Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he
He lets go of that and chooses this.”
Tao Te Ching #12
Translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
Consider the depths of your mind. You have been storing experiences in your memory your entire life. You have been sensing, thinking, considering, drawing conclusions these many years. You have been exposed to pain, suffering, and confusion. If you watch TV, see movies, or read popular books, you have witnessed trauma beyond human understanding. It may be second hand trauma, but your subconscious mind doesn’t know that. You also have in your mind archetypal symbols—hardwired images that have significance for all of us. You have been imagining, fantasizing, worrying, drawing conclusions, dreaming, daydreaming, calculating, comparing and creating associations for lo these many years.Empty yourself of everything.
What are you doing with all that stuff piled up in your brain?
Somehow, we each need to sort through the massive amount of mental imagery we generate in a lifetime. Some of that we do consciously as we think things over. Some of it is done in the back rooms of our consciousness as we dream. The horrific events of a nightmare are likely our mind’s attempt to make sense of frightening thoughts and experiences. If the dream repeats itself, we aren’t done processing the thoughts and emotions. Maybe some belief we have about ourselves or about the world keeps the parts of the puzzle from fitting together just right. Maybe our fear keeps us from looking closely at the terrifying images, so we can never get the message.
When we are not able to put our world together in a fashion that makes sense to us, we experience stress and the unpleasant emotions that go with it. If we put the world together in a way that makes sense to us, but that doesn’t fit with reality we are not going to be able to maintain our illusions without losing effectiveness in our lives.
There are several approaches we can take to settle things down in our minds. We could, for instance, develop a personal philosophy that helps us sort out the complexities of life. Thinking with the intention of understanding truth is a worthwhile past time. It is ultimately frustrating and exhausting though, since the nature of mind and reality cannot be fully understood or described through words. We could engage in deep self-analysis, studying our thoughts and dreams and trying to make sense of them. We could pursue a meditation practice that would enable us to understand our mental formations and ultimately attain understanding of the nature of “reality.” We might also follow a path of letting go, like the Taoist sages giving up preconceptions of self and reality. In this way, we might live in full experience of life, but not attached to our conceptions of it.
So much pain and confusion comes from trying to fit the big world of experience into the little boxes of our intellect. When we are attached to our beliefs of how we should act, who we should be, and how the world should do its thing, we are in for plenty of disappointment, frustration and anger. How different it would be to respond spontaneously to a world not quite understood, but experienced freshly at each moment.
Try this on for size. Practice sitting with an open mind. Watch your mind as it forms thoughts, associations, and judgments. When you observe yourself doing that, acknowledge the act and let go of it. Observe your thoughts and sense impressions in their suchness. They are just that. Let go, as you meditate, of the urge to remember, classify, calculate, worry, plan or daydream. Just view your mental processes as phenomena that arise in consciousness, but not as anything you need to get pulled into.
As you hear an airplane fly over, you don’t need to think about where it is going or what kind it is, and you don’t need to wish you were on it. The airplane need not take your mind with it. Instead, experience the sound as it comes to your ears without further elaboration. The sound is a sound. Your mind will grab it and do things with it, but sit with the expectation that this will happen and you don’t need to be involved in the game.
Practice giving up trying to fit all of experience into little boxes. Give up trying to make everything make sense when it doesn’t. Be the sage—wise without knowing, possessing all without grasping, being without doing.
Tao Te Ching #16
Translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English