What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore, the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains calm at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Because today’s chapter is a continuation of the theme from yesterday’s chapter, and yesterday, I was writing a lot about my own personal transformation with regard to this theme, I am just going to continue today, where I left off yesterday.
Yesterday, I admitted that what first attracted me to philosophical Taoism was what Lao Tzu wrote about the art of governing. It was so very libertarian of him. And it really meshed with my own libertarian ideas on governing. If Lao Tzu hadn’t been such a libertarian, I probably never would have stuck it out long enough with the Tao Te Ching to ever finally begin to understand the art of living, which is the philosophy behind his art of governing. Lao Tzu helped me to understand that I am not helping myself by compartmentalizing things. Maybe others can get away with separating their personal and political philosophy. For Lao Tzu, it was all one.
As I read through the Tao Te Ching, over and over again, this became clear to me. That certainly helped me to let go of everything that was holding me back from going all the way with philosophical Taoism. Certainly, when I started my tumblr blog and used the url libertariantaoist, I was more libertarian than Taoist at the time. I was just trying to come up with something I thought was somewhat original. Something to differentiate myself, and yet, I also knew there was something to this Taoism that, though I didn’t quite know what it was yet, given time, I knew I would get it.
More than anything else this past couple of years, I can attribute taking a chapter each day and adding my commentary to it, has shaped me into the blogger I am right now. Lao Tzu, more than any other, led me to abandon all hope in taming Leviathan (the State) or trying to downsize it. My own anarchism is the practice of philosophical Taoism. Nothing more, nothing less. I know I still have a long way to go on this path. I certainly haven’t arrived at “Master” level. And, I may never. But I’ll just keep taking it one day at a time and see how the Tao shapes me.
Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about the practice of effortless action. Acting without doing. Working without effort. And he told us how to go about that, practically speaking. He said, think of the small as large and to think of the few as many. By thinking that way we can confront the difficult while it is still easy. We break down great tasks into a series of small acts.
Today, he really does continue with this idea. If, as you were reading along, it sounded vaguely familiar to you, that may be because of the oft quoted “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” If you have a long journey before you, it can seem daunting. Lao Tzu’s advice is to remember to start at the beginning. And the ground beneath your feet is always the place to begin.
When I was laid off from my last job two and a half years ago, I knew I didn’t want to continue trying to earn a living, doing things I didn’t enjoy doing. I knew what I enjoyed. I had successfully home schooled my own children. I knew that one on one interaction with children was what I wanted to do. So, I decided to start my own tutoring business. I hit upon this idea in March, the same month that I was laid off, but it wasn’t until August that I had my very first student. I had to spend time planning. Thinking about how I was going to go about it. I tried to raise some venture capital. That proved unsuccessful. So, I ended up just doing it by the skin of my teeth with the meager means I had. I did some advertising until I didn’t have the money to invest in it any furtherr. That did result in the one student that I started with in August.
When Lao Tzu talks about a giant pine tree growing from a tiny sprout, what he is saying to me is don’t despise small beginnings. Given time, that sprout will grow. My first student was 3 years old at the time. 3 years old? I had never thought I would be working with someone so young? I was thinking I was going to be helping out moms and dads with their school age children who were having trouble getting difficult concepts, in math, especially. But this little girl’s mom and dad wanted their daughter to succeed and they wanted her to get an early and fast start. They asked if I could teach her how to use an abacus. Sure, I could. Right after I figured out how to use one myself.
Anyway, I set about to teach her counting numbers, letters, both how to write them and how to say them, then phonics. What sounds do all these letters make? It, of course helped that I had home-schooled my own children. I just hadn’t begun with them so early. That was the only difference.
I started out with just one hour a day, five days a week. The little girl turned four in December. We continued working. I won’t bore you with all the details. My time increased with her to two hours a day, and now 3 hours a day. We are working with the abacus. It is amazing! What a useful tool. She is five now, and I am doing first grade curriculum with her. I am enjoying myself.
I said all of that because what little I said about myself yesterday, kind of left things up in the air. Sure, I was going to do what I wanted to do; but what exactly was that? Now, you know.
Time to get back to today’s chapter.
Things that we already know; and yet, Lao Tzu feels the need to remind us, anyway. It is easy to nourish things that are already rooted. The best time to correct things is while the mistakes made are still recent. What is brittle is easily shattered. And, while something is still small, it can easily be scattered in the wind. Yes, we already know all these things. But, for whatever reason, we fail to apply them to our own lives.
If we just applied these truths to our lives, we could prevent trouble before it arises. We would plan and put things in order, beforehand. Don’t be discouraged by the length of the journey before you. And don’t despise small beginnings.
Are you seeing how Lao Tzu is helping us to do what it is that we do, effortlessly? If only we will listen. And let things take their course. Yes, that is the most important concept of all. Planning is good. But only planning that takes into consideration, and allows, letting things take their course.
This is where the central planners get it all wrong. They never seem capable of an appreciation for the law of unintended consequences, largely confuse cause and effect, and believe the end justifies the means.
This whole, not despising small beginnings and not being discouraged by the long journey is some serious business here. But letting things take their own course is how we keep grounded in reality. If we rush into action, we will fail. If we try to grasp things, we will lose them. If we try to force a project to completion, we can end up ruining what was almost ripe. Take a moment to reflect on that last sentence. It was almost ripe. If only we hadn’t rushed it. If only we had waited. If only we had let things take their own course.
All of that is the opposite of effortless action. It is a good thing that we have the example of the Master, who always takes action by letting things take their course. Take your cue from the pace of nature. Remain calm from beginning to end. Remember, if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Don’t let desires rob you of life’s simple pleasures. We have much more to unlearn than we have yet to learn.
Perhaps this all seems elementary to you. Maybe it is because I spend three hours a day working with a little girl through her school work. Or maybe it is because Lao Tzu believes that reminding us of what we already know will help us to remember what we have always been.
I have come to love the Tao. You could say that there is nothing else I care about. It speaks to me of spontaneous order emerging out of the chaos. And free people interacting peacefully and voluntarily.
That is what the Tao means to me. By centering myself in it, and being one with it, I can truly care for all things.