Not to honour men of worth will keep the people from contention; not to value
goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft; not to display what
is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind.
The Tao Te Ching begins by telling me to “rid myself of desires”, yet also to, “always allow myself to have desires”[see ch. 1]. This fits well with “something and nothing produce each other”[see ch. 2], i.e., desire and non-desire must also produce each other. The key for me is having these in balance. This is necessary to “keep me from being unsettled of mind”. But I always seem to have a surplus of “desire”—even in my “desire” to rid myself of desire.
Living as simple a life as possible cuts down on “honoring men of worth”, “valuing goods which are hard to come” and “displaying what is desirable”. This “keeps me from being unsettled of mind”. But, when I’m “settled of mind”, I soon get restless. I think the biology is at work here—after all, if I were able to feel “settled” easily, I would struggle less for survival. I can get around this somewhat by “valuing”, “honoring”, and “desiring” the way. As Jesus said, ‘lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.
I can see two meanings for: “not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft”. The obvious one is that if society didn’t “value” one thing over any other thing, no one would be motivated to steal. Who steals garbage for example? But, more personally, the less I “value goods”, the less I’ll feel robbed when someone takes my stuff. I only experience being robbed if I’m holding on to the object being taken from me.
Plants take water to live. Animals take plants to live. People take animals to live. Life would be impossible without taking. How is “theft” different from taking? I can’t see any true difference; “theft” is only what I experience when circumstances take away that to which I “value” and which is “hard to come by”. For example, I don’t mind you breathing (taking) the air in my house, even though I “value” it.
What I “value” reflects what I deem my life to be worth. To paraphrase the first verse: “the life that can be named is not the constant life”. When I let go of worldly “value”, I move closer to an eternal “constant” life,… or is it the other way around? Probably. I do notice that the more I sense the eternal, the easier it is to let go of worldy “values”. In the meantime, it helps to “block the openings” and “shut the doors” [see ch. 52].
Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their
bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them
innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never
dare to act.
This chapter, and numerous others to follow, imply a down-side to “desire”. On the other hand, no mention is ever made of there being a problem with “having too few desires”!
What a contrast this is from our modern consumer culture! We cherish our “knowledge”, indulge our “desire”, and praise “clever” action. Progress and growth are virtues we have come to base a meaningful life on. I think of this last 10,000 years of human history as the necessary first half of the cycle: “if you would have a thing laid aside, you must first set it up” [see ch. 36].
I see the extremists, both left and right, taking on this paternalistic role. They see themselves as “sage” like in their understanding, but their compulsive need to “take action” gives them away. How does one “ensure that the clever never dare to act” and yet “do that which consists in taking no action”? I only know this to be possible in “governing” myself. Then, in a small way, as I “govern” myself with wisdom I teach others by this example, just as others have taught me. The “sage” in each of us helps in the “governing” of all of us.
“Governing the people” is only necessary in a social group. Here, co-operation is essential for two or more people to get along. Strong “wills, desires”, and “cleverness” power competition and anarchy which make social cohesion difficult. The same is true in the co-existence between the various sides to my personal life. I suffer the most inner chaos when “will, desire”, and “cleverness” take over. Only by surrendering these forces do I experience real peace.
Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.
Getting my life in “order” is the main motivation behind “action”. When I sense something imperfect I act to set it right. Of course, this sensation of imperfection isn’t telling me about the external reality of a situation; it’s telling me about myself, and my relationship to the way. Thus, the more I tune into the natural “order” of things, the more I “do that which consists in taking no action”.
The real lesson for me “in taking no action, and order will prevail” is that “action” never really achieves its ideal of final resolution. “Action” begets “action”, which parallels the old saying…’you can’t fight fire with fire’. This helps me to expect less, in the way of results, from my actions, and this “keeps me from being unsettled of mind”.
“Action” like “desire” is a never ending cycle. Each “desire” resolved returns me to the beginning, from which another “desire” springs. There is much movement without going anywhere. And that’s okay. It’s like breathing; all is well as long as I don’t expect each breath to get me some place special.
“Taking” is the key word here. When I live with more ‘giving’ “actions” than “taking actions”, “order” does “prevail”. ‘Giving’ “action” is doing what I ought to do, and requires emotional surrender. “Taking action” is doing what I want to do, and feeds on my passionate and compulsive emotions.
I can’t not “take action”. When the urges are great enough nothing can stop them, certainly not the words of this verse. But, it is very helpful to know this simple rule of nature. Then, when “order” isn’t “prevailing”, I’ll know why. Otherwise I’ll start looking for still more “action” to solve the problem.
“Taking no action” is like hanging off a cliff and clinging on to a branch. Clinging is the “action” I’m “taking”. And I’m doing so for dear life. If I let go, I’ll fall into the void below. Only when I feel some faith in that emptiness do I begin to let go; I begin to see safety in nothingness, and the void as peace. I need this inner sense of security first. Having that, I naturally let go and do more of that which “consists in taking no action”. Essentially, it is the fear of the void, death, which compels us to “take action”. And yet, the void is where I’ll spend eternity. Knowing the complementary nature of life and death—that these “these two are the same”[see ch. 1]—helps moderate (or at least want to moderate) my survival instinct to “act”.