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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Context-Neutral Complements: Taking Common Platitudes to the Next Level

When working toward your goal with diligence and discipline, you may encounter naysayers who express skepticism: "Aren't you being selfish when you work toward personal gain? How can that be the Tao?"

And heaven forbid you should aim for success in the material world. Because then the reaction may be: "Why are you being so materialistic? You should be more spiritual."

Notice the implied judgement, and the embedded idea that one is superior to the other - being selfless is good while being selfish is bad; being spiritual is good while being materialistic is bad. This is something we've all heard many times. Pretty much any church in the country will preach "don't be selfish, be selfless" and "don't be materialistic, be more spiritual."

The deeper reality is that the former isn't necessarily good and the latter isn't necessarily bad. Like many platitudes, these assertions are only the first step to wisdom, not the last word.
Here's how the teachings from the Tao can take us higher:

1) We have all seen and experienced that when we are good to others, we receive goodness in return. This is so often true that we can easily identify it as a pattern of existence - an aspect of the Tao.

2) This truth operates under Principle One, which is all about oneness. Because of the deep connection between ourselves and others, when we give goodness to others, we are essentially and indirectly giving the same goodness to ourselves. Another observation we can make is that oftentimes the back-and-forth process imparts synergistic energy so the goodness that travels from one person to another becomes magnified and amplified.

3) This oneness is not a one-way street. It works in both directions. Thus, a goodness you give to yourself, when done in the Tao-minded fashion, becomes a goodness for others. We see this happen all the time - when you love and accept yourself, then you are able to love and accept others; when you respect yourself, then you gain the ability to give others the gift of genuine respect.

Therefore, "being selfish" by itself is neither positive or negative. It can be one or the other. Although the phrase has a negative connotation, it is entirely possible for a Tao cultivator to work for his own benefit in a way that is perfectly congruent with the Tao. This self-oriented benefit ends up being beneficial to others.

For instance, the Tao cultivator may work diligently to master a new subject. It seems as if he is pursuing learning for himself, and therefore selfish in a sense. But, when he has gained an understanding, he shares it with others. The benefit therefore passes on to many more people. Suddenly it's not just one person understanding it, it's ten people. The goodness has been magnified. And the person who teaches it ends up understanding it even better - the goodness has been amplified.

What about money? What about material pursuits? Trinkets? It is absolutely the same. The Tao cultivator may choose to pursue wealth in order to utilize that wealth for greater benefit of many more people around him.

There are quite a few people who consider themselves spiritual and look down on monetary pursuits. This attitude itself is a manifestation of arrogance. Right off the bat it is incongruent with the Tao. Real understanding of this teaching points to the fact that pursuing money, although often seen in a negative light, is itself completely context neutral, and can be either positive or negative depending on the person. The true Tao cultivator is someone who understands how to follow a seemingly "selfish" agenda in a Tao-oriented way, that ends up being more beneficial for everyone than if he were to take on a vow of poverty.