Chapter 1: Taoing
“So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin, but different in name,
Whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
There is a basic danger surrounding the confrontation with mystery. The danger is thinking that it is actually hidden from us. That someone, or some group, or some institution, or some place is closer to it than we are. That it is a super special secret. That it is exotic, arcane, esoteric. That it sits behind a locked door, and that we lack the key or combination.
But just as the gates of hell are locked from the inside, so with the door to the hidden.
This chapter also tells us that “heaven and earth begin in the unnamed; the named is the mother of the ten thousand things.” Thick layers of cultural accretion warp our vision of heaven: we picture it as a different dimension of existence, a realm of angelic and somehow purely spiritual beings, which of course makes no sense because pictures involve images, and images entail space, and space entails bodies. But in the seminal texts of Western culture from the Greeks and the Hebrews, heaven literally just means the sky.
When we sever heaven and earth, the other world and this world, death and life, we sever ourselves from our source. The soul then becomes “ever-wanting”: wanting to escape the gravity of the earth—of limits and weight and bodies and pain and death—for the frictionless flotation of heaven. This takes both religious and secular forms: believers seeking deliverance from the vale of tears, billionaire tech moguls escaping to space. Earth is a kind of evil from which we want to escape. The unwanting soul already has what it wants.
But of course, the wanting and unwanting soul—in Christian language, the soul in a state of sin and grace—are one and the same. Letting that paradox be is, paradoxically, the way toward wanting well.