The Art of Living: We Did It Ourselves

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 14–19

Erik Schön
Dec 27, 2020 · 4 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)

14. Beyond Grasping

Lao Tzu

Looking without seeing,
it is too subtle.
Listening without hearing,
it is too faint.
Groping without touching,
it is too elusive.

These three are beyond grasping.
Therefore they become one.

Rising,
it is beyond brightness;
setting,
it is beyond darkness;
dimly visible,
defying labelling;
moving everything back to where there is nothing;
a formless setup.

Following it, unable to see its back;
meeting it, unable to see its front.

Hold tightly onto ultimate purpose:
to master the present;
to understand the source of everything;
this is called the record of ultimate purpose.

Ames & Hall

Understanding how experience unfolds not only enables one to locate the human life within this process, but also is instructive as to how to optimise this opportunity

15. Beyond Knowing

Lao Tzu

The ancients who followed ultimate purpose:
subtle and mysterious, dark and penetrating,
deep beyond knowing.

Deep beyond knowing, they can only be described thus:
cautious, like crossing a winter stream;
hesitant, like respecting one’s neighbours;
polite, like a guest;
yielding, like ice about to melt;
blank, like uncarved wood;
open, like a valley;
mixing freely, like muddy water.

Calm the muddy water, it becomes clear.
Move the inert, it comes to life.

Those who prize ultimate purpose, avoid fullness.
Because they avoid fullness,
they remain hidden and unfinished.

Ames & Hall

The road is always under construction, and the hands at work are many.

16. Return To the Roots

Lao Tzu

Attain complete emptiness,
keep the balance.

Everything rises together,
witness the return.

Things grow and grow,
and all return to their roots;
returning to the roots gives balance.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
sensitivity.
Failing to understand the ordinary:
blindness courting disaster.

Understanding the ordinary:
mind-opening.

Mind-opening leads to compassion,
compassion to nobility,
nobility to universality,
universality to ultimate purpose.

Ultimate purpose endures.
Your body dies, free of danger.

Ames & Hall

The optimum posture of the heart-and-mind (心 xīn) is to achieve and sustain an emptiness and equilibrium that will enable it to take in the world as it is without imposing its own presuppositions upon it, and without allowing the world to cause it agitation … Accommodation, far from passive or weak, is the source of the fullness of strength and influence, timeliness and efficacy … Accommodation, inclusivity and tolerance are the most effective means of achieving a stable and enduring social, political, and cosmic order.

17. We Did It Ourselves

Lao Tzu

The most skilled leaders are present;
next: loved and praised;
next: feared;
last: despised.

Without credibility, there is lack of trust.

Be careful in judgements and avoid labelling.
With everything accomplished,
people say:
we did it ourselves.

Le Guin

The invisible leader, who gets things done in such a way that people think they did it themselves, isn’t one who manipulates others from behind the scenes; just the opposite. Again, it’s a matter of “doing without doing”: uncompetitive, unworried, trustful accomplishment, power that is not force. An example or analogy might be a very good teacher, or the truest voice in a group of singers.

Waley

It is by not believing others, by not trusting them that you turn them into liars. Similarly it is the “lack” of a quality in leaders which creates in the people every other fault and crime.

18. Ultimate Purpose Decaying

Lao Tzu

Ultimate purpose decaying:
conventional rules and righteousness appear.

Cleverness and wit arise:
hypocrisy appear.

Family relations forgotten:
filiality and affection arise.

The nation disordered:
loyalists come forth.

Ames & Hall

When the authentic way of being human is thriving in the world, the family-based natural morality of the community takes care of itself, enabling its members to flourish and prosper. It is only in a period of decadence and decline that philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in so doing, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalising an artificial alternative that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment. What was spontaneous natural feeling becomes external rules of conduct, where the invocation of moral rules as an alternative to the spontaneous expression of feeling is dehumanising.

19. Plain Silk and Uncarved Wood

Lao Tzu

Banish judgements, dare to unlearn:
people will gain a hundredfold.

Banish authoritative conduct, discard righteousness:
people will return to devotion and compassion

Banish cleverness, discard profit:
thieves disappear.

If these statements are still lacking,
look at plain silk, hold uncarved wood;
lessen self, diminish desire.

Le Guin

“Plain silk” and “uncarved wood” are images traditionally associated with the characters 素 (, simple, plain) and 樸 (, pure, honest).

Ames & Hall

By getting rid of a reliance upon an unnatural moral catechism, we can restore our pristine ethical sensibilities.

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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