Like a Rainbow

There is a thing which I think all of us, both collectively and individually strife to get a handle on. This thing has a habit of teasing us, just as we think we are getting close, we get a better view and realize we are no closer than we have ever been. It is a lot like chasing a rainbow. We see it clearly with our own eyes yet we can never grasp hold of it. But we can’t help ourselves, we seem to constantly be striving to possess it. In fact, as I write here I am striving to possess that thing.

The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way.
The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name.
Without description, the universe began.
Of the describable universe, the origin.

道可道,非常道。

名可名,非常名。

无名天地之始。

有名万物之母。

Word for Word Translation by Carl Abbot

This thing I speak of goes by many various names but for the purposes of this writing I will call it “the Truth”. If you were to substitute the line “The truth possible to think, runs counter to the Truth”, you would get a pretty good idea of what the Tao Te Ching is saying here.

Think of those things which we as a species have created in order to try and get a handle on the Truth. There are all the various religions, which are our more archaic attempts at getting a handle on the Truth. Our more modern attempts are the various branches of scientific thought which have brought so much comfort and predictive ability into our lives, but we are really no closer to the Truth. We can find and hold on to many smaller truths but never the Truth. Or to paraphrase the Tao Te Ching we can think of many ways forward but never the constant way.

Our notion of love is another one of our devices we use to try and hold on to the Truth. This we do this as individuals, we try to find a truth which is our own. We try to find that way we are special, whether it is through who or what we love or through some kind of talent that we possess. Is there another animal which is so insecure about its place in this world? Is there another animal that needs true love, wealth, constant praise, or a feeling of superiority? All species suffer pain in various ways, but our species would appear to be unique in experiencing the pain of self-consciousness.

I think this verse from the Tao Te Ching is placed first because it really says it all. It speaks to us as self-conscious beings. This knowledge is not useful to other species because they already know. Our many and various thought devices, whether complex or simple can never capture reality, because reality is like that rainbow, an ongoing process of which we are a small part. We can’t say where that rainbow is located or what it is composed of. It is closer to being a process than it is a thing. We can only experience a rainbow, not possess it. We can view it only because we are inside of the experience.

It is probably no mistake that the Tao Te Ching calls it “the way”, because that describes a process, where as “the Truth” sounds more like a thing. Maybe it is our species specific insecurity, that makes us value things over processes because we can grasp hold of things and examine them. Processes seem elusive and uncertain. The constant way is elusive and uncertain.

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