“Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao”
Lao Tzu, the mystic thought to have written the legendary Taoist book Tao Te Ching, famously described the Eternal Tao which cannot be talked about. In what might be considered a disrespectful and even arrogant move against a beautifully potent spiritual text dating back thousands of years, I am going to talk about the Eternal Tao.
As you are reading this it is obvious that I will actually be writing, not talking about the Eternal Tao. Throughout this piece, I will use the verbs write, speak and talk pretty much interchangeably, because what makes it impossible to talk about also makes the Eternal Tao impossible to write about. ‘Speak’ and ‘talk’ are simply synonyms which suit different syntactical structures, but a deeper reason means all three verbs including ‘write’ are interchangeable.
That’s because the Eternal Tao can only be known directly, or not at all, unlike a concept that can be known without the learner ever directly discovering the conceptual knowledge through experiential inquiry. By writing about the Eternal Tao I may as well be talking about it, as neither medium can even begin to communicate direct knowledge, and so both fail equally to represent the Eternal Tao.
This being said I’d better make sure everyone is on board with their own direct knowledge of the Eternal Tao, and at least offer pointers to those who claim not to know it but wish to. This of course assumes that I myself directly know the Eternal Tao and am not some misguided fool who merely thinks he knows the unspeakable knowledge he is speaking about. This also assumes I am capable of pointing others towards direct knowledge of the Eternal Tao.
Am I misguided? Am I capable? You be the judge.
Seriously, don’t believe a word I say – unless these words ignite a deep and direct inner knowing in you, they have entirely failed at their purpose. The saying goes that spiritual teachings are fingers pointing at the moon. These words are pointing to the eternal moon which many teachings, including those of Lao Tzu, have so skillfully pointed me to over the course of my spiritual journey.
So don’t give much attention to these words themselves, but rather let them point you inwards to a truth that you will know directly or not at all. If these words do not guide you into a direct inner knowing, disregard them entirely and consider accepting my sincerest apologies. Now let’s begin proper.
Out of the human body’s trap each night
To serve as tablets for the truths you write:
You free our spirits from confinements cage,
No longer slaves, they reach the highest stage!
Prisoners at night forget about their chains
And sultans think no more of their domains,
No loss or profit, nor a moment’s stress,
About our foes one couldn’t now care less
The mystic’s in this state while wide awake:
God said, ‘They’re sleeping!’, so make no mistake!
This excerpt from the Sufi mystic Rumi’s seven-book poem Masnasvi talks about sleep as an act of God liberating our spirits from the confines of the physical body, freeing prisoners and sultans alike from all stress, pride, worry, and conflict, elevating our spirits as high as they can go… until morning comes. But in mystics, this spiritual elevation doesn’t end when their alarm clock rings. Their spirits soar at the same heights ours do while asleep, even while they’re wide awake.
While it might be controversial to talk about the Eternal Tao, it’s far less risqué to talk about what it is like to be asleep. I am not referring to the dream phase of sleep, but the dreamless phase when we are sleeping so deeply that absolutely nothing is going on in our consciousness.
Some of us are lucky enough to experience this vitalizing nothingness every night, although to say we experience it is inaccurate, for an experience requires something to be going on in our consciousness. Without anything going on there is no experience, simply the vital nothingness we enter during the deep dreamless phase of sleep. This is why sleeping is often said to be the closest we can come to know what it’s like to be dead.
Some words from modern mystic Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now can shed light on Rumi’s poetry while bringing some more widely recognized spiritual terminology into the mix.
“You take a journey into the Unmanifested every night when you enter the phase of deep dreamless sleep. You merge with the Source. You draw from it the vital energy that sustains you for a while when you return to the manifested, the world of seperate forms. This energy is much more vital than food.”
Now Rumi’s somewhat cryptic verse may be making more sense.
If the deep dreamless phase of sleep returns us to the Source of the manifest world of separate forms and gives us energy which is much more vital even than food, that explains how sleep elevates the spirit to its highest state and frees prisoners and sultans alike from all stress, pride, worry, and conflict. If mystic’s spirits are in this elevated state while wide awake, connected to this Source of vital energy throughout both night and day, that explains how they can be so full of love, joy, and wisdom and achieve miraculous feats of healing and magic.
As I alluded to earlier, the Source and Unmanifested are more popular terms used to point towards the same truth Lao Tzu pointed to in his teaching of the Eternal Tao which cannot be talked about. Lao Tzu’s poetic teaching skillfully guides the learner by assuring them that if they can talk about what they know, it surely isn’t the Eternal Tao. Similarly, Eckhart Tolle says “[The Unmanifested] is not a conceptual truth. It is the truth of eternal life beyond form, which is known directly or not at all.”
It goes without saying that a non-conceptual truth cannot be talked about as talking requires us to use concepts to indirectly represent whatever it is we are talking about. The Unmanifested – the Eternal Tao – cannot be talked about, because it is a non-conceptual truth, and therefore either known directly or not at all.
What does your intuition tell you? Are Tolle and Tzu paradoxically speaking about the same unspeakable truth? Or are the Eternal Tao and the Unmanifested entirely separate truths? Are Tolle and Tzu’s fingers pointing at the same moon or two totally different celestial bodies like Saturn and Mars?
Do you know what else cannot be talked about? The deep dreamless phase of sleep. This is because there is nothing going on in our consciousness to conceptually represent when we are deep in dreamless sleep. In this sleep phase, there is only nothingness, and even the concept of nothingness fails to represent the truth of what deep dreamless sleep is. Using the concept in this context merely lets us know that there are no things – forms – present in our consciousness when we sleep deeply without dreaming.
For this matter, we cannot even be certain that we have ever entered the deep dreamless sleep phase in our lifetime. We can only infer this when we wake up and discover that hours of clock time have passed which we cannot account for except with memories of dreams that may seem to have lasted anything from seconds to eternities.
Our dreams begin and end at seemingly random intervals, creating a fragmented sleep memory of dreams interspersed with periods in which memory content is totally absent. Our sleep memory remains blank in these periods because between the fragments of our dreams there is only the vital nothingness of sleep, of the Unmanifested, of the Eternal Tao.
Notice how I can only define these concepts — nothingness, the Unmanifested the Eternal Tao — negatively, which is to say in terms of what they are not or cannot be. And yet as you let my words draw your attention inwards into your being, you may directly know what I am talking about. But as soon as you or I attempt to positively, explicitly define, or talk about it, we witness words become worse than useless, serving only to distract us from the direct knowledge of mystical truth.
To walk the path of mysticism, I feel, is to consciously hold to this non-conceptual knowing as deeply and often as possible during our waking life, and to never write or talk about it unless it wants to be written or talked about. In these instances, it will provide the right words without any necessary effort on your part. That is exactly how these words have manifested into the piece which I am letting be written through me and which you are hopefully reading in a way that sparks a direct inner knowing of the eternal truth which cannot be written or talked about – while you are wide awake.
If we are somehow in touch with the vital nothingness of sleep while we go about our waking life, we are walking the path of mysticism.
If we seem to never quite fully wake up from our deep dreamless sleep, and yet feel deeply vitalized by this awakened sleepiness, we are walking the path of mysticism.
If we perceive the manifest world of separate forms as less real than the formless Unmanifested, while still honoring the manifested and its living and non-living forms, we are walking the path of mysticism.
The Eternal Tao cannot be talked about, but you may be able to sense it as a pervasive nothingness reminiscent of the nothingness of sleep.
Everything, every form we experience appears to be suspended in this nothingness, which is also infinite.
May we hold to this mystical paradox of everything suspended in infinite nothingness.
As this nothingness — this Unmanifested — this Eternal Tao — we are One.
As this One, we are Home.
Thanks for reading — your time and attention means a lot to me. If you would like to delve deeper into my message, please check out the conversations I have recorded for my Reaching In podcast. I discuss topics centred around community and introspection with people I respect and admire, mainly from within my own community, in the hope of inspiring others to Reach In to their own communities — and selves — for wisdom and knowledge.