Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win
the empire by not being meddlesome.
How do I know that it is like that? By means of this.
While there is a time to be crafty, it is wise to avoid having a need to be so—Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them; [see ch. 80].
Meddlesome ness is directly related to desire. The more compulsive my desire, the more meddlesome my action becomes. When my personal agenda (ideals and desires) are minimal my actions will naturally be straight forward, and my wars few and far between.
I know I’m meddlesome when I find myself pushing for an end result. There is a quality to desire. When it is a ‘pushing’, compulsive, impatient, force, it is deeply meddlesome and often destructive. When desire has a ‘pulling’, reluctant, patient quality, it becomes ‘duty’, and is the least destructive.
The more taboos there are in the empire
The poorer the people;
The more sharpened tools the people have
The more benighted the state;
The more skills the people have
The further novelties multiply;
The better known the laws and edicts
The more thieves and robbers there are.
I once thought of taboos as being most commonly found among simple traditional cultures, and so this didn’t seem to fit with our modern society with its skills, sharpened tools, law and edicts. I realize now that ‘political correctness’ is merely a form of taboo.
It is ironic how easy it is to overlook the long term consequences of our actions. On the face of it, skills, sharp tools and novelties appear to be progress. We are so lured by comfort and variety, that they become ends in themselves.
Laws and edicts appear when close relations between people break down. We lose the consensus style of dealing with each other. I guess this is an inevitable consequence of civilization. We then contrive codes of ethics which make anyone who falls outside such mores an outlaw. Ironically, the laws don’t really stop people, in the long run.
The more laws and edicts I establish in raising children, the more trouble we have. I found it more harmonious to have as few laws as possible. Edicts are a desperate attempt to substitute for a lack of mutual understanding and connection.
When someone takes from me, I feel it’s theft only if I cling to what they took. It is my desire which makes someone a thief. When people rummage through my dumpster I don’t regard them as robbers. My pain does not come from the thief that takes, it comes from my clinging. This clinging desire causes my suffering.
Hence the sage says,
I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves;
I prefer stillness and the people are rectified of themselves;
I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves;
I am free from desire and the people of themselves become simple like the
The prefer really stands out for me. The surrounding world is constantly affecting my senses, pulling me this way and that. The ensuing desires attract me here and repel me there. The only thing that stands in the way of this chaos is a deep inner preference for stillness. It is like having a desire not to desire. I really want stillness and the peace it brings, and this increases as the years go by, thankfully.
Not being meddlesome is one of the most helpful attitudes to hold fast to while raising children. One of the most powerful motives which underlie being meddlesome is the desire to protect others from making mistakes. I used to be much more meddlesome before I realized the value of mistakes and failure, i.e., folly and wisdom produce each other. I must fail before I can succeed and succeed before failure is possible. This ‘circle’ perspective must be the single most unique tenet of Taoism.
Not being meddlesome and taking no action doesn’t mean absolute physical passivity. Being free from desire is the key. Action reflects my personal agenda. If I am inwardly still, my actions will be wiser and less likely to result in unintended consequences (the main problem which is created through impulsive action and biased meddling.
It’s desire that makes things complicated, especially when the desires are in conflict. For example, when I try to do something and I’m not sure how to do it, I get overwhelmed when I expect things to go quicker or easier than is realistic. Only by going step by step, following the natural course of things and being as free from desire as possible, can things become simple like the uncarved block.
All my problems with other people stem from the desire I project on them. When others don’t live up to these expectations, life is complicated and frustrating. My path is simple—either I lower my expectations and reap greater contentment, or I cling to my expectations and suffer dissatisfaction the rest of my days. Mmmm, that’s a tough choice.