“…Tao is not a thing; it is an ever-evolving and ongoing state of being.” (italics in the original) Solala Towler’s explanation of the Tao is also a good description of the book he has written about it. Practicing the Tao Te Ching is both a translation of the original and an interpretation of it based on the author’s experience. Towler presents the Tao as a practice rather than just a simple philosophy, in other words, something to do and not just something to think about. According to the author, this is more accurate to the way the text has been used over the centuries, as a guide for spiritual practice in real life.
I’ve read several different translations of the Tao Te Ching over the years. In all of them, the chauvinistic and sexist bias of both the originating culture and the translators grated on my nerves and distracted me from the spiritual content of the verses. Towler has gone back to the original and created a translation that’s much more in tune with the concepts of equality and respect, and in so doing he has managed to make the 81 verses of the Tao feel even more timeless. I really enjoyed this translation and will return to it regularly now in preference to others.
Along with his original translation of each verse, the author provides commentary to help the reader work their way through the interpretation of the verse’s concepts. Towler’s thoughts tend toward ideas that will sound familiar to anyone who has studied the Tao: We can take a great spiritual journey without even stepping out our front door. We must be careful not to convince ourselves that we know things when we really don’t. We must work to understand ourselves before we can understand the rest of the world. These concepts aren’t new, but Towler’s approach is. He combines each interpretation with a set of spiritual exercises designed to help the reader experience the verses firsthand.
The exercises, like the Tao itself, are deceptively simple. They range from answering a series of questions in a journal to meditations, visualizations, mindfulness exercises, and suggestions for ways to direct the focus and consciousness while doing daily activities like walking. Each set of exercises is keyed to the content of the associated verse. Throughout, the author encourages gentle steps with an emphasis on balance and moderation. I found the activities to be well-matched to the verses, an excellent doorway into experiencing these subjects myself as I walk my spiritual path.
Towler writes that “there is no absolute reality.” In other words, what we experience in life is based on what we expect and how we view the world. The verses and exercises conspire to push the reader toward examining their worldview, what it involves and how it flavors their experience of life. The activities build on each other in a way that encourages the reader to look at their life on both a daily basis and over the long-term arc. Because of the fact that the exercises are cumulative— methods learned in earlier ones are applied or built onto in later ones— it’s not a good idea to skip around in the book. Take the verses in order, the way they come, and the activities will work out well.
Like Zen koans, the verses of the Tao are meant to prod at subjects deep within the psyche and the consciousness. Towler does an excellent job of reaching for these depths, pointing the reader toward them without spelling out the details. In other words, he provides the map but leaves the journey to the reader. For me, that’s what takes this book beyond the usual translation-plus-commentary, the way he gestures toward the path and encourages the reader to step forward on their own, trusting them to be able to find their way. There is no condescension here, no high-and-mighty master looking down on his students, but simply the sparkling joy of one who has walked the path and is delighted to be able to share it with others.
~review by Laura Perry
Author: Solala Towler
Sounds True, 2016
pp. 306, $16.95