If you over esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.
The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people
lose everything they know,
everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think they know.
will fall into place.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Everything Lao Tzu writes, he writes for the benefit of people. He is writing for those who wish to be leaders of the people. He gives us ways of leading people in ways that will most benefit them. In doing this, he takes what he has learned from the observation of nature. All of nature, yes; but human nature in particular. Lao Tzu understands human nature so well, because he has observed it inside himself. Lao Tzu understands that if you want to be a good and effective leader, you too, must understand human nature. By understanding how humans interact with nature. By understanding how humans interact with each other. If you want to understand human nature, you must, first, understand yourself. Sometimes, perhaps it is because we are only human, we don’t do a very good job of interacting with nature and each other. Sometimes, we do things that harm nature and harm each other. This is because we fail to understand the laws of nature and the laws of human nature. The purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to help us to understand those laws of nature and of human nature. By understanding them, we can lead by serving as an example of how to live our lives in such a way that we work with nature, instead of against nature. And to work with our fellow human beings, rather than at odds with them. The Tao is the Way. Nothing more and nothing less. We will learn how to be at one with or in accord with the Tao. Which is the Way of the Universe.
Today’s lesson begins with the need for the practice of moderation. We, as humans, sometimes over do things. We need to practice moderation. And when we don’t, there are consequences. One of the things that we over do is we over esteem great men. Esteem is a good thing. But only in moderation. When we over esteem we make other people powerless. Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it is because we are setting the bar too high. Maybe it is because we are stirring up anger and resentment. Whether it produces hopelessness and despair, anger and resentment, or any number of other desires, we render the people powerless.
Another thing we often over do is overvalue possessions. Obviously, possessions have value. Everything has some value to us. And value isn’t a bad thing. But when we over value, we, once again, stir up desires. I am sure that there are plenty of reasons that we could come up with for why people begin to steal. For some, it is no doubt the thrill. For many, no doubt, it is true need. And for a good many, it is desire, covetousness, for what others have. Moderation is important here. By placing too high a value on possessions, we stir a desire in people’s hearts to have more and more and more possessions. If people feel powerless, in other words, they don’t believe they can earn things on their own, they will turn to stealing. This is human nature. This is what we have to work with as leaders.
Plenty of people think that the best solution for this is to lock up a whole bunch of people. After all, stealing is wrong. We’ll just build more and bigger prisons and we’ll deal with the problem. But Lao Tzu has, I think, a much better solution. First, he identifies stealing, not as the problem, but as a symptom of a much greater problem. People are resorting to stealing because they feel powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. Prisons only address the symptom without dealing with the root of the problem.
So, how does the Master deal with the root of the problem? Remember, the root of the problem is two-pronged. People are powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. It is a problem of both heart and mind. The mind is obsessed and the heart is sick and weak. Lao Tzu says the Master leads by using a two-pronged approach. Emptying the people’s minds (weakening their ambition) and filling their cores (toughening their resolve).
First, the Master works to empty the people’s minds of all their obsessions. He helps people lose everything they know. Everything that they desire. This is a weakening of ambition. This is not an easy task. People are full of pride. They are not always amenable to being helped. The Master’s ways are confusing to those who think they already know. When we only want to cut off branches instead of dealing with the root, we won’t succeed.
Even so, emptying or weakening is not enough. If you send the people away only emptied, they will only find ways to fill themselves up again. The root is two-pronged. We must deal with both prongs. After emptying and weakening, it is time for filling and toughening. But the Master doesn’t fill their minds, he fills their cores. I said earlier that this isn’t just an issue with the mind. It is also a condition of the heart. The mind has been dealt with, but the heart is still sick. The very core of our beings must be filled. This is a toughening of our resolve.
The difference between ambition and resolve is as great as the difference between our minds and our hearts. Ambition is directed outwardly. It is about fulfilling desires. Resolve, on the other hand, is an inner discipline. It has little, if anything, to do with what is going on outside of us. The Master set about the task of weakening our ambition because he understands that as long as we are looking outside of ourselves at great men and women, at our neighbors, at what they have and we don’t, we are going to be miserable. The Master wants our gaze turned inwardly. Not at how small and weak and inconsequential we are, but at our strengths, our talents, our value. Our focus had been on what we didn’t have. Now it is on all that we do have. All that we are.
That was a whole lot to cover in just one chapter; and yet, Lao Tzu leaves us with one more thing at the end. “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.“ In many ways, this just sums up the whole chapter. And in many more ways it is the sum total of the whole of the Tao Te Ching. I am not going to say anything more about the practice of not-doing, today. My reason for this is that I have already made this post plenty long. That and the reality that the practice of not-doing is what we are going to be talking about a lot of the time in the next several weeks. For today, let’s just give it the same mention that Lao Tzu gives it. Continue along with me on this journey. We will learn how to practice not-doing. And, we will see everything fall into place.