Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare

For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing about Daoism (Taoism), the nature-based philosophy that originated in China around 500 BC, and which seems to be ripe for modern humans. Previously, we explored jian or simplicity – one of the “three treasures” mentioned in the seminal text, Dao De Jing. Today we’ll look at another of these treasures: Bu Gan Wei Tian Xia Xian (“boo gahn way tee-ehn shee-ah shee-ehn”). Try to say that three times quickly.

The straightforward translation of this phrase is something like “not presuming to be at the forefront in the world” or “not daring to put oneself ahead of the world.” A common interpretation is that this is simply a pragmatic survival tool: if we don’t stand out in a crowd or take the lead, we will stay out of harm’s way and therefore avoid premature death. Scholars point out that since longevity is a focus of Daoism, hiding in the background is a good way to stay alive longer. But, I believe this is a misunderstanding, particularly because the Dao De Jing specifically teaches how to lead – to be a ruler even – in accordance with the Dao. If every Daoist understood bu gan wei tian xia xian to mean we should hold back out of fear of death, there would be no leaders.

As I see it, not putting oneself ahead of the world means not allowing one’s own thoughts and ego to become more important than the big picture. It is a reminder to see the Truth of who and what we are – the world within us – beyond the person we call me. It’s a call to transcend our little personality and open to the whole that encompasses us.

The Russian philosopher, G. I. Gurdjieff, wrote about the distinction between the personality and what he called the essence, and it’s a meaningful parallel to our discussion. “Essence in man,” Gurdjieff says, “is what is his own. Personality in man is what is not his own. ‘Not his own’ means what has come from [others], what he has learned, or reflects.” He goes on to explain that a small child has no personality yet – she is only essence. Her feelings, desires, and tastes are all her own. Later, her personality begins to grow: through the intentional influences of others, through her imitation of what she sees, through her resistance against what she sees, and through her attempts to conceal from others what is her own or real.

Gurdjieff lamented that these days (for him, this was the early 20th century), we see more personality than essence in the world. If only he knew what was coming! Today, our avenues of communication allow for greater shaping of the personality than ever before. Through social media, we are able to present to the world a highly curated view of ourselves. And through email and texting, we can edit everything we say, while avoiding direct, spontaneous conversation.

Although Gurdjieff said it very differently than the Dao De Jing, I believe they’re both getting at the same thing. Gurdjieff’s essence is the expression of the Dao De Jing’s world through us. He might have explained bu gan wei tian xia xian as, “not daring to put the personality ahead of the essence.”

The way the mind “puts itself ahead of the world” is by knowing. We think we know what’s going to happen. We think we know people without truly learning who they are. We think we have experienced all that a flower or a blade of grass or a raindrop has to offer. So, rather than engaging with the world at the frontier of our experience, we sit back in the mind and listen to its interpretation. The mind says, “People? I watched a special on TV about them.”

It’s an arrogant way of relating to the world. Thus, another translation of bu gan wei tian xia xian is the opposite of arrogance – “humility” – not daring to allow our know-it-all mind to eclipse our innocence.

How can we hear what the Universe is telling us if we only listen to our own voice?

This week, I encourage you to practice being as innocent as a baby. Who knows what you might experience if you were to approach the people and items you encounter every day without any of your usual preconceptions about them?

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

1 Comment
  • Barbara Carlson
    Posted at 01:00h, 02 March Reply

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

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