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 being lived by the Tao. This doesn’t mean that self is sacrificed to some greater good, like the world, or the Tao. It means a completely different way of looking at your self. Instead of seeing yourself as separate, as alone, you see your oneness with all things. And, since we aren’t sacrificing the self, Lao Tzu wants us to express our selves, completely; this opens us to be lived by the Tao. This opening of ourselves to the Tao, opens us to both insight and loss. We may not care too much for the idea of being opened to loss, but we do need to accept it, completely. The only way to be given everything, is to give everything up. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said that when we open ourselves to the Tao, we can trust our natural responses. This is how we cooperate with the emergent order, the eternal reality, the way things are. Everything falls into place, without any need for any system of control.
Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us how to be: Like the forces of nature. Natural. Today he contrasts that with how we, too often, are.
Why do we stand on tiptoe? Usually because we are reaching for something, just out of reach. Forget, just for a moment, about the reasons that the vertically-challenged have to stand on tiptoe to reach for a plate or a glass in a cupboard. That isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about, here. It is a metaphor, duh. He is talking about standing on tiptoe on a somewhat perpetual basis; always reaching for things, just outside our grasp. Why are we reaching, grasping? If it is just outside our reach, then, perhaps, it would be for the best, we leave it alone. Wait for it. Or forget about it. You can’t stand on tiptoe and stand firm. How easy it is to be toppled from this unnatural position.
If we aren’t reaching and grasping for things, often, we will try to rush ahead. What is your hurry? Nature’s way is slow, but steady. Why are we so impatient? The same principle is involved as with standing on tiptoe. When we rush ahead, we get ahead of the Tao. What are we thinking? Why would we want to be anywhere, but in the right place at the right time with the Tao? It just isn’t natural. And we won’t go far.
There is such a difference between letting your light shine and trying to shine. When we are in accord with the Tao, all our doings will be effortless. There is no trying. Are we trying to out shine others? Is that what we are about? Is life some great, big competition to you? You have to outshine everybody else? How very sad for you. Because the more you try to shine, the dimmer your own light becomes.
This next one is a particular challenge for me. Defining myself. I say I eschew labels; but really, I have all sorts of self-ascribed labels for myself. All very well thought out and clever ones. But I get what Lao Tzu is saying, immediately. I think I know myself so well. And I pride myself on my clever labels. But the reality is, I don’t know what I think I know. I need to practice knowing not-knowing, here. Then, insight will arise naturally. Until then, I can’t know who I really am. Oh, I know, I know, we don’t want others labeling us. But why do we fear that? Why do we fear anything? Because we are thinking of the self as self. A big no-no. Forget about labels; or be content with letting the Tao define you, as you are lived by it.
So much of what Lao Tzu has to say in the Tao Te Ching, is to those who think they have, or aspire to have, power over others. And what does Lao Tzu have to say? Your so-called power is nothing, when you can’t even empower yourself. If you want to accord with the Tao, focus on your self, not on others. Leave other people alone. Don’t try to control them. Empower yourself, by being one with the Tao.
It cannot be said enough, philosophical Taoism is a very individualistic approach to living. It is all about your self. You focus on you. And let others take care of their selves. This isn’t being selfish. For we don’t see the self as self. We see the world as self. And that means we can truly care for all things. We just don’t do it by interfering, by trying to control. We accord with the Tao. We let the Tao work in and through each one of us, bringing balance and harmony.
There is work to be done. We have talked so much about doing not-doing; but I don’t want anyone to be confused about what that means. You have work to do. Yet, all your actions can and should be effortless. We are letting, instead of trying. Letting all things fall into place as we do what comes naturally. We can trust our natural responses; and there is work to be done.
But we must not cling to our work. Clinging is as unnatural as reaching and grasping. When we cling to our work, we end up creating nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, and let go; of it, of everything. Trust the Tao.
I am saving this last little bit for last. I am sure we are all quite tired of hearing about the Kentucky county clerk. I promise not to be offended if you don’t care to read any further. I just think today’s chapter is timely and relevant. And this advice from Lao Tzu to just do your job, then let go, is even more timely and relevant for that Kentucky clerk. You don’t have to be a philosophical Taoist to take this advice to heart. I think you can even be a very conservative Christian. Why did she cling to her work, when she was faced with a choice of whether or not to be true to her religious convictions? What if she had simply done her job, and then let go, trusting her God to sort things out? Or, why not just leave her job, if she could no longer, in good conscience, do it? So very clingy. So very not in accord with the Tao.