The Tao Te Ching as Anti-Content

How the Tao fuels my mind

ellen fishbein
Jan 20, 2020 · 3 min read
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Photo by Alex on Unsplash

When I was twelve, a wise teacher spontaneously gifted me his personal copy of the Tao Te Ching.

I thought he was lending it to me, so I said, “Thanks! This is short — I’ll bring it back next week.”

He shook his head.

“The way that can be followed is not the eternal way,” he said. “You could think about that for your whole life.”

Today, I see the Tao Te Ching as my first piece of anti-content: content that helps me overcome information overload instead of adding to it.

I own 3 different translations of the book, including (of course) the one that great teacher gave me. It’s the center of my mindfulness practice.

In my opinion, each passage of Laozi’s work is a different path to the same big idea — an idea too big and profound for words. Studying any one of the chapters deeply can yield a similar result.

Day to day, I use a physical copy (Jane English) and a digital copy (Stephen Mitchell). Using multiple translations helps me remember that the book wasn’t written in English.

My workflow is this:

Using the physical copy

I keep it in sight wherever I am. I try to pick it up whenever I need to quiet my brain-chatter. It works especially well if I only have a minute or two.

I usually flip through until something resonates with me. Then, when I see something that catches my eye, I read that passage several times. I haven’t exhausted this method, even after over a decade.

I tend to dwell/reflect on one passage for a week or two at a time before I seem to need things phrased a different way, and that passage sort of fades from the forefront of my mind and is replaced by a different one.

Using the digital copy

Over the last few years, I’ve been keeping this on my phone in the Kindle app, so it’s always with me. When my mind is hazy or crowded, I use the digital copy to regain focus and calm.

In the digital copy, I tend to go through the chapters in sequence. As a result, I’ve read that edition ‘cover to cover’ a few times.

Somewhat sparingly, I’ll highlight phrases that interest (or befuddle) me in the moment. Then, when that phrase comes up again in the next reading cycle, I might keep it highlighted. Or, I might feel that a different phrase is more resonant at that time — so I might un-highlight it and highlight something else within the same passage.

A couple more comments

The time when I notice the most immediate benefit is when I feel “stuck” — uninspired, uncreative, or foggy.

Sometimes, there is one phrase that evokes what I most need to hear in that moment. For example:

  • Great talents ripen late. This helped when I was in a period of very low self-esteem due to a series of failed ventures.
  • Move with the present. I try to practice this daily.
  • Work without doing. This reminds me that I do my best creative work with calmness and focus, not brute force.

I don’t find that memorizing whole chapters is useful for me. Instead, dipping in and out of the book over time has helped me to internalize it, to some extent.

These days, different passages sometimes arise in my mind on their own. It feels great when that happens.

All that being said…

This is just my workflow! Something radically different might be perfect for you.

Above all, I think all people can draw value from the Tao Te Ching as a universally relevant, beautiful, ancient work of both philosophy and literature. If you haven’t read it, or if it’s been a while, I encourage you to check it out.

Anti-Content

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