Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 76

Poem 76

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.

Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.


One cannot but love metaphors as they resonate with many levels of meaning, and depending on either the time of day or the mood the reader is in they offer up differing insights.  Rigidity versus flexibility are wonderful metaphors for ways of being in the world. As such they have much to teach us.  Let's take the ego by way of example by looking at the person who believes he or she knows the one way or the correct way to do something.  To be a "know all" can lead very quickly to our downfall as we will quickly learn from lived experience.  It is often better to declare our ignorance before we start to solve a problem because that way we are open to all lines of inquiry, and we shut out no avenue of exploration no matter how improbable that may seem at first sight.  This is the long known approach of the great Socrates. First, he says, the inquirer must always declare his ignorance and proceed in logical steps from there.  So flexibility in thought is much to be advised.

Likewise, flexibility in feelings is also much to be desired.   To stubbornly and inflexibly follow one path just because we dislike or even hate another person and deep down know we are wrong is another form of ignorance.

Likewise, look at the way some leaders function. Good leaders learn to motivate others through being flexible in their approach to leading their staff rather than rigid.  Being rigid often sets us up for defeat.  Did you ever work with someone who was a control freak, who couldn't let go or who could not delegate?  I worked with one such person once and he ended up working himself into an early grave.  I still work with a few control freaks.  They seek in vain to micro-manage things. Unfortunately,  or rather, very fortunately, the world simply does not work like that.  The forces of life work so much differently, and they don't spend too long teaching us the error of our ways. That's how people get all those psychosomatic illnesses from peptic ulcers right across the board to high blood pressure, nervous breakdowns, panic attacks and actual heart attacks.

How many times have we heard the age-old advice that we must learn to "go with the flow"? Flow theory was popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihali who really discovered nothing new. Rather, he was open enough to recognise this process, give it a name and describe it in detail and then popularise it.  Here is a Ted Talk he has given on this interesting theory if you are interested: TED TALK.  

Thankfully, I learned early in my teaching career just how much I can control, when to ask for help, when to take action according to how serious something is.  One has to learn to become open to observation, to learn to read the signs, pick up the clues and interpret them properly.  That, of course, can only come with experience.  There is a Zen recommendation that it is better to be flexible like the grass rather than rigid like a tree in the wind.  Indeed, this is very old wisdom and even Aesop had a fable about it.  An old proverb runs that it is "better to bend than break," or even that "reeds survive the wind while mighty oaks do fall." Obviously, the same wisdom is found in the above short poem.

So softness is often preferable to hardness, gentleness to strength, flexibility to rigidity if we are to survive our journey through life.

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