The Stuff That Keep Us Separated

Reflections on Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching:

River Delta

In a small country with few people,
even if they have hundreds of tools,
they will not use them.

They value their lives
do not wish to go anywhere else.

Even if they have a boat and cars,
they do not wish to use them.

Even if they have weapons,
they do not need to display them.

Let the women use their hands for knitting
instead of writing.

Let them enjoy their food,
keep their clothes beautiful
and be happy in their everyday lives.

Neighbors may hear the roosters crowing
and dogs barking in neighboring cities,
but will live their entire lives
without the need to visit each other
and leave their happy home.

I love this one.

As I was getting ready to record this post, my daughter called me. She was locked out of the house, so she ended up going to the neighbor’s house and using their phone to call me.  I told her to go ahead and sit out on the deck until I got home. So I was driving home and thinking about this. I realized that this is precisely the lesson this chapter is teaching us.

I get it.

She had gone to the neighbors to make a call, and I was assuming that she would just go on our deck and not bother the neighbors but what I realized is that my thinking is what was preventing us from being like the people in this chapter. This is the world that we have come to. Maybe not everybody is like us, but I don’t know my neighbors that well that we would just go to their house and hang out.

We are separated.

All our things, our all belongings in this world have created such a separation from each other that we don’t live the way they talk about in this post. In tribal cultures, they don’t need locks on doors. That is just not what their lives are about. They have each other. They work together and share the duties of their daily life. They don’t need, or want, the stuff that we manufacture to make our lives supposedly better.

Why should I fear you when I know you?

When I was a kid, my next door neighbor was a music teacher. I used to go over to her house and just talk to her about stuff. I was about ten, so this was one way for me to branch out and practice my independence. It was nice knowing her. She was kind. She got me interested in music. Why are we afraid of our neighbors? Why are we worried about our things with locking our doors and securing our stuff?

The Tao Te Ching was written 2,500 years ago so clearly there have always been issues with these types of things. There has always been some sense of separation caused by the accumulation of things to own. There are things that you don’t have, you don’t need.  Here I was, driving home by myself in my own car. Most of the people I shared the road with were single drivers, driving home from work like me.

Our lives are bigger when we know our neighbors.

We don’t need the stuff around us to protect us from each other. We can raise tomatoes in our garden and share them. We don’t need the stuff around us to distract us from our lives. Let us knit. Let us go back to creating those things that we hold more dearly because we are not separate from the sacrifice that has been made to bring it into existence.

Where did this plastic bottle come from that holds my water?

Where did the water come from? What did it take to get it to my hands to drink it? How much manufacturing went into developing the plastic bottle that holds it? What did it take to get this water clean for me to drink it? Where did those chemicals come from that purified it? Was it filtered? Where did the parts that filter the water come from? Who am I supporting by buying this water?

No. I pick up the bottle, drink the water and toss the water in the bin without a thought to any of those things – most of the time. Am I a horrible human being? No. I am unconscious to the things around me because I have lost touch with my surroundings. I have been separated by layers and layers of stuff.

I just found this great video that illustrates this beautifully… (21:25)

I long to return to the life in this story.

I want a world where the words I have said here are completely foreign because no one thinks that way anymore. I want my readers to say, “Who locks their doors?” and “What kind of a crazy person doesn’t know their neighbors?I want to know where my hat came from. I want to know the struggle of creating my stuff. I want to thank the chicken that gave its life for my chicken and dumplings.

I want to stay connected.

Tell me I’m crazy. Tell me I’m wrong. Let me be the one who needs to transform my thinking when the rest of the world is sane and happy. I will be happy to have it be so because that will mean that I am the only one lost in this sea of stuff. Tell me what you think. Will you join me in practicing meeting your neighbors and loosening your hold on your stuff? Share with us in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. If you like this post, please share it with the buttons below!


  1. Love to see your process on display along with your interpretation. I find that at least as valuable!

  2. Come on out to the country, Amy :-). I haven’t locked my doors since my husband left (OK, full disclosure – there was a brief period when I changed the locks and shuttered the place prior to the divorce, but that wasn’t about the neighbors or fear of a stranger invasion). Neighbors know neighbors and are quick to be there if someone needs help – and often if not (I will never get used to this total lack of valuing time that seems to be pervasive in Podunk USA). Not so sure I’d agree with women being better off knitting than writing. Maybe you can expand with your thoughts on that line? Still, I don’t think we’re as far away from this ideal in many places in the US as most might assume. People do tend to get more focused on protecting their possessions than embracing what’s really important in life, which is sad.

    Interestingly, over the past few days I’ve finished a move into a temporary place in the suburbs (never did get the worst of both worlds appeal here – won’t be my long-term choice). It’s been a culture shock, for sure. People don’t even get out of their cars to enter their ‘homes’ (automatic garage door openers). They live indoors (it’s been a stretch of fantastic weather here). Tall fences surround most of the tiny plots that represent most back yards. There are no front porches. Lights stay on at the front entry of every residence all night long (I’m guessing that’s a community mandate – how do these people sleep :-)?). Very strange – at least for me. Guess when you’re living so close privacy is more important than community (I will say I wish the nearby screamer would shut her windows during all that time she seems to need to satisfy her libido). It does strike me as funny, though, that a community of hundreds of people living closer than my nearest five neighbors know little or nothing about the lives of those nearby. Everyone knows everyone else’s business in small towns. Curious.
    Nanette Levin recently posted…Orwell’s 1984 is here getting help from voyeur marketing strategiesMy Profile

    • Glad to have you back, Nanette. You are so right that small towns experience less of the things I was talking about. We actually don’t lock our doors most days and that is why my daughter did not have a key. My husband is normally home during the day when my daughter comes home and when we go out for dinner or whatever, we don’t normally lock it. For years, I used to NEVER lock it and I lived in the heart of Minneapolis. We compromised and now we lock it occasionally for longer outings.

      I love that you challenged my knitting line. That one bugged me too, of course, being a writer. It made me go back through and look at other versions to see what they put. The concept of that line was that he was suggesting that people went back to the old system of using knots and cords to indicate events instead of writing out the details. I may need to modify my version now that I look at it more deeply. When we write out the details, as in photography, we get so caught up in reading about life and we don’t experience it. That said, not sure if knitting is much better! lol…

      I loved your description of suburban life. I am happy to say that my little neighborhood is a bit more remote so we are not quite that bad, but certainly leaning more towards suburbia than remote small town. Last night we had the luxury (finally) of eating our dinner out on the deck and I had to laugh as one of my thoughts was that we were on display for the world eating out there. But we do meet more neighbors that way. The story I told of our neighbor with the Camaro happened while we were eating dinner out there one night and we were talking with him. He is super friendly and is one of the reasons that I question my own lack of understanding of my neighbors. He has only lived next door to me for about a year and he knows everyone. There are always neighbors stopping by his place and chatting, having a beer or watching a bonfire. They are ALWAYS outside, him and my dog that does not live with me, Keystone. I have a bag of treats just for Keystone so she is my adopted dog.

  3. Loved your post Amy. It really hit home as to how I really am below this surface that I don’t think about very often. I am someone that locks my door as soon as enter our home. I thought it was just a habit but after reading your post there’s so much more behind this simple act of locking a door… no doubt it’s about protecting myself, protecting my stuff/possessions, and I don’t often practice meeting up with the neighbours. Last week I was away with my sister at a cottage, and every time she went to go out she found a locked door. I was the guilty one that locked the door every time. Thank you for this… you have helped me see beyond the locked door syndrome.
    Suzanne McRae recently posted…It’s my one-year blog anniversary!!!My Profile

    • Oh, Suzanne. It is so fun to see our patterns, isn’t it? Without seeing them, we can do nothing about them. I am excited to hear how it goes with exploring this new insight.

  4. Amy. I loved this post. I never thought I’d say this, but I adore knowing all of my neighbors. I enjoy feeling like I have this warm extended family around me.

    and, if I may be so bold, I think I understand the knitting as apposed to writing phrase, at least for me. Remember that day, years ago back at the Queen house, that you and I were talking about writing something we were really proud of and then, publishing it as anonymous? And how we laughed at how hard that would be but also how interesting it is for our egos to handle? Maybe this was something like that, Instead of commenting on life, to just live it fully instead. Experiencing and embracing the humility involved in melting into the community at large will filling a need like a simple hat.

    • Wow, yes. I had forgotten about that, perhaps on purpose! You KNOW I am a Leo so that would oh so much harder for me to do! lol… But I also know that we all love to get acknowledgement for our work. It is such a human thing. I love that you know your neighbors too. As my big sister, I look at the life you’ve chosen for yourself and it makes me question why I sometimes make the choices I have made. You have such a wonderful life down there. (and now with a CAMPER?! Don’t even get me started…)

  5. Love this post! This is a topic near and dear to my heart. In terms of what you referred to here, it is so different today than it was when we were growing up. We knew our neighbors and it was like I had an extended family in many ways. It hasn’t been that way for my entire adult life. In some ways I miss it and in other ways, I’m okay with a more private way of living. I do know that I don’t like things that separate us. Until we fully appreciate that we are all one, I don’t believe we will be able to truly find peace.
    Michele Bergh recently posted…Think + Grow RichMy Profile

    • You just gave me an idea, Michele. There is no reason for us to just accept this way of life. Yesterday, after posting this, I went and joined my neighbors for a chat. It was a start, but I want more of this in my life so why not just do it? If we all stand up and said, “Enough of this silliness! I want my communities back!” and got out there and started connecting, things ARE different. Right now they are different for that.

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  8. Hi Amy, a great post I think when you leave in touch with nature every day. (As you know I live in the countryside) stuff becomes much less important. I can just step out onto the porch of our little cabin and see the larks that are nesting in our shed or the magnificent kite as it flies above majestically.reconnecting with nature brings us closer to our godlike state in which we realize that were all connected. I loved your post it discusses the real purpose of life which is not the pursuit of material possessions but to love and be loved.
    Athena Brady recently posted…Giving Something Back 15My Profile

  9. The passage seems more about not socializing, keeping to yourself, and not being unhappy about it. Help me understand please.

    • You make a good point. I was thinking of it more in terms of not leaving home, but as I read it again – you definitely have a point. I guess that I was thinking of it more in terms of living simply, rather than alone. When we live simply, we don’t make a lot of plans and spend all of our evenings doing “stuff”. Thank you for your thoughtful response!

  10. Wow! for you to even acknowledge where you were at when you wrote this blog is amazing! It causes me to wonder where you are at right now at this particular moment in your life and if you became more aware of your “presence”. Not a judgement or question, just me wondering out loud. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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