As usual, this week’s reading struck many as particularly relevant to their lives:
If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
We’re all aware of things we want to change within ourselves. And there are two basic view on how to do this. One is the transcendent view, a kind of metaphysical behavior modification. This is the rising above school, the “get over yourself and let it go” approach. I’ve rarely seen this paradigm work. We may have a momentary release. But few can hold transcendent experience. In my opinion, it tends to be dissociative rather than transformative. I prefer the approach outlined in this verse. No surprise it’s described as the “subtle perception of the way things are.” The conventional wisdom is that if we want to get rid of something, we have to cut it away. The notion of first allowing it to flourish is counter-intuitive. However, our so-called demons feed on fight or flight responses. We starve them by sitting back, watching, witnessing, embracing, allowing that mysterious flourishing. And one day the shift happens. Its workings may remain very much a mystery, but we see the results.
I spent awhile poring over books in my library, looking for parallel texts and/or poetry to bring to class, but nothing jumped off the page. I finally settled on some humorous teaching stories from Jack Kornfield’s Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart. The links between these readings may require that subtle perception, but I think you’ll have no trouble connecting the dots:
A big touch sumurai once went to see a little monk. “monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this might warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty, You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword, raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.
Nasrudin was eating a poor man’s diet of chickpeas and bread. His neighbor, who also claimed to be a wise man was living in a grand house and dining on sumptuous meals provided by the emperor himself. His neighbor told Nasrudin, “if only you would learn to flatter the emperor and be subservient like I do, you would not have to live on chickpeas and bread.” Nasrudin replied, “and if only you would learn to live on chickpeas and bread, like I do, you would not have to flatter and live subservient to the emperor.”
A young female disciple undertook to develop the meditation on loving-kindness. Sitting n her small room, she would fill her heart with loving-kindness for all beings yet each day as she went to the bazaar to gather her food, she would find her loving-kindness sorely tested by one shopkeeper who would daily subject her to unwelcome caresses. One day she could stand no more and began to chase the shopkeeper down the road with her upraised umbrella. To her mortification she passed her teacher standing on the side of the road observing this spectacle. Shame-faced she went to stand before him expecting to be rebuked for her anger. “What you should do,” her teacher kindly advised her, “is to fill you heart with loving-kindness, and with as much mindfulness as you can muster, hit this unruly fellow over the head with your umbrella.”
You are so right about the big response this week’s readings elicited–one could feel it crackling through the room. To me, it seemed like this chapter was taking a new turn, not giving us another view of the eternal mountain of the Tao, but pausing on the journey to help us lift our heavy backpacks and heal our blistered feet (and egos!).
When I read these verses at home before class, I resisted diving into them, feeling they were just so many verbal oppositions. But your commentary in class, beautifully reenacted here on the blog, convinced me to take them seriously and search for my own responses at some deeper level. I found two associations:
First, the opening verses “If you want to shrink something/ you must first allow it to expand” made me think of something very material indeed, cancer. I thought of my cousin who did not know she had lymphoma throughout her body until a large tumor began obstructing her throat and esophagus. It had to grow, before it could be rooted out (thankfully, her treatment was very successful, by all accounts).
Second, the closing verses “Let your workings remain a mystery./ Just show people the results.” reminded me of a scene I had just re-read this week in a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” The opening scene is so perfectly in agreement with the Tao Te Ching–well, let me copy it below, so it can be enjoyed in the original:
Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot.
“So, Watson,” said he, suddenly, you do not propose to invest in South African securities?”
I gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as I was to Holmes’s curious faculties, this sudden intrusion into my most intimate thoughts was utterly inexplicable.
“How on earth do you know that?” I asked.
He wheeled round upon his stool, with a steaming test-tube in his hand, and a gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes.
“Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback,” said he.
I ought to make you sign a paper to that effect.”
Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly simple.”
“I am sure that I shall say nothing of the kind.”
“You see, my dear Watson” — he propped his test-tube in the rack, and began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class — “it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one’s audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect. Now, it was not really difficult, by an inspection of the groove between your left forefinger and thumb, to feel sure that you did not propose to invest your small capital in the gold fields.”
“I see no connection.”
Very likely not; but I can quickly show you a close connection. Here are the missing links of the very simple chain: 1. You had chalk between your left finger and thumb when you returned from the club last night. 2. You put chalk there when you play billiards, to steady the cue. 3. You never play billiards except with Thurston. 4. You told me, four weeks ago, that Thurston had an option on some South African property which would expire in a month, and which he desired you to share with him. 5. Your check book is locked in my drawer, and you have not asked for the key. 6. You do not propose to invest your money in this manner.”
“How absurdly simple!” I cried.
“Quite so!” said he, a little nettled. “Every problem becomes very childish when once it is explained to you. Here is an unexplained one. See what you can make of that, friend Watson.” He tossed a sheet of paper upon the table, and turned once more to his chemical analysis.
(from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
Now Holmes’ reasons for just showing his result, except to Watson in this case, were like the magician’s, to awe and instill trust. I am wondering why the author of the Tao Te Ching thought this was important advice for seekers on the spiritual path? Perhaps it is about the dharma of speech, not talking too much about oneself, but I still wonder. Any thoughts?
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
You make an interesting connection between this couplet from Tao Te Ching and the Dharma of Speech. I think the Dharma of Speech tells us how to achieve keeping our working a mystery. But neither teaching explains why we might want to.
For that understanding, we need to look at the concept of containing, of holding onto ourselves, of not “leaking” excess thought, energy, emotion, etc. In a way, it’s simply about focus, about cultivating an efficient gracefulness as we move through our lives. So that in action or repose, company or alone, we’re at one with ourselves.
I have some reticence using the phrase”at one with ourselves” because I’m not sure it says anything. But I can’t think of a better way to make the point. An example might help:
How often do we find ourselves in conversation and rather than really listening to the other, we’re thinking about what we’ll say next. So our focus is split. We cut ourself off from the depth of our own awareness, distracted by making a point, or sounding intelligent, or wanting to look good.
This is a very common way we leak.
When we sit down to meditate and the mind is wandering or the foot is falling asleep or the back is aching or boredom is setting in — and we are pulled from one to the other, this is all leaking. The practice is to keep pulling back into resting in the breath or mantra or witness stance.
This is how we practice containing.
And the fruit of the practice of course is more energy, vitality, connectedness, radiance and wisdom. Because we’re not leaking all that outside of ourselves.
Leaking is an expression of unconscious motivation. Which leaves us at the mercy of our psycho-emotional mysteries.
What we want is to work at containing, so that everything we do or say is imbued with the wisdom and power of the Mystery.
I’ll talk more about this at class next week.
Thanks for the reply!
ahhh Suzin…I so wish I could get to Princeton every Monday night~! only Too Well I understand the expansion to achieve shrinkage…and I am grateful to be reassured that it is part of the process. The container has to expand to hold the shakti…
I hope you have a most wonderful class tomorrow.
much love and gratitude always!