That’s A Lot Of Water

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking, for the last couple of days, about the need to be soft and yielding to be a disciple of life. It is the only way to prevail in living. What runs counter to that are those who are hard and inflexible. They will be broken; since they are not able to go with the flow of the Tao. Today, Lao Tzu continues this theme, contrasting the soft and yielding with the hard and inflexible, by returning to his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, water.

Lao Tzu returns, again and again, to water; because, for him, the attributes of water perfectly illustrate how to be in harmony with the Tao. And, when you consider how abundant water is on our planet, it would seem to be something that everyone can immediately relate to. In addition to the fact that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, there is also the fact that the human body is comprised mostly of water – anywhere from 50 to 65 percent in adults, and an astounding 75 to 80 percent in infants. That’s a lot of water! When Lao Tzu tells us to be like water, he isn’t really expecting us to be anything other than what we already are.

He has talked so much about water in preceding chapters. He has said, for instance, that it nourishes all things, without trying to. That is how he shows us the practice of doing not-doing. And, he has talked about how water always seeks out the lowest places, making it a metaphor for the practice of humility.

Today, it is how soft and yielding water is, that has Lao Tzu’s attention. Nothing compares with it. To illustrate just how soft and yielding water is, I want you to draw yourself a nice hot bath. Go ahead, you need this. Light some candles, put on some of your favorite music, and let your body luxuriate. Did you notice, as you lowered yourself into the water that the water offered up no resistance to the intrusion of your body? It just acquiesced to your presence, allowing your body to displace it. Soft and yielding, isn’t it?

Doesn’t that feel nice? But, if you stay in there too long, your body will start to shrivel up like a prune. Our bodies may be mostly water, but there is also a part of us that is hard and inflexible. And water, over time, always does a number on the hard and inflexible.

Yes! Yes! Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone “knows” it, but just how few can put it into practice?

It is because there is such a difference between merely knowing and realizing, that Lao Tzu brings in the Master, once again, to show us just how to practice being soft and yielding to overcome the hard and inflexible.

How many times have we all been told that all we really need is a good cry? Tears, water, are certainly a good antidote to sorrow. Have a good cry. Cry until you have no more tears to shed. Then get a bowl of water and wash your face, for good measure. That is quite helpful for most sorrow. But what about a sorrow that isn’t assuaged so easily?

Sometimes, sorrow can be quite implacable. Sorrow can be one of the hardest and most inflexible things you will ever encounter. It demands your attention. All of it. And if you don’t give it your complete attention, its demands only become all the more urgent. What does sorrow demand of you? It demands that something be done. And that is where people, with the very best of intentions, will step in and try to help. After all, every fiber of your being is crying out to you to come to the aid of someone who is suffering. It isn’t easy to turn away when you see someone suffering, and you know you can help. But, I learned a lesson from my father, many years ago. He said it often enough, I will never forget it. “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.”

Is Lao Tzu asking us to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering? Not at all. But, watch how the Master deals with it. This is where true words are going to seem paradoxical. The Master knows exactly how to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. He doesn’t let evil enter his heart. He seems indifferent, disinterested. What are his intentions? They are neither good, nor bad. He actually has no intentions. Oh, I suppose he will rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. But, his heart doesn’t seem to be into it. He is present; but he isn’t swallowed up by the tidal wave of emotions that are consuming everything and everyone around him. The waves come crashing down. Then, the waters recede. He is still there. Still present. Now, he can be the people’s greatest help.

That was a lot to chew on. I would suggest you get yourself a tall glass of water to help wash it down.

They’re Making It Personal

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The previous two chapters couldn’t have seemed more dissimilar. In the chapter two days ago, Lao Tzu explained that if those who govern us really wanted to act for the people’s benefit, they would trust us and leave us alone. Then, in yesterday’s chapter, Lao explained how going with the flow of the Tao is a matter of life and death. To be soft and yielding, supple and flexible, is being able to go with the flow of the Tao. It makes you a disciple of life. When we are stiff and inflexible, we are taking on the characteristics of that which we fear the most, death. But, as is always the case, Lao Tzu explains, in today’s chapter, exactly how these two chapters very much relate to each other.

He begins today’s chapter (one of my favorites, by the way), by picturing something flexible, a bow bending, as a metaphor for how the Tao acts in our world. Picture that bow in your mind. Its top is bent downward, and its bottom is correspondingly bent up. This is Lao Tzu’s metaphor for how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, so that there is perfect balance in our world. When he says, this is how the Tao acts in our world, he is saying, this is a universal law. This is how things work in our universe. I like to call it, the way things are.

Did you notice that Lao Tzu doesn’t picture anyone bending that bow? If there is some hand bending it, it is an invisible hand. I think it is significant that he doesn’t picture someone bending that bow. He doesn’t want to give us a face; that would make it personal. But, as it acts in our world, the Tao is impersonal. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. Excess and deficiency are adjusted by taking from WHAT is too much and giving to WHAT isn’t enough.

I said this is the way things are. If I were to narrow down Lao Tzu’s philosophy into one sentence, what would it be? Practice these things and you will learn to be content with the way things are. Our being discontent certainly doesn’t do anything to promote health and well-being in our lives. So, let’s learn how to be content. What would help us, here, is understanding exactly how the Universe operates, how the Tao acts in our world. Then, we can go with that flow. We must be flexible, like that bow. How else is the Tao to adjust excess and deficiency in our own lives. Why would we fear this? Why would we interfere with the Tao, as it does what it does in our own lives? Why wouldn’t we want balance and harmony, instead of excess and deficiency?

When talking about the way things are, it is important that we not confuse it with the status quo. The status quo is a system set up in opposition to the way things are. It is the ruling elite that set up this system as a way for them to try to control. It is a system based on the use of force to protect their power. It always and inevitably goes against the direction of the Tao. The questions I asked in the last paragraph were really meant to ask one question: Who would oppose the Tao? Now, you have your answer. You see, they make this personal. In order to protect their power, they will take from THOSE WHO don’t have enough and give to THOSE WHO have far too much. The “what” becomes “who”.

Now, the picture in my mind of the bending bow is becoming all distorted. Multiple hands appear out of nowhere; each attempting to grasp the bow, and push back against the direction of the Tao. Whose hands are these? Those who want their excess and your deficiency to be increased. I said in my opening paragraph that today’s chapter shows how the previous two chapters relate to each other. Do you see it? When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit. You have to be supple and flexible, a disciple of life, in order to prevail. When you are stiff and inflexible, you may remain living for a time; but, you are already dead. The status quo, as much effort as is put into maintaining it, is unsustainable. The stiff and inflexible will be broken. Have no worries for that bow. It is flexible. It will prevail. But, those who oppose it are already dead. They just don’t realize it, yet.

Here, is where it would be a good idea to take our cue from the Master. Lao Tzu says there is no end to her wealth. Someone might be thinking that she is a prime example of those who have far too much. But you are misunderstanding what Lao Tzu means by wealth here. She hasn’t been hoarding; she has been giving, always giving. That is why there is no end to her wealth. The more she gives, the more she has to give. She acts without expecting anything in return. She succeeds without ever needing to take any credit. She doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Why not? She certainly sounds a whole lot better than quite a few people I can think of. But I am not seeing things the way the Tao sees things. There isn’t any reason to make this personal. Let the impersonal Tao act as it acts in our world. Excess and deficiency will be adjusted, and balance and harmony will be the result.

The Power Of Life And Death

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

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

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

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu talked about how being afraid of dying keeps us from living in the present moment. It isn’t a fear of dying in the future. That isn’t what scares us. What keeps us from living today is our fear of dying today. We hold ourselves back from being able to achieve anything, because of this fear. Today, Lao Tzu returns to talking about life and death. He opens with a couple familiar metaphors.

First, he reminds us of our primal identity. When we were born, we were soft and supple. That is our beginning. And, that is the way we want to always be. The same is true for all beings. Even plants are born tender and pliant. Being soft and yielding, and remaining so, is what he calls being a disciple of life.

Of course, we can also be a disciple of death. Being stiff and hard, brittle and dry, in other words, inflexible, these are all signs of death. Right here would be a good time to say that Lao Tzu isn’t talking about being physically hard, stiff, and inflexible. He is, of course, speaking metaphorically.

Are you resistant to the flow of the Tao? Or, are you able to bend, and go with the flow of the Tao? All things change! How often he has reminded us of this great truth. Let things come and go as they will. Shape events as they come. But also, allow the Tao to shape you as it will, molding you into whatever it will.

Death is going to happen for all of us. It is a natural part of the life cycle. It is true for us, just like it is true for plants, and for all beings. But, don’t let fear of dying keep you from living today. In other words, don’t prematurely take on the characteristics of the very thing you fear. To be hard and stiff before death, only hastens the death you fear. You will be broken. If you want to prevail, you must remain soft and supple to the end.

I Won’t Be Holding My Breath

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 75, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I won’t go over all the details, I have rehashed them again and again, many times before. But today’s chapter is a prime example of why I call myself libertariantaoist. The name, itself, is a bit redundant. For me, at least, calling myself a libertarian and then saying I am a philosophical Taoist is not really adding any knew information about me. I am not saying that you can’t be a libertarian, if you don’t also claim to be a philosophical Taoist. Nor, that you can’t be a philosophical Taoist, if you don’t likewise admit you are also a libertarian. I am only talking about me. I was a libertarian first. I knew nothing of Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching, then. But when I first started reading the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s libertarian streak was so blatantly obvious to me that I immediately knew philosophical Taoism was right for me. I call myself libertariantaoist and not, taoistlibertarian only because I came to philosophical Taoism through libertarianism. The before and after, just made sense to me, like yin and yang.

But enough of that, let’s look at the chapter. Lao Tzu has spent a good chunk of his time writing instructions to would-be leaders on the art of governing. Today’s chapter, music to my ears, is something that I would think is self-evident. But sadly, people only think they know these truths. They give mental assent to them. But they don’t realize their truth. Otherwise, it would change how we are being governed.

I am still amazed at the ways in which people can fool themselves into justifying the most horrific of things. Of the many terrible things that people justify, the belief that the State is a necessary evil, is one of the saddest ones for me to tolerate. Why, if we really believed when taxes are too high people go hungry, would we tolerate, and justify, taxes? Wait, you might argue, we don’t want taxes to be too high, but we must have taxes. The government provides very essential services. So, people immediately give up their high moral ground for opposing taxes. They immediately justify why their system of taxation won’t be too high. On one side, they will argue that they only want taxes on the very wealthiest. Leave the rest of us alone. But the wealthiest aren’t paying their fair share of them. On the other side are those who say the poorest aren’t paying their fair share. They are the ones that are getting off scot-free. But both sides are missing the whole point. Forget the lies you have been told. The purpose of taxes is not to provide essential services. You will be told it is for the children, or for the poor, or for this or that popular program. But that is all a huge lie. Only a tiny portion of any taxes collected ever get funneled down to any of those “essential” services. There has only ever been one reason for taxation. And that is enriching the ruling class at the expense of everybody else.

Look how much we spend on education every year per child. Or, look at the war on poverty. Have we gotten our money’s worth? Was your education worth the price that was paid for it? Are there any fewer people in poverty since LBJ launched his so-called war on it? The reality is far different. I don’t think I have to tell anyone where U.S. education ranks compared with the rest of the world. We haven’t improved thanks to all that money spent. But more will help? And as far as poverty is concerned, many more, not less are in poverty than ever before. Your tax dollars at work. Not really, though. Because your tax dollars actually went elsewhere. To enrich the ruling class, who is doing quite nicely, thank you very much.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking that all of this is because we haven’t yet got the right people in office. When we get the right people in office, then our tax dollars will be spent on what we want it spent on. Where have you been for the last few decades? The same two parties have been in power forever. They switch places, but it never makes a bit of difference in the way we are governed. Look at this one, he is making grand promises. So? Once he got elected, all he ever did was the same things as his predecessor.

People go hungry when taxes are too high. People lose their spirit when government is too intrusive. This is two sides of the same coin. The two go hand in hand. When one set of people have the fruit of their labor confiscated by another set of people, someone is going to go hungry. And it won’t be the ones collecting the taxes. But this goes way beyond taxes. Lao Tzu is talking about governments who intrude in every aspect of our lives. What about how the government regulates behavior between two or more consenting parties? What and how much can I produce? Who can I sell it to? Who must I buy it from?

Our benevolent rulers will always insist their plans for us are well-intentioned. My dad would always say, good intentions are what paves the streets of Hell. My dad was smart like that. Look at the elaborate and ever-expanding system of rewards and punishments they have designed to “benefit” us. Who can I hire to work for me and at what rate? Or, say I want to work for somebody else. They are required by law to pay me a minimum rate. Really? Why am I not free to work for less? All of these restrictions, these regulations, for our benefit, only end up harming the very ones they are promised to benefit. No wonder people go hungry. No wonder they lose their spirit.

I could really go on and on with examples of how very intrusive the government is in all of our lives. I haven’t even scratched the surface, yet. But I also don’t want my commentary to be overly long. Our so-called leaders always insist they want to act for the people’s benefit. So I say, “Fine, then, trust us and leave us alone.” In the meantime, I won’t be holding my breath.

A Very Present Fear

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu assured us that the Tao is the ultimate safety net. It doesn’t let a thing slip through. Any failures on our own part are never the final word. When we fail, the Tao is always there to catch us. Today, he goes further, explaining exactly what it is that holds us back from being happy, content.

If I have said it once I have said it a hundred times, there is a world of difference between simply knowing something (that is, giving mental assent to it), and actually realizing the truth of it. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t say that they know that all things change. But just what difference does that make in their lives? When we live out our lives as if things are always going to remain the same, we haven’t yet realized that all things change. And, because we are expecting, or counting on things remaining the same, we will hold onto things, no matter how fleeting they may be.

How can we come to realize? That is a most important thing. And, thankfully, Lao Tzu has covered it many times before. First, know that you don’t know. As long as we insist that we know, we will never come to realize. Practice not-knowing, that is true knowledge. Presumption is a disease, remember. We need to be healed of all knowing in order to realize truths that will make a real and lasting difference in how we live our lives.

It is a matter of living in this present moment. We may be living in the past. Resting on our laurels, our vast accumulation of knowledge. Or, we may be dogged by our past. The shadow of our failures may loom large. But we can’t let the past hold us back from living in this present moment. Let it go!

Then again, we may be so focused on tomorrow, its hopes, its fears, that we won’t allow ourselves to live in this present moment. How often do we postpone happiness to some future time? Once I get more money, or more of this or that, then I can be happy. But not now. It must wait. And, as each precious present moment goes by without us enjoying even one of them, we are always dogged by our fear of death.

And, let’s be clear here, this isn’t a fear of dying in the future. We all know that we are going to die in the future. And we’re okay with that. As long as death is something in the future, what is there to fear? What really worries us, however, is that we are going to die much sooner than some future time. Death in the present moment, that is what we are afraid of. I will put off happiness until some future time, because I am scared I will die today.

You may think that is nonsense. If I really feared I was going to die today, wouldn’t I make the most of today? No, you aren’t quite understanding. For those dogged by this fear, it is too late. Today, we are going to die. Yesterday, I could have accomplished so much. Or tomorrow, if I were to live to see it. But today? No, it is too late. The fear of dying is what is holding us back from living in this present moment. But, if we could just let go of that fear, then there would be nothing we couldn’t achieve. That is Lao Tzu’s promise for today.

That we can’t control the future is another one of those things we really must come to realize. Merely giving mental assent to that truth is never going to be enough. For as long as we try to control the future, for isn’t that what we are doing when we postpone really living until some future time, is like trying to take the place of a master carpenter. There is Lao Tzu’s metaphor of the day. Don’t be messing around with those tools. You will only end up cutting your hand.

A Safety Net Like No Other

The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 73, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is one that comforts me. Why? Because Lao Tzu puts me at ease by telling me how the Tao is always at ease. He begins sort of cryptically. Overcoming without competing, answering without speaking a word, arriving without being summoned, accomplishing without a plan. All that really means is that harmony with the Tao isn’t some hard thing. The doing without doing, knowing not-knowing, not-competing competing. It is all child’s play, really. The Tao inside of me does everything; all I have to do is go along for the ride. Just let it happen.

And when I fail? Because, you know, I often do. The Tao is like a safety net for me. Its net covers the whole universe.

I was thinking of this earlier this week when I was listening to a story on NPR about how they had interviewed both democrats and republicans and got “shocking” results. Well, it was shocking for the NPR hosts. They had asked about how people felt about the social safety net that the government provides. Like unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing, health care, you know things like that. And they were stunned that there weren’t any real differences of opinions on the social safety net between those who identified as democrats and those who identified as republicans. It was like you couldn’t tell any difference in the way they felt about these things. They both wholeheartedly wanted the government in the business of providing that social safety net, just because people sometimes get into trouble, and it should be the government’s responsibility to take care of them. I didn’t find this news shocking, at all. But it is rather sad. No surprises, here, folks. If you are looking for real differences between the two parties, they are hard to find. That might be shocking to NPR, but it isn’t to me. Where are the people who will say, “There are other ways to help out people.” We used to take care of each other quite well, without the government’s “help”. Too bad that has long been forgotten. Now, people think they are being helpful by referring people to their local government agency. We have completely acquiesced our own human responsibilities to our fellow human beings. “What? I give plenty in taxes. That is what the government is there for.” Or, “I give to my church or other charity. Let them help.” Either way, people are encouraged to look outside themselves for answers. I can’t wait to get the messages of hate saying I don’t care about people going hungry. Or being homeless. Or being without medical care. Or whatever. But I didn’t say any of those things. All I am saying is that we used to live together in community with each other. We shared each others’ burdens. We helped each other out. It was a very personal responsibility. Now it has been outsourced. All individual responsibility has been eliminated. I don’t owe you anything. What’s that you say, “You are a fellow human being?” So what? Your problems are yours, not mine. And even while insisting that those that are down and out look elsewhere for help, we all know that those outside sources of help are horribly inefficient and just plain bad about letting people slip through the cracks.

Perhaps, you think this is a strange way to be approaching the Tao’s safety net. But I can’t help myself. Its meshes may be wide, but, unlike those outside sources of help, it doesn’t let a thing slip through.

When It Is Time To Take A Step Back

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

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

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

Today, let’s take a step back. Yesterday, you will remember, we talked about the importance of healing ourselves of all knowing. Presuming we know is a disease. True knowledge is knowing not-knowing. That is what it means to be whole. But, today, we need to take a step back. Why? Because it is easy to get confused, right here.

After going on and on about how we shouldn’t rely on our own cleverness, it is easy to assume that we really can’t trust ourselves. And once we start down that road, we may start to seek out some outside authority, someone we hope we can depend on.

Because that is not what Lao Tzu is about, he decides it is time to take a step back, with today’s chapter. Knowing not-knowing should place us in a state of awe. Just like little children, who are so full of questions, because they know that they don’t know; and so, have an endless series of questions in their pursuit of knowledge. They are in a constant state of awe. Always seeing things like it was the first time.

Awe is a good thing. Being “lost” in the wonders of the Tao, is exactly the place you want to be. It is being in harmony with the Tao. And being in harmony with the Tao means that all your actions are effortless, intuitively flowing from the core of your being. There is no need to think about them. Your body doesn’t offer any resistances. You just go with the flow.

But what happens when we lose that sense of connection with the Tao? Confusion happens. Not immediately, because for awhile we are able to continue out of habit. But little by little, our minds start butting in, our bodies start to resist. Things that once flowed so easily, just don’t anymore. And, we start seeking out substitutes for our missing connection with the Tao.

That is what Lao Tzu is talking about when he talks about people losing their sense of awe and turning to religion. We are not bashing religion, here. Just pointing out that religion is one thing that people turn to, when they are looking for answers. We start looking outside ourselves for the answers, because we no longer believe we can trust ourselves. We start to depend on some outside authority. Maybe it is religion. Maybe it is the State.

The Master knows it is time to take a step back. Because this state of confusion is not going to end well. As you rely more and more on something outside of yourself, you will rely less on yourself. That only takes you further away from the Source, the Tao inside of you.

The Master serves as our example. He teaches without teaching, so people won’t have anything new to learn. Just by taking a step back, he is teaching us. Following that example we will see what we have always been. Remember, he says, remember. Go back to that.

Not Nearly As Clever As I Think I Am, Still Too Clever For My Own Good

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 71, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu addressed what I think is the greatest difficulty we have with understanding and putting his teachings into practice. It is that we rely on our intellect to grasp what he means, and then try to do what he teaches. We spent most of our time, yesterday, talking about the practice of not-doing. We are human beings, not human doings, after all. If you want to practice Lao Tzu’s teachings, your focus should be on being, not doing. Today, Lao Tzu explains why it is our intellect only gets in the way of our understanding. We need to know not-knowing in order to understand his teachings.

Today, Lao Tzu talks about what counts as true knowledge; and, what is only a counterfeit of the truth. So much of the time, I think Lao Tzu is misinterpreted as being anti-knowledge and anti-education, when what he has always only been is anti-presumption. He insists that our cleverness is nothing more than presumption. When he tells us that in the pursuit of knowledge every day something must be added, he is only warning us that there is no end to that pursuit. You will never know everything there is to know. It is a fool’s errand, if, you are relying on your own accumulated cleverness to increase your understanding of the way things are. Our knowledge of science has greatly expanded since Lao Tzu’s day, we “know” so much more than we did before. And yet, I just imagine Lao Tzu saying the same thing to us today about our presumed knowledge.

It is a disease. The more you know, the less you understand. If you want to truly know, to truly understand, you need to know not-knowing. Not-knowing, knowing that you don’t know, is true knowledge. Why? Because you can’t begin to move toward health until you first realize you are sick. That is what not-knowing is. The realization that you are afflicted with the disease of presumption. As far as diseases go, I think this is a lot like the disease of consumption.

Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) got its name because it seemed to consume the body of the afflicted. With presumption the effects are on the mind. The more you think you know the worse the affliction. Interestingly, I read that Hippocrates, the “father of western medicine”, advised his students not to attempt treating those afflicted in the final stages of consumption because they were only going to die anyway, and it would ruin his students’ reputations as healers.

No wonder the Master chose to be her own physician! You can be your own physician, too! At least with regards to presumption. It only begins with realizing you are sick. You have to move on from there to heal yourself of all knowing. That is, letting go of a little something each and every day. What will I let go of? Every time I think I know, I admit to myself that I don’t. One of these days, I will be whole. I just know it!

A Choice Of Be Or Don’t Be

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

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

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

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

Having already distilled down his teachings into three “treasures”, Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, tells us exactly what makes it so difficult for us to understand them and put them into practice. The difficulty doesn’t lie in the teachings themselves. Being simple in actions and thoughts, being patient with both friends and enemies, being compassionate toward ourselves, this isn’t hard. What makes it so very difficult is that we try too hard. It isn’t a mental exercise; but we make it one, trying to grasp it with our intellect. There is no “try” in putting these teachings into practice, there is only be or don’t be.

Lao Tzu isn’t intending to discourage us, when he says it is impossible to grasp the meaning of his teaching with our intellect. The same is true about his warning that we are doomed to failure if we try to practice them. But, if discouragement isn’t his intention, then what is?

This is the very reason that so many will throw up their hands and dismiss his teachings as nonsense, or lofty but impractical. Of what use to us are they?

What Lao Tzu is doing is bringing us to a place where we can understand. His teachings aren’t intended to be grasped with our intellect, they are, after all, older than the world. So, he directs us to look deep within the core of our being, there, we will find the answers. What resides at the core of my being? The Source, itself, before and beyond anything that we can think or know. If you want to know me, look inside your own heart.

This isn’t the first time he has reminded us of this simple truth. Don’t try to be simple, just be simple. Don’t try to be patient, just be patient. Don’t try to be compassionate, just be compassionate. The power to be these things doesn’t reside outside of ourselves; but it also doesn’t reside in our mind. No amount of knowledge is going to ever to be of any help. Actually, the more we think we know, the less we will understand. And, our will power will always come up wanting. It is a matter of the heart. No, not that organ inside of you, beating away as it pumps blood to every cell of your body. Lao Tzu is talking about something much deeper within the core of your being. He is speaking of the Tao, itself.

Just follow the Tao. It is so easy. Perhaps too easy. Why is it that everything has to be such a challenge for us? The truth is that we like challenges. But this isn’t a challenge. It was never intended to be a challenge. And, it is because we make it into a challenge, that we make it impossible to achieve. Are we going to practice doing not-doing, knowing not-knowing, and not-competing competing? Are we going to live the life of ease that has been right there all along for us to live? All our actions can be effortless! Must we exert effort? Can we realize just how little we know, and be content to not-know? Or, will we insist that our cleverness will yet win the day? Will we be like children at play, or must we behave like the adults we know we are?

It really is a choice of be or don’t be.

The Generals Were On To Something

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)

A couple of chapters ago, Lao Tzu distilled down all of his teachings into what he said should be our three greatest treasures: Be simple in your actions and your thoughts. Be patient with both your friends and your enemies. And, be compassionate toward yourself. Yesterday, when he was talking about the virtue of non-competition, he was teaching us how to put these three treasures into practice in our lives. The Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her. We should be like children at play when we compete. This is how to be in harmony with the Tao. It is the way to guard our three greatest treasures.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu offered us four examples of people who embody the virtue of non-competition, what I call not-competing competing. One of these examples was of the best general, who enters the mind of his enemy. I promised, then, that today we would further explore what Lao Tzu calls the best military strategy, and how that relates to our three greatest treasures.

Now, I don’t claim to be any kind of military strategist. I never “served” in the armed forces. And, I don’t purport to know anything of military strategy. But, when I read Lao Tzu’s words here, I presume that he knew something of what he was saying. If he says the generals have a saying, then they must have had a saying. The rank of general, as far as I know, has always been the highest rank, reserved only for those who are the best at military strategy. Given my own admitted ignorance of military strategy, I have no problem deferring to those who do know what they are talking about.

The generals have a saying, and those are words to live by for all of us. It is better to wait and see what your enemy is going to do, let them make the first move, than to be the one to initiate force. Libertarians refer to this as the non-aggression principle. Lao Tzu would call it being patient. Remember, one of our three greatest treasures is being patient with both our friends and our enemies. But just how patient does he expect us to be? Well, just look at the last half of the generals’ saying. It is better to retreat a yard than advance an inch. That is taking patience to a whole new level. It may be comparatively easy to wait for my enemy to make the first move; but, am I willing to retreat a yard, when every fiber of my being wants to stand my ground?

We have a saying, “Patience is a virtue.” We like to say that when we don’t think someone is being patient enough with us. Or, we may be admitting to ourselves that it is something that we don’t always put into practice. But, generals, having attained the highest rank of their vocation know something about military strategy. They know how to live to fight another day. Don’t be so eager to make the first move. Wait and see what your enemy is planning to do. Get in their mind. Think what they are thinking. Think how they are thinking. When you act in haste, when you rush into action, you will fail. Be patient. Wait and see. And as far as the ludicrous notion that we should be willing to retreat a yard, Lao Tzu asks you to consider this: What if you could go forward without advancing? What if you could push back without using weapons?

Some people don’t like the term, non-aggression principle, because it sounds like something a pacifist would say. They, on the other hand, are very much in favor of aggression, or the use of force, in self-defense. So, they are quick to point out that they only mean by the term “non-aggression” that they would never be the one to initiate it. All bets are off once they have been aggressed against, however. I don’t think Lao Tzu qualifies as a pacifist, though a lot of what he says certainly could be taken that way. We covered a lot of this in earlier chapters of the Tao Te Ching. That was when he said a “decent” person would only use weapons as a last resort, and that with the utmost restraint.

We are still talking about how to be decent people, here, today. What if you didn’t have to resort to the use of force? Must you, really? I understand that sometimes you have only seconds to react in a situation. But it always seems that when we only have seconds to react that we make some horrible choices. Why is that? It is all a matter of how we have been conditioned to react.

What Lao Tzu is really concerned with in today’s chapter is guarding our three greatest treasures. These questions we have been asking are important, because the consequences of taking them lightly is that we may end up destroying our three greatest treasures. It is a real shame that we have any enemies, at all. But what is worse, what is our greatest misfortune, is that we underestimate our enemies. Understanding what Lao Tzu is meaning by this, helps us to understand exactly why we need to be patient with our enemies. It is when we think our enemy is evil, that we underestimate them. While I have not experienced this first hand, I know of too many stories of soldiers who were forced into dehumanizing places and came out of there, less than human themselves. They became the enemy. They suffer horribly as a result. Suicide rates for veterans, not really surprisingly, are terribly high.

The State does an exceptional job, with their propaganda, of getting us to underestimate our enemy. Their goal is always for us to see them as something less than human, evil. They dehumanize them for us, so that we will volunteer to go to war against them. Our three greatest treasures get destroyed in the process. We have become the enemy.

There is a better way. The generals were on to something. When two great forces oppose each other, it is the one who knows how to yield who will prevail.