Tor Matson, Contributor
When I first read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, I didn’t understand it, and that bothered me, particularly when I read about the three types of men. The first type is the inferior man, and when he hears the Tao, he laughs, because he is a fool, and wisdom seems like foolishness to him. The second type is the mediocre man. When he hears the Tao, he is troubled, because he recognizes both the elusive wisdom of the Tao and his own incapacity to fully perceive it; he knows there’s something to it, and he knows he doesn’t fully understand, and so is troubled. The superior man, upon hearing the Tao, laughs like a fool but for a different reason; the superior man immediately recognizes the truth of what is being said, as well as appreciating the irony that the only people really able to hear wisdom are those already past any need of it. Laughter is the only possible response…
When I read about the three types of people for the first time, I was deeply troubled, which was repeatedly compounded by the realization that I was after all the mediocre man in this situation. I wasn’t comfortable with that. All my life, I’d built my ego on a foundation of being competent, superior, capable, a smart guy. Here I was clearly playing a mediocre role, occupying a mediocre level of existence. That troubled me, and then I was troubled again, as my distress was recurrent evidence of my mediocrity… Like a mental Chinese finger trap, the more I struggled, the tighter it got. So I quit thinking about it for a while, which is a popular, if largely ineffective, coping strategy.
Many years passed, and I became a different person, several times over. One fine day, I realized that I understood exactly what old Lao Tzu was talking about, and the instant it hit me, I laughed out loud, long and hard, like a proper fool, because I finally got it. I had always assumed that the three kinds of people were permanent categories, for some reason. I’d resigned myself to being stuck in that mediocre class, permanently. In an instant, I understood that the three kinds of people are states and stages we occupy, not necessarily permanent existential categories. We can move from one to the other, sometimes in a single lifetime, and I had. I’d transcended my mediocrity, finally.
I had the inspiration to somehow bring the Tao to a modern American audience, and in working with that, I’ve realized something: America hates the Tao. Civilization hates the Tao. The essence of civilization is the opposite of the Tao.
Okay, let’s back up: What is the Tao, anyway? That is an impossible question to answer. It’s like “Who is God?” or “What is Life?”- a question to which there is no possible adequate response within the confines of language. We can’t engage with God, Life, or the Tao on a purely mental level; these are not merely concepts to be analyzed and manipulated, mentally processed, but experiences, realms, realities that must be entered into, engaged with on a whole-being level, and ultimately allowed to transform one’s essence.
What is the Tao? It is the Way of things. It’s not possible to precisely or neatly summarize it. Lately, we’re used to describing things in terms of equations, and that’s a very powerful technique. However, we’ve ignored many phenomena that don’t lend themselves to simple quantitative analysis, like plasma and fluid dynamics, preferring to model more linear phenomena. Well, most everything in the universe is chaotic plasma, and in avoiding engaging with it, we’ve cultivated a skewed view of physical reality. Likewise, by refusing to engage with the Tao, we’ve cultivated a limited perception of metaphysical reality.
What is the Tao? It’s the Way things work, the Way things flow. You can know it, meaning that you can enter into relationship with it. You can dance with it, but you can’t control it.
I’ve been working with an idea I call Taoist Equations. You can’t write them down, but you can find them and use them. Part of the idea is the unknown term, the mystery. You have to allow the mystery, somewhere in the equation. What everyone is trying to do these days it to control all the terms. We want to dictate what we do, how we do it, and the result. Well, we can’t do that. We have to pick one fixed term, and let the other be what it is.
So, we can decide to be fixed on a particular approach, but we must accept the results. Or, we can commit to a particular result, and accept whatever means are necessary to achieve it. But we’re attempting something impossible. We’re attempting to determine both method and outcome, to wage wars for peace, to create abundance through capitalism, to manufacture justice through force… Not surprisingly, this just doesn’t work.
It’s so simple. The image of the yin-yang, the positive and negative energies, in flux and flow, interpenetrating and co-creating each other and all things. It’s a balance, a flow. If you push it, it will push you. If you pull on it, it will pull on you. And if you do violence to it, it will do violence to you. When we try to control everything all at once, we’re doing violence to the Tao, to reality, and it reciprocates. In the end, it is nothing at all. It is zero, and all manifest phenomena are positives and negatives that are created from it.
Lao Tzu walked away from the City, which is what wise men do if they can. As he was leaving forever, the guard at the gate begged him to write down his wisdom before departing. Ah, how lucky Lao Tzu was to live in a time when the City still had boundaries, could still be left behind. Now, it’s everywhere, and the only way to leave is feet first. If there was a forest wherein I could freely wander, you’d find me there.
There is a balance that must be preserved for life to continue. There is a Way of being that preserves this balance. It’s not something you just mentally grasp or understand or comprehend; it’s something that you are, that you live. Right now, our culture has lost the Way, and we see the results everywhere. What can be done? Find your Way. Find the Way inside of you, because it’s there, right now. Reach out and find it. Reach in and find it.
When you do, all the frantic activity will cease. You’ll see how ridiculous most everything we’re doing really is, and you’ll stop. Stop being useful to a useless system. Be useless and you can’t be used. What do you want, anyway? Who are you? Simply experience what is, and you’ll realize that anything we could possibly want to create is already there, if we let it be. All of our activity is ruining the world, transforming it into a hell.
We need to do less, to the point of doing nothing extra. Chop wood, carry water. What is the point of all this industry, the dark satanic mills that manufacture hell on earth, as Waters said? To what sort of terrible climax is this all building? I really don’t want to find out. What I would like is organic veggies from my garden, and time to play the guitar. I’d like a balanced life in a balanced world, which I have, sometimes, in my dreams. But somehow, someday, the Tao will balance here on Earth, as well. It always does. Best if we flow with it.
About the Author
Tor Matson was raised by wolves in the Arctic, living in the desert Southwest, surfing the Apocalypse. Visit his blog, here.