Tao Te Ching: Before you learnt to smile

mountain river

…Other people are joyous,
as though they were at a spring festival.
I alone am unconcerned and expressionless,
like an infant before it has learned to smile.

Other people have more than they need;
I alone seem to possess nothing.
I am lost and drift about with no place to go.
I am like a fool, my mind is in chaos.

Ordinary people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Ordinary people are clever;
I alone am dull.
Ordinary people seem discriminating;
I alone am muddled and confused.

I drift on the waves on the ocean,
blown at the mercy of the wind.
Other people have their goals,
I alone am dull and uncouth.

I am different from ordinary people.
I nurse from the Great Mother’s breasts.

Tao Te Ching, verse 20

Tom’s comments:

This is one of my favourite verses of this wonderful text. I remember when I first read it as a university student in the 90s, I was particularly struck by the phrase ‘like an infant before it has learned to smile’. We can be free of needing to be happy, to smile, to conform, and we can simply be true to ourselves.

This world can seem so confusing. It can feel like everyone else seems to know what they want and where they are going. Of course, it’s such an illusion! How can anyone know what this is all about? If you think you know, you have surely missed the mark!

The Sage sees through all illusions, she sees through the faux-intelligence, goals and make-believe of people around her. The Sage knows he is but Nature expressing herself: he is dependent on her, as a child is on his mother’s breast milk, and he is also Her.

He sees the inherent unfathomable mystery at the heart of life and lovingly pities those who think ‘they understand’.

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Tao Te Ching: Mastery of the world

Tao te ching

This is one of my favourite verses from the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text overflowing with wisdom (If you have not read it, I highly recommend you do – it is easy to find a translation online).

Here in this verse we are instructed to let go, let go and let go again, until not even the notion of our very self remains. Here we have let go of all ideas of spiritual practice, of spiritual paths and of even letting go.

Then, perhaps, non-action will ‘happen’. This is the culmination of the so-called spiritual path: no-doer, nothing more remains to be done, nothing remaining undone – this is ‘mastery of the world’.

One who seeks knowledge,
learns something new everyday.
One who seeks the Tao,
unlearns something new everyday.

Less and less remains,
until you arrive at non-action.
When you arrive at non-action,
nothing will be left undone.*

Mastery of the world is achieved,
by letting things take their natural course.
You can not master the world,
by changing the natural way.

Tao Te Ching verse 48

*An alternative translation is:
When there is no doer,
nothing remains to be done’