Tao Te Ching: Verse 58

More and more often I am finding Dr. Dyer’s interpretations of the Tao Te Ching to be limiting. I get the feeling that sometimes he only comprehends a small section of the verse, and so he focuses his attention on explaining that over the three or four pages he uses to deconstruct each segment. Perhaps I’m growing arrogant, but sometimes I feel like I understand the Tao Te Ching more thoroughly than he does (though I haven’t read the 25 translations he has). I’m taking less and less from what he says, but still finding it interesting and educational, if a little misguided or irrelevant to me.

 

Verse 58 [original translation]

When the ruler knows his own heart,
the people are simple and pure.
When he meddles with their lives,
they become restless and disturbed.

Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on;
good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Is there no norm of right?
Yet what is normal soon becomes abnormal;
peoples’ confusion is indeed long-standing.

Thus the master is content to serve as an example
and not to impose his will.
He is pointed but does not pierce;
he straightens but does not disrupt;
he illuminates but does not dazzle.

 

Verse 58 [my interpretation]

When a leader knows her heart,
those she leads are simple and content.
When she interferes with their lives,
they become restless and unhappy.

Thus a wise leader serves as an example without imposing her will.
She is sharp (in her understanding), yet gentle in her rule,
she straightens without disrupting,
and illuminates without dazzling,
teaching quietly in the background without need for recognition.

Bad fortune rests on good fortune;
good fortune conceals bad fortune hidden within.
In the end, who can say whether something is good or bad?
And after all, these are judgements we place on the world:
the wild bird does not consider itself unlucky when it cannot find a worm.
Life is cyclical by nature,
and there will always be a times of wealth, and a times of poverty.
So who can say what is the norm?
What is normal soon becomes abnormal;
How quickly people change their minds!

Planning for the future and the Tao Te Ching: Verse 57

This morning as I woke up, I acknowledged that today was an “empty day”: no appointments, no set plans, nothing in particular to do from morning until night. A little part of me took pleasure in the emptiness, free from constraint and fertile with possibility. But a big part of me started revising the to-do lists in my head, the dozens of activities I’ve been putting off until I find “a little free time”. It quickly became maddening and overwhelming, as it always does, and so I decided to focus on the present moment and just get on with my morning ritual.

Only twice or thrice did I manage to return my attention mindfully to my breakfast. During taiji, I lost my place in the form several times and had to start over as I got the sequence confused. My mind kept wandering and I kept getting distracted by errant and unhelpful thoughts about the past and extrapolated futures. During the meditation I kept going off on trails of thought and worry about what to do next, and in the end it became so frustrating that I declared “I am sick of planning. Only misery comes from making plans, because you either stick to them and then wonder what else you could have done, or you don’t stick to them and you get frustrated that you didn’t get as much done as you wanted.” I resolved, then, to stop planning ahead and to live more spontaneously, doing whatever I felt like rather than what I “should” (a foul and evil word). I decided that it didn’t matter what I did next, as long as I put my whole heart into it. That meaning is wholly subjective, and it was entirely up to me whether I thought I was wasting my time or spending it “well”.

As I opened the Tao Te Ching, I was surprised and humbled to find the first paragraph instructing me to “let go of fixed plans and concepts and the world will govern itself”. There is also some strange synchronicity that last night my friend and I were discussing the limitations of law and punishment in reducing crime. How strange the world works, to deliver the lessons that we need at the moment that we need them. (Or, perhaps, that we recognise the lessons that have always been there when we are ready to understand them.)

Verse 57 [my interpretation]

If you want to be a great leader,
learn to follow the Way.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of plans so that things can unfold naturally,
free from your interference.

It is the nature of the world that:
the more prohibitions there are,
the more people are impoverished;
the more powerful the weapons,
the more violent the people;
the more complex the plan,
the more unexpected the outcome;
the more authoritarian the laws,
the more outlaws appear.

Therefore the sage does nothing,
yet people become peaceful, honest and rich.
When a ruler does not impose himself upon people,
people are free to become themselves.
[And all people are inherently Tao-centred, with innate Buddha-nature.
As all seeds will grow in the right condition, so too are people.]

Some essential reading/watching to enjoy life

Last night I spent some quality time with a good friend of mine, and we talked for hours about life and spirituality. I brought up “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior”, a book by Dan Millman which I have been thinking about for weeks. I highly recommend that every literate human being gives it a read, and every illiterate human being has it read to them. It is profound in its insight, and has actually changed the way I see the world and many of my life experiences. For example, some of the lessons I have learned include:

  • Every moment is extraordinary and deserves full attention to be enjoyed.
  • Food is one of life’s great pleasures, and it can be enjoyed far more than just scoffing it down.
  • All aspirations are equally pleasurable and equally unnecessary.
  • There is no time but now, and no place but here.
  • Being a better person is a journey, not a destination. You are either being a better person in this present moment, or you are not.
  • I am the jaguar’s cub. All creation is not only connected, but is all ultimately the same. There is no distinction between “me” and “you”, other than the artificial one I create.

On this subject, my friend showed me a video which really resonated with me and reaffirmed all the beliefs I’ve come into since I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and the Tao Te Ching. I urge everyone to watch it, because it is such an incredibly important message if you want to live life at all!

Snippets from the Tao Te Ching

Because I haven’t posted anything about Taoist philosophy in a while, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll post the highlight reel from my readings, the things that have resonated with me or that I wish more people considered. As always, these are my personal interpretations, posted here for the benefit of anybody who might be interested.

 

Verse 32

If all beings lived in accordance to the Way, the world would be a much better place;
Not because of law, morality and ritual, but because it is the inherent nature of all beings to be good.

 

Verse 33

Understanding others requires knowledge.
Understanding the self requires wisdom.
Mastering others requires force.
Mastering the self requires strength.

One who realises that they have enough is truly rich.

 

Verse 34

By not claiming greatness, a person can be great.
By claiming greatness, a person can be arrogant.
It is more important to fulfill one’s own nature than it is to stoke the ego.

 

Verse 36

If you want yin, you must let it yang.
If you wish to eliminate something, you must let it flourish.
If you are tired, recognise that you are comparing yourself to your energetic self,
and by extension, you must have once known what it was like to be energetic.

It is the nature of things that burn brightly to fizzle out.
It is far better to live in obscurity, away from the spotlight (which depends upon the favour of others to shine upon you).
Let others push to the front while you live forever in the background.
Gentleness defeats strength.

 

Verse 37

The Tao does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.
It does not desire, it does not strive;
It simply is, and it is perfect.

When life is simple, pretense falls away and our essential nature shines through.
When one is silent, one finds the anchor to the universe within oneself.

 

Verse 38

The highest virtue is to act without ego;
The greatest kindness is to give without condition;
The greatest justice is to see without preference/judgement.

 

Verse 39

The world of 10 000 things has one source.
It is like 10 000 cells of the body working together.
How arrogant would a cell be if it claimed it was more important than the others!
More important, more special, more deserving of nutrition:
It would soon kill off the cells surrounding it, spreading like cancer
Until the entire body suffered and broke down.

 

Verse 41

A great man hears of the Tao and begins to embody it.
An ordinary man hears of the Tao and remembers some and forgets some.
A foolish man hears of the Tao and mocks and laughs at it.
Without this mocking laughter, it would not be the Tao.
For the Way is only attractive to those who are wise enough to know how foolish they are.

The way forwards seems like retreat;
The easy seems difficult;
True power seems impotent;
Great love seems indifferent;
Great art seems unsophisticated;
Great wisdom seems childish.
This is the Way.

 

Verse 43

Do not do: be.
Teach without words, perform without effort.
This is the bounty of life.

 

Verse 44

What is more important:
You, or the way people see you?
You, or the materials you’ve collected?
What you gain from ego and desire is more trouble than what you let go of.

Let go to know love.
Give away to know wealth.

 

Verse 45

Perceive beyond the “stupid” to recognise the “intelligence”.
See through the “awkward” to identify the “eloquence”.
Discern the “truth” beneath the “false”.
Stillness and tranquility set the universe in order.

 

Verse 46

When the world knows the way, people focus their resources on producing a better world.
When the world has lost the way, people focus their resources on destroying one another.
There is no greater loss than losing the Tao;
no greater tragedy than discontentment and desire.

 

Verse 47

The farther one goes in search of knowing,
the less one knows;
All the answers are already with you, within yourself.

 

Verse 48

Happiness = desires/resources.
To be happy, either increase limited resources to meet infinite desires.
Or, decrease your desires to meet limited resources.
The wise woman wants nothing, and therefore always has enough.

We entered and will leave the world with no-things.
All that we experience along the way are gifts to be enjoyed, but not attached to.

The universe is in a constant state of composing and decomposing;
trying to hold on to material objects is trying to defy nature.
What is real and worthwhile has no form and never changes:
the energy of life that makes us indistinct from all creation: the Tao.

 

Verse 49

The sage has no concrete sense of identity that distinguishes “us” from “them”;
She lives in harmony with all beings because she is able to see herself in all beings, and see all beings within herself.

Those that are good and those that are bad she treats the same: with goodness.
Because it is her nature to be good.

 

Verse 50

9 in 10 people follow life, death, or something in between,
clinging to their lives and the physical world.
But 1 in 10 is so wise that he is impervious to harm:
bullets miss him, people cannot hurt him and tigers find no purchase for their claws.
It is because he knows he is not his body;
He knows his physical form is not his true self, but the vessel of his immortal essence.

Realise your true nature and you may witness the end without ending.
You may see death without dying,
and realise that the “end” is part of a cycle which has no end.

 

Dissolving the ego

I wrote this post about six weeks ago but wasn’t really happy with it and wasn’t ready to post it- the ideas were underdeveloped, it was clumsily written, I had no idea of the basis of my statements. It’s never going to be ready or perfect, so I’m posting it anyway.

 

***

 

The past few days I’ve been ruminating on the nature of the ego and the effects it has on the world. I’ve come to the general conclusion that striving to let go of one’s ego is the most important and most difficult step in becoming a better person/reaching Enlightenment/achieving oneness with the Tao.

First let me explain my understanding of ego. In this context, when I talk about ego I am referring to a sense of inflated self-importance, the idea that “I am more important than [you]”. Although it sounds confronting and unrealistic, I believe almost every human being engages in this line of thought every day, usually without realising it. When we get into our cars without thought for the insects we kill and the pollution we produce, when we work for faceless corporations whose goal is control or profit, or when we see someone who’s hurt and struggling and we continue on with our own business… In almost every action we do, we are prioritising ourselves over others (be they plants, animals or the world at large). Of course it’s impossible to live life without harming and killing other creatures (even if you’re a vegan hermit on a mountainside)- this is the way of life, and some death is natural- but practically all of us think that we’re more important than everyone/everything else. As a rather simplistic example, if 20 people in the room are catered for by 39 tiny, insufficiently filling sandwiches, I think most people would be tempted to sate their own hunger and take two instead of one. Survival of the fittest, as it were. But this is not the wild. Most of us no longer have to struggle to survive in this society of affluence, yet we still cling to material goods, we still hoard resources we cannot possibly consume, because we need them more than they do (they being animals, plants, people etc). How willing would you be to share your breakfast with a hungry magpie?

I also want to clarify that when I say ego, I do not mean self esteem. I understand self esteem to refer to how much one values oneself, and clearly having a low esteem is very harmful. But neither should one have an overly high opinion of oneself, for this leads to egotism, vanity and all manner of problems. It seems that the challenge is to know exactly how much you are worth, and to value yourself exactly enough. As Lao Tzu put it, to know you are a “straw dog”, an ordinary collection of materials that are raised up and celebrated during ceremonies, and then destroyed and trampled afterwards. Each of us are very special, entirely unique and with tremendous potential, and we are important. But no more important than any other life form. In a sense, you could say that your life is worth as much nutrition/fertiliser as it could produce for a growing plant when your body is buried in the ground. (And, just as an aside, if I ever die, I would like a fruit tree to be planted over my body. Perhaps apples. It pleases me somewhat to think that this bag of flesh I inhabit might provide the energy for new life to grow, and that the world might benefit from the fruit borne of my body.)

Obviously my opinions are my own, and my understandings might be perilously deluded. But I cannot help but think that if all human beings were to treat all other life forms as equally important, we would live in a much nicer world. That’s not to say one should give up one’s life for a fly- human beings are more important than other species because of our ability to shape the world- but sometimes I think we cling to ourselves too tightly when others would gain more from our absence. Again, as an overly simplistic example, if I needed somewhere to live but building a house would require cutting down part of the rainforest, I think the world would be better off if I were homeless instead. In “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior”, Dan Millman talks about a wise woman who was walking along a cliffside and saw a lioness had fallen to her death. Her cubs were sitting by her body crying out in grief, alone and hungry, and the woman threw herself from the cliffside without hesitation so that they would have something to eat.

The Buddha said that detachment is the most important aspiration of life. Letting go of everything you cling to frees you to live as you were truly meant to, to achieve Enlightenment and to understand the nature of all things. I think that you can let go of all your material possessions, let go of your body and let go of your control over life, but if you cannot abandon your sense of self then you will not truly become Enlightened.

The Dalai Lama said that compassion is the most important value in life, regardless of religion, creed or lifestyle. I think that by understanding you are no more important than other other being allows you to happily give of yourself for the betterment of others. It becomes clear that you see yourself in others, and you want them to be as happy as you wish to be.

By abandoning ego, I think that it becomes easier to let go of notions of suffering and injustice. If you are hit by a car, you don’t have to scream “Why me?!”, but embrace the unfortunate as a natural part of being around fast-moving cars. You are not the target of some divine force who thrives off your misery, and if you should develop a terminal disease it does not need to affect your happiness and kindness to others.

Is it possible to entirely dissolve one’s ego? Perhaps some human beings have accomplished it (those who have attained Enlightenment are probably good examples), but most of us will never even come close. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Like perfection, even if it’s impossible to achieve it’s still an ideal worth striving towards. It is better to be a little self-less than it is to be entirely selfish, is it not?

How then does one strive to abandon one’s ego? It is hard to say, but my best guess is by reflecting on everything I have written about. By being aware of when we act to get a re-action from others, as opposed to acting in order to express our own natures. By coming to know our true natures, and true “worth” and valuing ourselves as much accordingly. Quite a daunting task, and not one that can be achieved overnight.  But I think that the hardest thing about becoming a better person is never becoming complacent, saying “Oh, I’m good enough now, I can stop trying to be kinder/less egotistic/better”. To strive with every action to be a better person than I was yesterday- that’s the real struggle.

Peace everyone.

/RPH

This blog post is a little hard for me to write. I’ve been putting it off for days, trying to process the thoughts in my own terms, but I may as well do it online. I’ll get straight to it. I withdrew from placement last Thursday under recommendation from my two supervisors, the university liaison officer, and the university placement coordinator.

It hit me so hard. I really did think I was doing well. I had learned so much about myself, made a huge change in attitude, was mostly enjoying the work and doing it with a larger degree of success than I’d ever experienced previously in the human services field. By my standards, I was doing better than I’d ever done before.

Yet my supervisors didn’t feel the same way. By their standards, I was not coping. They observed that I had huge levels of anxiety  before interacting with clients. That I was resistant to taking their advice and learning from them. That I received constructive criticism very poorly. That I had underdeveloped social skills. That I just wasn’t able to meet the demands of being placed at Royal Perth, and that they didn’t have the time and resources to help me develop.

At the time, I essentially burst into tears at the shock. I’d gone into that meeting with the four of them thinking that a poor supervisions session was being blown way out of proportion. My supervisors had arranged the meeting (with my permission) so that they could explain their concerns to the uni, which they had concealed from me. It felt a little bit deceptive, but I understand they had their reasons, and it is too late to wonder if I should have argued my point further and not allowed myself to withdraw. As it happened, emotional and overwhelmed, I trusted that the four of them wanted what was best for me and that they all believed withdrawing would be the best thing to do. I meekly complied, un-enrolling from the unit and agreeing to meet with the uni team next week to see if I was ready for another placement this same semester.

By the time I got home, I had forgotten all the reasons why I had agreed to withdraw. All I could remember was that from my experiences in Centrelink and at PICYS, I was doing amazingly well at Royal Perth.  I’d learned so so much, come so ridiculously far since that first placement, that I had never been more successfully capable in my life. And every day I was continuing to grow, being exposed to new attitudes, new skills, new experiences. In the three short weeks I had been at RPH, I had transformed into a more-or-less comfortable full-time employee who worked with Aboriginal, elderly and dying people, as well as a host of doctors and other medical staff. Those were some amazing learning experiences, and rather than letting me continue to grow in them, I was withdrawn at the advice of others.

I am a little upset about it, but not that upset. In truth, I understand most of the reasons my supervisors had, and I understand why the uni supported their opinions. I thought I was doing amazing, but the truth is, I have so far to go. It’s made me realise how anxious I really am, and how that’s not normal, not even functional some of the time, and I want to do more about that than I have been doing. I want to be more confident (something I will probably only gain from working with people and doing things that require responsibility, which I will not avoid but embrace). I want to learn how to take criticism better, and to stop being so self-righteous and egotistical: I’m not the only opinion that matters (another blog post on that soon to come). I have so much personal growth to do, and I thought I had already done it. Although I am much steadier than I was when I took my leave of absence, I’m still not quite steady enough for social work, it seems.

Regardless of what happens from here, I’m going to continue trying to be a better person. A healthier person. I’m going to start seeing a psychologist, continue meditating and philosophising, maybe start volunteering. But most of all, I’m going to try and secure another placement in the very near future so that I can get a second opinion from another supervisor who might not consider me unready.

Placement at RPH

My apologies for not writing any blog posts this past fortnight. It grieves me to recall I once had the freedom to write blogposts every day I so chose, but of late most my every spare moment has been hastily spent on more important things, like sleeping or cooking or living. You see, I’ve finally started my 14-week placement with the Social Work department of Royal Perth Hospital. And I’m afraid that I only have about eight minutes before yoga, taiji and karate (a triple lesson today, about 4-5 hours of training).

In brief, it has been exquisitely affirming, and soul-crushingly depressing. Most of all it’s been highly educational.

I’ve learned that I have a highly specific preference for learning, requiring me to read about something theoretically, understanding it conceptually, then seeing it physically, before attempting to express it myself. I will hoard all available information to read through before I attempt to do anything practical with it.

I’ve learned that I still have a deeply ingrained fear of boredom, and this anxiety has been with me in my last few placements, my last few years of life (perhaps since I was 12 or younger). This fear has led me to draw out almost every activity for as long as I could justify it- if I had to see someone, I would read all about their history, plan out on paper what I’d have to say to them and spend up to hours of preparation for a five minute chat.

I also realised that I have a presumptuous ego that is repelled by the idea of working against my will. That is to say, I don’t like work or responsibility or challenge, and so I’ll avoid it as much as possible while still getting paid for it. I might spend hours going through email, typing up notes, researching medical terms on google etc. in order to avoid “real work”. Realising this, I made a conscientious decision yesterday to stop being such a selfish brat, to stop caring about myself so much, and to ask “What can I do for the hospital? How can I spend the precious resources (potential wages) that they’ve given me, in order to best help people?” This has brought about a remarkable change in my attitude, and consequently, in my personal satisfaction, levels of energy and joy from the work. Yesterday was the best day ever,  brimming with energy and able to tackle any problem with confidence and reasonable competence. It’s reaffirmed that I can do this, and what’s more, I want to.

I’ve learned that I still take criticism poorly. In a recent supervision session, my two supervisors gave me some feedback that I was being unprofessional in this way, that I hadn’t been accountable for that amount of time while they were trying to get hold of me etc. It made me feel like they were monitoring me, spying over my shoulder to see if I was doing the right thing, always looking for mistakes. I knew it was irrational and the critique would make me a better practitioner, but I felt so alone and unsupported that I felt like crying.

I’ve learned that cloudy days make me terribly SAD and it can be impossible trying to rouse myself to any kind of inspired motivation. But I can’t just go home every time it rains, so persisting and doing my best despite my low energy/mood is for the greater good.

Alright, running late. I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching every morning, but I haven’t got time to share any of its amazing insights with you. Perhaps I’ll flood you with them later. Hope everyone’s been keeping well, and miss you all <3