Newsletter - December 2022
At a Loss for Words?
“For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.” (Lao Tzu)
We’re pretty good at naming anything we can wrap our minds around. We like analyzing and distinguishing one thing from another. But what about bigger things? For example, the Oneness/Wholeness that includes everything. Can’t wrap our minds around that, so we’re stumped for words, aren’t we? Never mind. For lack of a better name, let’s call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 25.)
It’s not often that we’re stumped for words. Most of us have lots to say about lots of things. We invented words to do it with, and they work pretty well most of the time – but not always. This newsletter looks at a particular case when words don’t work, and explores what happens when we make space for what we cannot wrap our minds around.
The May newsletter looked at how we like to name things. Giving things names is how we distinguish one thing from another, which is very useful when making distinctions is what we want to do. But what happens when we want to refer to the Oneness/Wholeness that is everything? The answer is we get stuck because making distinctions is the only thing words are good for. They’re useless for anything else.
Well, at least we are in good company because Lao Tzu gets stuck too, which is why he says “For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.” That works. It’s as good a word as any when we’re faced with the fact that, in this particular case, there simply are no words for what we want to refer to. Really? Why not? Let’s explore a bit, and then consider why it matters.
Instead of “the Tao” we could call it “the-Oneness/Wholeness-that-is-everything” but there are at least two problems with this. First, it’s a bit of a mouthful. Second, it doesn’t work because the moment we introduce the concept of Oneness we create the concept of not-Oneness. In other words, whether we like it or not, we make a distinction. Lao Tzu refers to this problem when he says “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other” (chapter 2). It’s a problem we just can’t get away from.
Well, if things are not “beautiful” or “ugly” or “good” or “bad” then what are they? The answer is that they are quite simply what they are. They really don’t need us to label them in any particular way. As Shakespeare’s Juliet reminds us, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So, can we make a special word for that-which-cannot-be-distinguished-from-everything-else?
Sure. Let’s call it “the Tao” and agree that this word makes no distinctions at all. In other words, we’ll agree that the concept of not-Tao is not something that exists. That certainly makes “Tao” a pretty special word, but I think that’s all Lao Tzu is trying to say – and the only reason we’re using it is for lack of anything better. That sounds fair enough, don’t you think?
Okay. So why does all this matter? Surely this is just a bunch of academic hair-splitting! Does it make any practical difference? What does it have to do with how we live our lives? These are good down-to-earth questions. So, here’s a shot at some answers.
Here’s one from Lao Tzu. “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice, of the Tao every day something is dropped” (chapter 48). Knowledge works by separating things into parts. We analyze what we see as the real world out there and define it in terms of (what we so boldly call) its constituent parts. And, as we’ve seen, words are excellent tools for distinguishing the parts and describing their interrelationships. But what if this is just how we wrap our minds around things? What if most of what life is all about lies beyond the reach of words and knowledge? I think this is what Lao Tzu is referring to. And here’s how it makes a practical difference.
I believe we have to ask ourselves the big question: What do we think is our part in what we do with the brief period of time for which we’re alive here on this planet? Our experience tells us we all have wants, needs, and desires. Is life simply about satisfying as many of these as we can before we die? If we think so, then pursuing knowledge can help us on our way to fame and fortune (not that it provides any guarantees, of course).
But our experience also tells us that things often don’t turn out the way we want. Sometimes we get what we want only to discover we now desire more, or something else. What’s more, things appear which we never saw coming. Stuff happens (as they say) whether we like it or not. What about that? Is life simply a struggle to overcome one obstacle after another? I think we often act as though we think the answer is yes. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is the advice we’re often given. The question is, do we believe it?
What if life is not about “doing things”? What if it’s not all about satisfying desires, pursuing knowledge, and adding more every day? What if, however hard we try, fame and fortune (and anything else we think we can possess) turns out to be forever beyond our grasp? Hmm. What happens if we do the opposite, which is to let go? This is what Lao Tzu’s Master does. “The Master doesn’t try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful. The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough. The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done” (chapter 38).
The ordinary man will never be done because he (or she) is on an endless pursuit. Trying harder is not the answer. Lao Tzu suggests it’s all much simpler than that. “My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail” (chapter 70, italics mine). So, is the answer simply to let go? Is that the answer to the big question? What does “letting go” mean anyway? And what does that have to do with words?
I don’t know about you, but for me I think part of the answer is to let go of having particular expectations as to the results of my actions. And that means to let go of distinguishing in advance what I want those results to be. I desire this outcome, not that one. How do I know? Well, that’s where words come in. They help me distinguish what I desire from what I don’t desire. So, what would happen if words were not part of the picture?
The picture the Master lives in is too big to be put into words, and he recognizes this. The reason he doesn’t need words is because he doesn’t need to do particular things to bring about particular outcomes. Why not? Because he doesn’t desire particular outcomes. In fact, he doesn’t desire anything. Instead, his life is simply his unique natural response to the big picture. Hence “Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way” (chapter 43). The Master doesn’t need distinctions, which is why he has no use for words.
What’s an example that’s true for you? Do you think we often tend to drown ourselves in distinctions and detail, thinking the answer lies somewhere among the pieces? What if living in harmony with the Tao were like simply coming up for air? What do I mean by “air”? Well, for lack of a better name…
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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