The wisdom of unlearning (chapters 47-48)

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.

-Stephen Mitchell

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.