Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Verse 12: Overload

Verse Twelve
Five colors blind the eye.
Five notes deafen the ear.
Five flavors make the palate go stale.
Too much activity deranges the mind.
Too much wealth causes crime.

The Master acts on what she feels and not what she sees.
She shuns the latter, and prefers to seek the former.
~ John H. McDonald translation ~
For most of us in the industrialized world, our lives pass us by in a frenzy. We're always on the go to here, to there, to everywhere. We rush to and from work. We rush to get our children to their various activities. We rush through meals because there's always somewhere else to go. We rush during vacations to make sure we get in all the sights. We even rush during sleep as a zillion thoughts, priorities and decisions race through our minds.

And why do we rush around like chickens with our heads cut off? Time! There are only so many hours in each day and we have far too many important things to do. Our schedules are completely booked up and, as soon as we check one activity off the list, there are ten more to replace it.

In an attempt to mitigate all this rushing around, we've invented a multitude of so-called "timesaving devices", but as Benjamin Hoff writes in the The Tao of Pooh,
...if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But, strangely enough, we seem to have less time than even a few years ago. It's really great fun to go someplace where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find that you have lots of time. Elsewhere, you're too busy working to pay for machines to save you time so you won't have to work so hard.
So, one of the ways in which this verse can be interpreted is to suggest that we slow down. Rome wasn't built in a day or as John Gathercole writes on the blog The Layman's Tao,
When this verse says "The five colors blind the eye," it doesn't mean that looking at colors will make you blind. Rather, it's warning against over-stimulation, the same way we might tell someone to take it easy by saying "Slow and steady wins the race." We're not recommending the person do everything in her life slowly, just that she exercise moderation and make sure she's not going too fast.
There is another reason why slowing down will do us a great deal of good. When we rush to and fro, we tend to experience the world in a very superficial way. We quickly scan the horizon for potential problems and lightly peruse the people and situations around us. We simply don't have the time nor energy to experience life deeply because there's always someone else to meet or something else to do.

When we slow down, we afford ourselves the opportunity to smell the flowers and marvel at the beauty of a butterfly. We can think things through more clearly and genuinely get to know other people AND ourselves.

When we don't allow ourselves to travel through life at a more moderate pace, we set ourselves up for physical and emotional turmoil -- stress. This stress grows heavier and heavier as we struggle with our many self-imposed time constraints. No amount of accomplishment is ever enough because, for every one item completed, there are thousands more left to begin.

Diane Dreher underscores this point.
Modern life assaults our senses with noise, color, and ceaseless appeals to appetite. It's easy to lose our balance. As Lao Tzu said, "Chasing desire can drive us mad." Research has shown that sensory overload produces symptoms very much like schizophrenia. Too many people race off in a dozen directions at once. They eat, dress, work, and play with no center. Losing sight of the whole, they succumb to fragmentation, illness, and exhaustion.
There is another angle to this verse as well. It cautions us not to become overly enthralled with solely what we can see subjectively of the world around us. Dr. Jill Henry of the Mountain Valley Center writes that
The world tells us to trust only in our senses. To believe only what we see. The Tao guides us to trust our inner knowing, our feelings, and our connection to Source. It’s only be letting go of our obsessions with life – our repetitive thoughts, our constant acquisition of more things, that we can choose to live a life of central peace.
This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. to me, the last 2 sentences make a lot of sense paired with the rest of this verse. the human mind can process sights and sounds relatively quickly, without need for examination. however we must really stop and take notice of what we feel, and examine ourselves, using our brain to understand what we are feeling. we can contemplate what we see and hear as well, but most people don't. they just scan their surroundings for whatever is relevent at the time. so, urging us to follow our feelings instead of our other senses is actually also urging us to stop and examine life, instead of just briefly scanning through it.

  2. How did you become so wise so young? : ) Ya know, it's takes most of us a lifetime of trial and error -- with heavy emphasis on the latter -- to develop a tiny inkling of sagacity. You're messing up the curve. Maybe it's impending motherhood?

  3. Excellent post! Yes, if we would slow down we would indeed create more time and the time we create would be more peaceful. World peace could be achieved if we learned to slow down. It is not the race that kills us, it is the pace.

  4. lol, i'm cursed with the tendency to examine life too closely. :P believe me, it has its downsides- i'm frequently labeled a space cadet. hehe... but yes, i don't think i've ever been "young," i think i was born "old" in spirit.


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