Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Although being in the right place at the right time gives the greatest advantage, it is also extremely rare. Sometimes the right time might be a different century, the right place a different country. While many basic qualities, skills, and kinds of intelligence have a consistent stability; attitudes, conditions, and cultural complexities constantly shift and impulsively change. Ageless wisdom, however, breaks all constraints of time and place.


Believing in "good" or "bad" luck projects agency and makes people feel like victims, trapped with no escape. The wise understand the rules of "luck" and don't leave things to chance. Being wise welcomes "lucky", being foolish "unlucky." Only integrity and insight create the true situation of good fortune.


Most often, more wisdom transmits through a joke than through philosophical discourse. Conversation supplies a context, meaning, and openness for insight. By avoiding gossip and prejudiced speculation, the wise become able to apply knowledge and understanding to current events and situational problems; their insight finds an educational openness and creates positive change.


We often cling to our faults and imperfections—both physical and moral—as a way of attracting sympathy and attention. Even when small however, enemies easily create a focus of attention on the defect which can obscure an abundance of good and noble qualities. Like a small cloud that can obscure the entire sun, a small failing can obscure the most impressive reputations. Therefore, don't neglect even the smallest shortcoming. Like Caesar who decorated his baldness with a laurel wreath, we can often transform mistakes and imperfections into unique and remarkable impressions.


Imagination can bring contentment, make happiness possible, and balance reason. It can also tyrannize and dominate our lives, burden our mind and body by leading us to folly in blissful delusion. For some, it exaggerates dangers and prevents action; for others, it spurs on foolish action by promising unrealistic adventure and happiness. For these reasons, understanding and influencing our imaginations with prudent self-control remains essential for a good life. Sometimes we need to hold it in check, other times better to galvanize and encourage.


In the distant past, straightforward contemplation of communications may have sufficed; but today, lies, deception, half-truths, and proliferating scams dominate the culture. To avoid these traps, we must learn to see more deeply than the status quo surface and become psychic and material event forecasters. In terms of self-evaluation and feedback, be slow and skeptical to accept good news and positive comments; welcoming and open to criticism and unfavorable opinion.


As all politicians know, manipulating and controlling people becomes easy when you know what motivates them. Everyone idolizes something—most often fame, fortune, pleasure, or power. For many, this prime-moving motivation hides more deeply than the surface persona crafted by dogma and culture. It rules from a dark, hidden, and secret core of egocentric inclinations. When an external force or person understands a person’s dark, ruling passion, they easily appeal to it with words and images, tempt them into motion, checkmate their will, and capture their freedom. Understanding these basic and everyday-used techniques can help immunize us from the nearly constant manipulations of politicians, advertisers, rivals, and everyone else.


Value inspired focus over a large but shallow abundance; quality over quantity. The larger the quantity, the lower the perceived value; the broader the spotlight, the more mediocrity. Don't value books based on their thickness like they were weight-lifting equipment. The best are always few and rare, giants are usually really dwarfs. Intensity can achieve much more success than skill, experience, and intelligence alone. The more innate ingenuity and genius, the more temptation to spread too thin, neglect the most important, and dissipate capacity.


It is great and wise to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob. When popular with the mob of public opinion, be concerned and more careful. Pleasing the gods of popular approval most often reflects a decrease of integrity. Don't be satisfied with empty and fickle praise which has no depth or intelligence and can abruptly change. The larger the crowd, the more admiration for foolish delusions. And so, don't follow the herd in anything, be common in nothing; and instead, watch for deception.


Always hold fast to the virtues of integrity and goodness. Regard deception as treason and embrace righteousness even when it conflicts with family, friendship, cultural norms, political influences, or any kind of self-interest. Many praise these values but few follow them, especially when danger or desertion threatens. The worldly wise make distinctions and compromise for pragmatic political demands. People of the highest integrity, however, hold fast to their path of goodness and follow the truth rather than the opinions and attitudes of their culture, country, or religion. This kind of unwavering loyalty to integrity transcends physical and spiritual materialism and readily leaves a fickle group when the group leaves the path of virtue.


Carefully avoid all foolish ventures, in particular all those disreputable schemes that may bring an audience and notoriety but also disdain and loss of reputation. Eccentricity has its attractions and rewards but this attention can quickly become ridicule; the spotlight most often only brings laughter and disrespect. And since the path of right livelihood and wisdom often crosses status quo values and norms, the wise carefully cultivate anonymity and avoid public notice.


Many blame bad luck for their own folly, for not choosing wisely. Doing this creates a contagious disease of disinformation while preventing solutions to prevent the mistakes. It opens a door to deeper, more dangerous problems. As in a card game where the greatest skill comes from knowing when and what to throw away, our lives turn on recognizing unlucky directions and changing course before they take over and destroy our reputations. When unsure, follow the lead of those with the most integrity and wisdom—sooner or later, they will prevail.


For the wise, the greatest advantage of power, wealth, and fame becomes the ability to do more good than others. This creates a powerful reputation for graciousness and opportunities to conquer with universal good will. Making friends arises from being a friend and engaging in friendly activity. Those who corrupt their advantages with a lack of graciousness, with indulged nastiness and bad disposition can expect no true friends or authentic support.


One of the greatest lessons in life revolves around learning to refuse negative influences and external demands, to cut through sidetracks, to disengage from unimportant activities that steal precious time, and to disinvolve ourselves from people and affairs that don't directly concern us. This preserves goodwill, esteem, and the freedom to always choose the best course of action. The cultivation of this discipline also gives us insight and skill in preventing others from inappropriate involvement in our own affairs, inhibits the taking advantage of friendships, avoids the great failing of excess which always creates a vice, and promotes the important quality of moderation that keeps us in the good graces of others without having to abandon ourselves.


Everyone excels at something but few know what it is. Even less both know and cultivate their strongest quality; most do violence to it by status quo obsequiousness, conformity, and constant attempts to be someone else. The successful in life both see and understand their true strengths and weaknesses. They propagate and grow their good qualities leaving less and less space for the weaknesses.


The most foolish fail because of not thinking things through at all. The less but still foolish think about their lives and goals but lose focus and easily get distracted by the superficial but flashy, by the unimportant but entertaining. The wise quickly recognize the consequential, see which courses of action lead to gain and which to loss, and prioritize their most diligent concentration and highest skill to the most important issues. For most however, "common sense is not so common" and they never lose their common sense because they didn't have any to lose. They make a big deal about things that don't matter and ignore the most important issues. The wise apprehend life's hidden and obscure treasures, deeply root them in their minds, and apply their most diligent and focused attention.


When planning ahead and making decisions, most only consider the opportunity, the resources, the marketplace; few recognize their "luck," even think of luck as superstition. Another way of understanding luck could be the commingling of environmental challenges, cultural momentum, political environment, personal skill and—most importantly— timing. Seneca defined luck as preparation meeting opportunity, bad luck arising from reaching for the opportunity without the preparation. For example, waiting to take care of our health until we're older and having problems becomes a way of creating our own bad luck. On the other hand, cultivating patience, forethought, and unbiased awareness create the kind of luck that seizes realistic opportunity while quickly withdrawing when fortune turns unfavorable.


Learn how to use the subtle art of insinuation, innuendo, and veiled remarks. One of the most sophisticated and nuanced activities of human communication, using this kind of tactfulness spans the range from malicious envy to the most skillful accomplishment. It can help us understand the people we deal with, probe their hearts, and test their integrity; but it can also cause great harm, quickly destroy solid reputations, and destroy the good will of old friends, colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates. Understanding this dynamic also helps inoculate us from the skillful manipulation of others. A foreseen attack is most easily defended against. While an unforeseen intrusion has the power of an ambush, anticipating an attack gives the defense great strength.


While the extremes of "honor" require an attitude of never surrendering, skillful strategies respect and frequently use subtleties of strategic withdrawal. Gallant retreats often surpass courageous attacks. The higher fortune heaps for us success, good fortune, and luck; the more likely that the luck will end, the success become failure. And so, don't expect luck to last long, quit while still winning, store and hide your resources when you have enough—even when not enough. Fortune often balances the intensity of her favors with the shortness of their time span.


Works of nature mature to a point of ripeness and then degrade. But recognizing and harvesting at this point requires both rare insight and uncommon skill. A similar kind of ripening occurs in the realm of understanding and wisdom; but in the world of art, such points of perfection beyond potential improvement are rare or non-existent.