Those who stand on tiptoes do not stand firmly.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 24
Those who rush ahead don’t get very far.
Those who try to outshine others dim their own light.
How can we improve when we stop trying to improve?
Many people waste their efforts trying to better their lives with questionable results. They gain knowledge and chase external things while exhausting their bodies, and burdening their minds – only to end up in discontent.
The Taoists observed that humans tend to act in ways that are counterproductive. And in their attempts to alter the natural way, they only make things worse.
All these strivings, rules, ethics, values, surely are invented to benefit humanity. But according to the ancient Taoist sages, we should get rid of them all.
Because all these manmade ideas only remove us further from the natural flow of life. Trying to alter what nature has intended, is like swimming against the stream: it’s exhausting and gets us nowhere.
This video is about not trying to change the world, to gain the world.
Behind the ever-changing universe lies a mysterious and undefinable force that the Taoists call ‘Tao’, for the lack of a better word. The ‘Tao’ is all-encompassing, and it’s beyond everything that our senses can perceive. Still, we can know and feel the Tao, even though we cannot comprehend it.
This symbolizes the tragic attempts by humans to conceptualize things that are beyond their understanding. They use names, categories, they select and discern, but fail to grasp what the universe is truly like. So, they create a deception; an artifice that makes life understandable for humans. But by trying to comprehend, they lose the Tao.
Chapter 1: The tragedy of trying
“Five colors blind the eye. Five notes deafen the ear. Five flavors make the palate go stale,” wrote Lao Tzu in his work the Tao Te Ching. So, by arranging colors, notes, and flavors, we might enhance our understanding, but we also limit it, as there’s so much more outside of these fixed concepts.
The same goes for the human tendency to make rock-solid rules for everything, to get a sense of control. Again, we limit ourselves by doing so because the world is ever changing, and what works today, may not work tomorrow.
Also, from a sense of solidarity and justice, people create immense bodies of ethics, moral codes, and rituals, that form an artificial way of life. Even though the intentions are good: they try to make things work while building their own prisons.
Now, let’s talk about the word ‘trying’.
I think most of us are familiar with the idea that we should simply ‘act’ and not ‘try’. This idea is closely related to the ‘flow-state’. In a flow-state one becomes the act, like a dancer who becomes the dance, or the poet who becomes the poem. This is wu wei, a concept that can be literally translated as ‘non-doing’ or ‘doing nothing’. In the context of the flow state, wu wei translates best as ‘effortless action’, because we act in a smooth and painless manner.
In the context of this video, however, translating wu wei as ‘non-doing’ or ‘doing nothing’ fits best.
Literally ‘doing nothing’ is often seen as unproductive, and as a useless way of being, in which there’s no progression. But according to the Taoists, nothing is further from the truth. When we keep in mind that the universe is in flux and in a state of entropy, we’ll realize that there’s always progression in the natural flow of life.
So instead of using force, and exhausting ourselves (which is the favorite method of today’s culture), we could travel through life much more easily by using intelligence. Because isn’t it so, that so many times, problems seem to solve themselves? And that by ‘taking action’ we often make things worse?
When we waste our time trying to improve things we distance ourselves from the natural course. We repeatedly act in ways that are (according to the Taoists) unnatural and waste our bodies and minds doing so.
So, why do we this?
Well, it has a lot to do with how we attribute value to certain things. For example, when we’re averse to poverty, but desire money and fame, and when we’re averse to being lonely but desire to be part of something. So we try to eradicate the former, and increase the latter, while the latter cannot exist without the former.
Also, we think that it’s necessary to conform and alter nature based on certain belief systems. We try to better the world, while the results of our interventions are kind of questionable.
Chapter 2: How we try
Now, how can we bring these ancient theories into the modern world? According to Taoist thinking, in what ways do we, modern humans, ‘try’, while our efforts only leave us with peanuts in the end?
The first one is…
(1) Trying to improve the world
Alan Watts, who was a fervent scholar of Taoism, once pointed out that the goodie-goodies of society are the biggest troublemakers. Their ‘must-save-the-world’ attitude often disrupts the natural course, simply because they seek to enforce man made ideas of what’s good and evil.
An example is ‘communism’ which originally sprouted from a desire to change humanity for the better, based on equality and honest distribution of goods. However, apart from the discussion if this approach is natural or not: the ways in which the communists spread their ideology were absolutely brutal.
In the Zhuangzi, we find a story about a man named Yen Hui, who asked Confucius for permission to travel to the country of Wei, after he heard that it’s ruled by an incompetent ruler. Yen Hui wanted to use everything he learned about governance, to improve the country of Wei.
Confucius, however, discouraged him to do so. Not only because Wei’s highly disagreeable leader probably wouldn’t listen, but also because people, in general, don’t like outsiders coming in, telling what’s better for them from a place of moral supremacy. As Confucius stated and I quote:
If you do not understand men’s minds, but instead appear before a tyrant and force him to listen to sermons on benevolence and righteousness, measures and standards – this is simply using other men’s bad points to parade your own excellence.Zhuangzi, 4-1
We could ask ourselves: in what way is using other people’s faults to create a nice role for ourselves, genuine virtue? That’s probably why so-called ‘social justice warriors’ are so hated. We won’t improve a situation by one-sidedly demonizing groups while placing ourselves on the moral high ground. This only creates more division, more tension, and will unlikely change things for the better in a sustainable manner. As Lao Tzu puts it in the Tao Te Ching, and I quote:
Do you want to rule the world and control it?Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 29
I don’t think it can ever be done.
The world is a sacred vessel and it can not be controlled.
You will only make it worse if you try.
It may slip through your fingers and disappear.
Now, the second one is…
(2) Trying to be happy
No matter if it’s the pursuit of money, status, fame, power, or knowledge; these ongoing efforts to be happy are the reason why we aren’t.
We think that we’re happy when we’ve got a million dollars in the bank or when we finally published that book or when our YouTube channels have a 100k subscribers, but this is hardly the case. Sure, we enjoy some momentary pleasure, but that’s not happiness according to the Taoists. Moreover, by this pursuit, we exhaust our bodies and minds, while, tragically, never achieving what we’re looking for. I quote:
This is what the world honors: wealth, eminence, long life, a good name. This is what the world finds happiness in: a life of ease, rich food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, sweet sounds. This is what it looks down on: poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. This is what it finds bitter: a life that knows no rest, a mouth that gets no rich food, no fine clothes for the body, no beautiful sights for the eye, no sweet sounds for the ear.Zhuangzi, 18-1
People who can’t get these things fret a great deal and are afraid – this is a stupid way to treat the body. People who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use – this is a superficial way to treat the body.
So, when chasing happiness is a blind alley, what should we do instead? Well, the Taoists give us some suggestions. But before we go into them, let’s look at the third one:
(3) Trying to be something else
The Zhuangzi tells us a story about animals and the wind that envy each other for their inborn characteristics. The centipede envies the snake for the fact that it can move without legs, but the snake envies the wind for its ability to travel great distances without having a body at all. However, the wind argues that it takes just a finger or foot to hinder it.
All in all, nature has created everything with its own attributes. Nothing is better than the other; only judgment makes it so. Thus, we feel the need to change who we are, just to fit an ideal. White-skinned people try to be tanned, while East-Asians try to look more European, brunettes try to be blondes, and blondes try to be brunettes.
Also, we try to change ourselves because we want to conform to a manmade standard; to fit in, simply because we’re seen as defects when we don’t. So, a sixth’ finger is cut off, just to comply with the five-finger standard.
Why can’t we just be who we are, the way nature intended us to be? That would be so much easier. Everyone and everything has its place in the whole. And by trying to alter this, we bring the world in disbalance. I quote:
When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 2
When people see things as good, evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
So, how can we put these ideas into practice?
The Taoists suggest several things. First of all, the Zhuangzi points to the benefits of taking the middle-path. This means that we shouldn’t stretch ourselves beyond our means, but stay centered, so we conserve our health and stay close to our own nature. I quote:
Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years.Zhuangzi, 3-1
The Tao is constant. And one who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day, according to Lao Tzu. So instead of limiting ourselves to a belief system, we let go, keep an open mind, and give the universe room to show itself as it is. Trying to change nature is a futile pursuit, as is trying to blur our vision of nature by man made constructs.
Instead of adding to knowledge, we let go of knowledge, until we reach a point of inner stillness. Only then, we’re opening ourselves up to the Tao, or what we, from a theistic point of view, could call God. In this state of emptiness, we feel content. And contentment is true happiness. The Taoists call this process the fasting of the heart.
By unlearning something every day, the Taoist arrives at non-action. It’s the art of not trying, while nothing will be left undone.
Thank you for watching.