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.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
As we grow in age and wisdom, we realise that there is such an attitude as trying too hard. Search too hard for something and we will never find it. Over-train for a race or a match or whatever and we fall short of winning. Trying too hard reveals a certain compulsion and indeed a definite fear of failure. While much hard work is necessary for any achievement that is worthwhile in life, overwork will spoil it in some way - perhaps even by ruining our health in the process. Look at a skilled football player, a professional runner or swimmer and we notice a certain ease as well as the hard work necessary for success.
There is an old Zen story that tells of a learned Professor who travels to see a famous Guru in order to find an insight into life. The Guru welcomes the professor with great generosity and starts by asking him if he would like some tea. The professor readily agrees and accepts a china cup and saucer while the old Guru boils the water. The professor holds forth his cup for it to be filled when the water is boiled and the tea made, but when pouring the tea for the professor the Guru keeps pouring until the tea flows over the side of the china cup. The professor leaps back in disgust declaring: "Why are you over-filling the cup?" The Guru's reply is most perceptive and goes something like this: "My dear Professor, you are like the filled cup. You are so full of your own opinions that there is no room for those of others!" This little Zen story captures a similar thought as the opening lines in the above Taoist poem.
Once again, the poem is also very much about the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, namely that our clinging to and over-dependence on things are the main causes of suffering in life. Again, hopefully as we age and grow in wisdom we will realise that having more and more does not necessarily lead to happiness. When we are young we want that big house or apartment, that lovely shiny car, that beautiful wife and family, success and promotion as the ego-driven world would have us desire. If we are wise we will realise that all these things do not necessarily bring us happiness. The above stanzas invite us to stop endlessly chasing and craving either things or success as the world would demand, and recommend that we sit back and let go, let life and let love, as it were.
Moreover, there is nothing as enslaving as doing things to achieve the approval of others. Nobody's approval is necessary to our self-esteem unless of course we are talking about a child in the family or a student at school which is a far different thing anyway. Indeed, I have often heard wise people say: "Nobody can ever have any power or control over you unless you give them permission to exercise it in the first place." I suppose we only learn this wisdom as we age.
No matter what our work, it is important to have pride in it; to do it to the very best of our ability. And yet, this Taoist poem recommends that even then we need to put some distance between ourselves and our achievements. We have to step back from them and let them go, too. After all, they too will pass, as will we as time will inevitably prove.
To conclude, once again I invite you to read the above poem reflectively yet again. Any line, phrase or word that strikes you, let it act as a mantra as you meditate for five or ten minutes.