He Who Speaks Does Not Know: Lessons From the Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching thousands of years ago, but many of its lessons hold today. Tzu is oft regarded as a master of being, thus the Tao Te Ching is a book on mastering life. For a book written in ink on silk manuscript, I think this literature has immense value and has therefore withstood time’s rigors. The following is one of my favorite excerpts from the Tao Te Ching:

Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know. Close your mouth. Shut the gates. Be soft. Untangle your knots. Soften your brilliance. Become one with the dust. This is the profound union. No one can get close to you, yet they cannot be distant either. No one can help or harm you. No one can honor or disgrace you. Thus you achieve the highest state of humankind.”- Lao Tzu

The above may not make any sense to you. It didn’t make sense to me until roughly the 20th reading, and I may still be misinterpreting the quote. Tzu begins…

“Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know. Close your mouth. Shut the gates.”

I think this signifies that talk is cheap; virtue lies in action. Tzu observes that action generates meaning and fulfillment. Those who know choose to act. He who finds virtue in action is free of worry and insecurity. The actor is thus one with being and in flow with the world. The art of being is learned through action. Just as you cannot learn to ride a bike in reading, you cannot learn how to “be” in thinking.

Additionally, this emphasizes silence’s utility. “Those who know, do not speak” because silence potentiates attention. When you speak, your thoughts can dilute your experiences. With silence, you can notice your feelings in the moment and manipulate them. In noticing your anger you can dismiss it. When you recognize your joy you can savor it. Attention reduces the half-lives of harmful emotions and extends those of useful ones.

I am not certain of this point because I acknowledge that thought and speech are necessary for action. Speech allows you to verify that your actions comply with those of others, while thoughts are necessary because better they perish than you. Nonetheless, silence is useful in promoting attention toward your immediate surroundings. Attention ubiquitously enhances learning and action.

“No one can get close to you, yet they cannot be distant either. No one can help or harm you. No one can honor or disgrace you. Thus you achieve the highest state of humankind.”

Those who establish unity with being are free of judgment from others. He who focuses on action only regards the task at hand. The master is attentive, and in paying attention, embodies the way of the world; becoming one with dust. Do not underestimate the present moment’s significance. The past irreconcilable and future unattainable; what to value if not the present moment?

Or so one might wonder. It is surprisingly easy to lose yourself in thought; concerned with the future, reflecting on the past, or bored with your present state of being. A key to virtue is the capacity to be one with the present moment, because you never know when your last arrives. To engage with your actions such that thoughts of past or future disappear; this is how to be. The actor needs neither help nor honor in this condition, because he is one with the present. His focus on action saves him from disgrace or harm.

Further, this signifies nobility in autonomy. The ultimately autonomous individual is the conceptualization of “God”, and as such identifying with this omniscience is reaching man’s highest state. The strongest possible individual can withstand the most debilitating tragedies and as such, can reach man’s most powerful state.

“Be soft. Untangle your knots. Soften your brilliance. Become one with the dust. This is the profound union.”

One achieves relaxation in finding peace with the present moment. Embracing the beauty in every moment fulfills you. This is profound union; unity with existence attained through close attention. Attention’s power is also apparent research. Multiple studies indicate that meditation and mindfulness can reduce symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety (1,2,3,4,5,6). This suggests that attention can improve your state of being. Bliss is realized in paying attention now.

Finally, this highlights the power of renunciation and sacrifice. Those who abstain from transient pleasure achieve great meaning in life. He who sacrifices in the present to generate a better future is a hero. These acts in which you serve a higher purpose than yourself enable the profound union; to be one with existence and the sacrosanct. Live in this way and you create the ultimate balance between yin and yang, fire and water, or chaos and order. This ensures peace, but not so much to result in boredom. This allows for just enough dismay to keep life interesting. You achieve this by establishing meaning in life.

What do you make of the Tao’s teachings? Do you agree with my take?