Enlightened Sagacity

by Christopher Lovejoy on September 9, 2012

Ambition is a desire, a drive, a determination to succeed. Traditionally, ambition demands adherence to a belief system that reinforces duality divorced from unity in diversity.

Now there’s a mouthful. What does this mean in practical terms?

To answer this question in a meaningful way, we would do well to consider the difference between opposites and contrasts: where opposites are contentious, contrasts are neutral.

Let’s suppose I fill a large, 32-oz. mug with scalding hot water and another with freezing cold water. I can feel the contrast by dipping my pinkie into the first and then doing the same with the second.

Nothing contentious here.

Now suppose a frenemy with money to burn offers you a million dollars for the perverse pleasure of pouring the contents of the first mug over your head and a mere hundred to pour the second.

Suddenly the contrast between hot and cold doesn’t seem so neutral.

If you’re really ambitious, you’ll definitely consider taking the consequences of the first course of action in terms of net wealth gained, but if you’ve found your place in the afternoon of your life, where personal meaning informs and inspires your ambition, you might sagely consider the fun-loving consequences of taking the second course of action.

Ambitiously considered, scalding hot might be good for you. And freezing cold? Not so good.

Sagaciously considered, cold might be good for you, if only to make good on the opportunity to hone the practice of keeping the contrast of hot and cold within the purview of paradoxical unity.

Ambitiously considered, hot and cold are invested with intense emotive charge (for obvious reasons). Hence, hot doesn’t merely contrast with cold – it is the very opposite of cold.

In the eyes of ambition, the diversity of temperatures that exist on a unified continuum running from scalding hot through the midpoint lukewarm to freezing cold is virtually meaningless.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 2

In light of this preamble, I invite you to mull the wisdom in the verse that follows:

Under heaven
all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good
only because there is evil.

Being and non-being produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy.
Long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Before and after go along with each other.

So the sage lives openly
with apparent duality and paradoxical unity.
The sage can act without effort
and teach without words.

Nurturing things
without possessing them,
he works, but not for rewards;
he competes, but not for results.

When the work is done,
it is forgotten.
That is why it lasts forever.

Ref: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

Let us explore the value and meaning in each of these stanzas.

My Impressions of the Verse

If you’re reading this from the dense manifest earthly realm, then you’re reading this “under heaven”, and given this contrast between heaven and earth, I’d like to think that when you pass into The Great Beyond, you’ll be greeted with heavenly peace like most who have gone there and come back.

From all accounts, the heavenly realm is a blessed place of peace and love, knowledge and wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty, but in the shadowy, putrefying depths of hell, all is false, evil, and ugly. This is not a righteous interpretation – merely a summary of those who have been to the other side.

Under heaven
all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good
only because there is evil.

In the morning of my life, I saw and I gauged ugliness against beauty, evil against goodness.

I shivered in my revulsion even as I trembled from my repulsion to all things cold, dark, mean, harsh, vicious, cruel, corrupt, perverse, depraved, perverted, malignant, malicious, and evil.

I learned my lesson: this is not the way of the world; this is humanity at its worst.

Being and non-being produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy.
Long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Before and after go along with each other.

Being and non-Being do not produce each other; they complement one another (conceptually).

The contrasts – easy, difficult; long and short; high and low; before and after – are simple enough to observe without any emotional charge, but what happens when you inject them with meaning?

Truly, there is no escape: ease eventually, invariably, inevitably gives rise to difficulty.

Life in the dense manifest realm we call Earth is a constant stimulus struggle.

So the sage lives openly
with apparent duality and paradoxical unity.
The sage can act without effort
and teach without words.

What is a sage but a profoundly wise person with profound wisdom to share. For the wise ones, duality is only ever apparent within the soothing, harmonizing influence of paradoxical unity.

Not this or that, but this and that, where perfect unity coexists with apparent duality.

In the afternoon of life, we have the power to be a witness to the contrasts, to transcend (or at least bypass) the opposites, even as they flow in and out of our lives like the tides of the sea.

Everything that happens happens for our own reasons to use as we see fit. We can use them in the way that we prefer, experience them in ways that enrich our journeys, our worlds, our lives.

In this light, silence is always an option.

Nurturing things
without possessing them,
he works, but not for rewards;
he competes, but not for results.

Most of us know in our heart of hearts that enforcing a constant necessity to be right is debilitating. A constant need to be right sucks us dry and leaves us looking and feeling high and mighty.

This all-too-common compulsion spills over into every area of life.

We can’t be content to work for the good of others; we must preoccupy ourselves with reaping the rewards. We can’t be content to do our best; we must be obsessed with getting results.

We can’t be content to view the flower; we must pick it.

As we forgo the compulsion, however, we flow as gentle streams flow: freely, peaceably, playfully.

When the work is done,
it is forgotten.
That is why it lasts forever.

Harmonizing effort and effortlessness yields results naturally and spontaneously; effortless action without attachment to outcome may be easily forgotten, but its effects reverberate forever.

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

To live daily with the reality of paradoxical unity is to harmonize origination and manifestation without making a judgment or forming an opinion about the character or quality of the manifestation.

In other words, I hold my tongue before I speak ill of others and their intentions, reserving judgment on anyone who appears real or fake, true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly.

Why would I do this?

Why would I be a living, breathing paradox by holding the tension of opposites? Why would I assume the power of free will to manifest desires but then surrender to energies both within and without?

In the mornings of our lives, we ambitiously seek the pleasures of external objects for no other reason than the fact that others ambitiously seek them, and so, when we secure the objects of our desire and when we realize the pleasures of our seeking, we’re happy campers, and when we don’t, we aren’t.

When we don’t, we become fearful, doubtful, resentful – all of which gets mixed up with the pleasures and the desires. We become reactive rather than responsive, hateful rather than mindful, and when we indiscriminately add the high octane energies of pure sexual passion and pleasure, we’re clearly going out of our depths. Truly, ambition done badly is a nasty thing to behold – or endure.

Sad but true: people accuse, abuse, hurt, harm, maim, and kill themselves or others when ambition goes sour. We all know this instinctively, even if we don’t always have the words to articulate it.

This is not to say that ambition has no place in a life lived well. Ambition can be done well, provided of course you understand what you’re seeking, why you’re seeking it, with no insistence placed on how.

But this is the subject of another post.

Ambition does have its own language, with its own brand of fulfillment, but then, so does meaning.

In the afternoons of our lives, we sagaciously seek the pleasures of external objects for no other reason than the fact that they hold meaning for us, and so, when we secure the objects of our desire and when we realize the pleasures of our seeking, we’re happy campers, and when we don’t, we still are.

There’s the key difference: we’re still happy.

Meaning, too, has its own language, with its own fulfillment, and it need not banish ambition. Rather, we observe to evaluate and we strive to create according to our own personal, internal standards.

That is to say, does this object or relationship, result or outcome, hold meaning for me?

As I pause to put a value on some object or relationship, result or outcome, or as I follow my bliss and go with the flow to bring it about, must I make anyone suffer the consequences of appearing this way or that? Not if I’m well-placed in the afternoon of my life.

How you appear to me has little to do with my sagacious desire to fulfill the meaning of my life.

I think I’ll take a sip of that ice cold water (preferably with a slice of lemon). How about you?

Next up: Living Contentment

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This post is one of many in an ongoing series that began here.

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