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Newsletter - December 2023

What Is Eternally Real?

“The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real.” (Lao Tzu)


Things come and go. We wonder what is eternally real. The answer is none of the things that come and go. In fact, none of the things we can distinguish by naming them. The eternally real is beyond names. But we can still live in harmony with it. The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 1) reminds us we just can’t really talk about it. Perhaps that’s not such a great loss.


We love to talk about things, don’t we? That means we have to name them. After all, how else can we distinguish one thing from another? That’s what names are for. What’s more, most of the time, we’re not really concerned whether what we’re talking about is eternally real. We just want to talk about it. As long as you know what I’m talking about, that’s all that matters. That’s what “names that can be named” are good for.


So when Lao Tzu tells us these things are not eternally real, we might say “So what? It doesn’t matter.” And, in an everyday sense, for all practical purposes as it were, we might well be right. But what lies on the other side? Let’s explore.


Everyday practical purposes are all about what’s real in the here and now. However, our experience tells us that things change; they come and they go. And once they’re gone then, for all practical purposes, they’re simply not “real” any more. They become part of what we call the past. So when Lao Tzu talks about the “eternally real,” we can be sure he’s not talking about anything that is here today and gone tomorrow.


Two questions spring to mind. First, what is he talking about? Second, why does it matter? Let’s look at each question in turn.


Anything “eternally real” is, by definition, beyond time. It’s beyond what we call yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Perhaps we could say it is eternally present. But even that takes too many words. It simply “is.” 


So what is that? Lao Tzu says “For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25). What's more, he tells us that the moment he tries to put words around it, he will fail. The previous line to the opening quote says “The tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao” (chapter 1).


So what is the Tao? Before he gave up on words, he said “There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25).


If you like, the Tao is the Oneness/Wholeness that includes everything—all of it, all at once, all the time. It is “eternally real” precisely because it’s not a “thing.” It is beyond “things” which is why it cannot be named. “Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not” (chapter 21).


Hmm. Interesting idea. But a bit lofty. Doesn’t sound like it has much to do with living our everyday lives. This brings us to our second question which is much more practical and down-to-earth. Why does it matter? Or, to put it more bluntly, so what?


Let’s start by asking another question. How much of our lives do we spend living in peace and serenity as opposed to confusion and sorrow? That’s a down-to-earth idea we can all relate to. After all, who wouldn’t like more of the former and less of the latter? So here’s Lao Tzu on the topic.


“Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow” (chapter 16). And what is the source? The answer is the Tao. So what do you do about that? “Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place” (chapter 23).


So we have a choice. We can live centered in our selves or we can live centered in the Tao. Centered in our selves, our mind is full of thoughts. We name our desires and chase after them. We strive for some things and try to avoid others. We try to possess things and hold onto them (it matters to us whether something is or is not ours). We seek security and the esteem of others. All of these “things” are in the here-today-gone-tomorrow category. In other words, none of them is “eternally real.”


Centered in the Tao, our actions spring not from our selves but from the “source.” And Lao Tzu suggests this makes all the down-to-earth practical difference in the world. Why? Because we no longer stumble in confusion and sorrow as we strive to satisfy our desires and bend the world to meet our wishes. Instead, we open ourselves to what is eternally real and let our actions be our “natural responses” to it. Instead of trying to paddle upstream, as it were, we become part of the flow. Peace and serenity follow. In fact, they were there all along—we were simply too busy striving to notice.


What does all this mean to me? I think it means it matters whether I live centered in my self, or centered in the Tao. Am I aligned with what is “eternally real” or am I living in the world of all the temporary things I’m typically so good at naming? It’s a choice that makes a big difference. And I get to make that choice pretty much every moment of every day.


For me, a good clue that I’m getting caught up in the world of things is when I start to “stumble in confusion and sorrow”? However, I find it hard to let go of striving with some particular temporary end in mind, and instead open myself to the eternally real. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. It's easier to keep striving!


So, in short, does it matter that we cannot name the Tao and talk about it? Not really. If the “eternally real” is beyond words and names, so what? So be it. At the end of the day, words and names are beside the point. What is the point? Living in harmony with the Tao. The less said the better.


What have you found works for you? December is a high risk month for getting caught up in the world of things. Have you found good ways to catch yourself and step back, at least for a while, to reconnect with what is "eternally real”?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


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In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from, or from

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