Newsletter - August 2021
Many Thoughts Make Muddy Water
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” (Lao Tzu)
This is Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching talking about how we typically fill our minds with so many particles of thought that we end up with mud. Can’t see clearly through mud! If we stop adding particles, and are patient while the water clears, then we’ll find “…the right action arises by itself.”
I think the quote is talking about how our minds are typically full of thoughts. What doesn’t occur to us is that they often get in the way of seeing clearly. In fact, we tend to think – here comes a thought – the opposite. In other words, we think the way to see more clearly is to think harder, to analyze more, to seek explanations, to understand something in terms of what we think are its constituent parts. But what if all this activity simply muddied the waters? What if the so-called constituent parts are actually the particles that block our vision? Part of the problem is that we cannot see clearly. The other part is we think that thinking is the solution – when it’s often part of the problem.
Water becomes clear when the mud is not stirred up. What’s more, mud settles all by itself. So, if thinking is what stirs up the mud, then the solution is to let go of thought. That’s not to say we should never think. It’s simply to acknowledge that sometimes thought does not have all the answers. Can we speed up the settling of the mud? Not really. Our part is simply to stop stirring and to have patience. The next line in the Tao Te Ching quote above says “Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” So, the solution is to have patience and to remain unmoving. These are often not easy things to do.
I confess I’m a little analytical. (Those who know me would say that “little” is an understatement.) If I want to know what the “right action” is in a given situation, my typical response is to gather data, analyze it for patterns, make predictions as to likely outcomes from various alternative actions, and then select what I think is the “best” action. It may be methodical and organized, but it involves a lot of thinking. Does my approach always work? Sometimes it does, but certainly not always. How comfortable am I letting go of thought and allowing the right action to arise “by itself”? Not very. But what happens when I do?
An example that’s true for me is when I wake up in the morning with a solution to a problem that I couldn’t figure out the day before. Where did the solution come from? Good question. I certainly didn’t fail to figure it out for lack of trying. Instead, ironically, I succeeded when I stopped trying. What’s more, I didn’t even try to stop trying. I just went to sleep. So, it was hardly me who "succeeded.” What happened was that the right action arose “by itself.” My part was simply to be patient while the mud settled overnight.
So much for me, what about you? What’s a current situation for which you’re seeking the “right action”? Imagine the “right action” is in front of you but you cannot see it because your thoughts are so thick you can’t see through them. What are some of the thoughts that get in your way? What happens if you pick them up, look at them, and then just let them go? Can you see more clearly now?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
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