Newsletter - September 2022
Why Is Nature An Example For Us?
The Tao Te Ching often refers to nature as an example of the expression of the Tao. Why is nature held up as an example? Can’t we express the Tao just as well as nature can? The short answer is that of course we can. We just need some nudging. That’s what Lao Tzu’s Master does; he’s there to show us how it’s done. We might then ask, how often do we follow the Master’s example? But that’s a separate question. First, let’s look at some of the references to nature and see why it might be an example for us. Then we’ll look at why we typically find it a tough example to follow.
Here's a quote. “Express yourself completely, then keep quiet. Be like the forces of nature: when it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun shines through” (chapter 23). What is the message here for us? Why are we encouraged to be like the forces of nature?
I think the answer has to do with thought. Nature doesn’t think; it just is. Nature makes no comment about what it does, as it were. It has no desires, no expectations from its actions. “When it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain.” The key word is “only.” There is nothing else. Nature acts and lets go. It is beautiful in its simplicity. “When the clouds pass, the sun shines through.” What could be simpler than that? I think the message is about the simplicity that comes from letting go of thought. And the reason we’re reminded to “keep quiet” is because thought is typically noisy.
Here's another quote. “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. If powerful men and women could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. When there is no desire, all things are at peace” (chapter 37). This message is clear – it is about the peace that comes from letting go of desire.
So, why are these examples from nature difficult for us to follow? Why can’t we just let go of thought and desire and enjoy simplicity and peace that come from following our “natural rhythms”? You’d think this would be a no-brainer which is, I think, to point to the cause of the problem – our brain!
It is our brains, or let’s say our minds, that tend to make things complicated. Unchecked, they are full of thoughts and closed to outcomes other than the ones we desire. We tend to see everything in terms of what we want it to be. We focus on the future. We see possessions and other people as means to whatever end we have in mind at the time. When we are like this, we are full of ourselves. When we are full of ourselves, there is no room for the Tao. We are not open to it, and so can never be “at one” with it in the present moment. We will always be separate.
Why do thoughts and desires get in the way? Because they are typically to do with anything but the present moment. If you think about it, desire is always about something in the future. When we use our present actions as a means to get something in the future, we are no longer living fully in the present. What’s more, even when we’re done with our actions, we then usually go on to spend a fair bit of time worrying. After all, it’s not certain that our desires will be fulfilled, is it? So we stay alert to make sure that things stay on our desired track. And, as though that’s not enough, we often look backwards and regret the past – which is really to say nothing more than some other version of the past would have met our desires better. The future, the past, anywhere but the present! Desires do a really good job of distracting us from the here and now.
I think the Tao Te Ching recommends the forces of nature as a role model because nature is always completely in the moment. Nothing is held back. Nothing is held onto. There is “only” wind or “only” rain. Nature has nothing distracting it from the present moment. Can you imagine nature “regretting” or “worrying about” anything? It is at peace, as it were, with what it is. And we too can be at peace when we open ourselves to the Tao. When we do, there is “only” the Tao and we are completely part of it. We embody it, if you like. “You are at one with the Tao and you can embody it completely.” There is no separation. “Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place” (chapter 23) (there’s another reference to “natural” responses). This is so easy to say, but so hard to do!
One thing that can help is to set aside your everyday life for a while and simply surround yourself with nature. Have you ever walked among the big trees or along the sea shore and let your mind become quiet? Completely quiet. When your mind becomes quiet, you become open, at one with whatever is. You become aware of the wind, the rain, the clouds passing, the sun shining through – and nothing else. This is all you’re aware of. It completely fills the moment. When there is nothing else, you are “at one” with what is – it feels as though everything has “fallen into place.”
Of course, we can’t do this all the time. Most of the time most of us live in a human-made world and much of our typical day is spent in thought or in the actions which come from it. So our minds are not quiet. Most businesses, enterprises, and organizations are all about planning particular outcomes in the future and working towards them. This too is part of our lives.
I think the Tao Te Ching simply reminds us that it helps to let our minds be quiet from time to time. And being alone in nature is a good way to do it. “Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it…’” (chapter 42). Do we have to be alone? No, not really. But if we are, it certainly reduces the temptation to make comments, doesn’t it?
In what ways might nature set an example for you? Have you found good ways to set thought aside from time to time?
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