Water, Water, What’s With All This Water?

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 it 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)

Because we have been talking about being soft and yielding to be a disciple of life, you just had to know that Lao Tzu would return to his favorite metaphor, water. He always comes back to water. It is something with which we are all familiar. The human body is made up mostly of water, anywhere from 50 to 65 percent, in adults; and 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Obviously water is important to us. And it is a great metaphor for what we need to be like. Interestingly, I just found out that human infants are made up of even more water, 75 to 80 percent. Does that have anything to do with why they are another favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s? Perhaps, it is easier to be like water, the more water you have in you.

Water is the perfect metaphor because the properties of water are exactly how we want to be. It nourishes all things, effortlessly. And, all our actions can be effortless, as well. It seeks out the low places. That makes it humble. I know that is anthropomorphic. But the point isn’t that water is trying to be humble. The point is that that is what water is, naturally. One way that we, as humans, can be like water, is to be humble. The sea gets its power by dwelling beneath the streams that run into it. Humans think the source of their power comes from them being above others. Lao Tzu insists that real power is to be found by placing ourselves beneath them.

And, water is soft and yielding. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Fill up your bathtub with water and lower yourself into it. It doesn’t put up any resistances to you. As you lower yourself into it, it is soft and luxuriating, yielding to you; it simply rises, as your body displaces it. It feels nice, doesn’t it? But, if you stay in that bath long enough, your skin will start to wrinkle up. Much like the hard and inflexible rocks in a river, over time, water, while seemingly yielding to the rocks and going around them, also slowly eats away at them. Nothing can surpass water for its patience in dissolving the hard and inflexible.

Yes, yes! Everyone knows the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid. We all know this is true. But only a few can put it into practice. And that, my friends, is the point of the metaphor. Oh, we could marvel for a good long time on the attributes of water. But, what we really need to be doing is realizing how we can put these truths into practice in our lives.

How does the Master do it? He is our example, after all. And, here, Lao Tzu talks about his ability to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. This won’t make a whole lot of sense to those who can’t accept the paradox.

Perhaps you have never realized before just how hard and inflexible sorrow can be. It can be implacable. It demands all of our attention. And if we don’t give it our complete attention, its demands become even more urgent. What does sorrow demand of us? Well, mostly, it demands that something be done. This is where people with the very best of intentions step in and try to help. Every fiber of your being may be crying out to you to come to the aid of the one suffering in sorrow. One of the lessons I learned, long ago, from my own father is that good intentions can be the most evil of things. He told me, many times, “the streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.” The Master understands this. He doesn’t let evil enter his heart. Remaining serene, seemingly indifferent, disinterested, he doesn’t offer up any help, at all. No good or bad intentions here, my friends. He has no intentions, at all. But, because he has given up helping, because he is disinterested and indifferent, because he remains serene, he is able to be people’s greatest help.

How is this possible? How can disinterest and indifference translate into being the greatest of help? That is the paradox. But that is the soft and yielding quality of water. Maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is to draw yourself a nice hot bath. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water.

Let The Bow Bend

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)

In the chapter two days ago, Lao Tzu explained that if those who govern us really wanted to act for the people’s benefit, they would trust us and leave us alone. I believe, very strongly, that the only government that is legitimate is one that has the unanimous consent of those it governs. And I won’t consent to any form of government that doesn’t trust us and leave us alone. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu talked about going with the flow of the Tao as a matter of life and death. The only way to go with the flow is to be soft and yielding, hence a disciple of life. When we are stiff and inflexible we are disciples of death. Now, just in case anyone failed to see the connection between the last two chapters, we have today’s chapter where Lao Tzu shows just how they relate.

Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter with something that is flexible, to show how the Tao acts in our world. It is like the bending of a bow. Notice that he doesn’t picture someone bending the bow. The bow bends of its own accord without our interference or assistance. The top is bent downward and the bottom is bent up. It is the perfect metaphor for how the Tao acts in our world to adjust excess and deficiency. This is how the Tao achieves balance and harmony in our Universe. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. Yin and yang, always in a state of flux, always returning to balance. It is all very impersonal; notice the “whats” here, what is too much and what isn’t enough. What Lao Tzu is describing is a universal law. Nowhere does it ask for our help or even our opinion. It merely asks us to let it happen, without interfering. Where the Tao finds excess and deficiency, it will adjust it, it always adjusts it. My favorite way of explaining the Tao is to simply say, it is the way things are. This is the way things are. This is how the whole Universe flows. This is why we need to be soft and yielding, rather than stiff and inflexible, in order to be truly content in our lives.

What Lao Tzu teaches, is how to be content with the way things are. We need to be as flexible as that bow; letting the Tao adjust excess and deficiency in our own lives. When we are content with our simple and ordinary lives, we won’t be simple and ordinary. The Tao shapes us into whatever it wants us to be, and we become great and extraordinary in the process. But it has to start with accepting that the way things are, is the way things are. Don’t fight it. Don’t resist it. Just go with the flow.

Because I gain new followers every day, I want to be clear about what I mean when I say, the way things are is the way things are. I certainly don’t mean the status quo when I talk about the way things are. The status quo is a system that has been set up by the ruling elite, in opposition to the flow of the Tao. The status quo is maintained by people who are trying to be in control. Lao Tzu has maintained all along, that the Universe is forever out of our control. We simply cannot control it. We can go with the flow of it. And when we do that, all goes well. But when we fail to do that, when we insist on interfering, on trying to be in control, on using force to protect our power, then things go horribly wrong.

That is where we are today, with things gone horribly wrong. The ruling elite have been up to their shenanigans for eons. At least as far back as history records. Always going against the direction of the Tao. Lao Tzu saw it in his day; and it was already an ancient practice, then. Since Lao Tzu’s day, nothing has changed as far as the motives of the ruling elite are concerned. They will say that they are only acting for our benefit. But Lao Tzu has devoted chapter after chapter, admonishing leaders on how to be great. Learn to follow the Tao. Be like water, humble and yielding. If you really want to act for the people’s benefit, then trust the people you are governing, and leave them alone.

The consequences of not yielding to the way things are, are devastating. Notice what happens when we interfere, when we try to control things that are forever out of our control. That is when the impersonal balancing act of the Tao becomes personal. The “whats” become “whos.” The Tao takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. But those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, going against the direction of the Tao, take from those who don’t have enough, and give to those who have far too much. They make it personal. Who gets to decide who has enough? Who has too much? Who has too little? The ruling elite, that’s who. And it matters little if the ruling elite changes every election. Because whoever the ruling elite are, always try to protect their power. Instead of excess and deficiency being adjusted like the bending of a bow, excess and deficiency only grows greater. It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t how the Universe operates. It isn’t how the Tao acts in our world. And this folly cannot be sustained forever. When you are stiff and inflexible, you will be broken.

I wasn’t using hyperbole when I said this is a matter of life and death. We, humans, are either going to evolve, or become extinct. Life or death, that is the choice before us. This is where we need to take our cue from the Master. Remember, the Master isn’t some superhuman, an impossible ideal that we couldn’t possibly ever hope to achieve. The Master can be and should be, any of us. Any of us, that is, willing to evolve. To let the Tao do its thing. To go with the flow, without interfering, without trying to control. We need to be soft and yielding, flexible; that is how we evolve.

The Master can keep on giving because there is no end to her wealth. Please don’t limit that word “wealth” to something financial. I think Lao Tzu means so much more than that. There is no end to what the Master can give. That is why she can keep on giving. When you are going with the flow of the Tao, when you are flexible, soft and yielding, excess and deficiency is always being adjusted. Everything is brought into balance. There is harmony. Lao Tzu says the Master acts without expectation. Understand what he means by expectation, here. Expectation has to do with desires. The Master has let go of all desires. Thus, she is free of all expectations. She succeeds without taking any credit. Why doesn’t she take credit for her success? Because she credits the Tao. That is why she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Because she isn’t. No one is. We are all treated equally by the Tao.

That is the kind of equality that the Tao brings about. It is like the bending of a bow. But that isn’t the kind of equality that either gives anyone power over another, or helps anyone maintain their power over another. Thus, those who want to have power over others are never in keeping with the Tao.

How To Prevail In This Life

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.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

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

After telling us, just a couple chapters ago, not to be afraid of death, in today’s chapter, he tells us to not be a disciple of death. It seems to me that those that fear death the most are the most inclined to take on the characteristics of death, prematurely. What we fear becomes our reality. While we shouldn’t fear death, because it keeps us from living life to its fullest, we really need to embrace what it means to be among the living. And that means remembering where it is we have come from.

Lao Tzu reminds us that we were born soft and supple. It is that way with all beings. Even plants are born tender and pliant. These are characteristics of new and burgeoning life. We need to remember our primal identity and continue to act like the living beings we are. To be soft and yielding is to be a disciple of life.

To be stiff and hard, brittle and dry is to be dead. To be stiff and inflexible, even though you are still yet alive, is to be a disciple of death. Right here would be a good time to say that Lao Tzu isn’t talking about being physically stiff and inflexible or soft and yielding. He is speaking metaphorically of the rigidity with which we can choose to live our lives. If we want to be disciples of life, we need to be able to go with the flow of the Tao; letting things come and go as they will, shaping, and being shaped by, events as they happen. That is the kind of soft and yielding flexibility that Lao Tzu has in mind.

Just as surely as we know that what is physically hard and stiff can easily be broken, we should know that those who are hard and stiff in their living will be broken. If you want to prevail in this life, you need to be a disciple of life. You need to be soft and supple.

I Won’t Consent To Anything Short Of This

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)

Long before I discovered Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching and became a philosophical Taoist, I was introduced to the political philosophy known as libertarian. That happened way back in college, thirty plus years ago. It was Milton and Rose Friedman’s book “Free to Choose,” a book I was privileged enough to read my Sophomore year in college. Thanks to that book, and an econ professor that used a lot of material from the Cato Institute, by the time I finished college I was an “out of the closet” hard-core libertarian. It has been thirty years since I graduated from college, and I have never wavered from the convictions that I gained while in college. Thank you Professor Flanders!

Reading C.S. Lewis was my first introduction to the Tao. I have read so much of C.S. Lewis over the years, that I don’t remember exactly which book of his I was reading; this was probably twenty years ago, mind you; I think it was “Mere Christianity,” but my memory is not reliable enough to be sure of that. I remember finding what he had to say interesting at the time. It was something I put on the back burner and forgot about for the time being. But then, some years later I started getting somewhat disenchanted with what was passing for Christianity in these United States, and started looking into other philosophies. Not so much other religions, because I had really had about all I could take of religion. I remembered then, what I had put on the back burner before; and started looking into philosophical Taoism. I started reading various translations of the Tao Te Ching; before finally discovering Stephen Mitchell’s translation. And, of course, what really drew me to philosophical Taoism was all that Lao Tzu had to say on the art of governing.

Here was a man after my own heart. He sounded just like a libertarian. I would later find out that Murray Rothbard, among others, referred to Lao Tzu as the first libertarian. I can’t argue with that. What Lao Tzu wrote was, I think, revolutionary in his day. And it still is revolutionary, today. A disciple of Lao Tzu’s, Chuang Tzu, was, perhaps, the first anarchist, expanding on what Lao Tzu wrote, and carrying Lao Tzu’s teachings to, what I think, is their most logical conclusions.

I said all of that because today’s chapter, short and sweet as it is, is music to my ears. It doesn’t matter that I have read it hundreds of times before. And I don’t see how it could be different, though I read it hundreds of times again. This is my rule for governing. If you want my consent to govern me, you simply must follow Lao Tzu’s instructions on the art of governing.

And, of course, this is something that giving mere mental assent to, will never suffice. I want leaders to realize this is true. I want it to be so real to them, that they could never settle for anything less. People go hungry when taxes are too high. People may debate on what constitutes “too high;” but let there never be a debate on whether people go hungry when their hard-earned money is confiscated to enrich the ruling class. Because that is, as it has always been, the purpose of tax collection. Few are those (among the tax collectors) who will ever admit that that is the purpose of tax collection. But it is, nevertheless, true; just as it has always been true. They can say it is “for the children” or “for the poor” or “for ‘this or that’ program;” but inevitably, the children and the poor and anyone that the so-called program was supposed to help, will go hungry; while the ruling class grows ever more bloated. I could go through a huge list of examples of this; but instead, I will just point out that the one set of people who haven’t benefited from the so-called “war on poverty” are the ones that have been impoverished thanks to it. If you ever wonder why it is that people go hungry, in a world that has enough abundance to feed billions more, I would just like to point at the elephant in the room that everyone seems to be ignoring. Taxes are too high.

Taxes are too high. And that saps the spirit right out of people who are producers. The government is too intrusive. People aren’t free to enjoy all the fruits of their labor. And over time that just eats at you. It is a great disincentive. And I am not just talking about money here, when I am talking about taxes. I mean every way in which the government impedes people’s liberty. Yes, I am talking about taxes. But I am also talking about regulations over behavior between two or more consenting parties. What and how much can I produce? Who must I sell it to? Who must I buy it from? The list of questions could go on and on. But, hopefully, you get the point.

The problem is that each of these intrusive restrictions have been sold to the masses as actions for the people’s benefit. Our “benevolent” governments have designed an elaborate and ever-expanding system of rewards and punishments designed to benefit people. Who can I hire to work for me and for what rate? Or, if I want to work for someone else, they are required by law to pay me a minimum rate? Really? Why am I not free to work for less? All of these restrictions, these regulations, that we will be told are for our benefit, end up harming the very ones they are promised to benefit. People go hungry. And they lose their spirit.

That is why I have this one rule for anyone that wants my consent before they can govern me. Screw all your rewards and punishments! If you want to act for my benefit, indeed, for anyone’s benefit, then trust us; and leave us alone. I won’t consent to anything short of this.

Que Sera Sera

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used the example of the Tao to show us how to always be at ease in our lives. I take no small comfort in knowing that the Tao won’t let us slip through the meshes of its net. Today, we are talking, once again, about how to live a life of ease. And it begins with something we all must realize.

All things change. There may be nothing that we will more readily insist that we already know than this. Which is why I will repeat what I have been saying every chance I get. There is a huge difference between merely thinking we know something, and actually realizing it. We all readily give mental assent to the truth that all things change. But mere mental assent never seems to make any real difference in how we live our lives. If we continue to live our lives like things aren’t going to change, or, as if we can somehow control the future, then we won’t realize the life of ease that Lao Tzu keeps promoting.

There is only one way to live this life of ease. And that is to live in the present. Most of us spend a great deal of our energy on postponing our happiness and contentment to some unknown future time. Instead of living in this present moment, we are hoping that once we have set aside enough money, or gotten a few more things, then we can, and will, be happy. Of course, at the same time we are filled with hope about the future, we are also dogged by fear about what the future might bring. Having lived like that for years, I will tell all you young whippersnappers, that is no way to live. We postpone contentment because we just can’t bring ourselves to be content with right here and right now.

But all things change. And that future that fills you with hope and fear, is above your pay grade to do anything about. It is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place. As Lao Tzu explains it, when you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

Leave those tools alone. And choose to be content with this present moment. It is the only moment you have any guarantee of having, anyway. We need to be content with our simple and ordinary lives. Instead of insisting you need something more, realize you already have everything you need to live right here and right now.

Those hopes and fears we keep having are just phantoms, anyway. They aren’t real. The only thing that is real is this present moment. I know that from one moment to the next all things are in a constant state of flux. They are going to change. I can’t hold on to anything. And if I really realized this, there would be nothing I would hold on to. Just let things come and go. The only reason this sounds easier said than done is because we make it harder than it really is. We keep holding on and holding out for something better. Shape events as they happen. We know we can’t do anything about the past. It is done. We know this. But somehow we think that the future is something we can do something about? But how can we, when we have no idea what the future will bring?

It is often said that the only things that are certain are death and taxes. Lao Tzu is actually going to be talking about taxes in tomorrow’s chapter. But today, he addresses the certainty of death.

And what does he say? That the fear of death is holding us back from living life to the fullest in this present moment. Death is certain. Sorry to burst any bubbles here. But let’s just face it. That is what we can all be sure that the future holds. For each and every one of us. We can and do fear this. And it holds us back. But Lao Tzu has a bold and seldom used method for dealing with our impending death. Put those tools down. You can’t control the future. So stop trying to control it. Stop hoping in it. Stop fearing it. Stop being afraid of dying. For, if you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.

The Best Insurance Money Can’t Buy

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)

Today’s chapter is very comforting to me. We have been talking about the only thing that Lao Tzu teaches: simplicity, patience, and compassion. If we will put these into practice in our lives, something that Lao Tzu insists is easy to do, we will have a life of ease. Now, you may be wondering exactly what is meant by a life of ease? And I would have to answer that it probably varies from person to person. Lao Tzu doesn’t give us specifics on what form our life of ease will take. But he does tell us how to live a life of ease.

Today, he gives us the example of the Tao. The Tao is inside each and every one of us. It is the life force of every being in the Universe. In other words, when we rely on the Tao inside us, as our life force, the Tao lives through us, from the inside out. Because the Tao is always at ease, we can be always at ease. But how does that play out in our lives?

How is it that the Tao is always at ease? It overcomes without competing. We talked just a few short chapters ago about not-competing competing. That is to be like children at play. As far as children are concerned, it is always time to play. They can play all day; and they would prefer that we let them. We are the ones that place restrictions on their play time. We fill their lives with all sorts of programs. I know children that are pulled in every direction to do this and do that. Their fun is very scheduled. And you know what? It isn’t very fun for them. But what do they know? They are just children. We adults know better, right? We know what is good for them. We know that all these programs are going to enrich their lives. And we can get quite agitated when our children don’t want to get with our program for their lives. How dare they be so ungrateful!

But they are children. And, Lao Tzu, has a special place in his heart for children. Why? Because they know something that us adults have long ago forgotten. Children understand a life of ease. I will clue you in to what it looks like by telling you what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t adhere to a rigid schedule. It isn’t planned out. It isn’t goal-oriented. A life of ease is intuitive. Notice that the Tao answers without speaking a word. A life of ease is also spontaneous. The Tao arrives without being summoned. Finally, a life of ease goes with the flow. It doesn’t try to force things. It doesn’t interfere. You just let things come and go and shape events as they happen. Everything the Tao accomplishes, it accomplishes without a plan.

We really need to let our children be children. And, we need to return to being child-like, as well. That is what a life of ease is like.

But I began today’s commentary by saying that today’s chapter is comforting to me. And lest I forget, why it is I said that, here is why I find it comforting. It is because I screw up all of the time. And that could be very distressing to me. In fact, it has been. But Lao Tzu offers us some very good news, very comforting news, in today’s chapter. This Tao, that is always at ease, has a giant net that covers the whole Universe. That net encompasses me, and you, and every being in the Universe. When we mess up, as we are so inclined to do, the Tao has us covered. Yes, the meshes of the net are wide. Sometimes they seem so very wide that you might think that everything would slip through. Sometimes we think we have really royally done it this time. There is just no way to recover. But here is the comfort, my friends. The Tao doesn’t let a thing slip through. That’s the best insurance money can’t buy.

Where’s Your Sense Of Awe?

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

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

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

Yesterday, our predicament was a bad case of presumption. Presuming that we know is a disease; and we need to heal ourselves of all knowing. When we know that we don’t know, we are whole. And wholeness means we experience awe as we live our lives from the inside out. In other words, the Tao, inside us, lives through us. But there are other things that may ail us, besides thinking that we know, when we don’t. We can still lose our sense of connectedness with the Tao. That is the awe, I think, Lao Tzu is talking about in today’s chapter. When we lose our sense of awe, we begin to stop trusting ourselves. Our connectedness with the Tao, inside us, has been blocked. And things that we used to be able to do, with ease and intuitively, now become a chore. No longer able to rely on our own intuition, we start looking outside ourselves, to religion, or some other outside authority. And, we will start to become dependent on that outside authority.

That is Lao Tzu’s concern in today’s chapter. Remember, the Tao is still, very much inside each and every one of us. It hasn’t gone anywhere. And nothing is ailing it. It is our connectedness with it, that has been lost. But what is lost can be regained. Once your connectedness with the Tao has been restored, all will return to the way things should be.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Right now, Lao Tzu is concerned with our becoming dependent on authority. It is something that concerns the Master, as well. Because, even the Master, can be seen as an outside authority to be relied on, when we dare not rely on ourselves.

What the Master does here serves two functions. He doesn’t want the people to be depending on his authority, either. He wants to lead the people back to self-reliance; and that will mean helping them to regain their lost sense of awe. So, he takes a step back. This is so that people won’t be confused. And, it also teaches without teaching. What is it that we need to do when we have lost our connectedness with the Tao? We need to take a step back. Follow the example of the Master, here. Take a step back. Somewhere along the way, we got ahead of ourselves. We need to take a step back and assess the situation. Why have we grown dependent on some outside authority? What do they know, anyway? There isn’t anything new we need to learn. We just need to remember who and what we have always been. And, returning to our primal identity, we will have our sense of awe restored, once again.

When You Have A Bad Case Of Presumption

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)

Yesterday, I admitted that sometimes I still make the mistake of relying on my own cleverness, when “trying” to put Lao Tzu’s teachings into practice. I think I know better; I should know better. Gosh, you don’t think it could possibly be that I only think that I know?

That has been what I have been thinking about with all the hoopla pre- through post- Republican debate. Apparently record numbers watched both the early debate and the prime time debate. I was not watching. I just can’t bring myself to care. But from what I have gathered, I didn’t miss much. Just a crowded stage filled with those who presume they know all the answers. Donald Trump was apparently center stage. Fitting, since as far as carnivals go, he’d be the main attraction in the freak show. I don’t think he disappointed viewers, love him or hate him. And Ron Paul’s son, Rand, got into a heated discussion with Governor Christie over whether or not the 4th amendment to the Constitution matters; when the only people that Governor Christie can remember ever hugging, are 9-11 victims’ surviving family members. I think I have that one right. It is good to know that for neocons, everything still segues to 9-11. So predictable.

But what was I talking about again? Oh yes, how my cleverness derails me. And how little I really know. Presuming to know. Now, that is a disease. It ails a good number of us. 100 percent of the presidential candidates are hopelessly afflicted. To know that you don’t know – that would be something amounting to true knowledge. But we are sick; and until we realize we are sick, how can we move toward health?

Are you, like me, sick of being sick? The Master, once again, shows us the way to move toward health. She got sick of being sick. Doctors were of no use; so she became her own physician. She healed herself of all the presumption. Knowing that she doesn’t know, she is truly whole.

Easy? Try It, It’s Impossible

My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?

If you want to know me,
look inside your own heart.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 70, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Three chapters ago, Lao Tzu told us that he only has three things that he teaches, simplicity, patience, and compassion. It was in that chapter that he answered those who say his teaching is nonsense; or, lofty but impractical. He said, then, that those who look inside themselves, find this nonsense makes perfect sense; and, those who put his teachings into practice, find this loftiness has roots that go deep.

That is all there is to it. It is easy to understand and easy to put into practice.

Easy, huh? If it is so easy, then why is it that my intellect never can seem to grasp his teaching? Why is it that when I try to practice his teaching, I fail?

This is the dilemma that we are faced with in today’s chapter. Lao Tzu’s teachings are older than the world; how can I ever expect to grasp their meaning?

This, right here, is where a whole lot of people will just throw their hands up and walk away; muttering to themselves about why this is all a bunch of nonsense, after all. Sure, it’s lofty, but it just isn’t reasonable to expect anyone to be able to put it into practice.

Is it really hopeless? Lao Tzu insists that it is easy. But we try and we fail. So we try again. And, once again, we fail. I was stubborn, I just kept on trying and trying. And failing. What was I doing wrong? The fault was surely with me. I was making this too difficult.

I wish I could say that I figured it out a whole lot sooner than I did. What trouble that would have saved me! My problem was that I was looking for specific instructions on exactly what to do. But Lao Tzu couches his teaching in mysterious and vague language; using metaphors that should be easy (there is that word again) for me to understand. He teaches without words, preferring word pictures. A child could understand this! Why, just because I am an adult, am I having such difficulty? It took me way too long to figure out that understanding is easy; but knowing with my intellect was never going to happen. And, just like Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back,” I was failing, because I was trying; rather than simply doing. Yoda had some good advice for Luke. But he talked a lot like Lao Tzu, too. My intellect was getting in the way.

It is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Stop, right there. Now reread that last sentence. Don’t make it difficult. It is easy. It made perfect sense to me, once I looked inside myself. And once I stopped trying to practice his teachings, I stopped failing. Okay, that was a bit of a stretch. Actually, I still slip up from time to time. I begin to rely on my cleverness. And then I find myself trying and failing again. But that doesn’t happen as often, or as regularly, now. Thank goodness!

Being simple in your actions and your thoughts. Being patient with your friends and your enemies. Being compassionate toward yourself. These aren’t something to try to put into practice. They are simply something to practice. And I can’t begin to tell you how to do it. Lao Tzu never does, either.

That was my problem all along. What does simplicity mean? What is patience? What is compassion? Forget the dictionary meanings. This isn’t something that is static. It is dynamic. It is a life lived, from the inside out, day in and day out. It means letting things come and go, without interfering or trying to control. It is the joy of shaping events, as they happen, effortlessly. It is doing not-doing and knowing not-knowing and not-competing competing. It is the art of living. And, it is a life of ease.

So, if you want to know this life of ease, look inside your own heart. And, remember, there is no try; there is only do, or not do.

 

 

Don’t Underestimate Your Enemy

The generals have a saying:
‘Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.”

This is called going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.

There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself.

When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 69, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking about what Lao Tzu says are our three greatest treasures. Simplicity in our actions and in our thoughts. Patience with both our friends and our enemies. Compassion toward ourselves. Lao Tzu tells us that this is really all that he teaches.

Yesterday, when he was talking about the virtue of non-competition, he was teaching us how to put into practice this teaching. The Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her. We should be like children at play when we compete. This is how to be in harmony with the Tao, and guard our greatest treasures.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu offered up four examples of people who embody the virtue of not-competing competing. One of these examples was the best general, who enters the mind of his enemy. Today, Lao Tzu expands on this idea of how to be the very best in military strategy.

Now, I am not a military strategist. I have never “served” in the armed forces; and I don’t purport to know anything of military strategy. I am merely going with what Lao Tzu says in today’s chapter. I am presuming that he knew something of what he was speaking. Lao Tzu tells us that the generals have a saying. Generals, having achieved the highest rank among their peers, obviously do know something of military strategy. Given my own ignorance of military strategy, I have no problem deferring to those that do know.

The generals have a saying: “Rather than make the first move, it is better to wait and see. Rather than advance an inch, it is better to retreat a yard.” How does this saying get applied in military strategy? Remember, yesterday, when Lao Tzu said the best general enters the mind of his enemy. Don’t be so eager to make the first move. Wait and see what your supposed enemy is thinking, what they are going to do. If you act in haste, if you rush into action, you will fail. Be patient. Wait and see. Too often, we fail to practice patience, one of our three greatest treasures. The very idea that it would be better to retreat a yard than to advance an inch, seems ludicrous to us. But the generals, I believe, know something more than the rest of us, of military strategy. They understand how to go forward without advancing. If we can push back without having to resort to the use of weapons, wouldn’t we want to?

What the generals are ever on their guard against is underestimating their enemy. That is why patience is so very important. I would wager that every great battle, was lost because the losing side underestimated their enemy. Lao Tzu tells us there is no greater misfortune than underestimating the enemy. But then he immediately tells us exactly what he means by underestimating the enemy. It means, thinking that he is evil. Don’t fail to get Lao Tzu’s point here. The greatest misfortune isn’t that the battle was lost. The greatest misfortune is thinking your enemy, a fellow human being, is evil. When you do that, you destroy your three treasures; and, become an enemy yourself.

We need to guard our three greatest treasures. That means putting them into practice everyday of our lives. When two great forces oppose each other, Lao Tzu insists, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.

To know how to yield is to be strong. It might just be the highest of virtues. It requires simplicity in both our actions and our thoughts. It requires patience with both our friends and our enemies. And, it requires compassion toward ourselves. Don’t underestimate your enemy. And, don’t underestimate your three greatest treasures.