Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67
(transl. Stephen Mitchell)
Just three things to teach – simplicity, patience, and compassion. Of course, there’s nothing exactly easy about any of these, even though they each sound so basic and fundamental. Like so much good teaching, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of things we already know deep down; it helps us to remember who we really are at heart and, perhaps, to live more closely in alignment with that original self.
The problem I have – that I suppose many of us have – is that sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, paradoxically, that take the most work to really integrate into our lives. If there is such a thing as fundamental nature, and if we posit that nature to be fundamentally good or whole in some sense, we still have to admit that there are practical difficulties involved in accessing, achieving, or realizing that original nature. Whether you think the problem in getting there is related to original sin, the human ego, or our clinging to some false idea of a fixed and permanent self – or something else entirely – it seems like we all have a winding road to travel to get back to the center, to the basic truth of who we are. It’s definitely a paradox. The truth is as close as our next breath, as far away as the stars in the sky.
I heard a lecture recently in which the speaker lamented the way people sometimes get excited about new spiritual teachings – or spiritual teachers – but don’t realize that, without practice and cultivation, even the best ideas can’t take root. In this way, it can be all too easy to flit from teaching to teaching, from teacher to teacher, initially excited and drawn by the spark of truth in each fresh perspective, but ultimately finding ourselves on a kind of spiritual merry-go-round of excitement followed by disenchantment, of the initial thrill of momentum followed by the gradual realization that we’re not actually getting anywhere. Then we start looking for the next fresh idea, or the next bestselling author, teacher, or guru.
I guess the argument is that, at some point, we have to be willing to sit with an idea long enough for it to develop within us from a seedling into a growing, thriving thing. And, in some sense, we have to be willing to do the hard work of sitting with ourselves in just this same way, examining our perceptions, thoughts, and experiences in a simple, patient, and compassionate way until we, too, start to take root and come to find our own bearings and particular way of being in the world.
The idea of learning to put down roots reminded me of the refrain from the David Wilcox song “All The Roots Grow Deeper When It’s Dry.”
Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.
Life is always going to have its ups and downs, and I can’t see as how there’s anything wrong with seeking out new information, new perspectives, and new experiences. All these things, individually and collectively, enrich our lives. But it’s also good to be able to stay put sometimes, to sit still, to grow deeper. And the “dry” times – the tough times of shadow and loss, of grief and uncertainty – are when this can often happen most profoundly.
Our root system – and our basic connectedness to everything that is – grows deeper when times are hard. But we have to be willing to stay present, stay aware, and nurture the seeds and conditions of that growth. That takes time, and it takes practice. And if it all sounds too much like “impractical nonsense,” don’t take my word for it. Why don’t you hang out for a while with things as they are, and then see for yourself? Ultimately, who knows what we may grow to be?