Step Back

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used the metaphor of water to talk about the Tao. It nourishes all things without trying, or doing anything; just by being itself. And, this being itself, is something that people disdain. We talked a little bit about why it is that people disdain being who and what they are. Why it is that we make our lives both stressful and complicated. Lao Tzu is showing us a better way. In today’s chapter, he says this better way is the only path to serenity.

I always am leery when I hear someone proclaiming there is only one path or way (and it is theirs) to get somewhere. So, I thought it would be a good idea to explain that this only way that Lao Tzu is speaking of should be understood in general terms. We have this tendency to want to get down to specifics. Tell me first all the specific steps I am going to have to take. But, that isn’t how things work. In general, there is only one path to serenity. But, when you get down to specifics, the paths are going to be myriad. We are all individuals. I can’t begin to tell you how your own specific path is going to be. I can’t see the path before me. I have merely learned to go with the flow, letting things come and go as they will. It is in letting go of the need to know, ahead of time, exactly what my next step is going to be, that has freed me, opening before me the only path to serenity.

So, what does serenity mean? I think we might better understand the term, happiness. Or maybe, true contentment. This is our pursuit. Lao Tzu tells us there is really only one way to it. And, that is the theme of today’s chapter.

We might begin by understanding why it is that we aren’t already happy or content. Lao Tzu has already told us it is because we disdain the path to it. We don’t know when enough is enough. We aren’t content with who and what we are. And, we aren’t content with what we already have. We insist on filling our bowl to the brim, only to be dismayed when some of it spills over. We keep sharpening our knife, not understanding that we only end up blunting it. We keep chasing after money and security. But, whole rooms full of money are hard to secure. And, we wonder why it is, our hearts never unclench. We place too much value on the opinions and approval of others. And, are surprised that we have become their prisoner.

We need to learn to be content with who we are and what we already have. We need to realize when enough is enough. The short answer is you already have everything you need. You are already exactly who you need to be. But, we aren’t content with the short answer. We raise objections. No, I need more. I need to be something else than I already am. The truth is, we will know when enough is enough when our bowl isn’t spilling over any more. As long as we keep filling that bowl to the brim, we haven’t realized when enough is enough. We need to do our work and then step back. There it is. We need to take that step back. Until we do we will keep filling, keep sharpening, keep chasing, and keep caring; until our very miserable lives grind to a lackluster halt. And, we will never know serenity.

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