The Only Path To Serenity

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter nine, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today might be a good time for me to remind my readers that when Lao Tzu originally wrote the Tao Te Ching, he did not divide it into chapters. He wrote it as one continuous stream. Later, editors came along and divided it into chapters. I like it divided up into chapters because it makes it easier for me to take a chapter every day. But there are times, and today is one of those times, where Lao Tzu started a thought in one part that gets continued after the chapter division. Lao Tzu didn’t intend for this break. And it is important that we keep in mind what he has already said as we continue with each new chapter.

So it was that yesterday, Lao Tzu started talking about the need to be content. And he continues talking about that in today’s chapter. I do recommend that you look back at the previous chapter for context. But just to keep it all within context I want to begin by quoting the last line of yesterday’s chapter.

“When you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Today, Lao Tzu tells us that the only path to serenity is to learn how to be content.

Why do we have such a problem with being content? Maybe one of our bigger problems is that we don’t ever seem to know when enough is enough. We are quite confident that if we ever had enough, then we would be content. But when is enough, enough? Can you truly be content with enough?

We have all filled our bowl to the brim before. And we knew better, even as we did so. But, life has a way of reteaching us lessons that we never really learned before. And so, the bowl spills.

I don’t know whether I am the least bit qualified to talk about how to know when you have sharpened your blade enough. I don’t think there is a sharp blade, anywhere to be found in my house. I am really good at dulling them. And I am generally adept at making do with a dull blade.

But I do know that sharpening a blade requires a certain skill. You need to know when to stop. Just like filling a bowl too full. You can keep sharpening and keep sharpening, and only end up blunting it.

Bottom line, there comes a time when it is time to drink what is in the bowl. If you have filled it to the brim, you haven’t actually prepared it for its purpose. And now some of it is wasted. That blade you have been sharpening, is to be used for some purpose. You have something to cut or to slice. Know when to be content with the blade’s sharpness, and you will find it is perfectly prepared for exactly its purpose.

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. This one right here is a biggie. Here is one most all of us can relate to. A heart that never unclenches. What a price to pay for money and security. Learning how to be content living within our means. Not always needing more, more.

Being content with simply being ourselves, with occupying whatever low place in which we find ourselves, doesn’t mean we will always occupy that low place. The Tao does have a way of lifting up the humble. But that will never happen until we know when enough, is enough.

And I know of no surer way of staying in a rut, than when you care what other people think of you. Needing their approval. We all want other people to like us. We want to be respected. But when is enough, enough? That cage just seems to get smaller and smaller the longer we insist on staying in it.

Lao Tzu is sharing with us the only path to serenity. The willingness to do our work and then step back. We have done all that needed to be done. It has been enough. All that remains is to be content.

One thought on “The Only Path To Serenity”

  1. Hello folks,

    I am sorry that I have to point out this quote is somehow a misinterpretation from the original text.

    I am a lecturer and researcher on organisational behavior. I am a native Chinese speaker. Two American psychologists cited this saying at the end of a research paper.

    Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 22(3), 280-287.

    Intrigued by the wisdom conveyed by the interpretation, I checked the original text in Chinese as follows,


    To my suprise, the original text conveys something very different from the English interpretation. The gist of the original text, to me and most Chinese, is to admonish people the importance of moderation, and greed would lead us to trouble.

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