Non-interference

Principle #7

Non-interference

He responds only when moved, acts only when he is urged, and rises to action only when he is compelled to do so.

Chuang Tzu

The Taoist acknowledges his inherent limitations and how much effort it takes to develop one’s mind, body and spirit. As such, Lao Tzu’s philosophy recommends dedicating all of one’s energy towards achieving personal contentment and not waste precious time interfering with others. This means not trying to change things that do not bring tangible personal benefits. For example, Taoists remain uninvolved in politics because attempting to improve society wastes focus, time and energy with little personal gain. But there is a deeper implication too: Taoists let things achieve harmony on their own, according to their natural traits. By interfering, even in the name of “improvement,” well-intentioned efforts may actually remove a phenomenon from its natural course — and ultimately cause harm. Finally, Lao Tzu’s mantra of non-interference is not a prescription for passiveness. For when something or someone threatens the Taoist (interfering with him), he “rises to action” using the reserve power accumulated by not interfering with others.

Camouflage

Principle #8

Camouflage

Only the perfect man can go about the world without attracting attention to himself.—

– Chuang Tzu

Recognizing that the Individual may hold different values from members of Society has important consequences for appropriate behavior. Since the values of a Taoist feature natural self-interest, they can appear superficially selfish — and possibly earn resentment from one’s surrounding community. To deal with this undesired animosity, Lao Tzu maintains that one needs to disguise such beliefs using a strategy of camouflage. Thus, Lao Tzu has been called the “First Philosopher of Camouflage.”

Desires

Principle #9

Desires and Limitations

He who knows where to stop may be exempt from danger.

Lao Tzu

One of its most prescient warnings in the Tao Te Ching is to avoid the popular notion that “the sky’s the limit.” This myth causes people to jeopardize themselves with plans motivated by unchecked desires and unrealistic expectations. Lao Tzu’s anecdote to this common disease is to observe that the natural world is an environment of clearly defined limits; the necessities of survival do not permit confusions about the boundaries of strength, speed or ferocity. In translating this observation to Man, he advises using practical tests to constantly check whether desires are attainable and within our grasp. The weight lifter adds 5 pounds — not 50 — to test and improve his maximum lift, the runner gradually increases his training distance before attempting a marathon, and a student pilot flies to the next town before attempting to transit the country. Thus our inherent desires, including pride, make contentment unachievable without practical tests to remind us of our limitations. This ensures that our mental model of the world is firmly grounded in reality, arresting tendencies to chase chimeras and remain in a content state of what is attainable.