The Noise and the Tao: Consumption/Contemplation

Do you ever sense “The Noise?” Does it blind you, strike you, confuse you? Does it make you dizzy or force you to sit? Sometimes it does that to me.

Most of us live amidst “the noise.” Everywhere we turn: we are bombarded. Advertisements, art works, opinions, debates, news. Each of these can be deafening in their own right. Together, they can conjure memories of first learning to swim. As a person deeply interested in multi-media as well as philosophy, theology, literature, and many other things, “The Noise” is almost impossible for me to escape. Further, I suffer from impatience, wanting to consume all their is to know and learn as immediately as possible so that I can put it into action, make something of my knowledge. I think this is a good drive. But it also drives me to insanity.

Enough venting. Let’s get to the good stuff.

I am continually reminded of the value of contemplative practices, times of silence that offer peace and reaffirm identity as something other than a speaker for “The Noise.” This is an area of my life which needs greater development (if I can manage it without adding to the strain of the self-improvement projects “The Noise” commands). Still, one practice I have had (sporadically) for a few years is meditating on the Tao Te Ching. Let me say this: praise God for the Tao Te Ching. Now, of course, I’ve just run the risk of conflating this wonderful work with religion, something that is often done and which limits the potential of this poetry to inform people of all religions. As far as it is possible, I will here attempt to extract the Tao Te Ching from its religious associations and meditate on the words themselves, remembering not to cling too tightly to any interpretation (due to my lack of relevant scholarship in particular) but simply lingering with the strangeness of the ancient art instead. Today, I simply want to reflect on a single entry that struck me the last time I was overcome by “The Noise:”

Colours blind the eye.

Sounds deafen the ear.

Flavours numb the taste.

Thoughts weaken the mind.

Desires wither the heart.


The Master observes the world

but trusts his inner vision.

He allows things to come and go.

His heart is open as the sky.

(“12” from Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. London: Frances Lincoln 1999)

To disagree with Mae West, too much of a good thing is not wonderful. Perhaps, as Behind the Candelabra investigates, a certain amount of peace and comfort–however pernicious–can be found within excess. In my life, however, I have not found this to be the case. In the barrage of colors, sounds, flavors, thoughts, and desires, what does the Master do? He “observes the world” and “allows things to come and go.” This gracefulness (wu-wei) is strinkingly similar to gelassenheit, a letting be. The Master does not consume the world in the way we moderns are prone to do: hanging posters of our favorite characters in our bedrooms, taking online quizzes to reaffirm our identities, and buying the Blu-Ray to have ready-access to our favorite world. Rather, the Master watches and then lets go. That is not to say the Master does not process, engage, or discuss. But he doesn’t let the world take hold of him. Two weeks ago, I wrote about our culture of addiction, which cannot let be but rather must own, over and over again.

His heart is open as the sky.

I love this line, but it is puzzling. First, I think it best to just sit with the words, let them open your imagination. I immediately see the sky above the Rockies, where I spent a few summers at 9000 ft. and took the photo “Wide Empty.” The picture isn’t my best, but it still helps me remember the perfect clarity of the blue skies that lit up the horizon that summer. To have one’s heart be as open as that sky speaks to me through that photo. It whispers of feeling at home, of belonging. I think belonging is a huge part of the identity of “the Master,” she is one who lives in simple unity. Of course, this is the very heart of the Tao Te Ching, that being the Tao itself. The goal of its philosophy, likewise, is the alignment of one’s heart with the primal way of things. This is but one way to describe the Tao.

I’m very skeptical that this kind of mastery and this sense of belonging can be obtained outside of a religious system. At the very least, one needs a body of spiritual disciplines to root oneself in the world of “The Noise,” a world where a million vested interests want you to find belonging with them. Again, I wrote on this just recently. Today, however, I want to focus on how to approach “The Noise” when it is filled with good things: with film and music, painting and theater, theology and testimony, conferences and even dialogues with friends. We cannot learn directly from the Master here, for the Master “trusts his inner vision.” What I am interested in is the process of education, of exposing oneself to the world in order to develop one’s “inner vision.” What if “The Noise” has something to teach us?

I think, however, an answer has already been presented. For a true Master is never done with learning, rather, her “heart is open as the sky.” The Master belongs where she is, yet at the same time she is learning from the experiences of others. The Master does not just “trust his inner vision” at his home, for vision is most needed when on a journey. In Colorado, I had many opportunities to climb magnificent mountains, many times on marked trails but sometimes while having to discern the trail ourselves. It is in those times when a trail is not evident that “inner vision” is most needed.

Thus, the Tao Te Ching here reminds us to be in constant cultivation of ourselves, trusting what we do know and hold dear but always seeking out new experiences when appropriate. Moreover, the engagement with these experiences must be cautious, lest we lose ourselves. I have occasionally been affected by a film in which I was immersed for a few days, but at the end of that time I always emerge, renewed. Such engagement is, I think, appropriate. It is the engagements we never seem to emerge from that are more dangerous. We must be wary of addiction. We must, truth be told, be wary of “The Noise” itself. When the things I engage in begin to be overwhelming in number, that is–begin to swirl into a whirlwind of “The Noise,” I must step back and engage in more contemplative practices. Given the world we live in, contemplative practices are likely needed as a daily rhythm, a way to affirm ourselves in silence lest we lose our inner peace, and with it our inner vision. Looking around at my media-saturated culture, I fear this kind of loss may have reached critical mass. But that is for another post.

Thanks for reading. Now get offline and rest.

Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.

(“9”, ibid.)
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2 thoughts on “The Noise and the Tao: Consumption/Contemplation

  1. well said! i like the sky analogy and the idea of being “in constant cultivation of ourselves.” Henri Nouwen has some great thoughts on this issue as well

  2. […] available online or in local physical spaces (I’ve written about “The Noise” before and I would recommend checking out that post if you missed it.). Recently, I followed a […]


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