Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 29, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Way Things Are Cannot Be Avoided
Why do millions of people, worldwide, take to the streets? I talked, yesterday, about the protest over this last weekend, and I guess I am still on that kick. The reason people take to the streets in protest, I would presume, is these millions of people want to do something about the mess in which they perceive the world to be. And, I even agreed the world is kind of messed up right now. Looking back at that statement, that might rank as one of the more understated things I have said in a long time… Of course, humankind are problem solvers. When we perceive a problem, we want to try to fix it. If there is something wrong, a flaw of any sort, we can fix it, right? We can improve the world?
Not so fast! Hold on there! “Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done.”
And, before anyone begins to get all defensive, and suggest I am just saying we ought to do nothing, give me just a moment to once again, explain what Lao Tzu means by doing nothing.
It doesn’t mean nothing gets done. It is actually doing without doing. And, all things do get done. It all just happens in the most natural of ways. Effortlessly. And, without force.
I think Red Pine’s translation is very helpful, right about here.
“Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can’t be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
The world is a spiritual thing. Stephen Mitchell calls it sacred. It can’t be forced. That is what Stephen Mitchell means when he says it can’t be improved. Don’t force it, don’t tamper with it. Don’t try to control it, don’t treat it like an object. You will harm it, you will ruin it. You will lose it.
We need to remember where humankind fits in the grand scheme of things. What should our relationship to the world be? We are one of the four great powers, yes! But, we are not greater than the world. Our greatness is subject to our following, or imitating, the world. We need to see the world as ourselves; we should love it, and have faith in the way things are. We can receive the world in our arms, we can be a pattern for it; but, we need to accept the world as we accept the way things are.
This, doing without doing, Stephen Mitchell calls a time for being. And, that relates to yin and yang (of course!).
SU CH’E says, “The interchange of yin and yang, of high and low, of great and small is the way things are and cannot be avoided. Fools are selfish. They insist on having their own way and meet with disaster. Sages know they cannot oppose things. They agree with whatever they meet. Thy eliminate extremes and thereby keep the world from harm.”
WU CH’ENG says, “How do those who gain control of the world keep the world from harm? Sages understand that things necessarily move between opposites but that there is a way to adjust this movement. Things that prosper too much must wither and die. By keeping things from prospering too much, they keep them from withering and dying.”
I implore you to reread those last two quotes again and again. Look where our interfering gets us. See things as they are, without trying to control them. Let them go their own way. There is both a positive and a negative side to these things. Things we don’t want to wither and die, that we try to force to prosper more, end up withering and dieing. And those things we want to wither and die, that we try to keep from prospering, never do wither and die. That is why Red Pine’s translation says to avoid extremes, avoid extravagance, avoid excess. And, Stephen Mitchell’s says, reside at the center of the circle.