Newsletter - October 2023
The Center of the Circle
“The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.” (Lao Tzu)
Imagine our thoughts and desires as being at the edge of a circle. See things in terms of how well they satisfy our desires, try to control them, and we too live on the edge – not seeing things as they are. The Master resides at the center. Not trying to control, letting things “go their own way,” she is free from desire and so “sees things as they are.” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29.)
The August newsletter was on the topic of trying (“Water Does Not Try”). This newsletter looks more closely at how the Master does not try to control. The quote tells us that he or she lets things “go their own way.” At first glance, we might think that amounts to doing nothing. But I think we’ll find that, in the case of the Master, this is not so. And why does Lao Tzu use the image of a circle? Let’s get started.
Many of us spend much of our time striving to control events. We observe the world to be a certain way, we desire it to be a different way, and so we try to make it so. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. Either way, it’s likely that some blend of stress, anxiety, worry, fear of failure will accompany our efforts. But does it have to be this way? Do all our actions have to be attempts to make changes? No, it depends on where we’re coming from when we act. We can come from either the edge of the circle or the center. What does that mean, and why should it make a difference?
The Tao Te Ching makes a couple of references to the circle. Here’s another one. “Throw away holiness and wisdom… morality and justice… industry and profit… If these three aren’t enough, just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course” (chapter 19). In this quote, Lao Tzu suggests that various examples of the-way-we-think-things-should-be are what tend to cause trouble. Once again, the suggestion is to stay at the center of the circle implying (I think) that the trouble comes from residing at the edges.
Let’s work with this image. If you think of the circle as turning, then the edges are constantly in motion. There is only one still point: the center. Reside on the edges and you get caught up in the turmoil and pursuit of the-way-we-think-things-should-be. Reside at the center and there is stillness, balance, harmony, serenity. The Tao is the center. It is the Oneness/Wholeness that includes everything. (Therefore, in reality, the Tao also includes the edge of the circle. However, when we reside on the edge we are not aware of that.) Without the Tao there would be nothing—no center, no edge, no thing. And, because it includes everything, there is nothing else. There is only the Tao.
I think T.S. Eliot refers to the same thing when he says “At the still point of the turning world… there the dance is. Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance. And there is only the dance” (excerpt from No.1 of “The Four Quartets”). Just like there is only the Tao.
So, whether we call it the center of the circle or the still point of the turning world, why does it make a difference whether we reside there or not?
The reason it makes a difference is because when we reside at the center, everything we do is in natural harmony with the Tao. We are not chasing our desires, we are not trying to grasp something to make it “ours” (whatever that means), we are not caught up in the endless turmoil of trying to avoid some things while holding on to others. Here’s what this looks like in practice. “The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. …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). Whenever you act, you always come from somewhere. This quote describes what it’s like when you come from the center of the circle.
At the edge is the turmoil. “Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow…” (chapter 16). The Tao is the source, as it were. And where is it? At the center of the circle. That’s where stillness, balance, harmony, and serenity lie.
Why is there confusion and sorrow at the edge, and harmony and serenity only at the center? I think it’s because at the edge we are driven by what we see as the gap between the way the world is and the way we desire it to be. We perceive the gap and then try to close it. “The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.” At the edge, we see things as we would like them to be, and control is what we have in mind.
At the center, we accept things as they are. We do not desire them to be any different. There is no gap. So we are not driven to close it. Instead of using our actions to try and control things, we become free to use them to contribute to what is naturally unfolding around us. This is what living in harmony with the Tao looks like. Instead of viewing the parts and trying to rearrange them (as though they are ours to rearrange) we see the whole and respond to it.
“The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole. His constant practice is humility. He doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao…” (chapter 39). If you like, it is our desires which create the glitter around the edge of the circle. We can be distracted by them for as long as we like, and live in “confusion and sorrow.” Or we can simply let them go, and reside at the center of the circle where peace and serenity lie. The choice is ours.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a tough message. Why? Because it seems to call for “constant practice.” It seems I cannot make a one-time decision to live at the center of the circle, and then never have to be aware of where I’m coming from again. Every day I see countless things which glitter from the edge. Every day I am aware of my desire to reach for them, to leave the center of the circle (assuming I managed to reside there for at least a bit). Rather than being a one-time decision, it seems that living in harmony with the Tao calls for a moment-to-moment awareness. This is not easy.
What do you think? Have you found ways to be aware of where you’re coming from when you act? How can you tell when you’re leaving the center of the circle and drifting towards the edge? Do you have any tips for returning to the center?
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
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share this newsletter.
(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.)