“In the beginning was the Tao.
All things issue from it;
All things return to it.
Seeing into darkness is clarity.
Knowing how to yield is strength.
Use your own light
And return to the source of light.
This is called practicing eternity.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
The translator is here clearly alluding to beginning of the Gospel of John, which alludes to the beginning of the book of Genesis. But the message of the Dao is subtly different from that of the Bible, or at least its standard interpretation.
When God creates in Genesis, it is out of and in opposition to chaos—we are told that that there is a “formless” void, “darkness,” a “deep,” and “waters.” God then brings intelligence and order into being, separating the waters into those “below”—the sea—and “above”—the sky (think about it—if you’re living 4,000 years ago and water falls from the sky, you’d probably conclude that the ceiling was leaking). This separation clears the space for a cosmos. When human beings violate the cosmic order in the Noah story, the watery chaos rushes back in; the implication is that God is keeping the chaos at bay, that we depend on Him for our survival, and that yielding to the darkness is evil.
In the Tower of Babel story, this human overreach takes the function of humanity trying to build a stairway to heaven; supposing that pooling their intelligence and resources, they can escape their mortal condition and become like God. Whether it is Adam and Eve (the fruit), Cain (his brother’s life), or the builders of Babel (bricks and mortar), humans get into trouble when they, literally, take matter into their own hands, when they play at being God, when they are “practicing eternity.”
But the Dao is the “Word” and the darkness. Seeing into darkness is clarifying because it shows us the limits of what we know and who we are. Using your own light means recognizes its limits, and the blind spots veiled in darkness, and the source, therefore, of future growth and development. Darkness, in fact, is the “source of the light.” Think about what that means: creation is not a dead event that happened in the distant past, but a living process coming toward you out of the future. Yielding to it, leaning into the unknown, gives you strength.
You can dredge the same message out of Genesis, but it takes a lot of work. Perhaps that is perfectly fitting given the structure of creation—six days for labor—practicing time—one day for revelation—practicing eternity.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”