I first came across a little pocket-size edition when I was barely out of my teens. It has to be said that some translations of the Tao Te Ching are a little trickier to understand than others. Part of the problem lies in the translation. Many of the original Chinese characters have multiple interpretations and meanings, so depending on the translator and their grasp of the teaching, it can get a little confusing. The edition I first read was both deeply intriguing and deeply baffling.
It did, however, ignite a flame and I spent years studying different translations and meditating upon the essence of the themes and ideas. I also tried, as best as I could, to find ways to actually live this ancient wisdom — to let these words somehow guide my life.
This isn’t the kind of stuff we’re taught in school. It seems counterintuitive and runs contrary to the ethos of our capitalistic, object-oriented society. But the most powerful teachings are often the most challenging. If a spiritual teacher is simply telling you what you want to hear then you’re not going to really get anywhere. Confirmation bias (seeking out those who simply reflect your existing belief paradigm) is a big problem in the world of spirituality — and, indeed, the world in general.
Lao Tzu, however, cuts to the chase. He has absolutely no pretensions and clearly isn’t afraid of challenging the status quo.
I get the impression he was probably quite badass in his own Sagely way.
Economical with his words, he presents his ideas with clarity and incisiveness.
The vision of the Tao Te Ching is staggering in its beauty. It completely upturns the way we see ourselves, the world and others while offering a wholly different way of living — one that’s based on wholeness, balance, harmony, and wondrous simplicity.
To celebrate the release of a new edition of my version and commentary of the Tao Te Ching , here are the 7 greatest life lessons I learned from Lao Tzu.
1. “The Tao does nothing, but nothing is left undone.”
This is perhaps my favourite quote from the Tao Te Ching. That simple little sentence hit me like a freight train, and changed my view of life forever.
But what does it actually mean?
Lao Tzu uses the word ‘Tao’ to refer to the totality of all things. It’s both the creative life force from which the universe arises and the essence of all that exists in it. You might think of it as both the cause and the effect — the intelligence behind life and the very substance of life.
And you know what?
It’s all doing itself!
Life is running this grand show all by itself.
Universes are born and die. Stars are formed from dust, blazing brightly, providing light and life to all living beings, all of whom flicker on and off throughout eternity like fireflies. The dance of creation — of birth, expansion, decay, and death — happens quite by itself, like a vast cosmic program playing itself out across eternity — and it all happens with absolute effortlessness!
Life simply lives itself. There’s no notion of ‘doership’ involved. The Earth doesn’t have to get stressed about the momentous task of revolving around the sun. A person certainly would. So much pressure! But it just happens. Similarly, rivers don’t stop to ponder their long journey back to the sea and fret about whether they’ll ever actually made it. Again, it just happens.
All things, when unobstructed, simply follow their own nature; each a thread in the immense tapestry of existence.
The only species with ideas to the contrary are human beings.
We think we somehow have to do life. We have this terrible burden of trying to make life work and getting things to match up to how we think they should be. My spiritual teacher, James Swartz, once said, “It’s not the doing that’s so exhausting, it’s the notion of doership”. It’s the idea that I’m somehow responsible for making all this work.
I’m not. You’re not, either. The human mind, in all its wondrous yet buggy glory, simply thinks it is.
For me, the number one lesson of the Tao Te Ching is to let go of this compulsion to continually try to control and manipulate reality.
Life will carry us if we let it. There’s a deeper intelligence inherent in everything; an innate balance and flow that, contrary to what we might think, is part of a vast, underlying perfection.
Life has been at this for a very long time. It knows what it’s doing. We human beings show up at the last minute and somehow think we’re responsible for running the entire show. It’s quite funny actually.
This doesn’t mean we should never take action because our action is part of the universe in motion. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “the wise see action in inaction and inaction in action”. But we’re personally not responsible for making the world turn or keeping the cosmos in motion. You can guarantee it’ll be here for aeons after all trace of the human race has vanished.
So why don’t we just relax, get with the flow and enjoy the show?
2. Think you can improve the universe? I’d like to see you try!
Well, actually I wouldn’t. It’d be a mess. (No offence).
In verse 29, Lao Tzu tells us that if we think we can control the universe and somehow improve it, we’re deluded. All we’d probably do would be to create universal disaster!
“To tamper with it is to spoil it,” he says. “To grasp it is to lose it.”
We all tend to have a pretty clear idea of how we think life should be and how we should be.
But our notions of ‘should’ are more often than not based upon ignorance.
Now, no one likes to think of themselves as ignorant. But it’s a fact that as individuals, we only ever have access to limited information. At any given time, we can only see a very small part of the overall picture. What we DO know will always be outweighed by what we DON’T know. Humans don’t like to readily acknowledge that. As such, most people are highly ignorant of just how ignorant they are.
In light of this humbling realisation, how can we say with any certainty how things should be?
Life is a chain of cause and effect dating back to the very origin of the universe. As Carl Sagan once said, “in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the entire universe”. Things are as they are because of everything that’s come before.
We also never know how things are going to turn out. The thing I desperately want today is often the thing that brings me misery tomorrow. And quite often good things come out of seemingly ‘bad’ things. That’s why the symbol of yin and yang is intimately associated with Taoism. Good and bad, light and dark, are inseparably intertwined.
As I write in my commentary on Verse 2, the Sage “surrenders to the flow of life, allowing things to happen as they will, opening himself to the perfection in each moment. That perfection is sometimes outwardly apparent, but just as often hidden beneath seeming adversity.”
3. Bend with the wind and flow like water
What we resist doesn’t just persist, it can also break us.
Our resistance to life can often be our undoing.
Something doesn’t go as we wanted it, and the mind gets locked into a vicious and self-destructive spiral of negativity. We suffer, and we generally make those around us suffer too.
The fact is, whatever happened happened, and no amount of complaining and tantrum-throwing will change that.
Arguing with reality causes pain, and it’s an argument we’ll never win. Reality will kick our ass, every single time.
We tend to think of resistance as being a sign of strength, so the concept of nonresistance is a difficult concept for many people to understand.
But Lao Tzu explains it perfectly in Verse 76:
“Stiffness is a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life. An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.”
Like the tree, we have to bend with life. If we don’t, our own rigidity will break us.
Life is a dance; a succession of experience — both good and bad, pleasurable and painful, happy and sad. There’s no changing that. All we can do is change the way we respond to it.
By accepting that this is simply the nature of reality, we learn to flow with life.
We let the wind blow when it wants to. We let our branches bend and thus ‘yield to overcome’ (a Taoist principle prevalent in many martial arts). It always pays to remember that every experience is only temporary. Even nature with all its might can’t create a storm that will last forever.
Ever fascinated by the elements, Lao Tzu also uses water as a metaphor for the Tao.
Although the softest and most yielding of substances, water is capable of dissolving even the hardest and most rigid of things.
Think about it. What else can literally dissolve mountains and carve great canyons?
Rock may seem harder and more enduring, but it’s water that shapes our very landscape, as well as providing essential life-giving properties for all beings.
Be like water, Lao Tzu says. Flow with ease, knowing that we’re always on a return journey to our source. Obstacles may come our way, but when they do, we simply manoeuvre around them, just as water flows around rocks.
Flow with ease, knowing that we’re always on a return journey to our source. Obstacles may come our way, but when they do, we simply manoeuvre around them, just as water flows around rocks.
Obstacles may come our way, but when they do, we simply manoeuvre around them, as water flows around rocks.
Why be a ‘rock person’ when you can be a ‘water person’? The flexible will always outlive the rigid.
4. Empty yourself
So much of our life experience is based around trying to fill ourselves up. Our days are full of ceaseless activity and our minds are always ticking away twenty to the dozen. We’re driven by the need to acquire and accumulate, but Lao Tzu, perhaps the original contrarian, suggests we instead adopt a practise of daily diminishing.
That doesn’t sound great, does it? The very word ‘diminish’ has a negative connotation. This one is a hard sell, I admit. But Lao Tzu warns that “we often gain by losing and lose by gaining” and that “success can be as dangerous as failure”.
Let’s be objective. The more we have, the more we have to worry about, because the more we have to lose.
We can spend months or years chasing after our dream job or the perfect relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But, it’s an unavoidable fact that even when we attain the ideal job or relationship, our joy will probably be quite short-lived. Why? Because, once gained, we then have to worry about maintaining it! We often find that maintaining the objects of our acquisition can be an even greater challenge than acquiring them. That’s why the more we have, the more we have to stress about. Life can be a little perverse, can’t it?
That’s why Lao Tzu suggests we “empty ourselves”. By daily diminishing, we simply let go of all the things we are holding onto which we think we need, including old thoughts, beliefs and habits that no longer serve us. It doesn’t mean giving away all our possessions and heading off to live in a cave. It simply means letting go of our mental tendency to cling to things.
It means, chill, bro.
Our problems pretty much just exist as thoughts in our mind. In other words, for the problem to be, we need to be thinking about it. If our attention moves elsewhere, the problem ceases to exist until we next think about it.
Lao Tzu’s simple, no-nonsense solution?
“Renounce ceaseless thinking and your problems will end.”
This is echoed throughout the text:
“Tame your restless mind until you attain perfect harmony”.
“If you can empty your mind of thoughts, your heart will know the tranquility of peace.”
Of course, to empty the mind of thoughts is be like trying to empty the ocean of water.
Fortunately, that’s not necessary.
What we need to do is simply cease getting pulled in by our thoughts. We allow them to come and go, and don’t get too swept away by them. Echoing his earlier advice, we bend with the wind and flow like water.
Meditation is an excellent practise in this regard. Even just a few minutes a day will, over time, rewire the brain, enabling us to take a more objective view of the content of our mind.
It also opens us up to the astonishing and liberating realisation that we are not actually the content of our mind.
We are that which witnesses the mind — ever-present, pure, changeless awareness.
This is the essence of Self-knowledge and is the gateway to freedom.
5. “The more you care about other people’s approval, the more you become their prisoner.”
This quote from verse 9 is self-explanatory, but it’s been a huge lesson in my life.
As social beings, we’re hard-wired to care about other people’s opinions. We desperately want to fit in with the tribe. Historically, to be cast out of the tribe meant certain death. But we can no longer trade our authenticity and uniqueness as human beings just for a tacit pat on the back and an assurance that we’re ‘okay’.
It’s time to step up, speak up, and live boldly and bravely in accord with our own nature and calling. We have to live our dharma, regardless of what anyone says.
The need to always have the approval of others can be a paralysing curse. It’s also hollow and endlessly frustrating, because people’s opinions are notoriously fickle. Someone might think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread one day, and then the next day barely acknowledge your existence. It’s never personal anyway. People are always simply projecting their own conditioning and ignorance. What they think of you often reveals a great deal more about them and their psychology than it does about you.
This isn’t justification to become a sociopath, however. It’s simply a recognition that chasing after the good opinion of others is a futile and totally self-defeating endeavour.
The only approval you should really be worried about is your own.
Follow your heart, do your best, and let other people think what they think — because they will anyway.
6. Don’t try to rush things to completion.
Timing is everything in life. Human beings are quite big on instant gratification. We want things as we want them, when we want them. But things take time and the circumstances have to be right for anything to happen. A seed won’t grow into a tree overnight. It can’t be forced. If we reach into the soil and try to ‘force’ it to germinate, we’ll actually just destroy it altogether.
As Lao Tzu says in Verse 64:
“Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. By forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.”
I feel that’s what happened with my novel The Key of Alanar. The edition that was first published was written during a difficult time in my life. Suffering not only a bad breakup but a crisis of self-doubt, I really struggled, yet I had to release it by a certain date, so I forced it to completion.
Although utterly in love with the book, when I looked back I felt I hadn’t done it the justice it deserved. That was a real gut-wrenching feeling. But, having got myself to a much better place, I simply shrugged, got my head down, and spent several months re-writing it.
Looking back now, it wasn’t fully ready before — maybe because I wasn’t fully ready to write it. But second time around, I was, and the brand new revised edition was just published a couple of weeks ago. I’m extremely happy with it! I guess the time was finally right. I learned a lot from that experience. In future, I’ll only create and release work on my own terms and as and when it is truly ready.
I believe this ties in with the Taoist concept of wu wei, or ‘effortless action’.
When our hearts and minds are in alignment with the Tao, when we’re in the full flow of life, instead of trying to force things, we simply tune into the situation and allow the right action to emerge almost spontaneously.
That’s how the creative mind truly works anyway — not by force, but by inspiration and insight.
Again, “the Tao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.”
7. “The world is won by those who let it go.”
This quote is from one translation of verse 48. It highlights the ‘water’ approach of the Tao Te Ching (flow) as opposed to the ‘fire’ approach of modern life (force).
To ‘win the world’ means to find our place in it; to find fulfilment and to contribute to the whole, in alignment with our own nature, talents, and skills. That’s a slightly more holistic take on life than our culture’s general mode of going out there with our guns blazing, trying to compete, conquer, and come out victorious to the detriment of others. Look at big business. Look at our politicians. They might seem to have ‘won the world’, but have they truly? What are the fruits of their actions? Do they embody what Lao Tzu calls “the three jewels” of compassion, moderation, and humility? Is the world benefitted by such ‘winners’? Or does the world actually lose?
I believe we ‘win the world’ by stop trying to win.
Instead of chasing certain results, which are usually driven by ego and insecurity (and which are never really under our control anyway), we simply do what we love as a way of giving something back to the world.
“When you realise there is nothing lacking,” Lao Tzu says, “the whole world belongs to you. When you realise you have enough, you are truly rich.”
What we let go is our ambition, greed, and the gratuitous need for more.
We actually already have all that we need. Life gave us everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. Only a miser would then try to extract more from it, without any thought to giving something back.
Gratitude fosters compassion, and compassion is the one thing the world needs more of.
When action is driven by compassion, everybody wins.
In the final verse, Lao Tzu says:
“The Sage does not accumulate anything, but gives everything to others. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is. The Sage acts for the good of all, opposing himself to no one.”
We need Sages like this! Such a mindset would change the world overnight. We save the world not by conquering it, or trying to come out on top, but by giving something back to it.
Life lives life effortlessly, and life gives to life effortlessly. So too can we.