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.

Knowing How To Yield

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)

Two days ago, Lao Tzu was teaching us about what he considered our three greatest treasures. If you have already forgotten them, don’t worry, we will list them again today. Yesterday, he was talking about how to embody the virtue of non-competition. One of the examples he used to illustrate it, was how the best general enters the mind of his enemy. Today, he continues what he has been talking about the last few days, now talking wars and rumors of wars.

It does seem appropriate that Lao Tzu would expand on what he said about generals yesterday. Let’s just not forget what he has said before. Lao Tzu is wanting us to embody the virtue of non-competition, and to be careful to guard our three greatest treasures: Simplicity in actions and thoughts. Patience with friends and enemies. And, compassionate toward ourselves.

He says of the generals that they have a saying. This saying is the embodiment of the virtue of non-competition. Remember, the best generals are able to enter the mind of their enemy. They say that it is better to wait and see, than to make the first move. It is better to retreat a yard, than to advance an inch.

As I was reading this “saying” today, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the warmongers all over the world are really taking the time to try to enter their enemies’ minds. We can see and hear the drumbeats of war. They are beating loud and strong. And with a persistence that seems like anything but waiting and seeing. No one seems to want to wait and see anymore. They want to act and fast. Rushing in, and I worry are setting us all up for great misfortune.

What Lao Tzu is trying to show us today is a way for us to go forward without advancing. There is a way to push back without using weapons.

I already know that those who profit from war are going to dismiss Lao Tzu’s sayings as idealistic pacifism. My blog isn’t really addressed to those who profit from war. It is to the other 99 percent of us. The ones that are actually called upon to make the sacrifices for the war profiteers.

I see Lao Tzu, a lonely man, standing on a mountain crying out to anyone with the guts to listen to him: “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy.”

Will we listen? What is underestimating our enemy? And, how can we avoid it?

Lao Tzu says that underestimating our enemies is thinking they are evil. I can already hear the naysayers. “But they are beheading people! If that isn’t evil, then I don’t know what evil is.” Yes, I understand. Our “enemies” have released some videos that appear to show some beheadings. Our media has gone into a frenzy to make sure that just about everyone is all stirred up and ready to do something. And this has all served the interests of those who have been beating the drums of war for many years now. How easily the people are manipulated.

But I want to hold on for just a moment here and take a look at what Lao Tzu has said, again. Lao Tzu didn’t say that the greatest misfortune is having enemies who are evil. The greatest misfortune is thinking that they are evil. When you think your enemies are evil you are underestimating them. There is a difference. You may think it is too subtle to matter, but you might just be wrong. Don’t underestimate Lao Tzu’s understanding of human nature. And don’t underestimate your enemies. When you underestimate your enemies you destroy your three greatest treasures. And, this is more important than all the supposed evil you may find in the world.

When we fail to enter the mind of our enemy, we underestimate them. We think they are one thing, and consider no other possibilities. You may think the videos we have seen, reveal their minds quite enough. But don’t underestimate how our “friends”, who profit from warmongering, might be manipulating us into thinking the way we are thinking about our “enemies”, either.

But Lao Tzu isn’t concerned with any of that. He is wanting us to guard our three greatest treasures. That is what should be our top priority. And it shouldn’t matter how much we are being manipulated into war. If our three treasures are destroyed, we become the enemy.

When two great forces oppose each other, the victory won’t go to the one who fails to know the mind of their enemy. It won’t go to the one who underestimates their enemy. It will go to the one who knows how to yield. That is how we safeguard our treasures. By yielding. Not yielding to evil. No, that is not what I am saying at all.

Yielding is not just about staying back and letting others go on ahead. It is also producing a bountiful harvest of good. What are we thinking? What are we doing? Are we keeping it simple, or making things complicated? Are we being patient with both our friends and our enemies? And maybe most importantly, are we being compassionate with ourselves? Compassion means valuing our three greatest treasures above all else.

The Virtue Of Non-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)

Today, Lao Tzu talks about the virtue of non-competition. At first, as I was reading through the chapter I thought this was some new thing that he was talking about. But then I thought back a couple of chapters earlier when he was talking about the Master who is the embodiment of humility in governing (leading) the people. He said of her that she competes with no one and no one can compete with her. That is the context that I want to keep in mind as I talk about the virtue of non-competition today.

It always seems to me that Lao Tzu comes at things in a completely different way from the prevailing wisdom. That is what sets philosophical Taoism apart. Today he is talking about being the very best you can be. And he says you do it by embodying the virtue of non-competition. That immediately seems strange to me. Does it to you, as well? Isn’t it in competition that we find who is the very best?

But as we read through the chapter we find that the embodiment of the virtue of non-competition doesn’t mean not competing. It isn’t about what we are doing. It is about who we are. What are our attitudes as we go about our daily lives?

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.

Lao Tzu tells us that they embody the virtue of non-competition, not by not competing, but by doing it in the spirit of play. I think, for most of us, that being the best we can be at what we do would seem to be serious business. But Lao Tzu invites us to not take things quite so seriously. Compete in the spirit of play. Be like children. This is how to be in harmony with the Tao.

Let It Begin With Me

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)

In an earlier chapter Lao Tzu talked a bit about different reactions to philosophical Taoism. He said when superior people hear of the Tao, they immediately begin to embody it. The average person half believes it and half doubts it. And the fool? They laugh out loud. Lao Tzu was not bothered by the fool’s reaction. He simply said that if the fool didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao. I immediately thought of that as I was reading today’s chapter.

Some people are simply not going to “get” Lao Tzu’s teaching. To them, it is nonsense. Others call it lofty, but impractical. Honestly, I don’t know whether that reaction is much better than simply calling it nonsense. By dismissing it as idealistic and impractical, it is going to be hard for us to go on with dialogue.

And dialogue is what I want. I know I put out this monologue each and every day with each new installment from the Tao Te Ching. But I don’t want it to remain just monologue. What I am hoping for is to get my readers thinking. And responding. Oh, you don’t have to send me a message. That isn’t what I really mean by dialogue. What I want you to do is to look inside yourself; and see if this nonsense doesn’t make perfect sense. What I want is for you to put it into practice in your own life; and find that this loftiness has roots that go deep. If you do that, then I have achieved exactly what I have wanted to achieve.

Lao Tzu says that he has just three things to teach. He considers them so important that he calls them your three greatest treasures. These three treasures are simplicity, patience, and compassion. Because he places such a high value on each of them, I am going to take them one at a time.

First treasure, simplicity. What does Lao Tzu mean by simplicity? He wants us to be simple in our actions and in our thoughts. Lao Tzu understood it back in 400 B.C.E., and it is still true today; we expend a lot of time and energy trying to simplify. But our efforts only seem to make things for us more, rather than less, complex. But complexity is not going to help us along our journey, our return to the source of being. Complexity only serves to confound us. Lao Tzu has an interesting solution for us. Instead of trying to simplify, just be simple. Be simple in your actions. Don’t try to do something to make your actions more simple. Just be simple. Be simple in your thoughts. Don’t try to think how can I keep this simple. Just be simple. Perhaps I am making this too complicated. See how that is done? We are talking about returning to the source of being. Being. Not doing. Where things get complicated is in the doing. And in trying to explain it, I am making it complicated. But it isn’t complicated. It really is simple. Just be. Relax. Just be. Simple.

Second treasure, patience. Let’s keep this simple. We wouldn’t want to discard our first treasure while trying to reach for the next. Lao Tzu puts it simply. Be patient with both friend and foe. Let’s not complicate things by trying to figure out whether we should or should not be patient with our enemies as well as our friends. Lao Tzu is wanting us to accord with the way things are. We have talked at length about the way things are. This is the eternal reality. What is true, regardless of what our senses may tell us to the contrary. What is true, regardless of how convincing the illusion may seem to be. We want to be in accord with the way things are. And that requires that we have our treasure, patience. Patience with our friends who mean us well, and our enemies that mean us harm. Being in accord with the way things are means being patient with everyone, regardless of their intentions.

Third treasure, compassion. Lao Tzu has one goal when it comes to this third treasure. The reconciliation of all beings in the world. But, as is usually the case with Lao Tzu, he doesn’t go the direction we expect him to go, in order to achieve the goal. When we think of compassion we think of directing it outward toward others. That does sound noble, doesn’t it? And Lao Tzu is certainly thinking about others when he is talking about reconciliation. But he doesn’t want us directing our compassion outwards, at all. He wants us to be compassionate toward ourselves. What was he saying about nonsense, earlier? No, come back here, we are going to keep this simple. When we try to direct our compassion outwards, we start making things complicated. How exactly do I express compassion to others? What is compassionate to one is something else entirely to another. I wanted to bring about reconciliation and all I have managed to do is make a gigantic mess of things. Now, they aren’t even speaking to each other anymore. And before I interfered, they were getting along so well. Lao Tzu has very good reason for wanting us to direct our compassion inward, toward ourselves. He wants to keep it simple.

I am thinking about an old song that wasn’t so old when I was young. Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. Lao Tzu didn’t write that song. Though he may have been the inspiration for it. If you are going to live to see the reconciliation of all beings in the world, it will begin with you being compassionate toward yourself. We tend to be our own worst critic, our own worst enemy. But as long as we are at odds with who we are, the whole world is irreconcilable It starts with me. It begins now.

We Are Not Sheep!

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)

Today, we are going to continue to look at how the art of living informs the art of governing; and the art of governing informs the art of living. Lao Tzu begins with a metaphor which he uses to illustrate how humility is what gives you real power. We all understand the reason that streams flow into the sea. It is because the sea is lower. Streams don’t naturally flow uphill. And power doesn’t naturally flow uphill either.

We keep returning to this concept of the need for humility because it is probably the most important lesson of them all. Lao Tzu understood human nature. He isn’t asking for any of us to try to deny our nature. He is wanting us to understand our nature and work with that. People are not sheep, or cattle, or swine. Rulers tend to treat people as if that were the case. But that is to deny our nature.

Sometimes, those of us who describe ourselves as libertarians or anarchists, complain that people are behaving like sheep. But I hope that we all understand that we are not actually describing their real nature as humans. What we are really complaining about, is that they are not behaving according to their own nature.

For Lao Tzu the role of leaders is to “lead” the people back to their own nature. What they have always been. Their real nature as human beings. Sheep is a very disparaging term to use to refer to humans. Sheep are completely dependent on a shepherd. Left to their own devices, they can’t fend for themselves. They have to be led to green pastures. Sheep have been known to eat themselves right off a cliff. They need constant supervision. But we are not sheep!

Cattle and swine are herded. Our rulers tend to treat us with this herd mentality. Do cattle and swine like to be herded? No, they don’t like it at all. Sadly, for them, it is their unfortunate lot. But that isn’t the case for us humans. We don’t like being herded either. Because we are humans, when we are treated like cattle or swine, we feel oppressed and manipulated. There needs to be a better way of leading us.

Lao Tzu understands the nature of humans, and treats us all accordingly. Humility is the key to this understanding. I like that word humility because it comes from the same root as human. It is our nature. Some may balk at that. Pride seems to be a very human trait as well. But all pride is, is the absence of humility. Pride shouldn’t be, and doesn’t have to be, our defining trait. Humility can and should be.

But how? Well, what do you think produces pride? Since it is the absence of humility, why we become prideful is because we have failed to cultivate the seeds of humility. The art of living is the cultivation of what we are in our human nature. It is the cultivation of those seeds of humility, first and foremost.

This is true for each one of us; but it is especially true for anyone who wants to govern the people. You want to govern? Remember where the sea gets its power. That is where your power is to be found as well.

As Lao Tzu has said over and over again, the art of governing is not ruling. It is leading. And leading is serving. And serving means putting yourself below everyone else. You want to lead? You must first learn how to follow.

Now, Lao Tzu provides us with the picture of a leader. The Master. She is above the people; yet, no one feels oppressed. She goes ahead of the people; yet, no one feels manipulated. This is the art of governing. It is leading, by serving as an example, back to the way we have always been.

I want to be clear here. It would be a denial of our human nature to believe that we don’t have any need for leaders. When I hear people complaining about anarchy, that is one thing they fear. It would be a free for all. That is one of the reasons I don’t choose to use the word anarchy. I prefer anarchism because I want to make it clear that what we anarchists are opposed to is rulers. Not leaders. We don’t need or want rulers. But we do, and always will, need and want leaders. And nature has a way of producing real leaders, right when we need them.

Real leaders, are people for which the whole world are grateful. Why grateful? Because we need them. Real leaders compete with no one. This is important. Rulers are very competitive. They are always needing to figure out some way to be on top of everyone else. But real leaders don’t fight their way to the top. They get their power by staying below the people. No one can compete with a real leader. No one wants to.

The Proverbial Question Of Which Came First?

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)

Yesterday, I said that for Lao Tzu the art of living and the art of governing were one. It took me awhile to figure that out. But coming to that realization transformed my life.

We’re going to take a look at today’s chapter in that context. Lao Tzu talks all the time about the ancient Masters. He certainly esteemed them. They informed his philosophy. He says today that they didn’t try to educate the people. Because they understood the problem wasn’t a lack of education. The problem was they already knew too much. Or more precisely, they thought they knew the answers already.

When you think you already know the answers, it will be difficult to guide you. The ancient Masters taught the people to not-know. This is that unlearning that I said we needed to be practicing. But, don’t mistake guiding for manipulating or controlling. They weren’t wanting to manipulate or control the people, Guiding was a very subtle practice. It wasn’t about manipulation or control.

In fact, Lao Tzu tells us it was just the opposite of that. When the people come to the realization that they don’t really know, and that is because they have learned to not-know, the people can find their own way.

That right there is how the art of governing is one with the art of living. The art of governing isn’t about control. It is about leading, guiding. And that is through being someone who is content to serve as an example. Of course this establishes the difference between rulers and leaders. But that isn’t all that Lao Tzu is trying to get across. The point of governing, of leading, of guiding, of serving as an example – is to show all the people the way back to their own nature.

The ancient Masters understood that people can find their own way; if only they aren’t confounded by their so-called knowledge. People don’t need to be forced to do the right thing. They can figure it out for themselves. All that is necessary is humility. The people need to be humble enough to come to the realization that they don’t really know. And the leaders need to be humble enough to be content to serve as an example, rather than needing to force some outcome.

This is why Lao Tzu says to those who want to learn how to govern, that cleverness and riches are not what is needed. Those actually are a hindrance. They will puff you up. Make you proud. And humility is what you need to be cultivating. The simplest pattern is the clearest. This is important whether you are just one of the people; or, you are wanting to be a leader of the people. Keep it simple. If you are going to serve as an example, you want a simple and clear pattern.

This simple and clear pattern is being content with an ordinary life. Once again, this does separate rulers from leaders. Rulers tend to be extravagant in their living. That doesn’t serve as an example to the people. Instead, it just enflames their desires. Leaders are a completely different breed from rulers. Leaders are content with an ordinary life. One that serves as an example to the people. Instead of enflaming desires, it calms them. And, people find their way back to their own nature.

Just like the proverbial question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? We need to understand how the art of living informs the art of governing and the art of governing informs the art of living.

Now, Where Was I? Oh Yes, Effortless Action…

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)

Because today’s chapter is a continuation of the theme from yesterday’s chapter, and yesterday, I was writing a lot about my own personal transformation with regard to this theme, I am just going to continue today, where I left off yesterday.

Yesterday, I admitted that what first attracted me to philosophical Taoism was what Lao Tzu wrote about the art of governing. It was so very libertarian of him. And it really meshed with my own libertarian ideas on governing. If Lao Tzu hadn’t been such a libertarian, I probably never would have stuck it out long enough with the Tao Te Ching to ever finally begin to understand the art of living, which is the philosophy behind his art of governing. Lao Tzu helped me to understand that I am not helping myself by compartmentalizing things. Maybe others can get away with separating their personal and political philosophy. For Lao Tzu, it was all one.

As I read through the Tao Te Ching, over and over again, this became clear to me. That certainly helped me to let go of everything that was holding me back from going all the way with philosophical Taoism. Certainly, when I started my tumblr blog and used the url libertariantaoist, I was more libertarian than Taoist at the time. I was just trying to come up with something I thought was somewhat original. Something to differentiate myself, and yet, I also knew there was something to this Taoism that, though I didn’t quite know what it was yet, given time, I knew I would get it.

More than anything else this past couple of years, I can attribute taking a chapter each day and adding my commentary to it, has shaped me into the blogger I am right now. Lao Tzu, more than any other, led me to abandon all hope in taming Leviathan (the State) or trying to downsize it. My own anarchism is the practice of philosophical Taoism. Nothing more, nothing less. I know I still have a long way to go on this path. I certainly haven’t arrived at “Master” level. And, I may never. But I’ll just keep taking it one day at a time and see how the Tao shapes me.

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, practically speaking. He said, think of the small as large and to think of the few as many. By thinking that way we can confront the difficult while it is still easy. We break down great tasks into a series of small acts.

Today, he really does continue with this idea. If, as you were reading along, it sounded vaguely familiar to you, that may be because of the oft quoted “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” If you have a long journey before you, it can seem daunting. Lao Tzu’s advice is to remember to start at the beginning. And the ground beneath your feet is always the place to begin.

When I was laid off from my last job two and a half years ago, I knew I didn’t want to continue trying to earn a living, doing things I didn’t enjoy doing. I knew what I enjoyed. I had successfully home schooled my own children. I knew that one on one interaction with children was what I wanted to do. So, I decided to start my own tutoring business. I hit upon this idea in March, the same month that I was laid off, but it wasn’t until August that I had my very first student. I had to spend time planning. Thinking about how I was going to go about it. I tried to raise some venture capital. That proved unsuccessful. So, I ended up just doing it by the skin of my teeth with the meager means I had. I did some advertising until I didn’t have the money to invest in it any furtherr. That did result in the one student that I started with in August.

When Lao Tzu talks about a giant pine tree growing from a tiny sprout, what he is saying to me is don’t despise small beginnings. Given time, that sprout will grow. My first student was 3 years old at the time. 3 years old? I had never thought I would be working with someone so young? I was thinking I was going to be helping out moms and dads with their school age children who were having trouble getting difficult concepts, in math, especially. But this little girl’s mom and dad wanted their daughter to succeed and they wanted her to get an early and fast start. They asked if I could teach her how to use an abacus. Sure, I could. Right after I figured out how to use one myself.

Anyway, I set about to teach her counting numbers, letters, both how to write them and how to say them, then phonics. What sounds do all these letters make? It, of course helped that I had home-schooled my own children. I just hadn’t begun with them so early. That was the only difference.

I started out with just one hour a day, five days a week. The little girl turned four in December. We continued working. I won’t bore you with all the details. My time increased with her to two hours a day, and now 3 hours a day. We are working with the abacus. It is amazing! What a useful tool. She is five now, and I am doing first grade curriculum with her. I am enjoying myself.

I said all of that because what little I said about myself yesterday, kind of left things up in the air. Sure, I was going to do what I wanted to do; but what exactly was that? Now, you know.

Time to get back to today’s chapter.

Things that we already know; and yet, Lao Tzu feels the need to remind us, anyway. 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. Yes, we already know all these things. But, for whatever reason, we fail to apply them to our own lives.

If we just applied these truths to our 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.

Are you seeing how Lao Tzu is helping us to do what it is that we do, effortlessly? If only we will listen. And let things take their course. Yes, that is the most important concept of all. Planning is good. But only planning that takes into consideration, and allows, letting things take their course.

This is where the central planners get it all wrong. They never seem capable of an appreciation for the law of unintended consequences, largely confuse cause and effect, and believe the end justifies the means.

This whole, not despising small beginnings and not being discouraged by the long journey is some serious business here. But letting things take their own course is how we keep 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 waited. If only we had let things take their own course.

All of that is the opposite of effortless action. It is a good thing that we have the example of the Master, who always takes action by letting things take their course. Take your cue from the pace of nature. Remain calm from beginning to end. Remember, if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Don’t let desires rob you of life’s simple pleasures. We have much more to unlearn than we have yet to learn.

Perhaps this all seems elementary to you. Maybe it is because I spend three hours a day working with a little girl through her school work. Or maybe it is because Lao Tzu believes that reminding us of what we already know will help us to remember what we have always been.

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.

How Problems Became No Problem

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)

If I had to pick out just one chapter in the Tao Te Ching, which epitomizes how philosophical Taoism has transformed how I practice the art of living, it would have to be this one. You would really have to know the me, before I encountered philosophical Taoism to understand this transformation.

For the old me, life wasn’t art. And it wasn’t really living. It was drudgery. Like my father before me, I knew if I wanted to provide for my family, that meant working 50, 60, or more hours each week. By the time each day of work was done, I had no energy left for making the little time that I was spending with my family, real quality time. To complicate my living further, I was the divorced father of two pre-teen children, and I had sole-custody. And, because I have never been one to make things at all easy, I was choosing to home school them.

While you are living each day of your life, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be able to see how the little things you are doing and the circumstances you are experiencing, are going to affect how your life is going to be in the future. It has only been when I have looked back on the past that I have been able to see the patterns. All the little things that, as they came together and built upon themselves, have resulted in the person I am today.

I certainly didn’t have the time then for any kind of introspection. I was just working, working, working. And trying to raise my two children. Thankfully, a lot of love goes a long way. My children turned out great. But I certainly didn’t know how that could possibly happen while we were just trying to make it from one day to the next.

But, life does have a way of messing with you. And sometimes, probably most of the time, that messing is going to end up resulting in something better than you could ever imagine. But I can only say that in hindsight. If only we could have the benefit of hindsight functioning as foresight. Then, life wouldn’t be so very complicated.

Life messing with me was the economy crashing and me going through unemployment, followed by a series of short term jobs, followed by longer unemployment, followed by disappointment after disappointment. I had encountered Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching some years ago, but had kind of put it on the backburner. Just no time for a real appreciation of what Lao Tzu had to say.

About two and a half years ago I was hit with my most recent lay off, and that was the final straw for me. I decided I just wasn’t going to be a participant in the labor force ever again. I was going to do what I enjoyed doing. And live on what little I could earn, doing what I enjoyed doing. That choice of my own pursuit of happiness made me happy. It helped that my children were then grown. I no longer had extra mouths to feed. It was only me that needed to be provided for, and I knew I could do with a lot less.

I think it was about that time that I encountered Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. And I ate it up. It was so clear to me that Lao Tzu was a libertarian, just like me. The chapters on the art of governing, were exactly what I had always believed. But then there were the myriad chapters like today’s chapter about the practice of wu-wei. Effortless action. That I just couldn’t comprehend. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It flew in the face of everything my Protestant Work Ethic upbringing had taught me. It is easy to agree with Lao Tzu when he agrees with you. That would be the politics. But what about the philosophy? The art of living?

But, I kept reading it, and thinking about it, and reading it, and thinking about it. I encountered a roadblock. What I needed to be doing was unlearning. What I thought I needed to be doing was learning something new. But my own circumstances, the very circumstances that I chose for myself as my own pursuit of happiness, kind of forced me to this roadblock. Back in chapter 48, Lao Tzu talked about the pursuit of knowledge vs. the practice of the Tao. I wanted to practice the Tao. I knew that. But I was trying to do it through the pursuit of knowledge. Every day I thought something needed to be added. That is certainly how the pursuit of knowledge works. But that isn’t how things work in the practice of the Tao. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.

I had a “Eureka!” moment when this just clicked. I wish I could tell you the exact day and hour this took place. Aren’t most “Eureka!” moments like that? But mine was a lot more gradual and subtle than anything like that. I didn’t see it while I was living it in the present moment. It was only later, using that infamous hindsight, that I could see what had happened.

I can look back and see that I gave up the pursuit of knowledge and chose the practice of the Tao. An entirely different kind of path. A path that has been strewn with the things I have dropped. And that has resulted in the practice of wu-wei, effortless action. It isn’t something that I can still as yet wrap my mind around. Don’t be expecting any intellectuaal explanation of it here. Remember, I gave up the pursuit of knowledge a while back.

I just know that my practice of the Tao, which has made living an art for me, is exemplified in this practice of effortless action.

It is still so very strange for me to try to explain. How very different from how I used to live my life. I live my life effortlessly. I act without doing. I work without effort. I am able to think of the small as large and the few as many. I confront the difficult while it is still easy. I accomplish great tasks by a series of small acts.

I don’t know how else to explain it. I just go with the flow. I gave up trying to achieve greatness. And I really think that somehow – don’t ask me how, I had nothing to do with it – somehow, I achieve greatness. When I run into a difficulty – because yes, I still encounter difficulties, all of the time – I just stop and give myself to it.

And while these words are ones that Lao Tzu is using to describe the Master, I certainly don’t think of myself as the Master of anything, right now. But I do know, that one thing that has helped me more than anything else, is when I quit clinging to my own comfort. That right there is huge. At least it was for me. Once I let go of that, problems became no problem for me.

Why Does Everybody Love It?

The Tao is the center of the Universe.
The good man’s treasure,
the bad man’s refuge.

Honors can be bought with fine words.
Respect can be won with good deeds.
But the Tao is beyond all value;
and no one can achieve it.

Thus, when a new leader is chosen,
don’t offer to help him
with your wealth or your expertise.
Offer instead to teach him about the Tao.

Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?
Because, being one with the Tao,
when you seek, you find; and,
when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is why everybody loves it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 62, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu takes a break from talking about how to govern a country. Or does he? He begins by laying on us a little Cosmology; and being as Lao Tzu wrote this sometime around 400 B.C.E., I am, of course, curious, to see what he has to say; and see whether it fits with our current understanding of Cosmology.

Lao Tzu says the Tao is the center of the Universe. This is an interesting beginning sentence to this chapter because Lao Tzu has been talking about centering our country, and indeed, ourselves, in the Tao. And I read that sentence, and my first thought was, “But if the Tao is somewhere out there, wherever the center of the Universe is, how am I supposed to center myself in it?”

But that was just my first thought. Then I really started thinking about what he means by that. Is the center of the Universe really some far off place? My own understanding of the cosmos is admittedly limited. But I don’t mean by limited, limiting. Bear with me while I explain what I mean.

To hear some people talk about the Earth in its relationship with the rest of the Universe, it is infinitesimally small and insignificant. We are, after all, just a tiny speck in a tiny galaxy in some remote corner of the Universe. The Universe is so much bigger than anything we can even imagine, let alone know. The actual center of the Universe must be a gazillion lightyears away, and who would even know which direction one would need to steer the ship that is going to transverse the darkness to find it.

But wait just a doggone minute. Is that really true? I was watching the fourth episode of the first season of the reboot of Cosmos, now with Neil Degrasse Tyson. I don’t care too much when that man is talking about stuff he knows nothing about; but I have to admit, I really enjoy listening to him talk about the Cosmos. Maybe it is just because my own understanding of the Cosmos is limited. But he said something in that fourth episode that really jumped out at me. I am going to paraphrase because I don’t have the exact quote in front of me. Wherever you are, you are in the center of the Universe. It doesn’t matter whether you are standing on Earth or some planet in the furthest known galaxy from us. When you look out on your Universe, you are in the center of it.

That resonates with me. If that is true, then Lao Tzu telling us that the Tao is the center of the Universe, is not sticking it some unknown place, far, far away. Instead, he is saying the Tao is very close, indeed. It is inside each of us. Which, of course, he has already told us before.

Okay, that was the lesson in Cosmology for today; now to what he really wants to talk to us about. The value of the Tao.

What does Lao Tzu have to say about the Tao today? Besides it being the center of the Universe, he calls it the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge. Don’t forget those two, we will get to them toward the end of the chapter. Right now, he lays it all out on the line for us. The Tao is beyond all value.

Which gets me wondering, what is it that we value? Is it honors? Respect? Wealth? Expertise? Lao Tzu tells us that anything else that we can come up with has some price. Honors can be bought with fine words. Respect can be won with good deeds. But the Tao? There is no price that you can put on it. No one can achieve it.

If you are instantly dismayed at that last sentence, don’t be. No one can achieve it. But, Lao Tzu isn’t wanting to discourage us. He is wanting to encourage us. That is what today, and every day, is all about.

Given what we know about the Tao, which admittedly is still very limited – though, I hope not limiting – Lao Tzu has this advice for us, when we choose a new leader. See, Lao Tzu hasn’t stopped talked about governing a country, after all. He says, don’t offer to help your new leader with your wealth or expertise. Oh, they both have their value, but they aren’t beyond all value, like the Tao. That is why Lao Tzu tells us that we would do our best service to our new leaders by teaching them about the Tao.

And then he gives us the historical context for what he has been saying all along. Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao so? And this goes back to those two points I touched on earlier, but then left for now. It is the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge. Lao Tzu explains what he means by that. He says that the ancient masters believed that when you are one with the Tao – and, guess what, that isn’t so hard to be, once you realize you are in the center of the Universe with the Tao – it doesn’t matter if you are a good person or a bad person. The Tao is exactly what you need it to be for you. Are you good? Then it is a treasure. A treasure is something we seek, and being one with the Tao, when you seek, you find. Oh, but what if you are bad? Then the Tao is your refuge. When you make a mistake, you are forgiven.

That is what makes the Tao beyond all value. That is why everybody loves it.

It’s Not Great Power, But Great Humility, That Sets You Apart From All The Rest

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
All streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao;
thus, never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I think after having a few chapters in a row where Lao Tzu has been talking about governing a country, that it is good to remember that Lao Tzu is not writing to countries, or governments, really. He is writing this to individuals; who he believes can put into practice the words he is sharing.

Notice in today’s chapter how he segues from talking about a great nation to a great man. Lao Tzu isn’t interested in trying to motivate a collective. He is interested in motivating individuals. He does start with discussing a country that obtains great power. But his point is the importance of humility. And that is a very human trait.

By humility, Lao Tzu means trusting the Tao. When you trust the Tao, whether you are a great nation or a great person, it means you never need to be defensive. That really brings out the definition of humility for me. When you are not humble, when you don’t trust the Tao, you necessarily feel the need to be defensive.

When you are on the defensive and you make a mistake, it is very hard to first realize it, and then to admit it. But it is this that sets apart a great nation or a great person, from just the merely mediocre. We all make mistakes, both great and small, alike. Maybe it is easier for those of us that don’t think we really matter in the grand scheme of things, to realize when we have messed up. But whether or not we think we matter, it is always important to both realize and admit when we have made a mistake.

But this is only the beginning of what is required of us, if we have any hope of being really great. We must then go on to correct our mistakes. And that may be the hardest thing of them all. Keep in mind, this is what separates those who are great from those who are merely mediocre. There are plenty of pretenders out there, who have all sorts of people believing the illusion of their greatness. But if you want to see past the illusion, here is the reality. When someone has a hard time realizing they have erred, an even harder time admitting it, and gets all defensive when it is time to make amends, that is your neon sign pointing out the mere mediocrity of that person. Don’t be that guy.

It is the shame of every nation who have so called leaders that are really only mediocre at their very best. I live in the United States, the further along we go the more mediocre our leaders seem to get. And the only thing that is greater than their level of mediocrity is their level of hubris. But Lao Tzu would say that is exactly how it would be. They need to be humble. Instead they are proud. And that is their downfall.

No, what we need are great leaders, willing to serve as an example for all. The truly great ones have no need to be on the defensive. They consider those who point out their faults as their most benevolent teachers. That stands in stark contrast to so many of our so called leaders who surround themselves with sycophants. When you aren’t feeling the need to be on the defensive, you are free to think of your enemies as the shadow that you yourself cast.

Think about that last sentence for just a moment. Now, repeat after me, I am always my own worst enemy. So, how do you overcome the enemy, when he is you? By surrounding yourself, not with yes men, but with people who will be honest with you. Pointing out your faults. Insisting you admit it. Helping you to make amends. These are the kinds of people that surround great leaders.

As I read through the chapter today, I realized that great nations aren’t always the ones we think they are. For a nation to be great, it needs to be centered in the Tao. Being centered in the Tao means nourishing its own people and not meddling in the affairs of others. That right there is the definition of a great nation. If your nation doesn’t fit that description, and I know mine doesn’t, then you know your nation is only one of the merely mediocre ones. Too bad mine has delusions of grandeur, thinking it should serve as the policemen of the world. We can’t even nourish our own people. Yet, we meddle in the affairs of others. Shameful!

I am old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan said of my nation that it was a shining light on a hill for all other nations. It wasn’t really true then. And it is even less true now.

Give Evil Nothing To Oppose And It Won’t Have Anything to Oppose.

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

My posts the last few days have been rather long. I hope that hasn’t been too discouraging for those of you that want to read them. Today, I am hoping to keep it shorter. Yes, as you could already tell by reading the quote today, Lao Tzu is still talking about the art of governing. Today, his focus is on the maddening desire to interfere. For Lao Tzu, the art of governing, is really the art of living. Instead of having rulers who are driven by the will to power, he is looking for those who want to be great leaders, those who will be content to serve as an example.

Governing really is an art. If you are talking about governing a large country, the temptation is to think that bigger means a greater need to interfere. But Lao Tzu uses the illustration of cooking a small fish to illustrate the art required in governing. Yes, I have fried fish before. I know how strong is the temptation to poke at it. Any of us that have tried our hand at frying fish, know what happens when we succumb to that temptation. I have spoiled quite a few fish I was frying.

The lesson that Lao Tzu is wanting us to understand is that the art of governing is just like that. The greater the temptation to interfere, to poke, the more we need to resist that temptation.

But… There is always a but. What about the problem of evil? People can’t be trusted to do the right thing. We can’t leave the people to their own devices. And that would seem to be more and more true the larger the country.

And Lao Tzu has an interesting solution to the problem of evil. What is his solution? Don’t poke at it. Don’t interfere with it at all. Leave it alone. Center your country in the Tao and evil won’t have any power. Won’t have any power? But evil is all around us. Of course, we have to acknowledge it. Of course, we need to try and do something about it.

Lao Tzu doesn’t deny the presence of evil. But when he says it will have no power, what he is really saying, is we are the ones that give it the power. If we are not interacting with it, it won’t have any power. Center your country in the Tao. Evil will still be there. No, he isn’t promising that it is going to go away. It will still be there. But, we will be able to step out of its way.

Maybe that sounds too simple to you. The will to power is strong, indeed. And plenty of would be conquerors of evil will rise up to make grandiose promises of deliverance from the evil. But I think Lao Tzu has a point here. What is it that gives evil its power? When we are in its way. And why are we in its way? Because we are wanting to confront it. To deal with it.

I am rather sure that if Lao Tzu believed for even a moment that we could successfully confront it, and deal with it, once and for all, that he would encourage us to do just that. But Lao Tzu understands what we all need to understand. The problem of evil isn’t something that can be successfully confronted and dealt with. What we want to do is create for ourselves a situation where we can successfully step out of its way. That is the only thing to do with evil. Avoid it.

Now this is not going to go over too well with those with the will to power. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the U.S. government creates evil wherever it can; so that we can then have to confront it and deal with it. U.S. foreign policy has been a prime example of this for decades now. The situation in Iraq with ISIS or ISIL or IS, or whatever they are calling themselves now, is only one of the more recent examples of this.

Now, I have no problem acknowledging that the people that are a part of this Islamic State business are the very definition of evil. But, I also know that if we would only center ourselves in the Tao, we could very easily step out of their way. They are egging us on right now. That is good news for the powers that be. They have been looking for an excuse to get us back in Iraq since we got out of Iraq. But it isn’t good news for the rest of us.

Some are going to tell me that, sure we created this mess, but now we have an obligation to clean up the mess. And I am going to counter that, we never do actually clean up the messes. All we ever do is make more messes which we will then need to go clean up.

Tl;dr? Give evil nothing to oppose and it won’t have anything to oppose.