I know, I know, the Tao that can be spoken of is not the constant Tao. This line from chapter 1 literally translates to “way can speak, not constant way” (道可道, 非常道). “Way” — Tao or Dao — literally means: road, way, path, principle, speak, think, suppose. Anything I say beyond that is not the constant, but rather provisional. Even saying this is not the constant. Our mind is capable of perceptions more profound than our thoughts or speech can articulate. Our thoughts and speech always end up beating around the bush of reality. Still, beating around the bush does flush revelations out of the bush at times.
Chapter 25 does say this much: The way models itself on that which is naturally so (道法自然). This suggests that I’d be wise to “model my life on that which is naturally so”. The question is, what is “naturally so?” I see balance as the ‘big picture’ or Meta word for Naturally so. From atoms to galaxies, natural processes seek balance. This seems integral to nature’s scheme. When balance is lost, ‘things happen’ until balance reestablishes and stillness returns. Certainly life’s biological processes all seek balance — homeostasis, a state of equilibrium or a tendency to reach equilibrium, either metabolically within a cell or organism or socially and psychologically within an individual or group.
Clearly then “the way” [Tao] and balance are closely related. “The way [Tao] models itself on that which is naturally so”. Balance is the fulcrum upon which nature’s “naturally so” plays itself out. Consequently, knowing the nature of balance should give insight into the nature of the way [Tao]. The question is, how do we know balance when we see it? How do we know the ‘balance’ we see is true balance? Certainly, it is easy to see physical balance, like standing on one leg and such. However, balance is profoundly more subtle when considering any ‘big picture’ — Meta-balance.
Efficiency is another ‘big picture’ or Meta word for Nature. Nature is nothing if not efficient as she flows through time, although, like Meta-balance, the ‘big picture’ of Meta-efficiency is subtle. What often seems efficient to us in the short-term and narrow view is extremely inefficient in the long run. We excel at ‘false efficiency’ due to our tendency to willfully innovate while ignorant of the constant (不知常, 妄作凶), as chapter 16 calls it. For example, housing projects, unbridled technologies, processed foods, mono crop farming, over-fishing the ocean, are pseudo efficient solutions that bring about unintended unbalancing consequences. Without a doubt, efficiency without balance is inefficient and ill fated. Nature will ceaselessly struggle to rebalance circumstances until false efficiency is replaced with balanced efficiency.
Is living an efficient and balanced life possible?
My life feels more balanced and efficient when I’m ‘here’ with my feet on the ground ‘now’. Being attentive, moment to moment, is the only way I can notice when I start losing balance. Like the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. I just need to notice it “in time”. That’s less possible when my mind jumps out of the moment into imagined needs (desire) or imagined fears (worry). Granted, need and fear boost efficiency and balance, but only if I know when to stop. Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger as chapter 32 cautions.
The difficulty encountered in ‘being in the moment’ is two fold — ‘focus’ and ‘space’. Environmental stimuli awaken attentiveness when it rises above the threshold of awareness. The difficulty here is that ‘focus’ easily becomes blindingly narrow. On the other hand, when stimuli are absent, attentiveness wanes and wanders off into imagination’s ‘space’.
Too much focus and too much space are problematic. Of the two, too much space is probably the more serious. In the wild, waning attention enables the predator to take its prey, and thin the heard. In civilization, a bus runs daydreamers over. Constant awareness, on balance, favors survival. ‘You snooze, you lose’ as they say. For example, note how birds are always on the lookout for predators, and good drivers are alert defensive drivers.
Essentially, it takes fearlessness to stay alert rather than following the mind’s flights of fancy. The idea of chapter 73’s He who is fearless in being timid will stay alive speaks to this. When I am “fearless in being timid”, I’m patient enough to watch the “space”, or what chapter 14 calls the shape that has no shape, the image that is without substance.
The obvious spiritual ideal comes to mind: Stay awake in the moment even without external stimuli. As nice as that ideal is, can we really do it? Somewhat, as chapter 71 advises, it is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. In other words, maintain an ongoing sense of tentative apprehension described in chapter 15, Tentative, as if fording a river in winter. If I remain awake to the difficulty of remaining awake, I have a better chance of avoiding difficulty.
Jumping into the deep end
All things (万物) travel a path whose ‘end’ point is perfect balance. In traveling this path, all things ebb and flow, veer left and right, rise and fall, strengthen and weaken, struggle and surrender, live and die, as they continue on the way.
This ‘end’ is not an end per se. The ‘end’ I refer to is Nothing, and thus no thing will ever arrive ‘there’. In other words, nothing can ever arrive because all things are at the beginning of each moment. Yet, the beginning of each moment is the ‘end’ of each moment. Consider chapter 2’s, Thus Something and Nothing produce each other; and chapter 40’s, The myriad creatures in the world are born from Something, and Something from Nothing.
You could say this end is this beginning is this end… and so on. I know this is starting to sound like nonsense, but just consider the words needed to say this nonsense. Begin & end, live & die, struggle & surrender, awake & asleep… each are poles apart (yin and yang) and not the balanced ‘golden middle’, the balanced ‘end’. The way to that ‘end’ is via extremes, yin and yang, and the journey is endless because we are already there. Huh? Balance is imbalanced if it lacks a degree of imbalance. In other words, balance and imbalance are also extremes — yin and yang — and so require each other. Thus, to paraphrase the great Taoist disclaimer of chapter 1, “the balance that can be named is not the constant balance“.
When there is a lot of ‘rebalancing’ going on in our lives, life feels imbalanced and kind of nasty, depressed or stressed. However, in the ‘big picture’, all is well and proceeding as nature intends; it just doesn’t feel that way. Our feelings are part of the dynamic. They create the ebb and flow, the balance and imbalance which is integral to nature. Our lives are ‘naturally so’, even when they feel like crap. Chapter 25 hints at this, People follow earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows the way, And the way follows that which is natural and free from affectation. So, just put a smile on your face, a song on your lips and be happy to be sad (or visa versa of course).
Note: The correlation table (below) may tie up loose ends and no doubt create new ones. Notice how end is in both categories depending on what antonym it is paired with