When hard times come there’s one thing you can always count on. They don’t last. The world has a way of righting itself. But not before a lot of damage gets done and a lot of people get hurt. Still, it is life’s resiliency that most surprises us. Just when you think the darkness will never end, here comes the sun.
This is not only true about the affairs of the world – it is also true about our inner life. There are days of sadness that drag you down and days of joy that buoy you over the waves of adversity. There are days when you can’t stop talking, and days when you have nothing to say. These are the natural ebb and flood tides of the cosmos, a field of interconnected energy of which we are an inextricable part. One day stormy, the next placid – why would we be any different?
4th century B.C.E. wisdom teacher Lao Tzu left us a wealth of insight in the immortal classic Tao Te Ching. This brief collection of cryptic poems speaks to us from deep within the hidden folds of our own wisdom. In chapter 23 of the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation Lao Tzu writes:
To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.
Heavy rain does not last all day.
Why is this? Heaven and earth!
If heaven and earth cannot make things eternal,
How is it possible for man?
Or in the Stephen Mitchell translation:
Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
In Chinese metaphysics, Tao is ultimate reality. Not personified as a deity, Tao pours forth all that is without conscious intention. Unlike the western God who is transcendent, that is, outside of space and time, Tao is imminent or found within the processes of the world, guiding all things, all events, and all processes, including us, from within. Like logos for the Greeks or dharma for the Hindus, Tao is the cosmic pattern of which everything is a part. Heaven and Earth stand for yang and yin, the primordial, complementary modes of energy through which the Tao unfolds. Heaven, or yang, is the assertive, forceful structure that shapes reality, while Earth, or yin, is the receptive stillness within which both cosmic and human affairs unfold. These two polarities are not opposites – they are understood as complementary aspects of a singularity. You can’t have one without the other.
At the heart of Taoist philosophy is a fluid sense of purposeful change. Things come and go, tides rise and fall, storms rage and dissipate, all with an implacable sense of inevitability and majesty. The wise person, then, learns how to wait. If conditions are not to your liking, they will be soon.
In light of this portrait, Taoism counsels us to engage in the world with a light touch. Avoid imposing your preconceived plan onto the unfolding Tao. Instead, learn how to harmonize your energy with the energy already flowing around you. In this way, by doing less, you accomplish more.
When things are chaotic, frightening, and destructive – when the storm is raging – it’s probably best just to hunker down. Soon the tempest will pass and then we can get to work cleaning up the mess and turning the broken pieces of the past into new forms and new solutions. Destruction and chaos are opportunities, even on the personal level. It is from hardship that our wit and wisdom emerge. As Epictetus wrote, “The trials we endure introduce us to our strengths.”
When Lao Tzu suggests that we “be like the forces of nature,” he is advising us to allow the strengths that well up in us to have their say. It’s o.k. to be angry – just don’t be angry all the time. It’s o.k. to be sad – just don’t let sadness define you. It’s o.k. to celebrate joyfully the beauty of life – just don’t turn frivolity into denial and escapism. As the Hebrew book of wisdom Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Eccles 3:1-8)
Wisdom literature like this reminds us to accept the fluidity of life with all of its sometimes frightening extremes. And to stop evaluating everything from the perspective of how does this affect me? See the bigger picture. It isn’t about you. There are larger forces, larger stakes, larger processes in play. Sometimes you lose, and your loss creates space for the victory of another, or for your own unforeseen bounty, heading inexorably toward you from its hiding place just over the horizon.