On Knowing and Mastering Ourselves

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 33, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The first part of today’s chapter is something we all intuitively know is true. But, I think, it is quite telling, how little we value putting this truth into practice in our own lives. Think about it. All of the great contests we place such importance on, sporting contests, political contests, are measures of how much we know, and can master, others. They are about knowing and mastering your opponent, in a sporting contest. And, with political contests, they are about knowing and mastering, us. How I wish we could have leaders who valued knowing and mastering themselves, first and foremost. Then, it wouldn’t seem like such an impossibility for powerful men and women to get centered, and stay centered, in the Tao. That, of course, is job one, if you are going to stay in the center of the circle, and not be so quick to want to intervene and interfere, to try to control, and force issues.

Knowing and mastering ourselves! That, for eons, has been, considered to be, the first order of business. What was it Socrates said? “Know Thyself.” Yet, we don’t value that. What we value is our own intelligence and strength, our knowledge of others, our mastery over others.

So, what does knowing and mastering ourselves entail?

If you know yourself, truly know yourself, you realize you have enough. You realize just how truly rich you are. Show me someone who never has enough, who is always scrambling to get more, and I will say of that person, “There is someone who cannot be content.” How can they be? Being content is everything! Everything! But you can never be content, as long as you never have enough. As long as you don’t know yourself, that you have enough, true contentment will always elude you. How poor we are, when we could be truly rich!

To master yourself is to stay in the center of the circle. To not have the will to power pull you away from the center of the circle. To not intervene, interfere, try to control, or force issues. To let things go their own way. Lao Tzu says we need to embrace death with our whole heart. This isn’t some morbid fascination with death. This is overcoming our fear of death. Our fear that things won’t go our way, unless we meddle. Embrace it! If I die, I die; but, damn it, I won’t let go of the center of the circle.

This is the way of true wisdom, the way of true power. Socrates understood this. We remember him freely drinking a cup of hemlock. He knew he was going to die; and he embraced it. And, he still endures, to this day. If you can do these things, you, too, will endure forever.

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