The Art of Living: Serving Without Interference

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 62–66

Erik Schön
Jan 4 · 6 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)

62. True Reward, True Giving

The ultimate purpose is the center of everything:
prized by the able;
sheltering the lost.

Beautiful words can be traded,
noble deeds can enhance reputations,
if people lack them,
why reject them?

When leaders are installed
instead of presenting gifts
respectfully offer the ultimate purpose.

The ancients honoured ultimate purpose.
They said:
Through it, seekers find;
through it, the guilty escape.
Therefore, it is the most valuable thing in the world.

I think the line of thought throughout the poem has to do with true reward as opposed to dishonourable gain, true giving as opposed to fake goods.

Comforting the least among us and surviving through the most trying of times are occasions for those who are better off to grow in greatness. Those who are suffering provide those more fortunate the precious opportunity to be generous and share what they have.

63. Serve Without Interference

Act without coercion;
serve without interference.

Savour the flavour of the unmixed;
treat small as large, few as many.

Repay hatred with kindness.

Consider the difficult while it is easy;
deal with the large while it is small.

The most difficult things in the world
start out easy;
the greatest things in the world
start small.

Therefore, skilled leaders
avoid great things
and so accomplish them.

Quick promises
mean little trust;
things considered easy
mean great difficulty.
Since skilled leaders
consider all this carefully
they are free of difficulties.

Skilled leaders' success looks easy since it is well-prepared.
Therefore their wisdom is without fame;
their courage without honour.
They engage without mistakes.
Without mistakes, success is certain since competition is already defeated.

In culinary terms, those who have the most comprehensive and inclusive taste make no final discrimination. They just try with imagination to find a productive use for things, and to enjoy all things big and small as they come … There are distinctive characteristics of good Chinese cooking. A primary feature reflected in the never-ending menu is the stubborn attempt to optimise a finite number yet surprisingly the imaginative range of ingredients. This is done by inventing any number of ways of preserving and extending them and then combining them in the different sequences, colors, textures, flavors, fragrances, and so on. Use a little bit of the more pricey ingredients to flavor a lot of the more common ones. Take advantage of seasonableness. Prepare the food to provide maximum surface area and cook it so as to sear in the nutrients while minimising the expenditure of fuel.

Importantly, getting the most out of your ingredients means keeping the garbage can empty. This effort at maximisation is pursued with minimum wastage.

Part of getting the most out of your ingredients in the life-experience has to do with deference to detail. Understanding things in their relationship to the process as a whole enables one to anticipate a developing situation while it is still embryonic. By responding to circumstances while they are inchoate, one is able to coordinate them both positively and negatively to the best effect.

64. Minor Changes, Major Consequences

At rest
is easy to hold;
yet to occur
is easy to plan.
Brittle is easy to break;
fine is easy to scatter.

Create conditions
for things to happen;
create order
before chaos gets underway.

A tree too big to embrace
is born from a slender shoot;
a nine-story tower
rises from a pile of earth;
a thousand-mile journey
begins with a single step.

Act and you ruin it.
Control and you lose it.
Since skilled leaders act without coercion
they avoid ruining it.
Since skilled leaders avoid controlling
they avoid losing it.

People often fail
when success is near.
So, proceed as carefully at the end
as at the beginning
to avoid failure.

Therefore, skilled leaders
desire without objects;
avoid prizing rare goods;
learn to unlearn;
return to what others overlooked;
help self-organisation by avoiding to act.

The capacity to see where a situation has come from and to anticipate where it is going — precludes the habit of resolving the fluid process of experience into isolated “things” and discourages the one-sided and exclusive judgments that come with it … A detailed understanding of the minutia within situations enables one to encourage or discourage processual fluctuations in their inchoate phase before they evolve into the overwhelming force of circumstances … It is salutary to understand that each major event has a modest beginning, that minor changes can have cascading consequences, and that the devil and the angels, too, are in the details.

The action certainly takes place but upstream, and it happens so far upstream that it is not noticed … The earlier one intervenes, upstream, the less one needs to act.

Instead of “daring to act”, the thing to do is to “help the spontaneous development of all the existing elements”, in other words, to assist whatever happens naturally.

The favourite example of this is the growth of plants. One must neither pull on plants to hasten their growth (an image of direct action), nor must one fail to hoe the earth around them so as to encourage their growth (by creating favourable conditions for it). You cannot force a plant to grow by means of coercion, but neither should you neglect it. What you should do is liberate it from whatever might impede its development. You must allow it to grow. Such tactics are equally effective at the level of politics. Skilled leaders eliminate constraints and exclusions, makes it possible for all that exists to develop as suits it … they act in such a way that things can happen of their own accord. Even if the doing becomes minimal, so discreet as to be hardly discernible, allowing things to happen constitutes active involvement.

65. Attaining Great Flow

In ancient times, skilled leaders following the ultimate purpose
avoided enlightening people
and left them dull.

People are hard to lead
when they are very clever.

Therefore, leading with cleverness
leads to rebellion.
Avoiding leading with cleverness
brings success.
Knowing this is understanding the enduring patterns.

Understanding the enduring pattern is the ultimate effectiveness.

Ultimate effectiveness goes deep and far

it returns with things to their source,
reaching great flow.

What Lao Tzu means by “left them dull” is restoring people to their original nature, to simple calm and sincerity, so that they return to a state of mind unrestricted by prejudice and value judgements.

66. Going Lower

Rivers and seas rule a hundred valleys
because they go lower.
So, they are the masters of the hundred valleys.

Therefore, those who wish to be above
speak as if they are below;
those who wish to lead
speak as if they are behind.

In this way skilled leaders
dwell above
and avoid burdening people;
dwell in front
and avoid hindering people.

Therefore the whole world
delights in promoting them tirelessly.

Since skilled leaders strive without contending,
no one can contend with them.

Far from being merely passive players buffeted about in the emerging order, both skilled leaders and seas actively coordinate the massive quantum of energy that flows into them from their constituents and maximise its circulation to the advantage of all. Because such coordination benefits all equally, the streams and the common people defer happily to their coordinators. What distinguishes the contribution of both the waterways and the skilled leaders is that they are able to be as effective as they are because they use accommodation rather than coercion as the basis for organising their worlds.

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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