What Lao Tzu Taught Me: The Art Of True Contentment

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

This is chapter 80 of 81 chapters in the “Tao Te Ching.” I have been cycling through Lao Tzu’s book on the art of living, taking a chapter each day, for about three years now. I didn’t have any idea that I would still be doing this now, when I first got started with it. I also had no idea how much I would gain in the process. It has been a daily meditation for me, thinking through each chapter and adding my own commentary each day. When I first started reading through the Tao Te Ching, what stood out to me was how much I agreed with Lao Tzu on everything he had to say about the art of governing. But that wasn’t any life-changing revelation. He was only saying things with which I had long been in 100% agreement. Much like what Henry David Thoreau had to say, “That government is best which governs least,” Lao Tzu tells would be leaders to trust people and leave them alone. But what has been life-changing for me, is all that Lao Tzu had to say about being content with a simple and ordinary life. This is what he wanted leaders to demonstrate for people. This is the purpose of leaders: to be an example. Show people how to be content with their simple and ordinary lives. It is the exact opposite of what our so-called leaders do. But Lao Tzu didn’t hold out a lot of hope that powerful men and women would ever humble themselves to the point of being true leaders. Ultimately, we need to learn the lessons for ourselves. As I have been taking a chapter each day, my own life has been transformed. Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Somehow, my own journey was not quite as “deliberate” and the only journal I have to show for myself has been my daily postings from the Tao Te Ching. I am not living out in the woods by a pond. And, I continue to avail myself of all sorts of modern conveniences. But I have learned one very profound lesson. And that is how to be content with my simple and ordinary life. I had my simple life somewhat thrust on me a little over three years ago. I took a few weeks to come to terms with it. And then I embraced it. It hasn’t always been easy. But my regrets are not about the last three years. My regrets all stem from the many years before, when I was so far away from true contentment.

Why was I not content? Why are you not content? Because I am a libertarian and an anarchist, to boot, it is easy for me to point the finger of blame at our so-called leaders. After all, Lao Tzu does say, right here, in today’s chapter, “If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.” But let’s not forget what he said in yesterday’s chapter. “If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.” My failure, a little over three years ago, was an opportunity. Sure, there were others at which I could point the finger of blame. But I knew in my own heart, that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I needed to see it for the opportunity it was. And, go for it. I have never been more happy, more content than where I am with my life, today.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu paints an idyllic picture of contentment with a simple and ordinary life. Reading these lines always conjures up images of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. I figure most of my readers are already quite familiar with what life in the Shire was like, so I won’t go into the details. I just know that I would be very content to be a hobbit, living in the Shire. I love my little garden. I love smoking my pipe. And, I love my beer dark. You can even get it in pints rather than half-pints if you are one of the big people.

But I am not a hobbit. And I don’t live in the Shire. Yet, I have found a way to be content with my own simple and ordinary life. And some of you might not conjure up images of the Shire when you are thinking of what it would take for you to be content. I just imagine some of you, when reading through Lao Tzu’s lines, on enjoying the labor of their hands and not wasting time inventing labor-saving machines, and loving their homes so much they aren’t interested in travel, are coming up with all kinds of objections. What is wrong with labor-saving machines? And, what is so wrong about loving to travel? But let’s not miss the forest for the trees, my friends. The question isn’t what is wrong with these things; the question is, why aren’t you content?

Do you enjoy your food? Do you take pleasure in being with your family? If not, why not? I am not making light of your dilemma. Believe me. It is horrible to live a life of discontent. I know. I lived one.

Too many, I am afraid, are going to read through these lines and think the people that Lao Tzu is describing cannot really be content; because they cannot imagine themselves being content living that way. But hold on there. You are projecting. The reality is that these people are very content, and you can be too. That doesn’t mean that you have to live like this. That isn’t the point. Lao Tzu isn’t telling us how we all need to live; and, we better be content to live this way, too. He is telling us to be content with a simple and ordinary life; and, you are free to choose for yourself what a simple and ordinary life is for you.

For me, that meant determining just how little I needed. I have discovered through trial and error, that I already have everything I need. That is also something Lao Tzu has been telling us, all along. I don’t want to leave anyone with a false impression; by world standards, I am far from impoverished. I have plenty to eat. I have a roof over my head. I have clothing. I did learn how to let go of desires. Because I don’t have everything I might want to have. But I do have everything I need. Actually more. And I am content. That is the thing that Lao Tzu has taught me. How to be content, not with some others’ simple and ordinary life, but with my own.

4 thoughts on “What Lao Tzu Taught Me: The Art Of True Contentment”

  1. That was extremely well written. I’ve read bits and pieces about Taoism before but never quite explained the way that you did. You gave me a lot to think about.

  2. I can’t believe you have also taken the 81 chapters and have read it over and over, because i have too. It seems that the Tao is the source of everything and that after many year, his words will still be accurate no matter the persons circumstances. I think he says that the labor saving machines are bad, because they replace human hands. Industrialization was efficient for the money makers, but not for the environment nor the employees. It may produce things faster and cheaper, but where is the talent of a artisan gonna go, if he can’t compete with industrialized prices.

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