Simple Rules for Life, Part One
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
No fight: No blame.
I’m now heading into a section of the Tao Te Ching that I have been looking forward to writing about. Not only do the next few sections offer direct advice for how to handle everyday life, but these verses also help to keep me centered and are among those that I believe would make excellent signs for around the house, office, or anywhere else that people tend to forget the basics of existence.
I love the eighth verse of the Tao Te Ching because it’s almost like a ‘slap-in-the-face’ in offering succinct directions. Short, sweet, and to-the-point, this segment of Lao Tzu’s writings echo sentiments that many people today consider to be absolutes of appropriate, decent, and acceptable behaviors. Not bad for twenty-six-hundred year-old Chinese philosophy when you consider that almost any Moral Compass that predates the ‘Sexual Revolution’ is usually considered “antiquated” and “irrelevant.”
The first lesson of this verse is the value of humility, the greatness of smallness, and the undeniable beauty of “going with the flow.” Comparing the “highest good” to water, we learn that in following gravity and practicing non-resistance, we can be like Tao. To follow where each day takes us as harmoniously as possible, to not consider ourselves above certain things, allows us to find contentment in even the worst of places and most horrid of experiences. Acceptance of what life hands you is much easier on the heart, mind, and soul than opposing every single thing you dislike.
The wording of the eighth verse basically says all that needs to be said without much translation, so I’ll attempt to elaborate as minimally as possible so that the straightforwardness of the passage isn’t lost in interpretation. However, it becomes apparent to me that applying such simplistic ideals to modern life might require a little more clarification.
Keep your life simple, commit fully to whatever you do, do not assert yourself with others, be honest, be fair, do what is necessary and do it to the best of your ability, pay attention to life around you and be sure that you’re choosing the best time and place to do things. If you avoid taking sides, you also avoid the pressures and negativity that come with bias.
Pretty simple, right? Maybe not.
Keeping life simple is not always the easiest thing in the modern world. There are so many entities in life that would rather not allow people to keep things basic, find cures instead of treatments, and remain unaffected by “drama.” Looking around today, it’s easy to see that the media is determined not only to give you information, but also to tell you how you should feel about it. Generating emotions stirs passions and keeps people interested and involved in things that don’t actually have a thing to do with them. Moreover, if you show a lack of emotion or interest in things that others believe are important, you are immediately given the negative label of “antisocial” and made to feel ‘wrong’ for remaining above the sensationalism. It’s easy to understand that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would mean nothing to a Sherpa on the southern side of the Himalaya Mountains, but let some corn farmer in Iowa show equal disinterest as the Sherpa and he would find himself branded with any number of disapproving and hurtful characterizations. Living simply outside of the dramas that others embrace is not always the painless decision that it should be because there’s so much to be gained by involving others.
Committing fully to your tasks is also sometimes challenging because there is an incredible market out there for things that allow people to do a dozen things at once. The actual need for “multi-tasking” in daily life is not nearly as great as we are led to believe, but since there are products that help people engage in a bevy of activities simultaneously, it helps the marketers and developers to convince us of how busy we are and how much easier they can make it for us. Presented with a person that is not so busy, these people are confounded by the simplicity and will endeavor to remind the simple person that they should be busier. They’ll use phrases like “get more done faster” to convince you that without their product or service, you won’t accomplish as much as you could. Dedicating yourself to doing one thing at a time and doing it well annoys people that have something to sell and those that have already fallen prey to the need to be very busy.
Many people find it difficult to maintain conversations with others without somehow asserting themselves on the other parties. Try as we may to claim the higher ground of being non-judgmental, we all have our opinions and have been conditioned to share them and, whenever possible, attempt to convince others to agree with us. Again, society’s conviction to see everyone be codependent generates a desire in most people to seek acceptance from others, and the end result is that people tend to assert themselves onto others – subtly or aggressively – in the hope of finding like-minded people or creating them. To be truly unbiased and non-critical doesn’t usually make for brilliant conversation.
Being honest with others is unfortunately something that much of society is taught not to do. With concerns about offending other people with our words, most people these days find themselves functioning with a limited vocabulary filled with ‘acceptable responses’ and ‘positive comments.’ While it is certainly nice and pleasant to have everyone speaking in lingo that is certain not to cause offense, it’s also misleading and presents its own stressors on people. Biting your tongue and saying only things that you are sure won’t hurt another’s feelings is a form of dishonesty and will only lead to greater lies and hurt feelings when the truth actually does come out, which it seems always happens. Why not just speak the truth from the outset – as gently as possible – and allow others to know your real thoughts and feelings on things? While most people don’t like to be insulted or judged, they like being lied-to even less.
Being just and fair when making decisions involving others is often a great moral dilemma for many, as it requires a person to set aside personal biases, beliefs, opinions, and pressure from others to ‘take a side’ rather than remain neutral. Fairness and justice demand balance and logic in thinking, which also suggests that one must be able to suspend emotional weights and refuse both compassion and prejudice. As much as we would all like to believe that our decisions regarding others are fair, the truth is that most people apply methods other than reason and common sense in making determinations. Some are unnecessarily harsh and others generously kind, but the frequency of impartial decisions regarding others is much less than most people think.
Committing yourself completely to what you do from day to day is another area in which most people are lacking. We tend to prioritize things – or someone else does it for us – and resultantly some of the things we do get more of our focus and concentrated efforts while other things are either given cursory attention or ignored outright. Giving our full dedication to one thing, completing it, and then moving on is a prospect that many people find to be completely unrealistic and often even laughable. We live in the age of the multi-talented, too-busy-to-slow-down modern world where we are convinced that doing one thing at a time and doing it well is not nearly as important as the number of tasks we can attend simultaneously with passing effort.
Prioritizing things as we do, we often fail to recognize that we might not be choosing the right time or place to do them. For example, shaving, applying cosmetics, eating, and talking on cellular phones are all things that should not be done while driving a car down a road, yet people find themselves so busy and poorly scheduled in life that they believe that these things could not happen at any other time. If we take an extra few minutes here and there to do things when and where they should happen, we might actually find that other tasks become much easier – and safer – as well.
Lastly, many people find themselves standing on one side or another of a divisive issue. Whether the topic is politics, religion, social causes, a sports competition, or a matter at the office, the bi-polar nature of society suggests that if a person isn’t taking one position that they must be taking a contrary position. Even when a person chooses to remain uninvolved and neutral, they are often expected or pressured to ‘choose a side’ or criticized for their aloof attitudes. I have had a few people in my life accuse me of cowardice in concealing my ‘true beliefs’ because I presented a glib detachment and objectivity when challenged for an opinion on something. Maintaining my stance and even explaining it as plainly as possible did little or nothing to sway them, thus affirming the ‘one-way-or-the-other’ mentality that has become so prevalent in society.
One thing that I have learned about the eighth verse of the Tao Te Ching is that despite its simplicity, many people seem unable to grasp the very basic principles presented in such a straightforward fashion. I don’t know that my lengthy expounding is really going to be of any help to anyone else, but I can hope that others might see this verse with the same clarity as I have.