The fight was over. I had lost. Which is good – it was my fault in the first place. I was caught up in ideals. Of what constitutes a good relationship, a good marriage. I was measuring myself against the stereotypes of sitcom couples. Of fairy tale ever-afters. And I was struggling to compete.
Fortunately, I had help in the matter. Well, actually, I had an adversary who was doing a great job bringing me back to reality.
My wife stood across from me. Arms folded, she reminded me of something I already knew but somehow seemed to forget: what is true for other couples is not always true for us. To compare our relationship against someone else’s is to do a disservice to ours. We do what works for us, because it works for us, not because some magazine or movie says we should.
Oh, how easy it is to fall into the trap of comparison!
I get these ideas running through my head. Ideas of what makes up the ideal archetype – the brave warrior, the hustling entrepreneur, the zen yogi. But these ideals are just stereotypes. They aren’t reality. They are only portrayed in movies and shows because they make such fascinating, one-sided characters.
The school of Taoism reveals the true path to greatness
The school of Taoism1 warns us about relying too heavily upon generalities like the ones I just described. In fact, it goes so far as to preach the opposite of those “ideals”. Here’s one such passage from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu:
“A good soldier is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
A good winner is not vengeful.
A good employer is humble.
This is known as the Virtue of not striving.”
Take for instance the angry fighter. She enters the ring in a fury. Seeing red, she attacks her enemy in a blind rage… and wakes up on the ground with a sore jaw and a black eye. She made many mistakes in her anger. She abandoned her training and ignored her coach. And she lost the match.
Conversely, a calm fighter enters the ring with a clear head. She makes wise maneuvers and, like a game of chess, outplays her opponent one step at a time. To be calm is to win. To be calm is to be the victor.
The idols are false
We think that to be a good soldier, we must be violent. To be a good winner, we must obliterate our rivals. To be a good employer, we must dominate our staff. But is that true? Consider this other passage from the Tao Te Ching:
“A brave and passionate person will kill or be killed.
A brave and calm person will always preserve life.
Of these two which is good and which is harmful?”
The passionate get lost in their emotions. In their wake is chaos. The calm act clearly. They bring about peace and understanding. The passionate are unthinking, like the angry fighter. The calm are thinking, like the chess player.
It is easy to get sucked into workplace dramas or to idealize reality tv vacations, yet when you do, you lose your ability to act in your best interest. You lose your ability to be still, to see situations clearly for what they are. Stillness, then, is the key to getting what you want. Pursuing your desires with intention, but not mania. With determination, but not rigidity.
You must want it, but not care if you have it
In the excerpts above, you may have noticed something else that is equally important: detachment. A wanting without needing.
My love language is physical touch. I love holding hands and cuddling. And I have a toddler who loves that as well… but only with her mom (my wife). So I die inside whenever she runs to her instead of me. But at the same time, I recognize that the more I pine for her hugs, the more it pushes her away. And so, as difficult as it may be, I try to give her space. Like the soldier who is not violent, I strive to be the father who is not too needy.
When you are detached, you allow things to breathe and develop on their own.
Imagine the writer who doesn’t need their next piece to go viral in order to afford rent. Imagine the spouse who doesn’t need their husband to hang out with them every night in order to be happy. It is the needing that causes strife in the first place. That pushes them away. That irritates or causes poor results. Taoism says you can want something, but to need it is to become overbearing. Instead, you should pursue detached fulfillment; the act of wanting something meaningful, and to work towards it, but without becoming dependent on it for all of the meaning in your life.
How to find stillness and cultivate detached fulfillment
What are the best means for achieving this end? How can you find stillness within yourself and act from a place of detached fulfillment? Awareness is the answer. Awareness in how you are feeling, in how you are acting, in all things.
It’s not always easy to recognize, but it is possible. The more you are aware of yourself, the more you will excel.
The Mindful Kind by Rachael Kable2 is one book that can help you be more mindful. She also has a podcast that touches on the topic as well.
Similarly, I suggest reading books about your own psychological makeup. That way you can recognize the unconscious patterns that run through your life. For instance, I have in the past, and at times still today, struggle with overeating. Unrelated, I also have diagnosed OCD and anxiety. All that to say, there are books3 that have helped me tackle those aspects for the better. That have helped me be more aware in certain situations so that I may act differently.
The book Loving What Is by Byron Katie is another gold mine for both practicing acceptance and seeing other peoples’ points of view. Two things that are critical in being still as well as detached.
I have an on-again, off-again relationship with meditation. However, I do see value in sitting down, breathing, and watching the different types of thoughts that come across your mind. Noticing the stressful thoughts, the ideas, the random tasks that bounce around – and noticing how you don’t consciously originate any of them. They just appear.
Because you don’t invite them in, you get to choose how much weight they hold. Like a random solicitor who knocks on your door, you get to decide how much time and energy they receive.
Further, simply reminding yourself to take deep breaths in social settings is useful. Conversations can feel like a blur. But when you take a deep breath, you grant yourself space for stillness. It’s like taking a step back, reevaluating, and returning back to center.
Use the school of Taoism to get what you want in life
We see “pillars” of excellence in the world and force ourselves to measure up. But those generalities don’t often hold true for us. So instead, set the ideals for yourself. Things you measure, not against an athlete on tv, but from where you were a year or two ago.
Practice stillness. Practice detached fulfillment. Diversify your life so you may enjoy everything without holding too tightly onto one thing. Adopt an awareness practice: meditation, reading, introspection, whatever. Remind yourself to come from a place of intention, but to use a loose grip so that it can breathe.
After all, says Taoism, to be the best, you must not need to be the best. To achieve your desires, you must pursue them not with a mad ferocity, but with a steady gaze and a calm mind.
- Here I am speaking to Taoism as a whole – not the individual sects that comprise it.
- Disclosure: Rachael is a friend so I’m biased. Still, I’ve read her book and honestly believe it to be useful. I’m not compensated in any way for recommending it here.
- For overeating, Never Binge Again by Glenn Livingston Ph.D. For OCD, Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz.
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