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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Having More

Recently, I chatted with a friend I hadn't seen in a while. He was an entrepreneur, so I asked him about his business.

"It's doing extremely well." He perked up: "We are growing, and I am hiring more people while my competitors are downsizing."

"That is great news," I congratulated him. "It must be satisfying to run a successful company, especially in this economy."

"Well... believe it or not, it's quite the opposite." He winced: "At the moment I am actually feeling more frustration than satisfaction."

"Why?" I was curious: "What can be so frustrating about a company that is doing well?"

"It's not so much the company but the people in it - my employees!" He explained: "The thing that really bugs me is seeing them do so little with their lives. I'm always looking to better myself by reading books and learning more about business. They go home and vegetate in front of the TV, or they go out partying
and get drunk. Where they are today is exactly where they were when I hired them years ago. They have not advanced themselves in any way. It's such a waste of time and potential."

"What makes them that way?" I asked: "What do they lack so that they end up wasting time and potential?"

He paused for a moment. "Motivation perhaps. Or, maybe they just don't realize that life is short and we have to make the most of what we have."

"We can call that clarity, in the sense that they are not seeing the finite duration of life clearly."

"Yes, that would be accurate," he nodded. "They don't have enough motivation and clarity, and that is why they waste their time and potential. Is there a Tao teaching that will help me not feel so frustrated with them?"

"There is - the same teaching as the one for people who are highly intelligent, and become arrogant or impatient with those who are not as smart as they are."

He was puzzled: "Isn't that humility? I don't see the connection at all."

"Take a look at chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching." I pointed out the relevant passage to him:

Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other

"I remember your lecture on this," he searched his memory. "You said it was about things being relative to one another, and how every description gave rise to its opposite, like the complementary pair of yin and yang."

"Excellent!" I encouraged him: "Now apply that concept to what you just described. If some of your employees have less motivation and clarity, it must mean that you have more."

"Sure, that makes sense."

"If it were the other way around - they have more and you have less, then it may be that your situation today would be the exact opposite. You may be working for them instead of them working for you, and they may be feeling frustrated with you right now about your lack of motivation and clarity."

"Yes... that makes sense also."

"So how is it that you have more and they have less?" I asked. "We don't get to decide how much talent we should receive before being born. If we have more of a particular thing, it is only because we were given more of it, whatever it is. Thus, having more is essentially an arbitrary stroke of luck."

"Interesting," he turned the concept over in his mind. "I guess I've never thought of it that way."

"What this means is that when you have more of a good thing and others have less, the Tao perspective is not that you should feel arrogant because you are superior to them, nor frustrated because you are impatient with them. Rather, the idea is to recognize your abundance as the perfect reason to feel grateful. You were never entitled to more, and yet you ended up with more. Is this not the most remarkable good fortune for which we should feel the utmost gratitude?"

My friend sat stunned. "I guess I've never thought of it that way either," he shook his head in amazement. "Wow!"

Once explained, this teaching seems so simple and obvious, and yet we may never realize it on our own without guidance. This is why we see so many people out there feeling negative emotions against others. They suffer from their negativity because they have never learned to always look at it from the perspective of the Tao. That perspective has the power to transform annoyance into appreciation in an instant!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Human Being or Human Doing?


Derek, last week I heard a spiritual guru say: "Remember, you are a human being, not a human doing. This is the highest wisdom of the Tao."

I thought this was good advice, but I did not know it was a Tao expression. I did some research, but was unable to find any references to it in Tao literature. Can you help me get more information?


The expression itself does not come from Tao teachings or Chinese culture. The wordplay on "human being" is specific to the English language. It is one of the many lines in the repertoire of motivational speakers, similar to "Luck means Living Under Correct Knowledge" and "the best way to handle procrastination is to put it off."

The meaning of the expression, of course, is that we are often too stressed out by the many things we think we have to do. We need to take a step back from all the frantic doing and spend a moment just being. We can simply be in many different ways: meditation, prayer, or just a quiet moment alone.

The closest match to this idea in Tao teachings is wu wei, which some have translated as "non-action" but is actually closer to "minimal action" or "unattached action." The concept is not that we should not do anything at all, but that we can often achieve more by doing less when our actions are in alignment with the Tao.

Does this match with wu wei mean that the idea behind "human being, not human doing" is indeed the highest wisdom of the Tao, as the guru claims? No, not quite. It is good advice (as you have noted) that can get people to realize that they are rushing around unnecessarily. As such, it is an excellent tonic for our busy modern lives, but it is only a basic concept from the Tao perspective.

What, then, would be the highest wisdom of the Tao? In order to explore this question, we should realize that either-or choices are often illusory. That is certainly the case here, because it is much more accurate to say you are both a human being and a human doing. You embody not only the states of being but also the dynamics of action. There is no need to deny either.

Consider these two aspects as a manifestation of yin and yang within you. They are complements that support one another. The "being" part of life - relaxing, resting, recuperating - is the yin that recharges your batteries for yang, the "doing" part. Conversely, after an honest day's work, the good job you have done gives you the satisfaction and peace of mind to fully enjoy being together with friends and loved ones. The two give rise to one another and need to be kept in balance.

In this respect, the sages follow nature. They see the patterns of nature where activities such as wind and rain are invariably followed by calmness. They also see that calmness, just like activities, cannot last forever either. The two alternate back and forth. In emulation of this, the sages see both "being" and "doing" in themselves. They are capable of stillness and silence, but just as the ocean cannot always be at peace and the lake cannot always be placid, they are also capable of diligent work and meaningful actions.

Just as the sages emulate nature, we can emulate their wisdom. Next time you hear someone say "human being, not human doing," give yourself a little smile. You understand the basic level of the Tao is that one should slow down and take a pause that refreshes. At the same time, you also understand the higher level where you can embrace being and doing. When it comes to life, both are essential!