Newsletter - June 2023
Good and Bad
“When people see some things as good, then other things become bad.” (Lao Tzu)
Interesting how that works. Give something a name, be so bold as to say that’s what it “is,” and we immediately create the “not-is” version. Now we have to label that too. Gets complicated. What’s more, it has consequences when we then start judging based on the labels. The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 2) reminds us that these artifacts of the mind are typically where the trouble starts.
Words can be slippery things. Words like “tree” and “sky” are okay because we all know what we’re talking about. Even abstract concepts like “one” and “two” are clear enough. But in other cases, words can be much less clear. In fact, if we’re not careful, words can cause a lot of trouble. “Good” and “bad” are examples. While my idea of “sky” is very likely the same as yours, and chances are good we both agree on the concept of “two,” in the case of “good” and “bad” it’s not so obvious. But why should this cause trouble? This newsletter looks at possible reasons, and what the Tao Te Ching suggests we can do to keep trouble to a minimum.
Good and bad is just one example. The next line in Chapter 2 makes the generalization “Being and non-being create each other.” Then more examples follow “Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend upon each other. Before and after follow each other.” As we observed, each time we create the “is” version of something, we immediately create the “not-is” version as well. We populate our world with these labels and then see the world through them.
The reason this matters is because we act based on how we see the world. If we see the world in a certain way, then we will act accordingly. If we see the world in a different way, we will act differently. So, what happens if you and I look at the same world and see it in different ways? The answer is we will act in different ways. Our ways may even conflict with each other. I may see my way as what I choose to call “good.” You may see it as what you choose to call “bad.” This is what trouble looks like when it starts.
What’s the solution? Here’s what Lao Tzu has to say in the next few lines. “Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go.” What’s going on here?
I think what’s going on is that the Master is not seeing the world in any particular way. She simply acts. This is why she acts without doing any “thing.” After all, something only become a “thing” when you label it. Notice how the quote says “When people see some things as good, then other things become bad” (my italics). They weren’t “bad” before. In fact, they weren’t anything before. They just were what they were.
The Master is aware of this and she just lets them be. “Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go.” She doesn’t need to label them. She does not put up any resistance, as it were, to whatever is happening. She simply responds. Resistance always comes from seeing the world in a particular way, deciding that whatever is happening does not match what you want, and then acting to try and make it fit. This is exactly what the Master is not doing.
Much of the time I think things arise and we do not “let them come.” Instead, we evaluate them in terms of what we think they should be. If they don’t match, then we take it upon ourselves to try to fix them. When things disappear, if we liked them, then we try to cling to them—we do not simply “let them go.” In both cases, our actions are driven by what we have in mind.
What we have in mind are the terms in which we choose to see the world. I think the trouble starts when we forget we’re often making a choice. Often, we don’t think what we see is a choice; we think the world really is the way we see it. This is why we’re puzzled when others do not see it the way we do. The trouble gets worse, of course, when we go further than being puzzled and start talking in terms of good and bad or right and wrong—and then act in accordance with what we think.
If that’s the problem, then what’s the solution? I think one approach is not to see the world in terms of anything. Just to see it as it is. And the only way to do that, is to have nothing in mind, as it were. But then, we might ask, what’s the basis for our actions? We might think this sounds like an interesting idea in theory but not a very practical one. Let’s see what the Master does.
“She is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness. She trusts people who are trustworthy. She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy. This is true trust. The Master’s mind is like space. People don’t understand her” (chapter 49). In short, what’s happening is the Master is not looking at the world in terms of anything; neither good nor bad, neither trustworthy nor untrustworthy, nor anything else for that matter.
This is not what most people do most of the time—which is why “people don’t understand her.” Instead of acting in accordance with the thoughts in her mind, the Master simply lets go of thought altogether (and of herself for that matter) and acts in harmony with the Tao. The suggestion, I think, is that we can do the same. Hmm. What would that look like I wonder? What can we learn from this?
An example that’s true for me is when I trust the first response that arises in me. I don’t always do this. Sometimes, on reflection, I choose to do something else. But I find it’s always worth stopping and seeing what arises on its own before reflection steps in. Often, I feel I’m too quick to start analyzing and labeling whatever’s in front of me. Whenever I do this, it’s easy to let ideas like good and bad become part of the picture too quickly.
I think this is what Lao Tzu refers to when he says “Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place” (chapter 23). That said, I’m aware that begs the question, what do you mean by “open yourself to the Tao”? If you’re interested, that was the topic of a previous newsletter (“Open Yourself to the Tao”).
What’s an example that’s true for you where your response does not depend on first analyzing and labeling things? What would happen if you trusted where this response came from more often than you currently do?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
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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.)