The only step necessary on our spiritual journey is the one before us at this very moment, right where we are, right now. In fact, it is the only step possible. All other steps are theoretical and will not be real until they too lie directly in our path. The Tao Te Ching taught me this. Indeed, nothing has helped me more, or been a better friend to me for the past few decades of my life, than this beautiful little book of Chinese wisdom poetry, written more than 2,500 years ago.
The author of this classic is thought to be Lao-tzu, a revered teacher of Taoist philosophy. Some scholars contend that it is a compilation of the work of several authors. Whoever the author or authors were, they have my everlasting gratitude, because the book has opened for me the experience of life in all of its beauty and all of its pain. It has been a path into the territory of awareness and awakening. It has offered me a way of viewing my spirituality that is mystical yet deeply practical. It has also presented me with a “practice”—a way of seeing how my conditioned mental habits restrict me, distract me, and cause me unnecessary suffering. It has offered me help in dropping these habits and opening my life to greater freedom and more joy.
You might especially enjoy attending our ongoing study of the Tao Te Ching. Each week we look in detail at one chapter from Lao-tzu’s book in a relaxed and informal setting. We sit with the text, in several translations, and talk about whatever arises in us. As a teaching guide, it is my responsibility to help each student clarify and understand the thoughts and feelings that arise. It is not my job to explain, to fix, to direct, or to supply the “correct” thought. I simply help.
For this next step I would like you to imagine that we are exploring the Tao Te Ching together. Imagine that we are in a comfortable and quiet place. There is a simple flower display on a table beside where we sit. Sit comfortably right now and imagine that we are in this quiet place and that we have each other’s full attention. Prepare yourself a cup of tea and imagine that we are sharing that as well.
Together, we will look at several brief lines from the Tao Te Ching, using my own translation and teachings from my book A Path and a Practice. These lines will illustrate the kind of gentle guidance Lao-tzu offers. I will make some brief suggestions to trigger your thinking and raise questions. I will also offer a suggested breath poem that may be helpful to say silently to yourself as you meditate or pray during the day. Listen for whatever arises in your mind. The true guide on this path lives within you; you already have whatever wisdom you need to take the next small step on your thousand-mile -journey. Trust yourself.
This path is our true home
because it is home to all beings
in heaven and on earth. (Chapter 25)
There are no “special favorites” along this path.
It unfolds itself before whoever walks along it.
This path is available to anyone of any—or no—religious persuasion. Some people at our center call themselves Buddhists. Some say they are Christian or Jewish. Several call themselves agnostic. Many refrain from labels altogether. No one ever asks.
There is no requirement to adopt any rituals or systems, nor to give them up. Rituals and systems can play a helpful role in this practice, or they can be absent. There are no “People of the Tao” who are set apart from any other people. Everyone and everything in the cosmos is an expression of the Tao. Everything emerges from the Tao and is contained within the Tao.
The only distinction Lao-tzu would make is the observation that those who practice mindful and compassionate attention to the processes of the Tao will experience the freedom and joy that come from understanding oneself to be a part of life in all its infinite wonder. It is as if someone within us draws a huge, even infinite, circle that takes in everything that is and then says, “To this I belong!”
We affirm that all beings are being led, each in their own way, along this path. This affirmation is contrary to the habit we have of assuring ourselves that we are going in the right direction by finding others going in the “wrong” direction.
Whom do you set apart, even subtly, as wrong, -ignorant, or deluded?
How does this affect your experience of life?
There is never “them” . . . always only “us.”
Talking about a path
is not walking that path.
Thinking about life
is not living. (Chapter 1)
It’s not that we have to stop thinking or talking. What we want to do is pay attention to the ways in which we have been conditioned to think and talk. We begin to notice that much of our talk, internal or external, follows habitual patterns that actually cause and perpetuate an experience of resistance and frustration. These conditioned habits keep us locked in a world of ideas, concepts, and stories about life and separate us from the thing itself.
For instance, consider how much time you spend in internal chatter along these lines: “When I get there, this or that will happen. She will say this and I will say that. But what if she says that instead? What will I do then? Maybe I should have called her yesterday. She probably thinks . . . ” All the while, we are absorbed in these stories; life itself is happening right before our eyes—and we miss it!
Try gently asking this question of yourself on occasion during the day: “Am I living right now, or am I thinking about living?” See if you can detect the subtle difference.
I have my thoughts . . . but I am not my thoughts.
Therefore, this path is one of contentment and simplicity.
It empties the mind of its chattering,
and fills the soul with truth.
It frees us from our wanting
and returns us to our passion. (Chapter 3)
We naturally learn to want things—certain foods, experiences, the company of certain people, and the achievement of certain goals. But I have noticed a subtle problem associated with wanting.
To the degree that my thoughts are caught up in wanting something or someone, I am not fully present with the something or someone that is actually here, now. Conversely, to the degree that I am fully present with the moment, my wants disappear and I am caught up in passion—the passion of the present moment.
Perhaps the most powerful arena to notice the difference between wanting and passion is in love.
My mind will often float off to sexual daydreams about my spouse, and I find myself wanting to make love to her. When I am with her, the wanting turns to passion—the experience itself. But notice how often even sexual experience becomes trapped in wanting. We are actually with the person and our mind still spins fantasies and scenarios. “Do I want to do this? Maybe I should do that. Perhaps this would be more exciting . . . ” Even in our most powerful encounters we slip away from true experience into ideas and thoughts.
What if our life could be immersed in passion on a regular basis? Not just sexual passion, but passion for everything—gardening, cleaning, washing dishes, bathing, eating, working—every moment!
Think of a time when you were completely absorbed in what you were doing. Bring that feeling back to your mind. This is passion.
Can you remember how and when that feeling began to slip away and your thoughts turned to the future or the past—how the passion gave way to wanting something else? Don’t criticize yourself. Just notice how powerful our conditioning to avoid passion really can be.
Releasing my wanting . . . I return to my passion.
There is no need
to weary ourselves in an effort to find her.
She is ever with us
because she is us. (Chapter 6)
We often talk of a spiritual path as a search for the divine. There is nothing wrong with searching, but Lao-tzu suggests that this process can keep us always one step behind, always identified with being a “seeker.” He would not describe his path as a “seeking” of anything. For him, it is a practice of “finding.” It is discovering that in each and every moment there is nothing to seek because everything is already here.
What if seeking after the divine is actually a way of keeping yourself from the divine? What if the longings of your heart could be satisfied this very moment in this very breath? Can you sense how that might feel?
Nothing to seek … everything is here.
If we try to get rid of something,
it will naturally remain.
If we try to weaken a habit,
it will naturally remain strong.
If we try to push away our thoughts,
they will naturally return.
If we try to get rid of our pain,
we will suffer all the more.
This is the secret of our path:
gentleness and flexibility bring the results
that force and rigidity fail to achieve.
It is so easy to turn spiritual practice into a massive self-improvement project. We are trained from childhood to believe that becoming “spiritual” involves moral willpower. We must resist “bad” thoughts and actions, and cultivate “good” thoughts and actions. We measure our spiritual progress by externals and never cease trying to “be better” and “do better.”
Our conditioning insists that unless we use willpower to push away and resist thoughts and habits we label “bad and harmful,” we will become drunk, go blind, end up on the street, land in jail, be worthless, get fat—fill in the blank. Lao-tzu suggests that self-acceptance will succeed where willpower fails.
Pick a habit you have tried to break for years without success. Spend the next month indulging in this habit whenever you want, but refrain completely from moralizing, scolding, or any other form of self-punishment. This may cause the conditioned voices inside your head to scream. But merely watch what happens. If, after a month, you are actually worse off, you can always return to beating yourself up. We all know how to do that.
Acceptance succeeds . . . where resistance fails.
It is the single small step
that begins the journey of a thousand miles.
We have taken a brief look at how the Tao Te Ching may be used as a guide to spiritual practice. I have been a student of this path for decades, and I am still taking one small step at a time. I’ll be doing so all of my life.
The next small step is waiting for you right at this moment. It may be putting this magazine down and fixing yourself some lunch. It may be turning to another article and continuing to enjoy your reading. It may be going off to meet someone or settling in by yourself to meditate and reflect.
Whatever you do next will probably seem quite ordinary. There is no need for it to be otherwise. The wonder and extraordinariness will come from the compassionate, conscious attention you bring to the moment. Don’t worry about transforming or changing your life. All the necessary change will unfold on its own accord if you can simply be present to your life.
The Tao Te Ching may prove a helpful guide for you, but it will never substitute for your own wisdom. You are completely capable of anything your life brings you. You will never be truly lost, and you will return to your true self without fail. Go ahead and take the next step.
William Martin is the author of many books on Taoist spirituality, including The Parent’s Tao Te Ching, The Couple’s Tao Te Ching, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, and A Path and a Practice, which contains his own translation.