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Living With The Tao Te Ching - Verse 3


Verse 3


If you over-esteem great men,

people become powerless.

If you overvalue possessions,

people begin to steal.


The Master leads

by emptying people's minds

and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition

and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.


Practice not-doing,

and everything will fall into place.


 

What Is It All About?


If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

When we put somebody else on a pedestal, we demean ourselves in the process. We are suggesting that they have some quality that is better than what we have. Even if they do have certain attributes or skills that we don't possess, that doesn't mean they are better than us, it only makes them different to us. The world would be a very boring place if everyone was the same and so celebrating our differences would be a wonderful thing, if only that was what we used that uniqueness for. The problem is that most people use other peoples lives to compare against their own and then devalue themselves in the process. The writer Mark Twain described that process like this,

Comparison is the death of joy.

As a society we are obsessed with celebrities. We obsess about their lives, gawp at their lifestyles and imagine that they are living the dream. When we do this though we diminish our own lives; what we are saying is that what we have and who we are isn't enough. Thinking like this can only ever lead to envy, resentment and dissatisfaction. The opening lines of verse 3 describe this feeling as powerlessness.


In the same way, when we put too much importance on possessions, objects and things then we can develop this constant need to acquire. While the verse uses the phrase 'people begin to steal' - this doesn't just necessarily mean that people physically go and steal, although this is the reason that theft and burglary is so prevalent in our society, but it also refers to how we rob ourselves of joy and peace of mind when we focus on what we don't have rather than what we do have.

The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

The Master that is so often referred to in the Tao isn't some ethereal, perfect, monk-like entity

living an unattainable spiritual existence; The Master is you and me. The Master is the person who embodies the teachings of the Tao; they have lived pondered it, questioned it, ingested it, and now go out in the world living it's values. The Master is somebody who is living their Tao.


Earlier verses have already taught us that the Tao can't be spoken or named; that when we are free from desire we see the mystery beyond the physical and mental manifestations of the world and our minds; that we can live happily in a world of duality if we accept the paradox of opposites needing to exist for us to experience life as we do.


In this verse the Tao is showing us that emptying our minds and weakening our ambition is what we need to do in order to fill our cores and toughen our resolve. The mind can be a wonderful tool to use, but it's a cruel and terrible master. Ambition comes from the mind, it comes from thoughts. There is always a thought before there is ambition. The thought may be 'I need to achieve this' , 'I want to have this' or 'When I have got this I will be happy' - regardless of the exact thought the nature of ambition is always in an imagined future. We can never be happy in the future. I know that sounds negative, but what I mean is that the future doesn't exist in the way we think it does; happiness is something you are now, not something you can be in the future, especially if that happiness is dependent on attaining things or situations working out a particular way.


This is how The Master lives, and in living this way they teach others, without even 'trying' to assert that influence. The Master lets go of ambition, desire, craving, knowledge, and even of thinking, and so surrenders to the Tao, where it says,

and everything will fall into place.
 

How To Practically Apply Verse 3 In Ordinary Life


There are many aspects of Verse 3 that we can put into practice in our daily lives. We can become more aware of the moments when we look at other people's lives and their lifestyles with envy. We can feel those times when we compare ourselves to others and put ourselves down in the process. When we notice those moments it is a beautiful opportunity to remind ourselves of the Tao and bring ourselves back to this present moment. And with just a simple and non-judgemental awareness of the envy or dissatisfaction, we might also notice that it's grip on us lessens slightly.


Every moment where we catch ourselves with a thought that causes us to suffer in any way is an opportunity to bring ourselves back, to find the Tao, and regain our balance and perspective.


In allowing these thoughts to just be thoughts and by not judging them or always acting upon them, we begin to see that the ambition, desire and control that we believed was driving us onwards was actually the reason we had become so unhappy, so exhausted and so confused.


But how do you practice not-doing in a world where things need to constantly be done?


The washing won't do itself, I hear you say. Those emails won't answer themselves. The Tao isn't suggesting that we stop doing things, in fact it is leading us to the opposite, it is teaching us the way to true and effective action. It is getting us to look at the intention behind the action and behind all the doing and the busyness. When we attempt to do something because we are seeking acknowledgement, attention, money, power or glory then the action becomes a means to an end. Understandably, happiness eludes us - we would likely be too busy to enjoy the moment anyway, there's always something else to do. When we approach each moment of our lives with a clearer intention, that of being as present as we can be, with no agenda other than the doing itself, then according to the Tao 'everything will fall into place'.


There is a letting go that needs to take place. We are letting go of our control and the thoughts in our head that tell us - this needs to happen, then this, then this - in order for everything to be alright. Honestly, when has that ever brought us lasting peace of mind? When have we ever had enough control to feel happy? And even when it did, how long did it last? The Tao is effectively saying let go of the controlling mind and then you will find real control, the kind of control that being in the Tao brings.


There is nowhere that the Tao suggests dropping out of life, giving up work, walking away from your family and becoming a monk. All the Tao is saying that real true action comes from an effortless flow and energy that results from being in balance with your true nature; something that can never be achieved by the ego and it's constant need for desire, ambition and control.

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