TAO TE CHING TEACHINGS: Not Over Doing It

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“Attached to over-doing it?

Better not do it at all!”

It is better to do nothing than to do something wrong. This is why mastering restraint is one of the most important things a Taoist can ever learn.

Restraint is all about prevention and self-control. It is about not doing something we would otherwise very much like to do. If you feel angry or frustrated, and would like to express your anger and frustration through violence, then you know beforehand that such an action would have bad consequences. If you hit someone, there will be pain. Causing another being pain engenders bitterness, resentment, enmity, and fear. It could even lead to a life-long feud that just grows ever more dangerous and complex. Your life would be so much simpler if you had just not done it!

You desire to eat or drink something that you know is unhealthy. You know that it will make you sick, and that consuming it on a regular basis will fuck up your health and make functioning easily much more difficult. But, if you go ahead anyway, letting your desires govern you instead of your wisdom, then you are knowingly permitting danger and disharmony to become a part of your life, developing asthma, diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis, and any number of related health problems. Once again, you save yourself so much pain and interference, simply by not doing something!

So restraint is non-action. Not acting unnecessarily, only acting when it is essential to act, we keep our lives simple, and avoid amassing chaos and complexity. Over-doing things always invites destruction. The original Chinese here uses the metaphor of filling a vessel beyond its capacity. If you blow up a balloon beyond its capacity to stretch, it will burst. If you fill a pool beyond its capacity, it will flood. If you fill a belly beyond its capacity, you will get fat and sick. If you act beyond your capacity, you will wear yourself out. If you have sex beyond your capacity, you will drain your vital force.

If we follow the way of balance and restraint, we fill things to their capacity, and then no more, if indeed we must fill them at all. Making sure things do not transgress their limits, how much benefit we gain by simply not doing stupid things!

Poem: Knowing and Not-Knowing

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When you don’t know what to expect

Your mind is open

When you know what to expect

Your mind becomes closed

Therefore, never expect

Anything at all

And you will always be fresh and serene

Nourishing the Mind

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I was reading Liu I-ming’s commentary on the hexagram ‘Nourishment’ in the I Ching, when I was struck by his definition of what nourishment really is:

“Nourishment is what is beneficial to body and mind – 

What is not nourishing is not beneficial to body and mind.”

I was very struck by his insight that nourishment is not restricted to the vitamins and nutrients we gain from the food and fluids we consume. It also refers to anything that we actively allow to enter into our consciousness. The nourishment of the body and mind are not separate. You cannot nourish one without nourishing the other. You cannot harm one without harming the other. They are completely unified in every way.

The insight I gained from this is that the wholeness of our happiness is hugely influenced by what we allow our minds to eat. Just as many people eat themselves into sickness by nourishing themselves with fast food, chocolate, and sugar, how many of us think ourselves into sickness by nourishing our minds with conflict and hatred, manipulative media stories, negative conversations, and films and TV shows espousing violent, divisive, and materialistic values?

It’s very easy to shrug off all of these things as being too marginal to have an effect on us. It’s just entertainment, right? But the culture we imbibe – the books we read, the films we watch, the sources of information we trust – ultimately determines our wordview, and, in due course, how we respond to that world. If you are repeatedly exposed to media glorifying violence, anger, resentment, jealousy, revenge, and conflict, such behavior begins to seem to be permissible and reasonable to your mind. Monkey see, monkey do doesn’t turn off just because we’re being passive. If you fill your mind with bad things, you will be more likely to do bad things. Corruption doesn’t spontaneously appear in a pristine mind – the seeds of the idea have to be placed there by an external precedent that seems to justify it.

Conversely, if we feed our minds with positive content, we will bear the fruit of positive actions. Buddhists refer to this practice as ‘planting the seeds of the Buddha Mind.’ Likewise, positivity won’t arise spontaneously in a corrupted mind. You have to plant the right content into it, before happiness takes root, and weeds out suffering.You can’t grow an oak tree by planting a landmine. So, if you want to be happy, don’t feed your mind with the mental equivalent of psychological fast food. Nourish your mind with that which is likely to benefit it. Then wholeness can be achieved.

Meditation: Heaven and Hell

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We are all familiar with the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Heaven is a beautiful place of eternal peace, happiness and bliss. Hell is a domain of endless torment, pain and suffering.

But Heaven and Hell aren’t places we go to when we die – they are places that exist within our minds, right  here, right now. Heaven and Hell are states of mind. They are not things that an omnipotent, judgmental deity imposes upon, but things that we choose for ourselves.

In this regard, meditation is all about enabling yourself to have a heavenly mind, whilst weeding out all those emotions, thoughts, and habits that make it a hellish mind.

Buddhists, Taoists, and mystics of all traditions are all in accordance in the belief that our natures are fundamentally divine, blissful, and peaceful. If we can just rid ourselves of the clutter and negative habituation that obscures that nature, then it will shine as clearly as a flaming conflagration. Like a window that is too dirty to see through, we clean our minds, until they become clear to the point of invisibility, the perception and the perceiver of that perception becoming one in a moment of joyous bliss.

So that we know how to enhance the one, and reduce the other, let’s look at the individual characteristics of the heavenly and hellish minds.

The Heavenly Mind is:

  • Receptive
  • Selfless
  • Open
  • Aware
  • Peaceful
  • Tolerant
  • Patient
  • Non-judgemental
  • Perceptive
  • Wise
  • Sane
  • Harmonious
  • Clear
  • Balanced

The Hellish Mind is:

  • Closed
  • Selfish
  • Hostile
  • Vicious
  • Insecure
  • Vengeful
  • Hateful
  • Defensive
  • Judgmental
  • Intolerant
  • Imbalanced
  • Negative
  • Pessimistic
  • Doubtful

If you can, in meditation and your daily life, actively cultivate the qualities of the Heavenly Mind, and do what you can to uproot the foundations of the Hellish Mind, then you will be that much closer to realizing Heaven on Earth.

The Two Minds

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So, in Buddhism and Taoism, there are recognized as being two basic minds.

There is The Discriminatory Mind: this mind fractures reality into smaller and smaller pieces, criticizing and evaluating everything it experiences. It can sometimes be useful. But it is not a natural mind. It is a source of pain and delusion.

Then there is The Natural Mind: this mind merges with reality itself. It is inseparable from its own experience. It does not criticize, comment on, or break reality into smaller pieces. It just lets it be. It IS reality. It is a source of peace, happiness and clarity.

Two minds – two different realities.