You want to be the greatest help?

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet, for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put into practice.

Therefore the Master remains serene
in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

True words seem paradoxical. These are the words that Lao Tzu chooses to close today’s chapter. And they are fitting words indeed. Which is why I thought I would start with them. Because today’s chapter offers truth. But it does seem paradoxical.

We were talking a couple of days ago about the soft and yielding representing life, and the hard and inflexible representing death. As is always the case, Lao Tzu keeps returning to the same ideas again and again. He wants to make sure we get it; and through endless repetition, I think we can.

Today, he returns once again to what just might be his favorite metaphor, water. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Lao Tzu wants us to be disciples of life. To be soft and yielding like water. And why? Because, for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.

This is a great paradox. But only because it is true. The soft does indeed overcome the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. This is the nature of water. Water is soft and gentle in the world. But it overcomes all resistance. We only have to observe water in its natural environment to see this play out. Water always seeks out the lowest places. It is a very humble teacher.

But just notice the course it takes. There are always a few obstacles along its way. Most of the time, water simply goes around them. But sometimes an obstacle rises up, hard and inflexible; oh, now, this time we will see water held back. Water seems to be defeated. But only for a time. Water is patient. It can outlast the hard and inflexible. And we all know exactly what will eventually happen. Water will win in the end.

Okay, this is all well and good. But what does water have to do with anything? What Lao Tzu is getting at, is the need for us to learn the lessons that nature is teaching us. While everyone knows the properties of water, few can put the lessons we should be learning from it, into practice.

I want to be of help to people. And I know that deep down, that is true of just about all of you. We want to help. Often, we don’t know how. We try. We fail. Sometimes we only make matters worse. But that doesn’t change the fact that we want to be able to help. And so the question is, how can we really be the greatest help?

This is where the Master comes in. You can always count on Lao Tzu to bring in the Master to show us how it is done. But don’t forget the lessons of the water. You can be sure the Master hasn’t.

A lot of the time, when we are most feeling the need to be of help, it is because people are in the midst of sorrow. We want to comfort them. To help them. And Lao Tzu warns us, that it is at just this time, when evil can enter hearts. We must not succumb to the sorrow. We must, like the Master, remain serene.

And once again, Lao Tzu’s words seem paradoxical. You want to be the people’s greatest help? Give up trying to help them.

Giving up on trying to help seems about as cold and callous as can be. Yes, it may seem that way. That is the paradox. But you haven’t forgotten about water, have you? Water is paradoxical. Water doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of accomplishing its purpose. It remains serene too. It can wait. For just the right moment. And then it will act. It doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It just does what it does. It just is what it is.

The Master is like that. And, we can be like that, too.

What it means to trust the Tao

As it acts in the world,
the Tao is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she
is better than anyone else.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I titled this post “What it means to trust the Tao.” I think I could just as easily have entitled it, “Why I am a market anarchist.” It’s six for one and a half dozen for the other with me. I know that the more immersed in philosophical Taoism I have become, the more of a market anarchist I have become. This chapter became, for me, the prime mover.

What Lao Tzu is teaching in this chapter is that we need to trust the Tao to balance things out. This is true of all things in the Universe. But it especially resonates with me concerning markets. And why I believe they need to be freed.

So what do I mean by freeing the markets? And what does it have to do with the Tao?

Lao Tzu, once again uses a picturesque metaphor to illustrate how the Tao acts in the world. Picture a bow bending. Have you got that image in your head? Notice as the string is pulled, the top of the bow bends downward and the bottom of the bow bends up. This is how Lao Tzu explains how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency. It is always at work to achieve perfect balance. Taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough.

Now I need to stop here and pause just a moment. Because I want the full implications of that to sink in. The Tao is like Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” which is always at work in a free market to bring about, dare I say it, equality.

I want you to keep that invisible hand in mind because the invisible hand is just that, invisible.

On the other hand, those who try to control, those who use force to protect their power, work against the direction of the Tao. Their purposes are always counter to the invisible and natural workings of the Tao. Because they seek to be in control, or stay in control, they want to take the bow and work it how they see fit. And because they have a monopoly on the use of force, they can pretty much get away with their shenanigans.

They will, of course, claim that their intentions are good. They promise to pull that bow just so, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But, in practice, they inevitably take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who already have far too much. I will leave to your own imaginations whether this is deliberate or accidental. I know where I stand.

But for argument’s sake, let’s just say that their intentions are actually good. I am reminded that my dad always told me, “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.” But, I don’t mind playing devil’s advocate for just awhile; let’s just say they mean well; their just stupid.

Because, in practice, their regulations over how a bow is to be operated do always result in a giant tug-of- war between the State and the Tao. And when that happens, we all lose. The bow is very likely going to break.

So, you are free to decide whether the powers that be are merely stupid, or deliberately evil. Either way, that is no way to run an economy. Or anything, for that matter.

That is why I want the market to be freed. Freed of all the visible hands of those who are either too stupid or too evil to be tugging at the bow. Let the Tao, the invisible hand, pull the bow. Trust the Tao to balance things out. That is what the Master does. She just keeps giving; there is no end to her wealth. She acts without expectation. She succeeds without taking credit. And she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else.

I have learned to trust the Tao in my own life. I don’t need or crave power. I don’t have any desire to initiate the use of force against another living soul. The only control I cherish is self-control.  Living simply. Patient with friend and foe, alike. And loving being me.

Are We The Living?

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead they are brittle and dry.

Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The question I pose to you with today’s chapter is, “Are we the living, or are we the dead?”

I don’t suppose there is anything more extreme than life and death. And Lao Tzu likes picturing extremes to get his point across. Whether he is talking about newborn babies or dead men; plant sprouts or dead trees.

Newborn babies and plant sprouts represent life, and all the potential of the Universe. Lao Tzu wants us to embrace that. To be full of life, full of potential. Ever able to adapt to our changing environment. Because, change is inevitable.

The stiff and inflexible can’t adapt to change. Time takes its toll. Change happens whether we can adapt or not. And if we can’t adapt, we die.

We have to be soft and yielding. We have to be willing to go with the flow. To adapt to our inevitably changing circumstances. Only this furthers our growth and perpetuates the force of life within us.

But, of course, Lao Tzu isn’t just intending this to refer to our physical lives. The physical imagery is merely metaphorical. This is something to apply to ourselves as individuals, to our families, to our communities, to whole countries. Enterprises or ideologies – all must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to adapt to change.

Look around you and you will see plenty of examples of the hard, stiff, and inflexible. Now, note their end. It will be swift.

But as for the soft, the supple, the yielding – they go on and on.

I Wasn’t The Original Libertarian Taoist

When taxes are too high, people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 75, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I wasn’t the original Libertarian Taoist. That is why I keep it all in lower case, libertariantaoist. Just my small token of homage to the very first, the original, Lao Tzu. And today’s chapter certainly makes the case for Lao Tzu being the original libertarian, about as strongly as it can be made. I have been influenced by many great thinkers over the years; but once I found Lao Tzu’s teachings, I knew I had stumbled across the original source for what makes me tick.

Short and sweet, this chapter gives the prescription for how best to govern: “Act for the people’s benefit.” He could have stopped right there; except for one tiny problem. Without the next line, you don’t know how to act for the people’s benefit. And here it is, “Trust them; leave them alone.”

Without that line, the fools that want to govern us will think that they can fool enough people into believing that they can be of the most benefit to the people by raising taxes. Because they want to use that money, to, you know, benefit you.

But the problem, of course, is that the higher the taxes, the worse off people become.That is no problem for those who want to govern us, though. That, right there, is just an opportunity to promise more benefits to the people. And all it ever will cost is higher taxes.

And our rulers have grander schemes than just handing out benefits to the people. They really want to take care of us.  And they manufacture real and imagined threats to our “freedom,” which require ever more intrusive government. As if the real and imagined threats from foreigners isn’t enough, they tell us that we have even more cause for concern from domestic threats. They have to keep an eye out and and ear open to everything we say and do; because you just never know what schemes your neighbor, who is minding their own business, might be plotting against the state.

And we wonder why people lose their spirit. That is certainly not how I agree to be governed. If the powers that be really wanted to act for my benefit, they would trust me; and leave me alone.

Be Afraid. Be Very, Very, Afraid

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

This is not going to be about the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling yesterday. If you have not already had your fill of the apoplexy over that inconsequential ruling, then you will need to look elsewhere. If on the other hand, you are ready for a break from that useless chatter, as I am, I have something else for you today.

What is it that I would like to impress upon you today: The importance of realizing that all things change. Sometimes, that can be hard to believe. Some things never seem to change and the more things change, the more they stay the same; seems more credible. Those of us that have been around for long enough, can testify to the reality that all things do change, given enough time. Still, the time it takes for some things to change seems quite a challenge to our patience when we want things to change.

But that isn’t the worst of our problems with the reality that all things change. It isn’t the long waiting for change that Lao Tzu is addressing today. It is the trying to hold onto things, in the hope that they will never change. But each and every day, change is happening in all of our lives. Nature’s cycles proclaim it with the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changing seasons. This is just something that we have to accept. All things will change. And the very things we are trying to hold on to, those are the things that desperately need changing.

But we are afraid. Afraid to leave our comfort zone. Afraid of an uncertain tomorrow. We are so full of ourselves, that we actually are afraid of dying. No, we want more control over our every day lives. We are sovereign individuals. We are not slaves. No masters for us.

Hey, I get it. I, too, am a sovereign individual. But there is one thing that I have had to come to realize. That is, that all things change. And I can’t control the future. Now, that has never stopped me from trying from time to time. After all, I just happen to be in a very comfortable place right now. I like my present circumstances. I’d like to hold onto this for the foreseeable future, and beyond.

But what does Lao Tzu have to say to me about trying to control the future? He says, “Chuck, that is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.” I used to read this line, and get all interested in trying to figure out who this mystical master carpenter was. Is this God? Or, especially because I was raised in the Christian faith, I would think of Jesus being raised by Joseph, a carpenter. Certainly Jesus learned the carpentry trade. Perhaps this is an allusion to Jesus.

But all of that speculation is pure nonsense. Lao Tzu predated Jesus by five centuries. And Lao Tzu’s only direct mention of God in the Tao Te Ching is as a joke. Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you in which chapter that is to be found. If you want me to look it up for you, send me a message. But really, I mean no offense to my readers from communities of faith. I am just trying to demolish side paths where we tend to wander off.

The point Lao Tzu seems to be making with his master carpenter reference, is that it should be taken literally. Yes, I do mean literally. When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

We don’t have any more business trying to control the future, than taking the place of some master of a trade that we don’t know the first thing about.

And yes, that is scary. That is the point. He is trying to get us to understand that if we think leaving our comfort zone, or an uncertain tomorrow, or even death, is so very scary to us; we should be more frightened by the prospect of trying to control our future.

Holding onto the illusion that things will never change is folly. All things change. That is reality. But if you aren’t afraid of change there is nothing you can’t achieve.

The Kind Of Net We Can’t Slip Through

The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

-Lao Tzu –
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 73, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

With all the bad news in the world today, today’s chapter offers us good news. Today I get to tell you, “Courage, my friends, there is hope for you and me.”

It starts with an understanding that the Tao is always at ease. It overcomes without competing. It answers without speaking a word. It arrives without being summoned. And it accomplishes without a plan.

Sometimes, as we go about our daily lives, the whole Universe seems to just be completely out of balance. Life can seem mostly chaotic. Sometimes, the fault is very clearly our own. Our choices. Our mistakes. But other times, it just doesn’t seem to matter how hard we work, it all just seems for naught. And through no fault of our own, we find ourselves at odds with a system that is simply stacked against us.

You may be in a very dark place right now. Perhaps you have been there for a very long time. It is tempting to give in to the darkness. To just let it swallow you up. But that wouldn’t be an encouraging end to your story.

Please understand that the chaos and imbalance you are suffering through right now is not the end of the story for you. It is just one chapter. And you are getting ready to turn another page.

Lao Tzu told us that the Tao is always at ease. And we all can know that same ease. Yes, sometimes things are out of balance, but the Tao is always returning things to balance again, if only we work with the Tao, instead of against it. We, too, can overcome by not competing.

Out of the chaos in the Universe, spontaneous order will emerge. No matter how far gone you feel you are. No matter how small or insignificant you think you must be. The Tao has an answer, without having to speak a word.

We don’t have to earn some special favor from the Tao, in order to get its blessing. And it isn’t far, far away in need of being summoned with just the right incantation. It arrives without being summoned. It was always very near at hand. Look within yourself, and there it is.

The Tao is like a net that covers the whole Universe. Its meshes may be wide, but nothing slips through that net. Not even small, insignificant you.

I know your present perspective may be quite disheartening. It is hard to believe this present darkness is all an illusion that will soon be swept away as the next page turns.

But then reality will dawn on you and it will be clear. What is this reality? That we are each individual pieces of an imaginative Universe. No single piece of the puzzle is insignificant. And none are ever truly lost. The Tao will achieve order and balance, though we may never be able to point to some grand plan that caused it to be accomplished.

Needing to Take a Step Back

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend on authority.

Therefore the Master steps back
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.

– Lao Tzu –
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 72, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I really enjoy taking these chapters one day at a time. But something that a friend reminded me of yesterday, is that the Tao that can be spoken of, is not the eternal Tao. That little reminder proved to be fortuitous, for as I am going along trying to explain what Lao Tzu is trying to teach us in each of these chapters, my ego starts to get the better of me. I think Lao Tzu was offering that little warning to himself back in the first chapter, as he sat down to compose his writings on the Tao. Every word that I use to try and explain the Tao is, more or less, a step away from the eternal Tao.

It isn’t that we can’t know. We learn by observing nature and by looking inside of ourselves. And I always need to be mindful of how egoless nature is, while I do tend to be egocentric. How can I effortlessly harmonize with the Tao when my ego is striving to achieve something that may or may not be in accordance with the Tao?

That is why Lao Tzu encourages me, in this chapter, to take a step back. It isn’t just so that my readers won’t get confused. I don’t want to be confused, either. I am not helping anyone, including myself, when I keep rushing onward.

So today, I spent some time enjoying the rainy weekend we have been having. In between rain showers, I was outside observing my little raised garden bed. My peas are just about ready to harvest. My tomato plants are full of tomatoes. My squash is blooming like crazy. Yes, my garden is loving the rain. It is simply amazing what happens when you plant seeds in good soil and give it lots of sunshine and rain. I am actually in awe of my little garden.

And awe is a good thing. That is another thing that Lao Tzu reminds us of in this chapter. He bemoans that people lose their sense of awe; and to fill that void, they substitute other things. I am not going to trash religion here. Religion is just one substitute that the people use to fill a giant hole in their hearts.

The other thing that Lao Tzu speaks of in this chapter is people no longer trusting themselves. I recall countless conversations I have had with people over the years. People who don’t believe other people can be trusted to do the right thing. “That is why we need laws, Chuck. That is why we need the government. The police. A standing army.” All because we don’t trust ourselves. And we sure as Hell, don’t trust our neighbors. Especially those neighbors in other countries all over the world.

My ego would love to go on a rant right about now. But I think this taking a step back is a much more appropriate thing for me to be doing today. The truth is, I can teach more without teaching. There is nothing to learn, but a whole lot to unlearn.

Why have we lost our sense of awe? Is it because our ego prevents us from seeing the awesomeness of what is real? And why do we no longer trust ourselves? Does self-reliance have to be a lost and forgotten art?

In taking a step back today, I am reminded of what Lao Tzu calls our three greatest treasures. Simplicity, patience, and compassion. We can reconcile all beings in the Universe. That power is in each and every one of us. I am not doing anything great. I just live my life simply. I make no apologies for it. In living simply, I find myself appreciating with awe, life’s simple pleasures. I am finding myself more and more patient with my friends and my enemies, with each passing day. That is a great stress reducer. If I can do this, you can do this. Be compassionate toward yourself, especially when you epicly fail.

The Path to Wholeness

“Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First, realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus, she is truly whole.”

– Lao Tzu –
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 71, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Knowledge is Power! Isn’t that what we have always been told? With all of this talk about not-knowing, is Lao Tzu anti-knowledge? Is Lao Tzu really trying to convince us that ignorance is bliss?

I am happy to be able to say that knowledge is indeed true power. Ignorance may seem like bliss, sometimes; but having true knowledge is a true state of bliss. So how is not-knowing, true knowledge?

I think we need to understand the terms Lao Tzu is using. And for that, it is important for me not to stop reading after the first line. Context is important, after all.

As I continue to read, I find out what he means by not-knowing. Presuming to know is a disease. Lao Tzu is saying that by presuming to know, we hinder our natural ability to gain true knowledge.

I know I have mentioned a time or two before about how much I hindered my parents in their efforts to teach me, when I would interrupt with “I know.” It is this presumption of knowledge that is the real problem. It is a disease.

When Lao Tzu says that not-knowing is true knowledge, he means that by ridding yourself of this presumption that you already know, you gain the necessary freedom to truly know.

It isn’t exactly a 12-step program, but you have to first acknowledge that you are sick, before you can seek healing.

Sadly, it took years before I realized just how sick I was. So much time wasted. But having taken the first step, then you can be your own physician; and cure yourself of all knowing. This is the path to wholeness.