Forget moderation, go for substance!


12. Substance

Too much color blinds the eye

Too much music deafens the ear

Too much taste dulls the palate

Too much play maddens the mind

Too much desire tears the heart

In this manner the sage cares for people

He provides for the belly not for the senses

He ignores abstraction and holds fast to substance

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

Are these words to counsel for moderation in all things?  Why is it that we are wired up for moderation, for balance? Seems like an odd question to ask and yet, why must we moderate our lives, in all aspects?

It is as if the entire universe observes the principles of homeostasis.  When you go too far in one direction, there is a self-regulating mechanism that kicks in to redress the imbalance.  But why is it an imbalance?  Why can’t we just remain at one end, in one polarity?

Perhaps it is because our potential is widely distributed over infinite possibilities and when we focus only on some, we deny the rest and that interferes with our ability to flow fully and freely in Source, in the Way.

But Lao Tze is not just talking about moderation.  In fact, what he says here has less to do with moderation than it does with anchoring ourselves to the ground of being, to ‘substance’.  Substance is beyond abstractions or dualities or polarities.  It is beyond the flimsiness of sensations.  Substance is free, limitless and whole.  Substance is the true source of life.

Ah, that I be anchored in substance!

Lucy Lopez

Learning to live the wisdom of the Tao post by post!

Didn’t John Howard and George Bush know when it was time to ‘Retire’?

Image taken from The Age

John Howard

Image taken from the Age

9. Retire

Fill a cup to its brim and it is easily spilled

Temper a sword to its hardest and it is easily broken

Amass the greatest treasure and it is easily stolen

Claim credit and honour and you easily fall

Retire once your purpose is achieved – this is natural

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

I’ve noticed that weeds are just plants that have overgrown their welcome.  Know what I mean?  If they just knew when to stop, they could quite easily cohabit with other plants.  But unfortunately, they just don’t seem to get what Lao Tze is telling us here and so make a nuisance of themselves!

But plants are not the only weeds around.  I’m sure we’ve all encountered human ‘weeds’ too; people who just don’t know when to stop.  It may have been someone who literally overstayed their welcome whether in your home, organization or country.  I am thinking, for instance, of guests who have become too reliant on your hospitality or people in management roles who have stayed too long and have nothing fresh to offer their organization or prime ministers (see The Age report) or presidents (see this CNN poll) who have refused to give up their positions of power.

Now, whilst it’s easy to recognize weed-like behavior in others, what is less recognizable is our own weed-like behavior.  You see, I think that we too sometimes lack the awareness and the will to know when ‘enough is enough’, when we need to pull back and let things take their course.

Pulling back and letting go, or ‘retiring‘, as the Tao Te Ching describes it is not so easy to do especially when you feel you’ve invested so much into something.  It’s your ‘baby‘ and I mean that literally as well as metaphorically.  No one else knows it as well as you do.  No one else will care for it or manage it as successfully as you can.  And so, with this kind of thinking, we hold on tightly to the reins of our ‘baby’.

What we don’t realize is that the original creative energy that we had expanded into our ‘baby’ has reached its capacity and is starting to spill (disperse), break or get ‘stolen’, often by the very ‘baby’ itself.  The baby wants to use what you have invested in it to do its own creative work and understandably so.  If it was allowed to do this, it would not need to ‘steal’ from your investment.  Instead, it would acknowledge, use and build on what you have built freely and gratefully without shame or inhibition!    This is natural.  In fact, the creative work/output of your ‘baby’ is surely a testament to the great work that was put into it by you!

It’s not that by letting go of the reins we are admitting that we have nothing more to contribute and no more creative work left to do.  Hardly.  Rather, we are moving aside for fresh creative work by others and moving toward fresh creative work for ourselves somewhere else, in a different capacity perhaps or in a different environment.

Lao Tze also makes a point about claiming credit and honor, warning us that if we do, we will fall (flat on our face, I might add :-)).  Have you ever wondered why this is so?  Here is what I think.

When we try to claim credit and honor for ourselves, we fail to recognize the interconnected nature of our lives.  If you were to honestly ask yourself how you might be solely responsible for a particular outcome, you will find that there was never a point when you were ‘alone‘ in your creative work for there is an interconnectedness permeating our very existence.  Could you have done your creative work, for instance, without the particular circumstances at the time?  Could you have done it if not for all the experiences you’d had up till that point?  Could you have done it if not for all the people and things that were involved in those experiences?

At any given time, we are the product of all our history up until that point and it is on that history that we draw when we work towards our goals, often unconsciously.  To claim credit and honor for ourselves is to undermine the role of this history whether or not you believe your ability to do your creative work came about because or despite it! It also reinforces our erroneous perception of ‘separation‘ which in turn prevents us from drawing freely and fully from the Way, the source of all energy!

So, yes, we need to learn when to retire and we do that by recognizing when our purpose is fulfilled.  And when is that?  I’d like to take that point up in my next post.

Lucy Lopez

Learning to live the Wisdom of the Tao post by post!

Where is my Consciousness of Vigilance?

Image taken from CNN Heroes

Phymean Noun didn’t think twice about tossing the remnants of her lunch into the trash heap as she walked down a busy street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.  But she certainly wasn’t prepared for what followed.  She witnessed several children fighting each other for her chicken bones.  It horrified her.  But it also motivated her so that six years later, Phymean Noun spent $30,000 of her own to feed, clothe, educate and provide health care to 240 children from a trash dump.

I heard today on some television program, the comment in the form of a question in relation to the Victorian bushfires: ‘Why does it take such extreme tragedies to motivate us to care and give?’

I’ll be honest.  Much as I am inclined to agree with the comment I cannot be sure if the assertion is valid.  It implies that we tend not to give unless there is a (much publicized) catastrophe.  In other words, it takes a lot to move us out of apathy or complacency to activate our charitable joints toward our fellow human beings.  It would seem that our tolerance for the hardship of others is increasing, while, dare I say it, our tolerance for our personal hardship keeps plummeting (consider the increasing number of people on anti-depressants, painkillers and other pharmacological modifiers).

That said, it is true that these sorts of events and, at least as importantly, the reporting of them, are able to attract mass and rapid reactions in the form of cash and kind.  In the meantime, however, silent and invisible tragedies happen throughout the world everyday:

“Imagine the horror of the world if a major earthquake were to occur and people stood by and watched without assisting the survivors! Yet every day, the equivalent of a major earthquake killing over 30,000 young children occurs to a disturbingly muted response. They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”

UNICEF, Progress of Nations, 2000

I think the words ‘scrutiny’ and ‘conscience’ are important for it seems to me that I, for one, am not preoccupied with maintaining a consciousness of vigilance over the welfare of my fellow human beings, particularly when I maintain an array of ‘local’ interests and responsibilities that justifiably claim all my energy and attention; interests and responsibilities that promise a return on investment for me, be they in the form of children, a career, a mortgage or financial security.

It is not because things are out of my sight that they stay out of my mind.  On the contrary, it is because they are out of my mind that they remain out of sight for if I did have a consciousness of vigilance, I would be actively seeking to identify my less fortunate brothers and sisters and find ways to help them.

I imagine there would be a sense of urgency and/or commitment, not unlike that of Phymean Noun‘s that would keep me restless until I gave it due attention, the kind that would leave me feeling as if there was still unfinished business to attend to as I went to bed each night.  Somehow, I don’t believe it would be a disturbing or anxiety causing sort of restlessness.  Rather, it would be a ‘restlessness’ or ‘experience’ of eagerness, of enthusiasm, a creative energy that would invigorate rather than tire me for there would certainly be no guilt around it!  And, if Lao Tze is right, this experience, despite being drawn upon, ‘will not run dry’.

6. Experience

Experience is a riverbed

Its source hidden, forever flowing

Its entrance, the root of the world

The Way moves within it

Draws upon it, it will not run dry.

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

What are your thoughts on this?  Do you feel you have become desensitized to the suffering of others?  Or are you ‘restless’ to seek and help them?

Lucy Lopez

Learning to live the Wisdom of the Tao post by post!

Michelle Obama and the beauty-free Tao

I happened to read a post on the CNN blog about Michelle Obama appearing in Vogue magazine. More interesting to me than the post itself, however, were the comments that followed and there were a lot of them.

Many said that MO is a beautiful, gorgeous, young and intelligent first lady. A few, however, stated in no uncertain terms that ‘beautiful’ she is not while several mentioned her inner beauty. One comment stood out from all the rest for me because it appeared to provide a compelling argument. The gist of it was this:

If you described MO as beautiful, then how would you describe the likes of Halle Barry? You’d have to go off the scale to find something beyond the superlatives for them.

Wow! What a clever argument! I mean, we don’t have the means, linguistic or imaginative, to accommodate every face in our current bandwidth of ‘beautiful’. And since we don’t, let’s just admit that some people are simply not beautiful.

Oops, now that I’ve said that, it does sound rather small-minded, doesn’t it? It sort of reflects my limitations in thinking and perceiving rather than the first lady’s beauty or lack of. I mean, seriously, it’s all happening in my mind, isn’t it, this business about whether she is beautiful or not? It’s my judgment, isn’t it? And quite independent of Michelle, I might add. I mean, do you think she’s aware that I’m sat here in my little apartment, continents apart, Down Under, looking out into a rainy morning, making judgments about her beauty or otherwise?

But hey, I know just where to turn to in moments like this, moments where I become blindingly aware of the limitations of my mind, conditioned as it has been by the capricious beliefs and values of its environment.  Here’s Verse 2 from the Tao Te Ching:

2. Abstraction

When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied.

So alive and dead are abstracted from nature,
Difficult and easy abstracted from progress,
Long and short abstracted from contrast,
High and low abstracted from depth,
Song and speech abstracted from melody,
After and before abstracted from sequence.

The sage experiences without abstraction,
And accomplishes without action;
He accepts the ebb and flow of things,
Nurtures them, but does not own them,
And lives, but does not dwell.

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

You’ve got to hand it to Lao Tzu and others like him. It’s our tendency to discriminate through judgment that sets up the polarities/abstractions of good and bad, beauty and ugliness.

We have a habit of looking for differences within the immanent properties of naturally occurring things – nature, progress, contrast, depth, melody, sequence. We have this habit of abstracting, building ideas or concepts out of an event, an instance, a moment in time just as I was doing before with Michelle O.

But the sage, (and I am aspiring to sagacity me self J) doesn’t abstract. The sage simply experiences, accepting things as they occur. The sage has no need to see things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. The sage ‘lives, but does not dwell’ which means she moves freely along with the life stream and is not stuck or attached to anything, physical, mental or emotional. How absolutely freeing that must be!

Michelle, I thank you for giving me cause to recognize my mental foibles. And you did this by simply being a thought in my mind…Power to You, I say! Actually, the thought was mine, in my head…you didn’t do anything at all apart from just being…hmmm…

‘The Way that can be experienced is not true’


I’ve noticed I get excited when I approach the Tao Te Ching. It’s because I know that I’m likely to encounter profound conundrums that have very practical implications. I mean, this is not esoteric stuff. It is hard-core reality!

For instance, Lao Tze says:

‘The Way that can be experienced is not true’

Huh?  Okay, after the initial koan-ic shock I relax and allow meaning to flow through.  So my first take on this is that my mind, conditioned by this life and possibly many others, typically experiences  ‘things’ as other, as separate from itself. I can assure you from years of personal human experience that it’s not the most useful way of perceiving things. It gives rise to all sorts of separation anxieties – too much separation from those people and things I love and not enough separation from those things I don’t. And it’s always comparing, comparing, comparing and judging, judging, judging, neither of which leaves me feeling particularly good about myself or others.

I mean, imagine one of my elbows comparing itself with one of my eyes.

“You’re luckier than me. You get to see so much more than I do. I’m always having to see things after you’ve had a first look in. And you don’t get nearly as many bruises and bumps as I do…”

“Are you kidding??!!” exclaims the eye with utter incredulity. “If you saw some of the things I did, you’d be more than grateful you had a rear seat facing backward! Besides, everyone’s always peering into me as if there was something wrong with me, not to mention how much harder I have to work especially when she lies or cries. That’s something you just don’t want to have to do…”

You get my point, I hope. I mean, they could see that they are all of the same body you know and just enjoy theirs and each other’s experiences instead of finding reasons to be dissatisfied. Actually, just enjoy regardless of whose experience it is.

So, yes, this mind of mine that sees you as separate from me and the people fighting in Gaza as even more separate isn’t doing me any real favors. I mean, I’m almost always preoccupied with looking after myself because if I don’t who will? And meanwhile a lot of people and things (plants, animals and the world in general) get hurt while I’m more concerned about my wellbeing than I am of theirs. I remember this line which I’ve been told is from a song:

When a mother sees her son as more important than another mother’s son, war happens.

I’m not sure if it’s the exact words, but that’s the gist of it.

So anyway, that’s one of the things about the mind seeing things as separate to itself. And it does that by being the ‘experiencer’ of that thing. But the Way or the Tao is beyond experiencing, so that anything that can be experienced is not the Way/Tao.

I get that. There’s another layer of reality, you know, that has no sense of separation, no sense of experiencer or experienced or experiencing. I think some people describe it as non-duality or some such stuff.

But get that as I might, there is something else about that line that really gets me excited. It really does. I mean, here it is. If what is being experienced is not true, then all the stuff that I do experience is not true! I mean just contemplate that possibility for a moment.

The implications are tremendous especially when it comes to all that awful stuff we experience. Briefly, and for some reason I think brevity is the only way one can deal with something so profound. I mean, I would even suggest silence but that would make this blog thing a bit of a waste of time, wouldn’t it? And we are here with some spare time on our hands right?

So, briefly, what it suggests to me is that there is a point or place or state of mind in which all the stuff of life is no longer true and that point or place or state is the Way!

Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way,
Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world.

Now all I need to do is to slip through that ‘gate of experience’ beyond which flows the Way and just flow with it. And you know what? I’m sure I’ve done it. Many times. It happens when I am present, aware, right in the moment. Trouble is, I keep slipping back into the land of nod, I mean experiences.

Thanks for reading and drop me a line won’t you? Oh by the way, here’s the entire verse from Chapter 1.

1. The Way

The Way that can be experienced is not true;
The world that can be constructed is not true.
The Way manifests all that happens and may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may exist.

To experience without intention is to sense the world;
To experience with intention is to anticipate the world.
These two experiences are indistinguishable;
Their construction differs but their effect is the same.

Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way,
Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world.

Translation variously sourced and compiled at