Nobody really knows when the Tao Te Ching was written. Nobody really knows why it was written. What we have is a single name: Lao Tzu.
That name can roughly be translated into “Old Master.” Some say that the man behind the name lived in the time of the great sage Confusious, serving as an official in the imperial archive. Others say that he was a historian and astrologer who lived a few generations later.
The book itself is brief. Written in the format of 81 short poems, it condenses in less than a hundred pages what most struggle to fit into a thousand. Though a book of philosophy, rather than abstract conceptual frameworks, all it discusses is “the way,” or the natural process of reality.
This idea of naturalness is a reoccurant theme in the book and in much of Eastern philosophy in general. It’s the idea that there is something happening in the Universe, a kind of pattern unfolding, and that the best way to live is to harmonize that pattern in ourselves and embody it in the world.
Much of what it has to say is counterintuitive to our Western minds. Rather than action, he recommends non-action. Rather than learning, he wants us to unlearn. Rather than knowledge, he accepts not-knowing. In his own words:
“Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose. What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn.”
To make sense of what he is getting at, however, we have to first see the developmental path that we follow as we grow into a self.
The Drifting of Chaos
What is it like to be a baby? Developmental psychologists tell us that it’s a messy dance within the confinement of the pleasure-pain axis. Young children don’t yet have a solidified sense of self, because they lack the experience that gives them the context to create and form a self as they relate to the world.
Instead, for the first few years of their life, children learn to interpret signals of pain and pleasure and then build their repertoire of responses to the world based on what they learn from the pattern of these biological impulses.
Over time, though, with the help of our linguistic facilities, an elementary self starts to shine through the general messiness. That said, this self is chaotic.
If kids are like a sponge, absorbing the complexities of the world through experience so that they can eventually build a semblance of agency in it, then their sense of self in the early years has to be pretty unstable. If it was too rigid, they wouldn’t be able to take much in.
In this sense, much of our early childhood years and our adolescence is spent in a playful kind of chaos, in a state of constant learning, an attempt at negotiating with reality and its different demands. In short, our sense of self is a dispersed gas, with bits and pieces flying everywhere.
Being in a gaseous state means flexibility, and flexibility means the ability to change and adapt quite rapidly to our environment. It’s how nature programs us so that we can mold ourselves for a variety of different challenges. But this kind of flexibility comes at the expense of order.
Children are needy. Teenagers are complicated. The world is and can be a harsh place, and neither children, nor teenagers, in a gaseous state of self are ready to take it on, which means that something has to give.
The Strength of Order
The historian Will Durant argued that people aren’t shaped by indeterminate inner will, but instead, they respond to circumstances. If you ask a little of someone, they will stay little. If you ask much, they will become much.
Whether or not that is true for everyone is one matter, but broadly speaking, the passage of time means that, at one point or another, responsibilities start to fall into our laps, and they demand some kind of response.
Maybe something horrible happens that forces us to wake up from the naivety of youth. Maybe it’s as simple as moving out of our parent’s safety-net, or going away to school, or starting work. Either way, this kind of wake-up call means that the gaseous self, the dispersion of chaos that we live with as we navigate the complexity of the world, has to solidify.
To take on the challenges of the world, we have to build order. Chaos may be a useful tool for adaptation, but habits and consistency are what allow us to compound the leverage of the skills and the knowledge that we have internalized due to the early years of experience and exposure.
The only problem with solidification, with the hardening of the self, is that, because reality is so complex, we are never done learning — we don’t gain complete knowledge of how reality works in our childhood and our teenage years because that’s simply not enough time and experience, and yet, as the days pass, and the responsibilities pile up, we have to solidify ourselves, which in part means that we have to close our self off.
A solidified self, a habitual self, is the opposite of the kind of self that adapts to a changing world. It may give us the internal order we need within ourselves to take on the challenges of reality, but sooner or later, the forces of the world will break down this solidification, because no matter how strong we are, the world is, ultimately, far stronger than we are.
A gaseous self is chaotic, but it adapts. A solidified self is ordered, but it becomes rigid. Is there a middle way?
The Flowing Movement
In nature, before a gas become solid, it first generally goes through the phase of being a liquid. Water vapor in the air is a gas, but when this gas condenses, it becomes water in its liquid form — the kind we drink, the kind in seas and rivers — before it cools into solid ice.
Our sense of self generally jumps right from the gaseous phase to the solid phase, because it is forced to do so out of a high pressure in a short amount of time. But a liquid self, a fluid and a flowing self, is a rare state that can handle the chaos of the world while being in harmony with the order we create.
The first mode of the self, the gaseous mode, is good at learning and absorbing, but it’s not very good at being stable. The second mode of the self, the solidified self, allows us some semblance of stability in an uncertain world, but it’s not very good at the continuous learning that it takes to keep up with the world in a healthy way over a long period of time.
The last mode of the self, which sits right in the middle of these two extremes, is both nimble and stable. Over time, the world will inevitably break down a hardened and solidified self, in which case we have two choices: Either we put up a fight until the end, closing our mind, insisting on our own way until we perish; or we simply work at constantly breaking down the rigid boundaries of this self so that it absorbs new information as to adapt to the world.
This is essentially the lesson of the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu. The unfolding pattern of nature is change and change moves through us, too.
Rather than fighting this change by taking action against it, we should harmonize to move along with it. That’s non-action. Rather than trying to learn more on top of the habits we already have, we should first get better by removing the bad habits we rely on. That’s unlearning. Rather than hiding behind the pretense of the things we think we know, we should remind ourselves that we know little so we can know more. That’s not-knowledge.
This isn’t a philosophy in the conventional sense. It’s a way — one that Lao Tzu argued that we have to live out in our day to day life:
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.”
A fluid self — liquid in its form like water — is strong because it can take on any shape necessary. It is calm but potent. It is strong but unreactive. It doesn’t force itself onto the world. It merely fits the container as is.
Whereas the gaseous self resists pressure, the solidified self eventually breaks under pressure, the fluid self uses the pressure of the world as fuel — to become better, to become stronger, to become what it needs to be.
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