December 11, 2007
A Perfect Universe: The Tao of Desiderata
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
When I was a teenager, nearly every sensitive kid I knew had a parchment paper poster of the poem Desiderata up on their bedroom wall. Max Ehrmann's writings spoke to me then, as now, even though I didn't begin to understand most of it. (Glimpses are good.)
Recently I was invited to write a piece about the 19th verse of Desiderata, which for me is the essence of what The Work, the Tao Te Ching, and my entire spiritual path. I am reproducing it here for those who have not seen it on my friend Bob's very fine blog, Every, Every Minute.
A Perfect Universe: The Tao of Desiderata
by Carol L. Skolnick
"And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should"
"Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place."
—Tao Te Ching, Verse 23
Albert Einstein is said to have told a reporter, "I think the most important question facing humanity is, 'Is the universe a friendly place?' This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves."
Einstein likely felt this question was so important because he knew that to believe in an unfriendly universe is to be at war with it. Einstein was all about understanding and working with, not against, what is.
The literature of spiritual wisdom from time immemorial points to this peaceful viewpoint as well, perhaps most significantly, the classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching ("The Way") of Lao-Tzu, said to be a sixth-century contemporary of Confucius. In the 1920s, Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana, wrote the prose poem Desiderata, which was rediscovered and popularized by anti-war activists in the 1960s. The line, "no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" crystalizes the message of Desiderata and is an echo of the Tao's wisdom. It is a reminder that we live in a perfect world, as long as we do not dwell in what Erhmann calls our "dark imaginings."
More recently, my mentor Byron Katie has expounded on the real-life application of this simple wisdom in her book, A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with The Way Things Are. In this book, the Tao and "the Now" are translated into "the How." "The universe is perfect" is a concept until and unless it is experienced. The good news is that it can indeed be experienced, by questioning the "dark imaginings" that, believed, give rise to suffering.
In A Thousand Names for Joy, Katie writes:
"The burglars have taken my money, my jewelry, the television, the stereo, my CD collection, appliances, computers; they've left just the furniture and some clothing. The house has a clean Zen look. I go through the rooms and see that this possession is gone, that one is gone. There's no sense of loss or violation. On the contrary, I picture the recipients and feel what joy these items will bring them.... My gratitude comes from the obvious lack of need for each item. How do I know I don't need it? It's gone. Why is my life better without it? That's easy: my life is simpler now. The items now belong to the burglars, they obviously needed the items more than I did; that's how the universe works.... I find it odd that the way of the world is to try to retrieve what is no longer ours, and yet I understand it. Filling out the police report is also the way of it. If the items are found, I'm ready to welcome them back. And because they are never found, I understand that the shift in ownership is the best thing for the world, for me, and for the burglars."
Whatever happens—whether it is a birth or a death...war or peace...that ship finally coming in, or a business in ruins...a life lived with a soul mate, or in solitude—we can know that the universe is unfolding as it should because it is unfolding as it does; what is, is. When we believe that the universe is not unfolding as it should, we are arguing with God, reality, what is...and this does not make for a happy life.
This doesn't mean we sit back and do nothing; Ehrmann's message to "go placidly" is not at odds with being proactive and productive in our personal lives, or with social justice. It is not about being aloof, or a victim. It is, like the Tao Te Ching, an invitation to expand our awareness, to strive for clarity within, to open our eyes to the natural flow of things, to see reality in between and beyond the pairs of opposites, and to become the Taoist Master who lives in perfect harmony with a perfect world.
"There's no mistake in the universe.
It's not possible to have the concept 'mistake' unless you're comparing what is with what isn't.
WIthout the story in your mind, it's all perfect."
—Byron Katie, A Thousand Names for Joy
©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.