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 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 for nothing but the Tao.
Thus, he can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is a continuation of the theme of yesterday’s chapter. It is a chapter filled with both encouragement and caution. What Lao Tzu is really trying to help us with is making all our actions, effortless.
How effortless? Well, how easy is it to nourish something that is already rooted? How easy is it to correct a mistake that was made only recently? How easily can you break something that is brittle? How easy is it to scatter something that is small?
We can, through learning from experience, come to understand how to prevent trouble before it even arises. That will take a certain wisdom that we gain through our experiences. But through careful planning, understanding that the way things are is the way things are, we can put things in order, before they exist.
That is why Lao Tzu invokes the familiar metaphor of the giant pine tree and the journey of a thousand miles. Even those who have never heard of Lao Tzu, or philosophical Taoism have heard these proverbs. That giant pine tree had to begin as something very small. Just a tiny sprout. And that long journey before you? It begins with the ground beneath your feet. So, don’t despise your small beginning. And don’t get overwhelmed at the enormity of the journey. Just take that first step. Then take the next.
But, like I said before, we need to understand the way things are. Rushing into action is a sure fire way to fail. And grasping at things is a great way to lose them. Sometimes, we don’t take things slow in the beginning. Feel things out. See the direction the current is actually going. Don’t rush. You’ll find yourself grasping.
Sometimes, we start out well enough, but then we get anxious to get things done before it is time. We’ll try to force some project to completion and ruin it when it was almost ripe. If only we had waited. If only we hadn’t rushed and forced. Rushing and forcing is needless effort. Remember we are seeking effortless action.
That is why the example of the Master is the best example for us today. How does the Master conduct himself, not only at the beginning, but all the way through to the end? By letting things take their course. Everything has its course. Tiny sprouts grow into giant pine trees. We must only be patient with them. Is it rooted? Good. Give it time. It will grow.
We need to remain calm, from beginning to end. That is the Master’s way. The Master considers himself to have nothing. That is important. For, far too often we are so focused on something. That something, we grasp at, afraid we will lose it. And guess what? We often do. That is why it is better to start with nothing. Then, you have nothing to lose. All those desires we have? They only prevent us from living life in the present moment. Desires are only about things we want, not what we already have in this present moment. But living life in the present moment is living without desire. You don’t desire what you already have.
I understand if some of this sounds strange to you. You may have never considered that desires are grasping for things that aren’t there. But go ahead and look up the definition of the word, desire, if you need to. You may say that you desire something in the present moment that you don’t have. But that is just my point. If you don’t have it in the present moment then it isn’t in your present moment. I think we all have plenty of things to unlearn.
That is what Lao Tzu intends for us to learn from the Master. He is simply there to remind us of who we have always been. You don’t like the way you have always been? Then quit focusing on your past or worrying about your future. And live in the present moment. Use what you have. You’ll find it is all that you need. Accept that the way things are is the way things are. That means putting your past behind you. And, accepting the present for what it is. It means caring about nothing but the Tao; that which is eternally true, about you, and about the world that you live in. Then, you can care for all things.