The following excerpt from the 9th Verse is as succinct as any verse of the Tao Te Ching can get, yet it is unsurprisingly power-packed with so many universal truths and perennial wisdom. If I had to describe it in one word, I think I would choose ‘Balance’, although ‘Humility’ would also be a valuable substitute.
“To keep on filling is not as good as stopping
Overfilled, the cupped hands drip, better to stop pouring.
Sharpen a blade too much and its edge will soon be lost.
Fill your house with jade and gold and it brings insecurity.
Puff yourself with honour and pride and no one can save you from a fall.
Retire when the work is done; this is the way of heaven. “
I was on a flight the other day and on the row in front of me was a man who is a well known figure in my country, having held high positions in public offices for decades. Now in his late seventies or early eighties he has still not retired from his positions and responsibilities. Some might say that he is dedicated or really driven by his life passion. Perhaps. But when I overheard his loud discussions with his aide in the seat next to him, the one impression I got is “some people simply do not know when to bow out gracefully”. It sounds like a harsh criticism, I know, but I could not overlook the fact that the man was still caught up in a lot of attachment and identification with his positions. He still seems so very motivated to capture more! I felt sorry.
This is one of the things, the verse points at. When we fail to identify where to stop, when something gets too much or too excessive, we fail to live in balance and in harmony with our nature and life surroundings. When we fail to know how to keep things in balance, by avoiding excesses or being blinded by the incessant urge of the ego to ‘keep on filling’ or ‘keep on sharpening’, we will inevitably tip the scales and lose the balance.
So the key point here is simply to know when to stop. To know where the threshold is before things become excessive or unbalanced. Taoism is all about following the natural rhythms and flow of the universe as against being driven by unconscious ego-based impulses or socially constructed values.
The other point hints at the excesses, or rather the deficiencies of character. Puffing yourself with honour and pride is only going to make you bound to ‘fall’ because you are projecting a false self-identity which is prone to be pierced sooner or later.
The final line is really the highlight of the whole verse. It is sophisticated, simple yet rich with practical wisdom. “Retire when the work is done” is a concept which is unfathomable to some – such as the man on the plane. It has many subtleties of meaning. The main key is not to be identified with the work you are doing. If the ego identifies itself with the work and believes it owns it, it will fail to see that it is only a product or fruit of its labour but that needs to be let go of when the time is ripe. In a way, work is impersonal even if it created by a person. Someone else could have done it instead, perhaps in a different style or tempo but would have done it nonetheless.
Disassociating oneself from his or her work and being impartial to it is “the way to heaven”. Why? In a way because you are not bound to it because you flow with it, create it then let go of it when the time is right. You are following the natural flow and rhythms of the universe. Observe nature – ants at work for instance. Ants have different roles in a colony but these roles are dynamic, constantly changing according to the exigencies of the whole. When the work of the forager ant has been completed, it will instantly forget about it and follow a new role or task that needs to be done for the survival of the whole. It does not stay attached or obsessed by it. Once again the Taoist way is one that follows the same principles of nature. Our discordance with the rhythms of nature over millennia have in fact been the main source of our predicament and growing disassociation with the universal archetypes of our inner psyche.