You govern a kingdom by normal rules; You fight a war by exceptional moves; But you win the world by letting alone.
How do I know that this is so? By what is within me!
The more taboos and inhibitions there are in the world, the poorer the people become.
The sharper the weapons the people possess, the greater confusions reigns in the realm.
The more clever and crafty the men, the oftenter strange things happen.
The more articulate the laws and ordinances, the more robbers and thieves arise.
Therefore, the Sage says:
I do not make any fuss, and the people transform themselves.
I love quietude, and the people settle down in their regular grooves.
I do not engage myself in anything, and the people grow rich.
I have no desires, and the people return to Simplicity.
I read this passage a few days ago and it hit me in a strange intuitive way. I guess that’s the magic of the Tao te Ching; it speaks to something deep within, something untainted by cultural conditioning.
It’s an ode to letting go, a theme that’s been popping up in my life lately. It also seems to directly oppose the prevailing wisdom of the modern condition. Shit.
What is the root of the human tendency to meddle in the affairs of a miraculously balanced and impossibly intricate natural order? What could we possibly hope to achieve with our superficial improvements of asphalt and trick birthday candles? I really don’t mind shitting in the dirt.
No, that’s not quite it. Obviously modernity has opened a great vista of possibility, allowing more people to experience life on this breathing space ship than ever before. I think the idea is that for every Ted Bundy or George Bush born, at least a few Ghandi’s are pushed into the sterilized gloves of a family physician. If it weren’t for the powdered latex, all those potential saints might end up with the black lung, or worse, as willful lobbyists.
I don’t think that’s it either. Maybe we’ll never know where the demiurge comes from. Maybe trying to know is part of the demiurge itself. Edward Abbey, in his masterful work Desert Solitaire, contemplates the question thus:
Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come. The plow of mortality drives through the stubble, turns over rocks and sod and weeds to cover the old, the worn-out, the husks, shells, empty seedpods and sapless roots, clearing the field for the next crop. A ruthless, brutal process–but clean and beautiful.
A part of our nature rebels against this truth and against that other part which would accept it. A second truth of equal weight contradicts the first, proclaiming through art, religion, philosophy, science and even war that human life, in some way not easily definable, is significant and unique and supreme beyond all the limits of reason and nature. And this second truth we can deny only at the cost of denying our humanity.
Ahem. Back to the Tao. We hate rules because we know that they are all arbitrary, conceived by a scheming mind with intentions of control. We sense a greater order, a larger rule at the helm, subtly piloting the absurd turns of our lives. That’s what #57 is about, recognizing the utter futility of trying to impose “logic” and “reason” on a process that is so much more.
We resist because it’s unknown and unprovable. We want assurances, to know that it will work for US when we WANT it to. We cling to disempowering mythologies that situate magic in the past, ignoring its possibility in the present.
While the Tao talks often of societal organization, it’s true power is exposed at the individual level. Have you ever tried actually letting go for a day? Have you ever acted in direct contradiction to the snarky little voice in your brain? The results always amaze me. When I commit, even if it’s just for a few moments, I’m always so shocked by the synchronicities and the impossible “chance” happenings that I end up delving back into UFO’s and reptillian research. It’s too crazy. Can it really be possible that life is capable of taking care of itself?
The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Life did just fine before the monkeys learned to farm. More personally, I have better conversations, find my missing debit card, run into old friends, stumble upon new and relevant resources, and generally move to the rhythm of the moment more effectively when I let go.
It’s simple but difficult. It means that we are both more free and less free than we know. More free in the sense of being supported, nestled by an infinite and invisible feather bed that catches us if we only trust it. Less free in the utter frivolity, the magnificent unimportance of our willful egos which think they can think themselves to the truth. Letting go means just that. Once it happens, well, I guess it happened. We drift where the current wants us to be, regardless of what the mind thinks of that position. Luckily, being in the current feels fucking good.
Someone recently put it to me this way:
You can choose to be free, but it’s the last choice you’ll ever make.