindless ⇒ Malls are consumer culture ⇒Malls are bad.
But cars are amazing. Fuel explodes in a chamber that turns a piston that turns a crank that turns a wheel and the McLaren Senna can do 208 miles an hour. That’s a hundred years of human ingenuity and mechanical evolution and engineering at work, and it’s fucking impressive.
But shopping malls?
To back up, my first experience with a Taoist frame of mind came long before I read a whit of the Dao De Ching. It came watching David Byrne in True Stories as he visits shopping malls and suburban homes and pageants and churches and parades, enamored of absolutely all of it. Doorbells! Peppers!!
Even shopping malls enthralled him. Yes, it’s an ocean of pointless products pushed upon us to fill commercial-driven pseudo-needs. But there’s something glorious about shopping malls. Their scale, their scope. Someone designed that fountain. Eight different people put that shoe together in a land farther away than the person buying it might ever travel. That banner was printed on a ten-foot wide, five-hundred pound printer.
When we dismiss an entire shopping mall as bad, full of soul-sucking commercialism, mass-produced junk, bad Muzak, we miss the opportunity to become curiously enthralled with the vastness of the world, the ingenuity of our fellow humans, the evolution that has taken us from berry eaters to Hot Dog On A Stick enjoyers.
When we dismiss that over there as bad and embrace this over here as good, we miss the gradations in between, closing ourselves off to the texture and fullness of life as it is right now.
When we call something beautiful, other things become ugly. But when we let go of value judgments, we can look at things for what they are, fascinated, endlessly.
From Chapter 13
Hope and worry are both illusions that come from having a self
If you had no self, what troubles could you possibly have?
Change the respect you have for your “self” into respect for the world.
Love the world as you love yourself and you will be able to care for all things.
What have hope and worry ever done for anyone? Pointless illusions.
You hope you get that job, or you worry that you won’t get the job. Same difference. But after you walk out of the interview room, your personal feelings, all your hopes and fears and dreams and frets and everything else you feel make no difference. You’ll get the call on Thursday morning and you’ll have a new job or you won’t.
Those hope/worry illusions come about because we each think we are this separate, unique, distinct entity that EVERYTHING is HAPPENING to. When we realize we are but one of trillions of entities currently alive (each one “hoping” and “worrying” in their own way) one realizes that this concept of “self” is a bit silly. Like a single jelly bean in the the five-gallon jar of jelly beans saying, “Hey everyone! Do you think the scoop will pick ME this time?!” The other 345,675 jelly beans are wondering the same damn thing.
So let go of that idea. I find that when I stop thinking of myself as the main player in this movie made for an audience of one, I realize that I am just a part of a whole. A universe of renewing, expiring, retiring, regenerating, reconfiguring entities that will just keep on keeping on eons after that job no longer exists because the company no longer exists because the planet upon which the company resided no longer exists because its sun went super nova.
Which sounds maybe depressing or tough-love-ish?
But the next line turns it around: Change the concern you have for your “self” into interest in the other jelly beans. Take all of your self-directed energy and turn it outward. If you’re no more important than the next person, if everyone here is just a temporary point of light in an infinitely vast night sky, then you can enjoy the world from any perspective. You can try to care about each person in the world as you care about yourself. Imagine the freedom of getting over your “self” and all troubles that come with it.
From Chapter 15
Can you remain still until your inner muddiness settles?
Can you remain unmoving until the right action presents itself?
A Taoist isn’t looking for fulfillment.
Not seeking, not reaching, they are present and welcome all things.
The Dao de Ching wants you to stop thinking so much. Movement — physical, mental, or otherwise — shouldn’t be something you dwell on endlessly. Let movement come from something unthinking, more like a reflex or an instinct.
In a way, trying to do this feels like meditation. Sitting still and consciously NOT going through your to-do list. Clearing your thoughts, waiting until the moment moves you to action. Let your brain go calm. Clear your inner chaos like mud settling to the bottom of a stream after a big rain storm. When you are moved to rise, do so. The action acts upon itself. Often you’ll start doing what you were going to do anyway. Sometimes it’s something different entirely.
And if one day you are moved to really, really organize the spice cupboard or wander out and contemplate the point where the road meets the sky, so be it. Taoism is not interested in helping you achieve your life goals. Because the Dao de Ching basically tells us there are no life goals. You are alive? Goal met. Now appreciate it. Look at it as you live it. Examine that spice cupboard and the wonders within.
I love that Taoism is about letting go of the end goal. The Taoist doesn’t seek fulfillment. Because there is no moment when we are completely full, all needs hopes and desires met. Not seeking, not reaching, the things in front of you, the things around you, the temperature in the room, the tree outside the window. That’s the present moment. Be present and welcome what it brings you. Enjoy it. Stare outside the window and look at the leaves of that tree. An infinite number of physical permutations brought you and that leaf together at this moment.
I think taking a minute to close-read a tree is just as important as working towards life goals. Or at least I feel a hell of a lot better when I think that way.
From Chapter 29
Do you want to change the world?
It won’t work out.
The world is a spirit and a vessel.
It can’t be improved.
Try to fix it and you’ll make it worse.
Try to hold it and it will slip through your fingers.
For everything, there is a time.
A time for being ahead, a time for being behind,
For being strong, for being weak,
For being built up, for being destroyed.
There is a time for being up and a time for being down.
So the Taoist accepts the world as it is,
Without trying to control it.
They let things happen,
Staying forever in the center.
This is such a departure from modern self-help talk. We’re all trying to “make a difference.” We’re trying to make things better. But the Dao de Ching says it can’t be done?
I’m not trying to oversimplify anything, but look at something as complex as climate change. At its core, it came from making the world better. A car is faster than a horse ⇒ better. A home with electricity is far more convenient ⇒ better. But going faster and making things easier, led to an abundance of carbon dioxide in the air, which is now leading to crazy weather and rising oceans.
I don’t think this means to say never try to improve anything. It’s not saying we should have all stayed in caves. It just asks us to take a small moment before we impose our will on the world around us. Taoism doesn’t mean you lie on the ground and stare at the sky until you die from thirst waiting for it to rain. Taoism makes sure we see the present moment, instead of perpetually driving forward for the sake of driving forward.
Often the desire for change comes because we think something is “wrong.” But sometimes things are supposed to be wrong. There is a time for being sad and tired and slow. For being happy and energetic and spontaneous. Time for day and time for night. Light, dark. Electrons, protons. Full, empty.
There’s comfort in knowing there’s a time for everything. That things aren’t always supposed to be rosy. Taoism lets you see the sadness, the slowness, the emptiness for what it is — a part of a whole.
Accepting things for what they are is nearly impossible. It’s our nature to try and change things. But we can try to let somethings be as they are. We picked the longest line in the grocery store. Again. Just go with it. Take that wait time and look up. Look at what’s on the walls. The color of the cashier’s hair. Wonder what the ceiling is made out of.
Staying in the center, letting the world do its thing, it’s not just being passive, it’s considering, appreciating, wondering about, enjoying what’s around you while staying rooted right where you are.
From Chapter 44
Enjoy what you have
Know that it is enough
When you stop looking for more
You will live a long and happy life
It’s not a new idea. To be precise, it’s 5,000 years old. But you hear it all the time: cherish what you have because you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. But how many of us do love what we have? We’re all working towards the Goal. That point in time when we have enough money and the house is clean and we’re at our ideal weight and the lawn has been mowed and all the butter knives are in the drawer. We all know that point doesn’t exist and there is no someday. There is no finish line. No point when we look around and say, “Yes, everything is exactly how I want it.”
Unless you want things exactly as they are.
I like this reminder. Enjoy things as they are. Even if they’re shitty. That shaft of light streaming through your prison cell window might be the most beautiful thing you see all day. Then let that be enough. It is for some people. If we live in a perpetual state of wanting more, seeking perfection, we forget to notice what’s here now.
There’s only one finish line, and that’s death. Let’s not get there and realize we spent 80% of our allotted time looking for something else. The Dao de Ching says look at right now instead. See all that stuff you’d otherwise miss. Breathe. Notice. Wonder. Be amazed.
Enjoy being alive while you are. This book helps me do that more that I ever would without it. Maybe it can help you too.