What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues what he was talking about, yesterday; the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing. Yesterday, he said, in order to practice it, you must begin by changing the way you think about things. By thinking of the small as large, and the few as many, you will confront the difficult, while it is still easy. Today, Lao Tzu begins with four examples of easy things we can do without doing. Without trying, or effort, we can nourish what is rooted, correct what is recent, break what is brittle, and scatter what is small.
There are two ways to look at these examples. We might like the idea of the ease with which we can nourish something rooted, or correct our recent mistakes; but, we might not appreciate how easy it is to break what is brittle, or scatter what is small. Yet, that only helps us to see the yin and yang relationship of easy and difficult. We need to understand their complementary relationship to prevent trouble before it arises, and put things in order before they exist.
To further illustrate his point, Lao Tzu uses two familiar metaphors. First, we have the lesson of the giant pine tree, which grows from a tiny sprout. Second, we have the journey of a thousand miles, which begins with the first steps we take.
The lessons to be learned from these metaphors is to neither delay, nor rush doing what needs to be done, from the beginning. That tiny sprout will become a giant pine tree. Are you procrastinating, when you need to be doing something? That tiny sprout will become a giant pine tree. If you don’t want a giant pine tree, that is going to a problem for you. As for that long journey you have ahead of you, it begins, not at the end, just beyond the horizon, but at your feet. Don’t be in such a hurry to get to the end. Begin, by placing your focus on the beginning.
Slow, yet steady. That is the way of the Tao. When you rush into action, you will fail. If you try to grasp at things, you will lose them. Trying to force a project to completion is to ruin what was almost ripe.
The Master, as always, is our example. Take action by letting things take their course. Remain calm, from the beginning, and all the way through, to the end. You have everything; but, your attitude should be, that you have nothing. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Let go of all your desires. Unlearn all you think you know.
What the Master teaches is a simple reminder of who we have always been. This isn’t some new thing to learn. It is about our beginning. Back when all we cared about was the Tao. This, Lao Tzu has previously illustrated, by picturing a newborn with its mother. When we were newborns, all we cared about was Mother. Mother, who gave birth to us, nourished us, maintained us, cared for us, comforted us, and protected us. All we desired was for Mother to take us back into her arms, and hold us close to her.
To care about nothing but the Tao, the source of all things, is to be able to perfectly care for all things.