Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Beyond Boxes

Tao Te ChingImage via Wikipedia

Thinking outside the box”—A familiar expression which suggests creativity beyond normal limitations. Everyone has heard this expression and in a general way understands the intent. But let’s push this a bit. Let’s think outside the box about boxes.

Q: What’s a box?
A: A container within which something exists.

Q: What else?
A: The container establishes boundaries and limitations.

Q: What if there is nothing in the box?
A: It still contains air. Air is not “nothing” but is “no-thing”.

Q: What does that mean?
A: It means that air is not a thing but rather the absence of things and without the absence it would be impossible to place “things” in the box.

Q: So does that mean that both things (form) and no-things (emptiness) are interdependent?
A: Exactly.

Lao Tsu pointed this out centuries ago yet we dwell on forms and ignore emptiness. Here is what he had to say...

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there”

Stanza 11—Tao Te Ching

You might ask what value is it to 21st century people to consider this arcane, centuries-old musing of an ancient Chinese sage? The answer is mutual respect. Every human who has ever lived knows their form and profit but it is rare to find anyone who knows their emptiness (and usefulness). When we place limits on our form we diminish our potential (usefulness). Profit comes from form; Usefulness from emptiness. We may profit by acknowledging what we know, but how useful are we to ourselves and others when we ignore or denigrate what we don’t know? When we box things in we see them within limitations which we ourselves establish. Space and emptiness have no limits but form does. When we define with concepts we create limits for both form and emptiness and force ourselves to stay within those limits.
To cherish ONLY what we know at the expense of difference is a violation and diminution of our space and that of others. Why are we so afraid of what we can’t lay our hands on? Why do we fear difference? Why do we prefer boxes and limitations when we can have infinity? Is it that we have no eyes to see or ears to hear? A box is useful when we acknowledge both the contents and the context and it matters little whether the box belongs to us or another. In any event, the space is shared space; only the form changes. Genuine emancipation happens when we can release our attachment to forms and embrace emptiness without confining it to conceptual limitations.
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