The Problem With Fullness

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Before I begin my commentary for today, let’s compare Stephen Mitchell’s translation, above, to Robert Brookes’:

“A cup too full will soon be spilled,

a sword too sharp will soon be dulled,

too much of anything cannot be kept.

Wealth and power soon turn to arrogance,

and misfortune follows.

Instead, draw back when your work is done.

This is the Tao.”

We have been learning the value of emptiness. Today, Lao Tzu teaches the problem with fullness. It is telling that you have never heard someone say to you, “That is too empty.” It may not be full enough; but, too empty? No one talks like that. It just isn’t part of our lexicon. But, too full? Yes, we have experienced that over and over again in our lives. You can’t have excess emptiness. But, you most certainly can have excess fullness. This may change, forever, how you think of the whole “glass half empty or half full” debate. Remember what Lao Tzu has taught us before: Wherever there is excess, the result is always deficiency. Whether you are filling a bowl or a cup, overfill it, and that excess is going to spill over. What a waste! That knife, or sword, can be too sharp. It will lose its edge. Place too much value on money and security, wealth or power, and misfortune always follows. Why do you think heart disease is the number one killer? Too much of anything can’t be kept. Deficiency always follows excess.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu gave us a few aphorisms to show us the Way to practice true contentment. Today, he offers us a few more, to show us how we practice discontent. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said, Enjoy your work! Today, he shows us why it is that we might not. If you want the only path to serenity, avoid excess in everything you do. Do your work, yes. But, know when to stop. Do your work, then step back from it.

Tomorrow, we will return to talking about the supreme virtue. Being the supreme virtue, you might think, maybe this is something hard to do. But, the only reason it is hard to put into practice is because we make it hard to put it into practice. Lao Tzu will show us just how “easy” it is.

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