“Knowing yourself is enlightened”

Though I first fell in love with the Tao Te Ching because it pushed my awareness to new levels, I suspect that I love it now and keep returning to it because it reaffirms some of my strongest beliefs. As I said, I first encountered the Tao Te Ching in Grad school, and at that point in my life I was probably proudest of how successful I was in grad school. I was proud that I held 4.0 throughout my Master’s Program and that several professors, including the visiting Korean professor, asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PhD. In other words, I knew a lot more about other people’s ideas than I did about my own. Analyzing other people’s ideas came relatively easy to me; it wasn’t until later that I learned the truth of what the Tao Te Ching says in Chapter 33:

Knowing others is intelligent.
Knowing yourself is enlightened.
Tzu chih che ming

Conquering others takes force.
Conquering yourself is true strength.

Knowing what is enough is wealth.
Forging ahead shows inner resolve.

Hold your ground and you will last long.
Die without perishing and your life will endure.

Perhaps not surprisingly this chapter didn’t leave as great an impression on me in my first reading as the one I discussed yesterday. Now, I do think I’ve always been interested in knowing myself. I don’t think anyone would read and write as much as I have and not be interested in knowing himself. But for most of my life the focus has been on other’s ideas. That’s no longer true. Since I’ve retired I’ve focused my studies on better understanding myself. I still don’t know what it means to be enlightened, but I can’t imagine a more important goal than becoming enlightened. I suspect that what I think is “enough” is way more than any person really needs, but I’ve long felt that not wanting something is better than actually owning it.

Lao Tzu hints at how to attain enlightenment throughout his work. As Burton Watson pointed out in the introduction, quietism is Lao Tzu’s preferred method of channeling the Tao. That becomes even clearer in Chapter 47.

Without going out the door,
Know the world.
Without peeping through the window,
See heaven’s TAO.
Chien t’ien tao

The further you travel,
The less you know.
This is why the Sage
Knows without budging,
Identifies without looking,
Does without trying.

Much to my daughter’s distress, I’ve long believed that I could have been perfectly happy without ever having left Washington State. In fact, given my choice, I doubt I would have ever left Western Washington. As I age, I suspect I could be happy spending most of my time in my backyard or den quietly meditating (he says as he plugs into the internet). It seems obvious that the more you learn about yourself the more you learn about the world because to a great extent we are all reflections of each other. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “The further you travel,/The less you know,” but I do think that for some people travel can be a form of escapism.

7 thoughts on ““Knowing yourself is enlightened””

  1. I appreciate your thoughts. The thoughts on travel ring true for me. Contentment and enlightenment is not found by traveling miles. I suspect you are aware of the TED talks, which I have been listening to. I have been listening to as many as I can sit through until my back protests. I feel an ipad may be the answer. Am glad I found your site. I am a lifelong learner too. B

  2. The ideas around travel are particularly meaningful to me. People sometimes tell me that I should travel more (usually at the same time bragging about their own extensive travels), but I have always felt that there is simply so much here that I still need to learn and discover. I am also reminded by Thoreau saying that he has “traveled much” in Concord, another reminder that there is much to see just within our own backyards and hometowns.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I have stuck close to my house the last year or so. It’s not so much escapism for me, as avoidance of the things I really need to deal with in my own space. I’ve loved traveling, but I feel like I turned a corner when I began to love just staying put and getting things done.

    1. Glad to hear from you again, Jeff.

      I think I always enjoy myself when I’m actually on a trip, but I’m also always happy to be back home doing the things “I need to do.”

      In the long run, the things I do at home seem to be the things that define who I think I am.

      1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, so your post really struck a chord. I think you have to be careful about not traveling, too. Moving from west to south to midwest to midatlantic has really made me conscious of just how provincial many people are. The most well-travelled (and well-rounded people) in my experience have been in the midwest. On the edges (California and New York) people tend to be really stuck in a narrow view of what the world is, and how people are. You don’t step outside that without travel. I think I would be diminished if I had not lived all these places, though most of the coastal tribes don’t think there is anything to be lost by not visiting the “flyover” country. That, for me, is really the center of the world I’d like to occupy– not these villages where I currently dwell. This doesn’t even begin to touch on things seen in the northwest and southwest which also matter deeply to me.

        1. Living somewhere else is quite different from visiting, and if I had to choose, I’d choose actually living there.

          Living in the Mojave Desert, for instance, gave me an appreciation of the area I would never have gotten otherwise.

          I assume that’s equally true about living with other people.

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