Seeing Into Nothingness

An Experience of Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching and its Relevance for Group Therapy

C.M. Watson

Despite the author’s assertion that his words are easy to understand there have been volumes of commentary on the meaning of the verses in the Tao Te Ching. Nevertheless, its central message is clear: the reader must look within and find the Tao, the empty source of all things. This message is particularly relevant for those who lead group therapy, because their goal is to awaken the authentic selves of their members. Yet the group leader must be diligent to perform their own inner work if the group is to succeed in its goals. Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching outlines the abilities of the group leader who trusts in their own inner work, and the effects of this on group members. Chapter 16 is briefly looked at because it precisely describes what the leader must look for as they begin their inner work.

“Seeing into nothingness- this is the true seeing and eternal seeing”
Shen-hui, Chinese Chan Master

1. Introduction
I would like to begin this essay with a small but effective experiment which I believe will bring the reader to the heart of the message of Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching and help nurture an appreciation for its relevance to group therapy. Although this may be an unconventional beginning to a serious topic, I hope it is taken in the spirit of the ancient Taoist sages themselves who often presented their ideas with playfulness and humour, in radical contrast to the seriousness of their Confucian brethren. The experiment is required for a first-hand experiential testing of this particular verse’s message, a message that is indispensable for group therapists in particular, and ultimately for the clients they serve. I have adapted it from my friend Douglas Harding (see 1986; 2002), the English philosopher and writer, who first showed it to me many years ago. Douglas often conducted a somewhat longer version of it in groups, with almost always good effect. It exemplifies the simplicity and profundity of the folk who have walked the path of Tao in ancient and modern eras. If there was ever a ‘person of the Tao’ in our times, it was Douglas.

Using your index finger I would ask that you point up to the sky (or to the ceiling if you are indoors). Notice that what you see is shaped, bounded, coloured, textured, and limited. You are pointing to an example of what the Tao Te Ching calls the ‘ten thousand things’. These are objects, whether clouds or peeling wallpaper--things--and as such have a beginning and an end. They are time-filled and, therefore, perishable. Next, slowly bring your finger down to point straight ahead and then down at the floor, making the same observations. Point towards your feet. Continue to notice that you are pointing at things, coloured and textured objects, all bound by time and space. Now point your finger at your lap, and then slowly bring it up to point to your chest. Again, carefully notice your finger, a thing, is separated by a space and pointing at another thing, your chest. And now, slowly bring your pointing finger up to where others see your face. What is your finger pointing at now? It is, of course, for you, and you alone to say, but I would suggest that you are pointing to nothing whatever. Speaking for myself, where others see my face, I find nothing at all but a vast, limitless, empty, spacious awareness. Here, right where I am, I can find no sign of anything whatsoever (and thus no color, no form, no shape, no limits), and, naturally, where there is no thing, there is no change and where there is no change, there is no time. Here at my very centre I discover the treasure of the Tao Te Ching, the unchanging and supremely transparent Tao. I am seeing into nothingness, at heart empty and timeless.

2. The Group Leader’s Inner Work
It is this experience of uniting with the Tao (though the idea that one could ever be apart from it is probably the root of human beings’ troubles, and the reason many seek therapy) that Chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching addresses. In many ways, Chapter 16 is the pretext for Chapter 17 because it describes the inner experience of the group leader, while Chapter 17 illustrates how that inner experience manifests in, and is perceived by, the world, that is, the group.

Empty everything out;
Hold fast to your stillness.
Even though all things are stirring together,
Watch for the movement of return.
The ten thousand things flourish and
Then each returns to the root from which it came...
Those who innovate while in ignorance of the Always-so move toward disaster…
Those who are at one with the Tao abide forever.
Even after their bodies waste away they are safe and whole. (Chapter 16)

The significance of this verse for the group leader is the importance of inner work. Therapy is not a matter of applying clever techniques to clients or situations. The leader is, as Yalom (2005) points out, both observer and participant in the group. Consequently, the leader must be constantly and faithfully working on themselves also, emptying themselves out and generating intense curiosity in the emotions, feelings, thoughts, behaviours, perceptions, and, indeed, every phenomena that appear within the emptiness. Our experiment shows how available and accessible our True Nature is, but we (and especially those working with others) must be vigilant in our own practise. (A Rinzai Zen master, and a great fan of Douglas’ work, once told me that satori was seeing your True Nature, and was quite simple, but kensho was the practise of coming back to it again and again under all of life’s circumstances, a harder enterprise.) The message, then, is that group therapists are not mere technicians; unless there is inner work “those [leaders] who innovate while in ignorance of the Always-so move toward disaster.” The importance of group leader inner work has been recognized by many psychology writers, especially in recent times. For example, Deikman (1982), coining the term the ‘observing self’ which he likens to the experience of the Tao at the heart of all the mystical traditions, says the following about the practising therapist, but as true for the group leader:

A therapist whose own development of the observing self has not brought him or her to the
desired stage will not be able to transmit it to the patient. Similarly, the mystical literature
indicates that teachers must teach by means of what they can transmit because of what they
have become. To help a patient enhance the observing self, the therapist must have
accomplished that task first. This requirement probably explains why therapeutic
techniques used by themselves yield only limited and temporary results . (p. 107)

Thus, Deikman feels that application of technique by a leader disconnected from their own observing self and unconcerned with inner work is not likely to do much good, and instead may be practising “innovations that move toward disaster.”

3. Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching
While the group therapist sees that he or she is fundamentally empty, they also see that they are filled with the universe, the ten thousand things. As important as it is to connect with the Source it is even more crucial that there be a deep trust in it and the phenomena that spontaneously spring from it. A verse from Chapter 17 puts it this way: If you do not trust enough, you will not be trusted. For essentially there is only one Source: it is the same empty reality in all beings everywhere at all times and so the group leader is fundamentally united with the members of the group in the deepest possible way. Consequently, the leader’s job is to trust that the creative Source in the group will, within the safe containment and quiet presence of the leader’s own awareness, generate the therapeutic material that will bring healing. “The crucial action is one of stepping aside, becoming empty of any false sense of identity, to allow for the emergences of potential and knowledge that the [group] has, and has not yet realized” (Cohen, 2010, p. 189). There is a great freedom in this and the group perceives, through the power of the leader’s own presence, the potential for growth in it and, as a result, a deep trust arises. 

Whereas trust in the Source and in what it manifests at all levels illustrates successful group process from a vertical perspective, there is also the manner in which the group leader implements trust on the horizontal, dialogical, or conversational level. It is not that the therapist simply sits and does nothing (which would be akin to the blank state in meditative traditions and considered an incorrect practise). “The position is more than one of simple neutrality. It is one of multi-partiality, taking all sides and working within all views simultaneously” (Anderson & Goolishian, 1978, p. 385). The experienced leader is able to move skilfully and nimbly from one view to the next, without becoming stuck, thus subtly moving the process toward the therapeutic tasks of the group. This might mean that the leader seems to speak quite a bit, and at other times not at all. But the key point is that there is no agenda, no protocol imposed on the group from the outside by the leader within the static role of leader per se. Furthermore, the group’s experience of the inner state of the leader as fundamentally empty (both in the previously mentioned vertical sense of the authentic self being essentially empty while manifesting and containing all phenomena, and in the horizontal conversational sense of being empty of fixed position) is actually their own increasing experience of their own transparency, which simultaneously generates and shines a light on their growing self-knowledge. Cohen (2008), speaking about the master teacher, puts it this way:

The master teacher has a highly evolved capacity to recognize and live in the space and
place of “inter-being” (Hahn, 2001), a non-ordinary state of being, between self and all
things. Lao-tzu suggests that the Master governs and that she or he does it while
exercising the subtle art of transparency, which at times seems to approach invisibility.
When the master teacher is transparent he or she is actively and clearly involved but in a
way that is in the service of bringing forth the emerging knowledge that seems to have a
life of its own within the group. As the master’s visibility decreases, the learner-
community moves into the foreground. The master teacher is quiet and may even be
forgotten, at least in the moment, by the students as they discover their own knowledge and
resources. There is no sense of causality. The master may be in the role of facilitator and
at times the learner-community has this role. (p. 187)

It is in this way that Lao Tzu is able to say that “the best leader is one whose existence is barely known to the people….True Persons do not offer their words lightly. When their task is accomplished and their work is completed, the people say, ‘It happened to us naturally’” (Ch. 17).

Recognizing that there are many interpretations of the verses in the Tao Te Ching, each from a variety of perspectives, it may be worthwhile to briefly comment on what appears to be chapter 17’s descending list of competencies of the group leader. After describing the best leader’s qualities (we might say non-qualities), the verse goes on to list the next best leader as the one that is loved and praised, then the one that is feared, and finally the one that is defied. However, I suggest that these are not descriptions of different kinds of leaders but aspects of the same transparent leader as experienced by members of the group over time throughout the group process. In other words, in the modern therapy vernacular, these words actually describe the phenomena of transference onto the leader. “The sources of intense, irrational feelings toward the therapist are so varied and so powerful that transference will always occur. The therapist need not make any effort—for example, striking a pose of unflinching neutrality and anonymity—to generate or facilitate the development of transference…As long as a group therapist assumes the responsibility of leadership, transference will occur” (Yalom, p. 213). If the group is run with an emphasis on the here-now process, it is assumed that the group interactions will, sooner or later, reflect how the members live their experience in the outside world. It is inevitable then that the leader will become an object of all manner of attachment issues, projections, unhelpful relationship patterns, and other unconscious ways-of-being in the world that are still being lived by the member though they may have served their purpose long ago. The leader’s response is again to trust in the therapeutic process and work through the material that arises. It is all ‘grist for the mill’.

4. Conclusion
I started this essay with an experiment because it is the experience of the Tao that is important, and not mere fascination with words about it. It is wonderful to learn about Tao, but it is far better to do the inner work to actually see it, and, upon seeing it, to trust what it comes up with in life and within groups. As chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching says: 

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is added.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

When we look in with our pointing finger at what we are looking out of we clearly see the place where everything has been dropped to such an extent that there is no-thing left. This nothingness is not a mere vacuity, however, or blankness: it is a vast Awareness that contains, and is, the world, the ten-thousand things. But the group leader is not superiorly positioned just because they might live from this place; on the contrary, he or she knows that this is the one place where there are no differences whatever between themselves and the group members because there is no-thing here to divide or be divided. With intimate knowledge that this is the condition of all, the leader is able to trust that the emptiness shared by all will deliver not only the material that needs to come up within the group’s here-now process, but that any interventions will be so appropriate, and the transformation and growth so effective, that the members feel “it happened to us naturally”.

Anderson, H., & Goolishian, H. A. (1988). Human systems as linguistic systems: Preliminary and evolving ideas about the implications for critical theory.
Cohen, A. (2009). Gateway to the Dao-field: Essays for the awakening educator.
Deikman, A. J. (1982). The observing self: Mysticism and psychotherapy.
Harding, D.E. (1986). On having no head: Zen and the rediscovery of the obvious.
Harding, D. E. (2002). To be and not to be, that is the answer.
McCarroll, T. (Ed.). (1982). The Tao: The sacred way.
Yalom, I. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy.

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