“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”- Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu is believed to have lived in ancient China around 6th century BC.
Exact details of who Lao Tzu was and when he lived have been a topic of debate among historians.
Some even believe that Lao Tzu was not a single person and was the synthesis of many wise people of the time.
Even though the identity of Lao Tzu may not be clear, the legendary work Tao Te Ching has been illuminating the paths of millions over the centuries.
Considered one of the most profound pieces of wisdom ever written, the Tao Te Ching is a short work of 81 chapters. The Tao Te Ching is Translated as “The Classic way,” or simply “The Way.” It would be an understatement to say that it is full of timeless tips for living that are relevant even today.
In this post, we begin scratching the surface of Lao Tzu’s great work. I have been deeply influenced by Lao Tzu over the years and this post is my profound gratitude for his wisdom and guidance.
This is Part-1 of the 2-part series on the wisdom of Lao Tzu.
Let us begin!
1. Knowing Who You Are And How To Become Truly Rich
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.”― Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu emphasizes the importance of understanding the self for mastery. Often, we may use most of our time and energy for knowing the without or the external. We delegate a small amount of time for the within or personal enrichment practices.
And when the demand of our busy life increases, the first thing to go out of the window is our practice.
That is the reason why keeping up with resolutions is so difficult. When we hit a bump in the road in the form of setbacks, it becomes difficult to sustain a personal practice that enriches us.
Lao Tzu wisely says that true power comes from mastering the self. Many people are on a quest of mastering others and attempting to gain personal power.
In my opinion, we can begin to gain personal power by:
- Understanding the self better. Ask what makes you tick? What do you love to do and what are your deepest wishes?
- Understand your strengths and your weaknesses.
- Scheduling in contemplative time.
- Setting up structures and practices that support personal development.
- Taking the time to truly know what you want in your life and not be directed by the schemes of others.
When you have the realization that you have enough in life and having more is not going to make you richer or more powerful, you set yourself free.
You become free of external limitations and expectations and begin the journey inwards.
You become truly abundant and rich when you feel sufficient in what you are and what you have.
From that space of personal power, you can move freely in the world.
2. Seek To Listen And Understand And Not Jump In To Speak
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”― Lao Tzu
I believe that Lao Tzu nailed the problem with this piece of eternal wisdom. One can misinterpret this as the silent being wiser than those who speak a lot.
I believe that interpretation is not what Lao Tzu was talking about.
When you make a commitment to learning and understand, you will not always jump in to speak out what you know.
If you are like me, you have had the following scenario before.
In the past, I have been overly enthusiastic to inject my point of view on the subject of discussion. I would jump in to speak out my mind.
I realized that many people consistently jump in to give their own opinions. They do not wait long enough to hear the other points of view.
This reflects a basic impatience. When we speak more and listen less, we miss out on important realizations and learning.
I realized that people feel a lot more validated when I gave them the time to express themselves.
People feel validated when we really listen to what they have to say.
When Lao Tzu says that “those who speak do not know,” I believe he is referring to overspeaking and not seeking to understand.
Instead, take the time to listen and respond after internalizing the different points of view.
“One who is too insistent on his own views, finds few to agree with him.” – Lao Tzu
3. Take A Page Out Of Nature’s Manual and Slow Down
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” – Lao Tzu
Being busy and stressed out have become the default setting of the recent times. We hesitate to relax. We hesitate to be slow, steady and methodical.
We are afraid that if we are not hurrying along, we will be called an underachiever.
Society glorifies the busy, latte-chugging and multitasking culture.
But look at nature. In nature, everything happens in its own correct time.
The flowers bloom according to the season and the weather.
The butterfly takes its own time to metamorphose into the beautiful form that it has become.
Yet, we hurry and expect things to happen at a pace faster than what is natural. Much like a well-aged wine, things take their time to mature and come to their final form.
What can you do about this?
- Realize that hurrying does not do much.
- Become attuned with a natural pace that works for you.
- Instead of rushing from point A to point B, savor the movement and the journey. Walk slower and with more purpose and meaning.
- Become more patient with yourself and with others.
- Understand that things will happen in their own time and things will get accomplished.
- Just keep moving forward.
“The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”― Lao Tzu
4. Aim For Personal Excellence
“He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty” – Lao Tzu
Often, we are in the process of mastering and conquering others. We want to appear as a great leader. We want to become the best and climb the ladder of life, corporate or otherwise.
We try our best to become perfect and gain strength by our conquests.
But as Lao Tzu so wisely points out, we get strong by conquest, but we become mighty by conquering the self.
What is the meaning of conquering the self?
- Understanding oneself.
- Reaching out for personal excellence.
- Becoming aware of personal strengths and weaknesses that can blind sight us.
- Knowing when to go ahead and when to change direction.
- Understanding that you are the biggest obstacle to your personal success and not others.
5. Change is Inevitable
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” – Lao Tzu
One of the things that scare us is change. We are afraid of becoming something that we will not recognize. We are afraid of relinquishing control and power.
We are aware that things change but still we are hesitant of change. We try to clutch on to whatever we can grasp of our life.
Nature operates on the principles and cycles of change, of life and old age and then passing away.
When we look our eventual mortality straight in the face, transcend the fear and come to terms with it, we are setting the self free.
As Lao Tzu says, when we lose the fear of eventual death and the death of the current through change, we are free to achieve things.
In the face of change, we learn the only way is to let go.
When we confront our eventual passing away, the fear of trying something new, progress and success look more achievable.
It becomes a matter of perspective.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”- Lao Tzu
6. Embrace Chaos and Uncertainty
“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”― Lao Tzu
One of the laws of thermodynamics in physics says that everything is moving towards entropy or disorder. It takes energy input to maintain things and bring order from that chaos.
If you expect your life in a neatly organized form, as I have so many times, you will become disappointed.
Why is that?
- Life can become messy.
- Success is not a straight road but beset with setbacks.
- Creativity is not neat and systematic. Instead, it can be messy and difficult.
- The truth might be difficult to digest, but it is better that the untruth.
- People who give you honest feedback may sound rude to you. But they are better for you than those who wrap their uncaring attitude in beautiful words.
- Things can and often are more difficult than we expect them to be.
Let go of how you expect words and your truth to be packaged. From that perspective, you can learn from every disappointment and failure. You come to peace with both sides of the story.
7. Be Simply Yourself, Ditch the Rat Race And Comparison
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”― Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu says that you should be you and not try to be someone else for optimal respect. This is wonderful advice from the ancient sage.
When we face a difficult situation, we jump into one of two modes. We either compare the self and feel guilty and shame for our situation.
Or we become fiercely competitive to overtake the other in a fit of righteous anger.
Both the strategies create problems for us. We can never measure up to others if we feel badly of the self.
And competing to overtake others to look good is entering the rat race with no end in sight. It does not take into account what we need for our progress and success.
We need to realize that we are unique. Instead of comparing and competing, we need to be developing our unique strengths and preferences.
But it is human to enter the compare, contrast and compete game. If we become aware of the folly of excessive focus on competition or comparison, we reclaim a lot of time and energy.
Now we can focus on developing what is important to us and suitable for us.
8. Letting Go Instead Of Trying And Trying: The Lao Tzu Way
“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.”- Lao Tzu
I have been there before. Perhaps you have been there before too.
Things were not working out and you spin your wheels.
Then still nothing happens and you dig in your heels deeper into the problem.
You do what you are conditioned to do. You work harder and longer hours on the same problems.
But Lao Tzu says that it may be time to let it go and allow the current state without trying any further. This seems like a huge contradiction to what we believe about persistence.
“To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go.”-Lao Tzu
What is letting go?
- Working less.
- Taking care of the self and becoming more compassionate.
- Disengaging from one way of doing things.
- Looking at things from a different perspective.
- Giving space and expansiveness to allow different ideas and methods.
- Allowing the universe and your creative mind to incubate on the problem. Letting go instead of reworking it one more time.
- Looking at the big picture and focusing out to look at the forest. Zoom out of focusing on the small details or the trees.
“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” – Lao Tzu
9. Realize The Potential In You And In Others
“To see things in the seed, that is genius.” – Lao Tzu
Many of us do not realize what we can become because it seems so far out in the future. Remember the proverb that there is the promise of an oak tree and an entire forest in a single acorn seed.
Like the potential of the acorn, Lao Tzu encourages us to look at the potential in things.
Realize that you are more than what you think you are.
All the work you are putting in now allows you to become great potential in the future.
But in the present moment it may not feel like that. It may feel like nothing is happening and things are moving along too slowly.
- Take a deep breath when you begin doubting the self and see the potential in the seed.
- See what can become of the seed in a year, in 5 years and 10 years if you continue watering the seed of your dream.
- Continue recognizing, nurturing and believing that the potential of the seed.
The story that speaks to the potential of a seed is the one of entrepreneur Elon Musk of Tesla motors. There were many setbacks in the history of Tesla motors that was founded in 2003 by silicon valley engineers.
By 2008, Tesla motors had run into troubled waters and was on the brink of financial bankruptcy.
It finally came upon the founder Elon Musk to fund a huge chunk of keeping the risky startup afloat out of his personal funds.
These funds were part of the buyout that Musk received for Paypal and other companies that he had helped co-found.
Musk decided to go ahead and fund the seed of potential of Tesla Motors. He saw greatness in the mission and the purpose of the company. Musk used up his last 20 million to save the company and save it from financial ruin. The rest, as they say, is history.
10. Begin Moving
“An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.”- Lao Tzu
One of the biggest challenges of life and success is simply getting started and then sticking with it. Often we have many excuses for why we should not begin moving yet.
- There is not enough time.
- There is not enough money.
- I am too old or too young or you fill in the blank.
- I am not intelligent enough.
- How will I sustain myself?
- We are not good enough.
But as Lao Tzu says, the dozing oz does less than a little any on the move.
“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”- Lao Tzu
This is the end of part-1. Let me know in the comments below if this post resonated with you.