The Art of Living: Living with Change

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 56–61

Erik Schön
Jan 3 · 6 min read
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Photo: Chris Lawton/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)

56. The Original Unity

Those who know
avoid talking.
Those who talk
are unaware.

Block the passage,
bolt the gate,
blunt the sharp,
unravel the tangles,
harmonise the light,
blend with the dust.

This is the original unity:
beyond embrace and escape;
beyond help and harm;
beyond praise and blame;
therefore, it is valued by everyone.

This section suggests the limitations of language in communicating adequate insight into how best to make our way in the world.

57. Conditions for Self-Organization

Use the expected to govern;
use surprise to fight;
avoid interference to succeed.

How do I know?
Like this!

The more prohibitions and rules,
the poorer the people;
the sharper the weapons,
the more they riot;
the more skilled techniques,
the more grotesque their works;
the more elaborate the laws,
the more crimes they commit.

Therefore, when leaders:
avoid coercion, people transform themselves;
cherish balance, people self-organise;
avoid interfering, people prosper of themselves;
desire without objects, people simplify.

When engaging with stakeholders:
first do the expected, then surprise to succeed.

Skilled combinations of surprise and the expected is:
as infinite as heaven and earth;
as inexhaustible as rivers and seas;
ending only to begin again like the sun and the moon;
dying only to live again like the four seasons.

Lao Tzu openly adopted Sun Tzu’s dual-concept of expected and surprise … while reapplying it in a new way … only righteous and non-shaping means “the expected” should be used when governing the state; war is the realm of shaping, i.e. “the surprising”. This is because “the more skilled techniques [various forms of shaping], the more grotesque their works”.

The essence of Taoist statecraft and grand strategy … resides in the following line: “avoid interference to succeed” … refraining from the action (knowing not to act) is the best way to achieve the desired end. However, far from advocating disengagement from human affairs and the world, the non-action of Tao Te Ching teaches individuals how to behave in this world in order to be successful.

Chinese thought never developed a cult of action: as actions intervene in the course of things, an action is always external to it and constitutes an initiative that is intrusive — it is a source of embarrassment; it intervenes as a hindrance. Therefore, the action is easy to spot and inevitably provokes elements of resistance.

War cannot for a single moment be separated from politics. Any tendency … to belittle politics by isolating war from it and advocating the idea of war as an absolute is wrong and should be corrected … But war has its own peculiar characteristics and in this sense, it cannot be equated with politics in general. “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” When politics develops to a certain stage beyond which it cannot proceed in the usual means, war breaks out to sweep the obstacles from the way … Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.

58. Living with Change

If leaders are dull and muffled
people are simple and happy.
If leaders are sharp and keen
people are worn down and hopeless.

Failure rests upon success;
Success hides within failure;
Who knows how it will end?

The expected is always changing,
the expected turns into surprise,
success again turns into failure,
people’s confusion hardens and lingers.

Therefore, leaders
shape without cutting,
corner without dividing,
straighten without extending.
They glow without shining.

Momentum in engaging with stakeholders
arises only from the expected and the surprising,
yet combining them form more ways than can ever be known.
Each brings on the other, like an infinite cycle.
Who can exhaust all possibilities?

Taoists gain their ends without the use of means.

Opposites always entail each other, and can only be separated abstractly and at the risk of upsetting the rhythm of life by treating them as really separable. Enforcing order produces disorder. Attempts at overt control on behalf of a dyad at the expense of the other half, whether such manipulation is political or otherwise, simply makes things worse … Coercion arises in a pointless attempt to promote one antinomy over the other, pushing any situation to an extreme. How do we respond to this never-ending spiral of reversion? If we have an understanding of the process as a whole, we can, while staying balanced at the centre, anticipate the movement between opposites.

59. Living Sparingly

Leading people and serving purpose
is like living off the land.
Living sparingly and responding quickly
means effectiveness.

With effectiveness
everything can be overcome.

And when everything can be overcome,
you seem unlimited.

When you seem unlimited,
you can lead anything
and be the creative source
and nourish and extend it.

This is ultimate purpose:
deep roots, firm base;
living long and seeing far.

This section works on two levels. On one plane, it focuses on a regimen of self-cultivation and the nourishing of one’s life-force … on a second plane, such a personal regimen prepares one to take a leading role in establishing a vision for the human community, and in bringing this vision to fruition.

60. Cooking Small Fish

Leading large organisations
is like cooking small fish.

With ultimate purpose harmonising,
evil loses its power;
or rather,
evil loses its power to harm people;
and leaders avoid harming people.

When harm is gone,
effectiveness flows and returns.

If the fish is flipped too frequently it will break — a small fish can be spoiled simply by being handled. Excessive measures and actions are counterproductive and will only disrupt the overall harmony of the system. They only hinder the implicit transformation from taking place.

61. Lying Low

A great country flows down to be the world’s pool;
it is the female of the world.

The female engaging the male
keeps the balance
and succeeds by taking the lower place.

Therefore, a great country engaging a small
lowers itself to succeed.

A small country engaging a great
stays low to succeed.

Some succeed by becoming low,
others succeed by staying low.

A great country ultimately desires
to unite and protect people;
a small country ultimately desires
to enter the service of people.

Both get what they desire
when the great one is low.

Humility (literally, the choice to put oneself below) is neither moral nor psychological; it is purely strategic.

Here we can see how “purely” strategic and effect-based the Chinese strategic thought is in nature, even to the degree of forsaking the claim to hegemony. Hence the Taoists are capable of developing a new approach to diplomacy that shares the “female” properties. Even though this sounds idealistic, this already marks a big difference from the old norms of power politics and hegemony — at least both big and small states could get what they want.

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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