The enlightened person lowers their expectations to the point where they are rarely if ever disappointed and often delighted. They understand that much of the unhappiness in the world is the result of people’s expectations not being met. Expectations are a burden that the enlightened person discards like a heavy sack.
The enlightened person also frees their self from their pre-conceived ideas and any ideologies that might limit their growth. They understand that belief systems have a use by date, that the zeitgeist that produced them is evolving, ever-changing. What was once functional becomes less so over time. They simply keep an open mind and react to the reality of the present moment without filtering their perception through the lens of pre-conceived ideas about how things should be.
The Pendulum of Polarity
The enlightened person understands that the world of form is characterised by polar opposites that oscillate back and forth between the two ends of the same continuum. It is not possible to have one without the other. When beauty is present, ugliness is not far away. Youth gives way to maturity and old age. Happiness turns into sadness. Wealth becomes poverty. Arrogance becomes humility. The Sufi proverb This too shall pass expresses this essential truth with simplicity.
The enlightened person knows that matter becomes energy which then becomes matter again in an eternal cycle of creation and destruction. All of the physical forms in the world, in the universe, will cease to exist in a physical sense one day and return to energy only to become matter again sometime in the future.
Descending from the Peak
When the enlightened person achieves success, they do not rest on their laurels and wait for the inevitable decline. Instead they move quickly on to the next challenge and continue their upward climb even though this involves descending from the peak by becoming a beginner again. They avoid accumulating social ties or material possessions that will reduce their ability to take on the next challenge.
Moderating the Dynamic Tension Between Polar Opposites
Human nature is comprised of a complex set of oscillating polar opposites. These can push and pull a person from here to there and back again, creating the drama and chaos that is a feature of the unexamined life.
The enlightened person knows that while they live in the physical world it is not possible to eliminate these ups and downs altogether, so they work diligently to moderate the extremes and stabilise them on or near the Middle Path. This creates a calm inner space in which contemplation can occur. This is an important skill on the spiritual path.
The enlightened person develops their ability to perceive the pattern of an unfolding situation at a deep level. They take no action unless they have first come to this understanding. The only way they can do this is to harmonise and align their inner life with the outer situation.
Having perceived the unfolding pattern, the enlightened person moves forwards with modesty and stability, in a way that causes no counter reactions. The less obvious their actions are, the more effective they become. To the world they appear to be reserved, passive. They channel their influence to bring clarity and cooperation into the world.
For example, if a dictator seizes power in a coup d’etat, the natural reaction is resistance. The dictator must spend considerable energy dealing with this reaction to his initial action. If, on the other hand, he were to work quietly, from within the existing government to bring about evolutionary change, it would barely be recognised by the people and the change of government would seem like evolutionary change that is appropriate for the life and times of the people concerned. Change of this kind is rarely resisted.
Lao Tzu believed that an independent perspective is vital for spiritual growth. The enlightened person keeps their own counsel, removing their self from situations where group-think exerts its influence. With independence of thought they shed their misgivings and can explore the universe with no preconceived ideas.
Independence of thought means divesting oneself of ideological thinking and orthodox beliefs. This takes courage. Humans tend to be social creatures with a powerful instinct for group-thinking, a vestige of our evolutionary past where there was safety in numbers and consensus promoted survival, and where expulsion from the group usually meant death.
The person who departs from the orthodoxy is likely to be punished by the group for their non-conformist thinking. Expulsion from the group may occur. This threat will usually be enough to bring the person back into the fold where it is comfortable and secure. But at some level they know they have traded their freedom for this security.
Unhindered by group-think and with a clear perception of the world as it is, the enlightened person makes a significant contribution to the collective awareness of human-kind. They see the likely future by extrapolating upon the patterns of the past and present.
Observing the Patterns of Nature
Lao Tzu noticed that the patterns of Nature are also present in socio-cultural behaviour. For example the pattern of cause and effect is clearly evident everywhere in Nature and in the social environment. The enlightened person works hard to transcend cause and effect by practicing moderation and limiting counter-reactions. For example, an obvious attempt to gain power is avoided, since to do so is likely to produce a neutralising effect from the social environment. The enlightened person exerts influence by channelling the inner power that comes from having universal awareness. They achieve their objectives by avoiding showy displays.
Through aligning their thinking with the patterns of Nature, enlightened people develop what might be called intellectual gravity. People recognise strength and substance in their thinking, and respond to it. The exercise of intellectual gravity can determine the direction of society. The stronger the gravity, the greater the influence will be.
The conventional wisdom of society encourages people to make a display of their self, to gain social prominence and be perceived as a person of substance. Yet such a display is by definition excessive. In Nature excess is reduced. The enlightened person realises it is ill-advised to seek celebrity. It is better to exert subtle influence behind the scenes. In this way, they achieve stability and longevity. By working behind the scenes, the laws of Nature do not act to reduce their position.
For example, consider the musician Kurt Cobain. He became famous, yet found the fame intolerable. He had become that which he despised. To Kurt, the only way to resolve his dilemma was to commit suicide, which he did in 1994. Celebrity status did not bring Kurt happiness or enlightenment, just an intolerable sadness.
Steady, Incremental Improvement
As a general rule, slow change is preferable to radical change. The former can be sustained for long periods; the latter quickly leads to exhaustion. The enlightened person therefore acts sustainably and avoids confrontation or aggressive movement towards their objectives. They know that in Nature, the sudden intense storm is the exception to the rule, that most of the time Nature operates in a steady, harmonious way that brings about gradual transformation, almost imperceptibly. The enlightened person therefore practices steady, incremental improvement over time, and achieves their objectives harmoniously.
Cultivating the steady force of positive attitude and expressing it modestly gives the enlightened person a degree of personal power. They know that what they think and believe is what they will become, in time.
Mastery of Self
The enlightened person gains insight into the causal patterns beneath socio-cultural phenomena through self-knowledge and self-discipline. They strive daily to observe their inner mind. In time, they come to see the connection their inner mind has with the evolving mind of the universe. With self-mastery, the enlightened person can make a lasting contribution to society.
Self-mastery and the insight that follows give the enlightened person the ability to change the world through small, effortless actions at the beginning of events before the situation has become established. For example a wise parent giving their impressionable child as much information as they can absorb about the world and how it works at a time when the child is still open to such messages. This effort by the parent for the first twenty years of their child’s life sets the child up for their adult life.
Material possessions can be an impediment to spiritual growth. The problem is not in the having of possessions, it is when a person identifies with their possessions, and creates an identity that incorporates those possessions. Like a King identifying with his kingdom, like a CEO with his organisation. Their intellectual growth is slowed because the forms which occupy their thinking are unchanging.
The more things a person has, the more time they are required to spend maintaining those forms, and preventing the theft of them. Over time, materialistic people come to regard the world as being fixed into specific forms. In reality though, Nature is fluid and evolving. The enlightened person therefore does not create an identity based on their possessions. By doing so, they reduce their ability to move freely with the spirit of the times.
Animals and plants display the power of needing less. They have little except their lives and the environment that sustains them. They are in harmony with the Tao and need nothing more for their survival.
Keeping an Open Mind
A mind that is open to new information is a pre-requisite for spiritual growth. A person seeking enlightenment works daily to overcome the tendency to settle into an established belief system. They avoid investing their energies into such beliefs because they will be reluctant to abandon their investment. The more invested a person is, the more closed-minded they become to information that does not fit with their beliefs, and the more they will filter such information out of their perceptual stream.
Belief systems may have been correct in the past, but in an evolving social environment those ideas become out-dated. An open mind is in harmony with the collective mind of society and the universe. It is from this position of openness and harmony with the universe that the enlightened person acts upon the world in a way that does not create negative reactions.
Lao Tzu speaks of a powerful transformative practice. By loving people who do not love their self, the enlightened person emulates the Tao and neutralises the negative attitudes of others. Lao Tzu considered that the ability to neutralise extremes in their various forms is the way to transform the world into a more peaceful place.
The mind of humanity, the group mind, is an intermediate step between our individual mind and the universal mind. The group mind is a stepping stone that the enlightened person can use to perceive the larger universal mind. It allows them to go beyond and see their self in relation to the universe. They merge their individual mind with the group mind by first opening their mind, and allowing their sense of identity, their ego, to be diminished. The difficulty is that the ego protects itself with a host of effective defence mechanisms.
Dwelling in the Tao
Since only the ruling elite could read, the Tao Te Ching was written for an exclusive readership; those whose destiny was to lead or otherwise influence worldly affairs. The book teaches how to cultivate intuition. With an intuitive understanding, the reader could perceive the evolution of society and be in a position to positively influence that evolution. It should be remembered that China at the time of writing was a war-torn land, badly in need of a moderating influence.
Remaining Flexible and Adaptable
The enlightened person recognises from his or her observations of Nature that flexibility and adaptability is necessary for long-term survival. The universe is evolving, and everything in it is changing. Therefore people who hold fixed, orthodox beliefs are not likely to react appropriately to new challenges.
Imagine a sapling tree growing on a wind-swept hill. Nearby is the sapling’s mature parent. When the winter gales blow, the young tree bends. After the storm, it resumes its upright position. But the old tree has grown stiff and dry, unable to bend. One day, it simply snaps and falls over.
On a human level, young people display an adaptability to their world that allows them to adjust. But as they grow older, some of them become overly attached to their youth and resist the changes happening around them. They are heard complaining about the state of the world, and how they would like to go back to the ‘good old days’.
As they age, they come to resemble the inflexible old tree that will inevitably collapse before the onslaught of irresistible change. But it need not happen; maintaining an open mind is the remedy. An enlightened elderly person accepts the need to change with the times. They are prepared to release out-moded beliefs, and are willing to expend the effort to learn new skills. They do not criticise the younger generation for simply believing differently than they do. In short, they make the effort to stay young when it is easier to grow old.
The Great Leveller of Extremes
The enlightened person has observed Nature’s way of levelling extremes. An example on a grand scale is the Himalayan Mountains. Through tectonic pressure within the Earth’s crust the Himalayas were raised. The mountains reach great heights, but through the further movement of the Tao over millions of years, the mountains are worn away by the weather. The crushing weight of snow, followed by the rushing of melt-water erodes the mountainsides. Every year, billions of tonnes of alluvium wash down to the plains, down to the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, settling in the spreading river delta and out into the Bay of Bengal where it becomes sea-bed. What was high is now low. Eons from now, when the mud has become stone, it may be raised up again and then worn down.
An animal that breeds too prolifically and becomes a plague is naturally reduced to smaller numbers in time. In human affairs, a tyrant will eventually be deposed. At the molecular level, atoms form bonds with each other that allow for the mutual reduction of excess electrical charge.Everywhere in Nature we see this moderating influence of the Tao.
The enlightened person uses this principle to safe-guard their own position while they go about their work of improving society. In order for energy to flow in their direction, they maintain a modestly reduced position by being humble in their dealings with others and avoiding shows of ostentation.
For example, if someone with sufficient means were to quietly donate $1,000 a month to an international welfare agency, they might bring benefit to perhaps 1,000 people in the developing world in the form of clean drinking water, improved agriculture, schools, basic hospital care etc. This gift would be greatly appreciated by the mother who has already lost a baby to dysentery and cannot bear to lose another but fears she will. The same $1,000 might also be used to buy a flashy consumer item for the purpose of raising the owner’s social status in the eyes of fellow consumers. The enlightened person has no difficulty seeing the relative merits in these two scenarios.
When the enlightened person has power over others, they know to act with generosity and compassion. By not gloating over their advantage, they avoid the possibility of lingering resentment that may adversely affect their future dealings. Through generosity, they create a mind-set of appreciation and agreement in people, which is all the better for collaborative endeavours.
It is said that the best kind of leader is barely known, the next best is known and loved, while the worst kind of leader is known and despised. People have a natural dislike of unjust authority figures. To avoid the possibility of being perceived as unjust, the enlightened leader keeps a low profile such that their existence or at least their influence are barely perceived.
Living for the Maximum Benefit of Others
Simple, plain truth that is not embellished with sophistry and rhetoric is unlikely to become distorted. The enlightened person therefore maintains an attitude of simplicity. They conduct their affairs and express their self with simplicity. This attitude cultivates a mind-set that sees clearly the truth in a given situation. They allow their actions to speak for their self, knowing that people instinctively know that a person’s actions speak louder than their words.
Simplicity extends to not hoarding possessions or money for the love of having them, rather than using them for worthwhile purposes. The enlightened person avoids hoarding and keeps the flow of energy moving through their life. By not accumulating too much, they do not invite the levelling influence of the Tao.
The enlightened person lives to do the maximum good in the most unobtrusive way. Their reward is not recognition from society but the deep satisfaction of knowing that one is emulating the Tao and is thereby in harmony with it.
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