Newsletter - March 2022

Mindfulness and the Tao Te Ching

 

“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with openness and curiosity.” There are lots of definitions out there, and this one is as good as any. But what does this have to do with the Tao Te Ching?

 

We all know that mindfulness is a good thing. It reduces stress, enables focus, and helps us respond to what’s happening in the world around us rather than simply reacting impulsively. Ideally, we’d be mindful all the time. However, for most of us, daily living contains so many demands and distractions that thinking we can stay mindful all the time is simply wishful thinking. And, of course, wishful thinking, is another distraction.

 

The important thing about mindfulness is that it’s not to do with thinking at all. It’s to do with “awareness” – which is something different. Being aware of our thoughts is not the same thing as thinking them. It is when we think (and often overthink) our thoughts that we lose sight of the reality of what is, and instead start believing that reality is what we think. However, thought and reality are not the same thing. Thought certainly has its place, but very often all it does is to muddy the water. This is what the Tao Te Ching refers to when it says “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” (chapter 15). Thought and patience often do not go well together.

 

So if we want the water to be clear, then what are we supposed to do with our thoughts? The suggestion is to simply let them go. “Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace” (chapter 16). Leaving aside the question of how exactly we might do that, another question is: If we empty our mind of all thoughts, then what are we being mindful of? Or, to put it another way, what is our mind “full of” when it is empty of all thoughts? I think the Tao Te Ching suggests that what we become full of is simply being in the present moment. “True fullness seems empty, yet it is fully present” (chapter 45).

 

The trouble with thought is that so often it takes us to anywhere but the present. Thought likes to evaluate, to compare and judge, to have opinions, or at least have something to say. For this purpose, thought often takes us for a ride into a future where we imagine things will be either better or worse than whatever we are experiencing right now. Imagining what might be worse is, of course, the root of worry, stress, and anxiety.

 

At other times, thought takes us for a ride into the past where we imagine how everything might have turned out so much better “if only” we, or other people, had done something other than whatever we, or they, did do in the past. Another curious comparison exercise. Imagining what might have been is, of course, the root of regret. Whenever we do this, we are using the present moment to live with thoughts of worry and regret. Is this really what we want the present moment to be full of?

 

Now, in fairness, trips into the future might be full of hopes and dreams – and trips into the past might bring fond memories. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that much of the time this is not so. Regardless of the purpose of the trip, time spent in the future or the past is always time taken from the present. Yet the present moment is the only moment that is here right now. It is the only moment in which we are actually alive; the only moment in which we can actually do anything.

 

So what does this mean for mindfulness? For me, mindfulness consists of two parts. The first part is simply being aware of what my mind is “full” of at any time – and the answer is usually thoughts of some sort or other. The second part is recognizing that whatever my mind is full of, it is something which I am allowing to be there whether I’m aware of doing so or not.

 

Perhaps, in my awareness, I will continue to allow myself to think certain thoughts. After all, thought does have its place. For example, to some degree, I can influence the future by planning what I do before I do it. “Prevent trouble before it arises. Put things in order before they exist. The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout. The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet” (chapter 64). I’m sure we’d all agree a thousand mile journey is worth a little planning.

 

But perhaps, in my awareness, I will not allow certain other thoughts. For example, I will not allow thoughts of worry and regret. Visiting the future briefly to plan is fine. Visiting the past briefly to learn is fine. But the key word is “briefly.” I can choose not to dwell there. At least, that’s what I would like to do. And perhaps this is where mindfulness can help me.

 

After observing that a mind full of thoughts is like water full of mud, the following lines in the Tao Te Ching say “Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” (chapter 15). There’s a practical suggestion. However, for me, the idea of remaining unmoving until I simply know what to do - without thought having been part of the picture - is an area where I know I still have a lot to learn! Having patience, remaining unmoving, emptying my mind of all thoughts – these are not easy things to do, yet they are what mindfulness is all about.

 

What does it look like when we succeed? “The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings… no illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body. He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being” (chapter 50). I think this is what mindfulness looks like when it’s in action.

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:

 

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share this newsletter.

 

Francis

 

(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)