Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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Living within your limits
The one who stands on tiptoe is not steady.
The one who rushes ahead cannot maintain the pace.
The one who makes a show is not enlightened.
The one who is self-righteous is not respected.
The one who boasts achieves nothing.
The one who brags will not endure.
According to followers of the Tao,
“These are extra food and unnecessary luggage.”
They do not bring happiness.
therefore followers of the Tao avoid them.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
In chapter 24, Lao Tzu is basically coming back to his old message of “don’t overdo it.” In some ways, it feels like an echo back to chapter 9, where we read, “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.” This time, though, the focus is not on the interior dimensions of our heart attitudes and our individual actions, but rather on the exterior - our relationships to other people and the way we want them to see us.
The first line says, “He who stands on tiptoe does not stand firm.” Or as Ron Hogan paraphrases, “Keep your feet firmly planted unless you want to fall flat on your face.” The second says that the one who rushes ahead or strides too quickly will not be able to keep up that pace for long and, therefore, won’t ever get very far.
Both images are about overextending ourselves. For some people, even 100% isn’t good enough. They will stretch and push themselves to squeeze out every drop of energy and efficiency, often at the sacrifice of their own mental and physical wellbeing. It’s an unfortunate disease that seems especially prevalent in American culture. Those who are privileged enough and work hard enough to save up for a vacation once every year or two often find themselves so exhausted by the time they get there that they can’t really enjoy it. And when they do, they end up operating on the same value system. The goal then becomes to maximize your vacation. Make sure you do as much as possible, get in as many sights as you can, and take advantage of every activity or deal you can squeeze into your schedule. I’ve actually heard several people joke about needing a “vacation from their vacation” when it’s all over.
The TTC is all about a simpler way. The relaxed, easygoing approach of the Tao does not mean you are lazily casting off your responsibilities. Choosing not to push yourself to 100% and beyond in everything you do is not a sign of weakness or a threat to your self-worth. This way or path (which is what Tao means) is actually the most responsible, wise, and sustainable one you can choose, because you are working in tune with things instead of going against the grain or constantly pushing yourself to swim upstream. In fact, both of these metaphors are about trusting our body: don’t stand on tiptoes and overreach, and don’t run faster than you can sustain. The pace will be different for everyone, but that’s okay, because it isn’t a competition.
If you’ve ever taken classes from a good yoga instructor, you’ll know that one of the most basic principles is to simply be present to your body and do what it can do today. Rule number one is never to compare yourself to others. You will only fail to obtain the real benefits of yoga if you try to compete and make your body work like someone else’s. Rule number two is don’t even compare yourself to yourself. You can take delight in the fact that you may see yourself growing and progressing, but if you’re unable to do today what you could last week, that’s okay. That’s just where your body is. This attitude - being in tune with your body in the here and now - is the only way to fully benefit from yoga practice.
It’s the same in life. Comparison rarely helps anything, and that is what Lao Tzu goes on to discuss in the rest of this chapter. Whether we are pushing ourselves to become better than others, bragging about how we already are better, or even just trying to make them think that we’re better for our own egos, we are buying into the dangerous game of comparison.
She who stands on tiptoe
doesn’t stand firm.
She who rushes ahead
doesn’t go far.
She who tries to shine
dims her own light.
She who defines herself
can’t know who she really is.
She who has power over others
can’t empower herself.
She who clings to her work
will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
For the remainder of the chapter, Lao Tzu gives four explicit warnings about unhealthy behaviors. The first warning says that the one who tries too hard to shine brightly ends up being only a dim flicker, or that one who tries to make a show of himself or herself is not enlightened. Victor Mair’s translation is nice: “The one who is self-revealing does not shine.”
We live in a world full of idols. In a consumerist culture, there is a never-ending supply of things to desire and pursue. But it’s not just the things in and of themselves that we want. Many times, we want them because of how they will make us look in other people’s eyes. Think about it: we want them because we want others to see we have them! There’s no other explanation for things like fashion outlets and car dealerships.
So the world isn’t just full of idols, it’s full of people who want to make themselves into idols. The idolatries of wealth, fame, success, and achievement are mostly about appearance. But the harder we work at shining our light to the world around us (and I’m not talking about that in a biblical sense) the more we actually dim it.
The second warning Lao Tzu gives is that the one who is self-righteous is not respected. Another translation says that the one who is self-assertive has no merit at all. Note that “assertive” here doesn’t really mean the positive kind - that is, being able to speak your needs and feelings instead of bottling them up. It’s the arrogant, forceful, prideful kind of assertiveness. In his book What is Tao? Alan Watts has a brilliant little paragraph that describes exactly this kind of person:
We often come upon the kind of virtuous person who is self-consciously virtuous, who has, you might say, too much virtue. These are the sorts of people who are a perpetual challenge to all their friends, and when you are in their presence you feel they are so good that you don’t know quite what to say. And so you are always, as it were, sitting on the edge of your chair and feeling a little bit uncomfortable in their presence. In a Taoist way of speaking, this kind of person stinks of virtue, and doesn’t really have any virtue at all.
The truly virtuous person is unobtrusive. It is not that they are affectedly modest; instead they are what they are quite naturally. Lao-tzu says that the greatest intelligence appears to be stupidity, the greatest eloquence sounds like a stammer, and the greatest brightness appears as if it were dull. And of course this is a kind of paradoxical way of saying that true virtue, Te, is the living of human life in such a fashion as not to get in its own way. -Alan Watts, What is Tao?
It’s easy to put ourselves in the position of the virtuous person when we read this. It’s always easy to point the finger and identify the “other” people who are self-righteous and self-assertive and who exhibit all of those bad character traits. The real challenge, however, is being able to look inside ourselves and root out any trace of this kind of self-righteousness or unhealthy assertiveness.
We see the ways this toxicity comes out in Lao Tzu’s third and fourth warnings, which actually pair together and parallel each other. They both talk about the self-praising person who boasts and brags to others. According to Lao Tzu, this person actually achieves nothing, and they certainly create nothing that endures. In fact, the impact of their work doesn’t last very long at all.
I think most of what we perceive as arrogance and showing off comes not from a place of genuine superiority but from one of deep-rooted insecurity. We’re all insecure at some level, and dealing with our insecurities is a lifelong process of growth. Many people are easily able to identify their insecurity at first, but they end up pushing it down and covering it up by making themselves look good in everyone else’s eyes. Eventually, with enough repression, we can become unaware of the insecurity altogether as it digs deep down into our shadow self.
There are lots of definitions of the shadow self, but I really like this simple one: “The shadow is the side of your personality that contains all the parts of yourself that you don’t want to admit to having.” We all have a shadow side, and it’s not a matter of getting rid of it. All good therapy or introspection or prayer and meditation (or combination of all of them) is about shining light on the shadow and helping us become aware of it, then evaluate it, reason with it, and take positive steps forward.
Maybe the ones most likely to be the most arrogant and boastful are those who have pushed their insecurities so far down that they are now fully in the subconscious shadow side. Maybe they’re not even consciously aware of the insecurities anymore. The irony here is that according to the Tao te Ching, this is exactly what should happen to us - only with virtue instead of insecurity. Again, quoting Alan Watts,
In his book Lao-tzu says the superior kind of virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus really is virtue. But the inferior kind of virtue is so anxious to be virtuous that it loses its virtue altogether. -Alan Watts, What is Tao?
It’s such a stark contrast: subconscious insecurity versus subconscious rootedness in the divine (which is actually what Lao Tzu means by virtue, or Te). The former leads to arrogant and selfish behaviors, that latter leads to a decentered self that is calm and peaceful and - ironically - shines the brightest and clearest of all.
The good news is that there is hope for continued growth if we are willing to keep looking inside and asking the tough questions. It can be really hard and discouraging when you become more aware of your faults and insecurities than you ever have been before, but this is actually a sign that growth is happening. Just take your time and, like the yoga class, move at the right pace - don’t rush it, but also don’t drag your heels and delay it. Remain open to change and course correction, and don’t get so attached to one vision of who you should be that you miss opportunities to grow and develop in totally new ways.
The word Tao means way, and this, after all, is what walking in the Way looks like.