The First line of the Tao Te Ching: The Ultimate Teaching

David Gerken
Nov 6, 2019 · 3 min read
Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

I believe the Tao Te Ching is the wisest book ever written. This is the first line:

“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

That one sentence carries a gold mine worth of spiritual wisdom. How? I’ll get there quickly (I promise).

First, some context. The Tao is thought to be written in China by Lao Tzu some 2,500 years ago. It is nothing less than a handbook on how to live life.

Definition of the Tao

So, what is the Tao? Here the definition is given in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “The unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality.” Some equate it with God, others with nature.

Which leads us back to that first line: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” The fact that Lao Tzu chose to begin his sublime treatise on life with this sentence reveals the import he places on its meaning.

What that sentence means is that the Tao/God cannot be understood by talking about it or thinking about it or reading about it or writing about it. So how does one come to understand the Tao? By sensing it.

This is enormously important for those trekking the spiritual path. I know many people who derive great pleasure and stimulation from talking and engaging about spiritual issues and concepts. They love to talk, for instance, about the conscious self and how that is the real self vis-à-vis the egoic, voice-in-the-head self. And on down the line of the myriad topics in the spiritual realm.

Don’t talk, get quiet inside

I’m not opposed to talking, writing, etc., about spirituality. That’s most of what I do on Medium! What I do caution against is allowing the stimulation gained by talking/writing, etc., to become one’s primary spiritual pursuit.

Because as Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, you can’t understand the Tao or God by talking about it. The only path to the Tao and God is through the silent stillness inside you.

This concept of going inside to find the big answers is universal. Luke 17:21 quotes Jesus as saying, “…The Kingdom of God is within you.” Well, you don’t enter that kingdom by listening to the cacophony of chatter spewed out by your conceptualizing mind. You get there, as you do with the Tao, by entering the state of no-thought, or still, presence as Eckhart Tolle calls it. In other words, you sense the Tao/God.

The fundamental problem with many spiritually-minded people is that they spend 80 percent of their spiritual energy conceptualizing and only 20 percent on getting quiet inside and sensing their true self/the Tao/God. Those numbers need to be reversed if true spiritual growth is to be achieved.

Why do so many people focus on the conceptual aspect of spirituality? Because going inside and getting quiet is HARD. Really hard. Our minds love to race. They’re like rambunctious five-year-old boys: They don’t like to sit still.

Meditate to get quiet inside

The best way to teach your mind to sit still is to develop a regular meditation practice. I’ve been practicing regularly for seven years and it’s made me a better dad, husband (even my wife agrees!), friend and overall human being.

I created a simple program designed to get people into regular meditation practice in the easiest way possible. It’s free and can be found at davidgerken.net. I also recommend the books and recordings of Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Peter Russell.

Read the Tao!

Finally, if you haven’t already, do yourself a huge favor and read the Tao. It’s easy to read and is only 4,000 words, which is shorter than many magazine articles. The Stephen Mitchell translation is the best.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages:

“Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?”

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David Gerken

Written by

Former Washington, DC political aide and Writer for THE WEST WING. Currently devoted to spreading meditation to the masses. Follow me at davidgerken.net.

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