What To Do About Excess And Deficiency

If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced what he calls the Tao. The Tao is the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. Tao could simply be translated, Way. In chapter one, he also introduced the problem of desire as the cause of our difficulties in realizing the mystery of the Tao. Caught in desire, we can only see its manifestations.

In chapter two, Lao Tzu began to explain exactly what the problem of desire is, it is how we see things; and, what a wise and virtuous person would do to overcome, and be free of, their desire. We also talked of yin and yang. These are manifestations of the Tao. I covered what yin and yang are, quite thoroughly, in my commentary on chapter two, so instead of rehashing all of that, I hope you will go back and read it.

What you specifically need to know is yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance to our Universe. How we see things, some things are beautiful and good, while other things are ugly and bad, traps us in a finite and temporal reality. To free ourselves from desire, we need to see things differently. Behold, yin and yang at work in our Universe, bringing about balance, harmony, and order. Then, you see the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. You, then, can begin to harmonize yourself with the Tao.

As I promised, yesterday, today’s chapter begins by talking further about the problem of desire. If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. The problem of desire, here, is focused on how we put things out of balance. There can’t be beauty, without ugliness. There can’t be good, without bad. The Tao always works to bring about balance. When we over-do anything, like over-esteeming or over-valuing, it creates an imbalance. With that excess, there comes deficiency. You can’t have excess, without deficiency. It makes no difference whether or not we like that this is the reality, this is just the way things are.

Now, this is where things start to get interesting. People start to get all sorts of ideas in their minds on how to deal with this problem of excess and deficiency. Those who are more ambitious will set out to do something about the problem. But, hold on there! The problem of excess and deficiency is not any of your business to deal with. The Tao will take care of adjusting excess and deficiency. Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.

This is our first real introduction to the practice of Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing, a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. And, that not intervening, and not interfering is exactly what it is about. Leave it to the Tao, to adjust excess and deficiency. If you intervene, if you interfere, no matter how “good” your intentions may be, you will only bring things further out of balance. That, too, is just the Way things are. It is something I really wish I could impress on all would-be leaders.

And, speaking of would-be leaders, Lao Tzu talks, in today’s chapter about what a wise and virtuous leader would do, in the face of reality.

A wise and virtuous leader, is going to practice doing without doing, yes. But, there is more to it than that. A wise and virtuous leader shows the people how to be in harmony with the Tao. They accomplish this, by working with both yin and yang. First, all those heady notions that something can and must be done about this excess and deficiency have got to go. So, empty your mind of that. Your ambition to intervene and interfere, also, has got to be weakened. The emptying and weakening is yin. Now, all we need is some yang to bring about balance. While emptying the people’s minds, they fill their cores. While weakening their ambition, they toughen their resolve. Filling and toughening are yang. While our outer being needs emptying and weakening, our inner being, the core of our being, needs filling and toughening. If you want to be a wise and virtuous leader, help people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and create confusion in those who think they know. Now, the Tao can bring about balance, without any interference.

Well, I think that should just about cover things for today. Lao Tzu has dealt with the problem of desire for the last two chapters. Tomorrow, he will return to talking about the Tao.

How We See Things, Together With Yin And Yang

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced us to what he calls the Tao, the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. He also introduced the one problem we all have with realizing the mystery of the Tao – our desire. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu will begin to delve into the problem of our desire. And, as he introduces the Master, for the first time, he begins to show us all, through the example of this wise and virtuous person, how to deal with the problem of our desire.

So, first, it is best to explain what Lao Tzu means by desire. By desire, Lao Tzu means how we see things. There is an infinite and eternal reality, which for us is shrouded in darkness. What we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, everything we perceive with our senses, show us the way things seem to be. But, that is only a finite and temporal reality. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that everything we perceive with our senses is a hologram. I would call it, straight up, an illusion. How we see things, or perceive them, traps us in this finite and temporal reality, an illusion. Lao Tzu suggests we can be free from this illusion, finally beholding the infinite and eternal reality, by tracing back the manifestations of the infinite and eternal reality, to their source. The manifestations are something we can see; though our minds, having become accustomed to seeing things a certain way, will try to explain them away, as only part of the “reality” we see all around us. The infinite and eternal reality is very different. And, we will begin to see that, as we trace back those manifestations. So, let’s begin.

Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by talking about how we perceive a duality in our universe. Many philosophers call it the problem of duality. Lao Tzu, though, will remind us, the problem isn’t duality, the problem is our desire. When people see some things as beautiful, or good, other things become ugly, or bad. In the infinite and eternal reality, there is no such division. There is no beautiful, no ugly, no good, and no bad. These are human constructs. We speak them into existence in our “reality”. They are our perceptions of the way things are. But, they are only the way things seem to be.

What there is in the infinite and eternal reality, and here is where we are introduced to our first manifestations of the Tao, is yin and yang.

Yin and yang are not opposites. That is a common misconception; but, it is a misconception. Yin and yang are complements of each other. Yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance, harmony, and order in our Universe. Where there is yin, there must be yang, and where there is yang, there must be yin. They complete each other. They balance each other out.

To further explain the operation of yin and yang in our Universe, consider the familiar Tai-Chi symbol. It is a circle, representing everything that is, our Universe. Within it, you find the black yin and the white yang, swirling around in constant motion. The relationship between yin and yang is not a static one. It is dynamic. When you look at yin and yang in that circle, you will see that each contains a seed of the other within itself.

Yin and yang, non-being and being, create each other. Like difficult and easy, they support each other. Like long and short, they define each other. Like high and low, they depend on each other. Like before and after, they follow each other. That is why you can’t have beautiful without ugly; or, good without bad. But, that is the problem of desire, how we see things.

Yin and yang are manifestations of the Tao we can see. We see them in female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, back and front. If we see these as opposites, if we prefer one over the other, we are upsetting the balance, and going against the current of the Tao.

The Master, a wise and virtuous person, shows us the way to overcome and free ourselves from the problem of desire. We will talk further about the Master throughout the Tao Te Ching. I did want to explain, when I refer to the Master as a wise and virtuous person, what I mean by wise and virtuous. Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous does not mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.

Wise and virtuous persons overcome, and free themselves from, the problem of desire, by acting without doing anything, and teaching without saying anything. Things arise, and they let them come. Things disappear, and they let them go. They have, without possessing. They act, without expectations. They do their work; and, when it is done, they forget about it. Because of this, what they do lasts forever.

These are attributes, of the wise and virtuous person, which we are only introducing today. We will go into them in more depth as we go on through the Tao Te Ching. The thing to understand about them, today, is this is how to free yourself from the finite and temporal reality, and enter the realm of the infinite and eternal.

Tomorrow, we will talk more about the problem of desire, and how a wise and virtuous person shows us the Way out of the self-imposed trap in which we find ourselves.

The Problem is Desire

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire,
you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire,
you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

And so we begin again. If you are new to my blog and philosophical Taoism, welcome. If you have been following for awhile now, thank you for continuing along this journey with me. I promise all new commentary on every chapter as we go along. I take a chapter each day from the Tao Te Ching (81 chapters in all) using Stephen Mitchell’s excellent interpretation. I have been doing this since 2012 (about four times through each year). My commentary is my own interpretation, what I think Lao Tzu is saying to me, and my readers. It will have a libertarian spin to it, because I believe Lao Tzu might have been the very first libertarian. But it isn’t just political. Yes, Lao Tzu does have some sage advice for would-be leaders intermingled throughout the Tao Te Ching. But, more importantly, I have found it to be a manual on the art of living, a how-to-book on being content with a simple and ordinary life. The book’s title gives it away: Tao Te Ching. Tao meaning “the Way things are”. Te meaning “virtue”. And Ching meaning “book”. Some of you may have seen it written, before, as Dao De Jing. If you have, that is a good indicator of how to pronounce it. Anyway, Tao Te Ching, means “The Way of Virtue Book.”

With that introduction completed, it is time for a second one. Lao Tzu is going to begin by talking about what he is referring to in his book, he gives it the name, Tao. Later, he will talk about Te, or virtue, which doesn’t refer to goodness, like we think of goodness. Instead, it means “being in harmony with the Way”. Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will introduce the Master, I will re-translate this term “wise and virtuous person(s)”, because I think it will be less confusing. Stephen Mitchell alternates between male and female pronouns with each succeeding chapter referring to the Master to be inclusive. I will simply use the pronoun “they”, because that has proven easier for me. One final introductory thought before I begin chapter one: While I am beginning with Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation for the quote, each morning, I am looking at other translations as well, particularly Robert Brookes’, which I was just introduced to in the last couple of months. I will be sure to cite Brookes when I am using a thought I got from him.

Okay, let’s begin. What an undertaking! You want to talk about the infinite and eternal nature of things. But you know, up front, you are limited by your own finite and temporal nature. How can you even ascribe it a name, when it is nameless? Probably the best course of action is just to do it. Just go with the flow. Let the mystery be mysterious. But don’t fail to point out the manifestations, they will show you the way back to the Source.

The tao (little t) that can be told is not the eternal Tao. See, right here, I am acknowledging the trouble. Everything I say about the tao is not the eternal Tao. The Tao is so much more than that. Words are so limiting. But, the Tao is unlimited. Trying to use the finite to speak of the infinite – consider that fair warning.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. Just naming it, the Tao, I have already crossed some line. For…

The unnameable is the eternally real. I am trying to talk about the infinite and eternal reality. The Nature of things, not just the nature of things. The Way things are, even though, with our eyes and ears, with all our senses, all we perceive is the way things seem to be. But, I have to give it a particular name, because…

Naming is the origin of all particular things. Naming ceremonies have always been quite important to us. We have always understood the importance of names. It is almost as if we know, “Don’t screw this up. We must get this right.” And, so we name things from their very beginning. Before we even have a chance to get to know the thing itself. Yet, in our audacity, we give it a name. Will it live up to its name? Or, more importantly, will our name be too confining?

That gives us a pretty good introduction to the problem Lao Tzu believes he was facing, as he begins writing. The infinite and eternal reality, the Way things are, is a mystery. It is a mystery we can’t expect to realize as long as we limit ourselves to the finite and temporal realm. What causes us to limit ourselves to the finite and temporal? Our desire….

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire you see only the manifestations. As long as we are caught in desire we won’t realize the mystery. We must be free, in order to realize it. This whole work sets us on the path to freedom. Lao Tzu lays out the course for us, when he says…

Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This Source is properly called darkness. Or, even, darkness within darkness. But, it is the gateway to all understanding.

So, before we move on to chapter two, tomorrow, let’s talk a little more about these manifestations. Being caught in desire, for now, we can only see the manifestations. The manifestations of the Tao, are all the particular things, what we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears. Though we can’t trust our minds to properly interpret them, as such. For that, we will need to look deeper, into the core of our being, for understanding. These are truly matters of the heart. Understanding will come spontaneously, and intuitively. As we understand, little by little, along the way, we will trace these manifestations back to the Source. Then, we will know, even as we are known.

Is This Really How It Ends?

True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 81, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we talked a lot about why we are not content. Lao Tzu teaches, if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. And, we talked at length about what true contentment means. How it is tied to living a simple and ordinary life. Whatever is true of a country is true of individuals. I traced back the symptoms of our discontent to the root itself, dissatisfaction with our own selves. Once you realize you, and you alone, are responsible for governing yourself, once you realize you have everything you need to be content with a simple and ordinary life, you realize the choice was always your own. Contentment isn’t about outward circumstances. It isn’t about the outward things you have, or don’t have. It is a choice. If you want to be content, be content.

That wasn’t very eloquent. Being told the reason I am not content is because I choose not to be content may be true; but, it isn’t eloquent. But, there have been plenty of eloquent words uttered which weren’t true.

And, I haven’t set out to prove the wisdom in this way of living I choose. For me, it became self-evident, once I traced it back to the source, for myself. You, my friends, have your own paths to walk. If you are wise, you won’t see the need to prove anything. You will simply live your lives.

The Master, a wise and virtuous person, as Lao Tzu said a few chapters ago, can keep on giving, because there is no end to their wealth. We err when we equate wealth with possessions. But, the Master has no possessions; so, how can they keep on giving? Wealth is happiness. True contentment. The more we do for others, the happier we are. The more we give, out of our abundance of happiness, to others, the wealthier we are.

The Tao never uses force to nourish us. Likewise, we lead our lives by not trying to dominate others.

Is this really how it ends? So simply? Isn’t there something else to be said? Oh, my friends, what more needs to be said? Be content with the simple and ordinary. Don’t have to make your life complicated.

Why We Are Discontent

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is the next to last chapter in the Tao Te Ching. Tomorrow, we will finish another cycle through; and, Monday, we will start the journey all over again. As I read through today’s chapter, again, one question seemed to stand out in my mind. “So, why aren’t we content?

And, don’t even try to tell me that we are. I have been paying attention to things in this year’s presidential election in the United States. And, it is obvious, the inhabitants of the United States are not content. I think it is fair to say, a good number of the inhabitants of this country are quite certain they aren’t getting enough goodies. There has been a good amount of class warfare going on, here. Everything the 1% has, they have gotten by exploiting the masses of people. The rest of us want our goodies, too. We need to extract from their wealth, and give it away to everyone else. Why not? We are just as entitled as they are. Where class warfare isn’t the angle, it is those damn foreigners! They came in here, taking our jobs, our food stamps, our free healthcare, our “you name it”. We are Americans, damn it, and we are the ones who should be entitled, here. Not those foreigners.

I think that about sums it up. We aren’t content. But, is any of that, really, the reason we aren’t content? Lao Tzu, of course, has a completely different take on things.

He begins by saying, what to my libertarian ears is sweet music, “If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.” Well, there you have it, then. We aren’t content, because we aren’t being governed wisely. And, no doubt, many of those I described earlier will tell me, that is exactly why we are so fired up about this year’s election. It is time to vote in wise leaders to govern us.

Okay, I hear you. But before we drop this conversation, consider what Lao Tzu means by wise leaders. Then, maybe, you could tell me if any of the candidates, running, fit the bill.

Lao Tzu has said it so many times before in his instructions to would-be leaders. If you want to be a great leader, trust the people and leave them alone. Don’t try to control. Don’t use force to try to get your way. Don’t intervene in others’ affairs. Don’t interfere. Leave things alone. It is better to do nothing, than to do something. It is better to know you don’t know, than to think you know. Place yourself below the people, instead of above them. Stay behind, instead of getting ahead.

Let’s be honest, here. Those kind of people don’t get elected to government. Apparently, they don’t even run for political office.

But even that, isn’t what is on my mind as I am pondering the question of why we aren’t content. Let’s delve a little deeper into what contentment means; at least, what it means to Lao Tzu. What I am trying to do with today’s chapter is explore just how not content we are.

Lao Tzu has also talked a lot about being content, before. You could say, it is the whole point of this manual on the art of living: How to be content with a simple and ordinary life. Because, make no mistake, true contentment, as far as Lao Tzu is concerned, is directly tied to living a simple and ordinary life.

Today’s chapter describes it well. It is idyllic, like Tolkien’s Shire, and hobbits.

“They enjoy the labor of their hands and don’t waste time inventing labor-saving machines.” I can immediately see the discontent rising up all around me. What is wrong with labor-saving machines? Wait, hold one, there. Who said there was anything wrong with labor-saving machines? All Lao Tzu said is that true contentment means people would enjoy the labor of their hands and wouldn’t waste time inventing labor-saving machines. Instead of complaining about not wanting to give up your labor-saving machines, why not ask yourself, “Why am I not content?”

As an aside, I am not proposing that we have to live in some primitive society in order to be content. I don’t believe that is Lao Tzu’s point, either. I think he is saying, if we were governed wisely, we will be content. I happen to appreciate all the labor-saving machines which have been invented. I have never been enough content with the labor of my own hands, not to appreciate them. That being said, I can also say, I have come to appreciate more, the blessings of being content with a simple and ordinary life. I have been experiencing a more simple and ordinary life for a few years, now. I have never been more content. I have even found the labor of my own hands to be much more rewarding.

“Since they dearly love their homes, they aren’t interested in travel. There may be a few wagons and boats, but these don’t go anywhere.” Here, the discontent rises again. What is wrong with desiring to travel? And, once again, we are asking the wrong question. Lao Tzu has also talked a lot about traveling, before. His emphasis on it, was the importance of always staying connected to your root, your home. The question isn’t, what is wrong with travel, it is, why don’t you dearly love your home? If you don’t dearly love your home, you aren’t content. Perhaps, you do need to make a move, find some other place to put down roots. Lao Tzu wants you to be content. He has been showing us the way, all along.

“There may be an arsenal of weapons, but nobody ever uses them.” Ah, guns… Well, that is usually the first thing to come to our modern minds when we think about an arsenal of weapons. For Lao Tzu, it was probably knives, and swords, and other deadly weapons. This line speaks to me in a big way. Who wouldn’t be content to have an arsenal of weapons that nobody ever needed to use? True contentment, my friends, makes weapons virtually unnecessary. What do I mean? Am I saying, if I was content I wouldn’t want to defend myself, my family, my property? No, not really. What I am really saying, is if our country was being governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. And, content people don’t initiate force against others. You wouldn’t have to defend yourself. There may be an arsenal of weapons, however. And, I don’t have any objection to that.

So, what does true contentment really look like? “People enjoy their food, take pleasure in being with their families, spend weekends working in their gardens, delight in the doings of the neighborhood.” Let’s be real honest, here. For far too many of us, we don’t really enjoy our food, anymore. We don’t take pleasure in being with our families. We don’t spend weekends working in our gardens. And, we don’t delight in what is going on in our neighborhood. We aren’t content!

Why is that? I think that was the question with which I opened this whole commentary. If we were governed wisely, we would be. But, I think there is something a little more to it than just discontent with our government. If we were to look deeper inside ourselves, we probably would see the true seed of discontent is within us. Yes, I am an anarchist; so, obviously, I am not content with my government. But, I discovered something else, when I started looking within my own self. I discovered that seed that was discontent with myself. And, I got rid of that seed. Now, the government, as loathsome as I find it, isn’t such a big deal to me now. I govern myself. Yes, that was where I was going with this. If you govern yourself wisely, you will be content with yourself. And that, my friends, is where true contentment begins.

Just try to imagine with me, living so close to the next country that you can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking; and, being content enough to die of old age without ever having gone to see it. That is true contentment!

Yes, You Failed. What An Opportunity!

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu ended yesterday’s chapter with the words, “True words seem paradoxical.” Except, when Lao Tzu originally wrote the Tao Te Ching, he didn’t divide it into chapters. That was the work of later editors. He originally wrote it as one flowing stream of thought. So, when I talked about the truth behind the paradox of being the people’s greatest help, when you have given up on helping them, I wasn’t wrong. However, “True words seem paradoxical” applies to today’s chapter, as well. “Failure is an opportunity.” How many times have we heard that one before? It is one of those things we all know is true, though only those who will go on to succeed, ever seem to actually “realize” the truth behind the paradox.

Allow me to speak from my own experience. I know what it means to fail. We all do, really. You can’t live long, and ever do much, without failing. So, yeah, we all fail. I fail, too. But, what are we, then, to do? With what opportunity does failure present us? Many of us, myself included (I have to admit), will use the opportunity to blame someone else for our own failures. However, and this is another one of those things we all know is true (though we, often, don’t let that change our behavior), when we blame someone else for our failures, there is no end to the blame. That sort of attitude just leads us down a never-ending rabbit trail of repeated failures. It isn’t the road to success.

So what is? What really is the opportunity in failure? The example of the Master presents us with two ways to make failure an opportunity, and these two ways will result in success – being content with our life.

The first way that failure is an opportunity is when we fail. The Master certainly sees it as an opportunity. This wise person will not let failure be the final word. No. Instead, they do whatever it takes to fulfill their obligations and correct their own mistakes.

Well, that seems simple enough, really. Nothing too great to ask from someone who wants to ultimately succeed in life. You failed. You made mistakes. But, you still have obligations to fulfill. To me, this speaks of contractual obligations.

There are two sides to any contract. There are the things you have promised to do, and there are the things others have promised to you. When you fail, it isn’t time to blame someone else. It is time to rise to the challenge of admitting your own mistakes, and correcting them. Doing whatever it takes to meet your own obligations.

But, what about that other side of the contract? What happens when others fail us? That is the second way failure is an opportunity. And, once again, it isn’t time to start pointing fingers of blame. No, here, the Master will do whatever needs to be done, without making any demands on others.

But, but, don’t they need to fulfill their own obligations? What about correcting their own mistakes, and doing whatever they need to do? Sorry, we weren’t talking about them. We were talking about you. What kind of opportunity, failure is for you. Don’t wander down that rabbit trail. Stay on your own path. The one for which contentment is always yours.

Helping, Or Hindering?

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)

Two days ago, Lao Tzu explained the importance of being soft and supple, yielding and flexible, if you want to prevail in life. The stiff and hard, the inflexible, will be broken. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao explained how the Tao acts in the world, by picturing the bending of a bow. He contrasted the Tao’s flexibility, adjusting excess and deficiency to bring about perfect balance, with the inflexibility of those who try to control, who use force to protect their power. We know what will prevail, and who will be broken. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu returns to his favorite metaphor to talk further about the importance of being soft and yielding.

Nothing in the world is quite like it. Water. He returns again and again to talk about it, because its attributes are so much like the Tao, and what it means to be in harmony with the Tao. Water is certainly an abundant resource, and one with which we can immediately pick up on their shared attributes. We understand, for instance, that seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. And, the adult human body is comprised of, anywhere from fifty to sixty-five percent, water. Even infants, another of Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphors, are a whopping seventy-five to eighty percent water. Being so much water, how easy is it for us to be like water?

And, that is exactly what Lao Tzu has taught us time and time again. Be like water! When he wanted to illustrate for us the practice of doing without doing, he pointed out that water nourishes all things, without trying. And, when he wanted to teach us humility, once again, he reminded us that water always seeks out the lowest places.

In today’s chapter, the attribute of water that has his attention is how soft and yielding it is. But even more than that, look at how it dissolves the hard and inflexible. Nothing can surpass it! The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. We all know this is true. We have seen it for ourselves, many times. But putting this teaching into practice? That is something only a few seem to do.

That is why the example of the Master is so important for us to follow. How do I overcome the hard by being soft? How do I overcome the rigid by being gentle? Here is the lesson water teaches us: Remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. We talked, yesterday, about how the Master acts when the inflexible are going against the direction of the Tao. Giving, without diminishing their wealth. Acting, without expectations. Succeeding, without taking any credit. Today, Lao Tzu zones in on how they are really able to be the people’s greatest help. By remaining serene, seemingly indifferent, even disinterested, when excess and deficiency are at their greatest, evil finds no place in their hearts. They have given up all desires to interfere, or intervene. They leave it to the Tao to adjust excess and deficiency. They are like water. The hard and inflexible is either broken, or it melts away.

They don’t think they are better than anyone else. They just go with the flow of the Tao. That is how to be the people’s greatest help. Of course, that seems paradoxical. How am I helping by not trying to help? But, the question we really should be asking ourselves is, “Have I really been helping, or hindering, when I have been trying to help?”

Don’t Make 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)

How does the Tao act in our world; and, if we are to be followers of the Tao, how are we, then, to act in our world? The answers to these questions are what makes today’s chapter one of the most important ones, I think, in the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao, if you are new to philosophical Taoism, is the name Lao Tzu gave to the way things are in our universe. It is the infinite and eternal reality which governs our universe. It is what brings about balance and harmony; spontaneous order, out of chaos. How does it do this? Lao Tzu teaches us that it is like the bending of a bow. That is certainly something with which we are all familiar.. Many of us have held a bow in our own hands. But, even if you haven’t held one, you have, no doubt, seen one in action, before. As the top bends downward, the bottom is bent up. That is how a bow works.

And, that, Lao Tzu says, is a perfect illustration of how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, in our world, in order to achieve balance, harmony, order.

What are excess and deficiency? Well, it is easy to understand that excess is what is too much, and deficiency is what isn’t enough. But, there is something further to understand about excess and deficiency. When things are out of balance, excess and deficiency are the results. Where there is excess, there is always deficiency, and vice versa. The higher the top of the bow, the lower will be the bottom. If you are thinking it is possible to have excess without deficiency, or deficiency without excess, you are mislabeling something somewhere. Where there isn’t deficiency, there is no excess. And where there isn’t excess, there is no deficiency. I know this is a point of contention with some. I only ask you to bear with Lao Tzu. Don’t make this personal. The Tao certainly doesn’t make it personal.

The Tao always acts to adjust excess and deficiency, by taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough. Notice, it takes from what and gives to what. Don’t make this personal. It isn’t about anyone not paying their fair share. It isn’t about anyone, at all. It is about how the Tao acts in our world to adjust excess and deficiency to achieve perfect balance. It is how things work in our universe. Naturally. It is the way things are. Given time, nature always balances things out. Excess and deficiency are temporary.

Let me repeat that again, because it is so important. Excess and deficiency are temporary. They are not meant to exist, for long, in our world. They are the sign that things are out of balance; and, if we don’t make this personal, if we don’t get in the way, and oppose the Tao, the Tao will bring things back into balance. That is what it does.

Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. This is the problem with the will to power. It thrives on things being out of balance. Where there is excess and deficiency for a prolonged period of time, you can be certain there are those who are working to maintain their power, their control, their excess, and your deficiency. See how they made it personal? They take from those who don’t have enough, and give to those who have far too much. This is our present reality. It isn’t the eternal reality. But, it is the one we are living, today.

Well, I said at the start, that today’s chapter was going to answer two questions. Both, how the Tao acts in our world, and how we should, then, act?

If we are going to be followers of the Tao, if we are going to be masters at following the Tao, we must understand our present reality is one where the world is out of balance, first. And, second, that it is being kept out of balance because the will to power is in charge. If the Tao wasn’t being opposed, all things would be in perfect balance.

What does the Master do? First, let’s begin with what the Master doesn’t do. The Master doesn’t react to the violence being perpetrated, by perpetrating their own violence. Don’t try to wrest control from the controllers. Understand, their days are numbered, anyway; because, imbalance is only a temporary thing. Excess and deficiency are temporary. No matter how long those with the will to power try to control. No matter how much force they use to protect their power. They cannot succeed, in the end. They are fighting a losing battle. The eternal reality will always outlast the temporal.

But, I know you aren’t just interested in the long run. You want to know what to do in the mean time. In the mean time, Masters keep on giving, because there is no end to their wealth. Here, don’t think of wealth as strictly monetary. Wealth means so much more. Masters are in accord with the Tao. The more you use it, the more it produces. They act without expectation. They succeed without taking any credit. And, all of this, without thinking they are better than anyone else.

I witnessed a conversation, earlier, where one person was trying to make the case that the United States is a force for good, more than a force for evil, in our world. And, I thought to myself, “Even if that was true, though I don’t believe it is, it isn’t good. Better, it would be, not to meddle in the affairs of others in the world, and attend to our own affairs.” That is what the Master does. They don’t meddle where they have no business. They don’t make things personal. They give, and keep on giving, wherever they perceive need. They don’t despair. They just keep on giving. Understanding the flexibility of the bow, and the inflexibility of those who try to control, the Master understands what will prevail, and who will be broken. The Master’s soft and yielding, flexible nature is a fine example for all of us!

Will I Be Broken, Or Will I Prevail?

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)

Today, Lao Tzu talks about the cycle of life. When we were born, we were soft and supple. It is the same way with all living things. Even plants are born tender and pliant. But, then, we go through the cycle of life; we grow, we mature, we die. This is nature. Nature’s cycle of life. When you die, you become stiff and hard. When plants die, they become brittle and dry. Once again, that is the way of nature.

I read an interesting post, earlier today, going on and on about the natural/unnatural divide. The original poster had some legitimate concerns about our fears over anything said to be unnatural. But, on the other hand, we can behave in ways which are, in fact, unnatural. To be stiff and inflexible, when you should be soft and yielding, could rightfully be said to be, unnatural. If you are still alive, that is. It is to be dead prematurely. Or, as Lao Tzu says it, in today’s post, it is to be a disciple of death.

As long as we are alive, we should be disciples of life. That means being soft and yielding.

But, of course, Lao Tzu isn’t really referring to physical attributes, here. The metaphors are only meant to point out the way of the Tao. The Tao flows. Or, more accurately, it both ebbs and flows. Things change. Circumstances change. Life throws you curves. When the winds are blowing, are you flexible enough to bend with the wind, or will you be broken. Are you hard and stiff? Or, are you able to go with life’s ebb and flow?

Are you going to die prematurely? I have known some very old people in my life, who were just as spry as if they were half their age. And, I don’t mean just physically, either. It wasn’t just their physical bodies, it was their whole being, which was still full of life. They had a zest for living. They welcomed every twist and turn along life’s way. But, sadly, I have known quite a few much younger people who seemed to have aged drastically in only a few short years. Their zest for life waned long ago. Every time life threw them another curve, they got beaten down more.

Will they be broken? Will you? There is only one way to prevail in life. And that is to be a disciple of life. Be soft and supple, just like you were, when you were born. And, all the way through, until it is your time to die. Don’t let changing circumstances break you. Be soft. Be supple. Be yielding. Every change of circumstances is another opportunity. Failure is an opportunity. Don’t let it break you. Let it mold you. Let it make you into whatever you will become.

They Can Always Eat Cake

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 think I will keep it short today. What even needs to be said about today’s chapter?

I was having tea with a friend, today; and, as is usually the case, whenever you are spending time with me, the topic was politics. My friend suggested that the powers that be should learn from history, particularly the history of the French revolution. Ah, yes, Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake.” Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable. But sadly, as is also usually (always?) the case, violent revolution never does end well.

But, I assured my friend, if assured is really the word I should be using, “I have little doubt the political class has a few tricks left to play on us.” Whenever violent revolution seems all but inevitable, they will merely unleash some virus on the world’s population (for which they have been inoculated), and kill off at least half of it. And, the surviving population will no doubt be more acquiescent. That will buy them some more time. After all, don’t the intelligentsia claim our population is too great? The Earth can’t support all these people. That is why people go hungry! It can’t be that taxes are too high! Why, we only use those taxes so we can provide for the people. The ungrateful masses of people, how dare they even think about revolting against their benevolent rulers. The nerve of these unwashed and unworthy people, losing their spirit over a bit of intrusion in their lives. Why, they owe us everything!