How To Achieve Greatness

Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 63, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I hope you had your fill, the last six days, of training would-be leaders in the art of governing; because, today, Lao Tzu has moved on; returning to the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the practice of Wu-Wei. Wu-Wei, as all but my newest followers will recall, is the practice of doing not-doing. But that only makes it seem like some mysterious practice. It could be translated doing nothing; but I think it is best explained as effortless action. For there is work to be done. And doing nothing doesn’t mean that nothing is going to be done. It is talked about over and over again throughout the Tao Te Ching; where Lao Tzu will say that the Tao does nothing and the Master does nothing; yet, all things are done. He offers the opposite of this practice when he describes those that are always doing things and leaving plenty more to be done. Clearly, we want to be practicing doing not-doing, if we want all things to be done.

It took me quite awhile to unravel the mystery of Wu-Wei. I admit, that I have spent a great deal of my time, on my blog, encouraging my readers to “get into the zone;” thus, bringing about a state where your body and your mind are at one with the Tao and all your actions flow effortlessly. But that makes it seem like the practice of Wu-Wei is something that only a few can achieve. And that was never what I had in mind. And, if you will recall what I said, yesterday, you will understand that we are, each and every one of us, already one with the Tao. The practice of Wu-Wei doesn’t require us to enter some zen-like state. In today’s chapter, one of the more practical chapters in all the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains how each of us can practice it every day.
Act without doing; work without effort. That is the goal. So how do we do it? It is really quite simple. Imagine that! It is all a matter of how you think about things. Instead of thinking of the small as small, think of it as large. Instead of thinking of the few as few, think of them as many. We all have work which we do. Tasks that we have to get done, day in and day out. Maybe we don’t think that these little things that we do are very great things; but then again, that may be exactly where we need to rethink things. When we change our thinking around, when we see the little things that we do as big things, then we may begin to reorient exactly how we go about accomplishing these great tasks by a series of small acts. Simplify! That must be our mantra. Think of the task before you as too great to be done in one giant effort. Instead, break it down; break it down into a series of smaller tasks. Don’t misunderstand here. We aren’t supposed to go running away from these great tasks, saying, “Nope! Too great for me!” We just need to break them down. Here a little, there a little, until the great task is completed.

Procrastinators, I feel your pain. I have been there, my friends. And why is it that we procrastinate? One reason is that we think that little task can wait. It is only a little task. It won’t be any problem to put it off until later. But how does our thinking change, if we don’t see the small as small? What if we saw all those little tasks as great ones. That should motivate us to get to it. By procrastinating, by putting it off until later, those little tasks do start to pile up. What would have been easy to accomplish, has now become difficult. We need to change our thinking so that we can confront the difficult while it is still easy. I understand that some of you will insist that you work best under pressure. But that is all the more reason to apply the pressure while the task is still a small one. Remember, the goal is to act without doing and to work without effort. By breaking the task before us into a series of small acts, we are creating that state of effortless action. By thinking of the small as large and the few as many we will be getting everything done, while doing nothing.

Follow the example of the Master. She never reaches for the great. But it is thus, that she achieves greatness. She achieves it by a series of small acts. Does all this sound too simple, too elementary, to be worth your time? What a shame! You could be achieving great things! You won’t see the Master walking away from doing these little things. She does one thing at a time, she does it well, then she moves on.

But what happens when she runs into difficulty? We all do, you know. Even the Master. When that happens, she stops and gives herself to it. What does Lao Tzu mean? He means that we all make mistakes. Perhaps we didn’t confront this difficulty while it was still easy. Maybe we didn’t break it down into small enough acts. We have run into difficulty. What do we do? No, you don’t get to throw up your hands and walk away. Still, it is time to stop. Take a time out. Breaks are good. While you have stopped, breathe, relax. Now, take a fresh look at this difficulty. That is giving yourself to it. Where did things go wrong? What can I do differently? How can I break this down into smaller acts? This is not the time to be rushing to make a deadline. Hence the need to not put off until tomorrow what you could easily do today.

Here it is important for us to remember that the life of ease that Lao Tzu has promised us is not something that can be had by making things more difficult. Now is not the time to be clinging to our own comfort. Whining about just wanting to be over and done with it, isn’t going to help. Problems don’t have to be problems. They can be the catalyst for new innovations. Just think of all the things you have learned. All the ways you know how not to do the thing. And think of the new ways that you are looking at things. Ways that you never would have thought to look before. You are going to do this. You are going to achieve greatness.

Why We Love It!

The Tao is the center of the Universe,
the good man’s treasure,
the bad man’s refuge.

Honors can be bought with fine words,
respect can be won with good deeds;
but the Tao is beyond all value,
and no one can achieve it.

Thus, when a new leader is chosen,
don’t offer to help him
with your wealth or your expertise.
Offer instead
to teach him about the Tao.

Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?
Because, being one with the Tao,
when you seek you find;
and when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is why everybody loves it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 62, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

For the last five days, Lao Tzu has instructed would-be leaders in the art of governing. His instructions? Learn to follow the Tao. Trust the Tao. Center your whole country in it. Let go of your desire to control. Practice self-restraint in governing. Don’t try to force things. Don’t interfere in the affairs of others. Nourish your own people. Today, Lao Tzu directs his words to the rest of us. We aren’t all of us would-be leaders; most of us would be content to follow the example of a great leader.

I think what stands out to me in this chapter is how necessary it is that leaders are surrounded by those willing to offer the right kind of help. That would be you and me. Leaders need people around them that will point out their faults. They would be the leader’s most benevolent teachers. That is why, Lao Tzu says, when new leaders are chosen, don’t offer to help them with your wealth or expertise; instead, offer to teach them about the Tao.

If you thought, for even a moment, that you could leave it up to others to learn of the Tao; to just let them follow it and be an example of it, for you; and you were off the hook – well, you haven’t been paying attention. Lao Tzu doesn’t trust powerful men and women to do the right thing. And neither can we. If we want great leaders, we have our work cut out for us. It is up to us to teach them about the Tao. And that means we need to learn to follow the Tao, to be an example of it, for them, as well. You could say that it ends up we are all would-be leaders. If you took the last five days off from my blog, because you figured all those instructions were for those wanting to govern, you may just need to go back and read up on what Lao Tzu has been saying. After all, do you really think any of our would-be leaders have been paying attention? I don’t have that kind of audience. No, it is up to you, my readers, my friends, to teach would-be leaders what they need to know.

So, what does Lao Tzu want us to know about the Tao, today? What might it be helpful for would-be leaders to learn from us. Lao Tzu begins by saying that the Tao is the center of the Universe. Now, when he says the Tao is the center of the Universe, he isn’t talking about a physical location. Just like when he told us to center ourselves in it, and to center our country in it, he wasn’t talking about a physical location. He is talking about the Tao being the great Equalizer; the One that brings balance and harmony in the Universe. When we center ourselves, our country, in the Tao, we are letting the Tao bring balance and harmony in our lives. And then he goes on to say that the Tao is the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge.

This is the most important thing you can learn about the Tao, today. It is why the ancient Masters esteemed the Tao, so much. When Lao Tzu is talking about good and bad people here, he isn’t talking about good and evil. What he insists, here, is that we are all one with the Tao. All beings in the Universe are one with the Tao. That may come as a shock to some of you. People sometimes want to elevate some over others. They want to believe that only a privileged few will ever achieve oneness with the Tao; the rest of us, well, we will just flounder.

But Lao Tzu says differently. We are all one with the Tao. Some of us may be better at it than others. You could say they are really good at being one with the Tao. While others aren’t nearly so good at it. You could say they are bad at it. But the Tao remains the same, and for all. Because you are one with the Tao, whether you are good or bad at it, when you seek, you find. And when you make a mistake, you are forgiven. The Tao is a treasure for those who seek it, and a refuge for those that make mistakes.

This is what we need to be teaching would-be leaders. They don’t need our wealth or our expertise. They don’t need honors or respect. They need to realize their oneness with the Tao. That is something that is beyond all value. They need to know that when they seek the Tao, they will find it. And, when they make mistakes, they will be forgiven. Honors can be bought with fine words, and respect with good deeds; but what the Tao offers us, is something that no one can achieve. Is it any wonder that those who realize their oneness with the Tao, love it so?

 

The Sea Knows Its Place; Why Don’t We?

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

For those that are interested, today’s chapter is Day Five of Lao Tzu’s manual on the art of governing. He has been instructing would-be leaders in the need to follow the Tao and center their country in the Tao. He has warned us of the perils when the will to power is in charge; and promoted the virtue of self-restraint when governing. In yesterday’s chapter the lessons were learned at a fish fry. Today, he goes back to the source of the fish, the sea.

Water is, by far, Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor for understanding the Tao. In today’s chapter, he uses it to illustrate a country that has obtained great power. The lesson to be learned from the sea is its humility. All streams run downward to it. Thus, it has, as its place, to be beneath them. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. And, just in case you wondered what Lao Tzu means by humility, he tells us. Humility means trusting the Tao. And that means, never needing to be defensive.

This is one lesson that the powers that be never seem to learn. Whether we are talking of a great nation or a great leader, the metaphor is an apt one. The greater your power, the greater is your need to practice humility, to trust the Tao. There is simply no other way to exercise the virtue of self-restraint when governing. The sea knows its place. And we need to know our place, as well.

It is folly that causes great nations to forget their humble beginnings. And it is even greater folly, when they refuse to stay humble. History is replete with examples of great nations that are no more. And each example has the same common theme. They allowed the will to power to be in charge. They didn’t remain humble. Instead, full of pride they brought about their own destruction.

But today’s chapter isn’t about countries, or nations, really. It is about their leaders. Lao Tzu is on the lookout for great leaders. The kind that realize when they have made a mistake. And having realized it, set about to correct it.

These great leaders surround themselves with those that will point out their faults. They consider them, their most benevolent teachers. Leaders, such as these, look on their own shadows as marking the man or woman who is their greatest enemy.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu told would-be leaders to center their country in the Tao. I said then, that the way to center your country in the Tao is to first learn to follow the Tao, and then be content to serve as an example of that to the people you are governing. Today, he tells us what centering our country in the Tao means.

Consider this, the litmus test. A nation that is centered in the Tao nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others. It reminds me of our quest to find evil and do battle with it. We talked about that yesterday. We need leaders that will practice self-restraint. Those that will trust the Tao. Don’t be poking at that fish. Stop meddling in others’ affairs. Take care of your own people. That is what a country centered in the Tao acts like.

Why is this so hard? Why, when the great way is so easy, do we prefer the side paths? Pride is so much more to our liking than humility. The corrupting influence of power is so very tempting. So we meddle where we have no business. And our own people suffer.

It is so very different from the lowly position of the sea. And consider this, the sea will long remain after great civilizations have brought about their own demise. How sad, when those great nations could have been a light to all nations of the world.

 

Leave That Fish Alone!

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today is Day Four on the art of governing. It is a manual, of sorts, for would-be leaders. Three days ago, Lao Tzu began, by saying, to be a great leader you must first learn to follow the Tao. Two days ago, he talked about the dangers of the will to power. Yesterday, we talked about the opposite of the will to power, the virtue of moderation. This is the practice of self-restraint when governing. Self-restraint is the highest virtue, when it comes to governing, because the will to power is so very strong, and very hard to resist. Lao Tzu has insisted, all along, that left alone, the world can govern itself. But few are they, that will let that happen. In today’s chapter, we are going to talk about the greatest excuse that anyone will ever give for meddling, for interfering, for trying to control. It is the ever-present problem of evil.

As he often does, Lao Tzu begins with a metaphor. Who, but Lao Tzu, would be able to find a lesson to teach, while frying a small fish? He is very adept at coming up with images, with which his readers would be familiar, to teach a valuable lesson. And anyone who has ever fried a small fish understands, immediately, what Lao Tzu means. I know just how tempting it is to start poking at that fish. It is hard to show restraint. And Lao Tzu says that governing a large country is just like that. You spoil it with too much poking. Just like frying a small fish, governing is an art. You must be constantly on guard against the temptation to poke, to interfere, to do something. The will to power is always rearing its ugly head. Remember, when the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Nowhere is this more acutely seen than with our attempts to deal with the problem of evil. It seems to me that all of recorded history has been one long war between good and evil. And, as if our history wasn’t enough, our favorite books and movies always have as their plot, some great battle between good and evil; where the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of evil, until good triumphs, in dramatic fashion, in the end. We have been conditioned to believe that evil is something we have to do battle with; and, the only way to do battle with it, is to face it head on.

Needless to say, but after all that conditioning, what Lao Tzu has to say, seems hopelessly naive. And most people are going to dismiss it, without giving it much thought. I hope my readers are not most people.

What are Lao Tzu’s instructions? Remember, Lao Tzu is talking to would-be leaders. He tells us to center our country in the Tao. Don’t forget everything that Lao Tzu has said before to us would-be leaders. Our first instruction was to learn to follow the Tao. Okay, I understand the need to follow the Tao; but how do I center my country in the Tao? What else has Lao Tzu said? You can’t make people do what you want. No matter how good you think it will be for them. Instead, you must be content to serve as an example. First, learn how to follow the Tao. Then, demonstrate this for all the people you are governing. That is what Lao Tzu means by centering your country in the Tao.

This is going to take the utmost restraint. Why? Because, when it comes to evil, every fiber of your being is going to be screaming out for you to do something. And then there is the great mass of people who are scared, and are screaming at you to do something. The will to power is very devious. It will use anything and anyone to be in charge. There will be those who will see this as an opportunity. If we can make people afraid, we can manipulate them. They will be like putty in our hands. When I survey recorded history, I see a lot of this fear-mongering and manipulation of people. It has become more acute in the 21st century. But I think that is only because our modern technology allows us immediate access to the manipulation techniques.

But what is centering our country in the Tao going to do about the problem of evil? It won’t be facing it head on. It won’t be doing battle with it, at all. Instead, Lao Tzu insists, we can render it powerless, simply by giving it nothing to oppose. Evil will still be there. And that means we will need to be ever vigilant to restrain ourselves. But if we are centered in the Tao, if we give evil nothing to oppose, we will be able to step around it, and out of its way. If we continue this course of action, evil will disappear all by itself.

Naive? I understand why you think that. Most people don’t have the patience to restrain themselves until they get the results Lao Tzu promises. Too many people see a way to profit from doing battle with evil. And I am certain that some of you are thinking that this sounds strangely like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. We are all familiar with the adage, “Chamberlain took a weekend in the country, while Hitler took a country in a weekend.”

And I understand this concern, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be addressing it. But, did Neville Chamberlain have his country centered in the Tao? If not, then his appeasement of Hitler wasn’t the same as what Lao Tzu is talking about. We seldom seem to learn the lessons from history; which is why, I am afraid, we are forever doomed to repeat them. But Hitler’s rise to power was a direct result of the disastrous post-World War I policies that brought Germany to its knees. I like to play the “what if” game with history sometimes. And my favorite “what if” in history concerns the so-called “War to End All Wars” that would be better labeled “The War to Begin All Wars.” What if the United States had not been lied and swindled into getting involved? What if the other side had won? What if? In my “what if” scenarios I can’t fathom a Hitler rising to power. But then again, I can’t see us dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either. I like my alternative universe’s history. If physicists are right about there being as many universes as there are individual choices, I know there is a universe where evil is still there, but I can step around it, and out of its way.

But I don’t live in that alternative universe. And I am really happy to live in the one that I do. Because Lao Tzu’s words are still true about our Universe. If, would-be leaders will show the restraint to not poke at evil.

The Virtue Of Moderation

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 59, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are on Day Three of Lao Tzu’s instructions on the art of governing. Two days ago, Lao Tzu started us out by saying, if you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Yesterday, we covered the problems that result when the will to power is in charge. Today, Lao Tzu tells us that for governing a country well there is nothing better than moderation.

Moderation is an often misunderstood concept; so, I think it would be good for us to start out by understanding exactly what Lao Tzu means by the term. Is moderation merely an avoidance of extremes. Or, is there a deeper meaning. Over the years, I have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the word. And, to an extent I blame Barry Goldwater for that.

Many of my readers are too young to remember that in 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for U.S. President. I was only a babe in arms at the time. But, many of my readers are familiar with the old Barry Goldwater quote, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It helps to understand that candidate Goldwater was labeled an “extremist” by those that opposed him. “Barry Loves Bombs” was a prominent campaign sign of the time. A still relatively young television audience got to see political commercials featuring atomic bomb explosions with the message that, if elected, Goldwater was going to bomb the living daylights out of Vietnam. Of course, Goldwater lost the election. Johnson was elected. And I will leave to my readers to decide whether Vietnam was spared. But getting back to the quote, maybe extremism isn’t so bad and moderation isn’t so good.

And then there are the so-called moderates in Washington D.C.. Are they an example of the kind of moderation that Lao Tzu is extolling? Far from it, they merely know where the true power in Washington resides. In the middle. And they capitalize on that. Their will to power is very much in charge.

Those were two examples of why I sometimes hate the word moderation. But I also love it. It has been my daily practice for a number of years now. And now, I can explain what Lao Tzu means by the term. I consulted various translations of the text. And I also try to always keep in mind context when interpreting what Lao Tzu is saying. Lao Tzu may spring new words on us, but he always does so, while saying the same things over and over again. And I decided that moderation isn’t so much the avoidance of extremes as it is the practice of self-restraint.

We talked yesterday about what happens when the will to power is in charge. Moderation is the opposite of the will to power: Self-restraint, self-control. I don’t think Barry Goldwater would have a problem with my definition. Though he might add that it isn’t the moderation he was talking about. He might even go so far as to agree that the kind of moderation I am describing is, in fact, a virtue. Lao Tzu certainly considered it a virtue in the art of governing. He said, there is nothing better.

So, setting aside the idea of avoidance of extremes, and focusing on the self-restraint aspects, lets take a look at what Lao Tzu points out as the mark of a moderate person.

It is freedom from their own ideas. Freedom doesn’t mean they don’t have any of their own ideas. They likely have plenty of ideas. And many of them actually good ones. But they aren’t enslaved by their own ideas. Freedom means they practice self-restraint, self-control. They understand that they can’t force issues or try to control outcomes. They understand that trying to make people happy will only make them miserable. That trying to make people moral will only increase vice.

This practice of self-restraint allows them to be tolerant like the sky. We talked about that word, tolerance, yesterday. If a country is governed with tolerance the people will be comfortable and honest. Notice how Lao Tzu invokes images from nature to make his point about the person who is free from his own ideas. Tolerant like the sky. All-pervading like sunlight. Firm like a mountain. Supple like a tree in the wind. The reason, I think, Lao Tzu uses these nature metaphors is because this is the perfectly natural way to be, to act, to govern. Freedom, moderation, is following the Tao. The moderate person is both firm and supple. To be one without the other might have you crumbling; or being blown about every which way. A mountain is firm; but it can be moved. And, that tree may bend; but it is rooted.

Moderate persons, having freedom from their own ideas, have no destination in view. This one has long given me trouble. They have no destination in view? How are they going to know when they get there, if they don’t know where they are going? But this is describing a kind of freedom that I cannot quite wrap my mind around. I finally came to a place where I just gave up trying to wrap my mind around it. I just decided to go with it. I took control of my own wayward mind. I calmed my mind. And let go of all the desires of my heart. And merely live each day, making use of anything life happens to bring my way. What is my destination? Beyond my lone expectation that I will return to the Source, I don’t know; and I really don’t care.

I really can’t begin to explain in words what this kind of freedom means. Lao Tzu explains it by saying, nothing is impossible for them. To let go. To really let go of the need to be in control. To let go of any desire to force things. When it comes to the art of governing, this freedom means that now you can care for the people’s welfare. Just like a mother cares for her children. That is the kind of power that puts the will to power to shame. For this moderation, this freedom, this disinterest, gets results.

When The Will To Power Is In Charge…

If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are depressed and crafty.

When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.

Thus the Master is content
to serve as an example
and not to impose her will.
She is pointed, but doesn’t pierce.
Straightforward, but supple.
Radiant, but easy on the eyes.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 58, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we began a series of chapters which deal with how to properly govern. I said it is a manual for would-be leaders. I think it is important to understand that governing is an art. And, it is a very different thing from ruling. People sometimes think that libertarians, in general, and more specifically, anarchists, don’t want any governments. I don’t purport to speak for all libertarians or anarchists; but I think it would be wrong to say that is really what we are about. We are opposed to rulers. But there are acceptable ways to govern, which have nothing to do with ruling. I don’t know of anyone that is opposed to self-government. And I would support any government that has the unanimous consent of the governed.

Yesterday, we began talking about how be a great leader. You must first learn to follow the Tao. That means stop trying to control; and, let go of fixed plans and concepts. Lao Tzu said something in yesterday’s chapter which is really the key to everything: The world is fully capable of governing itself.

That may be shocking to some of my readers. Though it shouldn’t be. When you learn to follow the Tao, you will soon find out that the Universe, which is forever out of control, is also governed by, well, universal laws. As you figure this out, you are faced with a choice. You always have a choice. You can either work with, or against, nature. You can either go with the flow; or, try to swim against the current of the Tao. Lao Tzu wants us to have a life of ease. And that life of ease happens when we are going with the flow.

Today, we continue this manual on the art of governing. And the first thing we must understand is the importance of following the Tao. What does it mean to follow the Tao? It means understanding the way things are is the way things are. I know that requires further explanation. I said, earlier, that the Universe is governed by laws. We need to understand how those laws operate. Lao Tzu explains that in today’s chapter.

Here is the first one. If a country is governed with tolerance, the people are comfortable and honest. Before you allow doubt about this truth to creep into your mind, consider the opposite truth. If a country is governed with repression, the people are depressed and crafty. Is it really that simple? A choice between tolerance and repression? I believe it really is that simple. The difference between tolerance and repression is the difference between people being comfortable and honest, and people being depressed and crafty. If you want to judge a government, you need look no further than the people who are being governed. The more tolerant a government is, the more comfortable and honest the people are. The more repressive a government is, the more depressed and crafty the people are. You can doubt this if you like, but it is a universal truth.

And, since I don’t think any leaders really want the people, they are leading, to be depressed and crafty, it would seem that all leaders would choose tolerance over repression. Ah, if only it were that simple. But there is one problem. That would be the will to power. This is where Lao Tzu shares with us another universal law. When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Watch how this plays out. Would-be leaders, take note. You want happy people, right? But what happens when you try to make people happy? How I wish our leaders could be content to simply let people be happy. But that will to power is in charge; and that means trying to control. That means using force. That means attempting to make people happy. And the end result is that you have laid the groundwork for misery. You wanted happiness you sowed the seeds of misery.

The same is true when you try to make people moral. For leaders want virtuous people, too. And when the will to power is in charge, trying to make people moral, lays the groundwork for vice. The higher the ideals, the lower the results. You often achieve just the opposite of what you set out to achieve. You are free to doubt this universal law, as well. But it is still a universal truth.

The problem is the will to power. We really can’t let it be in charge. That is why it is that the Master is content to serve as an example. That is what great leaders do. They don’t impose their will. They govern with tolerance. Letting the people be free to pursue their own happiness.

This is today’s lesson for would-be leaders. You can be pointed without piercing. You can be straightforward, while still being supple. You can be radiant, yet easy on the eyes. Practice tolerance. And when the will to power rears its ugly head, lop it off.

If You Want To Be A Great Leader…

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 57, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We now arrive at a series of chapters which will deal with how to properly govern. It is a manual for would-be leaders. I sometimes think our rulers have taken a page out of Lao Tzu’s book on the art of living, and decided to do just the opposite of what he tells them to do. For me, from the moment I first encountered this chapter, and the ones that follow, it just made perfect sense to me, intuitively. I understand that it defies conventional wisdom. But I also understand that it is conventional wisdom that has gotten us in the mess we find ourselves in. If only, I find myself muttering to myself repeatedly, if only powerful men and women would follow Lao Tzu’s sage advice.

For Lao Tzu, has just the perfect prescription. If you want to be a great leader, you must first learn to follow. Humble yourself. You don’t know all that you think you know. You only think you know. Spend some time in the low places. Get acquainted with the way things actually are. Then you can understand better, how you might be able to lead. Learning to follow the Tao means we stop trying to control. And, learning to follow the Tao means letting go of fixed plans and concepts.

If would-be leaders would do these two things – stop trying to control, and let go of fixed plans and concepts – the world would govern itself. The rest of the chapter is where Lao Tzu breaks down these two things to properly explains them for us.

We will start by taking a look at our control issues. What are the three ways that the ruling elite tries to control us? First, they try to control us through a multitude of prohibitions. Second, they try to control us with weapons. Third, they try to control us through subsidies.

Who can begin to number the prohibitions that have been put in place to try and control us? The number seems to grow exponentially with each succeeding administration. I can’t speak for those of you that live outside the United States, though I suspect things are quite the same. But, here in the United States, where we are told we are free, I have heard it said that the average person commits felonies on a pretty regular basis, in complete ignorance of that fact. There are so many prohibitions on the books, we can’t possibly know them all, let alone keep from violating a good number of them. If the goal of all these prohibitions, whether stated or unstated, is to make of us a virtuous people, Lao Tzu has news, which isn’t really news to anyone with a lick of sense. Far from making us virtuous, the result is to make us less virtuous. Most of us are now felons, whether we know it, or not. Which might explain the reason the powers that be want to eavesdrop on every word we speak and every move we make. As if our prisons aren’t already overcrowded. But the prison industry is big business. There is lots of money to be made in locking up non-violent offenders.

Then there are the weapons arrayed against us. Oh, they don’t tell us those weapons are meant to control us. They are meant to defend us. I am talking about our armed forces and our police state. Plenty of people continue to believe the lie. We are supposed to honor our men and women in uniform who are “defending our freedoms.” And, everyone who has ever had a run-in with police, must have done something bad. Of course we have. We commit x number of felonies all the time. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. We really need to be controlled. Now, let me ask just one question. Why do you feel less and less secure with each passing day?

And, there are the many subsidies they use to control us. As if the first two weren’t insidious enough. The purpose of subsidies, which will never be admitted by the powers that be, is to render the recipients of said subsidies, dependent on the giver. That, and the reality that subsidies to corporations favor some over others, creating monopolies, and limiting consumers’ freedom to choose alternatives. I simply cannot believe that anyone in government can be so ignorant as to not understand exactly what they are doing. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. But that is just the point. Like I said, it is insidious. They don’t want self-reliant people. They don’t want people to feel secure. They don’t want virtuous people. They want people dependent on them. They want us scared. They want us compliant.

A great leader would learn to follow the Tao. They would stop trying to control. And they would let go of fixed plans and concepts. Those fixed plans and concepts are merely their designs for controlling the population. Let’s take a look at them, one by one.

First, there is the law. Lao Tzu tells us the Master says, I let go of the law, and people become honest. Is Lao Tzu promoting lawlessness? Is that what letting go of the law, means? It isn’t lawlessness that Lao Tzu is promoting. It is simply understanding the way things are. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. That is the corollary. That is the way things are. Likewise, by letting go of the law, by letting go of law as a fixed plan or concept, people become honest.

Second, the Master says, I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. If you want to get under my skin tell me that our current economic system is a free market. Or, better yet, tell me that a free market would be a terrible thing. There have been times in my nation’s history where the markets were more free than they are today, but there never has been a time when the market was truly free of government intrusion. And it has always been captains of industry that were seeking favors from the government to get the government to meddle in the market. Our current economic system is some monstrous blending of capitalism and socialism, and it wouldn’t be fair to either one of them to straight out call it one or the other. It is a Chimera. Everything that is bad about it is always blamed on either capitalism or socialism but never the fact that both of them have been blended into one unholy and unnatural union. But I wouldn’t be pleased, even if it could truly be called one or the other. If I wanted to be gracious I would say that powerful men and women simply don’t understand that economics, as a fixed plan and concept, is not something they have any business meddling in. The only way for all people, rather than just some people, to become prosperous is to let go of the need to try and control people through economic means.

Third, the Master says, I let go of religion and people become serene. Serenity. That is the stated purpose of religion, I believe. I am not going to bad mouth any religions, here. I think they do enough damage to themselves, all by themselves. But letting go of religion doesn’t mean being irreligious, so much as it means being free from religion as a fixed plan and concept designed to control the masses. You are free to worship or not worship whoever or whatever you wish. You are free to abide by or not abide by whatever doctrine you wish. But you are not free to force others to abide by the dictates of your religion. Let go of your need to control; and all will become serene.

Finally, the Master says, I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes as common as grass. This is the one that always trips us up. Every new piece of legislation is always trumpeted as being for the common good. Or, one of my favorites, “it’s for the children.” You would think, as desirous as we all say that we are for the common good, that the common good would already be quite common. But the problem lies in desire. And meddling. In trying to control. In trying to make people virtuous. In fixed plans and concepts. The world can actually govern itself, if we would just let it, if we let go of our desire.

We need to understand how the Universe actually operates. We need to learn to follow the Tao. All our efforts to get what we want by means at odds with the Tao are doomed to end in failure. Would-be leaders, take note.

Look Who’s Talking (And Who Isn’t)

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.

Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 56, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used one of his favorite metaphors for being in harmony with the Tao. He challenged us to be like a newborn child; saying that the Master’s power is like the power of a newborn. It is the power you have when you have tapped into your primal identity. Lest anyone be confused on this point, Lao Tzu wasn’t expecting us to re-enter our mother’s womb and be reborn, in order to become a newborn again. He merely listed a few attributes that a newborn has. Attributes which show that a newborn is in perfect harmony with the Tao. And told us that we need to be like that.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explains to us how to return to our primal identity without having to become a newborn child, again. And his first instruction sounds a lot like, “Sit down and shut up.” It is interesting to me that the more people have to say on any given subject, the more they reveal, not their knowledge on the matter, but their ignorance. While those that know, know better than to talk.

There is a lot we can learn from newborns. They don’t even have the ability to speak. But, I spent enough time with newborns to gaze into their eyes and see a wealth of wisdom hidden somewhere behind them. “What do you know, little one?” But they weren’t talking. I don’t think we quite appreciate newborns enough. Certainly they are wholly dependent on someone to take care of them, but they do seem to have the kind of power to make us want to do just that. At the same time, instead of appreciating them for what they are, we spend the majority of their early development trying to get them to a point where they can walk and talk. And then, when we finally have our own little walkie talkie bounding every which way, we just want them to sit down and shut up.

Sit down and shut up seems fair enough advice for us. If, that is, we want to return to our primal identity. And while we are at it, don’t just close your mouth, block off all your senses. None of a newborn’s senses are that developed, yet. Blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. What is Lao Tzu saying? I think he is talking about all the excess baggage we manage to pick up as we go throughout our lives. There are so many things we have learned. And so many that we would do well to unlearn. Our lives have become a frenzy of activity. Can we be still until our dust settles? Because it will take that, to return to our primal identity.

What is this primal identity? It is to be like the Tao. Since we were newborns, we have become less and less like the Tao. We have lost touch with our true selves. That sharpness which we have gained, the knots we have tied, our hardened glare, all have served to distance ourselves from everyone around us. We have become like an island. One that we think can’t be approached or withdrawn from, benefited or harmed, honored or brought into disgrace. But that isolation isn’t what the Tao is all about. That shell we have built is a tomb. Inside it, our spirit grows older and older.

The Tao truly can’t be approached or withdrawn from, benefited or harmed, honored or brought into disgrace. But this isn’t an expression of isolation from everyone and everything in the Universe. This is an expression of oneness. Of unity. Of harmony.

We built our shell, our prison, out of fear. The reason that the Tao cannot be approached or withdrawn from is because it already contains everything within it. It can’t be benefited or harmed because it already is everything and can lose nothing. The reason it can’t be honored or brought into disgrace is because it can’t have anything more than what it already has. It gives itself up continually, yet, it never is less than what it always has been. That is why it endures.

We need to be like the Tao. And that means, letting the Tao be what it is in us. While you are still a prisoner in that shell you have built around you, look within yourself and find the Tao, just where it always has been. Let the Tao mold and shape you into whatever the Tao wants you to be. You have to be willing to give yourself up continually. You’ll find that outer shell will be gone, and you will once again sense your connectedness to everyone and everything around you. Then you will be like the Tao, again.

The Power Of A Newborn, The Power of One

He who is in harmony with the Tao
is like a newborn child.
Its bones are soft, its muscles are weak,
but its grip is powerful.
It doesn’t know about the union
of male and female,
yet its penis can stand erect,
so intense is its vital power.
It can scream its head off all day,
yet it never becomes hoarse,
so complete is its harmony.

The Master’s power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
thus his spirit never grows old.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 55, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, I encouraged you to lend your voices to the chorus of all beings in the Universe; until the Universe is singing in perfect harmony. It was about how we, as individuals, have the power to let the Tao be present in our lives, in our families, in our neighborhoods, communities, and countries; indeed, in the whole Universe. We have that kind of power. In fact, I am convinced it is only us, individuals, that have that kind of power. If we will just let it happen, we can be in harmony with the Tao.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues talking about the kind of power that being in harmony with the Tao wields. He begins with another of his favorite metaphors. When he isn’t telling us to be like water, he tells us to be like a newborn child. Both are apt metaphors for being in harmony with the Tao. Their strength is in their weakness. When Lao Tzu talks about water, he often mentions its humility; and, how it yields. Water is a good metaphor for how to be like. But I think Lao Tzu points at newborns because he wants to give us something human to relate to.

We cannot remember being a newborn child; but, we all started out as one. And, the vast majority of us will encounter newborn children again and again throughout our lives. Whenever I have been with a newborn child, I could not help but think about how we all began. That is our primal identity. In perfect harmony with the Tao.

But, just in case you doubt this, Lao Tzu explains how it is that a newborn child expresses complete harmony with the Tao. Anyone who has been in the position of caregiver for a newborn can attest to this. I had two children of my own. I certainly remember. Their bones are soft, their muscles are weak; but check out how powerful their grip is. While they know nothing about the union of male and female, that penis stands erect; a sign of the intensity of their vital power. They can scream their little heads off all day (and all night); yet, they never do become hoarse. That, Lao Tzu insists, points out how perfectly complete is their harmony with the Tao.

When Lao Tzu says that the Master’s power is like this, he is saying this is what your power is like; if you will let it be. It is the power to let all things come and go effortlessly, without desire. Not interfering, not striving, not trying to hold on to something that is fleeting, not trying to reach out for something that isn’t yours. That is power, my friends. Real power. It is the power to act without expectations. And, because your life is free of expectations, it is also free of disappointments. And, when you are never disappointed, your spirit will never grow old.

We have been conditioned to believe that true power is the power to take what you want, when you want. But everyone that has ever wielded that kind of power has had their spirit grow old, wither, and die. Lao Tzu sees a much greater power at work in the newborn child. The power to be at one with the whole Universe. The power of being in perfect harmony with the Tao. The spirit of a newborn never grows old.

It isn’t the kind of power that is craved. Craving is the antithesis to this kind of power. And, so-called powerful men and women want nothing of it. I think they actually fear it. But then, the kind of power they desire is something they never can have enough of. And, we have it, inside of us, each and every one of us that have ever been newborns. If we will only look inside ourselves for it. I hear all the time that there is strength in numbers. And, I suppose that is true to a point. But the power of a newborn is the power of one. And that is the greatest power, right there.

Forget The Fat Lady, It Won’t Be Over Til The Universe Sings

Whoever is planted in the Tao
will not be rooted up.
Whoever embraces the Tao
will not slip away.
Her name will be held in honor
from generation to generation.

Let the Tao be present in your life
and you will become genuine.
Let it be present in your family
and your family will flourish.
Let it be present in your country
and your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
Let it be present in the Universe
and the Universe will sing.

How do I know this is true?
By looking inside myself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 54, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu’s emphasis was on being aware when things are out of balance. The result, when things are out of balance, is robbery and chaos. We spent a great deal of our time, yesterday, talking about the signs that things are out of balance. How better to be aware that they are! But Lao Tzu also told us what to do, when we perceive that things are out of balance. That is, stay centered in the Tao. Yes, people prefer the side paths; but the great way is easy.

One of the things that endeared me to Lao Tzu’s teachings is that he wasn’t expecting great things from our ruling elite, the so-called powerful men and women. The signs that things are out of balance are catastrophic for our whole planet; and it might cause us little people to dismay. But Lao Tzu has encouraging news for us individuals. If we can see through the darkness, if we can see through all fear, we can stay centered in the Tao. And that means we can flourish in the midst of all the trouble.

Individuals are the ones who have access to the real power. The solutions to the problems we face are not top-down solutions, they are bottom-up solutions. People like to point at societal problems and propose societal solutions. But those never do anything but work against the Tao. The Tao doesn’t do things on a grand scale. It focuses on much smaller tasks. It is individuals that make a difference. If we want to see things get back into balance, it starts with you and me, being centered, rooted, in the Tao. That is the focus of today’s chapter.

When you are planted in the Tao, you will not be rooted up. When you embrace the Tao, you will not slip away. It will be your name that will be held in honor from generation to generation. I have never given a lot of thought to having my name held in honor from generation to generation. But it sure beats having it held in shame. There have been plenty of people in history that are notorious. But being notorious isn’t the same as having your name held in honor.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. I think the best way to have a positive impact on future generations is to be mindful of the impact you are having on the present one. And that begins with letting the Tao be present in your life. There is that word, letting, again. I may be sounding like a broken record; but, I just have to keep reminding you. You don’t have to let the Tao be present in your life. You can keep right on preferring the side paths. I just wish you could see how easy the great way is. How much better it would be for you, if you would just let the Tao be present in your life.

When you let the Tao be present in your life, you will become genuine. What is Lao Tzu saying? That we haven’t been genuine, all along? That is right. All beings, including us human beings, are expressions of the Tao. It is in our very nature to love and honor the Tao. It is only when we let the Tao be present in our lives, that we are being true to our nature. It is then, that we are at last genuine, real, expressions of the Tao.

I said earlier that all the problems that we see in the world, the signs that things are out of balance, are not crying out for top-down solutions; they require bottom-up solutions. The solution is for individuals, like you, like me, to center ourselves in the Tao, to be rooted, to be grounded, to let the Tao be present in our lives. That is where it begins.

It is the only way for it to begin. But, if we will let that happen, it won’t end there. For, being centered in the Tao means we are working with the Tao; and, the Tao is working within each one of us. Now, we can begin to let the Tao be present in our families. It is a modest step. But let’s not despise small beginnings. Once our families are flourishing, things will really start to take off.

It may seem a giant leap to let it be present in your country. I understand. Letting it be present in your family might not seem so small a step now. But let’s just take small steps. Try letting it be present in your neighborhood, your community. Small steps, maybe, but they are getting bigger, with each step we are taking. You can let it be present in your country; and, your country can be an example to all countries in the world.

Yes, I know what a giant leap that is. But concentrate on those little steps first. Always break down those giant tasks into smaller ones. Let the Tao be present in your life. Then, in your family. Then in your neighborhood. Then in your community. Each of these can be an example to all others. It will spread. Until it affects the whole country. And then the world.

Lao Tzu has even bigger aspirations. He envisions letting it be present in the Universe. But don’t get dismayed by the great task. Just start with your own voice. Start singing. Other voices will be added, one by one. Before it is all said and done, the whole Universe will be singing, in perfect harmony.

I love how Lao Tzu ends today’s chapter. “How do I know this is true?” It is a reasonable question. And the answer is the key to everything. It all starts by looking inside myself.