If you over esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you over value 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 they know.
will fall into place.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about naming in the context of ascribing a particular value to things. We may esteem something as beautiful or good; but, the Tao is always there to provide the needed balance. Today, Lao Tzu warns us about over esteeming great men and over valuing possessions.
The key word here is that word, over. It is excess that Lao Tzu is concerned about. Great men and women are to be esteemed. Lao Tzu will have plenty to say about what makes a person great. He highly esteems them. But, we mustn’t over esteem them. Because when we do that, we end up creating a situation where others become powerless.
The same can be said for over valuing possessions. Things have value to us. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have them. But we mustn’t put too high a value on them, because where there is excess there is going to be a need for balancing. When possessions have too high a value placed on them, people will begin to steal.
Lao Tzu is not justifying stealing. Stealing is wrong. But, Lao Tzu is saying that we can, and often do, create situations where the outcome is not what we expected; though we should have expected it. Call it the law of unintended consequences, if you like.
This comes back to the yin and yang that we were talking about yesterday. We may not always like the way the Universe operates, the way things are. But, we best understand that the way things are is the way things are; and, learn how to work with it, rather than trying to work against it.
That is what the Master is all about. At one with the way things are. In harmony with how the Universe operates. Now, I said yesterday that the Master is a strange one. What I meant by that is that she, or he, is often going to be doing things that seem strange to us. We are looking at things in a completely different way. All I can ask is that you give the Master a chance to show you why her strange ways do work.
Lao Tzu will have lots of explaining to do. He can begin with explaining what he means when he says that the Master leads by emptying the people’s minds and filling their cores. And, what is with that weakening their ambition; while, at the same time, toughening their resolve?
The nice thing is that if we let Lao Tzu finish what he is saying, instead of interrupting him with my objections, like I just did, Lao Tzu does explain exactly what he means. Remember, we have been talking about the problem of over esteeming and over valuing. The people have become powerless. And, they have begun to steal. What is the Master leader going to do in this situation?
He, or she, is going to help the people to lose everything they think they know. I know I am taking liberties here. I added a couple words. But I have the benefit of having read to the end of the Tao Te Ching many times before. I know that is what Lao Tzu means here. The people have become powerless because they “know” that they are powerless.
The Master also helps the people to lose everything they desire. Ultimately, the reason the people have begun to steal is they desire things that are over valued. The Master is dealing with the problem of desire.
Where things get confusing is that we think we know better. We think that we can “fix” things without doing it the Master’s way. The Master wants to empty minds of all that presumption. The Master is about weakening ambition. We like to think that ambition is a good thing, and complain about a lack of ambition. But, the Master sees ambition as being the problem. And, where ambition is a problem, resolve is the solution.
I always look at the difference between the two as the difference between something that is focused on outward circumstances vs. something that focuses on who we are on the inside. When the Master is working on filling people’s cores he is talking about toughening their resolve on the inside. We want to change outward circumstances. The Master wants to get to the heart of the matter.
And, then Lao Tzu really confuses us. “Practice not-doing…everything will fall into place.” I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this today. Because we are going to be returning to it again and again in the days and weeks ahead. And, this post has already gotten long. But, the practice of wu-wei, which is here translated not-doing, would be better translated, effortless action. That is better, because not-doing sounds like, well, not doing. And that isn’t what wu-wei is. Effortless action is going with the flow, being in harmony with the way things are, and working with the Tao instead of at odds with it. When we do that, everything will fall into place.