The Art of Living: Effectiveness Without Contending

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 67–73

Erik Schön
Jan 5 · 5 min read
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Photo: Farzane Saremi/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)

67. Compassion, Frugality, Modesty

Everyone calls ultimate purpose
great, and unlike anything else.

It is great only because
it is unlike anything else.
If it were like anything else
it would be small.

There are three treasures to nurture and sustain
the first is compassion;
the second is frugality;
the third is modesty.

Compassion leads to courage;
frugality allows generosity;
modesty entails leadership.

Courage without compassion;
generosity without frugality;
leadership without modesty;
is a complete failure.

Compassion brings
success in the attack;
safety in defense.

Nature serves and protects
through compassion.

A sense of frugality reflects abiding respect for the integrity of things and an unwillingness to compromise them. It is this respect for other things that allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them. And an unwillingness to contend for domination over other things is … a reluctance to sacrifice the creative possibilities of either oneself or one’s environing others through recourse to coercion. It is precise because I am non-coercive that other things defer to me in leading the way … Compassion funds the concrete network of affective relationships … all effective transactions are effective transactions, and require recourse to these invested relations.

68. Effectiveness Without Contending

Accomplished persons avoid aggression;
skilled soldiers avoid anger.
successful leaders avoid engaging competition;
successful leaders take the lowest place.

This is effectiveness without contending;
this is a suitable use of abilities;
this contributes to the ultimate purpose.

Avoid moving, except for advantage;
Avoid deploying, except for success;
Avoid engaging, except in crises.

Avoid developing strategy in anger;
avoid deploying strategy enraged.
if engaging is in line with purpose, move; if not, stop.

Anger can turn to happiness;
rage can turn to joy;
an organisation destroyed is beyond re-recreation.

Therefore, skilled leaders are careful and cautious.
This is how to keep an organisation in harmony and safety.

Warfare is always a losing proposition, but sometimes you are left with no other choice.

69. Deploying Without Capabilities

In strategy deployment
rather than going first,
wait before moving;
rather than taking an inch,
give up afoot.

This is deploying without capabilities:
showing hands without baring arms;
repelling without opposing;
wielding without weapons.

The greatest disasters are
underestimating competition;
contempt for competition;
what treasures lost.

Therefore, in competition
those who grieve succeed.

Knowing competition and oneself ensures success.

The prize thrown away by the aggressor is compassion. The yielder, the griever, the mourner keeps that prize. The game is loser takes all.

Being successful militarily requires awareness … Just as control produces disorder, aggression leads to enervation, and arrogance to humiliation … The army that enters the battle with remorse is the one that has the deeper understanding of the relationship, between itself and its enemy, and although it would not be deploying on the battlefield unless all other options had been exhausted, it still treats the relationship with this enemy with abiding respect.

70. Unprincipled Knowing

These words are so easy to understand;
so easy to follow.
Yet everyone misunderstands and misbehaves.

Words have ancestors,
deeds have masters.
Only because it requires unprincipled knowing
they misunderstand.

Still, a few understand this,
and this is valuable.

Therefore, skilled leaders wear rough clothing
hiding jade.

The attainment of “unprincipled knowing” (wuzhi) … is the habit of embracing experience immediately and on its own terms without allowing preconceptions to arrest one’s exploration and appreciation short of a probing depth of awareness.

71. To Think You Know

To know — with unprincipled knowing — is supreme.
To think you know — without unprincipled knowing — is sick.

To be sick of sickness is the only cure.
Skilled leaders are sick of sickness,
so they are well.

What you know without knowing you know it is the right kind of knowledge. Any other kind (conviction, theory, dogmatic belief, opinion) isn’t the right kind, and if you don’t know that, you’ll lose ultimate purpose (tao).

We invariably have a set of presuppositions that we bring to experience. To think otherwise is naive. But a self-conscious awareness of such prejudices can go a long way toward immunising us against the hardening of the categories and epistemic sclerosis.

72. Feeling Safe

When people feel safe with leaders,
leaders are skilled, and safe.

Avoid invading their privacy;
avoid wearing them out.
Only by avoiding this
they will stay content.

Therefore, skilled leaders
know themselves,
and avoid showing off;
love themselves,
and avoid being precious;
letting one go, keeping the other.

It is only by being people-centred that those entrusted with governing can exercise the authority appropriate to bringing proper order to the world. If people feel mistreated and become estranged from those holding … responsibility, the days of the present leadership are numbered, and … change is imminent.

73. Brave Caution

Brave daring brings failure;
brave caution brings success.
One brings benefit, one brings harm.

Who understands common sense?
Even skilled leaders find it hard.

Common sense is
succeeding without competing;
answering without lecturing;
attracting without summoning;
planning without controlling.

The net of common sense is vast, vast
wide-meshed, still catching everything

Real strength entails flexibility, real wisdom entails uncertainty, and real endurance entails patience. So, too, real courage is most effective when it is tempered by prudence.

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

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