He who stands on tiptoe
doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can’t know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can’t empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 24, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking about leaving what we will become to the Tao. We only need to concern ourselves with being what we are, naturally. We need to express ourselves completely, just like the forces of nature do. When we do that, we open ourselves to the Tao. It is then, and only then, that we embody the Tao, and we are lived by the Tao. It is then, and only then, that we are truly ourselves, and always able to trust our natural responses. When we follow nature’s way, everything falls into place.
Today’s chapter is a complete reversal of that natural way. When we don’t trust our becoming to the Tao. When we strive to be something other than what we naturally are. It just isn’t natural to stand on tiptoe. As long as we insist on being something we aren’t, we will never have firm ground on which to stand.
Rushing ahead, you may think you are going with the current of the Tao; but what you are really doing is failing to trust that the Tao will take you where you need to be at exactly the time you need to be there. Ultimately, you won’t go far, when you insist on going it alone.
Most of us would say that we don’t like being in the spotlight. But what we really mean is we don’t like to be in the spotlight when we aren’t in control of the spotlight. When we think we are in control, we like trying to shine. Then, we are the focus of attention, at least we hope so. I want to be recognized for my achievements. Who doesn’t? But we really need to trust what we will become to the Tao. When we try to shine, we only end up dimming our own light.
Anyone who insists on defining himself can never know who he really is. That is a tough one, right there. Nobody wants to be defined by someone else. Perhaps we will say that we eschew all labels. But often we are quick to affix our own self-defining labels. The truth is that we need to leave this, too, to the Tao. Just be who you are. You don’t have to ascribe a label to it. And you don’t need to get all worked up over other people’s labels for you. Just leave it to the Tao. Who you really are is so much greater than any self-defining label you could ascribe to yourself. And why do the opinions of others matter, anyway?
The Tao is empowering. But this is never expressed in power over others. I think that roughly half of the Tao Te Ching is devoted to instructing would be leaders in how to be effective leaders. You will notice that power over others is never the goal. It isn’t an end. It isn’t even a means to an end. Instead, when you are empowered by the Tao, you don’t need to be in control of others. You don’t need to force anything. People will naturally
follow your example as you follow the Tao.
Finally, there is this about the work that we do. Lao Tzu earlier has told us to do our work and then step back. That is self-empowering. Today, he says the same thing in a different way. If you want to accord with the Tao, you must stop clinging to your work. You aren’t creating anything that endures that way, anyway. Just do your job, then let go. Let it go. What is to become of your work? What is to become of you? Let it go. Leave it to the Tao. The work you do will endure. You have all the power you need, power over yourself.