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 the past few years, I’ve heard a lot about the importance of making sure we have a sufficient balance between work and rest in our lives. The “work-rest balance” is usually presented as a pendulum or a scale on which we have to find a healthy midpoint. For most people, this means decreasing their workload or making more time for intentional rest. I think that’s fair, and to be honest, when it’s presented well, it’s not really all that different from what I’m about to say.
However, I am slowly becoming convinced that it may be better to think in terms of work-rest harmony rather than work-rest balance. Rather than trying to moderate how much work we do in order to increase our rest (or vice versa), what if we changed our perspective to say that both work and rest are vital, essential, and very good things that both need to be allowed to flourish to the fullest?
In order to truly flourish, they need each other. Our work suffers when we never take time to rest, and our rest is unfulfilling if there’s never any work. Instead of constantly trying to measure and moderate, it may be helpful to recognize that both our work and our rest need to achieve their fullest potential, because each one is a beautiful expression of what it means to be human.
Chapter 42 of the Tao te Ching, in my own paraphrase, points to this importance of harmony over simply balance:
All things carry yin and embrace yang,
The stillness of yin and the movement of yang,
The action of yang and the passivity of yin,
The rest of yin and the work of yang,
The light of yang and the shade of yin,
All things achieve harmony by integrating their energy.
The one, the two, and the three... huh?
The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.
It’s easy to skip over a paragraph like this and jump ahead to the rest of the chapter, which talks more clearly about humility and non-violence. Ron Hogan takes this route in his hilarious translation. And no, I’m not kidding, this is really how he translated the first part of this section:
Chapter 42 starts out
with some cosmic mumbo-jumbo
about Tao making one,
one making two,
two making three,
and three making everything else.
I don’t know what it means,
I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
Let’s get to the practical part:
Now, we could follow Hogan and just move on to the practical part, but I think there is a profound truth hidden in this section when it comes to thinking about how we think. These lines are more than just a cosmology, or a theory of the universe - I think they give a powerful insight into what it means to think nondualistically. Although I explore the ideas of unity and duality in the podcast episode, today I just want to focus on the third line: “The three gives birth to all things.” As you saw in the introduction, I think there are huge practical implications here if we view take some creative interpretive license.
The "third thing" - the abstract side
Tao gives birth one, which begets two, which eventually (if we skip ahead two lines) create the ten thousand things (an ancient Chinese way of saying everything in the universe). But before all things are created, this chapter says that the two gives birth to three. Why does Lao Tzu feel the need to count to three before jumping to ten thousand?
Why doesn’t this chapter just continue the pattern of doubling, like from one to two, and say that two creates four? I don’t think we can be entirely sure, but there is something to be said about this “third thing”. I think it’s because the “two” things aren’t separate entities that each just continue to multiply by themselves. No - the “third thing” comes from both of them. It is neither one nor the other, yet at the same time it is both. It is truly nondualistic.
We see this in the yin-yang. There is black and white, yes, but it is the harmony between them that creates the “third thing” - which I would say is the symbol itself, a beautiful and simple circle in seemingly perpetual motion that represents so much about Taoist philosophy. If we keep reading, the next few lines in this chapter say:
All things carry Yin
yet embrace Yang.
They blend their life breaths
in order to produce harmony.
That word harmony is so important here. This is truly holistic thinking - that the whole is greater than just the simple sum of its parts. Atoms make up molecules, but molecules have properties that atoms don’t have - the whole is greater. Molecules make up cells, but human cells have properties that molecules don’t have - the whole is greater. Cells make up organs, but those organs take on properties that the cells don’t have in and of themselves - the whole is greater. And finally, organs make up human bodies, but people are far more than just the sum of their organs.
This is just scratching the surface; there are a thousand different places we can look in the universe where there is a “third thing” that includes all of the smaller parts and, somehow, becomes something even greater.
When we think dualistically, we end up putting two things on a spectrum. If we’re trying to be fair, we will usually talk about the importance of finding “balance” between them. Nearly every time we analyze things in history, or philosophy, or psychology and personality types, or even theology, we have a natural tendency to find two extreme viewpoints to represent each side. Then we try to compare all possible positions relative to two reductionist extremes. Usually, the general idea is that a balance between the two is the best way to go. Instead of viewing the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, we try to water both down to find a compromise or a middle ground.
This can be problematic when it comes to complex issues. Finding “balance” between black and white would just make the yin yang one solid shade of dull grey. But it’s not - both colors remain distinct, yet they are inseparably linked in harmony. Although we often use the words balance and harmony interchangeably when talking about spirituality, for the sake of this discussion, the word "balance" actually implies just finding the midpoint on a spectrum, whereas harmony is about acknowledging that both things are unique and necessary and should, in their own way, be allowed to flourish and put forth the best parts of themselves to contribute to the whole.
So much of life is about learning to acknowledge that sometimes, two things that seem to be totally opposite and even possibly opposed to each other are actually both uniquely necessary, and then learning the wisdom that both need to exist in harmony, not in opposition.
Think about breathing. Breathing consists of two parts: inhaling oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide. Both of these stages are absolutely necessary and linked. We can’t blend them together to find a middle ground, or what we might call a “balance” between them; yet when they are in harmony, we have respiration and life. This harmony is dynamic - it’s always in motion. It’s a give-and-take, a back-and-forth, a mutual supporting. The balance requires allowing both breathing in and breathing out to flourish - which means that half the time, one of them appears to be flourishing more than the other.
When two people have a child, they have created a “third thing”. Technically, the child has gotten exactly 50% of their genetic makeup from each parent. They started existence as just two cells, one from each parent, which continued to divide and generate new cells to form what ends up being a totally unique, independent, free-thinking self - a third thing that is neither the father nor the mother, yet intimately linked and connected with both of them.
The "third thing" - the practical side
In the Tao te Ching, humanity is also a “third thing”. We “carry yin on our backs” and “embrace yang in our arms”. Yang is the sun, light, action, strength, force, motion. Yin is the moon, shade, darkness, rest, yielding, and stillness. Every single person carries these two polar opposite forces, which really are not just individual forces but metaphors for a wide variety of natural opposites. We have one on our backs and the other in our arms, and the next line literally says these two blend, or merge, or combine their energy in order to cause harmony.
The ten thousand things carry shade
And embrace sunlight.
Shade and sunlight, yin and yang,
Breath blending into harmony.
-Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo
Beyond just the work-rest balance discussed at the beginning of this article, I think this idea of harmony-over-balance has enormous practical value in many areas of our lives.
We are often led to believe that emotional health means learning how to be emotionally “stable” - finding a balance between all of your emotions. But in reality, it is not emotionally healthy to try to stifle certain emotions to force a false sense of “balance”. Laughter and weeping, anger and sentimentality, frustration and contentment - these are all natural human emotions, and each one of them should be allowed to flourish rather than be stifled or suppressed if we hope to attain true emotional health.
Now, flourishing doesn’t mean you just fly off the handle and let your emotions control you to the point that you become reactive. But acknowledging and embracing those emotions as natural, necessary, and even good in the right time and place can help you get a handle on how to respond to them, rather than just react from them. Although it is certainly possible to be emotionally unbalanced and unstable, we have to learn to acknowledge and deal with our emotions rather than just trying to suppress them to maintain long-term emotional health.
What about faith? A life of faith always has elements of both doubt and trust. Even though these two seem like polar opposites, they are both very normal parts of any relationship. It’s natural to have doubts. They are not sinful. They are not toxic. They are reality. They happen when we aren’t sure what will happen, and they are not a sign that we don’t trust - only that we haven’t figured out how to trust in that area yet. I don’t want to go so far as to say that doubt is “good”, but I believe that we need to allow our doubts to flourish in order to have a vibrant faith.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not about encouraging our doubts and reacting to them, becoming more and more cynical and jaded and disbelieving. Allowing doubt to flourish means acknowledging it, allowing it permission to exist, and using it to spur on a search for truth, while also knowing that we may never have all the answers.
Trust is actually formed by embracing and acknowledging those doubts and pressing forward in search of truth, or at least in search of greater trust. Failing to do so is just a recipe for spiritual cancer, which can rot your faith from the inside out.
God can handle your doubts; just read the Psalms. More than half of the Psalms are about doubts, frustrations, and anger at other people or even at God - yet they are still prized as the sacred prayer book of both Jews and Christians because God honors those honest expressions. If you’re in a place of doubt, the best way to let it flourish is to be honest about it - with yourself, with God, and with people who can help support you - even if you’re not entirely sure what that even means and what good could possibly come of it.
The “third thing” of faith, is greater than the sum of doubts and trust. Trying to find a balance between them doesn’t really work, since by trying to water them down and bring them closer together you actually just remove their essential qualities altogether. Eventually, trust will grow, but only when we bring the doubt into the light. It is a dangerous lie when we believe that we have to be 100% certain that we have every single answer about faith and spirituality correct in order to flourish.
The same goes with intellectual pursuit. The push to study and learn more is always accompanied by both confusion and clarity. There really isn’t any way to “balance” them, but allowing them both to flourish is what spurs on our intellectual growth. Many times, new clarities bring out new obscurities as we shine the light around another intellectual corner, and then we have to continue pressing into those new confusions seeking even newer clarity. If there’s no confusion or obscurity, then you’re probably not really learning. And if there’s absolutely no clarity, then you may have to step back and ask yourself if you’re just trying to learn in the wrong way.
When love is healthy, it is always expressed through serving the other person. This was at the heart of Jesus’s teachings. Sacrificing of yourself, even in small ways, to seek the welfare of the other person is essential.
But what about being served? We don’t always talk about that as much. If service is essential to love, then I have to be open to allowing the other to express their love for me by serving me. This doesn’t need to be egotistical or selfish; by graciously receiving the gifts and sacrifices the other person makes for us, we can only strengthen that love.
This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. For example, culture often tells us that we need to decline gifts. When someone offers to do something nice for us, we often find ourselves repeatedly saying, “No no no, you don’t have to do that. Seriously, I can do it myself.” If they want to pick up the bill at a restaurant, we feel a need to get into a very strange, almost scripted “fight” over who is going to pay. Even though we usually know they are going to win because they offered first, we still feel obligated to argue about it, insisting that we can pay for ourselves (or even pick up the whole check), so we don’t appear ungrateful.
But in the last couple years, I’ve learned an amazing lesson. One way I can actually love and serve the other person is to allow them to give me that gift of service. Instead of trying to assert my independence and force an awkward situation in an attempt to make myself not seem ungrateful, I decided to just start proving that I am grateful by offering a sincere, heartfelt “thank you.” When someone offers to do something kind for me or pick up the bill at the restaurant, I simply accept it and thank them. It’s a whole lot easier, less awkward, and honestly, more loving than the other strategies we take; because allowing them to serve me is truly a way to strengthen love.
I’ve given just a few examples here, but as always, there is so much more that could be said. What are some ways that you can see the idea of the “third thing”, or seeking harmony over balance, impacting your life? Do you have any practical examples that come to mind? I would love to hear from you, so head on over to the contact page and drop me a line. I always respond!