A crucial part of following Tao is seeking knowledge. All the efforts of self-cultivation are meant to make us a fit vehicle for that search. Sometimes what we learn is not pleasant. With learning, we glimpse life as it really is, and that is difficult to bear. That is why spiritual progress is slow : not because no one will tell us the secrets, but because we ourselves must overcome sentiment and fear before we can grasp it.
There is an underbelly of terror to all life. It is suffering, it is hurt. Deep within all of us are intense fears that have left few of us whole. Life’s terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly cuts. To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives. We take beauty as the only worthwhile thing in this existence, but it cannot veil cursing, violence, randomness, and injustice.
Only knowledge removes this fear. If we were shown the whole truth, we could not stand it. Both lovely and horrible details make us human, and when knowledge threatens to show us our follies, we may realize that we are not yet ready to leave them behind. Then the veil closes again, and we sit meditating before it, trying to prepare ourselves for the moment when we dare to part the curtain completely.
The follower of knowledge learns as much as he can every day;
The follower of the Way forgets as much as he can every day.
By attrition he reaches a state of inaction
Wherein he does nothing, but nothing remains undone.
To conquer the world, accomplish nothing;
If you must accomplish something,
The world remains beyond conquest.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Ah, Tao is sometimes full of lovely contradictions. Do we really need to forget something every day, or learn something every day? I think the reality is both are true. We learn new things, new facts, gain new knowledge, and we forget a hurt, an injury, whatever pain someone has caused us. In learning about the world, we learn things that are terible and hard to face. In learning about Tao, we learn that by working with Tao, those things become easier to face, until at last, they seem trivial, like nothing.
I don’t think Lao Tzu really meant to encourage us not to learn or act on on our knowledge. He meant for us to understand the world well enough and completely enough that there is no need for us to act, because we don’t do anything requiring us to take action. It’s paradoxical, but sometimes the less we do, the less problems we create for ourselves. By not eating harmful food, smoking, taking care of our bodies through exercise, we don’t need to take action to repair our health. By living in harmony with others, we don’t create conflict.
Are actions forced upon us at times? Certainly. But the ultimate goal is to not create situations that cause harm and that we need to respond to. But it is an ultimate goal, not something that is easily applied to everyday life with all the problems we must face.
So forget something every day. Forget that someone insulted you. Forget that someone cut you off in traffic. Forget that your kids or your spouse annoyed you. Give away anything that needs dry cleaning. Stop ironing – buy clothes that don’t wrinkle or look good wrinkled. Blue jeans are great. Forget that the kids’ rooms are messy – let them live that way if they like. And give away the collections – you don’t really need them. Simplify your life, however you can. And look out the window, at the sky and birds and plants and just – ah. Isn’t that better?
Off to hike Blue Sky Reserve this morning….