All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Are you feeling oppressed, or manipulated, by those who govern you? Today, Lao Tzu shares the antidote for what ails those of us who are being governed by means of repression. He returns once again to the now familiar metaphor for governing, “Be like the sea.” He uses this metaphor, to introduce the virtue of non-competition, competing without competing. This is something we will cover in more depth, a couple of chapters from now. But, even though this is only an introduction, what can we glean from Lao Tzu’s teaching, today?
“If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them.” In Lao Tzu’s metaphor, the people are represented by streams. Those who govern us, our leaders, are supposed to be like the sea. It is because they are below the people, they can tap into the power inherent in humility. “If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.” This is just another way of saying the same thing. Where do the streams lead? Follow them, to the source of real power.
To master the art of governing is to be above the people, with no one feeling oppressed. It is to go ahead of the people, with no one feeling manipulated. Masters at governing are above, because they have placed themselves below. They are ahead, because they have placed themselves behind.
It is so unlike the way we are being governed, today. We hold long competitions to see who will come out ahead, and on top. But, these are like games of “king of the hill”. Our would-be leaders immediately try to stake out their place on top. And, there is a certain entertainment value in watching them all be toppled from their lofty positions.
But, no one can compete with the Master at governing. Why? Because the Master doesn’t play their games. This is the virtue of non-competition. By competing without competing, the Master follows the streams of people back to the sea, the source of their power.
Yesterday, I talked about my low expectations for any of our would-be rulers, to be the kind of leaders our world so desperately needs. So, I encouraged the rest of us to be that kind of leader. It doesn’t have to mean running for political office. You can be this kind of leader in your home. In your work place. In your neighborhood. In your community. In your world. And, the whole world would be grateful to you, for this kind of leadership.