Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I promised, yesterday, that today I was going to entertain the idea that Lao Tzu’s teachings aren’t something that can be taken seriously. His teachings do seem to defy conventional wisdom. His instructions to would-be leaders are certainly not something I expect would-be leaders from either wing of the corporate establishment party to start putting into practice. And he just goes on and on about doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing. Is anyone listening? Is anyone willing to put this into practice in their own lives?
Well, Lao Tzu has no problem conceding, “Some say that my teaching is nonsense. Others call it lofty but impractical.” But, is it nonsense? Is it really so impractical? I, for one, fall into the camp of those who have looked inside themselves and found it made perfect sense. And, having put it into practice in my own life, I can say, with complete honesty, its loftiness has roots that go deep.
Today’s chapter is one chapter where Lao Tzu just lays it all out for us as succinctly as he can possibly make it. Even after everything he has said up to this chapter, there are really only three things he has ever had to teach. You can call them nonsense, if you want. You can call it lofty, but impractical. But, if you will look inside yourself, if you will put it into practice, you will likely come to the same conclusion that I did. Simplicity, patience, and compassion, these three, you will cherish as your greatest treasures.
Not some new thing, here. We have heard about the virtues of simplicity, patience, and compassion from myriad sources for eons now. But I do think Lao Tzu teaches them in a way that still ends up defying conventional wisdom.
Be simple in both your actions and your thoughts. Why is it we seem to like to complicate our lives so much? We, of course, will deny this. But we don’t put simplicity into practice. Neither in our thoughts, nor in our actions. How difficult is it to be simple? To not over-think things. To just go with the flow. Simplicity is the practice of doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing. To be purposely simple. I used to make this way too complicated, as well. So, don’t start beating yourself up, because you have, too. But it really is easy to be purposely simple. You just have to do it. Be aware when your mind is in overdrive and coax it back. I find myself taking lots of breaks. I get up and walk out of the room; a change of scenery always does me good. This is how I return to the source of being. I guess it is because the Tao is always on the move that I need to be in motion, too. When I sit in one place too long, my mind starts to wander. I start thinking deeper and deeper thoughts. No, nothing that is very profound. Just things that complicate my life. Beginning with my thoughts. Pretty soon that would carry over into doing things. Busy work. Must stay busy, busy, busy. Once again, not helpful. I want to simplify. Always simplify. That is why that change of scenery is so helpful. Because it recalls my mind from where it was straying. Back to simplicity, itself. What the practice of simplicity has taught me is the joy of constantly returning to the Source.
Another thing that I have learned along the way is patience. With both my friends and my enemies I have learned how to be patient. This didn’t happen as quickly as I would like. I used to be quite impatient. I had standards, you see. Very high standards. And those that failed to measure up to my standards were a constant pain in my backside. And as an aside, I was just as exacting with myself as with anyone else. But I realized something along the way. That is, that my impatience with myself, but more importantly, with others, was not in accord with the way things are. Oh, how that conflicted with the way things seemed to be. That was where I saw the difference between the way things seemed to be and the way things are, so very clearly, for the first time. It was about how I was interacting with my fellow beings on planet Earth. I was viewing myself as separate from all others. Not so much special, as different. I wasn’t seeing our connection with each other. Once I started seeing the world as self instead of the self as self, I naturally became tolerant, patient with all other beings. We weren’t all so very different, after all. Believe me when I say I wasn’t always this way. I find myself smiling a lot more at all the little things that make each of us so very unique, and, at the same time, so very similar. I discovered unconditional love for everybody.
Which brings me to the third of our greatest treasures. Compassion. Here is where I really got thrown for a loop. Because I expected that the compassion I was experiencing was only supposed to be directed outwards. What I discovered, instead, was a compassion that was working its way inside of me. Deeper and deeper inside of me it delved. And I thought I had loved myself before this? How far from reality that was! But as I found myself loving myself more and more, I found every being in the world being reconciled within myself.
Nonsense? Lofty but impractical? No. What makes perfect sense to me, now, is that the Tao does its work within each individual being in the Universe. It doesn’t act on a collective. It acts in individuals. And it acts in me. Those roots just keep going deeper and deeper.