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Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. You can not master the world by changing the natural way. Lao Tzu Our civilization is in a state of ongoing strivings, in which control seems to be the highest virtue. We don’t have to look far to observe this: in the workplace, for example, employees are more and more controlled and supervised, especially now we have the technology to do so. And governments put more effort into tracking their citizens, whether it’s through camera supervision or the proposal of a so-called ‘social credit system’. Ironically, the latter is a Chinese invention, that goes utterly against a philosophy that emerged from the same soil: Taoism. As opposed to a control-obsessed society, Taoism revolves around letting go and going with the flow. At first glance, the act of letting go may seem a form of weakness. But according to the Taoists, by a correct understanding of how the universe works, we
can approach life more intelligently, more efficiently, and go with the flow, rather than swimming against it. Therefore, the power of letting go is a form of strength that’s based on sophistication rather than force. The Tao Te Ching, the main Taoist scripture, was written by a mysterious sage named Lao Tzu. There are countless ways in which we can interpret this text. One way is to see it as a guide for a ruler. What characterizes the passages of the Tao Te Ching regarding governance, is that Lao Tzu puts emphasis on ruling by ‘not ruling’, as he compared governing a country with frying a small fish: too much poking spoils the meat. He argued that when a ruler tightens his grip on the people, all kinds of negative side effects will occur. We see that people become distrustful towards one another when the government is too patronizing, and when it’s too intrusive, people become rebellious. But when a leader is unobtrusive and acts with integrity, then people will become whole,
as they’re granted the space to naturally evolve. It’s clear that Lao Tzu favors a passive form of governance, which doesn’t just apply to ruling a state, but also to the governance of ourselves. Because letting things go, is key to let nature do the work, which applies to any level. In this video, I’d like to show you several ways in which Taoism shows us the power of letting go. The first one is the art of... (1) Non-doing The Taoist concept of Wu Wei can be explained as ‘effort action’, or the so-called ‘flow state’, but also as ‘non-doing’, or ‘knowing when to act and when not to’.’ When we take a critical look at ourselves, we see that the need for control prevails in many areas of life. We feel the need to control our pets, our children, our gardens, our video games, (in some cases) our partners, and first and foremost: our future. Now, control isn’t always a bad thing. In order to survive, we need to exert our influence on the environment to some extent.
Especially self-control can lead us in a positive direction. Without control, human civilization would probably never have occured. But too much of it doesn’t get us anywhere. It seems that we systematically underrate the natural influences that lie at the basis of our daily lives. We can’t control everything, and many things happen when we stop controlling them. Let’s take a tree for example. We can plant it, we can water it, we can add some fertilizer, and make sure it’s exposed to enough sunlight. But any more intervention would only damage the process because we interrupt nature from doing its job. Another example is attraction. The first step to attracting someone is simply showing ourselves, so that the person we want to attract knows that we exist. Then, attraction either happens or not. When the attraction is there, one can easily blow it by taking too much action. Attraction is a natural phenomenon that is beyond our control.
It absolutely cannot be enforced. Instead, it has to grow, or erupt spontaneously. And there’s only one way to let the seed of attraction grow into a beautiful tree; which is not intervening, aside from the occasional watering. Silence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s why ‘letting go’ is vital in relationships. Because by letting go, we give space to the forces of the universe to unfold. After a fight, for example. anger naturally erodes. And when trust is breached, one cannot enforce restoration: it has to grow back naturally. So, letting go makes the difference between controlling and allowing. The second one is... (2) Embracing change. The Taoists were very aware that life unfolds in a constant movement between opposites: between high and low, light and dark, yin and yang. There isn’t much we can do about it, and the most efficient way of living is simply
moving along with the waves of existence. The flow of life and its transformations are inevitable. Yet, we see so many people cling to their circumstances. In the metaphor of the river stream, they hold on tightly to a branch or rock, afraid to let go, because they want complete control over their position. They simply don’t trust the universe. And the consequence of this is a rigid lifestyle. They see life passing them by, including many opportunities for positive change, and they miss out on a lot of fun. As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, and I quote: The living are soft and yielding; the dead are rigid and stiff. Living plants are flexible and tender; the dead are brittle and dry. End quote. There are also those who swim against the stream. They’re the biggest energy wasters of them all. Perhaps they see honor and virtue in taking an extremely non-agreeable stance in life. But exercising a constant resistance to how the universe unfolds, isn’t a very efficient
way to live, and most likely makes one worn-out and miserable. This non-acceptance of ‘how things are’ is also the cause of people fighting against themselves. Because of certain societal expectations, people engage in a battle against their inherent nature, instead of flowing along with the attributes that nature has given them. We could say: “follow your strength, instead of trying to repair your weakness.” Embracing change also applies to uselessness and usefulness. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi observed that usefulness depends on the circumstances, as he told about a merchant that tried to sell shirts to a tribe, whose members were covered in tattoos, and always showed them off by walking around shirtless. To them, shirts are useless. But to us, at least most of us, they aren’t useless at all. Usefulness and uselessness are relative and are not to be treated with rigidity. When you live in New York, for example, having a car is less useful, then when you live somewhere
in the countryside where the next village is fifty kilometers away. So, we ought to be willing to let go of things that are useless in one situation, and adopt what’s useful instead. That’s how we make change an ally, and not enemy. The third one is... (3) Not focusing on outcomes. Comparable to the Stoics, the Taoists observed that the focus on future outcomes has a negative effect on us. Focusing too much on the future makes us anxious. Our present endeavors become fueled by a desire for an uncontrollable result, and the more we crave that, the less we value the only thing we have, which is the present moment. Zhuangzi goes one step further, by telling us that the more we value something external, the worse we perform in the present. He tells us about an archer that loses his ability to shoot when he focuses too much on the prize. I quote: He who is contending for a piece of earthenware puts forth all his skill. If the prize be a buckle of brass, he shoots timorously; if it be for an article of gold,
he shoots as if he were blind. The skill of the archer is the same in all the cases; but (in the two latter cases) he is under the influence of solicitude, and looks on the external prize as most important. All who attach importance to what is external show stupidity in themselves. End quote. Now, this doesn’t mean that people that want external things are stupid. It means that when our minds are in the future, we paralyze ourselves in the present. This principle lies at the basis of the ‘flow state’ that we see in activities like sports, art, and dancing. When we experience this flow state, we’re so immersed in the task at hand, that we completely forget about the future. It’s like the dance dances itself. The last one for now is... (4) Letting go of excess. In a society in which status is an ultimate concern, everyone wants to be at the top. Not because it’s necessarily the best place to be, but because we’ve collectively decided
that high status is preferable and low status is horrible. This also comes with a collective pursuit of the former, and a collective aversion to the latter. But the tallest trees catch the most wind. And when we’re at the top, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to stay there, because everyone wants to take your position. It’s stressful compared to the lower regions, in which one lives more privately, with less competition, less enemies, and, in general, less effort. The other extreme, however, is a place of deprivation. If we deliberately seek the absolute bottom, we become ascetics. Although in a different way, there’s still a strong attachment; the attachment to deprivation. The question we can ask ourselves is: what do we truly need? Zhuangzi observed that a bird that nests in the forest, wants no more than one branch. And that a mouse that drinks from the pond, drinks no more than a bellyful.
So, if we aim for what we need, and let go of excess, we prevent possessions from becoming our prison cell, which allows us to travel light. Epicurus observed as well that the basic necessities for life are easy to come by, and that living moderately is the key to happiness. It’s a path that’s easy, and sustainable. As Lao Tzu wrote: “Those who use moderation are already on the path to the Tao.” End quote. When we stop striving, we give nature space to unfold. In trusting the universe and accepting that it’s ever-changing lies the opportunity to become loose and supple, instead of rigid and brittle. The power of letting go means that we float along the stream, without grasping for rocks and branches, and that we cut loose dead weight, so we can navigate through life with minimal effort. Thank you for watching.
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