Meditations on the Tao: #34


The Great Tao is universal like a flood.

How can it be turned to the right or to

the left?

All creatures depend on it,

And it denies nothing to anyone.

It does its work,

But it makes no claims for itself.

It clothes and feeds all,

But it does not lord it over them:

Thus, it may be called “the Little.”

All things return to it as to their home,

But it does not lord it over them:

Thus, it may be called “the Great.”

It is just because it does not wish to be


That its greatness is fully realized.

God dammit number 34.  Every hope and dream demolished in under twenty lines.

Every time I read the Tao te Ching, I realize just how confused I am almost all the time.  In relating to my last post, “Potential,” I want to focus on the last two lines of this verse.

“It is just because it does not wish to be great that its greatness is fully realized.”

A pervasive myth exists, especially in the West, that creation is an act of great will, a sustained burst of exertion, a blunt force attack upon the establishment of entropy.  To create is to abide in misery.  We are all too familiar with the idea of the lonely and misunderstood artist, the poor solitary human struggling to bring forth a stroke of genius amidst the perpetual slide into the abyss of obscurity.  Too easily, we fall into the trap of believing that our work is our own, that the flow of our medium is something to be possessed, that immortality is possible in the imprint of our efforts.  Maybe I should stop saying “we.”  I get confused in that rare moment of merging; identity with activity, writer with written, skier with skied.  I forget, time after time, that even though I feel like I’m the one doing the work, I’m actually not.

Perhaps this is simply the unavoidable consequence of a brain which loves to anthropomorphize.  I want to believe in the volition of the Universe so badly because I have the feeling that I actually possess such volition myself. The idea of my efforts going unacknowledged and unappreciated is unthinkable.  Is there no justice in this world?  Can it be that the myth of great effort, that American ideal of work equals reward, is nothing but wishful thinking?

Yet when I consider this more deeply, dropping down a layer or two, I see the wonderful invitation.  It’s the invitation every religion is built on; the opportunity to transcendence.  What a loaded fucking word.

The desire to be greater than our individual selves is everywhere.  It’s in the teleology of “progress,” that strange ideal that has humanity chasing the technological carrot to the brink of ecocide.  Why do people camp out on the sidewalk to pick up the new iPhone?  Because it’s new, it’s at the edge of innovation, it seems to have the potential to carry them past themselves into the promised land.  Manifest Destiny was the same story:  We need this land because it’s what God intended.  Sorry natives, we are doing this in the name of progress, we simply HAVE to.

The misplaced drive to transcendence, the egoic conception that we are the inheritors of our efforts, that our efforts mean anything at all…it’s just confusion.  We want to be greater than ourselves while still remaining ourselves.  See the paradox?

The Tao clears this up in two short lines.

“It is just because it does not wish to be great that its greatness is fully realized.”

Greatness exists, but it exists of its own accord.  It is not something to be controlled.  If we can assume any interaction with this force at all, it is in the humble channeling of a microcosmic flicker of “Tao.”  Maybe in an inspired moment we get a glimpse.  The trick is in remembering and acknowledging that glimpse is gift and to appreciate it as such.

Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson


10 thoughts on “Meditations on the Tao: #34

  1. Thanks for sharing. Haven’t read too much of the Tao so it was enlightening to read a chunk. I know what you mean about how far off I get from truth. Sometimes I find myself thinking that one life to the next we are either heightening or lowering the collective consciousness of the Earth (pretending I know that either of those two things — reincarnation or big mind — exist). If we live a humble life free from striving like this suggests, maybe that’s the way to elevate the Earthly consciousness. If that the game, then I think we’re creating a big deficit for ourselves.

  2. “Maybe in an inspired moment we get a glimpse. The trick is in remembering and acknowledging that glimpse is gift and to appreciate it as such.” Thank you for this deep and thoughtful commentary. By the way, isn’t it wonderful that, in spite of its apparent simplicity and bareness, the Tao Te King has inspired and sparked thought for over 2500 years?

  3. Here’s the word-brigade again,
    here to pick up the pieces,
    and reminisce..

    ..laying blankets on floors,
    ..putting bandage on wounds,
    ..wondering, is “trauma” good sales strategy.

    Because this we are. We can scrounge around in the deliciously sore spots within the collective memory, and splash it with honeydew from our tails as merman-christs, hanging..


  4. Perhaps it’s about letting it happen, rather than making it happen….or waiting for the season to be right in order to create…not so easy for anyone wilful!

  5. Yeah great point man, I get mixed up in this all the time. Now this might take a bit of effort to make any sense of what I’m trying to say but here we go… I know when I’m making something that didn’t come from “me” as such, more like through me – and when I show it to anyone it rings true to everyone who looks at it. I could lay out 10 drawings, and pick the one that I felt “came from no-where”, and I guarantee that everyone will say that it is their favorite. I have no idea what that is.

    Sadly, so often I think I’m doing it, then as soon as I become aware of it, it slips through my fingertips and I fumble around like an ape trying to get it back with all kinds of hocus-pocus, head shaking, and pretending not to think about it (like “don’t think about an elephant right now, hey you’re thinking about an elephant aren’t you?”). It’s kind of like that scene in the Dharma Bums when Jack talks about jumping from boulder to boulder during his climb up the mountain. If you just let go, and fall into the motion, it just comes automatically, and feels like you can’t possibly fuck it up. But then, you go “hey I’m doing it!” and all of a sudden you eat total shit.

    I guess its sort of like lucid dreaming maybe – you are capable of incredible things, then as soon as you realize that its just a dream, you wake up to normal constricted reality. With practice, you learn to harness your excitement just long enough to make something magical happen…

    Alright, metaphors aside, one thing that tends to plague me a bit is this one: I think I don’t trust that I have done it (transmitted the greatness) without external validation, and don’t like how much I seek it. When someone says “good job”, its really nice, but it leaves me thirsty, unsettled, kind of junk-sick. When I am just making the painting/drawing/writing, I just feel cleanly content, but as soon as I am done making it, I have this insane desire to show it to everyone. What is that?

    Don’t know if that makes any sense haha, sorry I’ve been away so long :). This is something that I think about all the time and is probably deserving of some solid writing – I think that might be the task for the week.Thank you as always for the thoughts – oh and I ordered some Jung the other day because of you, but I accidentally sent it to my mother in Colorado… silly Amazon. It will now take 3 months to get it across the Pacific because she is as hopeless as I am in matters of Administrative nuisances like visiting a post office.

    • Haha I relate to so much of that. A trick that I’ve been working on is just to write so quickly that I don’t have time to try to glue the training wheels back on the F-16. How rare to really get there, though. Maybe it’s just practice.

      There’s probably some Jung in your library if you really get the itch 🙂

      I think the external validation thing is something else entirely. It might not be so egoic as we think. There could be a deep intuitive thrust to the need to show people our work, an understanding that art is only meaningful in symbiosis.

      Thanks so much for reading and relating! I hope we can keep this little blog party alive.

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