It is easy to maintain a situation while it is still secure;
It is easy to deal with a situation before symptoms develop;
It is easy to break a thing when it is yet britle;
It is easy to dissolve a thing while it is yet minute.
Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in.
It’s obvious that It is easy to deal with a situation before symptoms develop. Why is it so difficult to do? Much of life seems to be reacting to circumstances. I let things go until the ‘straw breaks the camel’s back’ and then I deal with it.
It’s difficult to keep a thing in order before disorder sets in without going too far the other direction. If I get obsessive about keeping order, I over act, and allow no place for disorder. Order and disorder are complementary sides of nature. Finding the middle way is most challenging. It seems we favor one side or the other.
I see two main points to this chapter. The first verses speak of slowing way down and paying attention to the moment. The last ones speak of the single greatest impediment to this slowing down—desire, laying hold and daring to act. These survival based instincts often make it difficult to deal with life in a calm rational way. The irony is that these emotional forces easily thwart my long term survival. I get pulled into ideals (future) at the expense of the ‘real’ (present), which is really all I ever have.
A tree that can fill the span of a man’s arms
Grows from a downy tip.
A terrace nine stories high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one’s feet.
It’s easy to be intimidated by an ‘important’ goal. When I get attached to such goals, I see a chasm that lies between me and it, and it looms seemingly unattainable above me. Its ‘importance’ is directly related to how attached I am to it. Only by letting go of my attachment am I able to proceed, step by step, toward the goal. I hold the goal in mind, yet give it up emotionally.
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Therefore the sage, because he does nothing, never ruins anything;
and, because he does not lay hold of anything, loses nothing.
Laying hold doesn’t refer so much to what I actually have, but how emotionally attached I am to it. At various times in my life I’ve tried to free myself from this laying hold by getting rid of my material goods. It never works. It is a matter of attitude—of how I approach life.
Whenever I lay hold of perfection, for example, my awareness of im-perfection increases. The more I lay hold of the ideal of a perfect world, the more im-perfect the world appears. Thus, what I lay hold of becomes the source of my greatest sorrow. The looser my hold on life, the more I enjoy it.
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it is cosmic justice. This way of nature turns all expectations back on themselves. The winners lose, and the losers win. As Christ said ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’. This natural reality goes against my survival instinct so much, that it took years for me to begin to see its truth. And, indeed, looking around at society as a whole, few of us ever seem to get it.
The more I lay hold of the sunshine, the more miserable I feel when it rains. The more I lay hold of the rain, the more miserable I feel when its shines. Let go! This is the only way to contentment.
In their enterprises the people
Always ruin them when on the verge of success.
Be as careful at the end as at the beginning
And there will be no ruined enterprises.
I ruin (things) when on the verge of success when I lose my attentiveness to the moments of my life and get focused on a goal. I rush through the present to reach the future. The irony is that the future never comes. It’s always just beyond my reach; when I’m reaching, I lose the present. I trade my real life for an idealized one that lies just ahead.
Life itself is an enterprise. Being careful in each moment of my life, whether its a beginning, middle or end of any particular activity, helps me avoid living a ruined life.
Therefore the sage desires not to desire
And does not value goods which are hard to come by;
Learns to be without learning
And makes good the mistakes of the multitude
In order to help the myriad creatures to be natural
and to refrain from daring to act.
The difficulties that desire causes us is a fundamental issue in all faiths, with Buddhism addressing it most directly in the Four Noble Truths. Therefore even the sage treats some things as difficult [see ch. 63] must ultimately refer to desire. No wonder the sage desires not to desire.
Learns to be without learning parallels desires not to desire. Both desire and learning are central factors in survival. But, it is the instinct to survive, especially in its petty manifestations, that adds to my troubles. After all, survival is only temporary—we all die.
It’s not learning that gets in the way of my contentment. It’s the belief that learning will bring contentment! When my faith rests in learning, I never find contentment—there’s always more to learn. If I make attentiveness the focus of my life, I find contentment through an increasing sense of connection. And learning comes as a bonus.
Learning makes mountains out of nature’s molehills. Of course we regard this talent as that which makes humanity special and above ‘dumb’ animals. Seeing through this specie-centric illusion helps me learn to be without learning and be natural.
What is a mistake? To ‘miss take’ or take wrongly. Nature is a dynamic process flowing between ‘wrong takes’ and ‘right takes’, with neither being the preferred ‘take’. The bias I have toward ‘right take’ over ‘wrong take’ must originate in my survival instinct. But, I have only learned the ‘right takes’ by making mistakes. Mistakes are the building blocks of ‘right takes’. The urge to save others or myself from mistakes is essentially short sighted and foolish.
Much of my daring to act arises from my desire to either avoid or correct mistakes. When I view mistakes as part of the natural process I see them as good, and so feel less compelled to act. It becomes easier to let things follow their natural course.