I was sitting by a lake recently recalling the Taoist admonition to allow your soul to be as still and placid as the surface of water so that it can mirror the entire universe.
At the time I was not still and placid, nor did I feel particularly like mirroring the 10,000 things. I actually felt rather agitated because I was still trapped in that five-day period it takes after seeing the movie Mama Mia! to shake the ABBA tunes out of your head, and visions of Meryl Streep singing “The Winner Takes It All” were raising my stress levels. Still, the thought of some kind of placidity and peace appealed to me, and the idea of mirroring just the blue sky and a few passing clouds, if not the 10,000 things, seemed like a good thing to do on a fine August day.
Of course to mirror the world the way the Taoists suggest is to reflect the things of the world without assuming they have permanent status. They don’t. All is flux. All is becoming. It’s a bit like the Land of Ever-Becoming that legend tells us the faeries live in. Sometimes it’s called the Land of the Ever-Young for the same reason: the young are in a stage of life characterized by becoming. That’s why we are always asking young people what they want to become when they grow up, like rock stars or dancing queens. Elders are still becoming also, but they have already become something. At some age you must give up hope of becoming a dancing queen or playing Romeo. You still have room for more becoming, but not as much as youth.
But to be an excellent mirror, I’d have to be open and fluid enough to let the world cast its shapes upon me while reserving judgment about them or thinking I really understand them. The mirror or the lake’s surface does not judge or criticize or even know. It just reflects the passing flow of life. But on that August day I was still too ruffled by Swedish pop tunes from the 70s to be a good mirror.
If I could have stepped into what medieval Christian mystics called “the Cloud of Unknowing,” I might have been in a more receptive state to mirror. The idea, as I understand it, is that you have to strip away all that you think you know (about God) and be in a state of not-knowing to really begin to come close to the reality. It’s the same, I think, as the Taoists saying that the Tao you can name is not the eternal Tao because we can’t really know its name. You have to be content not to have knowledge or pass judgment or name names or entertain any ideas that you think you know what something is. You just have to be, and in that state be clear, calm, and peaceful. Then the sky or white clouds or the 10,000 things can reflect in you.
You can’t be caught up in some kind of frenzy. Somehow you have to be empty and smooth like the surface of a mirror, and not flinch. If you are a quiet, sparkling cove in the Aegean Sea snuggling beneath a lovely Greek island where the natives sing ABBA songs day and night, somehow you have to resist those rhythms, forget those lyrics, ignore that scene, and not let their echoes ripple your surface or break into your soul.
I’m not the Aegean Sea. So I surrendered and went to see Mama Mia! again. It was as much fun the second time.
Someday I will write and sing my parody: “The Mirror Takes It All.” But not too soon.