All posts by libertariantaoist

Why Something So Easy Is So Difficult

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)

How is it that something so very easy can be so very difficult?

It was just a few chapters ago where Lao Tzu told us that if we look inside ourselves we will find that “the nonsense” he is teaching will make perfect sense. He also said that when we put these teachings into practice we will find their roots go deep. Today’s chapter is about putting his teachings into practice and looking inside your own heart. Don’t forget what his teachings are. He said they are our three greatest treasures. Simplicity, patience, and compassion. Those very treasures are the ones we can so easily destroy. We talked about that yesterday.

But today, Lao Tzu helps us to understand how easy it is to put these teachings into practice. Easy, that is, unless we make it difficult. As we often do.

How can something so easy be so difficult?

What makes it difficult are two things: knowing and trying. As long as we are relying on our own intellect to grasp their meaning, as long as we are trying to practice them, we are going to fail. You are neither old enough nor wise enough to be able to grasp this. You can’t do it. It is impossible.

This was my problem for longer than I care to admit. I tried and tried and tried and tried to understand them and put them into practice. The more I tried, the more frustratingly difficult it became. I knew it was supposed to be easy. That is what made my continued failure all the more frustrating.

If we are going to be able to practice being simple in our actions and our thoughts, if we are going to be able to be patient with both friends and enemies, if we are going to be able to be compassionate with ourselves, we are going to have to stop trying to know them and stop trying to practice them.

We have talked about this before. It is philosophical Taoism 101. We need to practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. Our three treasures can only be ours as we intuitively and effortlessly practice them. Look inside your own heart. That is where you will find the Tao. Let it flow in you and out of you. Don’t interfere with it by trying to help it along or anticipate what it is going to do next and get a jump on things. Just go with the flow. It isn’t difficult. It is easy.

No Greater Misfortune; No Greater Shame

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the virtue of non-competition. Lao Tzu was talking about competing in the spirit of play, like children. And, he talked about the best general wanting to get into the mind of his enemy. Today, we are going to expand on this idea of how to be the very best in military strategy.

Lao Tzu says that generals have a saying. And, as I read through this saying, I couldn’t help but wish that wars could be left to these generals. Never make the first move. Wait and see. It is better to retreat a yard than advance an inch.

And I can already hear the naysayers. “Lao Tzu was naive. Wars can’t be fought this way.” But I suspect that those who think and say such things are even more ignorant of military strategy than I. Why, if you can go forward without advancing, and push back without having to resort to using weapons, wouldn’t you?

Why do we insist on underestimating our enemy? Why don’t we realize that there is no greater misfortune? But we don’t leave military strategy to generals. We insist they fight our wars in a whole other way. Our enemies are evil. Evil. Generals, and all their sayings, are out of touch with the reality that we must advance global capitalism. We are making the world “safe for democracy”, forgetting that our Founding Fathers considered democracy to be the most vile form of governance.

What we have done is not treasure our three greatest treasures. Instead of being simple in our actions and our thoughts, patient with both our friends and our enemies, and compassionate toward ourselves, we have chosen to see our enemy as something evil. We have destroyed our three greatest treasures and become an enemy ourselves. We have become evil. To quote Howard Zinn, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” We have become so evil, we know no shame. That is why our commander-in-chief can order drone strikes against innocent civilians and then go on late night talk shows to tell jokes. It is so cool to deny people the basic human right of due process.

So, as we approach yet another federal holiday where flags will be waved to remember the dead, I will also be remembering. Just don’t be surprised I won’t be waving any flag. I will be remembering the countless dead sacrificed, not for our freedom, but in wars of aggression.

And, I will be wondering when or if we will ever learn: When two great forces oppose each other, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.

Watch The Children Playing

The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman
serves the communal good.
The best leader
follows the will of the people.

All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It was a couple chapters back that Lao Tzu said of the Master, “…she competes with no one, and no one can compete with her.” Today, Lao Tzu returns to this virtue of non-competition.

In order to understand what Lao Tzu means by the virtue of non-competition, we need to realize that Lao Tzu likes to use plays on words that are somewhat unfamiliar to our western minds. That is why, I think, that many will scoff at these teachings. They are nonsense! Or, they are lofty, but impractical. When he extols doing not doing, Wu-wei, which can literally be translated “doing nothing” he doesn’t really mean that we do nothing. What he means is that our doing is effortless. We do like we are doing nothing. This is how to flow with the Tao. When he extols knowing not-knowing, he isn’t praising ignorance, he is saying that we should know that we know nothing. We think and act as if we already know it all. That is true ignorance. Until we know that we don’t know, we can’t begin to know anything. Likewise, when he extols the virtue of non-competition, when he says the Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her, he doesn’t mean there isn’t any competition. What he is talking about is not-competing competing. Which is to say that we are to compete in a spirit of play, like children.

Over and over again, Lao Tzu points to children as our example of how to be in harmony with the Tao. Little children remind of us our beginnings, our primal identity. They are still virtuous, innocent, and full of energy and exuberance. They are in harmony with the Tao. Their actions are seemingly effortless. They know that they don’t know. If you doubt this, why is it that they are asking so many questions? And they love to play. We are the ones that push them to want to win. But what do they want? They want to play. By directing our attention to children at play, it is as if he is saying, “Look there, they do naturally what you, as an adult, have long ago forgotten.” That is the heart and soul of what Lao Tzu means by the virtue of non-competition.

Consider, for a moment, the best athlete in the world. They want their opponent to be at their very best. Think about this. What satisfaction is there in besting an opponent who wasn’t at their very best? Are we just in it to win? Or, are we in it to be the very best? If you don’t know the difference, you may have a warped sense of what true satisfaction can be. When children play, they are all in. They give it their all. They hold nothing back. And boy is it fun!

Now, consider the best general. They want to get into the mind of their enemy. To find out exactly what they are thinking. Like a good game of chess, you want to try and figure out, ahead of time, what moves they are going to be making. Then you can plan your own moves. In tomorrow’s chapter, Lao Tzu will be talking more about the military strategy of generals, so I won’t go into more detail, today.

What about the best businessperson? This is near and dear to me. I never was much of an athlete. And, I never had any interest in being a general. But I was raised in a family business. I was raised on the virtue of businesses freely competing with each other to earn their customer’s patronage. All these years later, and I consider myself a market anarchist. I want a market freed of State privilege and regulation. To me, no businessperson could possibly be their best, if they were either hampered by government regulation or subsidized by the State’s monopolizing powers. I am sure Lao Tzu would agree. He has often said that the best way to govern is to leave people alone. To Lao Tzu, the best businessperson will always seek to serve the communal good. When you put the community first, you will find your business will thrive. Every good businessperson knows this. The best embody it.

Finally, Lao Tzu comes back to leaders. He has already talked so much about how to be a great leader. But I don’t think he has used the word “best” yet. But here it is. And it isn’t going to be any surprise to anyone that has been reading along with me in the Tao Te Ching. The best leader follows the will of the people. Leading by following. Placing yourself below. Being content to serve as an example. Never using force, or manipulation, or control.

All of these love to compete! They just do it in the spirit of play, like children. That, my friends, is how to be in harmony with the Tao.

Something I Needed Reminding Of Today

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I admit it. I wish I was much more eloquent with both my writing and my speaking. Since I started putting into practice Lao Tzu’s teachings, I started writing about it; hence, this blog. And I talk about it with anyone that I think might be willing to listen. But I am not very eloquent. I never think I quite say what I am wanting to say.

The writing is easier. I can just stand at my keyboard and type, uninterrupted, letting the words flow. I devote a couple of hours to it each day. Taking a chapter each day affords me the luxury of something to write about. Each chapter is a springboard for me.

But, when I encounter people, and start talking, I just seem to get tongue-tied. The words don’t come so easily. People want me to explain what philosophical Taoism is, and I know what it is. At least I think I do. Until words start stumbling out of my mouth, and it begins to not make any sense. I finally end up admitting defeat. I can’t tell you. But I can show you. At least I think I can. But that is going to take more time. And few want to take the time to be shown. They want soundbites. If it is over the 140 character limit on Twitter, they are gone.

Lao Tzu didn’t have my problem. But he did have some of the same reactions from people that I get on a pretty regular basis. Your teaching is nonsense! How do I respond to this? Nonsense? Really? Why do you think that? Tell me your thought process that brought you to that conclusion. Maybe it is nonsense to you. But how is it that I can see things so very differently? I want to make this nonsense make perfect sense to you. Really I do. Give me a chance. But seldom do I get that chance. If only I was more eloquent. Of course, Lao Tzu would tell me that I already have everything I need. Just look inside yourself, you’ll see. This nonsense makes perfect sense. Is it really that simple? Are we just not daring to look inside ourselves to see?

And then there are the people who say that this teaching is lofty. That sounds somewhat better than nonsense. But wait for it. It is lofty, yes; but it is impractical. You can’t really expect people to behave like this in our world today. And what I want to say is, “Now hold on there, have you ever tried to put this teaching into practice? Because I have. And I have found this loftiness has roots that go deep.” I always feel like I come across as a pompous know-it-all. And that is so not me. Why can’t I be better at saying what I am trying to say? I think I am trying too hard.

I do understand why people think this way. I mean in the last three days, alone, we have been talking about doing not-doing, knowing not-knowing, and if you want to be a great leader, try being humble, like water. Nonsense? Lofty but impractical? I can take these chapters one at a time. But trying to say all I want to say in a way that makes sense and is practical – that eludes me. I am making this way too hard.

Lao Tzu condenses it down to three things. This is it, folks. I just need to remember these three things. And leave all the rest to another day. Simplicity, patience, and compassion. That is it. Those three greatest treasures. If you understand this, you understand it all. If you have these, you have everything.

Keep it simple! Both in your actions and in your thoughts. I don’t need to be more eloquent. I just need to keep it simple. It is simplicity that brings you back to the source of being. And it isn’t like I am not practicing simplicity in both my actions and my thoughts when I am all by myself. I just need to keep being simple once I have an audience. It is sure hard to be simple when you are trying to be eloquent.

Be patient. With both your friends and your enemies. Once again, this is the soundest of advice for me. It is easy to be patient when you are all by yourself. But it is other people that you are going to encounter with whom you need to be patient. Like when they are saying that what you are saying is nonsense. Or, lofty but impractical. Be patient. Maybe it is me that is in too great a rush. Why am I feeling this pressure to convert others in 140 characters or less? Patience, Chuck, patience. That is the only way to accord with the way things are.

And Lao Tzu saves the most important one for last. Compassionate toward yourself. I expected it would be compassionate toward others. But it isn’t. Because Lao Tzu understands that we are going to mess up sometimes when it comes to how simple in actions and thoughts we are going to be. And that patience thing? With both friends and enemies? We are bound to fail at that sometimes. This third greatest treasure lets us rely on the Tao as a refuge for when we screw up. We need to be compassionate toward ourselves. It is then, that we can reconcile all beings in the world. And wasn’t that what I was working so hard at accomplishing? But it isn’t supposed to be so hard. It isn’t supposed to require great effort. And it can be effortless. It begins with looking inside myself. Then I put these three teachings into practice. And when I fail, I find forgiveness.

Be Like Water

All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Once again, Lao Tzu is talking about governing. It is a subject he spends a lot of time discussing; whether he is talking about governing a large number of people or just your own self. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said the ancient Masters taught the people to not-know, because humility is key to the art of living. These lessons aren’t intended to make people compliant for rulers to lord it over them. The lessons are for would be leaders to be humble, themselves; so they can serve as examples to all people of how to be content with their ordinary lives.

Today, he returns to using the sea as a metaphor for humility. Humility is what gives the sea its power. Perhaps it seems strange to assign this kind of attitude to the sea. But what Lao Tzu is talking about is the position of the sea. It is beneath all the streams. That is its place. It knows its place. You don’t have to think of this knowing as something conscious. It is just being itself. That is just what water does. It always seeks out the lowest places.

If you want to govern the people you need to be like water. If you want to lead people you need to follow them. Watch where the streams go. They always go to the lowest places. Learn from the sea; and learn from the streams. They show you humility. People respond best to humility. That is why it is such an important aspect for any would be leader. If you want to bring out the very best in people, demonstrate humility for them.

I know how this all seems to fall on deaf ears. We treat all of life as if it is some kind of competition. A competition to see who will come out on top. But one who lives a life in perfect harmony with the Tao demonstrates for us, all, how to be above the people without anyone feeling oppressed. They know how to go ahead of the people, without anyone feeling manipulated. When you practice humility, the whole world will be grateful to you. That right there is the one thing I want to impress on would be leaders. Wouldn’t they prefer people to be grateful to them? If you stop treating life like some kind of competition, if you compete with no one, no one will be able to compete with you.

The Way Back To Your Own True Nature

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

When Lao Tzu isn’t teaching us about doing not-doing, it seems like he is teaching us about knowing not-knowing. Both are essential for us to understand; whether we are governing a country, a region, a municipality, a business, or our own lives. Yesterday, we talked about doing not-doing. Today, it is knowing not-knowing.

As we read the opening lines of today’s chapter, it would appear that Lao Tzu doesn’t care about education. Why else would the ancient Masters not try to educate the people? But education is important. I know it is. That is why I home-schooled my own children. And, it is why I am tutoring children today. One thing that I constantly find myself doing, with one little girl I am tutoring, is teaching her knowing not-knowing. Why would I do this? Aren’t her parents paying me to teach her to know things?

It helps to understand that, just like doing not-doing is not really doing nothing, though that is a pretty good literal translation of Wu-wei, knowing not-knowing is not knowing nothing. Not really. It is really more an attitude that you take. An attitude of humility. Of making yourself capable of receiving knowledge. You know that you don’t know. Instead of being clever, thinking that you already know all the answers, you put yourself in a position where you can actually receive knowledge. When people think they know the answers, they are difficult to guide. But when people know that they don’t know, they can find their own way.

What the parents of the little girl I am tutoring are paying me for, whether they are really conscious of that or not (I think they are, I hope they are), is someone to guide their little one to find their own way. I am there to provide the tools necessary for her journey into knowledge and understanding. To begin with she has to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. We have been at this for nearly three years now, I think she is doing quite well. But, she is young and strong-willed. Just like my own daughter was and is. I happen to like that trait. But that only means I must keep reminding her that she doesn’t know the answers already. But if she will pay attention, if she will look and listen, she will learn. Not stuff. But how to learn. That is what I want to impart to her. Learning isn’t something reserved for the school-aged. It is something that she will always be able to do. With the proper tools.

However, Lao Tzu isn’t talking about children in today’s chapter. He is addressing us often strong-willed know-it-all already people. Trying to educate people that already know it all? The ancient Masters didn’t begin to attempt that. But, if we could be taught that we don’t know, if we could be taught to be humble, if we could understand that cleverness and riches are not the key to the art of living, then we would get somewhere.

That is why Lao Tzu tells us that if we want to learn how to govern, and this is true with whatever we are talking about governing, we need to avoid being clever or rich.

Cleverness is the very opposite of knowing that we don’t know. It is thinking that we do. Reminder to self: when someone calls you clever, don’t see it as a compliment. Oh, I understand they may intend it as a compliment. But I don’t want to be clever. I want to avoid that. What I want is to be wise. I want to know that I don’t know. Then, I can find my own way.

And riches are something else I want to avoid. Not that I don’t like things. And not that I am not loath to give up my precious things. I live in the United States. I am rich compared to the majority of the world’s inhabitants. And I am happy to be so; though I do think I have mastered, at least a little bit, what it is to be poor in spirit. And that is really what Lao Tzu is getting at: Be poor in spirit.

I mean no disrespect to those, who I believe have taken Lao Tzu’s teachings a bit too literally, and have given away all their possessions and separated themselves from the world. I think Lao Tzu intends for us to remain as part of this world. To understand that we are all one with the world and everything in it. He wants us to humble ourselves and be an example for all. He wants us to understand that the simplest pattern is the clearest. Cleverness and riches get in the way. They muddle our thinking. We can’t see with clarity the simplest of patterns. That is why we need to be content with an ordinary life. And, that is what I have learned to be. That is what I want you to learn to be. To show all people the way back to their own true nature.

The Season’s First Strawberry

What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.

Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 64, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu returned to talking about the practice of Wu-wei, doing not-doing. Doing not-doing is making all of our actions effortless. How effortless? So effortless that it seems we are doing nothing at all. Lao Tzu explained how to put this into practice in our every day lives. It is all about how we perceive things. When we perceive the easy task as difficult, and the small, as great, we will then seek to break up the great task into a series of small acts. Great tasks require effort. Small acts require no effort. That is why we must never underestimate the difficulty of any given task. When we underestimate, when we think the difficult is easy, we will encounter problems. Something that could have been effortless, begins to require all kinds of effort.

It always is a matter of what you are thinking. Easy, difficult. Small, great. We want to take short cuts. But Lao Tzu insists that we follow nature’s way. If you want to effortlessly nourish something, then first get it rooted. Recent mistakes are easy to correct. Don’t put off correcting them until later. Then, it will require effort to correct them. Brittle things break without any effort. That is either good news or bad news. It all depends on whether you want it broken. If you don’t want it broken, handle with care. The same can be said for what is small. Remember, we don’t want to reach for the great. Small things are easily scattered. Scattered doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Scattering may be exactly what you are wanting done.

What Lao Tzu is wanting us to learn is how to go with the flow of nature. Understand the way things are. As we become acquainted with the way things are, and become one with it, we can prevent trouble before it arises. Nature is always in a state of flux. Change is the one constant. And we know when change is in the air. Or, at least, we can know it. We need to be attune to it. Knowing when subtle shifts are about to take place, we can put all things in order. Yes, even before they exist. That is the prerequisite for effortless action. Going with the flow does involve a lot of waiting. Waiting for the moment, the moment of change. But waiting isn’t passive. It is active. We aren’t doing nothing while we are waiting. We are planning. Preparing. Always ready. It is like riding a wave. Timing is everything.

Do you want a giant pine tree? It grows from a tiny sprout. I don’t know how many years it is going to take to get your giant pine tree. But I do know you have to start with that tiny sprout.

In Lao Tzu’s day, a journey of a thousand miles was a very long trip. Right now, my son is preparing to leave from our home in a little town in south central Missouri and embark on a journey all the way to Melbourne, Australia. He will be visiting his sister, my daughter. That is a long journey. And, it is one that he has been planning for months. He is experiencing excitement and dread at the moment. He very much wants to make this journey. Yet, he is dreading the journey. He has to fly from Springfield, MO to Chicago; then to Los Angeles; then to Melbourne. He has never flown before. He worries he will miss a connecting flight. However long the journey, it always begins at the ground beneath your feet. You must take your journey one step at a time. There is no other way.

But like I said a few paragraphs back, timing is everything. Effortless action requires waiting for the right moment, and then acting. Acting, not rushing. Rushing means you weren’t ready. You were caught off-guard. You were unprepared. And rushing, you fail. You start reaching out and grasping, trying desperately to hold onto passing things. But that is the surest way to lose them. This morning, I was able to pluck out the first strawberry of this season’s garden. I had been watching it for the last week. Knowing each and every passing day that it would soon be ripe. I kept watching and waiting. I am so glad that I resisted the urge to pick it yesterday. Yesterday would have been too soon. Today was the day. I plucked it off the vine and immediately put it in my mouth, where it melted. So luscious. That was effortless action. But forcing a project to completion is like picking that strawberry before its time. You ruin it. Do you want to know how long I waited for that strawberry? I planted that particular strawberry plant last May. I waited a year for that strawberry. And it was so worth the wait. Not all harvest times take so long. But sometimes the waiting is long. Like waiting on a giant pine tree after starting with a tiny sprout. Rushing, reaching and grasping, forcing – these are not in accordance with the Tao.

We simply must learn from the Master, who takes action by letting things take their course. That is what I am doing with my garden and with everything I do. Letting things take their course. Remaining calm. Breathe. Just breathe. Remain calm. Wait for the right moment. I was calm as I planted those strawberry plants. And I was calm as I reached down and plucked that first strawberry this morning. From beginning to end, calm. Letting things take their course.

It is all in your mindset. It really is. When you have nothing, and that is itself a condition of your mind, you have nothing to lose. What is it I desire? Ever since that strawberry this morning, I would say all that is left is non-desire. I desire to desire nothing. If I have nothing, I have nothing to lose. But there is so much to unlearn. Unlearning, that is what I have learned from the Master. All my learning produced desires for something. All my unlearning has me desiring nothing. What have I always been? I needed reminding. And the Master was there for me. When I care for nothing but the Tao, I can truly care for all things.

It Is All In How You Perceive Things

Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 63, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

After several days in a row talking about the art of governing a country, today, Lao Tzu returns to the art of governing ourselves. It is the practice of Wu-wei, doing not-doing. How do we practice this? To act without doing and work without effort, begins with how we think about the tasks that confront us each and every day. It is all in how you perceive things.

I have tasks that I do every day. We all do. They’re nothing great. They are really quite small. But that isn’t how I think about them. How I perceive things is very different. I don’t think of these small tasks as small. I think of them as large. Though they may only require a few steps to accomplish, I think of that as many steps. Why do I do this?

The reason I do this is simple. These small tasks must be done. Each and every day. If I fail to attend to them, they start piling up. What would have been easy, becomes difficult. By thinking of them as difficult, from the beginning, I don’t wait around until they become great. Never underestimate difficulty. Never think any task is easy.

I never try to accomplish a great task. That would require effort I am loath to expend. But, by a series of small acts that require no effort, I end up accomplishing a great many things.

That is what the Master does. That is how she achieves greatness. We have it all wrong, when we think that the only way to achieve greatness is by reaching for the great. No! The only way to achieve greatness is to change what you think about the tasks before you. The great task is, but a series of small acts. Don’t try to do the great task. Do the series of small acts. Always, always see any task as too great. Always, always break it down into a series of small acts. Then do them. There are no small tasks. There are only great tasks. Break them down! Break them down! Then you can achieve them, effortlessly.

When you run into a difficulty, and we all do, stop. Stop? Yes, stop. Why have you encountered this difficulty? Did you not break the task before you into small enough pieces? How do I make the difficult, easy? Did I think that this is easy, when I should have treated it as difficult? That is how to confront the difficult. Confront it with your questions. That is giving yourself to it. The Master gives herself up to whatever the moment brings. Both, the easy moments, and the difficult moments. She gives herself to them.

Treating everything as if it were easy is clinging to your own comfort. We feel so very comfortable as we take on tasks as if they were easy. That is, until we encounter difficulty. Then we panic. Our comfort slips away. We start reaching and grabbing, trying to get our comfort back. But it is gone. Long gone. By treating all tasks as if they were difficult, you won’t cling to your own comfort. And, problems? Well, they are no problem.

The Good, The Bad, And The Tao

The Tao is the center of the Universe,
the good man’s treasure,
the bad man’s refuge.

Honors can be bought with fine words,
respect can be won with good deeds;
but the Tao is beyond all value,
and no one can achieve it.

Thus, when a new leader is chosen,
don’t offer to help him
with your wealth or your expertise.
Offer instead
to teach him about the Tao.

Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?
Because, being one with the Tao,
when you seek you find;
and when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is why everybody loves it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 62, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In the last few days, we have been talking a lot about the art of governing. Lao Tzu’s words have been directed mostly at those who want to be a great leader? And his advice for those who want to be leaders? Trust the Tao. Center yourself in it. Let go of your desire to control. Practice self-restraint. Mind your own business; don’t interfere in others’ affairs. Practice humility. This is sound advice that I wish our rulers would follow.

But what of the rest of us? We are not all called on to be leaders. Many of us would be content to follow, if only we had great leaders. Today, Lao Tzu reminds us that his words about the Tao are for all of us. Not just those who wish to rule us. In talking about the art of governing, one thing that stands out to me about today’s chapter is that new leaders are supposed to be chosen.

I am a little bit ignorant when it comes to ancient Chinese history. But I believe Lao Tzu served in the royal courts of a Chinese dynasty. There was an emperor. Were emperors chosen? Or were they self-appointed? Usually they gained their power through conquest, I think. That hardly seems like the masses of people had much of any say in who their new leader would be. Lao Tzu seems to have recognized that was not in keeping with the Tao. Leaders should be chosen.

We have the illusion of choice, now. We hold elections all over the world on a pretty regular basis. They just had one in the UK. And all that I was hearing in the run up to that election, led me to believe that a good number of the people of the UK have begun to realize what a fraud the whole electoral process is. I think the feeling is much the same here in the United States, where our own presidential election in 2016 is already in full swing. Yet, none of the candidates are endearing themselves to followers. With these as our choices, do we really have a choice? What difference is it really going to make who wins? The names may change, the policies remain the same. And you can bet they won’t be following Lao Tzu’s sage advice.

When I read through this chapter, I can’t help but envision a time in our future when maybe, just maybe, new leaders will be chosen. And having been chosen, they might just listen to Lao Tzu’s sage advice.

And that is what today’s chapter is really about. Lao Tzu wants us all to understand about the Tao. So that we can teach our new leaders about the Tao.

And what about the Tao does Lao Tzu want to impress upon us, today? The Tao is the center of the Universe. He isn’t talking about physical locations, here. He is talking about the Tao being central, as in, integral. It is everything. Find the Tao and you have found it all. There is nothing more important in all the Universe than that.

We place high value on plenty of other things. Things like honors. And respect. But Lao Tzu tells us that honors can be bought with nothing more than fine words. And respect can be won with only a few good deeds. As valuable as we may think they are, they pale in comparison with the Tao.

The Tao is beyond all value. That is the takeaway from today’s chapter. When you are talking about the art of governing, Lao Tzu can’t stress enough just how valuable the Tao should be to all of us. You can’t achieve it. No one can. It is beyond all value. Your wealth, your expertise, they would seem to be important to any would be leader. But Lao Tzu says they are nothing, when compared to learning about the Tao.

And I only have one question to ask now. Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao so? I mean, Lao Tzu, obviously, is obsessed with getting us to understand just how invaluable it is. But why?

That brings me to the title of today’s post. The Good, The Bad, and the Tao. A couple chapters back, Lao Tzu addressed the problem of evil. When he is talking about good and bad, today, he isn’t referring to that.

Today he is talking about being one with the Tao. And being one with the Tao seems to be the ultimate. Something that only few can achieve. But that isn’t how Lao Tzu sees it, at all. To Lao Tzu, we should all expect to be one with the Tao. We ARE all one with it. It is our source. It has been there for us all along, like a mother taking care of her children. It is with us always, taking us back to itself.

So, get rid of the silly notion that only an enlightened few can ever achieve oneness with the Tao. All of us, each and every one of us, is one with the Tao. But…. Yes, there had to be a but. We may not be very good at being one with the Tao. Sometimes, perhaps, even often, we may be very bad at being one with the Tao. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t one with the Tao.

When we are good at being one with the Tao, the Tao is a treasure for us. When we seek it, we find it. It is a treasure to be sought. And being good at it, it isn’t very hard to find.

But what of those who are bad? Those who make mistake after mistake after mistake. Sometimes I find myself right here, my friends. For me, and for you, when you are bad, it is a refuge. You made a mistake. The Tao is just as much there for you. You are forgiven. Unconditionally.

Treasure? Refuge? The Tao is both of those things at the same time. It is very good news. And that is why everyone loves it. That is why it is beyond all value.

Learn From The Sea

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In yesterday’s chapter it was a fish fry. Today, Lao Tzu is back to the metaphor of water to illustrate for us the importance of humility. Whether we are talking of a great nation or a great leader the metaphor is apt. The greater the power, the greater the need for humility. There is no other way to exercise the virtue of self-restraint in governing. The sea knows its place. It takes the humble lower place beneath the streams. Otherwise, the streams wouldn’t flow downward into it. Humbly, it trusts the Tao. Never needing to be defensive.

What folly it is that great nations forget their humble beginnings! And even greater folly that they don’t stay humble. That will be their downfall. It always is. As it is with great nations, so it is with great leaders. The truly great ones realize their folly. They realize it and readily admit it. Then, they make amends.

Where are the truly great leaders, though? Where is the man or woman who surround themselves with those who will point out their faults? Who consider those, their most benevolent teachers? Who thinks of their enemy as the shadow they alone cast?

Who has the wisdom to practice this humility? Those who will trust the Tao? I have pondered these questions much over the last few years. Yesterday, we were talking about how to deal with the problem of evil. Lao Tzu told us how to deal with it: Center your country in the Tao. Then, evil will have no power. And maybe you were thinking, “Okay, well how exactly do we do that?”

How does a nation center itself in the Tao? Lao Tzu never leaves a question long-unanswered. And it isn’t so very hard. First, you nourish your own people. Second, you don’t meddle in the affairs of others. Simple really. And the only reason it seems so difficult is because no one has the humility, the self-restraint, to do it. They don’t trust the Tao. But it is more than just that. They prefer the side paths. Pride is so much more to their liking than humility. And the corrupting influence of power, so very tempting. They really must meddle. Our own people? They can be taken care of later. We have big plans. Plans to expand our power. Everybody’s affairs must be our affairs. For we want to end up on top.

That is a far cry from the lowly position of the sea. But then again, the sea will remain long after those great nations are in ruins. And to think, that great nation could have been a light to all the nations of the world. My own country used to fancy itself just that. Some still suffer from the delusion that we remain a light to all the nations of the world.

We aren’t now, if ever we were. But we could be. If we would learn from the sea.