I’ve been “researching” Taoism since about 1994, when I was going through a tumultuous pivot point in my life. I was trying to get into someone’s head at the time to smooth over a series of pointed arguments we’d had, knew this person had been told to read “The Tao of Pooh” (but never confirmed it had indeed been read) and picked it up to see if anything could be ferreted out about the situation third hand.
Like most people, I’d heard of any number of “Tao of…” book titles popular at the time and I’d written Taoism off largely as New Age mumbo jumbo meant to benefit the pocketbooks of the authors more than the lives of their readers, so I approached Benjamin Hoff’s book with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Much to my surprise, in spite of being fairly light-weight and easy to consume, I actually dug what I was reading. I probably read the borrowed book three or four times before returning it to its owner and when it didn’t help me to understand the situation I was going through any better… promptly forgot about it.
I was a practicing with druids at the time and thought myself quite content in the group was with, but it as becoming clearer with each gathering that I’d grown disenchanted with the message and activities. This gave way to investigating local Native American spirituality as a replacement and, while finding that particular path to more grounded for me, I was suspicious of the person in charge, their motives, and of their honesty. There was also the nagging feeling that no path of the spirit should require a gatekeeper, and yet each path I chose to explore seemed to lead to someone keeping me from moving to the next level of understanding (or so seemed to at the time). Still other paths I pursued always seemed to have an underlying financial burden associated with them. I’m not one to give much credence to any path that requires monetary contributions, nor those when someone holds the keys to whatever Nirvana might lay within the walled garden, so I blazed my own trail after a number of disappointing experiences. 1
Around that time, I stumbled across the Tao Te Ching while waiting for an autograph of a writer at a bookstore signing. Recalling Hoff’s book, I picked it up on whim that day, determined to find out more about this Tao business that had left a good taste in my mouth several years earlier. I didn’t understand a word of the book — the apparent contradictions, the mystical language of the translation I had grabbed,2 the denseness of the verses wrapped in unfamiliar cultural references… It was a puzzle, to say the least, and almost nothing like what Hoff had written. Not unused to deciphering such texts (having looked for meaning in everything from the Bible’s Apocrypha to secrets hidden in old Celtic tales), I figured it was only a matter of time before I cracked the Tao Te Ching’s code.
Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t claim to fully comprehend it — and not for lack of trying.
That’s not to say that Lao Tzu’s work is a completely baffling text as it was back then, but I learn something new with every time I read it, with every translation I add to my collection, It wouldn’t surprise me if the work continued to unfold until the day I die. All 81 verses are filled with deep insight that reveals itself with time and every time I think I “get it”, someone points out an insight I had previously overlooked.
Embracing elements of the Tao Te Ching has increasingly seemed more praiseworthy as time has gone on, but I’ve not had the courage or resolve to actually attempt to embody those virtues and values. Something always got in the way of even attempting to cultivate Tao — that something usually being me. Recently, I decided to disallow myself the excuses: the “life’s to complicated right now” mantra, the “I’m not a good enough person” chant, the filling what little free time I have with escapism and distraction. I can excuse myself until the day I die, regretting that I never committed myself to growing beyond the status quo.
And so I promise myself to make a good faith effort — not because I should, but because I must.
- This not to say that there was anything inherently flawed with the groups I explored. Simply put, none of the spiritual groups felt as if they were ultimately in accord with my personal views. Add to it my firm core beliefs that the spiritual ought not and can not be sold, as well as my rebellion against hierarchy in nearly any form when it comes to spiritual matters and you can probably see why these structured groups failed to meet my needs. ↩
- The translation in question is that written by D.C. Lau, published by Penguin Classics. I’ve heard it referred to as one of the most accurate translations since I made the purchase, but neither the formatting, the footnoting or the word choices serve to enhance readability in my personal opinion. While less linguistically accurate, I feel other translations and interpretations get to the heart of the message better than this particular text does. ↩