There are two main approaches to life. The most common one is striving to conform to your culture’s ideals of how to live. This typically amounts to expecting yourself and others to conform to your culture’s code of ethics… religious, political, and what not. I call this approach ‘small conformity’.
Chapter 65 hints at the other, less common approach.
I interpret “great conformity” to mean matching whatever is naturally so — the way things actually are. As chapter 68 puts it, This is called matching of Nature’s ancient utmost. This usually amounts to rethinking perceptions until you reach impartiality and the sense of utter acceptance that conveys.
Each path has its own difficulty, perhaps equally difficult overall. However, our individual experience is where we live life. I’ve always felt frustrated when attempting to shoehorn my life into a supposedly ideal way to live. But boy did I try! When, in total failure, I finally gave up and began being just myself, life became simpler and a whole lot more gentle. Ironically, by giving up trying to be a good person, I actually became an honest “better” person. As chapter 38 notes, Superior virtue is not virtuous, and so has virtue. Inferior virtue never deviates from virtue and so is without virtue.
Looking back, I assume my journey here is an example of chapter 36’s, In desiring weakness, one must first strive. In desiring to let go, one must first begin. I expect letting life ‘just be’ goes totally against the survival instinct. We innately feel a need to take action and do something about perceived problems, i.e., any situation that stands in the way of what we desire (i.e., need + thought) or worry about (i.e., fear + thought) in life. We want change we can believe in! Such thinking—and thought in general—is the major difference between animals and humans, and the biological trait that cognitively disconnects us from nature. Therefore, Taoists say, Realizing I don’t know is better, not knowing this knowing is disease (chapter 71). “Disease” is the literal translation of the Chinese — how bluntly true!
Our preference for action makes us more inclined to ask how rather than to ask why. Surely, that accounts for many of the unintended consequences in which we find ourselves. Over time, I have found that initially pondering why leads to the more beneficial and effective how. This avoids putting the cart before the horse.
Now I’ll let the Tao Te Ching embellish on the two approaches, ‘small conformity’ and ‘great conformity’…
Chapter 80 flies in the face of humanity’s path-of-progress paradigm, if not evolution itself. Thus, unwinding our progress in order to realize chapter 80’s enable the people to again use the knotted rope is implausible. The computer, not to mention electricity, is here to stay. However, this call to simplicity helps keep perspective. Every gain we win comes at a cost, but the glitter of progress blinds us to those embedded costs… Later we wake up hung over wondering why. Rather than blame scapegoats, we need only look in the mirror to find who is responsible!
(1) From this post onward, I began using the more literal Tao Te Ching, Word for Word translation along with D.C. Lau’s translation.