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Theory & Practice

If I were stranded on a desert island with one book, I’d want it to be Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. This poetic exploration of not-doing is a sure remedy for the busy mind. Look:

The great scholar hearing the Tao tries to practice it
The middling scholar hearing the Tao sometimes has it, sometimes not
The lesser scholar hearing the Tao has a good laugh
Without that laughter, it wouldn’t be Tao
—trans. Stephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo  (Hackett 1993); Section 41

I was reminded of this yesterday when my daughter Melanie came home for the weekend with an assignment on it. “But what’s this not-doing?” she asked. “I’ve read the whole book twice and I still don’t understand; at least, not in any way I can explain.”

What a wonderful summary of not-doing! It reminded me once again why I left academic study behind years ago, and am still impatient of scholasticism. Reading through the Tao-te-Ching twice seems to me a torture beyond compare. If you’re looking for lucid explanations, Lao Tzu is as stubbornly silent as a rock. Instead, he delivers paradoxes that don’t just defy logic, they deride it:

Tao called Tao is not Tao
Names can name no lasting name
—ibid. Section 1

Nonsense? Perhaps, but it’s endured for well over two thousand years, while other fine compositions have fallen by the wayside. What’s its secret? The only way to know is to sit with it. You get Lao Tzu not by reading him cover to cover but but by pondering his words a few at a time. That means suspending disbelief and assuming he was on to something. Read one section each morning. Pause after each line. Let it sink in. Take a single stanza or couplet to carry through your day. You might spend a week on one section; or a year. Try it—it’s worth the time and effort.

I’m glad Melanie’s being exposed to this wonderful text, but saddened by how the academic agenda discourages reflective reading. But then, that’s the nature of everything intellectual, and school these days—not to mention the society it serves—is blinded by intellect; insight and intuition have to put on a shirt and tie and sneak in the back door. By contrast, Greece’s Akademia (sanctuary of Athena, goddess of wisdom)—to which today’s institutions are supposedly heir—were more like monasteries or art schools than today’s goal-oriented, job-training universities.

We’re human beings, and we’ll always depend on abstract thought, but too much cleverness is unwise. We need to settle the mind and let it absorb the reality that life is an inconceivable mystery. To survive and prosper requires that we also stop and be still.

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2 responses to “Theory & Practice”

  1. Luis

    I usually become obsessed with academic thought trying out to settle the reality of what I feel and believe, like an everlasting battle between reason and feelings dealing with the mystery of life. I agree with your conclusion, but…

    Is there ever a time when one can really “absorb the reality that life is an inconceivable mystery”?

    I just can’t, but I have the symbol of Tao tattooed on my back…

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