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 translates as: road, way, path, principle, speak, think, suppose. Nothing said beyond that is the constant. Indeed, that includes even saying not the constant. All is provisional. 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 bushes 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-view 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, i.e., homeostasis: A state of equilibrium or a tendency to reach equilibrium, either metabolically within a cell or within an organism or socially and psychologically within an individual or group.
Clearly then, the way [Tao] and balance are closely related. The way [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. However, balance is profoundly more subtle when considering the big picture or 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 technology, 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. 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 “in time”. That’s less possible when my mind jumps out of the moment into imagined needs and fears. 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 stimulate 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 herd. In civilization, a bus runs daydreamers over. Constant attentiveness, 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.
An obvious spiritual ideal comes to mind … Stay awake in-the-moment even without external stimuli. As good as that ideal sounds, is it actually possible? Somewhat perhaps, for 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 that 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 vs. end”, and all dipolar labels (see Yin Yang, Nature’s Hoodwink) are poles apart and not the balanced golden middle, the balanced end. The way to that end is via the polar extremes, yet the journey is endless because we are already there. Huh? Balance is unbalanced if it lacks a degree of imbalance. In other words, balance and imbalance are also extremes and so require each other, just as yin requires yang. 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 in a kind of nasty, depressed, or stressed way. 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 that is integral to nature. Our lives are naturally so, even when they feel like crap. As Chapter 25 sums it up, Man models himself on earth, Earth on heaven, Heaven on the way, And the way on that which is naturally so. So, let’s put a smile on our face, a song on our lips and be happy to be sad, or vice versa, of course. Well, it sounds good in theory anyway.
Note: The Correlation table 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.