Newsletter - July 2023
Lao Tzu and Michelangelo
You don’t often see those two names paired together, do you? So what am I doing putting them side by side? Good question. The answer is because of a quote attributed to Michelangelo which you may have heard. The quote is “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” I think these are wonderful words. Here’s why.
It seems obvious to us that Michelangelo created the angel, but he says all he did was carve away everything in the marble that was not the angel so that, by the time he was done, only the angel remained. In doing this, to my mind, he did two extraordinary things. He saw the angel in the marble in the first place. Second, he knew how to set him free. Most of us would likely have seen nothing but a block of stone, and we would have had no idea how to set anything free from inside it.
By now perhaps you’re thinking yes, that’s a nice quote, but what does it have to do with Lao Tzu?
Here’s the connection. Lao Tzu tells us the Master has discarded any illusions he may have been holding on to. So, for me, the connection between Michelangelo and Lao Tzu is that illusions are the chips of marble which, once removed, reveal what is there all the time. Michelangelo knew how to remove the chips of marble and reveal the angel. Lao Tzu’s Master knew how to let illusions go and live in harmony with the Tao. We may not be able to do what Michelangelo did, but I think Lao Tzu’s Master sets an example which all of us can grasp. That said, grasping is not the same as doing. But let’s look at each of these in turn.
First, what exactly is the Master doing when he sets his example? “The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. He knows that he is going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to: 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).
This tells us that illusions are the things the Master doesn’t hold on to. As a result, he has no resistances inside himself. And, as a result of that, he doesn’t so much think about his actions as let them “flow from the core of his being.” Resistance is what gets in the way. For me, illusions are the chips of marble that end up discarded on the workshop floor. In Michelangelo’s case, what’s left is the angel. In Lao Tzu’s case, what’s left is a life in harmony with the Tao.
Is that a bit of a stretch? Maybe. But it works for me. And it brings us to the second part, which is the question of how we follow the Master’s example. Is this easy to do? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. And here’s why. We spend a lot of our time chasing after our desires all of which originate in our self. In contrast “…the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. He has no will of his own. He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go” (chapter 38).
Our challenge is that we do have a will of our own, and we tend to dwell (if we’re not careful) in the illusions which it creates. As a result, we tend to live on the surface distracted by the flowers. So what exactly is it that the Master lets go of? We just saw “The Master gives himself up…” We also saw “He has no will of his own.” Here’s another quote. “Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled” (chapter 7). I think Lao Tzu spells it out quite clearly. The way to let go of illusions is to let go of our selves; to let go of having a will which is anything other than in harmony with the Tao.
I don’t know about you, but here’s why this is not easy for me. I can’t help feeling that if I did this, it would be like taking such a big chip out of the marble that there’d be nothing left of me. But here’s the question worth spending time with. What if I’m wrong? What if, in letting go of my self, I let go of everything in me which is not the angel, as it were? What if my life is not so much a process of making myself into anything, as of letting go of everything I think I am to reveal something which is there all along? What if our lives are a process of discovering the unique angels each of us happens to be?
Time to put the brakes on! Lao Tzu and angels almost in the same sentence? Really? So let me back off and make what I think is the same point using another quote. This one is from Paul Coehlo. You may have heard it too. He says “Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
In the case of Michelangelo, everything that wasn’t the angel ended up as chips of marble on his workshop floor. In the case of Paul Coehlo’s journey, everything that isn’t you is what you discard in the process of unbecoming everything you’re not. In the case of Lao Tzu’s Master, everything that isn’t in harmony with the Tao consists of the illusions he (or she) lets go of.
Well, that was quite a flight of fancy. So let’s end by coming down to earth. How does this exploration of quotes help us in the business of living our everyday lives? For me, it reminds me that when I meet anything with resistance it’s worth asking why. What version of reality do I think should be unfolding that is different from whatever reality is actually unfolding in front of me? That’s not to say I cannot have goals in mind, or that I cannot have intention before I act. Of course I can. I think it’s to say that what I need to let go of is the illusion that reality is mine to control. Why? Because that, surely, is where the resistance is coming from.
In summary, I think this exploration has reminded me to meet reality like the Lao Tzu’s Master. “…he has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body” (chapter 50). And the connection to Michelangelo is to think of each bit of resistance as a chip of marble best left on the workshop floor. Perhaps, if I keep doing this, what will remain is the angel.
Here’s an idea to end on. Perhaps each of us has an angel inside us, and the purpose of our life is to discover our angel and set him or her free. On the other hand, perhaps this is just too corny of an idea to end this newsletter on. I think I’ll risk it anyway!
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
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)