A Passage from Lao Tzu about Simplicity

On my way to work the other day, I found myself thinking of this passage from Lao Tzu which I have always liked:

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.

In this passage, Lao Tzu tries to tell us that too many distractions can lead us astray from living simply. 

To live simply means that we get rid of things that “muddy” our lives and make us feel confused and less peaceful.   Too many desires or too much desire can make it easy for us to get carried away or become disappointed.  But when things are simple, we can find happiness from “what is within” rather than “what is without.” Simplicity allows us to enjoy the smallest things in the present moment.  If our minds are too busy, it’s difficult to enjoy the taste of tea or whatever is in front of us.  We’re too busy thinking of what we need to do or, perhaps, regretful of what we didn’t do.

My father told me that there are two kinds of happiness.  One is when we forget ourselves because we are caught up in excitement (as when we attend a rock concert), and one is when we forget ourselves because we feel peaceful.  The difference between the two, he said, is that when we feel excited, it tends to be fleeting, but a feeling of peacefulness tends to be longer lasting.

Now, if there is too much disorder around us, we may first have to get rid of the chaos in our environment.  Some people choose to leave their environment and take great risks in doing so.  When our environment is not orderly or is full of ups and downs, we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about our health and our safety, and it drains us of energy.  If basic necessities like food and shelter cannot be met, then it is indeed difficult.  Once our environment is more stable, our bodies and minds can relax.

To live simply means that there is order.  Orderliness allows us to see more clearly. Our rooms, for example, become messy if we don’t clean them regularly.  Then we often can’t find what we are looking for and can feel easily overwhelmed, tired and frustrated.  It’s easy to say, I’ll clean later, but later, the rooms are just as messy.  But if we start putting away one thing at a time, then we arrive at a sense of order.  We may have to take a little time every day to keep the rooms neat, but, in the end, cleanliness and neatness give us a sense of calm.  The less things you have, the easier it is.

Keeping one’s mind simple is like cleaning a room.  All sorts of thoughts and worries pile up in our minds that can make us feel heavy and tired.  We may be too self-critical or worry too much about what other people think instead of accepting what is and what we have to work with and stop blaming ourselves or other people.  We may feel we don’t know where to start or how to deal with things we have to face.  Some people try to escape reality through drugs and alcohol or other ways which don’t help their problems go away and can make things worse.

To get rid of “noise,” some people close their eyes, even for brief moments.  Some people listen to music.  Others read or knit.  Whatever we are doing, when we are able to shut out more outside distractions for a period of time, we can feel more peaceful.  Our minds aren’t so busy.  We don’t need to feel bombarded or care much about what other people are thinking or doing. 

When we can empty our minds, we don’t worry.  We can actually see more of our surroundings without feeling “pushed” this way or that.  We can see more without being judgmental about ourselves or others or situations.  We can then focus better on what we do.

So every day, I try to set aside some quiet time for myself.  This helps keep me healthy and gives me a sense of peacefulness without drugs, alcohol, or feeling like I need something to numb myself to be happy.  During my quiet time, I read, write, draw and do something I enjoy.  Or I can do nothing at all.  This doesn’t mean the bills I have to pay will go away.  It means simply that I give myself some time to rest and to relax.  Then, when I have to face the things I have to do, I feel I have more energy. 

In the morning, we get up, brush our teeth, get dressed.  We work, eat and go to sleep at regular times. Our bodies exercise and empty themselves of waste.  It’s equally important to give the mind activity, rest and empty the mind of waste.  The simpler and more regular our daily routines are, the healthier and better we tend to be.  The more things we have to juggle, the more difficult it is to keep ourselves balanced. And when our routines become disrupted, it can make us feel very unsettled and usually take us some time to regain a sense of order again.

Now, while I was walking to work last week one day, I felt rushed.  My head was very busy and full of congestion.  Suddenly, I said to myself, Stop thinking.  Just walk. Whenever a thought came into my head, I repeated this exercise, and one thought after the other would appear and disappear until I was just walking.  I felt lighter.  I no longer felt rushed.  I just walked and rode the subway, and by the time I got to work, I was smiling inside.  

When I was little, I once remarked to my father, “Dad, you never take a vacation.” He replied, “I take vacation every day when I drink tea.”  Now, when he drank his tea, he wanted to be alone, and he wanted quiet.  He did this every night.  I asked him why he wanted to be alone and quiet when he drank his tea.  He said, “Because I meditate.”  

At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant.  But today, it is one of the most beautiful lessons he taught me – that if I care to live simply and take a little time to clean out the busy thoughts that are in my head and give my mind some rest – if I can learn to enjoy tea without any expectations of myself or others and just enjoy quiet – I can take a vacation every day.

*Translation from the Tao Teh Ching by John C.H. Wu (Shambhala Dragon Editions)

The Open Hand

I was walking home from work two days ago when I came across an elderly woman standing on the sidewalk with a luggage bag beside her.  She reached out her cupped hand and said, “Please.  I’m very hungry.”  

In New York, many people ask for money, but certain people catch my attention. This woman, I guessed, was in her 70’s.  She looked East Asian, but I don’t think she was Chinese (maybe Tibetan, Bhutanese or Nepalese?).  She looked cold.

In very New York fashion, I got straight to the point:  “Why are you like this?  Do you have a home, or is there anyone you can call?”  (Some elderly people suffer from dementia.)  

“No,” she said, and then again, “Please. I’m very hungry.”  

I asked, “Do you have any family?”  

She said, “My son.  My son.”  

“Can you call him?”

“No,” she said and shook her head and didn’t say any more.  I realized it was a private matter.  Perhaps she had gotten kicked out of the home, or perhaps she had left.  

I paused and asked, “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” 

“The laundry room.  I will sleep in the laundry room.”  I didn’t know which laundry room she was referring to.  There are laundromats that are open 24 hours a day, and I guessed that’s what she meant.

“Can you call your son?” I asked again.  

“No.”  She paused a bit.  “My son changes his phone number every day.  He plays poker.  You know poker?  He plays poker every day.  He loses money.”  

I understood now that, whatever the case may be, I shouldn’t and didn’t need to ask any more questions.  I opened my purse and found two $5 bills and gave them to her. She bowed very deeply. 

I thought of inviting this woman to my home, at least for a night.  The truth is, with a poor economy, I am already supporting one friend who has been living with me and have two long-time friends (a couple) arriving this weekend to stay at my place who are not in good financial circumstances.  I have a one bedroom apartment with one bathroom, a small kitchen. 

But it was painful to see someone who was elderly and probably a proud person begging for money.  I thought to myself, No, I do not need to take on more than what I am dealing with now.  

Then a thought came across my mind – only several blocks away, there is a huge community center that helps the elderly and immigrants.  I pointed out the way, only two blocks up, three blocks left, a big building on the corner.

“They may be able to help you.  You may be able to find yourself in a better position.”

Again, she bowed very deeply.  I began to walk home.  Perhaps I should have at least walked this woman to the community center.  But I was so tired after work that day that I did not.  Also, I know people are very resourceful when they need to be.  I need to take care of myself also.

I have known for a long time that many Chinese people have problems with gambling.  If you walk into a casino, you can see whole areas that cater to Chinese people.   I have known people in my extended family who have gambled and lost a lot.  And, unfortunately, I know many sad stories of Chinese people who have lost everything because of their gambling habits.

There are many misfortunes in this world.  You can’t help everyone.  In New York City, I tend to be mindful about giving money because many homeless use the money to buy drugs or alcohol (although I don’t have anything against people buying alcohol per se).  But I don’t think this woman was trying to take advantage of me or anyone else.  I could be wrong.

I do hope she has been able to find a place where she can feel safe and warm.  What would it have cost me to have her in my home for one or two nights?  Actually, I feel a bit sorry, but then life is what it is, and I think the best thing is to concentrate my limited resources on the people who are close to me.  

I don’t expect to change the world, but I can make a little difference, perhaps, in the lives of a few people who matter the most and also in daily, small interactions where, hopefully, I can put a smile on someone’s face, even if only for a brief moment.