The Tao Te Ching is a manual that helps us peek through biology’s covers to reveal the deeper whats and whys of reality as best it can using words. Chapter 70 acknowledges the difficulty of this… My words are very easy to understand… yet no one in the world can understand.
As ancient as it is, this manual is fully relevant nowadays; we are the same biologically now as back when. My goal is to put this manual in context with current times. One problem is that we are both inside and outside the covers, perhaps like Schrödinger’s cat. Words, being linear beasts, can’t convey a big picture viewpoint easily, if at all. Yet I struggle on to convey what I see. Perhaps the challenge lures me.
Essentially, things are just not what they seem. We see this view wonderfully stated in chapter 2: The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.
Take the current ideal of joy in-the-moment. Ironically, the less joy in-the-moment one feels, the more in-the-moment one is. This is another way to say that life is about contrast. Whatever seems to be there is often, if not always, a reflection of what is not there. In this case, the moment has both joy and its compliment, sorrow — again, like Schrödinger’s alive and dead cat. This makes truthful expression in words virtually impossible. Any comment on ‘what is’ emphasizes ‘is-ness’ at the expense of ‘isn’t-ness’. Chapter 2 puts it simply, something and nothing produce each other… simultaneously no less. Little wonder chapter 56 notes, one who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know. Therefore, I find it best to take everything with a grain of salt.
Why do those who have everything seem to want more? The more wealth people have, the more they tend to spend it on raising their standard of living: beans to caviar, Fords to Rolls Royces, houses to mansions, and so on. From a symptom’s point of view, the inescapable fact is that the mundane cheap things never do bring contentment. Thus, we spend what we can afford to upgrade our things in the hope that better and more will offer contentment. They don’t in any lasting sense, and so our hunger quest continues. Riches never bring contentment. It is often just the other way around as chapter 33 hints, He who knows contentment is rich. Getting and having is an external object oriented experience. Contentment is a subjective experience. The former, getting and having, promises contentment, and so we chase after whatever we value. Ironically, only giving up and letting go bring contentment. Yet even then, we can only feel this in a moment-to-moment giving up and letting go. We can’t just let-go and move on!
The lack of contentment sows the seeds of desire. From a symptom’s point of view, this lack of contentment is the true troublemaker. Thus, chapter 1 urging to rid ourselves of desire, or chapter 64 to desire not to desire are impossible ideals — strive as we might. The advice to just relax and be happy is even more unrealistic. Like the old “Just say no” advice, it ignores underlying causes and always fails. Yet, I still find desires not to desire a helpful goal to strive toward even though I know I won’t reach it.
Why can’t a struggle against desire work? Most obvious is the fact that desire is the mover of life. Biology rules! Need, and its cousin desire, pushes living things to get out there and take what they need to live and be content. You could say discontentment is built into life’s genome to push it to live a full life. The promise of contentment, illusionary though it is, allows hope to spring eternal. We feel that if we just get ‘it’, avoid ‘it’, accomplish ‘it’, win ‘it’, — succeed — we will finally be happy. The fundamental process of Nature portrayed in chapter 2 is another way to see this. To paraphrase:
Taking and giving produce each other,
Need and contentment complement each other,
Desire and happiness off-set each other,
Wrong and right harmonize with each other,
Competition and cooperation follow each other.
Fight we must, but knowing that war never succeeds, whatever the enemy, helps take the edge off the battle. We make life much more difficult through our cognitive expectations of what it should be. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it: “Prepare for war with peace in thy soul. Be in peace in pleasure and pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle. In this peace there is no sin.”