I have always been a ‘more is better‘ kind of person. I see that trait in most others so I figure I am normal. However, I have always pushed the ‘more’ to the limit, often to the breaking point. So, I imagine in this regard I am less normal. Becoming a ‘lao tzu’ myself (老子 = old person, father), age and aching bones have led me to approach things a little differently, and happily, with some unexpectedly good results.
A key phrase from chapter 48 helps keep me turning back. It goes like this: “One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone “. I know that sounds silly on the face of it. Given the ‘Just Do It‘ culture in which we live, it is essential to read between the lines.
The reason ‘more is better’ drives me so much is that I have always viscerally felt that approach would give me what I need quickly. I say viscerally felt because it has been a subconscious innate drive for most of my life. Only after hitting the wall, so to speak, did I begin to examine deeply that side of my nature. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
‘More is better’ is about quantity. We have a common and innate expectation that if we do something more, we will be better off (1). That means more practice, more study, more work, more money, more charity, more eating healthy, more exercise, more friends, more fame, more sex, more justice, more peace, etc. I have set up and laid aside most of these things except for more time, perhaps. Time, being such an ephemeral thing, takes a moment to moment active knowing—so far anyway. Of course, death will close the final chapter.
Another ideal has attracted attention in recent times: ‘less is more’. This 19th century proverbial phrase parallels that old (2500 BC) Chinese saying above (2), and rings true for many a stressed out person now-a-days.
‘Less is more’ is about quality, in my view. The most amazing thing I have found is that attention to quality in what I do is so much more effective, practically and ‘spiritually’, than my gut impulses ever led me to feel. Indeed, one minute in quality equals hours in quantity. To this day, I must maintain a constant background awareness of this life truth: Less is really and truly more.
In summary: Really believing that ‘less is more’ can deliver what no amount of doing more ever can. Of course, nothing is ever that easy is it! The hitch here is having sufficient faith to influence daily actions. Experience is the key. All you need do is prove to yourself, through personal experience, that ‘less truly is more’, that quality trumps quantity.
(1) If we were living in the wild like other animals that drive would often turn out to be true. Thanks to civilization, we live more comfortable and secure lives than animals in the wild. However, we are a biologically still an animal, which means we have a lot more energy to spend than most civilized circumstances demand. The result: we easily overdo action by pursuing a path of ‘more is better’ in whatever activity we feel important.
(2) This translation stays closer to the literal Chinese of chapter 48. The commentary that accompanies this considers it from a slightly different angle as well.