The Art of Living: Knowing Yourself

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 31–37

Erik Schön
Dec 30, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo: Dingzeyu Li/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)

31. A Great Victory is a Funeral

Weapons are ill-omened tools,
they are hated.
Therefore, avoid them.

At home, honour the left.
In war, honour the right.

Weapons are ill-omened tools,
only to be used as a last resort,
coolly without enthusiasm.

Even in success
weapons are ugly.
To think them beautiful
is to enjoy killing people.
Those who enjoy killing people
fail in this world.

When celebrating, honour the left.
When mourning, honour the right.
The lieutenant on the left,
the general on the right,
as in funerals.

When many people are killed,
we feel sorrow and grief.

A great victory
is a funeral.

War is vitally important:
a place for creation or destruction;
a path to success or failure;
a matter to be carefully considered.

Warfare ought not to be glorified. It is always a losing proposition, and there are no victors. Although on occasion unavoidable, it is nothing better than methodical state-sanctioned killing. Even in the event of victory, triumph on the killing fields should never be confused with the proper seasons of celebration, but instead should be treated as what it is: a state funeral properly marked by grief and mourning.

32. Creeks and Streams

Ultimate purpose endures without labels.
Though uncarved wood is simple and slight,
no one in the world can master it.

If skilled leaders could possess it,
all beings would defer of their own accord.
The world would harmonise
and drop sweet dew
and people would distribute it equally.

Begin to make order, and labels arise.
Labels lead to more labels —
know when to stop.

Know when to stop,
to avoid danger.

Ultimate purpose is to the world
as rivers and seas are to creeks and streams.

In order to function effectively in managing our environment, we need distinctions. These distinctions in themselves are functional and enabling, but once established, can take on a life of their own … Rational structure become institutionalised and, given enough time, petrified … What began as a convenience takes over, constraining the very experience it was created to facilitate, and in doing so, robs life of its creative vigour.

33. Knowing Yourself

Knowing others is wisdom;
knowing yourself is enlightenment.

Conquering others is power;
conquering yourself is resilience.

Knowing contentment is to have wealth.
Persevering is to have purpose.
Holding your ground is to endure.
Dying and being remembered is to be perennial.

Knowing stakeholders and oneself ensures success;
knowing oneself without knowing stakeholders enables it;
knowing neither stakeholders nor oneself prevents it.

34. Flow

Ultimate purpose flows
to the left; to the right.
All beings depend on it
and avoid departing from it.

With all things accomplished
and the work complete
it clothes and nourishes all beings
avoiding coercion.

Objectless desire, it may be called slight.
All beings return to it
since it avoids coercion.

It may be called immense.

Therefore, by avoiding making themselves great,
skilled leaders can do great things.

The effective “governing” of skilled leaders is analogous to the flourishing of an ecological habitat. The community is self-defining, with its ethos emerging out of the collaboration of its constituents. Skilled leaders are simply virtuoso coordinators, getting the most out organisations without the imposition of any personal agenda … Greatness lies not in the skilled leaders themselves, but in their catalytic capacity to maximise the creative possibilities of the people … less is more.

35. The Great Vision

Seize the great vision
and the world comes to you,
safe from harm
in peace and prosperity.

Music and sweets
make passing guests pause.
Ultimate purpose put into words
is flavourless and bland.

Look —
without seeing it.
Listen —
without hearing it.
Use —
and it is inexhaustible

Seizing the great vision is having an aspiration, and having the strength of character and imagination to forge a way that leads the human community forward to live in their most productive manner. Those who have the vision will win the people, and in pursuing this vision, will secure their well-being.

36. Subtle Illumination

To collect, first deliberately scatter;
to weaken, first deliberately strengthen;
to abolish, first deliberately establish;
to conclude, first deliberately initiate.

This is called subtle illumination.

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.
Fish stay in the depths.
The sharpest weapons are to be hidden.

Shaping inspired by Sun Tzu constitutes the foundations upon which the weak will be able to defeat the strong.

The mutual entailment of opposites can serve us as a caution against becoming preoccupied with one side of a situation. Such comprehensive awareness of the ineluctable transformation of events can serve as a general precept of anticipating the eventual outcome and consequence of any particular situation … Any condition on reaching its extreme will subsequently give way to its opposite.

If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites.

37. Transformed

Ultimate purpose endures without labels,
still everything gets done.
When skilled leaders respect this,
all beings transform themselves of their own accord.

Transformed, if they desire something else,
realign them with uncarved wood without labels.
Realigned, they stop desiring
and thereby keep the balance
and the world again settles of its own accord.

If you have something’s name, you not only know it, but you can contain it and hold it subject to your will. To invoke a name brings power and mastery with it … To have the vocabulary of a particular area of experience, then, is to assume charge over it and to control it. But fixed principles, closed systems, the pretence of absolutes and initial origins are intellectually and practically suffocating. Dogma, artificiality, and finality close off the openness and fresh air of new directions in thought and action … The flow of experience is “nameless” and self-ordering.

By forgetting names and distinctions people free themselves from the socially induced, unnatural desires that cause strife and unhappiness in society (e.g. status, rare objects, fame, authority).

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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