Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu called it the supreme good. It is being content to be simply yourself; and not comparing or competing with others. He gave us six different ways in which we can practice true contentment.
Today, he lists four ways that we demonstrate we are anything but content, with our simple and ordinary lives. Consider these the antithesis to yesterday’s six ways.
How are we to be content? It comes when we realize when enough is enough. If we knew when to stop, then we could avoid danger. We know better than to fill our bowl to the brim. Don’t we? Or, do we think this only applies to a physical bowl? When it comes to living, do we just keep filling and filling? And then wonder to our dismay, why it spills? Why do we keep sharpening our knives, to the point of blunting them? There is a very real connection, here, with yin and yang, the way things are. You can’t keep filling without emptying. You can’t keep sharpening without blunting. If you don’t spend some time emptying, you will over-fill. Emptying always follows filling. And filling always follows emptying. Learn to know when you should be filling and when you should be emptying. There is a time for sharpening that knife; and a time to use it, to blunt it. If you only ever sharpen, the results are the same as if you never sharpened. Know when enough is enough.
If there were one way to describe how many people choose to live their lives, it would be a lifelong chase after money and security. Some may take offense when I say that it is a choice. But, seriously, you do have a choice. You can choose to stop chasing. And it would be good for you to do it sooner, rather than later. Because, until you do, your heart will never unclench. Oh, I know, I know, you know exactly what you are doing. You have this down to a science. Just a few more years, and you will have what you are chasing after. You have my best wishes. I hope you live to enjoy it. Really, I do. I just know too many who never know when enough is enough. Whose hearts never do unclench. Meanwhile, their life here and now is filled with hope and fear for the future; instead of being content to be present.
Perhaps that is why we are always comparing and competing with others. Caring about their approval. We set ourselves up to be their prisoner. It is no way to live.
This is so very different from what Lao Tzu, in yesterday’s chapter, called the supreme good. Today he calls it the only path to serenity. And it isn’t serenity in some far off sweet by and by. It is serenity, here and now, and forever. The Tao is eternally present. If we want to be in harmony with it, then there is only one way. Do your work, and then step back. Know when to stop. Know when enough is enough. Realize you already have everything you need for true contentment, right here, right now. Do your work, yes. Because you will always have work to do. But then take that step back.
Taking a step back is the best advice I could give anyone. It has become my daily practice. I, too, used to think I needed to be always moving forward. But I have found when I am content to stay behind, I get ahead.