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)

Confucius Says…

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters...

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters read “Portrait of the First Teacher, Confucius, Giving a Lecture”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three years ago, I asked my father what his greatest fear was.  I was expecting him to say – old age, death, ill health, regret – or something similar. 

He said, “What I’m most afraid of in all of life is disappointing my parents.” 

I paused a bit.  “But, Dad… your parents are dead.” 

“It does not matter,” he replied.  

My father’s response surprised me at the time because I assumed that my father, being older in age, had more pressing concerns.  What I failed to understand was just how overriding and important the concept of 孝 [xiào] or filial piety is in the mindset of Chinese people. 孝 is, in fact, the mandate by which almost all Chinese live.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) is the person who delineated the meaning of 孝 in the Classic of Filial Piety.  Together with other teachings attributed to Confucius (most famously, the Analects), Confucius ultimately tried to answer one question:  How does one create a stable and harmonious society?  (Confucius lived at a time when China was in great turmoil with many warring, feudal states.)  His answer was humanistic – if one can cultivate virtue and moral behavior in the individual and in individual relationships, then, like spokes of a wheel or like the rays of a sun, stability and harmony on a micro level will emanate throughout society so that proper action for oneself and the greater whole, as well as respect for good government ensues. According to Confucius, the great ruler is a sage who rules not so much with law and fear of punishment (the sword) as with moral authority, fairness and benevolence. 

Confucius’ most famous saying, the Golden Rule, is an example of his humanistic philosophy:  Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you. The concept at bottom, similar to many other philosophies and religions, is that an individual’s actions (and the consequences of those actions) are not separate from those around you.  If someone exhibits poor action, it may make those around them suffer, or even make others behave poorly themselves.  If someone shows good conduct, then it will benefit those around them and make others want to emulate their actions.  What sets Confucianism apart is that it is completely secular in its philosophy.  It does not concern itself with matters of the afterlife or God or gods and does not assume an a priori idea that man is innately born “good” or “bad”.  It also does not contain elements of mysticism (unlike, for example, many aspects of Taoism).  In this sense, Confucianism is a guide that sets forth practical steps on how to become an upright person in society through education and cultivation of virtuous action, thought and behavior in the individual, and, in many ways, how to create a polite and respectful society.

There are 5 virtues or the Five Constants in Confucianist ethics:  仁 Humaneness, 義 Righteousness or Justice, 禮 Propriety or Etiquette, 智 Knowledge, and 信, Integrity. But the building block of all societal values and the virtue of highest importance in Chinese culture which underpins the societal structure is 孝, or how to respect, take care of and honor your elders and, in particular, your parents.  Translated in real terms, what you do and how you conduct yourself, and to a large degree, your successes and failures, are brought about by education and are a reflection of your parents, your parents’ parents and so on.  Your behavior and conduct are, in fact, daily rituals to show your love and respect for your elders.  The individual therefore should make subservient their self-interest, needs and desires to what is good for a greater whole, and, immediately, to show honor, respect and love for one’s parents and heritage.  Heritage, in this sense, does not depend upon the class you were born into or certain privileges you may have inherited by birth; it means, whether rich or poor, noble or peasant, one’s ancestors and parents instilled in their children an understanding of moral and ethical conduct.  In this way, Confucianism is a completely democratic, moral education.

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao...

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people in the West have questioned or wondered why East Asians often tend to excel in school and are driven to work very hard.  In the Confucianist world, there is little emphasis on or belief in “talent.”  The emphasis is, rather, on dutiful action in order to to exhibit 孝 or show one’s love and respect for one’s parents.  It is, in fact, one’s duty to take care of your parents in all ways, emotionally and otherwise.  Likewise, the parent has a duty to make sure that his or her children understand right from wrong, understand proper conduct and how to exhibit respect in and to society.

The teachings of Confucius spread throughout Asia and much of Southeast Asia and, to this day, underlies many social structures throughout Asia, from Japan, Korea to Thailand, Malaysia, etc.  Ironically, Confucius did not live to see the success of his teachings and, in many ways, regarded himself as having failed in his ambitions.

Personally, I have to say I struggled a bit with what I regarded as a rather strict and less individualistic mindset of Confucianism and the concept of 孝 because I was born and raised in the U.S.  I did not have many of the freedoms that my peers had.  I certainly felt a lot of pressure to excel (and, in many ways, still do).  I also found later that there were not a few American-Chinese like myself who grew up in the U.S. but, for whatever reason, were more accepting of their parents’ values and did not struggle so hard as I did with growing up between disparate cultures and therefore felt little need or desire to rebel in their youth (which in the West is taken for granted and almost regarded as a necessary stage of life.)  But, regardless or irregardless of Confucianism, in the end, I understood that my parents ultimately loved me and did their best to raise me with good values and, really, just wished for me to be happy, no matter what I chose in life.   

I have also posted an article here that gives, in brief, an excellent insight into the philosophy of Confucius: http://psihologploiestimarinasasu.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/confucius-confucianism/