Non-being in Taoism

This is a difficult topic to explain to most people. This is because we’re so use to speaking, and thus thinking, in relative terms. The problem with this is that:

“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

It’s an entirely different way of thinking. We have the tendency to view things in comparison to other things, when oftentimes there’s no need for comparisons. Because comparisons tend to offer us an oppositional view of the world.

But the world doesn’t exist in a massive dichotomy. That would be utterly chaotic. I’ve noticed that a lot of people can’t seem to appreciate another person’s beauty without immediately considering their own non-beauty. What an ugly way to live!

And sometimes it’s not the aspect of something we would immediately expect that makes it beautiful.

“We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

So a Taoist walks into a therapist’s office.

The therapist asks, “How do you feel today?”

The Taoist responds, “I feel empty inside.”

I couldn’t resist. So oftentimes, we overlook important – even necessary – qualities. We do this with objects, with other people, and especially with ourselves. We have this tendency of trying to mold ourselves a certain way. Usually in a way that we think will help us fit in with societal expectations.

But what would happen if you molded a cup too much? You may end up ruining it’s original purpose of holding things. What if you spent too much time filling the interior of your house? It would no longer be livable.

Get comfortable with the being and non-being that exist within you. You don’t need to know your purpose just yet. In general, Taoism is all about going with the flow. The more you attempt to mold or to lead or to do, the farther away you get from the Tao.

“Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

Here again is the problem with drawing comparisons. When others do the “right” or “successful “things, it implies that you are doing the “wrong” things or that you are “unsuccessful”. But your value is not determined by other people’s choices.

Why can’t we all be “right” or “successful” in our own ways? Again, there’s no utility in trying to mold ourselves a particular way. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So, to repeat Lao Tzu, “Stop thinking, and end your problems.”


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