“The sages …succeed but do not dwell on success. It is because they do not dwell on success that it never goes away.”
(Tao de Ching, Chapter 2)
One way we get caught up in the world — distracted by the 10,000 things — is by falling into the habit of making comparisons.
The moment we call something beautiful, we must ask, “Compared to what?” The moment we say something is difficult, we are comparing it to other things we think are easier.
Here in Atlanta, my favorite skyscraper, the Bank of America building is the 6th tallest building in America. Does knowing that help me appreciate the Bank of America building more … or does that comparison make me less satisfied, because I know that there are five taller buildings in this country alone?
Author/philosopher Byron Katie would say, “How much better to simply love what is.”
How many meals have been lessened because they didn’t measure up to some fondly remembered dish? (“These are some good chicken and dumplings, but they can’t compare to Grandma’s chicken and dumplings!”)
How many vacations have been ruined because they didn’t compare well to vacations past? (“Grand Turk is nice, but it’s no Aruba!”)
How many achievements have been spoiled because they didn’t compare to someone else’s achievements? (“I got $1000 bonus … but Victor got $5000.”)
The Sages, the Tao tells us, succeed “because they do not dwell on success.” They don’t rest on their laurels. They don’t reminisce about their glory days. They don’t ask current projects to compete with past achievements.
How many people have stopped writing or singing or painting or loving because they were afraid their latest book or song or painting or relationship wouldn’t compare well to a past one?
The Sages avoid this trap, because they understand that all that really matters — all that’s real — is the work they are doing now.
Today: rather than poison life with comparisons, I’m going to appreciate what is.
I will make this present work, this present place, this present moment the best it can possibly be.
*On my walk to work today, it occurred to me that there’s a little hypocrisy in today’s chapter of the Tao.
By referring to The Way, aren’t we, in fact, comparing one Way to all others? By referring to The Sages, isn’t the Tao itself implying that some are wiser than others? And, in doing so, doesn’t the Tao become guilty of doing exactly what it encourages us to avoid?
There’s a way around this apparent contradiction. Just as the meal in front of you now is the best possible meal (because it’s the only meal that’s real) and the place you’re in now is the best possible place (because it’s the only real place), the Tao is the best possible way because it’s the only authentic Way. All other ways are just illusions, rooted in the 10,000 things.
And maybe, instead of comparing those who are wise to those who aren’t, the Tao is making a different point entirely. What if we’re all Sages, and, as we’ve become entangled in the 10,000 things, we’ve forgotten that we are? As that mantle of distractions drops away, we return to our core state: attuned to The Way, aligned with reality, shining with wisdom.
And so, with this in mind, I went back, read the chapter again, and noticed that the Tao te Ching never says, “Don’t make comparisons!”
Instead, it notes that “difficult and easy bring about each other … long and short reveal each other … high and low support each other … music and voice harmonize each other … front and back follow each other.”
In retrospect, today’s passage is less about comparison and more about the value of (and the potential dangers inherent in) contrasting one thing with another.
What a great reminder: anything I say about The Way won’t be The Way itself — just my interpretation of it.