Some Thoughts About Reality: The “Manifestations” of the “Tao Te Ching”
Free from desire, you realize the mystery
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
The Temporal and the Eternal
Okay, I think I get it. The opening poem (or chapter) of the Tao Te Ching is telling me that there are two worlds: the temporal, where words (names), “manifestations,” and “desire” exist; and the “eternal” where the “nameless,” the “mystery,” and serenity (free from “desire”) inhabit.
Just when I think I have nailed it, the Tao then tells me that the eternal and the temporal come from the same “Darkness,” or, better still, “Darkness within darkness.”
I was told something like this in my early Roman Catholic theology, a theology I have left for another spiritual journey. But I still have an emotional attachment to the notion of the Incarnation. It is a theology that said to me God allowed his offspring to descend into the world in human form (the Christian version of the Tao’s “Manifestation” of the eternal).
And then I was taught the ex nihilo cosmology, that everything came, or was created (if you are a creationist), from nothing (ex nihilo). Nihilo for me is the Tao’s “Darkness within darkness.”
Nothingness, if you will; limitless absence, silence, some pre-existing state prior, perhaps, even to eternity. Or maybe it was just “Chaos,” some form of reality in complete disarray inside of eternity until order blossomed within that limitless space. (I come from the “Blossom” school of theology; I am not a creationist.)
Mysticism, Religion Without Others, Surrender
I must admit I was mesmerized by mysticism as an adolescent. I got hooked on the mystery of the private connection mystics had to a higher order of reality. And that connection, I believed, was direct. No mediators (priests, imams, clergy, rabbis, ministers), thank you. Just me and the mystery, untainted by interpretations, exegeses, hermeneutics, Bible thumpers, prophets, explainers.
It was okay if you “inspired” me, for then, I could be off to the races with my private conversations with a higher order of reality (that higher order of my adolescence and young adulthood was the God and/or Christ figure of my Roman Catholic heritage)
Of course, my adolescent mystical moments of “God absorption” I’ll call it, were more about my own naïve arrogance in believing that somehow I was special, that I was in God’s made-for-John spotlight, the exclusive object of His caring. Others became irrelevant unless, of course, I could plead, on their behalf. I would definitely be in control and even the master of other people’s destinies.
It took me a long while to discover that “others” do count. That I am not the center of the universe. Over a lifetime, I have experienced many manifestations of the sacred in those others. But those others come to me, I believe, not because of some arbitrary grace-giving sky-god (I am a non-theist), but because I have willingly surrendered to those others.
The Manifestations of the Tao in Life’s Tragedies and Successes
That surrendering process is a result of a long history of therapy, a twelve-step program, hanging out with grounded people, sharing my story, listening to the stories of others—cancer, bankruptcy, half-way houses, estrangement, self-loathing, sexual and physical abuse, addiction, depression, abandonment, sleeping in boxes under bridges, struggling just to get out of bed in the morning.
All of those stories—and they are real—are the “manifestations” of the eternal, the fleshed out narratives that tell me that there is some magic spark inside of all of us, some energy that has the potential for jump-starting the many possibilities for other “manifestations of the eternal” in all the success narratives I have heard from people who finally get their lives together after long bouts of alcoholism, cocaine, or meth and marijuana use.
And these success stories are very real: mothers and dads getting their children back; addicts and alcoholics going back to school to become counselors; family reconciliations; long stretches of self-worth; freedom from the addictions; compassion for others; service; opening up a small business; becoming politically active in a community.
Okay, I think I’ve made my case that the “Manifestations” of the eternal, the incarnated events and people that “arrive” in my life, in their very real forms, all comprise their own kind of sacredness.
The Desire For Eternal Life: Our Comfort Food
So, what about the eternal?
I believe I will never have a shot at the “eternal,” beyond the finite “Manifestations” of that eternity in my life (the “Manifestations” are, to me, proxy forms of eternity, not being, of course, eternal in and of themselves). And I also believe that it would be arrogant of me to assume that I will ever experience the eternal. That I will somehow just live on, and live on, and live on—John’s fantasy on a good night of total self-absorption.
I have said in another Blog Post that the eternalists, I’ll call them, too often want eternal life and consciousness because it gives them comfort (the idea of being eternally extinct without life or consciousness is, after all, a very sobering, if not angst-driven concept). And, who doesn’t want comfort?
But the pursuit of comfort, like comfort food, can often give us the illusion that it’s good for us. It can also delude us, move us towards that old “pleasure dome” of just sitting back and letting reality drive around us like a speeding car rushing towards some fantasized destiny until a police car pulls us over.
The “reality” of death will arrive for all of us. My only hope is that I will surrender to it peacefully.
Desire and Repression: The Two Emotional Extremes
Now, my friends, what about that old desire the Tao Te Ching talks about?
Yes, I believe desire can be the “manifestation” of emotional disarray (the human analogue to the Chaos that , we are told by some, existed prior to the Order of creation). But I also know that repression is equally unstable in its rigid austerity.
Desire and repression are the psychological/emotional dualities of explosion and implosion, the prodigal nature of wanting to grab everything in front of me and pull it in. Or, conversely, all the forms of hording, of stuffing my emotions, of being overly frugal, of living in a constant state of reserve (in order to impress others that I am a cool guy, always master of my stoic destiny, always in control).
Paradoxically, the ontological set-up the Tao gives me speaks to my own “desire” for mystery. On the other hand, my experience tells me that my desire can get out of control. I can want something. But what I want I often don’t need, I can’t afford, or it’s really, really, really bad for me. And yet, doesn’t everyone want a couple of shots at luxuriating in some kind of pleasure, some secret little addiction they don’t want exposed to the world?
Okay, I know it’s often better for me to pull back, to restrain myself, to wait, to avoid going after every beautiful person that “crosses my bow” (my therapist’s words). But I also know from experience that I need to emotionally expand myself, that I don’t have to repress an emotion because I don’t think the feeling I’m having is “proper” or “adult.”
In a word, the Tao gets it half right, in my judgment. And there are just some things in this world that warrant a sensual, passionate, even angry response. And desire, on some very beautiful level, lets me know I am still alive.