Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
The third chapter of the Tao Te Ching is one where the translation and the level of abstraction one reads it with can have a profound impact on the lesson one takes from it. Taken literally, it prescribes a system of rule that cleaves to the socialist/communist (little “s” and little “c” intended) ideal of equal social class for all with a lack of private property, wherein the people are satisfied because their needs are met and their lives are comfortable. Abstract it out, and it becomes less about rule and more about coexisting harmoniously with your community by applying the principles of rule to interpersonal behavior. That’s all fine and good, but in my mind, the real lesson is a personal lesson, buried in the poetry and metaphor. I am going to take this line by line.
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling. On the surface, this advises us to treat people as equals to one another to prevent jealousy and infighting, but the principle applies to more than just people. Apply it to sensations or ideas, and it takes on new meaning. Reconsider the concept of duality presented in chapter two, that opposite concepts define one another’s existence. Now consider that contentedness comes from acceptance. If I experience pain, I can still be content, for without pain I would know no pleasure. That does not mean that I will actively enjoy pain, but simply that I can be content with its existence, content with the fact that I will experience it. I can come to this point more easily by not exalting pleasure, by not putting the things I actively enjoy on an emotional pedestal. To exalt the “good” sensation or concept, I create inner turmoil whenever I am not experiencing that sensation or concept. By treating opposite concepts as equals, I prevent the inner turmoil and increase contentedness.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing. Again, on the surface it is the Marxist ideal: if everyone has a chicken, then no one will steal a chicken. Eliminate private property (meaning eliminate unequal access to goods and services), and you eliminate the motivation for theft: greed. But let us shift this idea from the societal to the personal. To be truly content is to be free of desire, but to be free of desire does not mean to lead an ascetic life of self-denial. Instead, to be free of desire means to satiate one’s needs and accept that that is all that is needed. To be free of desire also means to stop attaching emotional value to material goods. As Carl at CenterTao notes, theft is not necessarily the act of taking, but the feeling of loss we experience when something is taken from us. By eliminating attachments, or more accurately by accepting impermanence, we make it so that we can never be the victim of theft. To collect treasures — in the mind or in the physical world — is to build desire and create greed and to make oneself vulnerable to theft. Learning satisfaction leads to a more contented life.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart. Ignorance is bliss? One might get that idea from this phrasing, but I think it is more about the elimination of desire. Rather than “out of sight, out of mind,” I look at this as the reverse: out of mind, out of sight. My take on this line ties in closely with the previous line. To prevent envy or greed, we must not see desirable things, not by hiding them, but by no longer desiring them. This goes directly to separating want from need, recognizing those things we think we want that ultimately only cause us unhappiness because we do not have them. For example, back when I was collecting music equipment, I spent too much time desiring equipment I didn’t have. I would save for it until I could afford it. But the equipment would not satisfy me, and I would be on the next thing. Meanwhile, no music was being made. If I had separated my needs from my desires, I could have been content to make music with what I had until I really needed something else.
The rest of chapter reinforces these ideas and brings it back to the concept of non-action. The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones. Satiate needs, humble oneself, eliminate desire and strengthen resolve. If one governs oneself in this manner, harmony or contentedness can be achieved. If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere. Remove yourself from having just one perspective and eliminate your desire, and those who would take advantage of you through guile and playing upon greed or envy will have no means of getting to you.
If nothing is done, then all will be well. This goes back to practicing no-action. Think of a person walking from one room to the next. The doorway is six feet to his right. The person who lives by these principles will walk six feet to the right to go through the doorway. The person who does not live by these principles will instead walk up to the wall and decry the fact that there is no opening. He will look at the doorway and say, “If only I had a doorway like that!” He might leave and get some tools and come back and start cutting himself a doorway. What follows? If one creates contentment by changing one’s perspective, then it will be a lasting contentment that requires no doing. If one tries instead to create contentment by doing, then one may find that action leads to more action and never to actual happiness.