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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 33, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is all about self-knowledge and self-mastery. And what is the difference between intelligence and true wisdom, strength and true power. What we are after is truth, what is real. And we aren’t go settle for anything less than that.
And that begins with realizing truth about ourselves. Most of us are content to spend all our lives believing an illusion about ourselves. I am not talking about what we want others to think they know about us. I am talking about what we think we know about ourselves. We have a surface knowledge of the truth. It is very superficial. And often, about as far removed from the truth as we can fool ourselves into believing. That illusion, we have figured out. Or, at least, we hope we do. It certainly makes mastering ourselves easier. But that mastery is all a mirage. Because we really can’t begin to truly master ourselves until we truly know ourselves.
But how? How do we begin to peel away the facade? How do I get to know the real me? The first thing that Lao Tzu tells us in this chapter is to realize that you have enough. This isn’t as easy, or as hard, as it sounds. It is what it is. I don’t think you can just wake up one day and decide, “Damn it, I have enough!” It would be nice if it was that easy, but alas, it isn’t. At least, it wasn’t that way for me. Realizing is a process. You come to realize truth, that is only revealed, as you peel away layers of falsehood. Peeling away may sound like a painful process. That is good, if you think that. Because you might as well know. Those layers of falsehood are like layers of skin. Not dead skin that just flakes away, either. No, these layers of falsehood are very much alive to you. And you need to slice away at it, going always deeper, deeper. Okay, that sounds incredibly hard. And yet, I dared to suggest it isn’t as hard as it sounds. The reason it isn’t as hard as it sounds is that we are talking about falsehoods here. We aren’t talking about truth. It probably will be painful. Because we have been quite content to live this charade. But it isn’t going to be as hard, or as painful, as it lets on. Best advice I can give you: Don’t listen to the protestations that are going to rise up in defense of keeping you covered in layers of falsehood.
Lao Tzu was talking about the reality that we really have enough. The falsehood is that we don’t. We need more. Always more. We never have enough. That is, by the way, how to see the falsehood for what it is. All the screams that say that you don’t have enough are a lie. That is what needs to be peeled away. Okay, short of skinning ourselves alive, what exactly is the practical advice here? It is actually very simple. You need to discover for yourself how little is enough. And that means simplifying your life. Cutting it down to bare bones. Oh, you think you are already subsisting right now? I just bet you are lying to yourself. I say that because I know how good I have been at lying to myself. There is a real art to that. And the longer you do it, for me that lasted for decades, the more of a master you are at it. And, just so you know. I am not through yet. I know I am still lying to myself. I am still a work in progress. Like I said, it is a process.
This is huge! I mean, seriously, this isn’t something that anyone is going to accomplish in just a little while. But it is going to be so worth it. We are talking about true riches here. I have been on this journey for only a short time. I’d say about two and a half years now. And, I know, I still have a very long way to go. However, this much is clear to me. I am beginning to have my eyes opened to how truly rich I am. Now, I know some of you are wondering why we can’t see how much is enough, instead of how little. And, that is really quite easy to answer. Because there is no such thing as enough when you are accumulating. I bet the richest person alive is not just living out the rest of their days, content to just live on that. No, they want more. And, you will too. You will always want more. I know I do. But I am learning how little is enough. And there is a limit to that. No, I haven’t reached that limit yet. But there is a limit.
The next thing to do, is something to be doing at the same time. We aren’t doing things one at a time here, we are doing them both at once. And that is, staying in the center of the circle and embracing death with your whole heart. Now, what does Lao Tzu mean by this? I am still young. I am not even close to being ready for death, let alone embracing it.
But embracing death is not wishing for it. The Tao is at the center of the circle. And, the Tao is carrying us through the circle of life. From birth, growth, maturity, death, decay, rebirth, new growth… You see, when you look at it that way, it really throws our mindset, which puts death at the end, out in the dung heap. Death isn’t the end. It is really kind of, sort of, in the center. No, death isn’t at the end. It isn’t the end for us. We can embrace death, knowing that we go on and on and on, enduring forever.
And, we really know this. We just don’t care to think of things this way. But you have existed since the very beginning in the Tao. And, you will continue to exist in the Tao forever and always. “No!” We protest. “The conscious me is going to cease to exist when I die. My body is going to rot in a grave, or it is going to be cremated. And my soul? Well, we have only faith to rely on, when it comes to the eternal destination of the soul.” Look, I don’t want to challenge your faith. But I do want to assure you that just because you don’t know anything really about the nothing that you are going to return to, the very nothing that you came out of, doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to have a very real existence in that nothing. Just like you have a very real existence in that nothing right now.
And we need to embrace that. We continue to believe in the illusion that we are separate. When the reality is that we are all connected. We are all one. And we are all the whole. That is the way it has always been. That is the way it is now. And, that is the way it will always be. Death seems final, only because we think of ourselves as separate beings. Once you realize that you are not separate from the whole, once you realize that you contain the whole Universe inside of you, then you come to realize that you will go on forever.