Sensory Overload (Tao Te Ching 12)


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By Jeffrey C Mallinson and Stacie Mallinson. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.


Focusing on flashy things

blinds eyes to beauty.

Listening to a cacophony of voices

makes it hard to hear the truth.

Too many spices will dull your taste buds.

Lust for luxury will drive you mad.

Riches entice men to evil deeds.

Therefore, the Sage

attends to essential nourishment

instead of mind-numbing diversions.

She selects healthy food,

ignoring empty calories.


This chapter is especially relevant to our marriage. My (Jeff here) personality type is such that I love constant stimulation, spicy foods, loud music, and extroverted experiences. These can be fine for a time, but they definitely can overstimulate Stacie. Moreover, this chapter teaches that despite my penchant for overstimulation, I’m at my healthiest when I focus. It’s not that I need to lose flavor. Lao Tzu is saying that my problem might be that I’m failing to focus on the simple but deep flavors all around me. This can be understood in an emotional, professional, or spiritual way. But it is also literally true. I sometimes put too much seasoning in food, and the result is that it’s hard to appreciate the distinct flavors that were in the dish. I need to constantly remind myself to focus on good quality ingredients, with great flavors, but let two or three flavors work together to create a culinary experience.

The original Chinese of this chapter actually speaks about three sets of five. We chose not to relate that original way of speaking because we think it’s better to carry forward the core concept and meaning than the clever but foreign idioms from ancient China. That said, the original approach is fascinating for reflection.

First, there are the “five colors” which dazzles the eyes or distracts. Think not about a color palate here, but rather colors that represent five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Often, rulers would choose a color to represent the character of their reign. Interestingly, in the I Ching, the “color” black is associated with water (an important element in the Tao Te Ching of course) but also Heaven. Think the “dark mother” or “profound mystery” mentioned here and there throughout Lao Tzu’s work. The point for this chapter is that we can become distracted when we chase after too many things in this world. Trying to chase everything, we sometimes end up with nothing in our grasp.

Second, there are “five sounds” which could be thought of perhaps as notes. But again, the main point here is that there are voices, like siren songs, that can lead us astray. We need to stay focused on the true voice, or rather: the voice of truth, and ignore false voices like unjust criticism from enemies, negative self-talk, flattery, or even the rhetoric of cults. This chapter invites us to quiet the noise a bit so we can really discern what’s up in this raucous world.

Third, there are “five flavors” which could relate to sour, sweet, bitter, etc., but once again, the main point is the self-defeating path of gourmandizing. In other words, people who chase after too many sensual experiences find themselves numb. This is true especially of the super wealthy who lose zest for life, since they’ve become bored by luxurious pleasures. It is also true, however, for drug users who have chased addictions but ended up with a tolerance for the substance of choice. They consume more and more of the drug with fewer and fewer payoffs.

In all this, we have an opportunity in our day. Until recently, things were getting way too noisy. Too many of us were super busy but failed to really be present for our families. We might have been racing from event to event, but we never took time ourselves to enjoy where we were at each moment. As Yoda once said of Luke:

“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.”

So find some time for stillness. Listen to the quietude. Feel the Presence, then be present for those you love, even if you have to do it digitally for a while. Peace.

135 episodes