Chapter Six of Daodejing is brief and abstract. We explore Laozi's metaphors of the mysterious female and ways to connect with it.
Ian: Welcome to Gu Dao Jin Xing, Walking the Timeless Way, a podcast that digs deeply into the ancient texts of Daoism to uncover its timeless wisdom and to discuss how we might apply it to today's chaotic world. I'm Ian Felton, a practicing psychotherapist, and I'm joined by my co-host, executive coach David Wang. Good morning.
Ian: How are you doing, David?
David: Doing well. How about you?
Ian: Still just trying to walk the Timeless Way in this life that seems to get more interesting and more kind of confounding each day, it seems.
David: I can relate to that. I look forward to our discussion today because Dao is ever changing and everlasting.
Ian: That's an excellent point. Dao doesn't necessarily want us to make perfect sense of it.
Ian: So we're going to talk about some of these changes today. I know our focus is Chapter 6. It’s a really interesting chapter, but it's also very brief. It’s very abstract, and there's a lot of metaphors in it. And so we're going to kind of talk about those and explore those. But I'm wondering if first you would be willing to read chapter six in Chinese.
gǔ shén bù sǐ，shì wèi xuán pìn。
xuán pìn zhī mén，shì wèi tiān dì zhī gēn mián mián ruò cún。
yòng zhī bù qín。
So it is short.
Ian: Yeah, you could almost do it in one breath if you really tried. And so I'm going to read a translation from this chapter. There are some metaphors in it that we're going to get into, and it'll be quite obvious what those metaphors are once I read this translation. This one, I'm doing the Red Pine translation, which generally I find to be a very good translation, and it also has a lot of commentary with it. We might get into some of the commentary today, too. But here's what Red Pine has to say about Chapter 6:
“The valley spirit that doesn’t die
we call the dark womb
the dark womb’s mouth
we call the source of Heaven and Earth
as elusive as gossamer silk
and yet it can’t be exhausted”
So incredibly brief. And the core metaphor is this dark womb, and he also refers to it as the Valley spirit. But essentially we're talking about the same thing. And what we're trying to understand is what Laozi means by these metaphors and trying to understand why Laozi might have chosen these particular metaphors. So what's your take on why would Laozi as the source of existence, as the source of the universe, use this metaphor as a dark womb? It's also been in some translations would say, like the mysterious female, but it has this note of mystery and female energy. And also this metaphor of the valley, the Valley spirit, they're all kind of considered to point to the same thing. What are the qualities that you can imagine or the reasons why you think Laozi might have used these metaphors to describe gate of existence?
David: Yeah, when I saw that word xuanpin (玄牝), the mysterious female, one thing that immediately came to mind is a lot of the archaeological discoveries of the female figurines across cultures. They call them Venus. There are still a lot of different interpretations for what they represented during those historical periods. But many scholars point that toward fertility and life-giving forces. So at that time, the ancient people believed that's the source of all creations. I think Laozi, as somebody who worked in the Imperial Archive, probably saw those records or stories that led him to use the mysterious female as a pointer toward the nature of Dao. That's kind of the connection I'm making.
Ian: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense that just when you go back and if you go to the Natural History Museum and look at civilizations, it's a common metaphor. It's not unique just to Daosim. It's very common across civilizations that the female is this image of what gives birth to life, and what gives birth to everything. And so it does make sense that Laozi would choose a similar type of metaphor. He's not necessarily creating a new concept here. He's really just using a common metaphor.
David: Yeah, it was probably the culture or at least some of the remnants of the ancient culture during that time. I think during his time, males already began to play a dominant role in society. But just like always, Laozi wants to go back in time to trace the origin of human evolution.
Ian: And he also uses the image of the valley. And that is a bit unique to Dao, but he talks about the valley spirit also being the same as the mysterious female or dark womb. Tell me your impression of the use of the valley as a metaphor.
David: Yeah, I think a lot of the Chinese idioms, even nowadays, that valley usually is used to symbolize emptiness and vastness. For example, if you want to characterize somebody who is humble, like with humility, you would say xuhuai ruogu (虚怀若谷), meaning that a person’s mind is so empty and open that it is like a vast valley, somebody who is open to many possibilities. So this idiom or metaphor came from the Chinese classics, including Laozi, because he thought that a valley, which is like, from a geography perspective, a lower place, a lower land that is usually eroded by a river. But around the valley, there are a lot of hills and mountains. My hometown is part of that valley of the Yangzi River. When you look at a lot of the civilizations around the world, people tend to settle in a valley which is rich with life. So I guess that's where the metaphor came from. Like, the valley, as low as it is, is a breeding ground of life. And also it's a cradle of civilizations.
Ian: So there's clearly this feeling of it being this humble place, this low place. It's not trying to lord over anyone or anything. But it actually creates the conditions for abundant life that water can flow through the valley and create fertile land that can be farmed and there can be homes built in this valley. Through its emptiness and humility, there's also abundance. There's this breadth to it, this expansiveness to it. So it's not like a desert. It's the opposite. It's this through its lowness and humility, all these things can come forth, including remarkable beauty. Like, if you think of Yosemite in California, that's considered one of the most beautiful places in the world. And of course, it's the Yosemite Valley that makes a possibility for all this beauty to arise. Without the valley, there wouldn't be the beauty of these amazing rock structures and all of the gorgeous vistas.
David: Yeah, exactly. I was wondering where you were born, The Great Appalachian Valley or Shenandoah Valley, is there a notion of a valley that gives rise to lots of plants, nature and human flourishing?
Ian: Well, definitely. The first town that I lived in, it was a valley. It was a flood plain situated between the mountains that essentially there were two mountains on either side. And the river came through the valley and it was just flat enough where the train would come through that way. And then, of course, back in those days, many of the towns that emerged were built around railroad tracks, built around stations where the trains would stop and deliver goods or people. So, without a doubt, many of the towns in Appalachia, the valleys were critical to thriving,, to society and the communities there.
David: Whenever I think about a valley, I think about that misty thing, the mystical, do you remember, from the time when you were living there or maybe from your travels to other valleys, when the clouds are just over the mountains, you don't see everything. So I think when Laozi uses valley as metaphor, it has that kind of a mystical sense to it.
Ian: Yeah. It becomes its own kind of container, where even as a little kid in that town, this is obviously before the Internet, and we, I think, had three TV stations that were largely the same. There was no cable TV yet. And the mountains created this wall, really, where you couldn't barely even see any. These mountains just took up the whole field of view and you didn't know what was on the other side of that mountain. It really was the valley where you existed and became your whole world. And so I think when you're talking about the mist and the fog, there's that element that can make it even more mysterious. But even just the natural structure of a valley where that does create that mystery just in and of itself. Here's this giant mountain and I don't know what's on the other side, but there is just this mystery that gets evoked from that feature.
David: I see. There's also a certain sense of unpollutedness. Because it's so over there. Whatever is happening over there doesn't really disturb this almost self-contained space.
Ian: Definitely. And I think that there's a lot of value in that. I think even going back to Laozi’s description of a utopian village to some extent. I think he's talking about the kind of place where I grew up, where there were maybe four or five hundred people and 10 miles of road along the river separated that town from the next town. You knew that there were other people at the end of that road, but you hardly ever saw them, you didn't interact with them. I mean, it was really just this self-contained town in this valley. Most people knew each other, but still kind of kept to themselves a lot. But there was a community there. And without a doubt, I think this metaphor really extends to Laos' description of kind of the ideal way for people to live.
David: Yeah, just compare that with a city. So people's assumptions about a city, let’s take New York City, for example，is that just because there are just many people from all over the world, that brings forth more vitality or real life than a place like what you just described. Part of me says, oh, yeah, maybe at first, all the noises, all the people, the traffic, it gives you the superficial impression of aliveness in that city. But after a while, I imagine sometimes it's so crowded, people are becoming numb or isolated in a crowded world like that. If you compare it with a place which is of an open space, that space may bring forth more life from within that you feel more aliveness.
Ian: Yeah. It's kind of an issue of sustainability where even we're seeing things going on in California. There's not enough water and running out of water and trying to figure out where the water is going to come from. I think when you think about sustainability, clearly, if you're growing and trying to cram so many people into a place that your fundamental resource of clean water and drinkable water isn't readily available, that's clearly not sustainable. So I think yes, exactly. That these giant cities in a short term can create a lot of energy, a lot of creativity, and interesting things. There's a breaking point, and Laozi talks about that. The leveling of all things. Yeah, we can build up these giant cities that tower into the sky, but Dao levels everything. What's high gets brought low back into the valley.
David: Yeah. Look at the last two sentences from this chapter:
Chinese text: mian mian ruo cun, yong zhi bu qin (绵绵若存，用之不勤)
The city life doesn't act like that. The free flowing energy stops or stalls after a while. Beyond the point.
Ian: Yeah, Laozi is describing to us the positive side of Dao, it's creative side, but the destructive side is also implied. The part where it's like yeah, living low and humbly and simply in the valley. That's kind of where life is inexhaustible. When you try to go beyond that, maybe it's going to be brought back down.
David: Yeah. To take that line of thinking even further, sometimes I find at the individual level it's the same thing. For example, if you say somebody is full of themselves, that means his or her mind and heart is just overcrowded. With maybe knowledge, maybe desires or maybe prejudices. Whatever it is, it's not like a big valley. It’s more like a crowded city that is not sustainable - all the creative impulses or energy get crowded out.
Ian: Yeah, 100%. I think going back to the metaphor of the ivory tower, we can see that at the individual level. When people build up all those intellectual structures, they get divorced from their own humanity at some point. Like they lose ren at that point, it just becomes this dead tower of knowledge. They're up in the sky somewhere and can maybe talk about a lot of things, but there's no warmth to it. There's no vitality. It's not life giving. It's more like a way of creating separation. Maybe we can talk about how that shows up in our society today.
David: People are so busy nowadays. I think that busyness creates a lot of problems and consequences for individuals. Because people are so busy, they get so obsessed and only focus on something that captures their attention. Sometimes they lose sight of other possibilities. That's the first thing I can think of. So in other words, being able to unplug and retreat from the world occasionally will give us that space and help us renew our innate ability to imagine and create.
Ian: Right. I know we try to quote a lot of interesting people and I know one person that we come up with a lot is Krishnamurti. And this morning I was looking at some quotes from him and this one popped into my feed and it made me think of exactly what you were saying. And so I would like to read it and maybe get your reaction to it.
David: Sure, absolutely.
Ian: “It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree - not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself - and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed.”
David: Wow. I love it. Just the imagery he describes. I want to be in that kind of state right now. And interestingly, all this is offered for free. It's for us to enjoy. But for whatever reason, we are obsessed with something else. A lot of the man-made things and the societal pressure to compete and to feel superior, all those kinds of things. If you look at people every day, I think most of the time their life is consumed by that nonsense. Starting from the top, the leaders of nations nowadays, politicians, etc.
Ian: Wow. Isn't that the truth? No one encourages this. You have to look for, and I know Krishnamurti didn't want to be seen as a spiritual leader. He wanted people to discover this for themselves. But that we have to look to these rare handful of people, whether we call them mystics like Laozi, like Daodejing, to remind us that all this running around and exhausting ourselves for the sake of being busy, it kills this vitality, the spirit of the valley.
David: Yeah, exactly. Thank you for sharing that. I really love it. And I also want to share with you and our listeners passages by two different people, both being mystics about this valley thing.
Ian: Okay, great!
David: One is my favorite author, Thomas Merton. Actually there are two passages from his journals that touched upon this valley. The first one goes like this:
How the valley awakes. At two-fifteen there are no sounds except in the monastery: the bells ring, the office begins. Outside, nothing, except perhaps a bullfrog saying “Om” in the creek or in the guesthouse pond. Some nights he is in Samadhi; there is not even “Om”.
So this is one of his passages. The other one goes like this:
"A cool and lovely morning, clear-sky, ever-changing freshness of woods and valley! One has to be in the same place every day, watch the dawn from the same house, hear the same birds wake each morning, to realize how inexhaustibly rich and different is "sameness." This is the blessing of stability."
Ian: I love both of those and the imagery of the first one in particular. I want to hear more of your reflections on those two and why you chose them. But I'm also wondering if first, could you tell us a little bit about Thomas Merton for people who aren't familiar with him, and just a quick snapshot of who he is and what he wrote about.
David: Well, Thomas Martin was one of the greatest spiritual thinkers in the 20th century. Originally, he went to Columbia University, but then suddenly one day, he decided to be a monk. So he went to Kentucky and became a monk in a Trappist monastery. And so he kept a journal to write down his observations of nature and also his reflections. And a lot of those are just like, what I shared with you were so beautiful. Not only was he a Catholic, but also he was interested in Zen, in Daoism, like Zhuangzi. He actually took the time to translate some of the chapters from Zhuangzi. I always like his writing because just by reading it, I was transported to the time and space he was in. Actually, several years ago, I made a trip to his monastery. It's almost like a pilgrimage to that place. There he lived in a little simple house. I imagine the nature around the house inspired much of his writing.
Ian: And so why did you choose those two selections? What do those mean to you?
David: Well, I just did a keyword search for valley in his writing. I would imagine that he must have written something about the valley. And I found it and everything around that valley, the frogs, the birds and everything else.
Ian: Yeah, it was beautiful.
David: The other passage, actually a poem, that I just wanted to quickly share with you is from the poet Kahlil Gibran. He said,
“And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space. Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.”
So this reminds me of another Chinese idiom called kong gu you lan (空谷幽兰), which means a fragrant orchid blooms quietly in a deep, open valley. It doesn't want to show everybody and tells them how beautiful or fragrant it is. It just radiates its fragrance into space. This Chinese idiom symbolizes a person of Dao. So when we really live in accordance with Dao, we just become who we truly are, without thinking and calculating and striving to signal to others how great we are. We are naturally connected with that ground of being, I think that's what life is really all about.
Ian: And no doubt that resonates to be very true for me, too. And I'm kind of struck over the head just because of how opposite our culture is to that sentiment. In our current world, all that matters is the number of likes that you get or how many followers that you have, and the more significance you have as a human is directly related to those numbers - how many people are following you, and how many people are you influencing. And to do that, what approach that you use, he means doesn't matter. The end is what matters, and that's how many people are following you. What are those numbers?
David: I haven’t heard many people out there talking about these mystical traditions. So I wonder what really influences us nowadays.
Ian: No. I'm going to try not to speak negatively of the people who are out there. But everything's political today.
David: Yeah, I agree.
Ian: At least political figures, whether it's on the left or the right, and I would say centrist, but it's a sign of how immoderate our times are that people who are more moderate, even though behind the scenes, I'm sure they're doing a lot of the work, nobody knows their names. Nobody knows who they are. People focus on those political figures on the extremes, and we have lost those voices who are just saying things like what Thomas Merton said, which is that the riches of life come from these still moments when the bullfrog is just making the sound and harmony with everything around it. It's not worried about trying to be something other than what it is.
David: Yeah, talking about being political, first of all, being political is only one of the dimensions of being human. There's some need there. I know there are a lot of social forces pushing us towards being more political, but I can’t help wondering if there is a deeper reason why we're becoming so political. I have a theory,which is, maybe people want to feel more alive by being in a big rally. They feel like their life energy just bubbles up. To some extent I understand that. But also sometimes I wonder, if you almost need that kind of rush of energy to sustain, to make you feel alive all the time. Perhaps we're just so singular or so one dimensional about feeling alive. For example, what Thomas Merton and Krishnanurti described is that also in a quiet way we can feel alive, and I would argue, even more alive sometimes than those political activism that seemed to make us feel.
Ian: Yeah, I think for type of aliveness Krishnamurti and Thomas Merton are talking about, I am going to use a neuroscience metaphor, oxytocin. We talk about it as the love neurotransmitter. It's kind of like quieter but more stable and it takes a lot more time to build up. It's the feeling that you get from seeing a cherished or loved one who you've experienced life with. It doesn't have this huge rush associated with it, but it is deep and stable and quiet. Where dopamine that's the lust, neurotransmitters like that rush of attraction to something or being highly stimulated by something. And there's no doubt that it seems like with politics, particularly in the world of social media, it's all about getting those dopamine hits of whether it's outrage or the feeling, the rush of chastising someone that we think doesn't get it or has the wrong view of us or some political victory. But I think ultimately what we're talking about is there's a loss of spirit. There's a loss of tradition of spirit and these ancient ways where I'm not saying that organized religion in and of itself is the path that we should be following. But we can see how when the common community ties that people had, and each culture has its own tradition, and in many ways those have all been uprooted by globalization. That there's been this push to get everyone around the world on the same page, if you will. And in the process, we've created a monoculture, to some extent.
David: I think so. Ironically, I think we have.
Ian: And the problem is that that uproots everyone's sense of community, of self, those ties that binds us. In the past there were 1000 ways of worshiping Venus, of worshiping the mysterious female, and they were all accomplishing the same thing. But now we've uprooted all that and what we're left with is this political wasteland. Nietzsche talked about this. He said God is dead. And essentially what we're going to be left with is politics and that politics aren't going to be enough. And obviously that's the case. And we're seeing what a wasteland we're left with when the political is all that we have.
David: Yeah. Talking about wasteland, that word itself reminds me of T.S. Elliot.
Ian: Oh yeah, great poet.
David: He talked about living in the age of knowledge. There's no wisdom. We're talking about life, there's no real living. It is like a wasteland. I'm not saying that we don’t need that kind of quick acting rush of energy. I'm saying it seems like we're losing a sense of balance. We all have that craving. Everybody is just craving for that quick acting effect as opposed to more long lasting, more quiet and still kind of aliveness.
Ian: Yeah. And the irony is that it is free, readily available if we just allow ourselves the time. I know you really have a commitment to as much as possible starting your day that way. I know that you have your lake and how much time you try to carve out to go and really immerse yourself in that. And that it is kind of like that ever present life that springs forth from those areas that you try to harmonize with.
David: Yeah, because I enjoy it. I love it. It just gives me a certain space or distance between me and the world out there. It doesn't mean that I'm disconnected from the world because I still need to operate in it. I have friends, I need to conduct my work. But I find it helpful not to be dragged into it, or totally identify with it. Throughout my day, I can more dynamically choose the time and space to engage with the world or unplug from it. Interestingly, it improves the quality of my work,and the quality of my interaction with other individuals. It just gives me a wider perspective to look at the same thing. Let's say, I encounter something, or someone that is upsetting or frustrating for whatever reason. I draw a lot of the inner spirits from a deeper and quiet place. I can use that to look at something in a different frame.
Ian: Yeah, I want to hear more about that. Particularly how you go into those moments when you're expanding your mind like the Valley and how you see yourself in those how you experience yourself when you go to those places. How do you change when you go into those places? We're thinking about walking the timeless way and trying to give people maybe some pointers on how they can also engage in some place. Like we each have our own kind of favorite places that we go to. But if someone wanted to try to find that for themselves, how might they discover those places and how might they think about themselves or show up in those places in a way so that they can get that expansiveness that we're talking about?
David: Slow down and begin to notice. Noticing is very important because if we don't notice things, whatever is around us, it just passes by. So once you notice, you will find something either so interesting or beautiful. Then you start to be attracted to it and you enjoy it. And the more you look at it, the more patterns and relationships you see. Then you can draw connections between this and something else you see that makes your noticing even more interesting and enjoyable. This experience is a combination of both intellectual and experiential. Sometimes just by looking at it, there's a sense of awe and it quiets your mind. You're not constantly analyzing and accumulating. The overall effect is that you have a richer life and you don't feel bored. You don't need to say, “oh, I need to go to the world and prove something”, which I used to do, because I felt that it would give me a high feeling. When you don't see the need of using that to affirm that you are alive, you can be alive any place or any moment when you get connected with what's surrounding you. You don’t need a role or platform to prove yourself, and to experience creativity. Your creativity can be exercised and can be found as long as you are conscious and present.
Ian: Yeah, it's a beautiful way of describing it. And some of the key things that I heard is, don't have an agenda. You show up. There's no agenda. You're not trying to accomplish something. You're just experiencing what's there and noticing. And through that act of experiencing, noticing, having no agenda, the richness of it comes out naturally. You don't have to work for that. It just blossoms.
David: Yeah. I think a lot of times an agenda limits you because you are constantly thinking about it. Have I accomplished my agenda or have I not accomplished my agenda? You just missed out so many things over there by being so obsessed with your agenda. It's almost like you lose that spirit of the valley.
Ian: Completely. So I really appreciate you sharing your experience of the Valley, this expansiveness of how to connect with the mysterious female spirit and sharing the words of Thomas Merton and helping us to all understand that this is all readily available to us if we're willing to give it a shot.
David: Exactly. And thank you for sharing Krishnamurti. That passage, I really love it. And maybe after our podcast, I would like to have a copy of that passage. I would like to put it into my commonplace book.
Ian: Without a doubt, I'm happy to share it. And thank you to our listeners who have showed up today. And as always, if you want to reach out to us, you can find us at walkingthetimelessway.com