Daodejing Chapter 28: an uncarved block of wood

Daodejing Chapter 28

Know the male,
But keep to the female.
Be a ravine to the world.
As a ravine to the world,
Constant virtue will never leave you,
And you will return to being an infant.
Know the bright,
But keep to the dark.
Be a model to the world.
As a model to the world,
Constant virtue will never be wanting,
And you will return to the limitless.
Know honor,
But keep to disgrace.
Be a valley to the world.
As a valley to the world,
Constant virtue will always be sufficient,
And you will return again to the uncarved block of wood.
When the uncarved block shatters, it is transformed into utensils.
The sage makes use of them,
And becomes the lord of all the officials.
Therefore, the deepest cut doesn’t sever.

Effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is a dynamic state that operates much like a pendulum swinging from one polarity to another. This pendulum, however, isn’t perfectly balanced and is weighted more towards developing “soft” qualities such as patience and receptiveness than “hard” ones such as strength and aggressiveness.

Thus, while Laozi tells us to “know the male,” he advises us to “keep to the female.” Rather than climbing the mountains in search of ever greater conquests and glories, we should act as a “ravine” or “valley” to the world so that we can absorb everything that is happening around us and build up our resilience.

In the same way, we should stay in the background (dark) instead of actively seeking out fame and fortune (bright) and understand that any acclaim we happen to achieve contains the seeds of inevitable disgrace.

Laozi likens being a ravine or valley to returning to the lost innocence of an infant or the pristine simplicity of an uncarved block of wood. But even though he believes that this is the ideal state we should aim for, he understands that once it is reached the pendulum will start swinging in the opposite direction again.

When this happens, the key is to stay in tune with the new cycle so that, just like the sage, you can make full use of the “utensils” that emerge when the uncarved block of wood is shattered.

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