"Humanity grows more and more intelligent, yet there is clearly more trouble and less happiness daily. How can this be so? It is because intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom.
When a society misuses partial intelligence and ignores holistic wisdom, its people forget the benefits of a plain and natural life. Seduced by their desires, emotions, and egos, they become slaves to bodily demands, to luxuries, to power and unbalanced religion and psychological excuses. Then the reign of calamity and confusion begins.
Nonetheless, superior people can awaken during times of turmoil to lead others out of the mire. But how can the one liberate the many? By first liberating his own being. He does this not by elevating himself, but by lowering himself. He lowers himself to that which is simple, modest, true; integrating it into himself, he becomes a master of simplicity, modesty, truth.
Completely emancipated from his former false life, he discovers his original pure nature, which is the pure nature of the universe."
-Lao Tzu, Hua Hu Ching 2500 years ago (translated by Brian Walker)
In this Christmas season, I invite you to reflect on Lao Tzu's teaching (above) and to consider how clearly it describes the life of Jesus Christ, even though it was spoken in China 500 years before Jesus was born.
Jesus looked around and saw "calamity and confusion," just like Lao Tzu had described. Also as Lao Tzu had described, Jesus first awakened and liberated his own being ¾ he studied the scriptures, was baptized by John, went into the desert to be tempted by Satan ¾ and then "lowered himself to that which is simple, modest, and true." He lived like the poor, not like the high and mighty. And he wouldn't let his affection or friendship be bought by people in power who practiced "unbalanced religion and psychological excuses" (Washington DC, take note!).
Then Jesus showed us how to be "completely emancipated from (our) former false life." He knew his own "original pure nature" and showed us a way to know ours as well. He fulfilled Lao Tzu's advice perfectly.
Consistent Advice Through the Ages
How could Jesus's way and Lao Tzu's way be identical? The answer is simple: That sort of advice doesn't change through the ages. From the beginning of time, sages have urged us to free ourselves from every form of false identity and tyranny of the senses. First, they have urged us to take proper care of body, mind and spirit. Second, they have all said that the spiritual part is the most important.
Without it, we're on an important journey without a map. Yet in each age we seem to forget the importance of the spiritual, and we do indeed lose our way. We lose our way so much, for so many years, that most of us forget we're on a journey at all. That's when the "reign of calamity and confusion" takes over.
We are not here to amass fortunes. We are not here to win wars or competitions. we are not here to earn rewards or make for ourselves a great name. We are here to know God. We are not an accident.
- Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Open Secrets
What does that look like? Well, pick up today's newspaper or turn on the evening news and you'll see. Chaos. Violence. Children killing their parents. Society using education money to build prisons. Millions of people homeless on the street, while a young man just out of high school signs a $125 million dollar contract to play baseball. Peppermint Prozac for children (true!). Sad, crazy times. Time for us to wake up and remember!
You wouldn't think, to look at us, that we are actually the living, breathing manifestations of the One Living God. We suffer and snivel our way through life as though we were tiny little "clods of ailments and grievances," to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw.
We have such profound amnesia of who we really are, that it may seem to us that since money and possessions rule the world, we may as well just get our share.
But our share of what? Calamity and confusion? A poisoned cake? Endless debt? Why would we want our share of unnecessary misery? This is where we need to understand what Lao Tzu meant about lowering ourselves to that which is simple, modest, true. This advice never goes out of date.
Legal, Voluntary Slavery
Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for?
Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness.
-Lao Tzu, Hua Hu Ching
Perhaps the saddest, most disturbing "shallow mass movement" of our day is personal consumer debt. While on a flight to Nebraska to do some talks and workshops recently, I read a cover story in USA Today about the problem of personal debt. The average American is something like $10,000 in debt, mostly on credit cards. Most people pay the minimum monthly payment.
The article showed on a graph that with a debt of $10,000, paying the minimum of $200/month - which is a pretty big chunk of most people's salary - it would take fifty years to pay off the total. That's $120,000 to pay off $10,000. Is that okay with you? Are you willing to pay $6,000 for that $500 washing machine? $4800 for that $400 television set? That's how much you're really paying when you buy things on time.
Peddling credit cards to college students is also a big new industry. The article said modern students no longer want to live "on the cheap" while in school. No more old jalopies, mattresses on the floor. Now, minimum monthly payments enable them to live in whatever style they like. But again, at what cost? Their whole lives? Besides such credit debt, according to the Boston Globe, American college students also have an average debt of $18,000 in student loans upon graduation with a bachelor's degree, and $40,000 average debt for masters' degrees or PhD's.
Amazing. Millions of people, young and old - precious, divine vehicles of God - are rushing to enslave themselves to big corporations for the rest of their lives, to support a lifestyle which has little to do with joy or truth or freedom. Have we gone nuts?
What's the Alternative?
There is certainly an alternative to being consumer sheep fattened for the slaughter. We can "step away from shallow mass movements" both internally, through simple spiritual practices which clear our vision and cultivate our courage and faith; and externally, through creating a simpler lifestyle which not only requires a lot less money, but also gives us more time for the things that really do matter. We can go from "loving things and using people," back to "loving people and using things."
It takes work, of course. Anytime we step aside from the crowds there will be work involved. Maybe people trying to discourage us. Fellow slaves mocking our efforts to be free. Mahatma Gandhi called his autobiography, "My Experiments With Truth." That is the opportunity each of us has. Not just what we read in the evening, not just in church on Sundays, but to make our everyday lives a grand, noble, good-humored, experiment in truth ¾ where we live, what we do for a living (and how much time we spend doing it), how our children are educated, the causes we embrace and support, how we spend our free time; all one thing. An undivided whole. A deliberate life. A rare thing in today's world.
Many people say, "Oh, I could easily live in a simpler way or dedicate my life to a cause I believe in, but it would be unfair to my children. What about health care? What about their college education? I don't want to limit their opportunities."
Raising our kids to be indentured servants of the credit card companies and prostitutes to the dollar seems extremely limiting to me! I know perfectly healthy people in their twenties taking jobs they don't like because the employers offer the most "bennies" - benefits like health insurance and retirement plans. Do we want our kids to sell their lives to the highest bidder? Is that all life is about? We have seriously lost our "Big View."
The truth is, no matter how we live, we risk limiting our children's experience. Poor kids think there are no bad parts to being rich; rich kids think there are no good parts to being poor. Kids on a farm don't know the benefits of travelling, and kids who have seen the world may not have the deep connection to one place they can call home. Our personal interests and values necessarily define much about our kids' lives, so we must make sure we have deliberate and deep values rather than the "default" values of a dysfunctional, unhappy culture.
How often do we really step aside from the mass insanity in any major ways? When women come to power, they act pretty much like the men before them. Blacks act white. Native Americans use their tribal rights to build casinos on the land which was so sacred to their ancestors. The "reign of calamity and confusion" swallows up all these balancing forces before anything can ever get balanced. Poisoned cake for one and all.
It is a great time in human history to take some joyful risks with our experiments in truth. Perhaps we can use this very Christmas season to begin reclaiming our sanity, dignity and true freedom before our kids become absolutely convinced that such words are foolish or old-fashioned.
Be bold. Plan a non-materialistic Christmas this year. Take a stand against slavery and greed. Let your image of Christ this season be of His fury toward the money changers: You have turned my Father's House into a den of thieves! In modern America, He may have said, You have turned my Father's Children into a den of slaves!
May you all have a wondrous, modest, joyful and deep holy-day season.