All posts by Chuck Gullion

libertariantaoist is a blogger living in the Missouri Ozarks. He enjoys tutoring children and sitting outside in his backyard smoking his pipe while observing nature. He blogs a chapter each day from Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" (81 chapters in all); and adds his own commentary, interpreting current events from his own unique libertarian and taoist perspective.

What Has Become Of 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 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)

Today, Lao Tzu continues talking about this sickness of the heart we have been talking about the last couple of days. I know that most of my friends don’t know that they don’t know; and, it was an important realization on my own part to come to that realization. As long as you think you know, you have a problem that you aren’t even aware that you have. It is a condition of the heart. And, the whole world seems to be afflicted with it.

People, Lao Tzu says, have lost their sense of awe. That is why they turn to religion. I know that is going to be offensive to some of my religious friends. But, am I really attacking religion here? I don’t think so. All I am really trying to point out is that perhaps, just perhaps, you are treating a symptom rather than the actual problem. You are looking for answers. Good for you. But, why is it that you have lost your sense of awe? Have you actually addressed that problem? Here is what Lao Tzu has already told us: Look inside yourself for the answer; look inside your own heart; that is where you will find the answers. When we are looking outside ourselves we are only putting band aids on large gaping wounds.

But, people no longer trust themselves. That is the other insight that Lao Tzu is giving us today. We don’t trust ourselves. That is why we no longer are looking within for answers. That is why we don’t address the condition of our heart. We don’t trust ourselves. Is it because we don’t think we can do what it takes to fix things? Or, is it that we don’t want to do what it takes to fix things? Maybe, it is some combination of those two things. I just know that we no longer trust ourselves. And, that is how we began to trust in authority.

Now, anyone that knows me, knows that I am skeptical of all authority. Skeptical, I think, is a very good attitude to have toward authority of every kind. I think we, as humans, if we are healthy, will have a healthy skepticism of authority. The fact that so many have abandoned that skepticism is a sure sign that we are dealing with a heart problem.

So, what do I do? Lao Tzu provides me with the example of the Master. He always brings him or her into the discussion, whenever he is wanting to flesh out what must be done in these circumstances. And the Master, when he finds the people in our present situation, begins by taking a step back. Let’s avoid confusion. That is the point.

There is no teaching to teach. There is nothing which needs to be learned. All we can do is take that step back, and look inside ourselves, and deal with the condition of our own hearts. “But what about everybody else? What about them? What can I do for them?” It isn’t about what everybody else is doing. It isn’t about the condition of their hearts. Oh, you can be sure, their hearts are just as sick as yours. But, you aren’t their physician. And, they aren’t yours. Just take care of your own. Then, serve as an example of how to be your own physician. The people will find their own way.

Is There A Doctor In The House?

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)

One of the main themes of philosophical Taoism is the practice of not-knowing. We have talked about it before, many times. But, once again, not-knowing doesn’t mean that nothing is known. What it does mean is coming to the realization that thinking you know is a problem. Lao Tzu has said before that the ancient Masters kindly taught the people to not-know. And he explained, then, what he meant. It is when they think that they know the answers that people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, then they can find their own way.

This is what today’s chapter is all about. And, it is appropriate, given that yesterday, Lao Tzu told us that our intellect was of no use in trying to understand Lao Tzu’s teaching. It is a matter of the heart. Not-knowing, or knowing that we don’t know, is true knowledge. Presuming to know, this is a disease. Thinking that we already know, that seems to be the affliction from which most of humanity regularly suffers.

Lao Tzu is wanting to guide us to true knowledge because we are afflicted with that disease. But, notice that unlike so many self-help gurus, Lao Tzu isn’t trying to manipulate us. He only seeks to make us aware that we are sick. Once we realize that, then we can move toward health. You don’t have to seek out somebody else to be your physician; you can be your own physician. You truly can find your own way; once you have been healed of all knowing. And, only you can do that healing. We said yesterday, that it is a matter of the heart. If you want to be truly whole, you need to get to the heart of the matter; and, that is deep within your own self.

That is where I encouraged you to look, just yesterday. And, that is where you will find the answers you seek.

Matters Of The Heart, or “May The Force Be With You.”

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 heart.

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

A few chapters back, Lao Tzu was addressing those that think his teaching is nonsense; and, those that think it is lofty, but impractical. He said his teachings are for those who look inside themselves. Today, he is continuing on that theme.

I am thinking back to when I first started reading through the Tao Te Ching; and the problems I encountered with trying to grasp philosophical Taoism. As I read through, and reread, accessing multiple translations, I kept thinking, “This should be easier to understand. I know I am making this way too difficult.” But that didn’t stop me from trying to use my intellect to grasp what Lao Tzu was trying to teach.

And, I kept trying to put it into practice. But, that never seemed to be going anywhere, either. I encountered today’s chapter in my reading; and, quite frankly, I didn’t immediately get it. Lao Tzu sounded anti-intellectual to me. And, he also sounded a little high and mighty. What is this? “My teachings are older than the world. How can you grasp their meaning.” That was a little off putting. But, I stuck it out.

What did it take for me to “get it”? A whole lot of time and a lot of failed attempts. I am not going to say that was all a huge waste. Yes, I should have figured it out a whole lot sooner. But, we all have our own journeys to take. And, anything I have experienced along the way, can’t be wasted; it got me here, after all.

What Lao Tzu is trying to impress on us, and what it took me a very long time to get, is that his teachings are matters of the heart. “If you want to know me, look inside your heart.” Your mind isn’t going to grasp it. And, all the “trying” you can muster, is not the way. This is about your heart.

You want to understand Lao Tzu? You need to spend some time exploring your own heart. You want to put his teachings into practice? Don’t try, just do… I know this all sounds like something Yoda might say. But Yoda was right. You need to find the real you. And that is a heart issue. Once you have that figured out, you’re on your way. And, may the Force be with you.

Knowing How To Yield Is Our Strength

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 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)

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu talked about our three greatest treasures: simplicity in our actions and our thoughts, patience with both our friends and our enemies, and compassion toward ourselves. In yesterday’s chapter, he talked about the virtue of non-competition; and, one of the examples he used to illustrate the embodiment of that virtue, or being the best that you can be, is to be like a general entering the mind of his enemy. Today, he expands on the theme; with generals talking about the art of conflict resolution.

One of the realities that face us as imperfect beings, living in an imperfect world, is that there are going to be conflicts to be resolved. Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have any enemies. In our less than ideal world, the most that I could hope for would be that we don’t go about making enemies for ourselves. But, I am a realist, not an idealist. I understand that war is the health of the State; and, our ruling elite thrives on endless conflict.

Still, there are lessons that could be learned from today’s chapter for anyone interested in conflict resolution. And, even if the powers that be forsake this, we can still apply it to our own lives.

Consider what the generals have to say: “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.” Lao Tzu says, “This is called going forward without advancing, pushing back without using weapons.”

What really frustrates me about this paragraph is that it seems so very contrary to the way things are actually done in our world. I want to believe that this is realistic. Because, like I said, I am not an idealist. I keep looking for a great awakening, a re-imagining, of how we, as human beings, are going to interact together in this world. As if the fact we are living in a police-state isn’t bad enough, I keep seeing and hearing from apologists for the police and the State. And, some of these apologists are people I dearly love. But, I am not going to make today’s blog post about the ignorance and apathy that I believe is mostly responsible for maintaining the status quo.

Perhaps, if I did, it would be educational and informative. But, I have already said that is not what my blog posts are about. No. Instead, I want to follow Lao Tzu’s advice, and tell you of the dangers of underestimating your enemies. To Lao Tzu, it is the greatest misfortune of them all. Just having an enemy should be bad enough. But, when you compound that by thinking your enemies are evil? That is when you are in danger of not just losing, but destroying, your three greatest treasures. That is when you become an enemy yourself.

We need to start paying attention to what the generals have to say about conflict resolution. We need to start working to put this into practice in our own lives. Serving as an example of the art of living in our world. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We need to let it begin with each one of us, doing our part. If I want a great awakening, I need to wake up. If I want a re-imagining, I better start employing my own imagination. This is something I have been thinking and saying for sometime now: If we humans don’t evolve, we are going to become extinct.

But, the obvious question that is going to arise is, “How? How do we evolve?” This is a good question. I have asked it, myself. And, this is what I think Lao Tzu is trying to answer when he talks about the generals, and their strategies for victory. “When two great forces oppose each other, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.”

Evolution isn’t going to be forced on us. Still, we resist it at our own peril. But, if we let it happen, if we know how to yield, then we will go forward; and that will be a great advance for us all.

What’s wrong with competition?

The best athlete wants his opponent at his best.
The best general enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman serves the communal good.
The best leader follows the will of the people.

All of them embody the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this, they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen MItchell)

A couple of days ago, in chapter 66, Lao Tzu was speaking of the Master, our ideal leader, as someone who competes with no one, and no one competes with her. I barely touched on this idea of non-competition in my commentary that day. Mostly, it was because I knew today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu would more fully explore the virtue of non-competition, was upcoming. And, here we are.

And once again, I think it is necessary to clarify definitions right at the very beginning. As when Lao Tzu talks of not-doing, he doesn’t mean that nothing is done; and, when he talks of not-knowing, he doesn’t mean nothing is known; when he speaks of non-competition he doesn’t mean that there isn’t any competition.

What he does mean is competition that is done in the spirit of play, like children do. This competition, which Lao Tzu refers to as non-competition, is being in harmony with the Tao. It is the freedom to be your very best whatever you are. I like that he likens it to children at play. Children in all their innocence, still, with their imaginations, largely intact. Earlier, Lao Tzu referred to newborns as the epitome of our primal oneness with the Tao. Children are still at one with the way things are. They haven’t yet become enamored with the illusion. They still do, most everything that they do, intuitively. It is only after years of conditioning that we lose our way.

Children playing is our reference for embodying the virtue of non-competition. Do you want to be your very best? Take your cue from the little ones. I think that is why I like working with children so much. I learn so very much. Or, actually, it is more like remembering. I remember things I had long ago forgotten. In all the hustle and bustle of trying to be grown up, we forget what it was like. We forget where we have come from. We forget who we are.

Lao Tzu wants us to remember. That is why he keeps pointing at the children. That is why he says, “Look there, they get it. Embody the Tao with them.”

So, how do us grown-ups do that? After giving us the example of the Master a couple of chapters ago, he goes on to give us four more examples today. You want an example of someone who really loves to compete? Check out athletes. They love to compete. And, the very best athlete wants his opponent at his best. You want to be your best? Then want everyone else to be at their best. That is when the competition is best.

But, that’s just sports. It is easy to see sports as play. What about these other examples? The best general enters the mind of his enemy. Is this just play? War is a serious business. But, what if you could avoid it? The best general certainly tries to. That is the point of entering the mind of your enemy. What if we could see things from their point of view? Walk a few steps in their shoes. Maybe this conflict could be resolved without bloodshed.

The best businessman serves the communal good. I seem to hear all the time from people complaining about big, bad businessmen that are only out to serve their own needs. They are only interested in maximizing their profits. And, what is even worse, they don’t care if they screw their employees, their customers, and future generations, because of their greed. They are using up all our natural resources and polluting our air, lakes, and streams. And they don’t care, as long as they can roll around in all that cash. I don’t doubt there are some out there that come pretty damn close to fitting that stereotype.

But how stupid can they be, if they do? What are the long-term advantages of that kind of attitude? The only way that I can come up with to make that kind of attitude profitable would be if the State sanctioned it. By cartelizing industries and erecting barriers to competition. But that isn’t what Lao Tzu was envisioning. He understood that the very best businessmen serve the communal good. They know what is good for the whole community is good for them. They are going to treat their employees and their customers well; because if they don’t, they won’t continue long. They aren’t going to use up all their resources like there is no tomorrow; because then there won’t be a tomorrow.

Finally, the best leader follows the will of the people. As I have said before, the Tao Te Ching is a manual for would-be leaders in the art of living. The best leader is one who serves. One who follows. It is that humility that Lao Tzu keeps harping on. The best leader doesn’t compete to be on top. Or, to be first. They choose the path of humility. And the people come to them. This is the virtue of non-competition. You compete with no one. And no one competes with you.

I’m Making This One Personal

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, Patience, Compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

As I promised yesterday, today’s post is going to address the criticism that Lao Tzu’s teaching is either nonsense, or lofty but impractical. Not only is that what today’s chapter in the Tao Te Ching is about, it is also how I have been feeling in the last few days about my experiences as I have been going down my own news feed on my personal Facebook. Timing really is everything. It never ceases to amaze me how timely these chapters are in my everyday life.

I even posted on my own Facebook feed about the crossroads that I feel that I am at. It highlights the stark differences for me between my tumblr blog and my Facebook. And I don’t mean to disparage my Facebook family, friends, and acquaintances in this post. I post this link every morning to Facebook, in the hopes of reaching out to a very different audience from my tumblr followers. And I understand completely the very different audiences these two social mediums reach.

With tumblr, I get to choose what is going to appear on my dashboard. I choose who to follow very deliberately. It isn’t that I am limiting who I follow to those that agree with me. But I do limit it to people that are engaged enough in the political process that even if I don’t agree with you 100 percent of the time, I at least think you are being thoughtful (I mean full of thought, not necessarily caring); and, I can respect that you have engaged in some measure of critical thinking to arrive at your opinions. I don’t know the vast majority of you, personally. And that means, when you are posting outrageous content, I can very easily ignore you.

Facebook is an entirely different beast. With Facebook, the purpose is for me to stay connected with people I actually have come to know (usually personally) over my many years. Some of those people I have known for thirty, forty, or even 50 years. It is impossible to interact in any meaningful way other than through Facebook. And there is a wide spectrum of political and philosophical belief systems that are expressed there; most of which, to put it frankly, are so outside what I have come to believe is actual reality, that I can’t begin to engage in meaningful dialog with more than a small handful of them. The cognitive dissonance that I encounter as I scroll down my Facebook news feed is so palpable that I sometimes want to vomit.

Lao Tzu has been talking about the need for humility in leaders. And humility is probably for me, both the highest of virtues, and the one I feel about as far removed from as I can possibly be. I don’t often bare my soul to anyone else, let alone publicly, but I am baring my soul with this post today. Anyone that knows me personally, knows that I like to use self-deprecating humor all of the time. And, I suspect that many of you that know me casually, probably think I do that because I have a very low self esteem. Au contraire. The demon that I have always wrestled with, at least all of my adult life, has never been with too low an opinion of myself. It has always been that I have too high an opinion of myself. What frustrates me as I scroll down Facebook, is that I start to feel superior. And that is not a demon I want to feed. Because I believe very strongly in the need for humility.

And that is why I entertain the idea from time to time that I just want to delete my Facebook profile and be done with the lot of you. Now, I was much more gracious in my post yesterday on Facebook. And I consequently had comments, private messages, and even phone calls, from family and friends, asking me to not leave. To that outpouring of support, I would like to offer my deepest and most humble gratitude.

I won’t leave. I am going to simply have to figure out a way to avoid being “triggered” by ignorant posts and comments. I have always believed very strongly in education. That education was the cure for ignorance. And, because I think so highly of myself, I thought where I encountered ignorance, I would just need to counter it with education.

But, as I continue to glean the lessons that Lao Tzu taught so many centuries ago, I have come to understand that the problem isn’t so much that the people don’t know, as that they don’t know that they don’t know. And, for this level of ignorance the answer isn’t education. It is teaching people to not-know. At least that is how Lao Tzu puts it.

The point of my posts is not to educate and to inform. It is to kindly lead you to a realization that you don’t know. Or, to put it a different way, to know that you don’t know. That requires the humility that Lao Tzu has been talking about. The humility that I consider the highest of virtues, simply because I haven’t attained it.

Lao Tzu’s point in writing the Tao Te Ching is to train leaders in the art of living; so, they can be good leaders. He got the same kind of reactions to his teachings that I feel I get, having adopted philosophical taoism for myself. Some people think it is pure nonsense. Others call it lofty, but they don’t see its practical value. What can I say or do to address this criticism?

All I can really DO is model the art of living for all the world to see. All I can really SAY is that for those of us who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense. And, for those of us that have put it into practice, this loftiness has roots that go deep. You think it is impractical when you haven’t even tried it? And, I think it is impractical to continue living your life doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result.

Lao Tzu has just three things to teach. Just three, and no more. And he calls these our three greatest treasures. If, we will look for, and find them, inside ourselves. What are they? The treasure of being simple in our actions and our thoughts. The treasure of being patient with both our friends and our enemies. And, the treasure of being compassionate toward ourselves.

These are treasures that I need to find inside myself. I am not just pointing fingers at all of you. I am writing this excellent advice to myself. It is me, first of all, that needs to know that I don’t know. That is the position of humility I am going for.

When I practice true simplicity, I return to the source of being. When I practice true patience, I accord with the way things are. And, when I practice true compassion, I reconcile all beings in the world. That is the mark of a true leader. It is the pinnacle. And, no matter how highly I regard myself, I always see that pinnacle a way’s off, and much higher.

One More Lesson On The Importance Of Humility

All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.

Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about teaching people to not-know. Our problem is, and always has been, that we think we know. We don’t know that we don’t know. That is our ignorance and our pride.

Today, we continue with the training of leaders in the art of living; so, they can serve as an example to all the people. That is what Lao Tzu means about the art of governing. It is the art of serving. This is what separates someone who wants to be a leader from someone who wants to be a ruler. We call our elected rulers, public servants. But that has always been a misnomer. They have always, and will always, only serve their own interests.

A leader doesn’t seek to be first. Instead, she always places herself last. A leader doesn’t seek to be on top. Instead, she always places herself beneath. A leader chooses the path of humility. She understands that humility is what gives the sea its power. Streams don’t flow uphill. So, she places herself below the people. From that position, all the people will naturally come to her. She has learned to follow the people; and thus, she can lead them.

Tomorrow, I am going to address the criticism that these teachings are either utter nonsense, or lofty and impractical. Yeah, I cheated and I looked ahead to see what the next chapter was going to be about. But for today, I really want to address this need to practice humility. Lao Tzu tells us that though the Master is above the people, no one feels oppressed. That even though she goes ahead of the people, no one feels manipulated. This is important to understand because I think we don’t actually have any working knowledge of what humility looks like in the public sector.

Everyone seems to always be competing with each other to see who can come out on top and stay on top. And where does all this get us? Our history is replete with people feeling manipulated and oppressed. That is what the ruling class does to us. But, I survey my Facebook news feed, and the people seem entirely ignorant of the reality that they are being manipulated and oppressed. Don’t misunderstand me, they are showing all the signs of a people that are manipulated and oppressed. But, they don’t know it. If they knew something was afflicting them, no doubt they’d seek out a physician. Is ignorance bliss? They don’t seem very blissful to me.

This is the thing that is bothering me thwhich I was talking about yesterday. I am torn between wanting the people to know, and Lao Tzu’s teaching them to not-know. The cognitive dissonance is so strong. How can I educate them? No, Lao Tzu is right. It is much better to teach them to not-know. Their problem isn’t so much that they don’t know, as it is that they think they know.

I want the people to not be oppressed. I want the people to not be manipulated. I want leaders for which the whole world will be grateful.

Keep It Simple, Stupid.

The ancient Masters didn’t
try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own nature.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Something of which I am constantly reminding myself, is that the Tao Te Ching is intended to be taken as one whole unit. Lao Tzu originally wrote it without any chapter divisions; and, he no doubt, intended it to be read in one sitting. Later, editors came along and put in the chapter divisions. Usually, I find that helpful. It allows me, for instance, to take just a chapter each day; and, use it for a launching point for my own ramblings. The downside, though, is that I am gaining new readers all the time; and they are starting in the middle of the journey. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have had conversations with friends in real life, who have told me, “I am trying to read your blog posts, and I am lost.” This is frustrating to me. I don’t really have the best of solutions to offer them. Other than, “Go back to chapter one.” Context rules. I certainly didn’t begin in the middle of the journey. I had to start at the beginning.

I have been thinking of this the last couple of days, because that is true of so much more than my blog posts. Other bloggers are not bound by a particular day’s chapter; but, they are writing about current events; and, those current events didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a whole lot of historical context that they understand as they are writing; and, I suspect they are hoping their readers are not completely ignorant of that history.

I have been having conversations, a lot of conversations, just recently with both friends and acquaintances, not to mention perfect strangers on other social media, where I have been discussing current events; and trying to apply the teachings of Lao Tzu, given the historical context of what is going on in the world. Just yesterday, I was told my thinking was overly simplistic and hopelessly naive. That was before I took a little bit of time to school her in the history of U.S. imperialism and hegemony over the last 100 years.

Why did I do that? And what does it have to do with today’s chapter? It has to do with the problem of ignorance. And Lao Tzu has his own unique way of addressing it. He said, “The ancient Masters didn’t try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know.” What the…? I have always believed so strongly in education as the cure for ignorance. What can Lao Tzu possibly mean?

But, as is usually the case, I am looking at this all wrong. Just like when Lao Tzu says to not-do, he doesn’t actually mean that nothing is going to be done; when he says to not-know, he doesn’t mean that nothing is going to be learned. I am convinced that Lao Tzu strikes at the roots while we are off looking at the branches. I might be treating a symptom of a problem by hacking at the branches. But, that tree isn’t going to give up so easily; if I don’t deal with the root.

So, let’s look at the root with Lao Tzu. “When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.” That is dealing with the root.

People are ignorant. What do you do? The problem with the ignorant is that they don’t know that they don’t know. This is what makes them ignorant. They think they know the answers. And, when they already know the answers, you can’t very easily point out where they are mistaken, and guide them to the truth. Because, they know; and, they are downright willful about it.

That reminds me of many, many years ago when I was in high school. Yes, boys and girls, that was back when we had to walk miles and miles to school in several feet of snow, barefoot, and all uphill, both ways. No, I am just kidding. That was the conditions when my Dad was a boy. Anyway, we were given this anecdote of what it means to navigate through high school: “When you are a Freshman, you don’t know anything; but, you don’t know that you don’t know anything. When you are a Sophomore, you still don’t know anything; but, you know that you don’t know anything. When you are a Junior you now know; but, you don’t know that you know. And, when you are a Senior, you know; and, you know that you know.” Sometimes, I think where our education system is failing us is that we don’t kick everyone out when they are sophomores. I think Lao Tzu would agree. It is then, that people can figure things out for themselves.

All I was really trying to accomplish yesterday, with my short history lesson, was to encourage the person to question whether they really did know. “Hmmmm, maybe I don’t know?” I was merely trying to plant that seed of doubt. Because, if they can come to a point where they know that they don’t know, then they can find their own way. I am not looking to manipulate here. Guide, yes; manipulate, no. Lao Tzu honestly believes that people can find their own way. Just like he honestly believes that the world can govern itself. And yes, I get that that is overly simplistic and hopelessly naive. But, I am just simple and naive enough to agree with him.

Now, why is any of this important? It is important because Lao Tzu is still talking about learning how to govern well. Remember, Lao Tzu is training leaders in the art of living. So they can then serve as an example for everyone else. He is speaking to us would-be leaders and telling us that we need to avoid being clever or rich. If you want to guide the people you will find that the simplest pattern is the clearest. Yes, that was how they said “Keep It Simple, Stupid” in Lao Tzu’s day.

If we (us would-be leaders) will be content with an ordinary life, we can show all the people (by our example) the way back to their own nature. That is teaching them to not-know. To realize that they don’t know. Then they can find their own way. And the world can govern itself.


Overly Simplistic And Hopelessly Naive

What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.

Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts beneath your feet.

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore, the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains calm at the end
as at the beginning
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus, he can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about the practice of effortless action. Acting without doing. Working without effort. And, he told us how to go about that in a practical way. Think of the small as large. And, think of the few as many. By thinking that way, we can confront the difficult while it is still easy. We break whatever it is we want to achieve (the great task before us) into a series of small acts.

Today, he is continuing with this idea, interweaving metaphor with practical advice. Today’s chapter is one of the more often quoted from, chapters of the Tao Te Ching. We have often heard about that giant pine tree starting from a tiny sprout. And, the journey of a thousand miles beginning with your first step.

When Lao Tzu is talking about tiny sprouts growing into giant pine trees, I can’t help but think that I shouldn’t despise small beginnings. And, when I know that the journey before me is long, I am encouraged not to be overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. Just start at the very beginning. The ground beneath my feet, is the place to begin.

These are things that we have already heard time and time again. We already know this. And yet, Lao Tzu feels the need to remind us again. Here is another short list of things that we already know. But somehow fail to apply to our own lives. It is easy to nourish things that are already rooted. The best time to correct things is while the mistakes made are still recent. What is brittle is easily shattered. And, while something is still small, it can easily be scattered in the wind.

If we would just apply these truths to our own lives, we could prevent trouble before it arises. We would plan and put things in order, beforehand. Don’t be discouraged by the length of the journey before you. And don’t despise small beginnings.

What Lao Tzu is doing here, is helping us to do whatever it is we do, effortlessly. Will we listen? Will we let things take their course. That shouldn’t be such a novel concept. Planning is good. But only planning that takes into consideration, and allows for, letting things take their course.

This is where the central planners always seem to get it wrong. They seem incapable of an appreciation for the law of unintended consequences. They largely confuse cause and effect. And, they always believe that the end justifies the means.

Not despising small beginnings, and not being discouraged by the long journey, is certainly important. But letting things take their own course is how we can stay grounded in reality. If we rush into action, we will fail. If we try to grasp things, we will lose them. If we try to force a project to completion, we can end up ruining what was almost ripe. Take a moment to reflect on that last sentence. It was almost ripe. If only we hadn’t rushed it. If only we had had the patience to wait. If only we had let things take their own course.

And, just to help us better to understand, Lao Tzu brings in the Master to be our example. Take action by letting things take their course. Take your cue from nature. Remain calm from beginning to end. Remember, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Don’t let desires rob you of life’s simple pleasures.

Perhaps this all seems overly simplistic and even hopelessly naive to you. I know I posted the question on my blog about why is it so hard to practice the Golden Rule. To me it is just that simple. We tend to always want to make everything about others. But Lao Tzu is speaking to me. To you. To each one of us as individuals. What are you going to do? Not, what about Tom, Dick or Harry?

I have come to love the Tao. You could say that there is nothing else I care about. It speaks to me of spontaneous order emerging out of the chaos. And, free people interacting peacefully and voluntarily.

That is what the Tao means to me. By centering myself in it, and being one with it, I can truly care for all things.






The Secret To My Happy Life

Act without doing; work without effort.
Think of the small as large and the few as many.
Confront the difficult while it is still easy.
Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus, she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus, problems are no problem for her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 63, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I could write every day about the political philosophy of Lao Tzu. And, Lao Tzu certainly gives me plenty of opportunities to do just that; as I go through the Tao Te Ching, one chapter at a time each day. Writing on those chapters is easy for me to do. It isn’t anything that hasn’t been core principles in my thinking for as long as I have been thinking politically. But I have come to enjoy chapters like this one today, which are much more radical for me. They are the ones that got me to challenge core beliefs about the way things are. They are the ones that introduced me to the notion that things aren’t what they appear to be. That there is an eternal reality that I wasn’t even aware of, but was there, present, whether I was aware of it, or not.

I was raised in the protestant work ethic, that idolized work. Making it, almost an end in itself. It has only been in the last two or three years, that I began to see that work was not an end, but a means to an end. Then, I started questioning whether the means was really helping me to get to the end, or whether it was more of a hindrance to achieving the end. That caused me to rethink how I perceived the purpose of work.

I needed chapters like today’s where Lao Tzu is talking about effortless action. Today’s chapter isn’t the first time he has talked about this. It is a core tenet of philosophical Taoism. But, it was the one thing that I found most difficult for me to grasp. I said it was only in the last two or three years, but this has been going on a lot longer than that. My whole life I have been questioning accepted norms; but then, pressed by the needs of my present circumstances, I put serious questioning on the back burner.

I know when my father was nearing the end of his life, back in the last six months of 2002, I was being forced to look for answers. Here was my father, my hero, reduced to almost helplessness. And he told me on more than one occasion that his own life had been a failure. I tried to soothe him by telling him that he had managed to put his children through college. We were all doing well. He was nearly out of debt. There was a lot of reason to say that he had succeeded in life. But he knew better. He understood then, at the end of his life, what I needed to understand at a much younger age. There are things that are so much more important. Something that he had always put off to the future, that he had toiled away at for all of his life, and never got to enjoy.

And he died, and I was left with no immediate answers. I was freshly divorced. Raising two children all by myself. Working 50-60 hours a week, and trying to homeschool my children, too. Yes, those questions had to wait. I would put them off and put them off, until my children were both grown. Even then, it took life throwing me a curve, when I was swinging at a fast ball, for me to finally find my whole world shaken to the point that I could no longer put off considering those questions again.

That was when I encountered Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. And that, my friends, has made all the difference. I loved Lao Tzu’s obvious libertarianism. I ate that up. That was easy. He was just saying what I already believed. But I spent a great deal of time trying to understand wu-wei, the practice of effortless action. It wasn’t easy. It was so very different from the glorification of work with which I had been raised. But my own father’s doubts at the end of his life, nagged at me. I reasoned that if Lao Tzu was right about libertarianism, certainly he could be right about this. So, I kept at it.

And that is how I got to where I am today.

All my adult life I had been reaching for the great. And I never achieved greatness. When I ran into difficulty, it only made all my work that much more difficult. But that was my lot; or, so I thought. I spent a great deal of my life clinging to whatever comfort I had; and, cursing the darkness, when problems arose; that I felt I had no way of working through. Though work through them I must; my children were depending on me, after all. Does life really have to be a drudgery? Is that what life is all about? Is this life really worth living?

It did finally “click” with me. Oh, I can’t tell you the exact day and hour that it did. Aren’t those moments supposed to be able to be well documented? Well, mine wasn’t. I don’t even think it was a direct result of this particular chapter in the Tao Te Ching. I don’t think it was anything that I learned at all. I think it had a whole lot to do with a whole lot of unlearning that I was doing. Every day another little something was dropped, until I arrived at non-action. Wu-wei.

Now, I can act without doing. Now, I can work without effort. I think of the small as large and the few as many. This is important guys. We get overwhelmed by the great task. Lao Tzu is wanting to spare us from that. Confronting the difficult while it is still easy, became easy. It didn’t used to be. I started accomplishing great tasks by a series of small acts.

Okay, that last paragraph was all just repeating Lao Tzu verbatim. How do I flesh this out for you? I left behind the daily grind of participating in the labor force. Now, I work for myself. I do what I love to do, and I only do what I love to do. The work that I do gives me pleasure, where before it was drudgery. I tutor children, small children. Most of you that have been following me for very long, know that already, because I talk about it from time to time.

Tutoring takes up about 16 hours out of every week. The rest of my time is spent in leisure. Leisure was always a luxury that I could ill afford. That is that protestant work ethic talking. But my Dad never had time for leisure; and, I wasn’t going to wait to the end of my life to discover that I had wasted mine, too. My leisure is spent outside whenever I can. I love to watch my garden grow. Or, just sitting outside in the sunshine, smoking my pipe, and watching the turmoil of beings. When I am inside, I am on the internet. Or, reading. Or, spending time with friends. Or, whatever I want. Because now, I have the time to do it all. And that makes living an art.

No, I don’t have a whole lot of money. And I probably never will. But, voluntary poverty isn’t all that bad; when you quit trying to cling to your own comfort. I make enough to keep a roof over my head, plenty of good food to eat. And enough to spend on, well, me. I am not making anyone else wealthy. But, I do think I am offering a much needed service to the parents that entrust me with their children. And, I don’t take any handouts from the State. So, I think I am a net positive for the world in which I live. And, those pesky problems? Well, they are no longer a problem.