If you overvalue status
you will create contentiousness.
If you overvalue possessions,
people will begin to steal.
Do not display your treasures
or people will become envious.
The Master leads by
emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambitions
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those that think they know.
and everything will fall into place.
At the start of this verse, Lao Tzu warns that chasing after status, prestige and possessions can have an adverse effect on us and those around us. Alas, these are arguably hallmarks of our society, which is rooted in competition, acquisition and a perpetual race for greater status, recognition, more money, bigger houses, better cars, fancier gadgets and ever more lavish lifestyles.
This leads to an imbalance, whereby emphasising the need for more highlights the perceived ‘lack’ and makes people unhappy, dissatisfied, envious and covetous. Even those that do succeed are rarely satisfied for long, because they’re still locked into the mindset of ‘striving but never arriving’.
The Master of the Tao takes a very different stance. Urging us to forsake the demented race to perpetually accumulate and acquire, he instead advises us to empty our minds and weaken our ambitions. This is the opposite of what we’ve been taught by our society. But by letting go of our ambitions, desires and all the things we think we need in order to be happy, we stop projecting our happiness into the future and can instead be at peace and content in the present moment, now.
In modern terms, perhaps what Lao Tzu is suggesting is that we step out of the rat race, because as the joke goes: even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. He urges us to “practise not-doing”, allowing everything to “fall into place”. This is the first mention of not-doing in the Tao Te Ching and is an important and perhaps perplexing concept. I feel that in this instance, it refers to acting without being attached to results and without the need to unduly chase after unnecessary acquisitions and status.
Lao Tzu claims that if our action is, as one translation offers, “pure and selfless”, everything we need will come to us. Then we can be happy and at peace without always being compelled to seek more.