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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today, we begin again where we left off yesterday, talking about the art of contentment. If you truly want to be content, the very first thing you will need to know is when enough is enough. Lao Tzu begins by giving us two every day object lessons. We all know better than to fill our bowls all the way to the brim, don’t we? And yet, how often do we over-fill our cups or bowls, only to spill some of the contents. That old saying, “waste not, want not,” applies here.
I have a friend that I visit every Sunday afternoon. He is very much into Japanese culture and he performs the Japanese tea ceremony for me every Sunday. Watching him preparing the different teas, we have been cycling through 8 different varieties, has been very enjoyable for me. I get to watch as he meticulously steeps each kind for different lengths of time and then pours them out into bowls for us to drink. I don’t think he has over-filled my bowl one time. And, of course, they are always prepared perfectly.
Now, is there anyone on here that would like to come by my house someday and sharpen a few knives for me? I seem to do a very good job of dulling them, but I am just terrible at sharpening them. The key is knowing when enough is enough. If you keep sharpening and keep sharpening, you will end up blunting them. But when is enough, enough?
The point of these object lessons goes way beyond how full our bowls, or how sharp our knives, are. As practical as knowing these things may be, he has something much more important for us to learn. Something that will help us with the art of contentment.
It has to do with what you are chasing after and what you care about. Most of us will spend a great deal of our time, perhaps years, chasing after money and security. But Lao Tzu warns us that this is far from the path to true contentment. It is no wonder that heart disease is the number one killer among men and women today. When we are always chasing after money and security, says Lao Tzu, our hearts will never unclench. It is the path, not to contentment, but an early grave. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said to be content to be simply yourself. I said trying to keep up with the Joneses was no way to live. The Joneses aren’t content either. Nor will they ever be.
Why do we care so much what other people think of us? Needing other’s approval. Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about respect. Yes, we want other’s respect. But why do we care so much? And what does that desire for others’ approval do for us? Lao Tzu says it makes us their prisoners. Heartsick and in prison seems like no way to live to me. It is far from the path to true contentment; which today, Lao Tzu calls the only path to serenity.
When is enough, enough? We need to know when to stop filling our bowl. We need to know when to stop sharpening our knife. We need to know when is when. The chase after money and security is one that will leave you breathless and worn out at the end of every day. Your sleep will be troubled as you contemplate that tomorrow you will only have to begin the futile chase again. Do what you like. And who cares whether other’s approve, or not? You want the only path to serenity; and here it is, just do your work and then step back.