Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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Find links to the previous articles in this series at the end of this article.
If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
—Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Chapter 36 gives a fascinating insight into what it means to see the world and live your life according to the principles of yin and yang. Today, we’ll look at just the first eight lines of that chapter.
In the past, I have focused on nondualism/nonduality (I use the two interchangeably) as the ability to hold paradox in your mind, to accept opposites as part of a whole, and to refuse black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking; but this chapter is unique because it makes a subtle move that opens up a whole new world of topics to discuss. By introducing a chronology into the nonduality, this part of the TTC introduces “nonduality in motion,” which describes the way things unfold in our lives and in history. To put it differently, in this chapter, there is a before and an after when it comes to non-dualistic thinking — so it is no longer just an abstract concept, but a living and breathing reality.
Although all of the translations capture the same idea for the first stanza, there are at least four different interpretive moves that can be made, and I think it is helpful to use them as a framework for looking at the many facets of the diamond of nonduality. I will call them the ontological perspective, the agency perspective, the allowing perspective, and the inner disposition perspective. These four interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and they don’t contradict each other. Don’t get too bogged down in the words and the categories, though — these just provide me a simple outline for looking at this chapter.
#1: Ontology and history
First, the ontological perspective is demonstrated in both Gia-fu Feng and Joseph Owles’ translations (see below). For those without a philosophy or theology background, ontology just describes discussing a thing in and of itself, the nature of its being, and its natural characteristics and properties. Feng and Owles translate this passage using the word “must” — as they describe the paradox that things in general must be larger before they can become smaller, etc.
That which shrinks
Must first expand.
That which fails
Must first be strong.
That which is cast down
Must first be raised.
There must be giving.
—Translator: Gia-fu Feng
Something must be larger before it can be shrunken.
Something must be stronger before it can be weakened.
Something must be set up before it can be knocked over.
Something must be kept before it can be taken away.
The wisdom hidden in plain sight
Is that whatever is yielding and weak
Conquers what is rigid and strong.
—Translator: Joseph Owles
This ontological view seems to be the most literal way of translating the chapter, so it’s a good place to start. One great example of the ontological view is the cyclical nature of history. By “cyclical,” I don’t mean that the universe is simply a never-ending cycle of ages that repeat themselves, as we find in some Eastern religions; as a Christian, I believe that history is headed somewhere. However, there are still countless ways in which history repeats itself. Empires rise and fall, only to be replaced by new empires. Times of peace are sparked into war, eventually to be followed by another peace treaty when one side overwhelms the other. Policies are made and unmade. The stock market surges and plunges. Religious movements become overly conservative and stale, only to have progressive elements break off in reaction or rebellion against the worst things in their faith communities. Eventually, they become too progressive for some and another reaction happens where there is a push to return to tradition. So the pendulum keeps on swinging, always striving for balance.
Rather than just a circle or a pendulum, I like to think of history (and my own spiritual growth) as a spiral. I’ll unpack this more in the final section, but the unique thing about the spiral is that it is both circular and progressive. Even though we come back around to the same issues, the past still precedes us and is (hopefully) remembered, so that each time we come back around, things are happening on a deeper level or a higher plane, depending on which way you want to think about the metaphor. In this way, we hold in tension that history is both chronological and cyclical.
One obvious and contemporary example of a spiral movement in history is the nationwide protests and riots over racism and systemic injustice. I’ve heard so many people say, “Come on, we dealt with this in the ’60s!” And I’m sure back in the ’60s, people were saying, “Come on, we dealt this back in the ’60s!” — the 1860s, that is, when slavery was “technically” abolished. It’s true, progress has been made, but the nature of progress is that we will continue coming back around to the same issues again and again, with many setbacks in between, but always on new levels as long as the wheels of history keep turning.
This chapter doesn’t give us a guide on how to deal with these issues. Instead, it is meant to observe natural truths and then to cultivate our spiritual outlook and our inner disposition. Still, there are some lessons we can learn about action here based on another interpretative method: human agency/allowing.
#2: Agency and allowing (36 and 37)
When we turn the interpretive diamond, this chapter becomes a description of what it looks like to “live” the yin yang, applying its principles to your life. Change is inevitable, things rise and fall, weakness overcomes strength only to become its own form of strength again. The wise person learns how to observe this and discern the right way to act, which requires us to be creative, adaptive, and fluid in our thinking. We can actually see this fluidity not only in the chapter itself, but in the way these two translations seemingly contradict each other at first. See if you can catch the difference:
If you would have a thing shrink,
You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened,
You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside,
You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it.
—Translator: DC Lau
If you want something to return to the source,
you must first allow it to spread out.
If you want something to weaken,
you must first allow it to become strong.
If you want something to be removed,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to possess something,
you must first give it away.
—Translator: J.H. McDonald
Did you notice just how different those two translations are? In the first one, you must take action in the opposite direction to produce the desired result. In the second one, you must learn to allow things to happen in the opposite direction to produce the desired result. A key part of living life according to the yin yang is knowing when to act and when to allow, knowing that both of them are important when seeking balance. Yin represents action. Yang represents allowing. And even though these translators weren’t intentionally trying to do so, putting them side by side shows that yin and yang must always go together.
The main idea is that you may need to pursue or allow the opposite or complementary side to happen in order to achieve your desired result. Throughout this show, from the very beginning, I have said that one of the most basic lessons of the Tao te Ching, and probably a good summary for the whole book, is learning to “go with the flow.” Going with the flow does not mean refusing to act. Instead, it means knowing the right times to act in the way that is the most appropriate, most effective, least harmful, and least coercive. Many times, that means knowing when to allow instead of act.
(In the podcast episode, I share several stories about how this perspective shift has impacted my relationship with one of the more challenging boys at the orphanage I work at. I talk about how thinking non-dualistically and seeking creative, paradoxical solutions has actually created space for growth. Unfortunately, there is not space for them all here, so I encourage you to check out the show.)
#3: Inner disposition
To breathe in,
One must breathe out.
To become weak
One must be strong.
To remove something,
One must have something.
To possess something,
One must give it away.
—Translator: Marshall Davis
The final interpretive lens we can use to examine this chapter is what I call the inner disposition. Our lives are made up of paradoxes, especially if we are trying to follow Jesus and make some sense of the long history of Christian beliefs and practices and even the Bible itself. The way Davis translates this chapter is almost like a mantra for deconstruction. Deconstruction entails many things, but a lot of it is about dialectical thinking — asking questions about everything and considering issues from every possible side. This involves taking apart the pieces of doctrines and beliefs that have been passed down, sometimes for generations, and figuring out how to make sense of it all.
Sadly, for those who aren’t asking the same questions or might consider them unreasonable or maybe even offensive to ask, the process of deconstruction doesn’t look like critical thinking and a pursuit of truth — it just looks like blasphemy. The point of this chapter isn’t blasphemy, though. It is a reminder that in order to gain knowledge and pursue truth, sometimes we need to empty ourselves of all of our preconceptions. “To breathe in, one must breathe out,” Davis translates.
The problem is that this can easily become a total rejection of where we came from, including slamming and slandering the communities and traditions that raised us. It’s good to offer critique in a healthy way. It’s good to be open to questioning and rejecting some of the systems and beliefs you were given growing up, but we cannot deny or erase our history. The communities that raised us, the traditions we were formed in, and the heritage we were given are all part of our stories.
If we view ourselves as superior because of some new knowledge or what we see as a more healthy and enlightened outlook on our spirituality, or if we try to erase our histories and write off everything we knew in the past as just wrong, then we end up categorizing all of those who came before us in history or raised us or even grew up with us as inferior humans who are teaching helpless lies. But instead, by living the yin yang, we realize that life is a long series of ebbs and flows, and that whenever one thing grows, something else necessarily shrinks, and when one thing is strengthened, something else is necessarily weakened.
Again, the best metaphor for spiritual growth that I have found is the spiral. My spiritual growth isn’t purely linear, but it’s not entirely cyclical either. Instead, over the past 15 years I have found myself coming around over and over again to the same questions and issues, each time digging a bit deeper down or rising a bit higher up, depending on which way you think of the spiral. And I cannot do this without finding a way to include all the things that came before in my own spiritual narrative. If I view my spiritual growth as purely linear, then I fall into the two traps of 1) comparing myself to others (or my former/future self) in an attempt to “measure” my growth and 2) thinking that once I have got an issue or a doctrine “figured out,” then I’m finished with it for good and can move on to something bigger and better. These two thought habits are some of the most common obstacles to healthy spiritual growth, but with a simple perspective shift, we can work to rid ourselves of them.
Giving before you receive
The final couplet in this section takes a surprising turn. The first three complementary pairs show us that you must have something to remove it or give it away. Things must be strong before they can be weakened. Doctrines must be believed and experienced before they can be challenged. But the great irony is that in the fourth couplet, we are told that giving is the real having.
DC Lau translated, “If you would take from a thing, you must first give to it.” And Marshall Davis and Stephen Mitchell both say, “To possess something, one must give it away.” Living a balance of yin and yang must become an endless cycle of giving. If you look at the image, there is no self-centeredness in the flow and balance between the white and the black sides, there is a giving and a receiving — to the point that there is a drop of white cradled in the deepest part of the black and vice versa.
Christian theologians have long said the same thing about the Trinity. Eastern Christianity has always taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not separate individuals, but inextricably intertwined in a never-ending dance, a process of endless giving, an undying relationship of mutual self-giving love that shows us a God that is in motion and not just static and sterile.
In contrast, Martin Luther defined sin as a soul curved in on itself. If our spiritual journey is one where we find ourselves only looking inward all the time, then this entirely misses the point. We must constantly be giving to the world and to those around us, and even our inner soul searching and quests for greater knowledge cannot be effective when they are done from a posture of taking from the world.
In one post, I have taken eight lines and applied them to everything from the large scale of world history to the very intimate and personal scale of inner spiritual growth. As always, there is so much more to be said, so I encourage you to take this chapter and ponder it for yourself. If you find something you’d like to share, head on over to my blog at www.coreyfarr.com and click on that contact button. Grace and peace, everyone!
Listen to episode twenty-four of the podcast below or on the author’s website:
Previous articles in this series:
Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry, and (of course) the Tao te Ching at www.coreyfarr.com, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.
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