“Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.”
-Lao Tsu, the Tao Te Ching (translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English)
It took me two years to wander from the first to the last entry of the Tao Te Ching. Sometimes I kicked myself for that. Part of me thought learning was like a staircase: step by step, straight ahead, and then I’d be done. I thought I was supposed to start on the first page, finish on the last page, and understand everything in between. Then again, I’ve never done that. I’ve never found a single line in a book and followed it, cover to cover, without turning off into another thought, and another, doubling back, and sitting for a while. I’ve never come close to understanding all of it, either. There’s too much. There are caves and creeks and springs in every valley I’ve walked, or else there are rocks and shadows and an ant finding its way. I want to stop and look at them.
Lately I’ve been struck by how little knowing seems to accomplish. I can know the health risks of packaged candy, know it’s time to get some rest, know I should write to my senator, and not do a thing. I can know the path I’m on leads somewhere I don’t want to go, and keep on walking.
Maybe learning is less linear and more practice, more a returning current. You go somewhere, and you wander back; you go somewhere, and you wander back. The ideas in the Tao Te Ching do that: there are small arguments inside the sections, but all the sections together are not steps on a staircase. They’re a meditation. They’re a record of (a reminder to) practice. A book can tell me this, it can give me an idea that’s like a seed, and tell me to carry it. The Tao Te Ching gives me many seeds, and holds my hands as I spread them, and stands with me as I water them, and watches. The Tao Te Ching says learning isn’t an event. It’s time in the garden, time wasted and time gathered, time gained and time forgotten. It’s a walk through woods as different voices call. If there’s a line of experience, I don’t think learning stretches that thread from A to B. Learning ties the thread to a needle and dives in and out of thought’s cloth, in and out and back again, in and out and back again, creating embroidery beautiful enough to see and strong enough to hold together. Creating practice.
In my first draft, I started by saying “It took me two years to read the Tao Te Ching.” That’s not true. In two years, I read every entry at least once and most entries many times, but I think I’ll be reading the Tao Te Ching for years and years to come.