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Living With The Tao Te Ching : Verse 1 The Tao That Can Be Told

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

Before I begin this exploration into Tao Te Ching (generally pronounced Dow Dey Jing), I just want to explain my reason for wanting to do this. My greatest passions in life are writing/poetry/creativity and also spiritual learning. Tao Te Ching is everything I love in life combined. It contains some of the greatest wisdom known to man and it is also some of the greatest and most beautiful writing and poetry that man has ever created.

Tao Te Ching isn't something you read like a novel though, it's something you live with, contemplate, ponder, meditate upon. That's what I am setting out to do.

Tao Te Ching is commonly translated as The Book Of The Way, and it's regarded as a guidebook and map for the person wanting to understand themselves and their place in the Universe. Not much is really known about it's author, Lao Tzu (translated often as 'the Old Master'), there are various stories that prevail; some have him as a hermit removed from society; other stories have him as a record keeper in the Chinese Zhou dynasty around 600 B.C. In some ways it is best to not dwell too much on the history of the author or even of the origins of the text itself, and in this way you can obtain a clearer and more personal understanding of the work rather than being tainted by any preconceptions you might create by knowing too much.

Tao Te Ching has survived for almost three thousand years and is revered as one of the greatest pieces of wisdom known to man. It is irreligious. You can follow Tao Te Ching regardless of your faith, age and knowledge. It is truly Universal wisdom, and is meant to guide us back to our true understanding of ourselves, our true nature and our place in the Universe.

There are 81 verses in Tao Te Ching. I am going to take each verse one at a time, read it, live with it for a few days and then write up how that verse resonates with me and how it affects my life. My responses are in no way definitive, I am no more an authority on Tao Te Ching than anybody else - at best I am learning to be an authority on ME, and if my doing this points you back to YOU then that's great.


Verse 1

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realise the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.


What Is It All About?

The start of this verse describes what I understand to be the human mind's need to label everything it experiences. The mind labels objects, feelings, emotions and sensations, it does this in order to obtain some control and understanding of what it is experiencing in the outside world. That's what mind does. To function in the real world together as humans we have created a kind of shorthand - this is a table, this is a chair, that feeling is anger, that feeling is love. This shorthand gives us a common understanding and a way to relate to one another or ourselves. There isn't even any judgement here in this passage about this process of asserting control through naming, in fact the text rather gently describes this process simply as 'the origin of particular things', there is no harsh condemnation here of the mind or any of the ensuing chaos it creates - it's just how all the 'stuff' we experience has come about.

The passage states that if you can tell it or name it then it isn't the 'eternal' way. It's almost saying - it's fine the naming of things and everything that creates, just don't fool yourself to believe it is the 'way' or the path to happiness and wisdom. It does this by asserting that when we are 'free from desire' we can realise the mystery of life, but when caught up in our labels, names and desires we get caught up in just the 'stuff' of life.

The last few paragraphs bring this concept back round to itself beautifully though - 'the mystery and manifestations arise from the same source' - essentially it's all part of the journey, the yin and yang, the physical and the metaphysical. They both co-exist to point the way to the other. We can't learn to experience freedom if we don't know desire, feel love if we don't know how it feels to hate, understand good if we never see bad. This feels close to my understanding of consciousness - it became manifest from the 'no-thingness' in order to experience itself fully, in every unique and possible variation of itself. So the 'mystery and manifestations' need each other to exist.

This 'no-thingness' is described here as the 'darkness within darkness'. Perhaps our minds are jarred by the word darkness, mine certainly was when I first read this section. We likely associate darkness with negative connotations. The darkness here isn't dark as in evil, hatred, negativity, fear - it's the place where there is no-thing, the place we came from and will return to (perhaps we never even left and that this entire manifestation is just being played out through the process of mind making 'the origin of all particular things').

In the very last line of this section the darkness or no-thingness is called 'the gateway to all understanding', and so we too are ushered reassuringly through the gateway of Tao Te Ching and encouraged to explore the territory for ourselves in the remaining verses.

This is verse 1. It is verse 1 for a reason, it stands as a starting point on a journey that goes back 13.8 billion years and continues right now in this moment and then into the future. The Tao Te Ching (The Way) is, just as in life itself, unknown at this point.


How To Practically Apply Verse 1 In Ordinary Life

Living with verse 1 for a few days has given me the opportunity to become more aware of all the times that I allow my mind to label, name or judge something, which then robs me of the real and authentic experience of it. This could take the form of labelling and predetermining an experience such as reading with the kids after dinner. When I think about this experience before actually doing it, my mind considers all the things I need to do that suddenly seem more important, my mind predetermines that the kids will mess about and not concentrate - all the things that as a parent and an adult you 'should' do. When I let go and allow the experience to be as it is, without thinking anything in advance, without having to be anywhere else, just being totally present with the kids - it's a truly magical and beautiful experience. Watching their minds working to form the words, hearing their little voices, spending time with them and having them know that you are totally there with them.

The mind can always find something to do, somewhere else to be, but often real joy is found in the simplest and most ordinary moments.

During the day I also noticed more how I labelled ordinary objects in advance, and so lost the mystery that was contained within them. Food served at a store or in a restaurant was no longer just what expect because you paid for it, suddenly it was transformed into a wonderful combination of effort and energy; hundreds of people and hours had been involved in the growing, harvesting, shipping, cleaning, cooking and then eating of this food. Wow.

Chairs had been designed and produced for my comfort. A mug was perfectly designed to hold the cups of white tea that I love. The white tea was grown and harvested just at the right time by experts who knew exactly what they were doing. This keyboard that I am typing on is beautifully designed and as I type it responds.

There is magic hidden even within 'all particular things'. As the Tao says:

Free from desire, you realise the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.


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