Works that have been passed to us from ancient history are a little suspect in terms of both attribution and accuracy. It’s kind of like the telephone game in school, where a message is whispered down a line of students to emerge hilariously unrecognizable.
Also, the depth and beauty of women’s words from ancient cultures have largely been lost like Atlantis. We are left with wise guys like Rumi. Rumi is much loved and often quoted. However his works lead both my wife Valerie and I to conclude: “Ramble long enough, and you are sure to say something profound.” You will also spout some morally questionable advice concerning a noblewoman and a donkey in a stall. If I haven’t deterred you, most used bookstores have Rumi filed next to Osho in the “Time You Will Never Get Back” section.
Lao Tzu’s purported work The Tao Te Ching on the other hand, is quite a compact read. There are eighty-one small chapters of less than a page each. So whether or not it provides insight, it will only take about an hour of your time to read. The translation by Stephen Mitchell was suggested to us and modernizes the language and context while keeping the simple poetic structure.
The following chapter (Chapter 67) resonated with me:
Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
For the past several years Valerie and I have been entering each New Year with several chosen “theme words” that we use to guide ourselves through life in the following twelve months. “Simplify” has been carried forward as one of the chosen words for three years running. So I guess Lao Tzu had me at “simplicity”.
Life is full of complications and drama. It is easy to just be carried along, but what about the alternative – stopping and asking if these complications and drama are necessary. Is there a simpler way? The guiding principle should always be to keep things as simple as possible. It may actually take more work in the short term to strip away unnecessary complexity, but the payoff is much more life and capacity to do things of greater meaning.
Obviously we share this yearning with many others in society as they aspire to Marie Kondo’s austerity or long for the life of the latest young couple who have escaped the rat race to live in their yurt on a mountain top or tiny home in a forested glade. If we can reduce complications, we can reduce a lot of the anxiety that keeps us from making the most out of each moment that life brings us.
It is insightful that Lao Tzu measures out the virtue of patience in equal measure for friends and enemies. If we cannot be patient, we will live in anger. We will be prone to taking things personally. It has taken me a long time to figure this out and it is a work in progress. Daily work. One strategy that Valerie and I find helpful is to remind ourselves that the person in question “is doing the best they can with the tools and resources they have”.
Compassion in this chapter is self-compassion. Increasingly I realize this is part of keeping the “caring” in “Caring Curmudgeon”. The self is a small vessel, and it is only time before self-directed anger, disappointment and frustration spills out to those around us. A measure of compassion, even a tiny dose, is healing. It’s kind of like being “hangry” (speaking from experience). If we haven’t taken the time to nourish ourselves and attend to basic needs, we aren’t going to be prepared nor fit to deal with life in a calm and caring way. Good luck trying to achieve simplicity or patience!
When Valerie is speaking with children about care for their family and community (including all animals) she tells them how they are spreading “ripples of compassion”. But like ripples in a pond from a stone, they start from the centre, the self.
When Valerie and I started our annual “theme words”, I think we had the wrong concept. It is easy to view these words as just another resolution with a fixed endpoint. As in “a simple life” is something that can be achieved in 365 days just as you might lose ten pounds or read twenty books of classic literature. That is clearly not the case and the Tao reminds us that each present moment is an opportunity to proceed with simplicity, patience and compassion. That is ancient advice we can all use.