Monday, March 2, 2009

Defining the Undefinable

Tao Te Ching Verse 4
I'm a bit warmer to this translation but I'll add Steven Mitchell's below it:

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the emperors.

Steven Mitchell's version:

The Tao is like a well:
Used, but never used up
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

I used to think that the Tao was another name we could give 'love'. Love is unending. Like the eternal void in this verse. Filled with possibility. Love guides, connects, fills.

When I feel really connected, not only with people around me, but with the moment (you know, not spending this moment thinking about all of the things I have to do, or maybe should have done, or possibly could have done...) I feel love. I am moved to act in loving ways. Listening deeply. Responding instead of reacting. Being instead of doing.

But there have been just as many times when I've been moved by anger...seemingly unending anger! Usually it happens when I've allowed myself to take on much more than I'm able to do and I've had enough. Enough deadlines, caretaking, phone calls, cleaning, emotional drama, disrespect from clients and family, cat hair. You know: enough. And to cut it all off quickly I throw out a few select sharp words in a tone and volume no one can misunderstand - and just for good measure some loud noise like a door slamming or a pounding fist. Whichever seems to be the most effective in making a quick change in the immediate circumstance. The anger gave me what I needed: solitude, disconnection, clearing out. I said yes to too many people, let my boundaries down and I had to have a quick and dirty retreat. At the moment anger was a means to an end.

So if love is Tao, shouldn't anger be Tao also? Anger sometimes feels unending: used, but never used up. Many times filled with infinite possibilities.

And I think back to all of the times anger has saved me over the years. Anger, initially, can spark dramatic change. I remember giving birth to my first child. The umbilical cord was prolapsed, cutting off oxygen to my daughter. The doctor told the staff to prep me now for immediate surgery, so they started milling about to prepare. The doctor dropped into a fury: "I SAID NOW!!" he boomed. His anger (and fear of possibly losing the baby) shook them up and we were in surgery in no time. It was amazing. It was also anger that saved me, when in college, from being pulled down an alley by two drunk young men - fighting and yelling in anger made them take off. It was initially anger, a few years ago, that made me defend several young kids who were being lured into a fight by boys seven to eight years older.

Anger isn't the Tao. No emotion is. Not love. Not peace. Not anger. Tao is not a feeling.

But we always feel better when we can define, describe, compare, evaluate what something is. We have such a need to define that we sometimes do it by what it is not! Because with these descriptions, definitions, comparisons, evaluations...we feel that we know. We understand.

And above all, we have to understand. Wrap our brains around it. Know.

This is how I approached understanding "Tao". This was the only way I knew how to approach it. Break it down into what it's made of, how it works, what it feels like, looks like, tastes like, smells like.

But Tao is different. I had to get over that. Because it is none of those things. It just is.

And to understand it, I really had to work hard. I worked to blunt my sharpness: to stop defining what everything is and is not. Worked to untangle my knots: my stress, anger, love, happiness, curiosity. I had to soften my glare: no more judgment, evaluations, constant thinking. I had to merge with the dust: for a moment, just a moment, believe that I am not separate from anything - ANYTHING: from the stained carpet beneath my feet, from the barking dog outside, from wars beyond my country's borders, from miniscule ants living under rocks, from the garbage lying in the bins outside.

The more I am able to smooth, untangle, soften, merge life's circumstances, that's when I begin to understand Tao, and only then. Because when I don't get it, I realize I'm trying too hard.

There really isn't anything to get.

There is only to be.


  1. thanks for this; very well expressed. one question: who did the non-stephen mitchell translation?

  2. Ahh! Good question! Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation. It's interesting how many different translations there are. And they each carry with them a bit of a different feel. Here's another one by J. Legge(Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39) [1891]:

    The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness.

    How deep and unfathomable it is,
    as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of
    all things!

    We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should temper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!

    I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.