6th Taoist Contemplation: Lao-Tse as Life Coach

Efficient people do one thing at a time. They work on one project, bring it to completion, then move on to the next task. In On Why Materialism Matters, I made the case that in nature we observe what I call the paradigm of emergence. Complex things emerge from simpler things.

Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism.  We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things.  We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.

This principle was also elaborated by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. All things in this way are composed of progressively smaller things. To build greatness, we must orchestrate the building of many small things in harmony with the great vision, inspired by it.

What this means is that progressively larger tasks can be best tackled as an amalgamation of smaller, focused projects and that, over the long term, if we persevere, these minute projects will unveil the great work of our lives. Therefore, a sage who understands the nature of things must keep in mind both short-term and long-term projects, and hold both small and large guiding visions.

Lao-Tse teaches means to achieve success in life along these lines when arguing for managing without meddling, and for attention to detail.

Plan difficult tasks through the simplest tasks
Achieve large tasks through the smallest tasks
The difficult tasks of the world
Must be handled through the simple tasks

The large tasks of the world
Must be handled through the small tasks
Therefore, sages never attempt great deeds all through life
Thus they can achieve greatness

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 63

The sage also invites us to think creatively of situations and strategically on when to act. Things achieve completion in their own time, and when one intervenes can be more crucial than how much force one intervenes with. Therefore, the sage who understands the wisdom of non-action minds the timing of his smaller tasks in view of the larger work, sowing the seeds for future harvest, and establishing the foundations for future construction. It is here that Lao-Tse pronounces his famous proverb, which is today paraphrased as: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.

Act on it when it has not yet begun
Treat it when it is not yet chaotic
A tree thick enough to embrace
Grows from the tiny sapling
A tower of nine levels
Starts from the dirt heap
A journey of a thousand miles
Begins beneath the feet

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64

Notice that this is incredibly practical advise. Here is a wisdom tradition that leads to success in all of our life projects.

The following verse deals with perseverence, which is of course always essential if we have a long-term project which requires many smaller tasks. We have to always keep in mind the larger guiding vision. We must continue being as careful and detail-oriented at the end of the large project (close to completion) as we were in early days of the great task.

People, in handling affairs
Often come close to completion and fail
If they are as careful in the end as the beginning
Then they would have no failure

Therefore, sages desire not to desire
They do not value goods that are hard to acquire
They learn to unlearn
To redeem the fault of the people
To assist the nature of all things
Without daring to meddle

These verses echo Epicurean teachings on how nature has made the things that are natural and necessary easy to procure, and the things that are difficult to procure nature has made unnecessary, and also serve as antidotes against the anxieties that we feel when we’re in the middle of large projects and lose our guiding vision. It is easier to remain productively engaged if we keep long-term perspectives in mind.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

The above article was written for the blog The Autarkist as part of theContemplations on Tao series, as part of the teaching mission of the Society of Friends of Epicurus.

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