Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self.
Then you can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Such grand words fill today’s chapter: Success. Failure. Hope, Fear. Faith. Love. Only Lao Tzu could say so much in so few words. And I couldn’t possibly do one of them justice with my little post today…
And yet, here I am. There is something I think we can take away from the chapter today. Or I would just bid you all well, and leave it at that. But here goes…
When Lao Tzu warns us that success and failure are equally dangerous, he does tell us exactly why that is. It is that ladder. We all have spent time going up and down a ladder before. We understand how shaky our position is while going up or going down. The danger of a ladder in today’s chapter is contrasted with the ease with which we can maintain our balance when we stand with both feet on the ground.
What Lao Tzu seems to be telling us is that he wants us to stay grounded in reality, rather than pursuing the illusion that the ladder represents for us. Once I mount that ladder, and with each step I take, either up or down, I have left behind what is real, the ground beneath my feet. And am now seeking an illusion. I hope for success and I fear failure. Every step made on that ladder, I have those twin phantoms dogging me.
That is what he calls both hope and fear, phantoms. They both are hollow. Just wisps. They aren’t grounded in reality. They are nothing more than illusions. Which arise from thinking of the self. When I am merely focused on my self, that is when I entertain both hopes and fears. I want to succeed. I don’t want to fail.
Instead of being dogged on the ladder, Lao Tzu offers us a better way. He tells us that when we don’t see the self as self, we will have nothing to fear. But that sounds like a tall order, indeed. How do I shift my focus from me to the world, like he says?
To see the world as your self requires seeing beyond the illusion to what is real. And that means having faith in the way things are. We get distracted by that ladder. By the hope of success. By the fear of failure. But when we keep both feet firmly on the ground of reality we can see the ladder for what it is. Trust the ground you are standing on. Have faith that the way things are is the way things are.
As you look at the ground on which you are standing your focus has already changed from your self. Then you can look at the world with love and compassion. Because that is what is real. And that is where you are needed. Not that ladder. The illusory success or failure, hope or fear, melts away. It was ephemeral, after all.
The world is now your focus. Now you can care for all things. Grounded in reality. Instead of chasing dreams of what may or may not ever happen. You are living in the present moment. One moment at a time.
There is so much more that could be said. But I have said enough for today. That is the nice thing about taking this one chapter at a time. We will keep returning to these opportunities to explore things further, another day.