The Practice of Not-Doing

If you overesteem 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 they know.

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

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

Here we are! Already to day three of our journey of letting go of the desires which hinder us from seeing through the darkness, and beholding the eternal reality, the Tao. Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about the Tao as the great balancer in the Universe. Today, we begin to tackle the desires that hinder us.

Of course, today’s chapter flies in the face of popular culture. Popular culture inflames desires. Lao Tzu’s words may seem like a wet blanket. But the art of living may require a wet blanket from time to time.

I want to be careful here because this chapter is about over doing things. The problem isn’t with doing things, but over doing them. Moderation is the aim in the art of living. So please understand what I am about to say through the lens of moderation.

I’ll admit it, I have a problem with our modern consumerist culture. The notion that we simply must have the newest, the latest, the most up-to-date _______. (You can fill in the blank)

And no need to worry if you don’t actually have the money to pay for the latest gadget. You can always go a little further in debt to make your dream come true today. Our whole economy is built on debt. Debt that can never be paid off. It simply isn’t sustainable. But don’t let that stop you!!! Oh no, oh no.

One thing we are not teaching the next generation is how to live within their means. How could we? We don’t know how, ourselves.

And then here comes Lao Tzu with his wet blanket. Don’t overesteem great men. Don’t overvalue possessions. But what is the danger in that? Here is the danger: It makes people powerless. It makes them steal.

Does Lao Tzu really have such a grim view of the human race? No, actually he seems to understand people all too well. And he is all for empowering individuals (people). And part of that empowering means warning us to be on our guard against the lust for power. Esteem in moderation is something that all individuals should have. It is healthy. Esteem isn’t the problem, Overesteem is the problem.

And so, when just a few “great men” are esteemed above others, the others feel powerless. The lust for power is a dangerous thing. Whether it is working in those who are trying to maintain their power or those who feel powerless.

Lao Tzu doesn’t want our possessions to take possession of us. The higher the value we place on possessions, the more envy and greed will grow and fester in people’s hearts. It doesn’t matter whether the gap between the haves and the have nots is or is not growing; the lust for overvalued possessions will make people steal.

And the stealing goes both ways. It isn’t just the poor stealing from the rich. The rich do their share of stealing, too. They just seem to get to do it with impunity. We all know who the police serve and protect. It is easy to predict the outcome in courts of law based on who has the most money to spend on lawyering up.

I hope this post is not coming across as promoting class envy; because that is really not my purpose at all. All I am really trying to say, is that human nature is what it is. Class doesn’t change it. It is a universal human problem.

So, how does the Master deal with this universal human problem? The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores.

What does that even mean? Lao Tzu has been talking about the lust for power and the desire for possessions, consuming us. To deal with these desires the Master approaches it in a very interesting way.

From where do desires spring forth? From a mind that is full (obsessed) and a belly that is empty. The Master works to empty the people’s minds of their obsessions. And he fills their bellies.

But that isn’t all. The Master also weakens their ambitions and toughens their resolve. To understand what that means we need to understand the difference between ambition and resolve.

Ambition is an outward focus. Resolve, on the other hand, is an inward motivation. The Master understands that as long as the people are focused outwardly at what their neighbor has, the people will be miserable. He wants the people to turn their gaze inwardly, instead. At themselves, at their own strengths, at all they can accomplish in their own lives.

It is for this reason, that the Master helps people lose everything they know; everything they desire. And creates confusion in those who think they know.

I love that line. And I am happy it is a recurring theme in the Tao Te Ching. Unknowing and unlearning. Those that think they know, really know nothing at all.

Another recurring theme is the practice of not-doing. I even entitled my post today, “The Practice of Not-Doing.” But we have a lot of unknowing and unlearning to do, if we are going to ever understand how anything at all will get done when we do nothing.

After all, we have been trained from early childhood, the art of always being busy, busy, busy. Doing this and doing that. And wondering at the end of our day, why so much is still left undone.

The art of living is so much simpler. The practice of being, not-doing. Letting things come and go; and working with them as they do. It is but to enjoy (live in) the present moment; and everything falls into place. This is the way of the Tao. This is the art of living.

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