Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 10

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child's?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
This is the supreme virtue.


One of the central problems experienced by the neophyte meditator is that of all the mental distractions that race through the human mind when one attempts to still it.  This is what the poet means above by his term "the wandering mind." In that field of thought called philosophy of mind, there is an interesting question: Do our thoughts think us or do we think our thoughts?  That question never really engaged me early in my life even though I had heard it discussed in that area of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind. However, it did hit me very strongly and existentially when I had a major breakdown, or indeed a break-through really, at the age of forty - that is, at the time of the typical midlife crisis brought to a point where Yeats says, "the centre cannot hold."  It was then that I experienced my mind being literally hijacked by my thoughts.  The centre could not hold whatsoever: the hub of control had totally disintegrated and the spokes of identity had shattered and scattered into chaos.  Thoughts ran riot in my mind and there was no controlling them.  The nerve-centre of my identity, or if you like, the core of my self had undergone a meltdown.  

Good mental health essentially means that the person is on the way to establishing an identity that is individuated (Jung), integrated (Storr) or actualized (Maslow et al).  In other words the person is as fully their real or true self as is possible: metaphorically we are a series of spokes (character qualities and traits) centred around a hub called the "Real Self" rotating on a unique path. None of us probably ever reaches the acme point in that process. Spiritually, the parallel term in Eastern philosophy would be "the enlightened mind."  The poem above is as deep as can be and has many layers of meaning as the language struggles to express the spiritual quest of life. Quieting or stilling the mind is a wonderful metaphor for getting under the chaos that our unstilled mind can be.  Spiritual writers speak about the task of achieving a Still Point below that agitated surface of existence.  In the above poem, this task is expressed in the words "original oneness."  Each couplet is another way of expressing the search for this elusive Still Point.

If a true pilgrim of the way or a faithful disciple of enlightenment achieves a position of leadership s/he will be able to "love people and lead them without imposing their will."  In other words, their ego will be firmly under control and integrated into their personality. They will have no need for petty jealousies, for "getting their pound of flesh," for settling old scores, for one-up-man-ship of any kind or for any sort of micro-management.  They will be visionary leaders able to bring their staff with them while allowing everyone the freedom to grow and to succeed on their own terms without interference.  Stepping back and not wishing to control things is central to good spiritual and indeed psychological development. We all learn quite quickly that the only people we can change are ourselves, never ever anyone else.  Some of us only learn that lesson painfully and the ego-ridden person makes that mistake all too often. And so, in light of these comments, the following lines from the above poem are worth repeating and reflecting on here:

Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Another way of saying this is that the person further on the road to enlightenment is getting ever more detached from the non-essential things of life; is getting nearer to that elusive Still Point of being; that primordial state of being our Taoist poem calls "the original oneness."

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