Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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In today’s episode, we’ll be looking at chapter 33. Basically, we’re going to break it down into four points to follow the relatively simple structure of this chapter. First, we’ll talk about knowing yourself. Second, we’ll talk about mastering or controlling yourself - and what it means to do that in a healthy way. For the sake of space, we’ll skip the section on wealth and contentment, which I cover more in the podcast. Finally, we’ll talk about what it means to find life in the midst of death. The last couple lines about death sound incredibly morbid the first time you read them (or at least they do in Stephen Mitchell’s translation), but if you stick with me to the end of the episode, I’ll unpack them more and demonstrate how it’s actually a profound insight that has a lot of resonance with Christian spirituality if we take it and apply it the right way.
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Humans have always longed for the ability to know who we really are. The ancient Greeks said “know thyself.” The Hebrews recognized the importance of communal identity as part of God’s people. One of the theological giants of the early church, Augustine, prayed “God, let me know myself and let me know thee” or as some have translated, “let me know myself in order that I might know thee.” Every culture has had its own form of this quest, which is of course part of the search for the bigger meaning of life.
For Lao Tzu, it takes intelligence to know others, but true wisdom to know yourself. Although this may sound self-centered and individualistic, I don’t think we need to read it that way. Instead, I would say that knowing yourself is key to understanding others, having compassion and empathy, and developing relationships that are generally healthy instead of toxic. People who totally lack self-awareness are often some of the most frustrating, annoying, and even destructive people out there. The more self-awareness we gain, the more able we are to understand our strengths and our faults and relate better to others and the world around us.
Knowing yourself is all about asking questions and pursuing answers, no matter where it takes you. Consistently. Relentlessly. Fearlessly - and that’s an important word here because it might just be terrifying what you unearth at times. Following those questions may lead you inward, but it will soon lead you outward, because any time we effectively know ourselves, it is always in relation to the world around us. So asking questions about yourself and your identity will always lead to bigger questions, like the meaning of life, the nature of human spirituality, the problem of pain and suffering in the world, etc. It’s not an easy journey.
But here’s the clincher: we make that journey a whole lot harder - and maybe even impossible - if we operate under the assumption that we can successfully answer all of those questions. Sometimes it’s the questioning itself that provides the meaning. Sometimes the so-called “answer” is about learning to hold onto paradox. As Rainer Rilke wrote,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
For Rilke, we don’t just ask the questions. We love the questions, and we live the questions, regardless of whether we can get the answers or not. And as we live the questions, we may just find ourselves eventually not just knowing the answers, but living them.
Now, you may feel inclined to push back here. Isn’t all this talk about “living the questions” and not needing the answers just a denial of truth? No, I don’t think so. I think we can fully embrace an open, curious attitude and ask these kinds of questions about ourselves within the context of following Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we need to keep asking questions to keep moving forward!
One of the earliest lessons I learned in my faith was that doubt is a very real and powerful thing, and it only has more power the more we try to suppress it, which we usually do under the false impression that it is a sin. But there’s nothing sinful about doubt. It’s not something that you can control. Trying to suppress it only causes it to fester and grow like cancer, and it will ultimately lead to a total loss of any faith and probably even a cynical, jaded future.
But we can control how we respond. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doubt, as long as we put it out in the open, share it with someone, and commit to pursuing it and following the questions and searching for truth. In my mind, we can fully embrace and own our doubt and still be committed to following Jesus as long as we are also committed to searching for truth and answers - whatever those answers might look like. Doubt doesn’t need to be be a dirty word. It can actually be a sign of a critical thinking mind that desires a deep, robust, thick spirituality more than just cookie-cutter answers. It all depends on how we respond to it, which we’ll look at next.
The second couplet of this chapter says that in different translations, mastering or conquering or overcoming others is strength, but being able to master or conquer or overcome yourself is true power. I’ve blogged before about the huge importance of two simple sentences that have radically transformed my life and helped me (in a sense) to “master” myself when it comes to the way I approach life: “I cannot control this. The only thing I can control is my response.”
These two sentences are like the twin blades of the scissors that cut through anxiety and frustration. First, we ground ourselves in reality: “I have no control over this.” This prepares us to accept reality completely. It’s important to remember that acceptance isn’t the same thing as approval. We must learn to look reality in the face and say, “Here you are, and here I am. What’s next?”
Acknowledging that we have no control is not resigning ourselves or admitting defeat. It is actually opening ourselves to see new possibilities instead of obsessing over the things we wish were different but cannot change. It’s a way to find clarity of insight into what we actually can do instead of focusing on all the things we can’t.
Our mind gives us the illusion, even if we don’t put it into words, that if we just stress out enough or feel enough anger and frustration, then somehow the situation will change. That somehow we can gain the power of change simply by letting our passions run wild. Admitting “I have no control over this,” is the first step in deconstructing that lie.
Second, we acknowledge the power we actually do have: “The only thing I can control is my response.” By fixing our perspective, we open ourselves up to new insights because our mind is freed up from clutching and grasping at the things that we can’t control.
I want to make something clear: there is a difference between force and strength. Mastering yourself is true strength, but we’ve often been taught that being strong is forcing yourself to refrain from expressing emotions or shedding tears so that you can stay “in control”. This isn’t what mastering yourself means. Force is used for control and coercion, but true strength comes in being able to allow things to unfold and respond appropriately.
Mastering yourself doesn’t mean being able to “control” your emotions. The fact is, they are linked to brain chemistry, so biologically speaking, you can’t control them! The lie that you should be able to do so just leads to repressing them, and this is never a good thing for anyone. So, when I say, “I can’t control this,” sometimes I’m actually referring to my own emotions; but what I can control is my response to them. The beauty is that over time, by choosing to respond in healthy ways, we actually can rewire our brains and our bodies and we will find that even our initial emotional responses become healthier.
This kind of “mastering yourself” doesn’t fly in the face of Christian theology (as though it were a denial of broken humanity), but actually falls right in line with it, because it is a perfect way of describing the inner transformation that Christians believe comes by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Here's another translation of the chapter that might help as we finish the post:
Knowing things makes you smart,
but knowing yourself makes you wise.
To rule others, you must be powerful,
but to rule yourself,
you must be strong.
If you have only what you need,
you have true wealth.
If you never give up,
you will find a way.
If you stay true to yourself,
you will never be lost.
To die without getting lost -
that is to live on and on.
-Translator: Ron Hogan (last two lines from David Hinton)
The final couplet is a surprising one, and it takes a little bit more digging than the first three. We heard Mitchell’s before, and although I like the rest of his translation, I think this one is a bit misleading at first:
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
To me, this sounds like something out of a weird cult in a Hollywood film. J.H. MacDonald’s translation helps clarify this a bit; and it’s especially interesting to me, because he brings in some rather Biblical sounding language (which is interesting since he is not a “Christian translator”).
Those who embrace death will not perish,
but have life everlasting.
-Translator: J.H. MacDonald
Maybe embracing death just means coming to terms with your mortality. And maybe we should think of perishing not as a euphemism for death, but in the same sense we use it for food on a shelf. Food that is perished has gone bad, doesn’t taste good anymore, and might even make you sick. If we can come to terms with our mortality, we avoid the cycle of bitterness and degeneration that comes from denying death - something humans have subconsciously done for thousands of years.
Marshall Davis’ translation talks about the one who “dies before he dies.” Now, Davis is a Christian translator, and I’m confident that he’s alluding to Jesus’ teaching, “Whoever would follow me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” as well as Paul’s words that he has been “crucified with Christ” so that Christ might live within him. Whether or not Lao Tzu was talking about this kind of dying to self, he has still picked up on a very important truth of healthy spirituality: we must learn to die to ourselves. Dying to our desires and our need for control is a major theme throughout the whole book, because it is a major key of human spirituality.
Jesus knew that truth. He wasn’t just making it up out of nowhere. What he did, as he so often does, is expand it and make it so much bigger and more profound than it had been before. Not only do we need to die to ourselves, but in doing so we open up space to truly live and truly become our true selves by finding our identity in him - who also gave up his own life as a witness to the heart of God for humanity.