Newsletter - January 2023
How Can a Book Club Use In Harmony with the Tao?
People sometimes join book clubs at the start of a new year. A while ago I was invited to speak to a spiritual book club. They had selected In Harmony with the Tao as a book they were going to read and work through. I felt honored to be invited, but I wasn’t sure what I would have to contribute by being there. After all, I had written my book and they were reading it. What else was there to say? The answer surprised me.
In this particular club, the members met every week. They’d select a book and read it one chapter at a time. Members would read the chapter on their own in advance, then they’d meet as a group to discuss what the chapter had meant to each of them. They’d found that doing this provided them with a richer experience than if they had each just read the book on their own; and they had worked through many different spiritual books in this way over the years.
The more I thought about it, the more I recognized that Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is written in a great format for doing this. There are eighty-one chapters and all of them are short – some of them very short. In many cases, Lao Tzu packs a lot into a few words. The question is, what do the words mean to the reader? At the rate of one chapter a week, the group planned to find out.
When I started reading the Tao Te Ching many years ago, I sometimes felt Lao Tzu had packed too much into too few words. The resulting text was dense and cryptic. Some parts were ambiguous, other parts contradicted each other. In certain chapters the messages were hard to understand or not clear at all. The idea behind my book had been to explore what lay between the lines and follow the themes that weaved through the chapters – or at least to find out what I thought was there and what I felt the themes might be. After all, another reader might find different things. This idea of exploring one chapter at a time had resonated with the book club and, in spite of my wondering how to contribute, the book club meeting that evening turned out to be very interesting indeed.
Elsewhere, I have likened reading the Tao Te Ching to taking a journey up a mountain being guided by a wise old man. The wise old man, of course, is Lao Tzu. I feel he takes us by the hand and helps us with the tricky parts of the climb. When we reach the top, he points and shows us the view. For me, the beauty of his words is that they contain no judgment. He doesn’t say whether the view is right or wrong, or how to make sense of what we see, or even what to do with it. He just points at the view, steps out of the way, and invites us to let it affect us as it may. What we make of the view is entirely up to us.
In the meeting, the book club members talked about the view they saw, and how they felt it applied to them. And I couldn’t help thinking Lao Tzu would have been pleased. After all, he had written instructions for climbing to viewpoints twenty-five hundred years ago, and people were still following them today – and marveling at the views they saw.
If you’re in a book club which might consider reading In Harmony with the Tao, then below are some ideas you may wish to consider.
1. Reading chapters. Suggest people read one chapter (or a few chapters) at a time in advance of the book club meeting. Then use the meeting time to talk about the views each person saw when they read the chapter(s), and what it meant to them. I saw this idea in action that evening, and it works very well.
2. Patterns within the chapters. If you’ve spent some time with my book, you may have noticed there’s a pattern to how I end each chapter. My purpose is to help us bring back down to earth the view Lao Tzu is pointing at. After all, most of our daily life is not spent on mountaintops. What will we do with what we’ve seen? What difference will it make in our everyday lives? Clearly, I cannot tell you what you see, nor can I tell you how it might affect your everyday life. However, as fellow human beings, we can certainly look at the view together and reflect on it.
With this in mind, the last three paragraphs have the following structure. The first starts with the words “How often we…” followed by some everyday examples of how we often cause confusion in our everyday lives. The second to last paragraph starts with the words “Have you ever…” and invites you to think of times when you let go of desiring everything to be your way, and what happened when you did that. And the final paragraph starts with the words “This chapter reminds us…” and contains a summary of how I think Lao Tzu’s message can be applied in general.
Does this structure work every time? I don’t know. All I can suggest is that you try reading it, see whether it works for you, and share the results with each other. What matters is what you see, not what someone tells you is there.
3. Patterns between chapters. For me, there are several themes which run like common threads through all eighty-one chapters of the Tao Te Ching. I suggested earlier that the mountain path is windy and steep in places, and the dense and cryptic text can feel like obstacles in your path. For me, recognizing the themes feels like taking a path of least resistance up the mountain to the finest views. In a book club setting, it would be interesting to invite people to look for such patterns between chapters and see whether different readers identify similar patterns. A good clue is when there is something about the text that feels familiar or somehow reminds you of a previous chapter.
Have you ever read the same book as someone else and been surprised that they saw, or felt, something different about it than you did? Do you happen to be a member of any book clubs? Has it been interesting to experience what the same book means to different people? As a result, has that confirmed, changed, or expanded your view of the words you read?
If you plan to read In Harmony with the Tao in a book club setting, I’d be very interested to know how it works out for you. At the end of the day, the purpose of writing is to connect with readers. I’m sure that’s what Lao Tzu had in mind when he wrote the Tao Te Ching. And a book club is a great way to share connections.
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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