In nineteen ninety eight I was, once again in a Veteran’s Administration rehab program, this time in Vancouver, WA., just across the mighty Columbia River from Portland OR. The actual rehab classes lasted twenty eight days, but since I was homeless at the time, I applied for the VA’s Domicile Program. This program was designed to give those coming out of rehab a place to live for a period of six months. This “extra time,” allows one fresh out of rehab a chance to concentrate solely on recovery, without all the headaches of a normal, working class struggle. No “rat race,” to contend with. The physical dependence is gone, serious withdrawal dangers are gone. But the mind, oh, that is a different matter entirely. The mind is still left with the obsession.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), that a full blown addiction to alcohol, street drugs etc, is a very difficult thing to get a handle on. Sad to say, many people never do manage to get it under control and this usually ends up in some sort of tragedy and spiritual death. The “extra time,” I was so fortunate to get was very, very helpful in my recovery. I think that is one very big reason that my fifth attempt at a peaceful existence was successful. No more emotional roller coaster rides. Ups and downs, yes, but we all go through those don’t we. My ups were not exaggerated ups, and my downs were not exaggerated downs, any longer. But I knew I had a long way to go and still had to face life outside of the protective chrysalis of the VA.
Naturally, I was pretty involved with AA and the 12 step program, but I was having difficulty with the “higher power,” aspect of the program. I found it difficult to sincerely believe in God, as organized religion defined God. I was still living at the “dorm,” when my birthday came around. My daughter, who lived in Portland would visit me regularly. We had a lot of lost time to make up for and we really got to know each other for the first time. On one such visit, on my birthday, she gave me a copy of the Tao Te Ching as a present. She didn’t know anything about the Tao when she bought the book, she just knew I had a strong interest in Eastern religions and thought. She couldn’t possibly have known just what an enormous gift that was at the time and neither did I.
The book was the translation by Gia Fu Feng and contains beautiful black and white nature photos by Jane English. I was pleased with this gift and was eager to dive in get acquainted with the Tao Te Ching. Wow, it was so mysterious to me at first. I had very little understanding of what these eighty one ideograms meant and how they could apply to my life. I knew though, that I had found that elusive “higher power,” that so many in AA have difficulty with. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew the Tao was it. The feeling, and realization was instinctual.
So now I will try my best to introduce you to this wonderful, awe inspiring guide to life. I’ve been struggling with where to begin, and I guess the best place for that is the beginning. I will start with the first ideogram and try to explain what it means to me. Well, here we go;
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 realize 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.
I’ll try to do this stanza by stanza;
“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”
To me this sets up the mystery. The Tao is everything in the universe and cannot be named. A name cannot be applied to the eternal.
“The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.”
Mankind, for eons, has been trying to give a name to the eternally real. The universe and all that is contained within it. How does it truly work and is there a “contoller,” and is this controller a supreme being or more of a “force.”? There are names, such as God, Mohammed, Yahwe…etc, but none of these names actually describe the vastness and complexity of the universe or where the universe originally came from. So yes, I agree that the “eternally real,” is unnameable. Naming applies to particular things/objects. The universe is far too vast to be named accurately.
“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.”
When a person ceases to desire, they are better able to quiet their minds and think more easily of the “mystery,” that is life. When we are caught up in desire, we are only thinking of the self and the mystery gets no attention.
“Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source,
this source is called darkness.”
To me, this seems sort of like a Zen trick, yet the mystery and the manifestations do arise from the same source. So what does the darkness represent? I think there in lies the mystery. I sometimes think, that there is supposed to be a certain level of mystery.
“Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”
I think this means that when one begins to realize the futility of naming the mystery and manifestions, we are much more open to begin some sort of understanding, like going through a gate to enter a city. To me this means that trying to name who (a supreme being) or what (the universe) doesn’t really matter. That we would be much happier and find more peace when we stop trying to describe God or even begin to fathom a purpose. Can you imagine what a much more peaceful world this would be? Free of this burden we are able to actually live life while not trying to answer questions that have no answer.
This is the big difference between Eastern thought and Western thought. Western thought sees a difference between the object being observed, and the observer, while Eastern thought sees the object and the observer as one. This, of course, is antithetical to the scientific method and Eastern thought is more intuition and spiritual. A blending of the two schools of thought would be ideal.
After receiving this wonderful gift, I first read it through, like one would read a collection of poetry. My interest had been greatly aroused and I was definitely looking for the benefit that the Tao Te Ching surely held for me. The more I read, the greater my interest became. Reading this book like a collection of poems was just too much for a single sitting and I was not getting into what each ideogram meant to me. I then started reading one ideogram a day, and tried to determine what each one meant and how I could apply it to my life. Each day I would read a new one and contemplate it’s meaning. The 1st, then the 2nd then the 3rd and on and on till I had done so with all 81 ideograms. I began to get the meaning of each one, or what they meant to me, but the Tao is very mysterious and I was only able to gather glimpses of meanings.
I finally realized that the Tao Te Ching wasn’t to be read like any other book I had read. I think the key to understanding and benefitting from the Tao is to use it as a guide, which I am sure this what Lao Tzu had in mind when he created it. Repeated readings of each individual ideogram brought more and more understanding. I was starting to change how I viewed the world, both from an inner perspective and an outer perspective, while not being totally aware of such changes. Daily readings of the Tao were, for me, essential. It’s been a little over twelve years now and I still read it and see how it relates to my life now. I no longer read it every day and haven’t done so in a long time yet when I start to feel like I’m starting to swim upstream and waste valuable energy, both psychological and spiritual, I start reading again and I really do relocate the tranquility that was so new to me when I first received this wonderful gift.
The Tao is a wonderful guide to living, for anybody; individuals, parents, even leaders of nations down to leaders of cities, states and small towns. There is no threat of hell or promise of heaven. The Tao does not command, it only suggests. There is really no liturgy or dogma to contend with or believe in. All there is is the vast wisdom contained in the 81 ideograms.
Since there are so many ideograms and such vast wisdom that pertains to all aspects of life, I can’t begin to encompass all of it in just one article. For those who are interested or just a little curious, the Tao Te Ching can be found on the net. There are several good translations out there. I found a good video on youtube that brings you the Tao, “in a nutshell,” but it does not cover all 81 “poems.” The video may offer more insight than I can relate here, so watch it and enjoy and please leave comments regarding your thoughts and feelings on the Tao Te Ching.