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 post, we’re going to be looking at chapters 47-48. There’s a lot going on here, but there are two key points: first, in a world of overwhelming external input and easy access to sources where we can try to find all the answers to life, we have to intentionally remember the importance of internal wisdom, or doing the internal work of self-reflection and discernment in order to grow. Second, we’re going to look at the underestimated importance of unlearning as central to our development. With all of the external sources offering answers and information, it can be easy to forget that the process of deconstruction, dropping, or diminishing toxic narratives is just as important as trying to shoehorn new ones into our brains.
Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.
The more you know,
the less you understand.
The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.
Internal and external wisdom
Chapter 47 is a bit of a tough one, since at first glance it seems to encourage a life of total solitude and withdrawal from the world. Actually, it doesn’t just seem to encourage it. Becoming a hermit is probably exactly what Lao Tzu envisioned as the ideal, and legend tells us that is exactly what he did when he disappeared over the mountains.
Instead of taking this chapter literally, though, I’d rather view it as a metaphor for the nature of human knowledge and wisdom. So many of us pursue knowledge and wisdom through outside sources: books, instructional videos, classes, conferences, sermons, etc. Derek Lin argues that this chapter was not meant as a “travel ban”, but as a commentary for those who thought that they could become spiritually enlightened by making pilgrimages to sacred places. Rather than needing to visit shrines and temples, Lao Tzu said that the people had full access to the Way without even leaving their homes.
We might not seek knowledge and enlightenment through long journeys and spiritual retreats quite as much anymore, but we do have our own ways of looking for answers. There is more information available to us today on the little glass rectangles in our pockets than there ever has been throughout the entire course of human history. Within seconds, we can pull out our phones and do a quick Google search to find not just “the answer”, but thousands of answers to any question we have.
Now, I don’t think I need to go into all the incredible advantages those little glass rectangles offer. But there are a number of dangers as well. One of the fundamental dangers is that it makes it so much easier to avoid the necessary human practice of self reflection. We have the freedom to pull out the rectangle at any time and find an instant distraction from whatever is in front of us. Most people spend a huge amount of time on their phones in bed, both before going to sleep and after waking up, and they are on the phone so much throughout the day that there is virtually no need to make any time for deep thought and reflection. Technology is transforming us to immediately look out rather than looking in to deal with every single question or problem that we encounter.
One thing that all great spiritual leaders, including Lao Tzu and Jesus, have recognized throughout history is that all human beings have an inner wisdom. Call it the image of God or the spark of the Tao within us, we have a certain understanding of the spiritual nature of things rooted deep within our hearts. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that all the answers to spirituality and salvation are simply embedded within us if we can just think about them enough. I don’t think we can figure it all out as isolated individuals (or even as collective groups) without some form of external divine guidance. I am passionately Christian, and I believe having the revelation of God provided through Christ is the most important thing in the world. But even with that caveat, there is still an enormous amount of internal work to be done as part of a healthy spiritual life. Whether we call it contemplation, meditation, reflection, or prayer, it is absolutely vital.
The fact is that this level of inner work, which was already waning, is becoming dramatically easier to ignore every day. With all of the external stimuli we have, it’s easy to not ask the deep spiritual questions. And when we do ask them, there are so many external sources we can turn to in hopes that they will just hand us the fix on a golden platter. But for Lao Tzu, this is a dangerous road to walk down. In fact, he goes to the opposite extreme and seems to imply that we don’t need any experience of the outside world to figure it all out. Chapter 47 says in a different translation,
Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.
I think there is a huge amount of truth in this chapter, but I also think we need to qualify some of it and be careful about the way we apply it. There is an equal and opposite danger to the constant search for answers from outside sources, and it is the false belief that we as individuals have everything we need to achieve enlightenment without any outside guidance or support.
Rather than focusing on the answers that we can find through self reflection and solitary contemplation, I want to talk about a very important principle of learning and growth that plays into them. This principle is just as important - or Lao Tzu would probably say even more important - than learning new things and discovering new truths. This is the wisdom of unlearning.
As chapter 47 says, “the more you know, the less you understand,” or “the farther you go, the less you know.” This one line is a foreshadowing of the entire point of chapter 48, which we’ll look at next.
Unlearning thought habits
One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day.
One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.
Less and less remains until you arrive at non-action.
When you arrive at non-action,
nothing will be left undone.
Mastery of the world is achieved
by letting things take their natural course.
You can not master the world by changing the natural way.
We all have countless habitual patterns of thinking that we have developed over the course of a lifetime. We’ve learned to accept these and assume they are true at a subconscious level. Thought habits come in all shapes and sizes. There are huge ones, like cultural ideologies that define happiness and success, or cultural narratives that obscure facts of history to cast certain people or nations in an unfairly negative or positive light. There are relatively small ones, like the first impressions people make on us that we allow to color our future interactions with them. There are also intimately personal ones, like our self-image and self-worth. These are shaped by our life experiences and are usually affected on a deep level by experiences of trauma or abuse, which can create false narratives about our identity that need to be unlearned.
Just like bad physical habits, there are many unhealthy, even toxic narratives that we need to unlearn in order to become truly whole. It isn’t enough to just add new information. If an individual has a deep-rooted narrative that says they are worthless, we know this can manifest in many different ways: low self-esteem, depression, poor hygiene, lack of motivation, or even an inferiority complex where they act superior and put on an admirable show in order to compensate for their self-loathing.
Now, it’s important for this individual to take in new information or learn new things to help deal with this issue. This could look like receiving affirmation and support from friends and family or reading about ways to foster a healthy self-image and develop a new thought paradigm. For Christians, this would also involve spending time in the Scriptures to see their value as a person made in God’s image and making room to pray and commune with God, both as individuals and in community, to bring the issue to Christ and seek healing.
But all of this external input and new information is unable to bring resolution to the issue if we fail to include the importance of unlearning the toxic narrative in the process. These narratives are deep - and countless examples show us that they can rear their ugly heads at the most unexpected times. Dealing with them is a long - even a life-long - process for most people.
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Learning and growth aren’t just about acquiring things. They’re about dropping things, too. And in order to drop things, we have to have eyes to see what needs to be dropped. So the first step to the wisdom of unlearning is awareness.
Here’s another relatively basic example: we are very quick to form first impressions of people. In fact, I don’t remember quite where I heard it, but the emotional and psychological power of our first impression of someone usually has an effect on all of our future interactions with that person - even when we recognize that our impression was wrong. Some people do this more than others. For example, I have a family member who forms very strong opinions about people very quickly. She is actually very insightful and discerning, so a lot of the time that impression is right on target. However, I have watched so many times when that impression ends up being totally unfounded, yet for some reason she still holds onto it, trusting it on a deep level. We have to recognize that our impressions are often extremely inaccurate, and we have to be willing to let go of - or unlearn - the negative impressions (or at least hold them very loosely) until we get to know a person.
Here's another translation of chapter 48 that I really love:
In the intellectual life, one increases in knowledge.
In the spiritual life, one unlearns what one knows.
One becomes less and less,
until there is nothing.
When there is nothing left,
and nothing left to do,
then nothing is left undone.
True power is letting go of power.
Get out of the way, and let God rule.
Cultural narratives and ideologies
The idea of thought habits is especially relevant when it comes to cultural narratives. I’ve talked many times before on the show about the thought habits Westerners, and particularly Americans, have absorbed throughout their lives. Our culture gives us many different ideas of what “success” looks like, the most common being to live a life of health, wealth, comfort, and security. In episode seven we talked about the dangers of wealth and how the Tao te Ching challenges that paradigm. In episodes 13 and 15 we talked about Lao Tzu’s rather surprising take on comfort and security - first, that it’s very hard to be so different from everyone else, and second, that embracing our brokenness and emptiness and taking up our crosses, as Jesus put it, are essential to finding real life. In episodes 25 and 26, we talked about a very different form of virtue, and in episode 31, we talked about finding contentment in the simple things.
All of these are challenges to our cultural narratives, but until we become aware of those narratives and start to deconstruct them, then the external information hasn’t really worked itself into our hearts. As I’ve said so many times before, we need to think about the way we think. We’ve been given a default list of desires that seem natural and good to us, but so many times they are a part of damaging and destructive cycles.
Now, there is a caveat here, as Oliver Benjamin points out in his commentary:
Of course, this presupposes that the practitioner has already been filled with “wants” by their cultural conditioning— if we were to try to “drop” or “diminish” our expectations and knowledge as toddlers, we would end up as demented adults. Instead, Taoism is generally understood as a corrective to the mandates of civilization, in which what has been learned is now reassessed and ultimately unlearned. Just as Picasso only conceived cubism after he had first learned how to draw realistically, one can only apprehend what’s wrong with a structure once they’ve first come to fully understand it.
In other words, we can’t drop something that we never had. It isn’t just about getting rid of the toxic narratives as though they had never existed. Instead, it is in the very process of unlearning and deconstructing those narratives that we find the most powerful growth. By putting in the work to think about the way we think and reframe our perspective on the world, we are able to solidify our healthy beliefs in a more profound way than if we had never been given the toxic narratives to begin with.
It’s true, there are many parts of our various cultural narratives that are good and helpful and honorable (even if they aren’t always perfectly honored) - like the importance of individual freedom and the ability to make one’s own way in life rather than being set into a caste and excluded from certain parts of society based on your family background. These are admirable even if they aren’t always applied in the way we say they should be. As we do the work of sifting through our cultural paradigms, we are able to (1) become aware of what is going on, (2) identify and slowly let go of toxic parts, and (3) recognize and strengthen positive elements that might need to be emphasized more.
Many of these cultural and personal narratives, or thought habits, can play a huge role in shaping our theological assumptions - many formal and informal studies have shown that people tend to project themselves when it comes to their understanding of God. Clever surveys of hundreds of Christian college students have found that they often view Jesus to have the same personality traits and values system they do. You don’t have to look too hard to find American Jesus, Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Black Jesus, White Jesus, social activist Jesus, war-mongering Jesus, hippy Jesus, prosperity gospel Jesus, etc. I confess that I have often been guilty of trying to make Jesus fit my own ideology, forgetting that he was a first-century Palestinian man teaching and preaching in a first-century Palestinian world. This doesn’t mean that the 21st-century principles we draw from Jesus are necessarily wrong, but we need to be mindful of our thought habits and cultural narratives when it comes to bringing Jesus into the picture.
But negative experiences also dramatically shape our view of God. Children with abusive or dysfunctional fathers often grow up to struggle with the idea of God as Father. People raised in judgmental and legalistic religious environments struggle to make sense of God’s justice, because it has been tainted by toxic human behaviors. It is very easy to live out of our “first impressions” of God - the experiences we had with faith that left us with a bitter taste in our mouths.
We have to reclaim the importance of internal wisdom, or being willing to do the hard work of reflection and self-examination internally rather than just looking to external sources - whether it be books or articles or even podcasts - to get all of our answers. And second, it isn’t just that unlearning is an essential part of growth; it’s that the process of unlearning, or deconstructing, or dropping, or diminishing our narratives to replace them with better ones is just as important as the end result. In fact, the process is a thousand times more important, because if we ever think that we’ve achieved the result and the process can end, then we’ve given up any hope of continuing to grow. Learning is a process. Unlearning is a process. Life is a process.