The usefulness of not–How empty space becomes powerful
meet in a hub
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.”
~Ursula Le Guin, Lao Tsu, Te Ching
I am working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. She had loved this classic epic, and learned Chinese so that she could portray the work from a more feminine, less patriarchal, perspective.
Le Guin’s Tao is not a book that you can skim through, and I relish that in our frenetic Internet environment.
This morning I came across a passage describing the “usefulness of not,” the concept that what is put into the empty pot is more worthwhile than the container, or the way that an empty house is enriched by its inhabitants.
Wind can be such an empty space. What it touches will change visually and perceptibly, yet the wind itself is invisible.
For instance, I once lived on a hill above the mouth of a canyon. Each morning before dawn the air was still, holding its breath, waiting. The sun rose, dusting the red rocks on the canyon walls with light, and the wind started to move.
It touched each tree in a different pattern. The young bamboo outside my window shifted in the sunlight, each leaf dancing to its own rhythm. At the end of the yard, a cypress and the old junipers were measured and deliberate in their approach, their branches ponderous in the wind’s wake.
The wind sound had an ebb and flow, like the ocean waves, only slower. It gathered momentum far away in the canyon, mixing with the murmur of the creek, low now after the winter snow melt. And then it gathered speed like a train rushing to make its next destination, roaring towards me.
Birds caromed off the wind’s currents, banking like a race drivers entering steep curves. Their flight accelerated in the wind as their wings became billowing sails. The sunlight glinted off their bodies before they disappeared against the backdrop of dark rocks.
Higher in the sky, the wind current divided a flock of bluebirds, then pushed them together once more, in a symphony of theme, motif, and recapitulation. Ravens lifted to greet the morning sun, their heavier bodies braced against unexpected currents.
And then the wind gentled, having had its morning gallop, and the life around me settled to a morning peace.
Our lives are like the birds and the trees, blown off our planned course by currents we sense, but cannot predict.
Sometimes it may be wise to suspect the obvious that we see and rather embrace intuition of what we feel.