The Art of Living: Grasping the Whole

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 20–23

Erik Schön
Dec 28, 2020 · 5 min read
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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)

20. A Baby Yet to Smile

Dare to unlearn, and confusion disappears:
What is between “yes” and “no”?
What is between “good” and “bad”?
Those whom people fear will fear others.
Such statements confuse — how pointless!

Most people are happy, happy
as if feasting at a banquet
or climbing a sightseeing tower in springtime;
I alone am passive, giving no sign,
like a baby yet to smile;
lost, as if nowhere to go.

Most people have enough and more,
I alone am lacking.
I have the heart and mind of a fool,
confused, confused.

Others are bright and intelligent.
I alone am dull, dull,
drifting on the ocean,
blown about endlessly.

Others have purpose,
I alone am foolish and stubborn;
I alone am different from others,
like a baby in the womb.

The study of formal rules of etiquette and correct behaviour has no end.

Learning is all about being on the right side of conventional distinction. Yet these distinctions — assenting and rejecting, deeming beautiful and otherwise, fearing and being feared, and so on — are at best porous and perspectival.

21. Great Effectiveness

Great effectiveness and behaviours
flow from ultimate purpose.

Ultimate purpose —
elusive and evasive.

Evasive and elusive —
yet containing images.

Elusive and evasive —
yet containing entities.

Shadowy, obscure —
yet containing life’s energy;
life so real
containing trust.

From the beginning, its name is remembered
and reappears through multiple origins

How do I know these origins?
Like this.

22. Grasping the Whole

Crippled becomes whole;
crooked becomes straight;
hollow becomes full;
worn becomes new;
little becomes more;
much becomes delusion.

Therefore, skilled leaders grasp the whole to serve:
shine by avoiding showing themselves;
stand out by avoiding asserting themselves;
succeed by avoiding praising themselves;
endure by avoiding complacency.

So, by avoiding contending
no one can contend with them.

The old saying
“crippled becomes whole”
is beyond words.

It becomes whole and returns.

By grasping the interaction between the theory of return and the scheme of yielding, one should be able to decipher the paradoxical relationship between means and ends …

Taoist strategy seems paradoxical because one still has not completed the paradigm shift from the level of particulars to the level of the whole, because one still sees opposites as opposites, not as an organic, dynamic whole system. Hence the whole or the system is essential for understanding the Taoist methodology and putting it into practice. By embracing the system, skilled leaders can draw on contrary means to attain their goals, providing them with an advantage and additional methods for dealing with complex situations … This marks a real breakthrough in the realm of strategy as it denotes a complete break from the means — ends rational framework that is a the heart of modern war and strategy …

Ultimate purpose (tao) itself consists simply in the uninterrupted interplay of yin and yang, for the polarity of the situation rests in them. Unifying the duality is therefore the basic requirement before proceeding to the level of the system. Once we realise this, we can then use this mental tool to understand the entire system and to know the interactions and interconnections within.

Skilled leaders have made their conscious minds accessible to everything, because they have dissolved all the focal points to which ideal forms and plans inevitably lead, and they have freed it from the particular obsessions that, through a lack of flexibility, it is liable to foster. In this way, they have liberated it from both the partiality and the rigidity in which an individual point of view, once it has become exclusive, becomes trapped. In other words, finally to put the matter plainly, they have allowed their conscious minds to take in the entire globality or processes, and they kept it in a state that is as mobile and fluid — even evolving — as the course of reality itself. Skilled leaders are thus in a position to identify with the overall coherence of becoming and can confidently anticipate future changes …

Any strategy comes down to knowing how to implicate an effect, knowing how to tackle a situation upstream in such a way that the effect flows “naturally” from it … A skilled strategist is a person who knows how to cope with a lack at the centre of a situation (a condition that is lacking) in such a way that a compensatory effect, operating in his favour, then must inevitably result … By placing yourself in an extreme position, you produce and maximise the propensity that will carry you to the opposite extreme.

23. Flow with Ultimate Purpose

Few words: nature’s way.

Whirlwinds in the morning,
cloudbursts in the evening.
If nature sustains those only shortly,
how much less so for people?

Therefore, flow with ultimate purpose to reach it;
flow with effectiveness to achieve it;
avoid flowing and be lost.

Ultimate purpose is enhanced by effectiveness
diminished when effectiveness is lost.

Sun Tzu and the Taoists see war and the world as a system, and they understand that unintended consequences can be, and very often are, devastating. So even though the Chinese are experts in dealing with second-order effects, they would rather choose to avoid the potentially harmful unintended consequences. And engaging in more forms of action and effort are sources of unintended consequences. Moreover, it is impossible to engage constantly in actions and effort as this will simply generate “turbulence” which will in turn bring further disorder and chaos to the system. In much the same way as gusts of wind and sudden downpours, human actions and efforts are anomalies that disrupt the system but cannot last long. In other words, any continued action and effort to improve the situation in a systemic environment will only be short-lived and is bound to fail. At the same time, it also disrupts the system and creates unintended and undesired consequences.

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.

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