A Very Present Fear

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu assured us that the Tao is the ultimate safety net. It doesn’t let a thing slip through. Any failures on our own part are never the final word. When we fail, the Tao is always there to catch us. Today, he goes further, explaining exactly what it is that holds us back from being happy, content.

If I have said it once I have said it a hundred times, there is a world of difference between simply knowing something (that is, giving mental assent to it), and actually realizing the truth of it. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t say that they know that all things change. But just what difference does that make in their lives? When we live out our lives as if things are always going to remain the same, we haven’t yet realized that all things change. And, because we are expecting, or counting on things remaining the same, we will hold onto things, no matter how fleeting they may be.

How can we come to realize? That is a most important thing. And, thankfully, Lao Tzu has covered it many times before. First, know that you don’t know. As long as we insist that we know, we will never come to realize. Practice not-knowing, that is true knowledge. Presumption is a disease, remember. We need to be healed of all knowing in order to realize truths that will make a real and lasting difference in how we live our lives.

It is a matter of living in this present moment. We may be living in the past. Resting on our laurels, our vast accumulation of knowledge. Or, we may be dogged by our past. The shadow of our failures may loom large. But we can’t let the past hold us back from living in this present moment. Let it go!

Then again, we may be so focused on tomorrow, its hopes, its fears, that we won’t allow ourselves to live in this present moment. How often do we postpone happiness to some future time? Once I get more money, or more of this or that, then I can be happy. But not now. It must wait. And, as each precious present moment goes by without us enjoying even one of them, we are always dogged by our fear of death.

And, let’s be clear here, this isn’t a fear of dying in the future. We all know that we are going to die in the future. And we’re okay with that. As long as death is something in the future, what is there to fear? What really worries us, however, is that we are going to die much sooner than some future time. Death in the present moment, that is what we are afraid of. I will put off happiness until some future time, because I am scared I will die today.

You may think that is nonsense. If I really feared I was going to die today, wouldn’t I make the most of today? No, you aren’t quite understanding. For those dogged by this fear, it is too late. Today, we are going to die. Yesterday, I could have accomplished so much. Or tomorrow, if I were to live to see it. But today? No, it is too late. The fear of dying is what is holding us back from living in this present moment. But, if we could just let go of that fear, then there would be nothing we couldn’t achieve. That is Lao Tzu’s promise for today.

That we can’t control the future is another one of those things we really must come to realize. Merely giving mental assent to that truth is never going to be enough. For as long as we try to control the future, for isn’t that what we are doing when we postpone really living until some future time, is like trying to take the place of a master carpenter. There is Lao Tzu’s metaphor of the day. Don’t be messing around with those tools. You will only end up cutting your hand.

A Safety Net Like No Other

The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 73, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is one that comforts me. Why? Because Lao Tzu puts me at ease by telling me how the Tao is always at ease. He begins sort of cryptically. Overcoming without competing, answering without speaking a word, arriving without being summoned, accomplishing without a plan. All that really means is that harmony with the Tao isn’t some hard thing. The doing without doing, knowing not-knowing, not-competing competing. It is all child’s play, really. The Tao inside of me does everything; all I have to do is go along for the ride. Just let it happen.

And when I fail? Because, you know, I often do. The Tao is like a safety net for me. Its net covers the whole universe.

I was thinking of this earlier this week when I was listening to a story on NPR about how they had interviewed both democrats and republicans and got “shocking” results. Well, it was shocking for the NPR hosts. They had asked about how people felt about the social safety net that the government provides. Like unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing, health care, you know things like that. And they were stunned that there weren’t any real differences of opinions on the social safety net between those who identified as democrats and those who identified as republicans. It was like you couldn’t tell any difference in the way they felt about these things. They both wholeheartedly wanted the government in the business of providing that social safety net, just because people sometimes get into trouble, and it should be the government’s responsibility to take care of them. I didn’t find this news shocking, at all. But it is rather sad. No surprises, here, folks. If you are looking for real differences between the two parties, they are hard to find. That might be shocking to NPR, but it isn’t to me. Where are the people who will say, “There are other ways to help out people.” We used to take care of each other quite well, without the government’s “help”. Too bad that has long been forgotten. Now, people think they are being helpful by referring people to their local government agency. We have completely acquiesced our own human responsibilities to our fellow human beings. “What? I give plenty in taxes. That is what the government is there for.” Or, “I give to my church or other charity. Let them help.” Either way, people are encouraged to look outside themselves for answers. I can’t wait to get the messages of hate saying I don’t care about people going hungry. Or being homeless. Or being without medical care. Or whatever. But I didn’t say any of those things. All I am saying is that we used to live together in community with each other. We shared each others’ burdens. We helped each other out. It was a very personal responsibility. Now it has been outsourced. All individual responsibility has been eliminated. I don’t owe you anything. What’s that you say, “You are a fellow human being?” So what? Your problems are yours, not mine. And even while insisting that those that are down and out look elsewhere for help, we all know that those outside sources of help are horribly inefficient and just plain bad about letting people slip through the cracks.

Perhaps, you think this is a strange way to be approaching the Tao’s safety net. But I can’t help myself. Its meshes may be wide, but, unlike those outside sources of help, it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

When It Is Time To Take A Step Back

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend upon authority.

Therefore the Master steps back
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 72, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, let’s take a step back. Yesterday, you will remember, we talked about the importance of healing ourselves of all knowing. Presuming we know is a disease. True knowledge is knowing not-knowing. That is what it means to be whole. But, today, we need to take a step back. Why? Because it is easy to get confused, right here.

After going on and on about how we shouldn’t rely on our own cleverness, it is easy to assume that we really can’t trust ourselves. And once we start down that road, we may start to seek out some outside authority, someone we hope we can depend on.

Because that is not what Lao Tzu is about, he decides it is time to take a step back, with today’s chapter. Knowing not-knowing should place us in a state of awe. Just like little children, who are so full of questions, because they know that they don’t know; and so, have an endless series of questions in their pursuit of knowledge. They are in a constant state of awe. Always seeing things like it was the first time.

Awe is a good thing. Being “lost” in the wonders of the Tao, is exactly the place you want to be. It is being in harmony with the Tao. And being in harmony with the Tao means that all your actions are effortless, intuitively flowing from the core of your being. There is no need to think about them. Your body doesn’t offer any resistances. You just go with the flow.

But what happens when we lose that sense of connection with the Tao? Confusion happens. Not immediately, because for awhile we are able to continue out of habit. But little by little, our minds start butting in, our bodies start to resist. Things that once flowed so easily, just don’t anymore. And, we start seeking out substitutes for our missing connection with the Tao.

That is what Lao Tzu is talking about when he talks about people losing their sense of awe and turning to religion. We are not bashing religion, here. Just pointing out that religion is one thing that people turn to, when they are looking for answers. We start looking outside ourselves for the answers, because we no longer believe we can trust ourselves. We start to depend on some outside authority. Maybe it is religion. Maybe it is the State.

The Master knows it is time to take a step back. Because this state of confusion is not going to end well. As you rely more and more on something outside of yourself, you will rely less on yourself. That only takes you further away from the Source, the Tao inside of you.

The Master serves as our example. He teaches without teaching, so people won’t have anything new to learn. Just by taking a step back, he is teaching us. Following that example we will see what we have always been. Remember, he says, remember. Go back to that.

Not Nearly As Clever As I Think I Am, Still Too Clever For My Own Good

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 71, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu addressed what I think is the greatest difficulty we have with understanding and putting his teachings into practice. It is that we rely on our intellect to grasp what he means, and then try to do what he teaches. We spent most of our time, yesterday, talking about the practice of not-doing. We are human beings, not human doings, after all. If you want to practice Lao Tzu’s teachings, your focus should be on being, not doing. Today, Lao Tzu explains why it is our intellect only gets in the way of our understanding. We need to know not-knowing in order to understand his teachings.

Today, Lao Tzu talks about what counts as true knowledge; and, what is only a counterfeit of the truth. So much of the time, I think Lao Tzu is misinterpreted as being anti-knowledge and anti-education, when what he has always only been is anti-presumption. He insists that our cleverness is nothing more than presumption. When he tells us that in the pursuit of knowledge every day something must be added, he is only warning us that there is no end to that pursuit. You will never know everything there is to know. It is a fool’s errand, if, you are relying on your own accumulated cleverness to increase your understanding of the way things are. Our knowledge of science has greatly expanded since Lao Tzu’s day, we “know” so much more than we did before. And yet, I just imagine Lao Tzu saying the same thing to us today about our presumed knowledge.

It is a disease. The more you know, the less you understand. If you want to truly know, to truly understand, you need to know not-knowing. Not-knowing, knowing that you don’t know, is true knowledge. Why? Because you can’t begin to move toward health until you first realize you are sick. That is what not-knowing is. The realization that you are afflicted with the disease of presumption. As far as diseases go, I think this is a lot like the disease of consumption.

Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) got its name because it seemed to consume the body of the afflicted. With presumption the effects are on the mind. The more you think you know the worse the affliction. Interestingly, I read that Hippocrates, the “father of western medicine”, advised his students not to attempt treating those afflicted in the final stages of consumption because they were only going to die anyway, and it would ruin his students’ reputations as healers.

No wonder the Master chose to be her own physician! You can be your own physician, too! At least with regards to presumption. It only begins with realizing you are sick. You have to move on from there to heal yourself of all knowing. That is, letting go of a little something each and every day. What will I let go of? Every time I think I know, I admit to myself that I don’t. One of these days, I will be whole. I just know it!

A Choice Of Be Or Don’t Be

My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?

If you want to know me,
look inside your own heart.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 70, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Having already distilled down his teachings into three “treasures”, Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, tells us exactly what makes it so difficult for us to understand them and put them into practice. The difficulty doesn’t lie in the teachings themselves. Being simple in actions and thoughts, being patient with both friends and enemies, being compassionate toward ourselves, this isn’t hard. What makes it so very difficult is that we try too hard. It isn’t a mental exercise; but we make it one, trying to grasp it with our intellect. There is no “try” in putting these teachings into practice, there is only be or don’t be.

Lao Tzu isn’t intending to discourage us, when he says it is impossible to grasp the meaning of his teaching with our intellect. The same is true about his warning that we are doomed to failure if we try to practice them. But, if discouragement isn’t his intention, then what is?

This is the very reason that so many will throw up their hands and dismiss his teachings as nonsense, or lofty but impractical. Of what use to us are they?

What Lao Tzu is doing is bringing us to a place where we can understand. His teachings aren’t intended to be grasped with our intellect, they are, after all, older than the world. So, he directs us to look deep within the core of our being, there, we will find the answers. What resides at the core of my being? The Source, itself, before and beyond anything that we can think or know. If you want to know me, look inside your own heart.

This isn’t the first time he has reminded us of this simple truth. Don’t try to be simple, just be simple. Don’t try to be patient, just be patient. Don’t try to be compassionate, just be compassionate. The power to be these things doesn’t reside outside of ourselves; but it also doesn’t reside in our mind. No amount of knowledge is going to ever to be of any help. Actually, the more we think we know, the less we will understand. And, our will power will always come up wanting. It is a matter of the heart. No, not that organ inside of you, beating away as it pumps blood to every cell of your body. Lao Tzu is talking about something much deeper within the core of your being. He is speaking of the Tao, itself.

Just follow the Tao. It is so easy. Perhaps too easy. Why is it that everything has to be such a challenge for us? The truth is that we like challenges. But this isn’t a challenge. It was never intended to be a challenge. And, it is because we make it into a challenge, that we make it impossible to achieve. Are we going to practice doing not-doing, knowing not-knowing, and not-competing competing? Are we going to live the life of ease that has been right there all along for us to live? All our actions can be effortless! Must we exert effort? Can we realize just how little we know, and be content to not-know? Or, will we insist that our cleverness will yet win the day? Will we be like children at play, or must we behave like the adults we know we are?

It really is a choice of be or don’t be.

The Generals Were On To Something

The generals have a saying:
‘Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.’

This is called going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.

There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself.

When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 69, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

A couple of chapters ago, Lao Tzu distilled down all of his teachings into what he said should be our three greatest treasures: Be simple in your actions and your thoughts. Be patient with both your friends and your enemies. And, be compassionate toward yourself. Yesterday, when he was talking about the virtue of non-competition, he was teaching us how to put these three treasures into practice in our lives. The Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her. We should be like children at play when we compete. This is how to be in harmony with the Tao. It is the way to guard our three greatest treasures.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu offered us four examples of people who embody the virtue of non-competition, what I call not-competing competing. One of these examples was of the best general, who enters the mind of his enemy. I promised, then, that today we would further explore what Lao Tzu calls the best military strategy, and how that relates to our three greatest treasures.

Now, I don’t claim to be any kind of military strategist. I never “served” in the armed forces. And, I don’t purport to know anything of military strategy. But, when I read Lao Tzu’s words here, I presume that he knew something of what he was saying. If he says the generals have a saying, then they must have had a saying. The rank of general, as far as I know, has always been the highest rank, reserved only for those who are the best at military strategy. Given my own admitted ignorance of military strategy, I have no problem deferring to those who do know what they are talking about.

The generals have a saying, and those are words to live by for all of us. It is better to wait and see what your enemy is going to do, let them make the first move, than to be the one to initiate force. Libertarians refer to this as the non-aggression principle. Lao Tzu would call it being patient. Remember, one of our three greatest treasures is being patient with both our friends and our enemies. But just how patient does he expect us to be? Well, just look at the last half of the generals’ saying. It is better to retreat a yard than advance an inch. That is taking patience to a whole new level. It may be comparatively easy to wait for my enemy to make the first move; but, am I willing to retreat a yard, when every fiber of my being wants to stand my ground?

We have a saying, “Patience is a virtue.” We like to say that when we don’t think someone is being patient enough with us. Or, we may be admitting to ourselves that it is something that we don’t always put into practice. But, generals, having attained the highest rank of their vocation know something about military strategy. They know how to live to fight another day. Don’t be so eager to make the first move. Wait and see what your enemy is planning to do. Get in their mind. Think what they are thinking. Think how they are thinking. When you act in haste, when you rush into action, you will fail. Be patient. Wait and see. And as far as the ludicrous notion that we should be willing to retreat a yard, Lao Tzu asks you to consider this: What if you could go forward without advancing? What if you could push back without using weapons?

Some people don’t like the term, non-aggression principle, because it sounds like something a pacifist would say. They, on the other hand, are very much in favor of aggression, or the use of force, in self-defense. So, they are quick to point out that they only mean by the term “non-aggression” that they would never be the one to initiate it. All bets are off once they have been aggressed against, however. I don’t think Lao Tzu qualifies as a pacifist, though a lot of what he says certainly could be taken that way. We covered a lot of this in earlier chapters of the Tao Te Ching. That was when he said a “decent” person would only use weapons as a last resort, and that with the utmost restraint.

We are still talking about how to be decent people, here, today. What if you didn’t have to resort to the use of force? Must you, really? I understand that sometimes you have only seconds to react in a situation. But it always seems that when we only have seconds to react that we make some horrible choices. Why is that? It is all a matter of how we have been conditioned to react.

What Lao Tzu is really concerned with in today’s chapter is guarding our three greatest treasures. These questions we have been asking are important, because the consequences of taking them lightly is that we may end up destroying our three greatest treasures. It is a real shame that we have any enemies, at all. But what is worse, what is our greatest misfortune, is that we underestimate our enemies. Understanding what Lao Tzu is meaning by this, helps us to understand exactly why we need to be patient with our enemies. It is when we think our enemy is evil, that we underestimate them. While I have not experienced this first hand, I know of too many stories of soldiers who were forced into dehumanizing places and came out of there, less than human themselves. They became the enemy. They suffer horribly as a result. Suicide rates for veterans, not really surprisingly, are terribly high.

The State does an exceptional job, with their propaganda, of getting us to underestimate our enemy. Their goal is always for us to see them as something less than human, evil. They dehumanize them for us, so that we will volunteer to go to war against them. Our three greatest treasures get destroyed in the process. We have become the enemy.

There is a better way. The generals were on to something. When two great forces oppose each other, it is the one who knows how to yield who will prevail.


My Model For Being In Harmony With The Tao

The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman
serves the communal good.
The best leader
follows the will of the people.

All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu introduced the virtue of non-competition, what I called not-competing competing, by saying of the Master, “Because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her.” I said, then, that we would cover this practice in more detail in upcoming chapters. First, Lao Tzu had to talk about how all of his teachings could be distilled down into three teachings, or treasures. These are simplicity, patience, and compassion. These three explain the virtue of non-competition. But in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu reveals just a little more of what he means.

He begins by listing four different vocations. That of an athlete, a general, a businessman, and a leader. And he goes on to explain how each of these seemingly dissimilar people embody the virtue of non-competition, when they are at their best. I have considered these all, one by one, and I can’t help but see how self-evident it should be that what Lao Tzu is saying, regarding them, is true.

I never was much of an athlete; but whenever I have competed in any sport, I always gave it my best, hoping my opponent was doing the same. What satisfaction could I possibly have in besting an opponent who wasn’t at their very best? When competing in any sport, the point isn’t just to win, it is about the competition, the play. It is a test of ability, of stamina. Even if you lost, if you did your best, that should be reward enough. Isn’t that what we were taught as children? Winning, getting that ribbon or trophy, while certainly a motivator to do my best, wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I thought my opponent wasn’t in it to win it.

For the general, however, the game is a lot more serious. Strategy plays a huge role. That is why, for a general to be at his best, he must get into his enemy’s mind. What is he thinking? What is his strategy? What does he want to achieve? What’s going to be his first move, and then his next and next? If I do this, how will he respond? We will discuss military strategy more, tomorrow, so I will save further discussion on the best general until then.

When I think of the best businessman, I start getting just a touch nostalgic about my own father. He was a businessman. I worked in the family business for a couple decades. Now, my father wouldn’t have called himself a good businessman. At the end of his life, he wasn’t having lots of happy thoughts about what he had accomplished as a businessman. I tried to reassure him about just how great he was. After all, he did put three kids through college. But more importantly, and certainly more relevant to today’s chapter, he genuinely cared about, and wanted to serve the good of the community in which we lived. One thing that always makes me wax nostalgic for small mom and pop businesses in communities all over the world is how they always seemed to intuitively understand that what was good for their community was good for them.

My father never complained about fair competition. That is, competition where no one was favored over another. But we had a huge problem with governments (be they local, county, state, or federal) intruding in the market to favor certain businesses over others. It was my father who introduced me to free markets. This was a mythical place where local businesses competed freely with each other for local customers’ money, without anyone getting special favors, essentially monopoly power, granted to them by governments. Yes, I called it a mythical place. But it is a place, none-the-less, that I would like to see realized.

And, of course, we have the now familiar return to how to be the very best leader. What more needs to be said, that hasn’t already been said? The very best leaders are the ones that know how to follow the will of the people they are leading. I suppose that some will say this is moronic. These are the very people that we should never trust to lead us. Those that think people are too stupid to know what is best for themselves. But leaders aren’t rulers. Rulers only want to impose their own will. Leaders are those that know what the people want and show them the way to achieve their goals. The difference is so profound I think it was superfluous for me to even have to say it. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to being ruled, that some, mind you, only some, can’t imagine how good life could be without rulers. That is the first thing rulers seek to take away when they get into power. Our imagination. If I am not careful, I am in danger of going into full rant, here. Better move on.

When Lao Tzu says these four people, being their very best, are embodying the virtue of non-competition, he is very clear that it isn’t because they don’t love to compete. That is why, instead of calling it non-competition, I call it not-competing competing. They love to compete. But they do it in the spirit of play. They are like children. Once again, Lao Tzu is returning to one of his favorite metaphors for expressing harmony with the Tao. When are you most in harmony with the Tao? When you play like children.

I was talking about feeling nostalgic just a little bit ago. But, I really get nostalgic when I look back at pictures of myself and my brother and sister when we were children. Or, when my own daughter and son were children. I remember back to how we played. How much fun we had. It was when we didn’t take life so very seriously. When we didn’t throw a huge tantrum because we lost a game. Or, they got more than me. I like to remember when I was at my very best as a child, because that is my model for being in harmony with the Tao, today.

How Deep Are Those Roots?

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I promised, yesterday, that today I was going to entertain the idea that Lao Tzu’s teachings aren’t something that can be taken seriously. His teachings do seem to defy conventional wisdom. His instructions to would-be leaders are certainly not something I expect would-be leaders from either wing of the corporate establishment party to start putting into practice. And he just goes on and on about doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing. Is anyone listening? Is anyone willing to put this into practice in their own lives?

Well, Lao Tzu has no problem conceding, “Some say that my teaching is nonsense. Others call it lofty but impractical.” But, is it nonsense? Is it really so impractical? I, for one, fall into the camp of those who have looked inside themselves and found it made perfect sense. And, having put it into practice in my own life, I can say, with complete honesty, its loftiness has roots that go deep.

Today’s chapter is one chapter where Lao Tzu just lays it all out for us as succinctly as he can possibly make it. Even after everything he has said up to this chapter, there are really only three things he has ever had to teach. You can call them nonsense, if you want. You can call it lofty, but impractical. But, if you will look inside yourself, if you will put it into practice, you will likely come to the same conclusion that I did. Simplicity, patience, and compassion, these three, you will cherish as your greatest treasures.

Not some new thing, here. We have heard about the virtues of simplicity, patience, and compassion from myriad sources for eons now. But I do think Lao Tzu teaches them in a way that still ends up defying conventional wisdom.

Be simple in both your actions and your thoughts. Why is it we seem to like to complicate our lives so much? We, of course, will deny this. But we don’t put simplicity into practice. Neither in our thoughts, nor in our actions. How difficult is it to be simple? To not over-think things. To just go with the flow. Simplicity is the practice of doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing. To be purposely simple. I used to make this way too complicated, as well. So, don’t start beating yourself up, because you have, too. But it really is easy to be purposely simple. You just have to do it. Be aware when your mind is in overdrive and coax it back. I find myself taking lots of breaks. I get up and walk out of the room; a change of scenery always does me good. This is how I return to the source of being. I guess it is because the Tao is always on the move that I need to be in motion, too. When I sit in one place too long, my mind starts to wander. I start thinking deeper and deeper thoughts. No, nothing that is very profound. Just things that complicate my life. Beginning with my thoughts. Pretty soon that would carry over into doing things. Busy work. Must stay busy, busy, busy. Once again, not helpful. I want to simplify. Always simplify. That is why that change of scenery is so helpful. Because it recalls my mind from where it was straying. Back to simplicity, itself. What the practice of simplicity has taught me is the joy of constantly returning to the Source.

Another thing that I have learned along the way is patience. With both my friends and my enemies I have learned how to be patient. This didn’t happen as quickly as I would like. I used to be quite impatient. I had standards, you see. Very high standards. And those that failed to measure up to my standards were a constant pain in my backside. And as an aside, I was just as exacting with myself as with anyone else. But I realized something along the way. That is, that my impatience with myself, but more importantly, with others, was not in accord with the way things are. Oh, how that conflicted with the way things seemed to be. That was where I saw the difference between the way things seemed to be and the way things are, so very clearly, for the first time. It was about how I was interacting with my fellow beings on planet Earth. I was viewing myself as separate from all others. Not so much special, as different. I wasn’t seeing our connection with each other. Once I started seeing the world as self instead of the self as self, I naturally became tolerant, patient with all other beings. We weren’t all so very different, after all. Believe me when I say I wasn’t always this way. I find myself smiling a lot more at all the little things that make each of us so very unique, and, at the same time, so very similar. I discovered unconditional love for everybody.

Which brings me to the third of our greatest treasures. Compassion. Here is where I really got thrown for a loop. Because I expected that the compassion I was experiencing was only supposed to be directed outwards. What I discovered, instead, was a compassion that was working its way inside of me. Deeper and deeper inside of me it delved. And I thought I had loved myself before this? How far from reality that was! But as I found myself loving myself more and more, I found every being in the world being reconciled within myself.

Nonsense? Lofty but impractical? No. What makes perfect sense to me, now, is that the Tao does its work within each individual being in the Universe. It doesn’t act on a collective. It acts in individuals. And it acts in me. Those roots just keep going deeper and deeper.

What Makes The Sea So Great?

All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu returned to instructing would-be leaders in the art of governing. His instruction to avoid being clever or rich may seem hopelessly naive; considering the only people that ever show any interest in governing us, seem to wholly rely on their cleverness and riches to advance their own grab for power. Tomorrow, we will talk about whether Lao Tzu’s instructions can be taken seriously. Today, Lao Tzu continues to defy conventional wisdom, with his advice for would-be leaders.

He begins with a now familiar metaphor. “All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.” Does Lao Tzu really expect those who are ever reaching for greater and greater power to learn a lesson from the sea? Actually, yes, he really does.

Those that want to govern us need to understand that the only way to achieve true power, the only way to be above and before, is to place themselves below and behind. It is the power of yin and yang, the way of the Tao. This isn’t up for debate. If you want to be above the people, you MUST place yourself below them. If you want to go before them, to lead them, you MUST learn how to follow them.

This is a lesson that the Master learns as she learns to follow the Tao. Which is why learning to follow the Tao is the first thing any would-be leaders MUST do. In learning to follow the Tao, she places herself below and behind. But this is where the power of yin and yang comes into play. Look what happens when she learns to follow the flow of the Tao. She finds herself above the people. Yet, no one feels oppressed. Now, she goes ahead of the people, leading them by being an example of how to follow the Tao. And, no one feels manipulated.

This is where the powers that be always get things completely wrong. They place themselves above and before us. And what do we feel? Oppression and manipulation. At least that is true for those of us not so inured by this present madness to realize we are being oppressed and manipulated.

How very different it is when the Master guides us. Then, there is no oppression; there is no manipulation. In their place, there is gratitude. The whole world is grateful to her. Our rulers have the audacity to think we all should be grateful for their oppression and manipulation. They really do think that. Their opinion of us is that low. They think we are that stupid. They want us to believe that without them things would be… (here, they invent imaginary darkness designed to frighten those who are the most easily manipulated; and, therefore, oppressed). Don’t fall for their lies, their distortions.

There is a better way. A way in which they could never compete. This is where Lao Tzu introduces the concept of not-competing competing. This is a concept that we will cover in more detail in the days ahead. Today, let it suffice to say that the Master competes with no one, for no one can compete with her.

Show Them How To Be Content

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

After taking a couple days break from specifically talking about the art of governing, Lao Tzu returns to it. In this way, he is showing how what he has talked about for the last couple of days was not really a departure. We have been talking about the importance of doing not-doing. He always follows that with the importance of knowing not-knowing. We did talk a little about this, yesterday. We think we know, we might even go so far as to say to the Master, “I know, I know” but we don’t really know. That is our problem.

Lao Tzu’s whole teaching on the art of governing revolves around the idea that a great leader wouldn’t tell people how to live their lives or try to force people to live a certain way, a great leader would be content to serve as an example of how to live your life. That is why Lao Tzu’s first instruction to would-be leaders is for them to learn to follow the Tao.

Today, Lao Tzu looks back at the ancient Masters, who Lao Tzu said, didn’t try to educate people. Lao Tzu is explaining that they, the ancient Masters, the leaders of their day, didn’t use force to educate (or indoctrinate) people. In other words, they didn’t tell people how to live their own lives. Not trying to educate didn’t mean that there weren’t lessons to be learned. But the lessons were taught without words. The people were shown by the example of the Masters. The people already “knew” everything they needed to know. In fact, they already “knew” too much. For the knowledge they had had resulted in them being puffed up; and, they were hard to guide. So, what did the ancient Masters teach? They kindly (very important word) taught them to not-know.

I have this nagging suspicion that some people reading about this need for the people to not-know are going to write it off as an excuse for keeping people ignorant, and therefore easily manipulated. But that isn’t what the ancient Masters were about, at all. Follow what Lao Tzu says here.

When people think that they already know the answers, like those of us that are so quick to say, “I know, I know” when we don’t really know, they are difficult to guide. In other words, “How can we serve as an example, when they won’t look and listen?” This reminds me of my ongoing instruction as I instruct the 6 year old girl I tutor. I have told her countless times, you have to look and listen to learn. When you think you already know the answers, when you say, “I know, I know” you might as well be covering your eyes and stopping up your ears. Any possibility of learning is put on hold. True leaders, great leaders, want to guide the people they are leading. That is the point. If you didn’t think you could serve as an example, you wouldn’t be in the position you are in. But looks what happens when the people realize they don’t know. This isn’t when they get manipulated. This is when they can finally find their own way. Great leaders are content to serve as an example. They don’t have any ulterior motives. They are most delighted when the people they are guiding are able to find their own way. That is why that word “kindly” from the first stanza is so important. You want people to realize they don’t know, because you generally care for them.

Here is a hypothetical aside that I imagine some people, who really yearn for power, might ask right about now. “Well, what if we try it your way, Lao Tzu, but the people don’t find their way so easily? Can we really trust the people, after all? When do we get to use force to make them do the right thing?” You guys really think that the end justifies whatever means, don’t you? You are so hungry for power that you can’t wait to reach for more. But the truth is that if the people don’t respond to your satisfaction, then is not the time to use force. Then is the time to reexamine how well you were demonstrating following the Tao. It really isn’t that difficult. If it is so difficult, the fault isn’t with the people, who you don’t think can be trusted. The fault is with you, who we know can’t be trusted. The great way is easy, you people just prefer the side paths.

If you want to learn how to govern, there are two things that you really need to avoid. The first is being clever. Because no matter how very clever you think you are, you aren’t. How can you begin to kindly teach people to not-know, when you don’t practice not-knowing? The second thing to avoid is being rich. The problem with your wealth is that it gets in the way of living a simple ordinary life. The kind of life that you want to emulate for the masses of people. You need to be one of us. Not some actor.

When you are relying on your cleverness and riches, you won’t see that the simplest of patterns is the clearest. You will make things way more complicated than they need to be. Your cleverness, your riches, blind you to the simplest of truths. If you, yourself, are content with an ordinary life, then you can show all the people the way back to their own true nature.

This is the role of a leader. First, learning for themselves how to be content, then serving as an example of how to be content, for everybody else to see. Anything beyond that is counter to the way of the Tao.