The beauty of the Tao Te Ching is that it is terse and spare and covers all situations by being mysterious and contradictory. It reads like poetry but is actually an instructional manual on how to get with the program, or rather, on realizing that you are in and of the program and that the program has a purpose beyond you and within. The program referred to is life itself and its purpose is play and perpetuation. How we get with it is by doing nothing, except of course when it’s time do something.
A thousand reads will not exhaust the beauty of the ancient Chinese manual, said to be taken down by a disciple when Lao Tzu was leaving his city, exhausted with people’s striving. He wanted to go be an old man on the mountain. He did not want to speak, which is why he was leaving, and he said that one who speaks does not know and one who knows does not speak (making this post awkward for me!).
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Since then, his words have travelled the earth and the Tao Te Ching is one of the world’s most translated and published texts. We keep speaking about it. Why does this very brief work inspire so much discussion, despite Lao Tzu’s admonitions?
Because this is an unusual manual on perfection, which asks not that you perfect yourself through acts of goodness and charity, nor assert your will to assist all, nor lead the people, nor free them. Instead, it says that if you don’t act, things will still happen, and if you don’t meddle, life itself will take care of business, as it always has before you and it always will after you.
This can be a tough lesson for any time, but especially today, as we are all about making things happen and our international heroes are businesspeople whose ideas change the world. We believe in the self-made and the bootstrappers, those who beat the odds and got it all. Plus, there is evidence that actions have helped people, so how to square that advice with an engaged life?
What the Tao Te Ching teaches is that it's already squared so we already all have it all and engagement is a matter of taking care of business, which also sometimes means not leaving the imprint of your psychology on a particular business. Success and failure are relative and circumstantial and no one wins the game. There is only ever the privilege of playing.
This is not resigned fatalism, warned Alan Watts in Become What You Are, but a recognition that ought to be basic but is blocked by our egos and definitely not cultivated in this culture. It is the realization that we already are everything and of our insignificance, that we do not decide what will be. Only life decides.
Which is fine, really, if you think about it. It’s actually great. As of today, you are free to stop all efforts at self-improvement and world domination. No matter what you achieve, it’s not going to last and the name you want perpetuated is but a label assigned to you at birth, like your nationality and religion, all those things you think make you but are just manifestations of circumstance, accidents of birth, not necessarily fixed.
The irreverent guru Osho, who talked nonstop and did not mind acquiring the trappings of societal success while advising indifference in others, says in Mindfulness in the Modern World that Henry Ford late in life wished he could tell people who were striving to succeed that every height reached felt empty and that it was all a senseless chase.
Now you may say, that’s great — I’d like to have that realization after I revolutionize transportation. And that would make you like Arianna Huffington who, only after making herself a household name, started telling everyone to relax and focus on quality of life. But my advice — and I am officially nobody so no bigs if you ignore it — is to not take spiritual advice from those who spent their life focused on finances and fame.
The hard part is the application. How do we know when to act if all we ever do is nothing?
You will know. Just like you know to breathe even though you don’t have to remind yourself of it consciously, just like you digest, just like the thousand processes that take place in your body without any decision-making on your part. Getting in touch with this animating force such that you can feel it at work and let go of self comes from observation, recognition of all that functions without any effort on your part. To gain that recognition it can help to sit and do nothing.
This does not mean you become a lump of clay. Every day you do the things that must be done — eat, wash, dress, work, greet the colleagues, feed the people and pets. You take care of your business and let the universe do the rest.