The Art of Living: Balancing

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 74–81

Erik Schön
Jan 6 · 8 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Debby Hudson/Unsplash

What is the meaning of life? Why is this important? How do you live your life to make it more meaningful? The Art of Living provides timeless answers to these eternal questions including new perspectives on the world, people and their behaviours; practical tools for avoiding and handling conflicts, and, actionable advice on how to lead effectively and make a difference. “This is powerful, this is for practical people struggling with business goals, lacking time with family … feeling stressed.” (All parts)

74. Fearing Death

If people are unafraid of death,
how can you threaten them with death?
If people with normal fear of death
are about to do something vicious,
and I could seize and execute them,
who would dare?

There is always an official executioner.
Trying to take the executioner’s place
is like trying to replace a master woodworker —
few avoid slicing their hands.

To Lao Tzu, not to fear dying and not to fear killing are equally unnatural and antisocial. Who are we to forestall the judgement of heaven or nature, to usurp the role of “the executioner”?

Although Lao Tzu would embrace the precept that coercion is always a losing proposition, it leaves open the possibility that under certain and decidedly rare circumstances, sanctioned violence in the shape of capital punishment and even military intervention might be the lesser of two evils.

75. Respecting Life

People are hungry.
When leaders tax too much
people are hungry.

People are rebellious.
When leaders act with coercion
people are rebellious.

People ignore death.
When leaders exact too much from life
people ignore death.

Only those who avoid striving for life
truly respect life.

When conditions reach an extreme of exploitation and oppression, the folk will naturally rise up in revolt, without any regard to the consequence.

76. Real Strength

People are born soft and weak;
they die hard and strong.
Plants and trees are born soft and fragile;
they die dry and brittle.

So, the hard and strong
go with death;
the soft and weak
go with life.

Therefore,
the strongest organisations fail;
the greatest trees are cut down;
the hard and strong go under;
the soft and weak rise up.

In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to the bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.

What is living is soft and supple, and thus flexible; what is dead is hard and rigid, and thus easily broken. It is the weak that is really strong, and it is the strong that is really weak. Thus, contrary to our conventional inclinations, we should honour and defer to the weak and look down upon the strong.

Lao Tzu … draws almost completely on the self-defeat of the enemy, following that the natural propensity has reached its extreme and backfires upon himself … Yielding is essential because it prevents one from reaching maturity and thus the extreme prematurely, and it also greatly enhance one’s chance to “out-flex” one’s opponent.

77. Balancing

Nature is like a stretched bow
pulling down the top
pulling up the bottom.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low.

In nature
excess is reduced,
lack is increased.

People often
take from people wanting
give to people who have.

Who has enough to fill up everybody?
Only those following ultimate purpose.

Therefore, skilled leaders
act without expectations;
accomplish without taking credit;
avoid showing their value.

The way of the world in which we live is one of sustained equilibrium. Excess and insufficiency in our various ecological environments certainly occur, but in the course of time they are righted through a process of redistribution, and balanced is restored. While we human beings would do well to imitate this pattern, we instead create a vicious circle in which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

The ultimate goal of strategy is to restore the system to a relatively stable condition so that the fruits of victory can be enjoyed.

78. The Softest Succeeds

Water is the softest and weakest in the world.
Still, only water conquers the hard and strong.
Soft overcomes hard;
weak overcomes strong.
Everyone knows this
still is unable to use it.

Therefore, skilled leaders say:
only those who accept humiliation can lead an organization;
only those who accept misfortunes can lead the world.

Appropriate words seem contradictory.

The organisation is like water.

Water avoids the high and rushes to the low;
the organisation avoids strength and rushes to weakness.

Water adapts to the ground when flowing;
the organisation adapts to stakeholders to succeed.

Water constantly changes form;
the organisation constantly changes setup.

Succeeding by adapting and changing in accord with stakeholders
is the skill of skills.

The ultimate setup is to be formless:
the most prying intelligence operation are unable to observe it;
the most skilful competitors are unable to assess it.
Exploit competition’s setup for success; keep everyone unaware.
Everyone observes the success, yet are unaware of how it was created.

And so, a strategy for success is unrepeatable;
it is setup in response to endlessly changing circumstances.

Water metaphors serve as a theoretical basis for explaining how the weak can defeat the strong … Water’s accumulation of momentum continues to be valued … it is this which enables something as formless and weak as water to overcome hard and strong objects.

Formlessness is applied to the most important notion of Taoism — ultimate purpose (tao) … it is re-manifested in different ways in numerous descriptions of ultimate purpose (tao).

The idea that ultimate purpose (tao) cannot be understood, while it simultaneously retains its image, substance, and essence, can be explained by the fact that the Taoists hold a dynamic worldview — reality is constantly evolving. This uninterrupted flow of variance, which is vividly illustrated by the course of flowing water, is regarded as the very course of reality. The only thing that can be said with any degree of certainty about ultimate purpose (tao) is that it is unchanging simply because it is ever-changing.

The most important lesson underlying the Taoist worldview regarding the formlessness of ultimate purpose (tao) and the constant evolution of reality is the idea that reality possesses no form — it is humans who impose various forms upon it, and these forms are merely mental constructs. While these simplified forms and models may be useful when first trying to make sense of the world, they will eventually become major obstacles for understanding reality as a flow of variance and, more importantly, as one without any distortion.

Even though skilled leaders know that there are no rules or norms to codify the future, since the flow of reality is constantly innovating, they feel no anxiety (in contrast to the latest Western mode of ideology — which is concerned with “uncertainty”, “turbulence, “ and “chaos”…) as they have already been equipped with the “toolkit” and worldview of Taoism and strategy a la Sun Tzu that enables them to orient themselves under such circumstances.

79. Harmonising Hatred

Harmonise hatred
and some hatred will remain.
How can this be successful?

Skilled leaders
honour the contract
without demands.
Effective people
fulfil their obligations;
others
insist on their claims.

Nature is impartial
siding with trustworthy people.

This … is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treatises.

By the time relationships have disintegrated into a situation of intense enmity, it is almost impossible to restore them. Much better to have managed the relationship through deference and accommodation in the first place.

On many occasions, focusing too much on winning battles and wars brings unintended and undesirable consequences that are beyond our strategic capacity to repair.

Unforeseen consequences, such as hatred, frequently take a long time to reverse, and they will eventually hamper progress. Hence the repeated use of action and intervention in a long-term endeavour will in turn create more obstacles of this kind, and one of the foremost tasks of a strategist is to limit any action/interference so as to prevent negative unintended consequences from arising and to eliminate any chance that they will lead to a reversal of the tide.

80. Freedom

Small country, few people —
hundreds of devices,
waiting to be used.

People ponder death
and avoid travelling far.
They have carriages and boats
and stay where they are;
armour and weapons
and put them away.
They knot cords for counting;
sweet their food;
beautiful their clothes;
peaceful their homes;
delightful their customs;

Neighbouring countries are so close
you can hear their chickens and dogs.
Still, people grow old and die
happy without any interactions.

It is better to remain on the land, while at the same time prudently encouraging that preparations be made in case someone else is less deliberate and decides to bring the battle to you.

81. Learning Beyond Principles

Sincere words are ugly;
beautiful words are insincere.

Skilled people avoid contending;
contentious people are unskilled.

Skilled leaders learn beyond principles;
learning using only principles is unwise.

Skilled leaders avoid hoarding;
have enough by doing for others;
have even more by giving to others.

Nature benefits without harming;
skilled leaders accomplish without contending.

The fish trap exists because of the fish;
once you’ve caught the fish, forget the trap.
The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit;
once you’ve caught the rabbit, forget the snare.
Words exist because of meaning.
Once you’ve caught the meaning forget the words.

Given the inseparability of opposites, frugality suggests a focused respect for the integrity of other things, and allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them. Likewise, modesty in one’s language, learning, and abilities does not in any way diminish one’s character, and yet opens up a space that facilitates harmonious and mutually productive relationships. Given the inseparability of opposites, acting on behalf of others is gaining oneself, and giving to others is getting oneself.

The Art of Living: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of each part
Introduction: How to make life more meaningful

Glossary: Explanation of key terms
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

Everything Begins With An Idea

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store