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 from 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 as 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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu returned to talking about the practice of Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing. This is a fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism and something that Lao Tzu returns to again and again. In that chapter, he was explaining how to put philosophical Taoism into practice in our daily lives. It was a very practical chapter. You don’t have to become a master in order to practice it. But if you practice it long enough, you will become a master at it. Lao Tzu said of the Master, “She never reaches for the great; thus she achieves greatness.” He was telling us how we, too, can achieve greatness. In today’s chapter, we are continuing where we left off, yesterday.
As you read through today’s chapter, I am sure that it sounded at least somewhat familiar to you. Long ago, the lesson about the giant pine tree’s humble origin as a tiny sprout entered our own lexicon. And, who hasn’t heard about where the journey of a thousand miles begins? But don’t let the familiarity of these word images distract you from grasping their meaning for your life, today.
“I know, I know” are the most dangerous words that can be uttered by someone who should be listening to instruction. When you are an apprentice, and the master is trying to teach you something, saying “I know, I know” brings an end to your instruction. It is now time to sink or swim, buddy. Now, we find out what you really know; and what you only think you know. There is a profound difference. That is the problem with familiarity with terms. You think you know, but do you, really? If you are only familiar with it, and it hasn’t yet taken root, then you won’t begin to realize any difference in how you live your life. I uttered those words to my own father countless times growing up. It is something I greatly regret, now. I only wish I had understood, then, what is obvious to me, now.
Today’s chapter is practical knowledge, just like yesterday’s. The point is to apply it to how we live our lives. When something is rooted, it is easy to nourish. What only happened recently is easy to correct. What is brittle will be easily broken. And, what is small is easy to scatter. We have this tendency to pass over truisms as if they weren’t that important. But it is essential that we let these words take root in our hearts and minds. Then, and only then, will they begin to make a difference in how we live our lives.
Yesterday, Lao Tzu warned us to think of the small as large and the few as many, to confront difficulty while it is still easy, to break down large tasks into a series of smaller acts. We need to be patient to apply these lessons to our lives. Ideas don’t take root in a day. Give them time to get rooted. When you make a mistake, don’t put off admitting it and correcting it. The sooner you do, the easier it will be.
We can achieve greatness. Yes, we can! But, it won’t be because we reached for greatness. Instead, it will be because we first learned how to follow the Tao. By following these truisms from the opening of today’s chapter, we can prevent trouble before it arises. And, even put things in order before they exist. Letting things come and go as they will, the Master’s way, is made easy by being ready for whatever the moment brings. You don’t have to be caught off guard.
How humbling it is to realize, when you want a giant pine tree, you failed to start with that tiny sprout from which it grows over many years. The journey you are on is a long one. A thousand miles, in Lao Tzu’s day before modern travel, seemed impossibly long. Yet, where does it begin? At the ground beneath your feet. So, start walking.
Patience, my friends, you can’t rush this. If you try to rush things, grasping at things that are fleeting, you are going to fail, you will only lose. Trying to force a project to completion, you only end up ruining what was almost ripe. Almost ripe. Why couldn’t I wait for it? Why did I have to force it?
Today’s chapter is brimming with the best words of sage advice from a master to his apprentices. How will we receive it? Hopefully, not with “I know, I know.”
After long practice, the Master has learned to take action by letting things take their course. He has learned to remain calm at the end, just as at the beginning. He has nothing. So, he has nothing to lose. What he desires is not to desire. What he has learned is unlearning. How does he teach us, his apprentices? He merely reminds us of what we have always been. Remember what you have always been. Be that again, and always. He can care for all things because he cares for nothing but the Tao.