How True Mastery Can Be Gained

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, I promised that today’s chapter would also be devoted to the practice of knowing not-knowing. Yesterday, I said it boils down to “the more you know you don’t know, the more you don’t know you know.” Our problem isn’t that we lack knowledge. And, our problem isn’t that we have knowledge. Our problem is, the more we presume we know, the less we understand.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used the example of the Master to begin explaining how the practice of knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing are intertwined. And, today, he continues where he left off, by contrasting the pursuit of knowledge with the practice of the Tao.

In our pursuit of knowledge, every day something has to be added to that storehouse of knowledge. Notice that word, pursuit, for it is telling. Pursuit involves chasing after. Also, notice that it is on-going. It never ends. You can never let up; every day, there is always something more to be added. To my friends pursuing degrees in higher education, consider this a heads up. Even after you get that degree, the pursuit of knowledge can never end. I have been out of college for thirty years now, and I still add to my knowledge, each and every day. And, don’t misunderstand Lao Tzu, here. There isn’t anything wrong with the pursuit of knowledge. You just need to understand the way things are.

The pursuit of knowledge is one thing. The practice of the Tao is entirely different. Where pursuing knowledge involves adding something every day, the practice of the Tao is a matter of dropping something every day. But what you add and what you drop are two very different things. And, there is an end. What you are letting go of, little by little, is your need to force things, to interfere, to intervene, to control. Lao Tzu doesn’t ask that you let go of all your desire in one fell swoop. That probably isn’t even possible. But, if we drop a little something of it each and every day, we will, finally, arrive at non-action. Unlike knowledge, which can’t be exhausted, there is only so much desire to control, any one individual can have to let go of.

The end goal is non-action. That is, doing not-doing. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. That is the way of the Tao and that is the practice of the Tao.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was all about encouraging understanding. Today, Lao Tzu calls it mastery, how true mastery can be gained. We want to get to a place where we simply let things go their own way, without interfering, without trying to control. We will never gain true mastery by interfering.

Now, obviously, this is easy to give mental assent to, and much more difficult to put into practice. But, why is that? For me, it was because I tried to bite off more than I could chew, at one time. Lao Tzu tells us to just let go of a little something each day. Don’t try so hard! Don’t try, at all! Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes. You will fail, and fail miserably, at times. So? Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back at it. Just take it a little slower this time. Nature’s way is a good example for us. It is never in a hurry. Yet everything gets done. Anytime you are feeling rushed, is a good clue you are forcing things. That right there is a good thing to let go of, your desire to get it done, and fast. This isn’t something that can be rushed. That is the antithesis to the practice of the Tao. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy. Let go.

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